“Engaging With Keller” Review // Ch. 3 “Losing the Dance: Is the ‘Divine Dance’ a Good Explanation of the Trinity?” (Kevin Bidwell)

In the few days I’ve blogged through each section of Engaging With Keller:  Thinking Through the Theology of an Influential Evangelical, my gut reaction is that most of the authors have 1) misread Keller (especially reading much into Keller) 2) underestimated the biblical and confessional boundaries of certain doctrines and 3) expressed a personal dislike for Keller’s expression of certain doctrines (which are not necessarily connected to any falsehood of such teachings).  I would encourage readers to check out the previous blog entries, read the book, and see if I am correct.

keller

Chapter 3 is actually the most disappointing chapter.  I think Keller’s position is the most misunderstood than any of the previous chapters on sin and hell/judgment.  However, I am thankful for this chapter as it brings up pertinent topics to my blog which seeks to create dialogue between missional and confessional perspectives.  Kevin Bidwell makes several comments about the status and nature of creeds and confessions in relation to the articulation of doctrine that are a good springboard for me to share thoughts on the issue.
I.  Motif or Metaphor?

The initial problem with Bidwell’s critique is how he defines Keller’s teaching that the Trinity is a ‘divine dance’.  After quoting The Reason for God and The King’s Cross where Keller teaches on the subject, Bidwell spends the rest of the chapter critiquing Keller.  He calls Keller’s ‘divine dance’ teaching both a motif and imagery.  This is confusing since a motif seems to be a straight forward proposition, though thematic, while imagery is a single angle/perspective that is often metaphorical.  So, as I read the chapter I didn’t know if Bidwell thought of Keller’s teaching as motif or metaphor.

In my reading (and listening) of Keller, I think the ‘divine dance’ is a poetic image/metaphor for the doctrine of perichoresis.  Bidwell at a couple points refers to it as an analogy, which is close to what Keller, I believe, is teaching.  When Bidwell critiques Keller’s metaphor/analogy of dance to perichoresis (p. 103-110), his main complaint is that while perichoresis refers to ‘mutual indwelling’, Keller’s metaphor speaks of a dance where the members of the Trinity ‘flow around each other’.  Thus, the dance metaphor is inadequate and false.  Yet, such a complaint from Bidwell is a stretch as the analogy as less to do with exact ‘dance steps’ and more to do with the mutual relationship between the three persons.

I also think Bidwell misunderstands the nature of analogies, and he seems to think we cannot think analogically about God or doctrine (p. 108).  I don’t know if Bidwell is a univocalist like Gordon Clark or an analogicalist like Cornelius Van Til.  It doesn’t surprise me that Keller is more like Van Til given his tenure at Westminster Seminary and his admiration for Van Til’s apologetic.  When it comes to analogical reasoning, the analogy shows a subject being as being both like and unlike the object being compared to.  So, I have no problem with Bidwell mentioning how the Trinity is unlike human dance, but he gives Keller little credit in mentioning how the mutual indwelling of the Godhead is like a human dance.

Now, Bidwell could just claim, “The analogy breaks down at this point” and move on,  but he intends to show that this analogy is directly detrimental to Trinitarian orthodoxy.

II.  The basis for Trinitarian Unity

Another chief concern for Bidwell is that Keller inaccurately bases the unity of the Trinity on the ‘divine dance’.  Bidwell correctly asserts that the ontological unity of the Godhead is found in the same substance of the three persons (p. 101), but he is disappointed that Keller’s metaphor doesn’t mention the divine substance as the basis for the Trinity’s ontological unity.  While Bidwell initially claims that Keller obscures and omits this teaching, he finally swings for the fences in claiming that Keller ‘rewrites’ the bases of the unity of the Triune God (p. 113).

However, Keller never makes the claim that perichoresis, love, or anything besides God’s substance is the ontological basis for His unity in three persons.  In fact, Keller’s concern is entirely different in poetically describing perichoresis.  Keller certainly omits many aspects of Trinitarian teaching (p. 105), but that is merely omission, not a rewrite.  Should Keller have mentioned these other aspects of Trinitarian teaching?  Maybe.  He spends a paragraph at the beginning of his discussion to dismiss heretical views and to affirm “one God in three persons”.  Both Reason for God and The King’s Cross are apologetic works aimed at unbelievers, so maybe that influenced what Keller did and did not include in his final drafts.

While Keller does say “God really is love at his essence” and the persons of the Godhead are “characterized in their very essence by mutually self-giving love” (p. 114), Bidwell provides no evidence that Keller means ‘essence’ in reference to God’s ontological unity.  As a philosophy major in college, I know that the term ‘essence’ may be defined in several ways.  It would have been helpful if Bidwell demonstrated Keller intended to define the essence and basis of God’s ontological unity as love and not substance.

III.  Not Confessional Enough?

The real crux of this chapter, I believe, is Bidwell’s view of the creeds and confessions and the roles that such documents play in the life of the church.  Confessional hermeneutics has not received the attention it deserves in conservative Reformed circles, though William B. Evans has made a valiant effort to engage the topic with precision and charity (see here and here).  So, while this discussion is ongoing, allow me to articulate a two thoughts on the topic.

First, creeds and confessions are contextual documents.  We need to realize that as faithful and biblical the Apostles Creed, Nicene, Creed, and Westminster Standards are, their terminology and worldview are attached to a historical context. (This claim is more descriptive than anything and shouldn’t be disputed.) Even when we study the Nicene Creed, the student must do extra work to learn what terms like homoousios and ‘person’ mean to these Greek-influenced theologians and pastors.

