A scene from the Leben der heiligen Altväter (1482)

“A Name, Names, and Half a Name,” in a symposium on Kendall Soulen’s The Divine Name(s) and the Holy Trinity

Pro Ecclesia, Winter 2014 (23:1): 22-27

For a 2014 book symposium in Pro Ecclesia, six theologians (Karen Kilby, Matthew Levering, Paul Hinlicky, Neil MacDonald, James Buckley, and me) responded to an important book by Kendall Soulen. Here is my contribution, along with Soulen’s response.

Kendall Soulen’s The Divine Name(s) and the Holy Trinity distinguishes itself from recent theological publications in several ways. Before identifying the substantive contribution it makes to the field, I feel compelled to bear witness to Soulen’s fine authorial style. This is an exceptionally well-written book. It seems to come from some parallel world where the genre of systematic theology belongs nearer the belles lettres, as Soulen is graciously out of step with the low guild standards of contemporary theological writing. In The Divine Name(s) he crafts a complex argument with many moving parts, which demands frequent internal summaries. But Soulen never gets lost in the layers of his own case, never trudges from one point to the next, never cuts-and-pastes to recycle his own key sentences, and never settles for conventional, expected, and overused illustrations. He introduces a fresh thesis, expounds it without obfuscation, and juxtaposes it with a surprising breadth of dialogue partners from biblical studies, historical theology, and recent dogmatics. Owing to his good literary ear, he can interject the occasional allusion to Shakespeare, Goethe, T. S. Eliot, and Lewis Carroll without jarring the theology reader. I am not trying to generate advertising copy to help promote the book, but writing of this caliber needs promoting in the guild: we need more books like this.

Matters of literary style aside, Soulen’s book accomplishes something remarkable: it recommits Christian theology to take seriously the task of confessing the revealed name of God. The task, as Soulen sees it, is to reckon with that one revealed name of God (thus “The Divine Name” of the book’s title) and also with the infinite set of ways we can refer to God (thus the parenthesized “(s)” of the title). Between that one name and those many names hovers the traditional terminology of the baptismal commission: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (thus “the Holy Trinity” of the title). What we have in this book is a theological project that suspends the three between the one and the many. Soulen treats each of these elements (the one, the three, and the many) in the specific way called for by its unique character…