Political analogies for the Trinity

I’m reading David Potter’s Constantine the Emperor, partly just for my own edification but partly as “deep background” for the Trinity project I’m beginning to think about considering planning. The first third of the book is devoted to the state of the Roman Empire in the decades preceding Constantine’s rise to power (indeed, Constantine barely manages a handful of cameo appearances within the first 100 pages). One striking feature of Diocletian’s reign is the use of power-sharing as a way of managing the sprawling Empire. Eventually Diocletian had a co-emperor to whom he was formally equal (both being titled Augustus), then two sub-emperors who also shared power (termed Caesars). Diocletian still maintained a certain primacy over his fellow Augustus, but he was at great pains ideologically to assert that power was not divided, but shared among the four.

In “Monotheism as a Political Problem,” Erik Peterson famously declares that the Trinity renders political theology impossible because the inscrutable mystery of divine triunity has no possible earthly analogue. I have a healthy dose of Barth in my theological background, so I see where this is coming from, but I think it’s basically wrong. There are plenty of political analogies for a power that is shared among several persons while deriving from one of them and remaining undivided. We can see something like this in the rise of a powerful vice-president in recent American politics — a VP can often function as an effective co-president (or supra-president, in the case of Dick Cheney). Other figures might gain similar stature, as Rahm Emanuel and Timothy Geithner arguably did in the early years of the Obama administration. The legitimacy of the administration derives ultimately from the elected president, but someone with the implicit trust of the president shares in and extends the president’s authority rather than competing with it. (Or at least that’s how they present things for public consumption.)

The Fathers at Nicea would have had personal experience of such a regime. I don’t want to be reductive about this, but I also don’t want to claim that questions about the divine governance of the world — particularly questions that are being adjudicated in a politically-charged environment, at the Emperor’s behest — exist in splendid isolation from questions about human governance. (Once developed, of course, theological doctrines maintain a certain autonomy and can have unanticipated effects, as in all the liberation and other politically radical theologies that have drawn on the Trinity as a rebuke to worldly powers.)

7 Responses to “Political analogies for the Trinity”

  1. monrooney Says:

    Thank you for this. I’m starting some work on oikonomia. This is really useful.

  2. Daniel Says:

    So you’re saying Dick Cheney is Jesus?

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Dick Cheney’s more the left hand of God.

  4. Barry Freed Says:

    OT and apologies for just dumping this here but googling around I only just found out that D.G. Leahy passed away almost exactly a year ago (post on this blog: https://itself.wordpress.com/2014/08/08/rip-d-g-leahy-1937-2014/ )
    I had a class with him as an undergrad at SUNY Stony Brook when he was filling in for Thomas J.J. Altizer one year. His class made a lasting impression on me as did he personally (and Altizer too but that’s for another time).
    He was formal with his students and while we called him professor he insisted in calling us Mr and Ms (or was it Miss, I don’t recall). It was quirky sure and some students resisted being addressed so while having no problem calling him professor but I saw it as a show of mutual respect in intellectual dialogue.
    I still remember snippets of his remarkable essay “To create an absolute edge” especially the formulation that American consciousness was the “infinite postponement of self-consciousness” or was it the “self-postponement of infinite consciousness”…? it mattered not which for as he told us you can flip it around and play with it however you like and find new meaning there. I can’t believe he actually taught that essay to undergraduates. As anyone here who has read him knows his writing was dense, dense, dense. It took me a full year of reading the Kant’s first Critique before I was even able to make it through the chapter on Kant in Novitas Mundi.
    I remember reading Altizer calling him the greatest American Catholic thinker and the greatest thinker since Aquinas. So here’s to you D.G. Leahy, I’m glad to have met you and taken your class and understood even a mere sliver of a fraction of your remarkable thought. RIP.

  5. chris y Says:

    Likewise, possibly, kingship in Merovingian and to a lesser extent Carolingian Francia? Often many kings, with their determinate territories, but only one kingdom, at least until the 10th century. I wonder if this experience made the Franks more receptive to Trinitarianism than the Goths and Vandals (no I don’t, really, that’s total bs.)

  6. burritoboy Says:

    As always, there’s the Holy Roman Empire.

    Power-sharing is not only not unusual, but to some extent necessary in all but the smallest states. Think of the frequent use of the concept of the regent, for instance.

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It’s probably the liberal model of division of powers and the general idea that power is always a competition that obscures that fact.


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