Reordering the Trinity: Unconvincing Thesis, but Still Worth Reading

reordering_trinity_cover_section_courtesy_publisherDurst, Rodrick K. Reordering the Trinity: Six Movements of God in the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2005. Paperback, 369 pages. ISBN 978-0-8254-4378-7.

Rodrick K. Durst’s Reordering the Trinity, in spite of an unfortunate lack of clarity in places, is interesting and often edifying, sufficiently informative and practical to merit perusal even by those who, as I have, finish their reading skeptical of the book’s thesis.

That thesis might be summarized as follows: Whenever the three Persons of the Trinity are mentioned together in a New Testament passage, the order in which they are mentioned is a “processional order” specially suited to the context, saying something significant about the focus and meaning of the passage, and depicting a type of God’s activity in creation. If, for instance, a passage mentions the divine Persons in the typically expected Father-Son-Spirit order, the passage’s concern is missional, and the order depicts the nature of the Divine Persons’ missional activity. If, on the other hand, the order of mention is Spirit-Father-Son, the passage’s focus is sanctifying, and that focus is more richly expressed, and the Divine Persons’ sanctifying activity is pictured, by that specific order. Using the critically reconstructed text rather than the Received Text, and so excluding 1 John 5:7-8 (63-4), Durst surveys every passage in the Greek New Testament where he finds “triads,” or mentions of all three Persons. (All his Scripture quotations are in English, but his determination of the order of each triad is based on the Greek, which does not always match the English.) He places those triads into one of six categories for the six possible processional orders (all of which do occur in the New Testament, though not with equal prevalence) and assigning to them letter grades based on how intentional he judges their trinitarianism to be. A triad including all three Persons within a brief passage, for instance, will get a higher intentionality grade than a triad completed over the course of a long passage, because the author seems in the brief passage to be including all three Persons in a certain order on purpose. The survey is summarized in tabular form as Appendix A, “New Testament Census of Triadic Occurrences” (309-18), which Durst considers the “best pages” of Reordering the Trinity (25). On the basis of this survey, which shows an interesting correspondence between processional orders and their scriptural contexts, Durst grants to each order rich interpretive value, as well as high importance for our understanding of how the Trinity acts in creation.

One unfortunate thing about Reordering the Trinity is that Durst often uses the same wording to refer to the acting Persons of the Godhead as he uses to refer to the verbal ordering of references to them in the Bible. Consider the following: “This triadic order,” he writes of the Son-Father-Spirit (“christological”) order, “exhorts and empowers discouraged fellowships to reengage as faithful followers of Jesus” (216). This sounds like he’s saying that a faithful reader of a passage where this triadic order occurs will be exhorted and empowered, along with others in his discouraged fellowship, to reengage. Surely, though, Durst must mean something more along the following lines: “When the Persons of the Trinity act in the way depicted [or described] by this triadic order, they exhort and empower discouraged fellowships,” and so on. A “procession,” as Durst defines it in his glossary, “Describes the relational movement from Father to Son to Spirit in inner relations (ad intra) in eternity and in external operations (ad extra) in creation” (323). Reordering the Trinity, being focused “on the external economic Trinity” rather than “the internal…so-called immanent Trinity” (17), has the latter, external, sort of procession in view. The different processional orders, then, are supposed to characterize different manners of Divine activity, different ways in which the three Persons of the Godhead act together in creation. (Durst believes, and his survey of relevant scholarship supports believing, that the economic Trinity has been neglected in recent study, which has focused disproportionately on the immanent Trinity. He also points out a speculative tendency in work on the immanent Trinity.)

Indeed, it would be strange to attribute tangible effects to the mere ordering of words in Scripture, even when the words refer to Persons of the Godhead, but Durst’s wording sometimes seems to do just that. Not only does he believe there is a “significant connection between Trinitarian processional balance and theological health” (77) (even though his survey shows Scripture itself is a bit unbalanced in its use of the various orders), but he often seems to attribute specific effects to the orders in Scripture. In one place he writes this: “I believe that Paul employs the S-F-Sp [Son-Father-Spirit] triad to encourage these believers [the Corinthians] in the life of Christ as the christological order is uniquely and divinely choreographed to do” (210). Because reference is here made to what Paul has written and the reason he’s written it, this statement seems impossible to revise in a way that eliminates the impression that the order of words in Scripture, not the Divine Persons acting as described by those words, is what is “uniquely and divinely choreographed” to exert an effect on readers. Earlier on the same page, Durst writes, “If the Father-Son-Spirit order evokes missional mobilization and suffering, then the Son-Father-Spirit order evokes the immersion in the christological healing comfort which that missional suffering wrought” (210). Here, the processional orders in Scripture, rather than the orders in the Divine Persons’ activities, are clearly in view, since they “evoke” rather than “effect.” It seems, then, that Durst uses “processional order,” or more specific descriptions like “the Father-Son-Spirit order” or “the Father-Son-Spirit processional order,” to refer, not only to the words describing the order in Scripture, but also to the activity of the Divine Persons depicted by that order. This dual usage often reduces the clarity of Reordering the Trinity.

