The Father’s Spirit of Sonship.

The Father’s Spirit of Sonship: Reconceiving the Trinity.

by Thomas G. Weinandy, O.F.M.Cap. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995.

When I first heard of Weinandy’s book, I was both excited and frustrated. Excited, because it spoke of the Spirit being integrally involved in the begetting of the Son; frustrated, because the very person I first heard about this book from had rejected a similar thesis I had put to them (the similarities of which were confirmed via a short email exchange)!

Ruffled feathers aside, I began to try to get myself a copy. The first problem: it is out of print. Second problem: the only (three) second-hand copies I could find would cost me over AU$250.00 if I bought the one in America, or over AU$400.00 if I bought one of the two in Britain! Finally I decided on a course of action with a fair amount of cheek – I contacted Father Weinandy himself. Fortunately for me, he thought $400 was too much for 160 pages and managed to get a copy to me for much, much less. Thank you Father Tom.

His book is far better than my thesis, and far better than any of the attempts to explain Weinandy’s views found on the internet – and that will include the present one.

Summary of the book.

To quote the opening sentence of the Preface:

This book has one simple objective. I want to argue that within the Trinity the Father begets the Son in or by the Holy Spirit, who proceeds then from the Father as the one in whom the Son is begotten.

Weinandy then goes on to recount how this idea came to him while studying Romans 8:14-16 as a result of experiencing the baptism in the Spirit within the Charismatic Renewal. It occurred to him that if we are “conformed into sons of the Father by the Spirit through whom we are empowered to cry out in the same words as Jesus”, then Jesus’ cry must also come from being conformed as the eternal Son by the Spirit.

In his introduction, Weinandy lists some reasons he thinks the Trinity has received such attention in the last twenty or thirty years, and then gives a broad outline of historic understandings of the Trinity in the creeds and in both East and West, highlighting the weaknesses as he sees them. This is especially important as Weinandy sees his thesis as addressing the different concerns of Orthodox and Roman/Protestant conceptions of the Trinity and providing an important building block on the path to ecumenical reconciliation (if I can mix metaphors).

The first chapter introduces Weinandy’s thesis in detail:

…the Father begets the Son in or by the Holy Spirit. The Son is begotten by the Father in the Spirit and thus the Spirit simultaneously proceeds from the Father as the one in whom the Son is begotten. The Son, being begotten in the Spirit, simultaneously loves the Father in the same Spirit by which he himself is begotten (is Loved).

The Spirit (of Love) then, who proceeds from the Father as the one in whom the Father begets the Son, both conforms or defines (persons) the Son to be the Son and simultaneously conforms or defines (persons) the Father to be the Father. The Holy Spirit, in proceeding from the Father as the one in whom the Father begets the Son, conforms the Father to be Father for the Son and conforms the Son to be Son for (of) the Father.

Whew!

Weinandy sees the newness of this proposal in its emphasis on the involvement of the Holy Spirit within the Trinity. He argues that traditionally the Spirit’s role is not well considered and that his thesis addresses this imbalance by providing a biblical understanding that adds to, but does not contradict, the traditional creeds and Trinitarian understandings of both East and West. Weinandy also asserts that the more the Spirit is recognized in his acts within the Trinity, the easier it is to recognize the personhood of the Spirit, again, something not well provided for within historic Trinitarian thought.

How does Weinandy seek to support his thesis? He outlines three interconnected presuppositions:

The immanent Trinity is identical to the economic Trinity, i.e. the Trinity seen in the world is identical to the Trinity in itself;

Functional economic trinitarianism discloses an ontological immanent trinitarianism, i.e. the way God as Trinity reveals himself to, and interacts with, the world are true expressions of who God as Trinity is in himself;

The development of authentic Trinitarian doctrine and theology is the coming to perceive and express this inherent Trinitarian ontology from within its scriptural, and so functional, economic expression, i.e. the only way we can truly understand the Trinity is to begin with what Scripture says about how he reveals himself to, and interacts with, the world and go from there;

…which lead to the threefold structure of the rest of the book – two chapters of New Testament evidence, one chapter of theological processing of that evidence (incorporating historic Trinitarian thought) and two final chapters on the implications of Weinandy’s thesis. These sections are briefly summarized below.

