In Save the World on Your Own Time Stanley Fish highlights something he calls the “network” mistake (p 100) — ‘the mistake of thinking that because an entity or practice has a form only in a network of relations, it is incoherent to speak of its properties, or of the boundaries that separate and distinguish it from other nodal points in the network. Since identity is network-dependent, the reasoning goes, nothing can be spoken of or examined as if it were freestanding and discrete.’
He goes on to explain why this is a mistake (pp 100-101):
Yes, everything is finally interconnected and has a diacritical rather than a substantive existence (and is therefore, in some sense, not identical with itself), but it doesn’t follow that there is nothing distinctive to say about “it”, any more than it would follow that because the heart and lungs and spinal cord are what they are by virtue of the system of which they are components, they perform no isolable function, display not special characteristics, obey no special laws, and cannot be studied in their own right.
What strikes me is how necessary it is to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest this point when it comes to our thinking about the Trinity. Of course, God is not a compound of parts or components. But if we have been properly taught by the historic debates about how to most helpfully speak about the unity and diversity of the Godhead, then we’ll want to insist that the interrelations between Father, Son and Holy Spirit do not stand over against their unity. Rather, these relations constitute that unity. The threeness and the oneness of God must be ‘thought together’.
And yet the danger is that we end up saying very little of any substance (probably exactly the wrong word) about each of the ‘persons’ of the Godhead. No doubt Father, Son and Spirit are each who they are only in relation to the others. Yet the church’s creeds and liturgical forms have consistently moved to deepen and specify these constitutive, internal relations.
At its best, this is what talk about the ‘appropriations’ — attributing (or appropriating) different aspects of the one work of God in the economy of salvation to each of the persons — has been about. Think of the pattern of the Apostle’s Creed. Without denying that Father, Son and Spirit are active together in each phase of salvation history, creation is appropriated to the Father, redemption to the Son and life in the church (anticipating the eschatological perfection) to the Spirit.
There may well be false-trails to avoid. But my hunch is that we need to tread this path more boldly…