Vestigia Trinitatis: More than a Hermeneutical Problem
Good day, and welcome to my post. I hope you’ve been enjoying this year’s DET Karl Barth Blog Conference. I, for one, have found it rather engaging.
So, I should start with a statement which I will then unpack: Jüngel’s idea of revelation lends itself to an Evangelical humanism. It might be better to say a “revelatory” humanism because its ‘mechanism’ is tied to the dynamic of revelation, of God’s self-giving on our behalf. It is precisely in the way that Jüngel unpacks Barth’s doctrine of revelation (and, therefore, the doctrine of God) that drives the connection I would like to make more explicit here.
It should be said from the outset that the argument I will unpack here is based on a reflection of Jüngel’s argument in God’s Being is in Becoming, not on a reading of the Church Dogmatics. It is only a reading of Barth insofar as it is a reading of Jüngel’s reading of Barth. There is not the space here to do a close comparison of Jüngel, in which the connection I would like to make is explicit, with the relevant sections of CD. That I will leave for another time and place.
I’ll begin our discussion with the vestigia trinitatis, that very interesting idea in Christian theology that one can find vestiges of the Trinity throughout the created order that was most famously expressed in St. Augustine’s De Trinitate and further expounded through medieval and protestant scholastic theology. The definition of the vestigia that Jüngel works with is derived from Barth: “It was thought that it was possible to discover ‘an essential trinitarian disposition supposedly immanent in some created realities quite apart from their possible conscription by God’s revelation’ as ‘traces of the trinitarian Creator God in being as such’” (17, quoting CD I/1, p. 334). The vestigia, as they came to be seen in medieval and protestant scholastic theology, had three traits: they were essential, immanent, and revelatory.
That the vestigia were essential means that there was something left over in the very being of the created order, especially in human beings created in the image of God, that left a trace of God. That is, these vestigial remnants of God’s creative hand were actually revelatory, they signified in a meaningful way God’s trinitarian being. That might not be so bad for Barth, except the vestigia were also immanent, that is, they were in a sense cut off from God’s being, free-floating, objective, and observable.
But this causes a problem for both Jüngel and Barth, for “if one accepts that there are such vestigia trinitatis and that they can be identified as such, the problem arises whether these are not to be regarded as the root of the doctrine of the Trinity” (17). If they are the root of the doctrine of the Trinity, then every Protestant ground is taken: revelation itself is called into question and therefore the notion that theology might be grounded in revelation alone, which finally might undermine the very “meaning and possibility” of theology itself. For Barth, the real problem is one of theological language, a hermeneutical problem (18). “There is no dispute about the fact that revelation is spoken about in this language, indeed, appropriately spoken about. The dispute rather concerns the possibility of this state of affairs” (19).
Jüngel insists, following Barth, that for revelation to take place, then human language much be stretched beyond itself to accommodate the coming of God (which is, by the way, the very definition of revelation for both thinkers). Language has to be “commandeered” “by revelation for revelation” (23). Ironically, it cannot be a latent possibility in human language or the possibility of God coming to speech would be lost. Instead, since revelation does comes to language and commandeer it, there is a gain to human language. “The gain consists in the fact that God comes to speech as God” (23). Revelation means that human language, by God’s grace alone, does the impossible. It is to this gain that we should pay special attention, both by seeing what it is, and what it is not.
This gain is the entering of God’s Word into human words. It is the reiteration for us of God’s internal self-interpretation. As such, “revelation is the root of the doctrine of the Trinity,” and not something essential, revelatory, and immanent within the created order itself (27). “Thus the revelation of God itself is that which makes the interpretation of revelation possible,” that is, it is perfectly reasonable, and even faithful, to look for ways to interpret revelation immanent within language, but the reverse cannot be true.
