From Pentecost to the Triune God

By: Christopher Stephenson
Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

StudebakerSteven M. Studebaker, From Pentecost to the Triune God: A Pentecostal Trinitarian Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012. ISBN: 978-0-8028-6530-4. $34.00.

Steven M. Studebaker’s pneumatological trinitarian theology undertakes two basic tasks. First, he wishes to demonstrate the implications of pentecostal experience for the doctrine of the Trinity. In this respect, his work stands in continuity with Frank D. Macchia’s efforts to reestablish baptism in the Holy Spirit as the centerpiece of pentecostal theology. Second, Studebaker wants to make the biblical narrative’s witness to the Spirit a primary resource for the doctrine of the Trinity. His methodological move, then, is from pentecostal experience of the Spirit to biblical texts–to the triune God.

Studebaker’s driving theological principle is that in the Trinity “economic activity arises from immanent identity” (3). This indicates reciprocity between the Spirit’s work and the Spirit’s identity. Like many other theologians, he believes that the economic Trinity is the source of knowledge of God. Whereas they usually begin with Jesus Christ, however, Studebaker begins with the Holy Spirit, in part because he maintains that a proper Spirit christology implies that pneumatology conditions Christology.

Much of Studebaker’s thought is funded by the trinitarian theology of David M. Coffey, but this is not an uncritical reduplication of Coffey’s mutual love model of the Trinity. Studebaker does not simply offer a pentecostal deployment of Coffey’s trinitarian theology but an improvement of it. Most notably, Studebaker wisely inverts Coffey’s move from the immanent Trinity to the economic Trinity and bases his claims about the eternal divine persons on their activity within the economy of salvation. What Studebaker calls the liminal, constitutional, and consummative works of the Spirit in creation and redemption suggest that the Spirit plays a constitutive role in the immanent Trinity. The Holy Spirit completes the fellowship of the Triune God, but not simply as the mutual love between Father and Son hypostasized.

The common accusation that systematic theologians sometimes read historical theological texts with little care or precision will find no basis here. Studebaker—himself assistant professor of both systematic and historical theology (McMaster Divinity College)—easily moves back and forth between premodern and modern sources from Gregory of Nyssa to Jonathan Edwards to D. Lyle Dabney. One example of his careful reading comes in the third and most important chapter of the book, namely, his avoidance of the nearly pervasive caricature of Western trinitarian theology beginning with the one divine essence and Eastern trinitarian theology beginning with the distinction of the three divine persons. This foundation gives even surer footing to his legitimate criticisms of Western and Eastern models of the Trinity, one of the most poignant challenges to them since the first volume of Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Systematic Theology. In fact, Pannenberg may deserve a little more direct engagement than Studebaker gives him in light of Pannenberg’s similar accomplishments.

Studebaker’s primary concern is that the traditional models do not exhibit the Holy Spirit’s constitution of the personal identities of the Father and the Son in the immanent Trinity, something that must be maintained since the Holy Spirit constitutes fellowship between Father and Son in the economy of salvation. The Spirit completes the economic work of redemption and completes the immanent fellowship of God. Of course, Studebaker does not reverse the relations of origin, but maintains that those relations do not exhaustively define the divine persons. Thus, in the immanent Trinity the Holy Spirit is not merely passive, and the Spirit’s identity is not merely derivative.

Before rounding out the volume with contributions to theology of religions and creation care, Studebaker offers equally insightful evaluations of evangelical and charismatic trinitarian theologies. His theology of religions furthers recent pentecostal discussions and develops an inclusivist account of the soteriological ends of those outside the church. His engagement with ecology provides the theoretical basis for viewing acts of creation care as spiritual disciplines.

This is constructive pentecostal theology at its best: bold, clear, in conversation with multiple Christian traditions, and thoroughly informed by the biblical witness without bypassing the dimensions of speculative theology frequently lacking in pentecostal theology. This book is one of the constructive highlights of the Pentecostal Manifestos series.

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Christopher Stephenson
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