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.
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).