The Trinity: Prototype of Real Existence or Danger to Political Wellbeing? Tanner, Volf, and Yannaras in Conversation
1. Introduction: The Danger of Trinitarian Political Theologies
2. God’s Trinitarian Mode of Existence
3. Politics as the Shared Struggle for Truth According to the Trinitarian Prototype of Real Existence
4. Is Yannaras’ Trinitarian Political Theology Dangerous?
5. Volf’s Social Trinitarianism and Yannaras’ Trinitarian Prototype of Real Existence
Institutional Review Board Statement
Conflicts of Interest
(Volf 1998, p. 406). More recently, Kilby has voiced similar concerns (Kilby 2020). Bauerschmidt notes that the idea that there is a connection between an understanding of political life and the Trinity is “rare, if not entirely unknown, prior to the twentieth century” (Bauerschmidt 2011, p. 531). Carl Schmitt introduced (reintroduced, according to some) the concept of political theology in 1922 with the publication of Politische Theologie: Vier Kapitel zur Lehre von der Souveranitat, although the term first found its way into English some time later via Ernst Hartwig Kantorowicz (Kantorowicz 1952, 1957), who adopted the term from Schmitt—Schmitt’s Political Theology was not translated into English until 1985 (See (Schmitt 2005)). The Trinity is not mentioned in Schmitt’s Political Theology, but it did assume a place of central importance in the work of his most prominent early critic, one time friend, theologian, and church historian Erik Peterson, who famously argued that God’s Triune nature made the very notion of a political theology (here conceived in monarchic terms) impossible, notwithstanding the long Jewish and Christian tradition of attempts at precisely that (see Peterson 1931, 1933, 1935). For an excellent overview of the Schmitt-Peterson debate, see (Geréby 2008). Schmitt responded directly to Peterson’s arguments in Politische Theologie II, published in 1970 (not translated into English until (Schmitt 2008)), in which he indicted Peterson’s Trinitarian rejection of political theology with the charge of being “apolitical”. See (Passos 2018) for a good account of this final chapter in the Schmitt-Peterson debate. Schmitt’s thought, including his reintroduciton of the concept of political theology, has spawned a growing literature ever since George Schwab rehabilitated his reputation and introduced him to English-language scholarship in (Schwab 1970), and subsequent translations, including Political Theology. For recent work on Schmitt, see (Vatter 2021; Herrero 2015). Peterson’s work has received less attention than Schmitt’s in English and only some of his writings have been translated, and then only relatively recently (Peterson 2011). Peterson’s Trinitarian objection to the notion of a political theology has been sadly neglected in contemporary confessional political theology, although Moltmann’s 1971 article “Political Theology” makes reference to it (I make a distinction here between what I call “secular” and “confessional” political theology, with the former denoting a type of historical analysis pioneered by Schmitt, and today primarily conducted by non-theologians, and the latter being a type of normative theological thinking conducted by theologians for and on behalf of the church—others have made a similar distinction, albeit without the precise langauge used here, e.g., (Cavanaugh and Scott 2019, p. 3; Bretherton 2019, p. 17; Laustsen 2013, p. 449). The Trinitarian political theology discourse discussed in this article, which belongs to the confessional side of the divide, has made little use of Schmitt and Peterson, and would benefit in particular from a serious consdieration of and engagement with Peterson’s argument that the doctrine of the Trinity precludes political theology per se (along with Schmitt’s response). It is worth noting, finally, that Schmitt’s Christianity (or lack thereof), along with the role of theology in his thought, has become a subject of interest and dispute. For two recent perspectives, see (Roberts 2015; Geréby 2021).
