Sunday, February 13, 2011

Re-thinking hierarchy (1)

Paradigms shape the way we think. The direction and shape of the notions in view adapt to the conceptual mould. This is not so much of a problem when the notion itself has some clarity about it, and the interpretive paradigm can be recognised as helpful in as far as it goes, with allowances for where the conceptual ‘fit’ may be inadequate in some respects.

I find it curious, and increasingly alarming, to note the recent pre-occupation in various sectors of evangelical theology with hierarchical relationships - even to the extent of deliberating whether a male who is lost and seeking guidance in finding a route may receive such assistance from a female - because it is not the female's role to give directions! I know the example is extreme and would be dismissed by most complementarians (but not all!), but it does underscore to me the dangers that come with being so focused on authority-obedience hierarchy that it shapes any and all relationships.

Caution is especially in order when we consider the Trinity. The inadequacies of using analogies are well known, but the conceptual paradigms in play are just as capable of pre-determining the resultant shape as analogies and metaphors.

If you are not overly familiar with the history of Trinitarian formulations, hang in there with me for a moment. Western traditions are characteristically construed in terms of the Athanasian Creed, with its definitive ‘Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence’ distinctions (elaborating on earlier terminology credited to Tertullian and integral to Nicean orthodoxy as ‘three hypostases in one ousia’). Eastern models explore a different conceptual paradigm, especially in viewing Trinitarian notions as ‘energies of God’.

Now none of the above is mutually exclusive, but they do starkly illustrate one thing: there is no one paradigm capable of fully explaining or shaping our understanding of the Trinity. The danger of over emphasising one paradigm is offset by allowing a number of other models to sit alongside one another.

For example, there is some legitimacy to recognising the actions of God may be considered in terms of particular functions or ‘modes’ of God (so Barth), but an over-emphasis on this results in the error of ‘modalism’. Similarly, an over-emphasis on the distinctive ‘persons’ of the Trinity can lead towards an effective ‘tri-theism’ (belief in three Gods).

It is for these reasons that warnings about the inherent dangers in becoming overly focussed on understanding the inner realities of the Trinity in terms of hierarchical order are very real.

A hierarchy is the arrangement of items or people as ‘above’ and ‘below’. When related to questions of authority, hierarchy devolves into ‘chain of command’ and ‘obedience’ types of relationship, understood as roles or fundamental order. Hierarchy is essentially unilateral –the exercise of authority moves in one direction and has little or no room for reciprocity or mutuality.

It is particularly with the latter in view that hierarchy is recognised as (at best) a very limited paradigm for understanding the Trinity, and more often, a very dangerous trajectory for construing relationships between Father, Son and Spirit.

Over against such hierarchical thinking, theologians from early times have affirmed the importance of ‘mutual indwelling’ within the Godhead – perichoresis for those familiar with this rich term. Of ancient usage and derived from Greek with the sense of ‘containing around’, T F Torrance characterises the term as a ‘dynamic three-way reciprocity’ between Father, Son and Spirit.

It is precisely because the unilateral character of hierarchy, with its ‘chain of authority or command’ sense of order, that serious caution is needed in allowing such a paradigm to shape our perceptions of the mystery of the Trinity.

Now my background is more in the area of New Testament theology than historical or systematic theology, so in part 2 of this post I will consider how Paul views the relationship between Father, Son and Spirit. What I will propose ends up looking much like perichoresis, but I have come at it from a different direction.

In short: I do not believe ‘hierarchy’ is adequate or even helpful in understanding the use of ‘hypotasso’ by Paul (and elsewhere in the New Testament). The use of human relationships as paradigms in exploring the Godhead will be inevitably and significantly limited. When we recognise the counter-cultural critique made by Jesus of those who exercise authority within the human realm (Matthew 20:25-26), in contrast to the ways of the kingdom-reign of God, even more caution is needed.

No comments: