I’ve been reading Leonardo Boff’s work Trinity and Society. Boff is a Roman Catholic liberation theologian who may or may not be a Marxist. This is perhaps the most thought-provoking book on the Trinity I’ve yet read; right up there with Jurgen Moltmann’s Trinity and the Kingdom. Both these gentlemen are social trinitarians. They had a formative influence on Millard Erickson’s own monograph on the Trinity, which is excellent.
One interesting thing Boff does is re-conceptualize eternal generation and procession. Some readers may not know what these doctrines are. They’ve been pillars of Christian orthodoxy for centuries, but the turn towards social trinitarianism in the latter half of the 20th century has muted their impact in many evangelical churches. Some conservative theologians today downplay them.
What are eternal generation and procession?
Well, Christians believe Father, Son and Spirit are the same being. Not that they merely share the same nature (like you and I share a human nature), but they are the exact same being. But, if this be the case, then are we not collapsing all three Persons into one Jello-O mold, without distinction? How is this not modalism?
It’s clear the main conceptual problem is how to distinguish the Persons if they are, in fact, the same Being. The Church has done this by highlighting incommunicable, unique characteristics each Person has that the others do not. John of Damascus explains:
For in these hypostatic or personal properties alone do the three holy subsistences differ from each other, being indivisibly divided not by essence but by the distinguishing mark of their proper and peculiar subsistence.
John of Damascus, “Orthodox Faith,” 2.8.
These distinctions are:
- Paternity. The Father begat the Son.
- Sonship. The Son is eternally begotten in an incorporeal, non-physical (“begotten, not made”) and timeless manner (“begotten of the Father before all worlds”) in a way we can’t ever understand. But, this does not imply that the Son is somehow not equal to the Father, that there was ever a time He didn’t exist, or that the Son was created.
- Procession. The Holy Spirit is sent forth from both the Father and the Son.
How can you distinguish the Persons, then? By these unique characteristics. The Son doesn’t beget; the Father does. The Spirit isn’t begotten; the Son is. The Father doesn’t eternally proceed from the Spirit; the reverse is true. This is how the classical position avoids the charge of modalism. For more on classical trinitarianism and divine Personhood, see my article, “Modalism Redux? The Concept of ‘Person’ in Classical Trinitarianism.” For an excellent, short explanation of eternal generation, see Charles Irons’ article, “The Only Begotten God: Eternal Generation in the Nicene Creed.”
Many contemporary theologians are not satisfied with this. They see it as an abstract idea that’s nearly impossible to understand. This is likely why many conservative Christians have never heard of them; because their pastors probably don’t understand these doctrines, either.
Instead, a more social, relational model of the Trinity has made significant headway in the last few decades. Classical advocates do not appreciate this social, relational model. Carl Beckwith is representative when he writes:
When we apply this modern notion of person to the Trinity, we end up with three distinct subjectivities, three authentic and self-determining persons, who freely and willingly coexist in unity. We end up with sophisticated sounding tritheism.
Carl Beckwith, The Holy Trinity (Fort Wayne: Luther Academy, 2016; Kindle ed.), KL 10098-10100.
See my article “On Divine Personhood and Three-headed Dogs” for a discussion of social trinitarianism and divine Personhood. This perspective often goes hand in hand with a rejection of eternal generation and procession. It is fair to say, then, that Leonardo Boff’s comments along this line would not be welcomed by classical trinitarians.
What Boff does with eternal generation and procession
Boff is a social trinitarian. He does not jettison the doctrines, but re-frames them so completely that he might as well have done. The classical model distinguishes the Persons by causality, but hastens to add this causality is timeless and non-physical (see above). Nonetheless, there is an order in the Trinitarian relationships.
Boff demurs, and suggests this ordering “is rather a descriptive device to indicate the differences and simultaneous reciprocity between the divine co-eternal Persons,” (140). It’s analogical language; terms of word art struggling to express the inexpressible. There is no real order in the Trinity; no real causality at all.
For Boff, ultimate reality begins with the three Persons already together; not “the solitude of One but in the co-existence and communion of Three,” (139). This union, this knot of relationships that define the Persons, is eternal; “it is not something that comes after them, but is simultaneous with them, since they are always with the others and in the others,” (138-139).