Second, creeds and confessions are boundary-set.  This is a point helpfully made by Carl Trueman (though I think creeds and confessions may also be centered-set).  One implication of this is that there is much room to explore, imagine, and articulate doctrine in fresh ways to every generation (hence the need for analogical reasoning).  The creeds and confessions show us that language is important, but they don’t exhaust the language we may use to articulate doctrine (especially if we wish to explore all valid angles/perspectives that the Bible gives for a doctrine).  Thus, Bidwell’s critique of Keller that the creeds and confessions nowhere speak of ‘dance’ is irrelevant.  Bidwell would actually need to show how the metaphor of ‘divine dance’ as described by Keller contradicts the creeds and confessions.

In conclusion, while I am not necessarily endorsing Keller’s use of the ‘divine dance’ analogy (I think a ‘theological endorement of a poetic metaphor is somewhat strange), I don’t think a case has been made to show that is undermines or contradicts the ecumenical creeds.  Ultimately, I think it is okay for me to teach my children, my church, or an unbeliever about the Trinity by pointing to an aspect of creation and use it as an analogy for the Godhead (so long as it is intelligible).

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6 thoughts on ““Engaging With Keller” Review // Ch. 3 “Losing the Dance: Is the ‘Divine Dance’ a Good Explanation of the Trinity?” (Kevin Bidwell)

  1. Dear Daniel,

    I do not believe that I have met you before but I thought it would be helpful to give you a little context that lays behind my chapter on the Trinity. Dr Keller’s “dance” imagery was brought to my attention in 2009, toward the end of a PhD that I completed on systematics. The title was “The Church as the Image of the Trinity” and my supervisor was Dr Robert Letham.

    My work on this chapter has involved arduous labour and my primary motive has been to stimulate a recovery of a historic and orthodox understanding of the Trinity, most especially for the reformed church. Tim Keller provides a popular springboard for this topic and he very unhelpfully in my view, promotes “dance” imagery for his doctrine of the Trinity. This has neither biblical warrant nor historic precedent.

    In certain comments I have read regarding this book “Engaging with Keller” in different places, some well-meaning, but mis-directed Christians seem to think critical evaluation of doctrines being taught is “out-of-bounds”. I cannot think of a more unbiblical position. The apostle Paul warned that we must “test everything; hold fast what is good” 1 Thessalonians 5:21. My intention is not to attack Tim Keller personally, but to evaluate whether his chosen means of explaining the Trinity is valid.

    My impression in reading your comments are two-fold. Firstly, you appear to simply attempt to defend Tim Keller rather than evaluating the historic doctrine of the Trinity theologically. You clearly are passionate, but I wonder as to how qualified you are as a philosophy major to give a reasoned evaluation of the Trinity, after you have only read the chapter days before. Perhaps you could clarify for myself and others who may read this blog, as to your previous study of the Trinity at a theological level, so that we can judge whether you have really given yourself adequate time to handle this subject competently.

    Secondly, as a fellow Christian brother, I am compelled to make a further comment. You conclude your evaluation of my chapter with a theological error. You assert: “Ultimately, I think it is okay for me to teach my children, my church, or an unbeliever about the Trinity by pointing to an aspect of creation and use it as an analogy for the Godhead (so long as it is intelligible)”. Now this is plain wrong. It is very postmodern to assert “I think it is okay”, but Paul the apostle asks a crucial question in Romans 4:3: “For what does the Scripture say?”.

    The Lord Jesus teaches that “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” John 4:24 and the Lord of glory declares in Isaiah 40:18 “To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?”. I sincerely believe that you have not sufficiently thought through the assertion that you make.

    If you do choose to respond to me on this blog, take your time, and be assured that I am raising these matters as a minister of the gospel who is committed to upholding the historic truth of the Triune God. I have now moved away from Keller altogether in my comments to you on this blog; and this is how it is intended.

    Yours in need of grace and prayer,

    Kevin J. Bidwell

    1. Hey Kevin. Thanks for reading my lowly blog and leaving a comment. It means a lot to have authors interact with me when I review their work.

      How about I do a blog post responding to some of your comments and concerns. My wife just gave birth to our second son less than two weeks ago, so things are hectic. But I should have something up by tomorrow or perhaps Monday.

      Blessings,
      Daniel

      1. Daniel,

        Great to hear from you. Be assured that my aim is to bring clarity to the doctrine of the Trinity. If this interaction leads to that in meaningful ways rather than you and I trying to defend our corner then it could be helpful. I do hope that you sense my spirit in this matter.

        May our comments, lives and and approach in all things be to the glory of God.

        Warmly and in Christ,

        Kevin Bidwell

      2. Daniel,

        Great to hear from you. Be assured that my aim is to bring clarity to the doctrine of the Trinity. If this interaction leads to that in meaningful ways rather than you and I trying to defend our corner then it could be helpful. I do hope that you sense my spirit in this matter.

        May our comments, lives and and approach in all things be to the glory of God.

        Warmly and in Christ,

        Kevin Bidwell

      3. Thanks Kevin. I totally appreciate your tone. I think this is an important dialogue to have.

        Btw, I’ve heard good things about Letham’s recent book on the Westminster Assembly. Thoughts?

  2. I just starting reading this book and the critiques have been spot on!! I too listen to Keller quite a bit and these guys are really misreading and not delving into enough sources to get what Keller is saying or even trying to understand the influences (Edmund Clowney for one!) that shaped Keller’s thought and methodologies. So far the real objection to Keller by these guys that i see is basically “well I would have said it differently…” Which is rather petty on their part

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