CATCHING UP WITH…JUSTIN BRITTAIN
In today’s ‘Catch Up’ post, we hear from Justin Brittain, who studied the MLitt in Analytic and Exegetical Theology.
- When did you study at the Logos Institute?
I was a member of the 2018 cohort.
- What did you write your dissertation about?
My dissertation weighed in on a discussion among social trinitarians regarding what counts as monotheism. Social trinitarians think that divine and human persons, while differing in many respects, do not differ with regard to what makes them persons. Divine persons, like human persons, they say, are distinct subjects of feeling, thought, and will. As a result, social trinitarians commonly believe that reflecting on some set of creaturely relationships (say, for example, the loving relationships between family members or within a church polity) can give us insights into the unity of the divine life. A major objection to social trinitarianism is that the view fails to secure monotheism. Social trinitarians who want to address this criticism typically do so by positing either (i) that the divine persons share a single concrete nature or (ii) that the divine persons’ identities are, at least in part, constituted by relations of origin (e.g., the Father is essentially the begetter of the Son). I argued that, since they believe (ii) is good enough for monotheism, social trinitarians should also be open to securing monotheism in other, similar ways. Specifically, I proposed a model on which divine perfection requires love that’s (a) directed toward another person and (b) sanctioned by a third party. My project was ambitious, I think, in that, in addition to its other aims, it attempted to answer the tricky ‘Why three persons?’ question. I suggested a wedding ceremony as a social analogy for the model.
- How did you come up with the idea for the dissertation?
My dissertation idea came in bits and pieces. Several of its elements and motivations were already present in my mind prior to my joining Logos. The notion that the persons of the godhead are persons—that is to say, individuals with whom I can converse—for example, had long-informed my approach to prayer. However, once I arrived at the Institute, my prior sentiments were, of course, challenged, refined, and supplemented—sometimes even without my conscious recognition. Early on, for instance, I was introduced to Richard of Saint Victor’s writings on trinitarian love, which became a major influence on my own project. The final major piece, if I remember rightly, fell into place while I was thinking about plausible models for one divine person acting through another divine person (John 1:3; 1 Corinthians 8:6). That’s when the idea of an ‘officiate’ for other-directed divine love—which quickly became one of the project’s cornerstone—found purchase for me.
- What have you been doing since you finished the Master’s program? And have you thought any more about the dissertation topic since?
I’m currently a second-year PhD student at the University of Notre Dame, studying philosophy. My main research interests now are in metaphysics. At this moment, particularly, I’m focused on disputes about universals (e.g., whether they exist, whether they are abundant or sparse, how they are individuated, and so on). I see opportunities for crossover between my current work and my trinitarianism project (for instance, in the discussion about how the trinitarian persons are ultimately individuated), but I haven’t actively pursued those points yet. I am, however, currently participating in a discussion group with a faculty member who’s writing a book on the three-and-oneness problem—which might prompt me to revisit my own project sooner rather than later.
- How did the interdisciplinary engagement of philosophy, theology, and biblical studies help you in the writing of your dissertation?
Unless you’ve actively engaged all three of these disciplines, it’s difficult to appreciate just how resistant they can be to intermixing. Their guiding questions, required skillsets, authoritative figures, and the answers they take to be satisfactory, to name a few examples, often diverge significantly. Attempting to bring them together, therefore, is a bold but messy enterprise. I don’t believe my own contribution begins to approach what post-pioneering analytic and exegetical theology might be. Still, I’m grateful for how interdisciplinary engagement molded me. Particularly, I’m grateful for the interactions with systematic theologians and biblical exegetes which led me (a) to question—and, in some cases, ultimately reject—items which I’d otherwise assumed were non-negotiable and (b) to reconsider the relative weights of my project’s potential outcomes. To give one (overly simplistic) example, I frequently found myself asking ‘Is the Jesus of John’s Gospel recognizable in my account of the divine persons?’ I’m sure that some of the people who inspired me to emphasize that question would readily answer ‘No’, but they pushed me to appreciate its importance and, for that, I owe them a debt of gratitude.
 To be clear, I do not mean to imply that one must be a social trinitarian to affirm this sort of view of divine personhood, but, rather, that one cannot be a social trinitarian without such a view.