Since the “I believe that Paul employs the S-F-Sp triad” has the words in Scripture rather than the Divine Persons’ activity in view, and since Durst attributes to these words a “uniquely and divinely choreographed” power to encourage, Durst must believe that the original recipients of Paul’s writings knew the significance of each of the processional orders, knew what sort of Divine activity was involved when the Divine Persons acted as depicted by any given order. By choosing a certain order in his writing, then, Paul could remind those to whom he was writing of (could, to borrow the earlier wording, “evoke” for them) a certain sort of God’s activity in their lives. However, there is no support offered in Reordering the Trinity for the idea that the original recipients were aware of the special meaning of these various processional orders. Durst presents no argument to that effect.

Assuming they had such awareness, assuming Durst’s implicit assumption is true, why and how is this knowledge supposed to have disappeared entirely from among God’s people? Previous authors, according to Durst’s own summary, have seen in the variety of orders in which the Divine Persons are mentioned in Scripture only evidence that the Persons of the Trinity must have been equal in the eyes of the New Testament writers, else they surely would have favored one or another order much more strongly than they did. Nor is any evidence presented indicating that, at any time during the two millennia that God by his Spirit has been guiding his people, illuminating true believers, either common believers or Christian elites (such as scholars) have attributed to the various orders the meaning, importance, and characteristic Divine activities that Durst does. Durst might reject this as a “tradition for tradition’s sake” (31) argument, but the Spirit-guided nature of the Body of Christ, I would argue, does give tradition a certain authority, though of course an authority subordinate to Scripture. The proper role of a Christian Theologian is largely, if not by now entirely, to reexpress, elaborate upon, and apply what has long been believed, possibly in original and creative ways. Those who want to show their originality and creativity through actual innovation, through presentation of radical insights new to human minds, might better consider careers in science and technology, or in the creative arts.

Tradition aside, it isn’t clear how well the correspondences between contexts and processional orders (foundational to Durst’s theory) would hold up were one to analyze all of them closely and critically. For instance, in one place he uses the subject of the context to choose among potential triads: “The intensely missional context,” he writes of Romans 1:1-4, “slightly tilts [toward] favoring the Father-Son-Spirit order for this weaker instance of a Trinitarian reference” (171). This calls to mind the use by evolutionary geologists of “index fossils” to date rock strata (or to choose among widely divergent dates indicated by radioisotope dating methods), based on the presupposed truth of evolutionary theory, followed by the use by evolutionary theorists of the same fossils as evidence supporting the truth of evolutionary theory. In at least this instance, Durst is assuming the correctness of his theory, selecting the triad in a certain context based on that assumption, then including the triad thus selected as part of his “cumulative case” for the correctness of this theory. Shouldn’t he have allowed Romans 1:1-4, given that it may show use of the “wrong” triad in a missional context, to serve as evidence against his theory?

While mulling over this issue recently, I happened to hear part of contemporary Christian song that used an order other than Father-Son-Spirit. I didn’t catch the song’s artist or title, but the reason it used the order it did was obvious: that was the only way to make one line rhyme with the line that preceded it. Oddly, Durst doesn’t even consider the stylistic explanation of the variety of orders. To him, each order must mean something (207, e.g.), something more than just that the author found the wording more stylistically appealing or, alternatively, just wanted to make sure he mentioned all three Persons of the Godhead after having already mentioned one or two others. As Durst states in his “sermon starter” for the Father-Spirit-Son (“shaping” or “formational”) order (he includes “sermon starters” at the ends of chapters 2 through 10, intending them to indicate the practical value, and to allow practical application, of the subjects he discusses and of his theory), “The essence of intelligence is the ability to discern patterns or relationships” (259). How could the patterns he has discerned not carry significant meaning?

Durst’s description of “The essence of intelligence” leaves out an important caveat, however: a perpetual danger when applying intelligence, demonstrated over and over again in human history, is that one might discern patterns where they don’t exist, that is, that one might read into reality patterns from one’s own mind, or that one might read into real patterns meanings from one’s own mind. Durst’s assertions about the meaning of each order strike me as potentially one more demonstration of how the human gift for pattern recognition can be overindulged. In fact, reflecting on his thesis and the evidence for it, I get much the same feeling I get when reflecting upon proposals of heretofore unknown “codes” in the words, letters, or arrangement of Scripture. Just because human minds can identify patterns doesn’t mean the patterns are real or carry meaning. Nevertheless, because most of the meaning that Durst proposes drawing out of the triads comports with Scripture, being taught in ways other than through the triads, I’m able, though skeptical of his thesis, to read his unpacking of the meaning and importance of the triads as edifying and creative applications of the passages involved, though not as valid interpretations of them. For the most part, his applications seem sound, that is, they seem to agree with what Scripture teaches, even if, as I’m inclined to believe, Scripture doesn’t teach these things through the processional orders themselves. This allows me, even as I doubt Durst’s thesis, to consider the book, not just interesting and informative, but often edifying and practical.