So, Boff suggests we dismiss terms that imply causation (like, say, “generation” and “procession”) and “use the biblical terminology of revelation and recognition: the three Persons reveal themselves to themselves and to each other,” (142).
This implies - and this is my basic thesis - that the three divine Persons are simultaneous in origin and co-exist eternally in communion and interpenetration. Each is distinct from the others in personal characteristics and in the communion established by that Person in everlasting relationship with the others, each revealing that Person’s self to itself and the self of the others to them
Boff, Trinity and Society, 142.
This is fairly standard for social trinitarianism, but Boff truly goes his own way by claiming the Church intended language about generation and procession to be analogical, not real:
Talk of ‘processions’ should not be understood as a genesis in God or as a theogonic process, as though God were subject to the principle of causality. the idea of different processions is used to emphasize at once the difference between the Persons and their reciprocal respectiveness or communion.
Boff, Trinity and Society, 144.
The classical model has always been careful to explain that generation and procession do not imply temporality; that Son and Spirit ever “came into being.” Yet, there has always been an insistence that they’re somehow real and causal; just in a way we can’t ever understand.
These explanations have always been more guardrails boxing the problem in rather than explaining them. Boff explodes these categories by making them entirely analogical; entirely words of art to express reciprocity in eternal relationship. Having dropped this artillery shell, he then backpedals a bit by assuring readers he will still use the classical terms, but will “do so with an appreciation of their specifically trinitarian application; they do not indicate any theogony, any result of an intra-divine production process, any causal dependence,” (146).
For, to Boff, this knit-together relationship of Father, Son and Spirit is the starting point. Not for him a solitary Father who, before time began, begat the Son in an incorporeal way, and together the Spirit proceeds from them both. Rather, it’s the eternal relationship that constitutes God as triune.
Their relationship is one of reciprocal participation rather than hypostatic derivation, of correlation and communion rather than production and procession. What is produced and proceeds is intra-trinitarian and interpersonal revelation. One Person is the condition for the revelation of the others, in an infinite dynamism like a series of mirrors endlessly reflecting the image of the Three.
Boff, Trinity and Society, 146.
Boff is thought-provoking because the social model has a very strong pull in contemporary society, and has many implications for understanding the scriptures. For example, if the imago dei is structural (there’s something about our nature and make-up that reflects God’s nature and make-up), and the social model be true, then the “image of God” may well be the hardwiring that makes us long for relationship and community; “that set of qualities that is required for these relationships and this function to take place,” (Erickson, Christian Theology, p. 471).
This would have obvious explanatory power for God’s motives regarding salvation, the need for church membership, and the reason why God wants Christians to be holy:
- God saves His people because He wants relationship with them; to invite them into His family and be in communion with them. To adopt them.
- Church membership is about brotherly love; about a loving commitment to a particular community of brothers and sisters. Father, Son and Spirit are united to one another by love; so Christians must do the same in their faith communities … to image God Himself to the world.
- God wants Christians to be holy so these now-restored vertical and horizontal relationships are strengthened and refurbished ever more. We grow closer to one another in the family of God, as we grow closer to Him.
Of course, many theologians do not agree with the social model. They also don’t believe we should extrapolate out from God’s intra-trinitarian relationships to find a model for human relationships:
Theology 101: Unpopular opinion: speculating or theologizing about eternal intratrinitarian relationships as a model of human relationships is not only precarious but irrelevant. God reveals through his written word and incarnate Word everything necessary for human relationships.
— Dr. Michael J. Svigel (@Svigel) September 21, 2020
Boff’s re-conceptualizations of eternal generation and procession are novel and intriguing. I don’t believe they were what Christian have meant by the terms throughout the centuries. That doesn’t necessarily mean Boff is wrong to focus on relationship, instead of a timeless causality. I’m looking forward to finishing the book.
Tyler Robbins is a graduate of Maranatha Baptist Seminary, a DMin student at Central Seminary (Plymouth, MN) and a bi-vocational pastor at Sleater Kinney Road Baptist Church, in Olympia WA. He also works in State government. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist and is the author of What’s It Mean to be a Baptist?