Yannaras’ primary work was largely innacessible in English until relatively recently, and it is only now that the secondary literature has begun to emerge in a serious way. For significant recent works, see (Petrà 2019; Mitralexis 2018; Andreopoulos and Harper 2018). (Mitralexis 2019) provides a good overview of the development of Yannaras’ political theology. Yannaras has provided an autobiographical account of his intellectual development in (Yannaras 2005, untranslated). Yannaras is something of a controversial figure in Greece. He is closely identified with the famous “generation of the 60s” theological movement that ushered in a “return to the Fathers” after a long period of Western inluence in Greek theology. For a detailed account of developments in Greek theology from the 1960s to the present, and Yannaras’ place in it, see (Kalaitzidis 2014). Notwithstanding this association, he has had a turbulent relationship with the theological establishment of Greece, spending the bulk of his career (after being shut out of theology) as a professor of philosophy at Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences, where, amongst other subjects, he taught politics. Yannaras’ long and regular political commentary in the Greek media (including a weekly column in newspaper Kathimerini), often characterized by unflinching and sometimes caustic criticism of virtually every political, cultural, and religious institution in Greece, has undoubtedly contributed to his controversial profile. With controversy inevitably comes misunderstanding and polarized reception. As Mitralexis wryly notes, in Greece “Yannaras has been considered as a leftist or a liberal by right-wingers, as a nationalist right-winger by lef-wingers, as an extremist by centrists and as way too soft by extremists (Mitralexis 2019, p. 313). Yannaras has been controversial outside of Greece for different reasons, namely, for being “anti-Western” and for his alleged creation of a constructed and false view of the West, although recent scholarship has questioned this reading of Yannaras. See, for example, (Gallaher 2018).
(Yannaras 2016, p. 20). The Greek term usually translated as “mode” in Yannaras’ work (τρόπος–tropos) can also mean “way,” “means” or “manner”.
(Yannaras 2016, p. 29). “Being cannot be reduced to an Essence, which would constitute ontological necessity, rather it stems from a Person and the freedom of his love, which instantiates Being in the form of a personal-trinitarian communion”.
The term “Trinitarian prototype” occurs in (Yannaras 1998, pp. 114, 119, 123, 160). It appears in several different formulas: “the trinitarian prototype of real existence,” “the trinitarian prototype of real existence and life,” “mimesis of the trinitarian prototype,” and “the divine trinitarian prototype of real existence”. The term “Trinitarian archetype” occurs in (Yannaras 2019, p. 153).
(Yannaras 2016, p. 32). “Human beings are created for the purposes of becoming communicants in a personal mode of existence, which is to say the life of God—to become participants in the freedom of love, which constitutes “genuine existence””.
(Yannaras 2019, pp. 127–28). The Greek word for truth is alitheia, formed from a- “un” and lithi “hidden”.
(Yannaras 2002, p. 82). Emphasis original.
Yannaras often describes politics as an άθλημα (athlima), which means “sport” in Modern Greek, but here has the sense of “struggle” or “contest” for truth, the idea being that truth can only be attained through great effort and striving, and in the face of obstacles, namely alienation. See (Yannaras 2019).
Yannaras’s first substantive intervention on political theology, one of the earliest by an Orthodox theologian, came in the form of a 1983 article titled “A Note on Political Theology” (a collection of his newspaper articles was published earlier under the title Chapters in Political Theology (Yannaras 1976). In it, he criticized political theology, in this context depicted as a “Western” enterprise, for its activist tendencies towards mobilizing “theologians and clergy in radical sociopolitical movements,” p. 53. Yannaras returned to this theme in The Inhumanity of Rights, where he construed political theology, “so-called,” as a Catholic-Protestant project to develop a “theology of revolution” designed to allow Christians living under oppressive totalitarian regimes (particularly in the Third World) to participate in revolutionary and liberation movements (Yannaras 1998 pp. 173–74). Although not named, Yannaras certainly had the liberation theology of Latin America in mind in making these observations about political theology. It is less clear if Metz, whom he does not name, shaped this view at all. Interestingly, Yannaras himself was a prominent figure in a Christian-Marxist dialouge in Greece following the end of the military junta in 1974 (Skliris 2019, p. 339).
This is not to suggest that it is absent or unimportant in Yannaras’ theology per se. For an example of an Orthodox political theology grounded in the notion of theosis, see (Papanikolaou 2012).
It is worth noting Kalaitzidis’ critique of Yannaras’ political theology at this juncture, which is that it fails to generate any “social activism,” nor “struggle for the protection of human dignity, and to solidarity with the victims of history, but on the contrary, it often encourages…a flight from history and an undermining of social activity and collective struggle” (Kalaitzidis 2012, p. 40).
(Tanner 2004, p. 326). “Direct translation of the Trinity into a social program is problematic …” While Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans has been credited with sparking the “renaissance” in Trinitarian thelogy (Grenz 2004, p. 3), it was Karl Rahner’sobservation that “Christians are, in their practical life, almost mere ‘monotheists’” that gave impetus specifically to the attempts of social Trinitarians to find relevance in the doctrine of the Trinity for human social and political life (Rahner 1970, p. 10).
