Signs of the Trinity

For Barth, to say that the revelation of God is the ground of the doctrine of the Trinity also means that there are no other grounds from which we could establish this doctrine. Thus, Barth thinks that what is usually called as vestigia trinitatis (signs of the Trinity), where theologians past and present try to explain the Trinity by the analogies found in the natural world, will eventually fail and end up replacing the revelation of God as the only plausible ground of the doctrine of the Trinity. For example, one could use an triadic analogy of spring, stream, and lake or sun, ray, and heat. Or, using an analogy from Luther (I found this fascinating): “The Father in divine things is Grammatica, for He giveth the Word and is the fountainhead from which, if one may so speak, floweth good, excellent, pure speech. The Son is Dialectica; for he giveth the arrangement whereby a thing should be set in good order of succession so that conclusion and consecution be certain. But the Holy Ghost is Rhetorica, the orator, for He excellently sustaineth, bloweth, and impelleth, maketh quick and powerful, so that an impression is made and hearts are taken.” (as quoted in I/1, 336)

On the contrary, Barth added, that what we should do is not “to explain the Trinity by the world” but “to explain the world by the Trinity in order to be able to speak about the Trinity in this world.” (341) We don’t fit our understanding into the Trinity; the Trinity illuminates our understanding of the creation order (e.g., trinitarian natural theology of Torrance, Barth’s disciple, and now McGrath, who advanced Barth’s thesis on this aspect). Of course, the problem is this assumes that the one speaking has believed in the Trinity. That’s why he or she tries to speak about the Trinity in the first place: “The original intention was to speak about God’s revelation.” (344) That is, to interpret the revelation of God by the ways of illustration, although there might be a difference between interpretation and illustration (here’s a gem): “Interpretation means saying the same thing in other words. Illustration means saying the same thing in other words. Where the line is to be drawn between the two cannot be stated generally.” (345)

Thus, the task is to go along the way where the revelation leads, to trust it in respect of its self-evidential force (345). Of course, Barth conceded, that eventually one could not escape doing illustration, putting God’s revelation in human words, as his triad of unveiling, veiling, and impartation in the event of revelation shows. Nevertheless, he argued back that at least he was trying to derive it from the biblical witness of revelation itself and not from some other creaturely order (346). Is there, then, any true vestigium trinitatis in creatura, sign of the Trinity in the creation? Barth argued, Yes, there is. It is located in how God is present for us in his revelation, i.e., in the trinitarian form of the Word of God: “What we hear when with our human ears and concepts we listen to God’s revelation, what we perceive (and can perceive as men) in Scripture, what proclamation of the Word of God actually is in our lives–is the thrice single voice of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit.” (347)


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