Monday, May 24, 2010

Viola's restorationism and the Social Trinitarian analogy problem

[continued from here]

In his book Reimagining Church, Frank Viola in his promotion of his house church model (not to be confused with China's house churches which are so by necessity) utilizes (small "r") restorationist rhetoric to establish his anti-institutionalism. One main point which underlie his idea of "organic churches" however is his understanding of the Trinity and its application to church life. Following the ideas of Barthian Miroslav Volf and postmodern theologian Stanly Grenz, Viola has decided to recast the idea of the Trinity as being foundational to church life — in the sense that the Trinity is an analogy of church community. In Viola's own words,

The biblical teaching of the Trinity is not an exposition about the abstract designs of God. Instead, it teaches us about God's nature and how it operates in Christian community. As such, it shouldn't be relegated to an endnote to the gospel. Rather, it should shape the Christian life and inform the practice of the church.(p. 34)

Viola quotes Kevin Giles also as saying that the Trinity is the

model on which ecclesiology should be formulated. On this premise, the inner life of the divine Trinity provides a pattern, a model, an echo, or an icon of the Christian communal existence in the world (Kevin Giles, What on Earth is the Church? (London, SPCK, 1995), p. 222. As quoted in Viola, Reimagining, p. 36)

This idea of the social analogy of the Trinity to church life, which can be termed the Social Trinitarian Analogue (for lack of a better term) is ubiquitous throughout Viola's book. In fact, it is a fundamental premise behind Viola's recasting of the Church into an egalitarian community without offices, ministers and institutions. Remove it, and Viola's vision is severely crippled.

As Bible-believing Christians, we hold to the principle of Sola Scriptura or Scripture Alone. Only what is biblical is true — either explicitly stated in Scripture or what can be deduced from sound reasoning or "good and necessary consequences", as the Westminster Confession states so beautifully:

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. ... (Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter I: Of the Holy Scripture, Para 6)

When we come therefore to this teaching of the social trinitarian analogue, we are to examine it according to Scripture and not accept it just because theologians taught it. To argue that the majority teaches it means nothing at all, for truth is not determined by majority vote. Furthermore, the majority of "theologians" deny such doctrines as the exclusivity of Christ, the necessity of the blood atonement, and the inerrancy of Scripture for example, so majority in academia means nothing at all.

We should have reason to suspect this teaching however, as a bad tree cannot bear good fruit (Mt. 7: 18b). As I have shown in a previous post, unregenerate people cannot accept the truth of God and thus will not teach them as truth. Volf is a student of Jurgen Moltmann, while Grenz is a student of Wolfhart Pannenberg. With such "illustrious" teachers who do not believe in the Gospel, we would have reason to be suspicious of these teachers. Our suspicion should increase when we see how ideas from Moltmann, Pannenberg and Grenz contribute to the train wreck that is the Emergent church movement, as shown in the excellent book The Emergent Church: Undefining Christianity by Pastor Bob DeWaay. This of course does not mean that we can now infer that the social trinitarian analogue teaching is definitely wrong as a sort of guilt by association tactic, but it should make us cautious and give us pause before accepting it uncritically.

The first question we should ask therefore is this: Does Scripture ever mention that the fact of the Trinity is to function as an analogy in anything at all? The answer is an adamant NO! The Trinity is not even mentioned in Scripture explicitly, but is a truth that is deduced from Scripture. Such conjectures of analogies where none are mentioned is at best the speculation of theologians outside the texts of Scripture, and at worst a perversion of the teachings of Scripture.

Nevertheless, can this teaching be an application of Scripture, not a teaching of Scripture? The problem however is that the Trinity is a fact that we are not told to emulate in any way. When Scripture talks about the intra-Trinitarian relationship, it shows us that Jesus as the Son always submit to the will of the Father, and that the Holy Spirit proceeds out from the Father and the Son (Jn. 15:26). The only analogy made of the intra-Trinitarian relationship is that seen in 1 Cor. 11:3, where the headship of God (the Father) over Christ is analogous to the headship of the husband over the wife, a fact which Viola denies by fiat because it violates his strong egalitarianism (cf Reimagining, p. 295). Besides this, Scripture makes no such analogy between the relationships between the persons of the Trinity and us human beings. And if Scripture makes no such analogies, then we who are bounded by Scripture should not either, for no one has the liberty to add to God's Word, or face the curse of Rev. 22:18 (cf Prov. 30:6).