For Jüngel, the gain may also be described as faith. Faith, in a sense, is the recognition of the language’s inability to talk about God, but, in so recognizing, faith speaks anyway (cf. 60). In faith, God comes to human language and takes it up by taking up human beings themselves into His salvation. Here, Jüngel quotes Barth extensively to elucidate this dynamic:
The taking up of humanity into the event of the knowledge of God is grounded in the taking up of humanity into the event of the being of God. That sounds strange, and in no way does Barth think of it in the sense of a […] [deification] of the being of humanity. The taking up of humanity into the event of God’s being is, rather, humanity’s salvation. And ‘salvation is more than being. Salvation is fulfillment, the supreme, sufficient, definitive, and indestructible fulfillment of being. Salvation is the perfect being which is not proper to created being as such but is still future…. To that extent salvation is its eschaton…being which has a part in the being of God…not a divinized being but a being which is hidden in God, and in that sense (distinct from God and secondary) eternal being’ [IV/1, p. 8] (75).This taking up in response to God’s coming in revelation “makes history,” that is, it moves through the impossible and creates and actualizes a non-latent possibility in the very act of God’s coming. The possibility is grounded in the event of God’s revelation in Jesus of Nazareth through which God “brings human being into correspondence with the being of God which corresponds to itself” (112). God has “brought himself to speech in a human way” in this irreducible and decidedly transcendent event (112). In this sense, the gain to language is an ontological gain to human beings in general. Human beings are caught up in the one Human’s life in God. In this way, the doors are open for more possibility for human beings than was possible ‘before’ this event by God’s grace.
Having sketched the gain to language, we need to briefly sketch the loss to revelation that would result if the vestigia trinitatis were indeed essential, revelatory and immanent. In this case, we are no longer talking about revelation commandeering language and endowing it with an impossible possibility. We speak instead of language commandeering revelation “on the fundamental structure of the analogia entis per analogiam nominum” (23). “The loss consists in the fact that God does not come to speech as God but as nomen” (23). In revelation, God comes to speech as God. Based on the analogy of being, God comes to speech only as another word among words.
But, in the end, what a reified vestigium trinitatis ends up representing not only threatens revelation, in Jüngel’s view, but also threatens language itself: “When language seeks to be itself revelation, it loses itself as language” (26). If the commandeering of language leads to its gain and a loss of revelation leads to its losing its proper place as human language, we begin to see a pattern of relationship between revelation and human language that resonates with John Webster’s description of divine and human freedom at his recent Kantzer lectures (http://www.henrycenter.org/kantzerlectures.php; lecture #3, 01:11:50f). Instead of conceiving of human and divine freedom/agency as inversely proportional such that if God is acting then human beings must be passive in His wake, Webster suggested the clue is that these two are actually directly proportional. In such a relationship, the more God acts upon us the more free we are. In a similar way here, the commandeering presence of God in revelation is not the presence of a “dumb aggressor but rather gets involved with and in language through speaking” (27). The more God acts upon our language, the freer it is to interpret God’s self-interpretation in Christ.
We should pause, as did Jüngel, and point out that Barth himself thought there must be “something in” all the talk about the vestigia. The question was “what” that something might be (18). If the what starts from revelation and moves to find language with which to interpret it, that would be fine. But, if the vestigia are used to prove some latent capacity for God in language or human being, then Barth believes it deserves the utmost censure. Here we find the classic Barthian opposition of the analogia entis by the analogia fidei. “This, at any rate, is how Barth understands it when he fears that in the doctrine of the vestigia trinitatis we are concerned—probably counter to the intention of its discoverers—with ‘a genuine analogia entis’” (20, from CD I/1, p. 340).
Having come this far, it might be prudent to recap where we have been. There was a hermeneutical problem raised by the vestigia trinitatis. Revelation, according to Jüngel and Barth, constitutes a gain to language in that God comes to us in it as God, and we are enabled by this presence of God as God in speech to respond in faith, to actually speak about God’s coming to us in Jesus Christ and to be drawn up in Christ into God’s salvation. In this connection, the problem raised by the vestigia is far more than hermeneutical, it is soteriological and anthropological as well. Revelation not only constitutes a gain to language but also a gain to human being in its salvation. Without revelation, these are negatively affected, i.e., a loss of revelation leads to a plateauing of humanity. But in revelation, we begin to see the actualized God bringing creation and its creatures to their ultimate and eschatological fulfillment.
Barth’s view of God is based on revelation so conceived. With this God we’re dealing with the actus purus et singularis, the self-moving, self-giving God of the Bible (cf. 79). In revelation, we are dealing with the place in which “‘the fullness of the original self-existent being of God’s Word reposes and lives’, [and, therefore, with] that event in which the being of God comes to word” (27, qt. CD I/1, p. 304-305). The perfect God does not remain at a distance but – precisely in God’s Lordship – God come to us as the One who loves in freedom. This movement of God’s being towards us is the problem of revelation and also the basis of its glorious benefits.