Yannaras has shown little interest in or awareness of the thought of contemporary American or America-based Protestant theologians such as Tanner and Volf. This is partly due to his overriding interest in the Western European intellectual tradition, mainly German and French, and its impact on Greece (Yannaras lived and studied in both Germany and France and has been profoundly influenced by European philosphers such as Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Satre). Indeed, Yannaras’ primary frame of reference for the West is his own Greece, a Western country in his view (and that of the world today), albeit one trapped culturally and spiritually between its Eastern heritage and Western institutions, mindset and contemporary mores.
(Volf 1998, p. 403). Volf, in this article, works with the concept of the “social” rather than the “political” per se. However, he defines “social” in such a way that it incorporates both politics and economics, thus bringing it into the orbit of the expansive definition of “political” with which Yannaras works.
(Volf 1998, p. 403). Although not discussed above, perichoresis is an important concept in Yannaras’ Trinitarian theology, although he tends to favor the Greek term aplliloperichoresi (Modern Greek transliteration)—”mutual interpenetration”.
(Volf 1998, pp. 405–6). “By describing God in whose image humans are created and redeemed, the doctrine of the Trinity names the reality which human communities ought to image. By describing human beings as distinct from God, the doctrines of creation and of sin inform the way in which human communities can image the Triune God, now in history and then in eternity”.
(Volf 1998, p. 418). Emphasis original.
One suspects that Tanner might be inclined to put the same question to Yannaras, and it would be a valid question. However, this question is not raised purely by Volf and Yannaras’ attempts to ground political norms in the Trinity. The extent to which Trinitarian political theologies writ large say anything truly unique about human relationality and political association, beyond the unique idiom of Christian theology in which their claims are articulated, is an open question. It is also a question that is beyond the scope of the present article, because it could just as easily be asked of Christian political theology per se, given the intrinsic challenge of saying something cogent about the empirical reality of politics, not to mention any normative political propsosal, that could not be said in non-theological langauge and justified on philosophical, rather than theological, grounds. Indeed, the question could be turned around on Tanner. To what extent does her progressive political theology articulate anything that is not routinely articulated by secular progressives? Indeed, is her political theology even possible merely on the basis of Christian theological language and concepts, or is it actually shaped in some way by secular political ideas? That said, I do note that, even if, in the final analysis, it is true that all/most/much Christian political theology ends up saying little that is not, or could not, be said by secular thinkers, the point is that the theological idiom is essential for those whose entire worldview and ethical norms are shaped by theological language and ideas. It is precisely the theological idiom itself that makes certain political ideas, even those which converge with secular political ideas, meaningful and compelling to Christians. Admittedly, this view risks reducing Christian political theology to mere linguistics, an idiom lacking substantive distinction from non-theological political langauge. Even so, it is an incredibly important idiom given it is a living language spoken by hundreds of millions of humans who are of political consequence in places such as America, Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia. I am indebted to an anonymous reviewer for bringing this question to my attention.
Note the parallel here with Volf insofar as Tanner’s conception of human participation in the Trinity is thoroughly Christological. This Christological reading of the Trinity is also on display in (Tanner 2010).
See (Kilby 2000). The articulation here is influenced by (Tanner 2021, p. 380). Kilby has elsewhere “sketch[ed] the contours” of a an approach to Trinitarianism that is “apophatic,” which is to say, that emphasizes the transcendant otherness, and hence unknowability, of God, in contrast to the overrendered Trinitariasm of the late 20th century (Kilby 2010, pp. 66–68). Kilby has also intriguingly suggested that recrudescent interest in Trinitarianism might be a reaction against “thin rationalism” and “limp liberalism” (Kilby 2010, p. 66).
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Cole, J. The Trinity: Prototype of Real Existence or Danger to Political Wellbeing? Tanner, Volf, and Yannaras in Conversation. Religions 2021, 12, 998. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12110998
Cole J. The Trinity: Prototype of Real Existence or Danger to Political Wellbeing? Tanner, Volf, and Yannaras in Conversation. Religions. 2021; 12(11):998. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12110998Chicago/Turabian Style
Cole, Jonathan. 2021. "The Trinity: Prototype of Real Existence or Danger to Political Wellbeing? Tanner, Volf, and Yannaras in Conversation" Religions 12, no. 11: 998. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12110998