Divine Persons and Their ‘Reduction’ to Relations: A Plea for Conceptual Clarity

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Contemporary trinitarian ‘revisionist’ theologians frequently accuse ‘classical’ or ‘Western’ (e.g. Augustinian, Thomistic) trinitarian theologies of ‘reducing’ the divine Persons to their relations with and to one another. In response, many defenders of the Western tradition of trinitarian theology suggest that the alternative accounts of contemporary revisionists, likewise, ‘reduce’ the Persons to relations. Thus, the same charge (the reduction of Persons to relations) is employed in two opposing viewpoints as a way of critiquing the other. This article aims to note this (apparently hitherto unremarked) phenomenon and to explore the theological rationale for its development. In conclusion, the article suggests how a new conceptual clarity may be achieved in light of this semantic confusion and points toward the possibility of a renewed dialogue between classical forms of trinitarian theology and their contemporary critics.

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This is an overview of the Trinitarian theology of the philosopher and theologian, St Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), one of the greatest Christian thinkers of all time. The book provides clear explanations of difficult concepts, illustrating the implications of Trinitarian theology for Christian devotional practice. The book systematically and simply introduces what it was that St Thomas Aquinas said about faith in the Trinity, providing an explanation of the main questions in Thomas's treatise on the Trinity in his major work, the Summa Theologiae. Clarifying the central ideas through which Thomas accounts for the nature of Trinitarian monotheism, the text focuses on the personal relations of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, both in their eternal communion and in their creative and saving action. By highlighting the thoughts and philosophies of one of the greatest defenders of the doctrine of the Trinity, the book allows ordinary people to grasp and comprehend the classical Christian understanding of God as three in one.
A current emphasis in theological anthropology is that we become persons through our relations to others. Ethically valuable and pastorally illuminating insights that as persons we develop in relation to others have been used wrongly to underpin the claim that personhood is relational — a claim which is logically confused and ethically precarious. Alistair I. McFadyen, whose book The Call to Personhood has been influential in this respect, describes personhood as the ‘sedimentation’ of interpersonal relations. Elaine L. Graham places the stress on cultural interaction as a prerequisite for the development of beings into persons. In her study of gender and personhood, Making the Difference, Graham argues that her ‘relational’ account of gender is ‘suggestive of a model of human nature as profoundly relational, requiring the agency of culture to bring our personhood fully into being’. The potential ethical danger behind a view of personhood as relational is apparent from statements made by Vincent Brümmer in his volume The Model of Love, to the effect that ‘both our identity and our value as persons is constituted by our relations of fellowship with others’.
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