As noted above, Durst considers the tabular summary of his pattern-recognition exercise the “best pages” of the book, no doubt ranking “second best” his one-chapter-per-order unpacking of what he sees as the scriptural support for his understanding of the theological and practical implications of the six processional orders. I would rank things somewhat differently.

After the Contents, Acknowledgments, and List of Charts and Tables (7-11), Durst provides an introduction, “Introducing the ‘Trinitarian Matrix’” (13-25). As introductions typically do, this one provides readers with some basic background and an overview of the topics covered in the book. Like all later chapters, this introduction ends with “Discussion Questions.” Here and throughout the text, such questions are mostly the sort of well structured open questions that can actually promote discussion. On balance, this introduction is neither more nor less useful than other introductions I’ve read, and I’d rate it neither the “best” nor “worst” pages of Reordering the Trinity.

The remainder of the book comprises three parts totaling eleven chapters, five appendixes, a bibliography (339-62), and two indexes (“Scripture” and “Author and Topic”) (363-9). Part 1, “Considering Four Key Questions,” includes four chapters: (1) “The Status Question: The Search for Trinitarian Significance in Contemporary Theology” (29-61); (2) “The Data Question: The Trinitarian Matrix in the New Testament” (63-82); (3) “The Antecedent Question: Triadic Presence in the Hebrew Scriptures” (83-121); and (4) “The Historical Question: The Karma of Dogma—The Trinity in Tradition” (123-49). Part 1 would be my choice for the “best” pages of the book. This part’s first chapter (“The Status Question”) provides an overview of prior scholarly work on the Trinity, something very helpful for those of us lacking time or inclination to review the burgeoning literature on the subject.

Part 1’s second and third chapters (“The Data Question” and “The Antecedent Question”) provide an overview of biblical data relevant to the doctrine of the Trinity. As anyone who studies biblical doctrines comes to realize, God has built a good deal of redundancy into Scripture’s witness to important doctrines. Durst’s overview shows that, not only does this aspect of God’s nature have abundant, redundant witness in Scripture, but that witness is pervasive in the New Testament, being “the default consciousness out of which the New Testament authors wrote” (81), and is by no means absent from the Old Testament, that Testament showing distinctions without division, “plurality in unity,” in the one God (113). Even evidence-first Christian empiricists (whose empirical bent inclines them, for instance, to require a persuasive empirical case from still-surviving manuscripts for any verse or passage before they will accept it as inspired, and so to join Durst in favoring a critically reconstructed Greek New Testament) will find Scripture’s witness to God’s triune nature so pervasive as to make doubt of the doctrine appear, not only mistaken, but patently ridiculous. Faith-first non-empiricists (whose starting point in faith makes them willing, for instance, to trust God’s guidance of his people in their reception and use of his words, and God’s witness to those words’ truth and divine origin in and through the words themselves, to ensure correctness of the Received Text), though they wouldn’t join Durst in condemning “arguments of tradition for tradition’s sake—or even the fideistic argument: ‘Jesus said it, so that settles it’” (31), will find the copious scriptural evidence here a welcome confirmation, and perhaps elaboration, of their faith.

The third chapter (“The Antecedent Question”) also performs an additional useful service: It suggests to those of us who have been open to less literal translations, to thought-for-thought dynamically equivalent rather than word-for-word formally equivalent translation, that we have erred, not knowing the scriptures. Durst shows, in multiple instances, that word-level features of Scripture, even what seem like blatant grammatical errors that translators might naturally “correct” (as, we learn in the course of Durst’s discussion, the translators of the Septuagint Old Testament did), can be indispensable witnesses to the full intended sense of the God-breathed Book. Trade in your NIV (New International Version) or NLT (New Living Translation) today!

