Karen Kilby on Apophatic Trinitarianism

Nottingham theologian Karen Kilby has an article in the January 2010 issue of the International Journal of Systematic Theology on the possibility of an “apophatic Trinitarianism.” Interestingly, she argues that there is something potentially rationalistic about an over-confident speaking about the Trinity, which, after all, is a fundamental mystery: how can we think of three persons in one essence? Father, Son, Spirit: these three are one? Instead, Kilby wants to throw up an important caution:

Or again, one might ask whether some versions of trinitarian robustness presuppose a rather elevated conception of the role of both theology and the theologian: it can sometimes seem that only if one has sat at the feet of contemporary theologians can one really see what it was … which was, all along, the deep meaning of the Christian revelation, the central thing it has to teach us. And ultimately of course one might wonder about the danger of idolatry, about the possibility of being so robust, so confident that we know what we are talking about when we talk about the Trinity, that we are in fact projecting our most pleasing ideas onto God and making those the object of our worship. (67)

Trinitarian theology is (perhaps) the deepest point of the Christian mystery. The only other point that is (perhaps) more mysterious is the self-giving of love we see in Jesus’ cross. For the theologian, then, who is charged by the Church to care for its speech about God, there is an incredible spiritual danger in speaking too confidently–of over-reaching what is given to him or her. But, as Kilby also reminds us, apophaticism–making negative statements of God, stating what we cannot say about God–has classically occurred (in the Church Fathers, for instance) in tandem with contemplation.

To define contemplation, Kilby states succinctly: “The Spirit allows us to contemplate the Father in the Son. This is the fundamental structure of Christian contemplation” (72). Christian contemplation, in other words, is structurally Trinitarian. This is something recognized also by Sarah Coakley: “[P]rayer (and especially prayer of a non-discursive sort, whether contemplative or charismatic) is the only context in which the irreducible threeness of God becomes humanly apparent” (Is There A Future for Gender and Theology?, 10).

But, Kilby notes, how can apophaticism–the making of negative statements–be associated with the Trinity, which is a reality and a truth preeminently rich and inexhaustible? Instead, Kilby turns this logic on its head to show that it is precisely the overflowing reality of the Trinity that cautions our speech:

Richness, excess, this overwhelming quality of what we cannot comprehend should, on the view I am developing, be located precisely at the level of our contemplation in the Trinity, rather than at the level of contemplation of the Trinity… And it is precisely because of the sense of excess and transcendence associated with contemplation in the Trinity that there ought properly to be, on the view I am exploring, a resistance to, a fundamental reticence and reserve surrounding, speculation on the Trinity. (72)

As Coakley states similarly elsewhere, “[S]ystematic theology without contemplative and ascetic practice is void; for theology in its proper sense is always implicitly in via. It comes, with the urge, the fundamental desire, to seek God’s face and yet to have that seeking constantly checked, corrected and purged” (Is There a Future for Gender and Theology?, 5-6).

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4 thoughts on “Karen Kilby on Apophatic Trinitarianism

  1. I am not sure how this isn’t just a rehash of the Augustinian/Thomistic tradition. It is not that God is really beyond being, just beyond the being of creatures and so we have no one concept to cover all of the truths about him.

    Dionysius seems to have something else in mind.

  2. In the latter half of the article, Kilby discusses Gregory of Nyssa, Aquinas and Augustine. For her, there is actually an important distinction between Aquinas and Augustine. Kilby sees Aquinas this way: “His intricate and technical treatment of the Trinity, in other words, is not designed to resolve the kind of difficulties that one confronts when one meets trinitarian language, but to lay these difficulties out as clearly as possible.” (74)

    For Augustine, however, Kilby sees him making a two-stage argument in De Trinitate. First he lays out the orthodox grammar for speaking of the Trinity. And then from here Augustine struggles to find an appropriate model to construe the Trinity. In this she sees the first steps towards an over-rationalistic peering into hidden mysteries.

    But yes, what Kilby lays out wouldn’t be apophatic in the strict sense, as for Pseudo-Dionysius God is beyond all predicates, including being. Instead, she seems to want to say that the whole notion of Trinity is properly beyond ‘understanding’: “We know we must say each of these things about God, but we do not know how to understand them, and most particularly we do not know how to understand them all together. We cannot integrate them and derive a unified picture, a grasp, a ‘concept’, a vision, or a wholistic trinitarian understanding of God.” (71)

  3. Pingback: A Brief Thought on Karen Kilby’s Apophatic Trinitarianism | Theological Animal

  4. Pingback: Karen Kilby, Apophatic Trinitarianism, and Other Animals | New Blog

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