Thursday, April 22, 2010

Guest Book Review: Coppedge's The God Who is Triune

First, my thanks to the kind folk at IVP for a review copy, and second to Adam for his review. Enjoy his lively comments!

Allan Coppedge, The God Who Is Triune: Revisioning the Christian Doctrine of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2007)

The God Who Is Triune is a call to the Church to revise its theology by adopting a theological methodology that gives central place to who God is, as chiefly described in the doctrines of Christ and the Trinity, thus echoing Colin Gunton's project of "doing theology from the Trinity" (The Promise of Trinitarian Theology 2nd ed. [Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1997], 28.). Accordingly, "This book begins with Jesus, moves to an understanding of the Trinity and then develops the implications of a triune beginning point for understanding how God works in the world." (9) Writing out of an American evangelical Wesleyan context, Coppedge seeks to appropriate the insights of recent trinitarian research by developing what he calls 'trinitarian theism'. This is in conscious self-differentiation from his main antagonist – classical theism (chiefly Calvinism) – on the one side, and open theism on the other. In fact, 'trinitarian theism' is remarkably similar to openness theology, with its emphasis on relational theism, flexible sovereignty and libertarian freedom, diverging only on divine foreknowledge and God's relation to time.

Chapters 1 and 2 competently present the biblical materials on which the doctrine of the Trinity is based. Chapter 3 helpfully provides an overview of how the doctrine of the Trinity developed, chapters 4 and 5 directly address the central facets of the doctrine of the Trinity, and chapter 6 explains the holiness of God. Hereafter, Coppedge's 'trinitarian theism' diverges with classical and open theism. He argues that the latter are insufficiently trinitarian because God's triune nature does not exercise interpretative control over all theologising, in a manner reminiscent of Schleiermacher.

In his discussion of the divine attributes, Coppedge reverses the traditional order by discussing the personal and moral attributes (ch. 7) before considering the relative and absolute attributes (ch. 8). Consequently, in chapter 9 where Coppedge identifies the eight major roles of God, Father is repeatedly identified as the primary role, especially over against sovereign King. The final chapters are devoted to a trinitarian re-working of the doctrines of creation (ch. 10-11) and providence (ch. 12-13).

Throughout Coppedge is concerned to highlight the pastoral and practical implications of his work, highlighting his aim to serve both academy and church. The God Who Is Triune could serve as a useful undergraduate introduction to the doctrine of the Trinity, but it is not without problems. Although I am sympathetic to both Coppedge's agenda and theology, the book's chief weakness is the presence of unsupported assertions, assumptions, and over-simplified statements in place of careful theological reasoning. These appear as careless and unnecessary, like loose strands on a carefully woven garment. First, to assert that there are eight major roles of God and six divine purposes for humans (298) appears to be rather arbitrary. Second, assumptions are made in place of careful nuancing and argumentation. It is problematic to assume the validity of the social (as opposed to psychological) analogy of the Trinity, and to assume a model of primary and secondary causation without discussing its perceived weaknesses and viable alternatives. Third, strong claims are made without proper justification or referencing. For example, Coppedge asserts that the theory of evolution led to the Holocaust and slave-labour camps (281), and he claims that "every thinking person at some time asks this question", "Who is Jesus?" (284) Whilst these claims are not entirely false, the lack of qualification and clarification is problematic. Furthermore, some such claims simply appear to be wrong. The claim that, "Logically, those who begin from a trinitarian starting point are indeterminists [vis-a-vis human freedom]" (313) is more closely related to the will to power than to clear theological reasoning, and is contradicted by the theologies of Karl Barth, T. F. Torrance, Colin Gunton, and Robert Jenson. Nevertheless, by engaging in a trinitarian revisioning of the doctrine of God, and by re-centring theological methodology on Christology and trinitarian theology, Allan Coppedge's The God Who Is Triune is a useful introductory text to the doctrine of the Triune God.

Adam Dodds

University of Otago, New Zealand


At 4/22/2010 1:30 PM, Blogger Chris Tilling said...

Thanks, Adam, a model review.

You write: "In fact, 'trinitarian theism' is remarkably similar to openness theology, with its emphasis on relational theism, flexible sovereignty and libertarian freedom, diverging only on divine foreknowledge and God's relation to time"

Bit of an aside, really, but do you consider this similarity with open theism a positive aspect of this work? Does it fit well with his main concerns?

At 4/22/2010 10:46 PM, Anonymous Adam Dodds said...

Personally I do find this a positive aspect, and I do think it fits with his main concerns of wanting to present a more relational theology than that of the 'unmoved mover' et al, by rooting this in a relational ontology - God's Triune being. One question I had is whether the driving force for his book is his discovery of the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity for theology, or is it primarily in reaction to certain forms of American Calvinism, without committing the 'sins' of open theism? I suspect the answer is, to some extent, both.

At 4/23/2010 12:45 AM, Blogger Mark Guest said...

Great review, Adam.
I think the matter is fairly straightforward: the biblical texts support something approaching an open theism - or at least a nuanced. But this does not mean Christians should today jetison classical theism, as, on the other hand, Christian tradition has not supported "open theism". Sola scriptura here leads us into some very choppy waters.

At 4/23/2010 6:40 AM, Anonymous Adam Dodds said...

Thank you Mark. To be fair, Coppedge is polite but firm in his criticism of open theism. What I found striking was that his aim was to almost walk a middle line between classical and open theism. In reality, however, he constantly criticises 'classical theism' whereas I think his exposition would be affirmed by open theists, minus the matters of divine foreknowledge and God's relation to time.
I should have also added to the review that Coppedge provides lots of tables and diagrams - very useful for an introductory text. I.e. - we all like pictures in theology books!

At 4/23/2010 9:07 AM, Blogger Terry Wright said...

That may be so, but I'd be wary about buying a book or a journal if it was, say, a Karl Barth swimsuit edition. There's only so much choking on one's bran flakes that one can handle.


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