And here we find the connection towards which I have been driving, that Jüngel’s idea of revelation lends itself to an Evangelical humanism. There is far more than a gain to language - there is a gain to human being and society. From his 1975 epilogue to God’s Being is in Becoming, in response to the apparent falling apart of dogmatics and social responsibility that had begun to dominate the theological discourse (as it still does today), Jüngel wrote the following:
In this, I see one of the most important contributions of Christian theology to the question of ontology: God is at one and the same time the interruption of the coherence of being and its intensification; and, therefore, the correspondence between person (mind) and reality, which occurs in all true knowledge, means, in the case of knowledge of God, a gain to being which at the level of practice makes more possible in the actuality of the world than that actuality is capable of granting to itself. If God’s being is in becoming, then for us, too, more is possible (138-139; emphasis mine).
Why an Evangelical humanism? Because the idea here is one of an opening vista. Human beings can flourish. We can order ourselves into just societies that treat the least of these with love. We can exist in a world in which turning the other cheek is neither mocked nor ignored. We can finally and fruitfully live as human beings whose freedom it is to steward a world full of endless and yet increasing possibilities.
Why an Evangelical humanism? Because everything about the increase in possibility for human being is firmly rooted in God’s grace. Unlike the classical use of vestigia, this humanism is not essential - it is not as though we had the capacity in ourselves to move upward - nor is it revelatory - the growth of human potential is not somehow the basis for our understanding of God as the Big Human in the sky (cf. Feuerbach). As a non-essential and non-revelatory humanism, it is also not immanent. There is room for human freedom not because God has withdrawn Himself from our creatureliness, but because God has Himself entered it and reconstituted it in Himself. Insofar as God moves upon us, we have our freedom, and this freedom is the freedom of the children of God. “For us, too, more is possible” (139).
If we appreciate Jüngel’s linking of revelation and this special type of Evangelical humanism, we can see that the world left in the wake of the vestigia is a damned place. Conversely, the world in which the light of God’s revelation enables us to find vestigia trinitatis exists at the doorstep of heaven.
Response to Jason Ingalls
Contributed by Shane Wilkins.
"God is a Noun, and There’s Absolutely Nothing Wrong With That"
Ingalls deserves credit for trying to chart a path through this tangled thicket of Jüngel’s ugly prose, but he seems much more willing than I to humor Jüngel’s bald assertions and unargued assumptions.
As far as I can tell, the basic structure of Jüngel’s argument goes like this:
- (1) If you believe there are vestigia trinitatis, then there is a question whether they are the roots of the doctrine of the trinity.
- (2) If the vestigia trinitatis are the roots of the doctrine of the trinity, then some creaturely reality is revelatory, or perhaps better, adequate to the task of revelation.
- (3) But creaturely reality is not of itself revelatory, or is inadequate for the purposes of revelation, hence the vestigia trinitatis are not the roots of the doctrine of the trinity and, in fact, there are no such things as vestigia trinitatis.
This is the basic form of the argument. For “creaturely reality is inadequate for the purposes of revelation” one could also substitute “there is an analogia entis” or “natural theology is successful” to discover two basic variations on the theme. So this is just the familiar Barthian position. However, there is a further, final claim:
- (4) Nevertheless, in the doctrine of the vestigia trinitatis, Augustine, et al. were looking for the right thing, namely a language in which to speak about God.
This last bit is what Jüngel is really hot and bothered about. As per (3), it seems to be his opinion that natural human language is unable to speak about God unless “commandeered by revelation” (23). The conclusion is that language itself is unable to speak about God by any intrinsic power of its own, unless commandeered by revelation. If there were vestigia trinitatis or analogia entis, then Jüngel believes this would constitute a loss to revelation because God could not come to speech as “God but only as nomen.”
By ‘nomen’ Jüngel is presumably alluding to q. 13 of the Summa Theologiae. Thomas Aquinas never uses the expression ‘analogia entis’, and the quasi-aristotelian theory of the grades of being and the analogy between substances and accidents and so forth has little direct application to the question of theological language. But, Thomas does discuss an analogia nominum in the context of the adequacy of theological speech. The ‘names’ here are also nouns, like “justice.” The question, as the scholastics would ask it, is this: “Is justice predicated univocally of God and creatures, equivocally or in some other way?”