First, in chapter 2&3 Weinandy examines the New Testament descriptions of relationship between the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ) and the Spirit, and their relationship with humanity. He covers the baptism of Jesus, the Cross, the Resurrection, the ‘becoming’ of Christians as sons and daughters, Jesus’ infancy narratives, the Johannine Literature (the Gospel according to John, 1-3 John) and a brief concluding look at Trinitarian formulae and doxologies. He points out that the Spirit is present from the beginning of every divine act and plays an integral role from beginning to end, making the Son the Son, making the elect sons, and making the Father the Father.

In chapter 4 Weinandy then takes the conclusions he drew from the New Testament and uses them to integrate and evaluate historic thinking on the Trinity. All of this is used to present a picture of the Trinity as it is in itself, i.e, the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father in whom/by whom the Son is eternally begotten, making the Son the Son only in the Spirit because only through the Spirit is he the Son of and from the Father, and the Father the Father only in the Spirit because only through the Spirit he is the Father of the Son. While Weinandy does not tie the following sentence to directly to the above formulae, his thesis strengthens the confession that Father, Son and Spirit only subsist as three distinct subjects in their oneness and they only exist as one in their specific threeness (p83). In this also, according to Weinandy, is seen the personhood of the Spirit, because he “persons” or substantiates the Father and the Son for each other.

Chapter 5 sees Weinandy explore the ecumenical implications for unity between East and West. He says:

I also believe that what I have proposed here not only reinforces the authentic interests and reconciles the divergent concerns of the East and the West, but also transcends the continuing controversy [over the filioque]…By giving the Holy Spirit his proper role within the Trinity the controversy over the procession is surmounted for the entire conception of the Trinity is now transfigured and redesigned. Not only does the Holy Spirit proceed principally from the Father (the concern of the East) and derivatively from the Son (the concern of the West), but the Spirit in proceeding from the Father as the one in whom the Son is begotten now actively conforms the Father to be Father for the Son and conforms the Son to be Son for the Father. It is this active role of the Spirit by which he himself is defined in relation to the Father and the Son, which neither the East nor the West has appreciated. Yet it is precisely this active role of the Spirit which safeguards their concerns and even transcends them.

Chapter 6 concludes the book with some pastoral and spiritual implications of Weinandy’s thesis. Some of these implications are understandably coloured with a Catholic flavor, and are explained under the subtitle, ‘The Economic and the Immanent Trinity’, ‘The Trinity and Grace’, ‘Baptism in the Spirit’, ‘The Church and Sacraments’ and ‘God All in All’.

Personal reflections on the book.

By far the strongest part of the book for me is Weinandy’s use of the New Testament to gain insight into the Trinity as it is. Once it is accepted that the biblical account of the Trinity as it interacts with the world is a true description of the Trinity in itself, I find it difficult to understand how the broad conclusions Weinandy comes to can be denied. My own lay reflections on this mystery of God have been built indirectly on only a few scriptural passages, the majority of my thoughts camping in the realm of theological reflection rather than Scriptural evidence, so it was a joy to find such an emphasis on the direct biblical witness to the Trinity especially as they revealed a number of similarities to my own thoughts.

A couple of questions, though.

One: In the biblical accounts of God’s action in Creation, many (if not all) can be read as having the Holy Spirit preceding the Son, even if by a fraction. For instance, in the infancy narratives, the Spirit comes upon Mary and then she is with child. Or at Christ’s baptism, the wording seems to indicate that the Spirit descended on Jesus and then the Father called him Son. Again, in a Christian’s conversion, it is the Spirit who draws and enables the Word then spoken to be accepted and sonship to be conferred. Going back to the act of creation itself in Genesis 1, after the initial creation of heavens and earth in verse 1, the Spirit hovers over the waters and then God speaks his Word and brings things into being. Would all this not indicate that within the Trinity the Spirit actually precedes the Son in order to be the means of begetting?

I’m guessing there would be a reaction against this thought amongst many – in fact there has been when I have suggested it and Weinandy doesn’t even entertain it – but it really does not take away from historic orthodox (small ‘o’) Trinitarian thought, nor does it take away from Weinandy’s thesis. What it does is to go further than Weinandy and ask the question, ‘Why is the Son begotten in or by the Spirit?’ to which I believe there is an exciting and orthodox (small ‘o’) answer. But that is for another time.