Viola further violates the Creator-creature distinction by embracing something that sounds like theosis. He states: "The church is an organic extension of the Triune God" (Reimagining, p. 35). In page 109, Viola further states that "it [the church] has been introduced into the dance [perichoresis - divine dance within the Trinity] as a new partner". Theologically, the Bible doesn't teach anything of that sort. The biblical picture of the church is that of a bride prepared for marriage to Christ the bridegroom. God the Father is not the bridegroom, and neither is the Holy Spirit, for the three are three distinct persons. It is not a dance that the Bible teaches for our account, but the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9)

Philosophically, the first statement is simply appalling. God is infinite, eternal, omnipotent, omnipresent etc, while the church is most definitely finite, created, not omnipotent, not omnipresent. How therefore can the church be considered "an organic extension of the Triune God"? Furthermore, for God to "grow" an "organic extension" where previously none exist is to make God mutable contrary to the plain teachings of Scripture on the subject. Similarly, the second statement is logically impossible, for finititude can never become infinite, or created eternal, or limited limitless. Man can never become "god" in any sense of the term. When the Church as the bride marries the bridegroom, she is still a separate entity from the bridegroom who is Christ, in the same way that a husband and wife though they are "one flesh" are still nonetheless two distinct persons no matter how long they remain married.

The social trinitarian analogue is to be rejected by Christians. Firstly, it is not taught in Scripture. Secondly, it is not even an application made available by the Scriptures, who teach other analogies — with the closest one in 1 Cor. 11:3 giving the wrong pair (Christ/God- Wife/Husband) needed for the social trinitarian model. Thirdly, it violates the Creator-creature distinction and leads to all manner of philosophical incoherence. Though it is taught by "theologians" of sorts, we are to reject it as errant and unbiblical.

We now go back to Viola's restorationism. While certainly much more can be said to show the many errors in his book, I would like to focus on one other aspect which Viola mentioned as an advantage of his house church model: that of protection from heresy.

On page 235 of Reimagining, Viola wrote:

When every church is autonomous, it's difficult for an ambitious false teacher to emerge and seize control over a cluster of churches. It's also virtually impossible for a "pope-life figure" to emerge. ...

The irony of it all is that a "pope-like figure" has emerged, and it is Frank Viola. Viola may be humble, but that is irrelevant for it is his teachings more than anyone else's that has created the House Church movement. If one disagrees with Viola on his teaching on the anti-institutionalism that is foundational to the house church model, one wouldn't be in a house church anyway! So yes, it is impossible for any false teacher to seize control over a cluster of "house churches", unless that teacher has the endorsement of people like Frank Viola. It is in this regard that there is not much difference between Viola's movement and denominations. A non-denominational or even anti-denominational denomination is STILL a denomination in the way it behaves.

The greatest irony of all is that through Frank Viola, anti-institutionalism and the teaching of the social trinitarian analogue enter the house churches. Both of them are serious errors in ecclesiology (and the latter in theology proper as well), and therefore the house churches fall together with Frank Viola. It is impossible to repudiate these errors and still remain as a house church (as opposed to a church that merely meets in a house). There is therefore no protection from heresy in Viola's movement when the concepts behind the movement itself are not orthodox.

In the next post, we would look at the concept of communitarianism, and contrasts this with the biblical concept of family and community.


Anonymous said...

I think that you are perceptive in pointing out the problems with posting church life on the Social Trinitarian analogy. There are a large number of contemporary theologians (beyond Volf and Grenz) who are leveraging this concept of the Trinity and insisting that what the Trinity is in essence is what the church is to enter into in life. But, as you have pointed out, the idea that we can (somehow) share in the essence (rather than the character of experience of life) of God is both radically un-biblical and seriously problematic philosophically. That which is not God cannot become that which is God. This erroneous thinking errs in at least two fundamental ways. First, the proponents suggest that what is revealed Biblically is exhaustively what the intra-Trinitarian life is like. Second, the proponents suggest that the purpose of God revealing Himself to us as Triune was for us to enter into that Triune life. But I do not know that either of these premises are truly substantiated by Scripture.

PuritanReformed said...


thanks for sharing your thoughts. I have indeed heard that there is a large number of such contemporary theologians, not all of them liberal too, who are leveraging on this concept of the Trinity.

I agree with you that these premises are not truly substantiated by Scripture. It would be interesting to see one of these theologians attempting to prove these premises from Scripture alone instead of merely assuming them, or quoting their fellow theologians who teach them.