So, I take it that Jüngel means his position to be a criticism of Thomas’s view. Further, seems to be insinuating that Thomas’s position makes creaturely reality revelatory or that Thomas would somehow ground his doctrine of the trinity in the vestigia trinitatis.
Now, that is all nonsense, of course.
To show what’s wrong with this, let’s start with Augustine. In De Trinitate VI, Augustine does say that, “When we regard the Creator, who is understood by the things that are made we must needs understand the Trinity of whom there appear traces in the creature, as is fitting.” However, I doubt that Augustine intends to claim that we can gain knowledge of the trinity from creatures independent of revelation. In the first place, I think Augustine famous credo ut intelligamwould make us suspect that Augustine believes that one understands the vestigia trinitatis in the creation after having come to know the creator, not the other way round. Second, just sentences later, Augustine characterizes this knowledge as knowledge “in part, or through a glass and in an enigma.” I take it that Augustine’s point here concerns how we understand the trinity by means of analogues, not the actual origin of the doctrine itself.
Citing this passage from Augustine, Peter Lombard agrees that “through the contemplation of creatures a sufficient knowledge of the Trinity cannot be had nor could it without the revelation of doctrine and/or of interior inspiration” (I Sent d. III). In his sentences commentary on this passage from Peter Lombard, Thomas Aquinas also agrees, “that by natural reason one is not able to come to the knowledge of the persons of the trinity, and therefore the philosophers have written nothing about it, except perchance by revelation or hearing from another.”
So, contrary to Jüngel’s insinuation, the existence of the vestigia trinitatis does not seem to tempt any Christian theologian (that I know of) into claiming that the doctrine of the trinity is knowable by natural reason alone. The only person who believes that absurdly implausible claim is Hegel. Augustine, Lombard, and Aquinas all had a healthy appreciation for the necessity of revelation and the mystery of the trinity.
Let’s compare very briefly compare then, Jüngel’s view on theological language with that of the augustinian tradition. On Augustine’s view, “human speech labors under a great dearth of words. So we say ‘three persons,’ not in order to say that precisely, but in order not to be reduced to silence” (De Trin, V.10). Later in the tradition, for instance, Thomas develops an analogical account of theological language which expresses precisely this point: there are things that we must say of God but these are never completely correct because of the inadequacy of finite creaturely language to an infinite transcendent creator.
Analogical predication is a mean between univocity and equivocity. If theological language was univocal, then perhaps there would be a legitimate worry that creaturely realities are somehow revelatory. On the other hand, if theological language were purely equivocal, then everything we said about God would not be merely inadequate but actually false. Therefore, Thomas opts to say that the predicates we apply to God are like the ones we apply to creatures, but not identical. So, it is true to say that God is just, and his justice is not wholly dissimilar from our understanding of it, but our understanding is never truly “adequate” in this life.
I think that is all that Barth or Jüngel ought ever to want in terms of trying to safeguard the distinction between God and creatures and the necessity of revelation. But Jüngel’s wants something further. He wants revelation to “commandeer” language to prevent God from being just a nomen. But what the hell is that supposed to mean? When revelation commandeers language, God is no longer a noun? The only evidence I am able to detect for a claim’s being “commandeered” is that it has some paradoxical, dialectical character: “Faith is an impossible possibility” and so forth. I find this claim preposterous for the following reason.
Suppose Jack and Jill both say “God is good”, and Jack says this without the benefit of revelation, and Jill says it with revelation. Is it Jüngel’s view that Jack’s statement is false and Jill’s is true? (Or perhaps Jill says “God is good” where the italics indicate that God has commandeered ‘good’, so that it is no longer a mere creaturely adjective.) Obviously the proposition about God is either true or false, independent of who says it. Revelation makes one to believe the proposition to be true—it does not change the proposition’s truth-value. But, this does not make the word “good” itself to be revelation, because revelation happens when Jack comes to believe that the proposition “God is good” is true. This might occur through special revelation—by a direct illumination by God’s grace; or it might occur through common grace—as mediated by reason, say.
In sum, I think Augustine and Thomas Aquinas’s view are to be preferred above Jüngel and Barth’s. Augustine and Thomas give you all the mystery you need to safeguard transcendence, but do not imply the obscure absurdities Barth’s view leads to. Nor can I see how Thomas’s position implies that the creaturely order is revelatory apart from divine grace in some problematic sense.
I invite you to look at some of the primary sources from which I have been working.