Two: Weinandy’s survey takes different incidents in Jesus’ life as stand-alone events, which I believe to be perfectly valid. However, wouldn’t Jesus’ entire life from birth to death to resurrection to glorification also teach us something about his life within the Trinity, even as his entire life models for Christians their life from new birth to glorification, all of which is our life incorporated into the life of the Trinity? Therefore, instead of merely looking at events in Jesus’ life (and events within the Christian’s life) as stand-alone incidents, how about asking how the roles the members of the Trinity play in the infancy narrative relate to the roles they play in Jesus’ baptism? Do these two incidents, for example, show us there is a distinction between the Spirit’s role in the eternal generation of the Son and his role in the affirmation of the Son as Son, which in turn may reflect the Spirit’s role in our regeneration as Christians and the baptism of the Spirit experienced afterwards (as illustrated in Acts)?

Weinandy’s theological reflections in Chapter 4 are very clear, for the most part. I learned a lot from his discussions of historical theology and appreciated his ability to explain and then balance differing concerns contained within that history. He ties himself close to the biblical text and its terminology and I believe argues convincingly that the Spirit plays the “personing” role within the Trinity. Quite brilliant.

Still, I agree with another reviewer who does not see Weinandy successfully explaining why his proposal safeguards the personhood of the Spirit. My impression is that Weinandy operates with the assumption that because the Spirit “persons” the other persons of the Trinity, he himself must therefore be afforded personhood, but he never clearly (to my mind) explains why this is so. A birth certificate “persons” a newborn in the eyes of a nation’s law, and yet no one would consider a birth certificate a person, nor the system it represents. I have no doubt Weinandy could explain his assertion in a way that made sense, but I came away feeling that he didn’t do that in this book. The personhood of Spirit remains the weakest part of his argument in my opinion.

One of the marks of a good book is that it convinces you where it is strong, and gets you thinking where it is weak. That is what this book has done for me on this point and I wonder if Weinandy would explain it something like this: I think it is biblically defensible to define non-sinful love as valuing through self-giving. This would then allow the Spirit to be understood as the “self-giving” of God, his personhood communicated. The Fatherhood of the Father is still established due to his being the origin of the Son through the Spirit, and the “Sonhood” of the Son is still established due to his being begotten from the Father through the Spirit, and the Spirit is established as a person who embodies (so to speak) the entire personhood of God communicated from one to the other.

I appreciated the ecumenical implications laid out in chapter 5 and I agree with them. I wish I understood why Weinandy’s thesis has not been seized upon as an important advance in Trinitarian thought, though I suppose these things take time. I guess it is quite possible there is some fatal flaw in Weinandy’s reasoning that I haven’t recognized, but from my (admittedly limited) reading, I have only found two criticisms apart from the one cited above. The first is that Weinandy’s attempt to give the Spirit a more person-defining active role in the Trinity is unnecessary because passive receptivity is just as defining a characteristic of a person as more active forms of personhood (David Liberto in Person, Being and Receptivity, in Aquinas as authority: A Collection of Studies presented at the Second Conference of the Thomas Instituut Utrecht, December 14-16, 2000, ed. Paul van Geest, Harm J. M. J. Goris, Carlo Leget, p210). However, this criticism is as legitimate as saying we don’t need electric lights because candles drive away the dark. Liberto may be right about the traditional Trinitarian description of a passive role for the Holy Spirit providing enough characteristics for genuine personhood (I’m not qualified to comment on that), but if Weinandy’s thesis provides more light – and more importantly, if it is true – then how is it illegitimate?

The second criticism is that Weinandy’s book is too sparse to be convincing. I hardly know how to answer that. I myself prefer short concise arguments over long extended ones – I just wish I was able to produce them!

Chapter 6’s implications for Christian living I found a little more difficult. I’m not sure whether that is because I read it when I was too tired, or whether I was reading without the same Catholic assumptions as Weinandy. Under almost every heading I would have written something different, but I’m sure that if I was to discuss this with Weinandy it would become clearer. I agree that our conception of the Trinity needs to have an effect on our lives as believers, and I wholeheartedly agree with Weinandy’s belief that all members of the Trinity – especially the Holy Spirit as he is often the most neglected – need to be experienced if we are truly to share in the life of the Godhead.

Conclusion.

Overall, this was a wonderful book. I learned a lot from the clear writing and historical overviews and analysis, and I appreciated and agreed on the whole with his thesis. As Weinandy himself wrote in his conclusion:

While this study is in many ways merely seminal, I am confident that the basic thesis I have proposed is true. More could be said, and undoubtedly further nuances and clarifications will be necessary. However, my primary concern is that, while particulars of what I have written may need revision and even correction, the core of what I have submitted conforms with and, indeed, advances the central tradition of both East and West.

I agree, and hope to see that advance acknowledged and taken up in the future. (If only I had influence…)

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