Part 2, “The Contextual Question and the Trinitarian Matrix,” includes six chapters, one for each processional order: (5) “The Sending Triad: Father-Son-Spirit as the Missional Order” (159-82); (6) “The Saving Triad: Son-Spirit-Father as the Regenerative Order” (183-97); (7) “The Indwelling Triad: Son-Father-Spirit as the Christological Witness Order” (199-219); (8) “The Standing Triad: Spirit-Father-Son as the Sanctifying Order” (221-40); (9) “The Shaping Triad: Father-Spirit-Son as the Spiritual Formation Order” (241-63); and (10) “The Uniting Triad: Spirit-Son-Father as the Ecclesial Order” (265-83). Though I wouldn’t rate these chapters as highly as those in Part 1, they are very interesting, full of useful insights, lots of biblical material, and applications to practical life that mostly merit consideration even by those who doubt or reject Durst’s theory. Since these chapters do leave me doubting that theory, and so fail to achieve their primary goal, I’ll rank them “third best” overall. Durst’s defense of Karl Barth’s use of “modes of being” when speaking of the Trinity (“Since the One God exists in Trinity, Barth is not wrong to express that Trinity as ‘modes of being.’” [148]) strikes me as unwise, as does Durst’s own use of the phrase in a few places (69, e.g.), but Durst’s acceptance of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity seems evident from the totality of the book, in spite of his willingness to defend, and even sometimes to use, terminology that seems better avoided.

Part 3, “Everyday Applications and Further Resources,” includes one chapter: (11) “The Application Question: Becoming a Functional Trinitarian for Everyday Worship, Life, and Ministry” (287-305). Fortunately for those who find themselves unconvinced of Durst’s theory, most of the applications proposed here depend only on acceptance of the Trinity and belief that the three Persons thereof are equal in the way suggested by the New Testament writers’ lack of effort to strongly favor one or another order. The “Preach that oneness of essence is not sameness of function” (298-9), “Preach that oneness conveys sameness of essence, but not necessarily sameness of function” (299-300), and “Preach that submission in time is not subordination in eternity” (300-2) sections are particularly helpful, nicely correcting excesses on each extreme of the complementarian-egalitarian debate over proper male and female roles in the family and church. On the strength of these, I deem a “second best” ranking appropriate, though my ranking of Parts 2 and 3 might easily be reversed.

The five appendixes include: (A) “New Testament Census of Triadic Occurrences” (309-18); (B) “Glossary of Trinitarian Terms” (319-23); (C) “Spiritual Formation Exercise #1: Trinitarian Prayers” (325-6); (D) “Spiritual Formation Exercise #2: Forty-two Days of Trinitarian Devotion” (327-9); and (E) “Explaining the Trinity to Children and to Adolescents” (331-5). I won’t try to rank these on the same ordinal “best” scale as other parts of the book. Appendix A is a handy summary of the data, including judgment calls, that Durst thinks support his theory. Appendix B would receive my highest rating among the appendixes. Appendixes C and D depend upon acceptance of Durst’s theory. Reflection on the insights elsewhere in the book that ring scripturally true even if Durst’s theory is incorrect might achieve some of the benefits attributed to the theory-dependent exercises here.

As for Appendix E, it includes the following suggested analogy for teaching children about the Trinity: “For instance, think of an apple. An apple has the skin, the ‘meat,’ and the core. Each is the apple, each is unique, but an apple isn’t an apple without all three” (332). Now, I realize that the ability to think abstractly develops later than the ability to think concretely, making concrete illustrations necessary in some cases. This analogy, however, makes it seem that each Person of the Trinity is just part of God, since each is likened to a part of an apple. Perhaps the analogy could be salvaged by adding the following: Got that? Now, imagine that the apple is infinitely large and, what’s more, that its skin permeates everything everywhere (including the “meat” and core), its “meat” permeates everything everywhere (including the skin and core), and its core permeates everything everywhere (including the skin and “meat’). Okay? Now, realize that, because God is not matter but spirit, the Divine Persons don’t actually stretch out anywhere or permeate anything, but are instead fully present in their infinitude at every point in space and time. What do you mean you don’t understand? Don’t they teach you kids anything in elementary school these days?

I might also discuss a grab bag of minor objections I have, but I’ll spare the reader and only mention one. Explaining the meaning of the term “foreknowledge” in 1 Peter 1:2, Durst writes, “Foreknowledge means He [God] knows and promises events and responses with reliable confidence because He is sovereign” (261). Everything in this statement from “He” to the end is certainly true, but many of us understand “foreknowledge” to mean something different in at least some places, probably here in 1 Peter 1:2, for instance, and almost certainly in Romans 8:29, where God is said to “foreknow” specific people—not facts about people, but the people themselves. As we understand the term, these references to God’s “foreknowledge”have in view, not his advance knowledge of what will happen, but his advance “knowing” (loving) of his people. In contexts where this meaning fits best, Durst’s construal seems unworkable.

In closing, then, I can’t endorse Reordering the Trinity’s thesis, but I can recommend the book (of which I received a free review copy) as worthwhile reading. Once I got past its sometimes unclear wording, I enjoyed and benefited from my own reading of the book, and I expect most thoughtful readers will do the same.

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