Stephen Long is not the type of theologian that enjoys sitting still. In fact, he is not the type of theologian that enjoys sitting at all—except, of course, on a bicycle saddle. His intellectual curiosities travel in several directions at once, and his academic energies let him follow each bearing he finds. And he does his wayfaring in print. If one stepped back and asked, “What is D. Stephen Long’s project?” multiple answers could be accepted. His work has ranged from theological ethics and moral theology, to theology and economics, political theology, theological epistemology, theology and culture, theological interpretation of Scripture, and the theologies of Barth and Balthasar—and these are just the topics of his books. In the arc of Long’s career, The Perfectly Simple Triune God seems like a strange “next book.” What truck does the speculative theology of the Summa theologiae have with contemporary moral, ethical, and political challenges?
One could be forgiven for concluding that The Perfectly Simple Triune God is the fruit of one of Long’s side interests, a speculative sabbatical from his more familiar labors. But that would be a mistake. The Perfectly Simple Triune God is both the culmination of several strands of Long’s previous work, and a hermeneutical lens through which one can see the inner unity of his entire project. It is Long’s notion of God, his affirmation of that notion, and his vocation of giving voice to what he affirms that guides his approach to ethics, economics, politics, philosophy, and ecumenism. The perfectly simple triune God is—to borrow a phrase from Josef Pieper—the “hidden element” in the sweep of D. Stephen Long’s theology. With the present volume at last in print, what was hidden is now visible. What was private is now public.
Neither the title (The Perfectly Simple Triune God), nor the subtitle (Aquinas and His Legacy) explicitly evince the book’s organizing question: Is there a Protestant doctrine of God? The obvious answer is “yes.” There is a Protestant doctrine of God if there are Protestants, and they have doctrines of God. But there are Protestants (e.g., D. Stephen Long), and they have doctrines of God. Therefore, there is a Protestant doctrine of God. Q.E.D. But a simple “yes” fails to grasp the importance of the question. Is there (or was there) a Protestant understanding of God distinct or opposed to a Catholic one? Is the doctrine of God, in fact, church dividing? Long demonstrates that like so many identity markers propped up to distinguish Protestants from Catholics over past five centuries, the doctrine of God was not a central dispute of the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, or any other theological movement until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Long’s task is to retrieve what he calls the “traditional answer” to the doctrine of God (as expounded by Thomas Aquinas), track its reception among the Reformers, and analyze the modern attempts to overturn the traditional answer.
The implications of Long’s retrieval of St. Thomas reinforce and extend major features of his previous work. Some of these extensions are obvious. For instance, readers of Saving Karl Barth (Fortress, 2014) will recognize Long’s unique concern for ecumenism in his exposition of the Reformers’ reception of Aquinas, showing that while considerable disagreements existed between Protestants and Catholics (most notably around grace and justification), both camps were united in their belief in the perfectly simple triune God. This historical reconstruction calls into question that common assumption in modern theology that between Protestants and Catholics there is a fundamental disagreement about divine life, and the relationship between creation and the Triune God.
Other extensions are less obvious. Long’s under-read text Speaking of God (Eerdmans, 2009) treats of the complex philosophical and theological matrix undergirding all attempts at divine predication. Long’s interpretation of five ways, the interplay of aseity and human knowledge in divine names, and the speculative bridge between simplicity and triunity pick up strands of Speaking of God’s argument, give them a new context, and extend their significance. These and other extensions do more than simply indicate the Thomistic shape of Long’s antecedent theological explorations. They aid him in his attempt to listen and speak to contemporary challenges to the traditional answer. Process theology, open theism, Anabaptist theology, feminist, liberationist, Barthian, radical, analytic—most of the significant attempts to elaborate a revisionary doctrine of God—all invite Long’s interventions. And rather than dismissing such revisions through triumphal repristination, Long labors to listen to their philosophical, ethical, political, social, and, yes, theological objections, while demonstrating the untapped potential of the traditional answer for meeting exactly these concerns.
Over the coming weeks, a panel of scholars will discuss The Perfectly Simple Triune God together with its author. In the hope of not giving everything away, I will offer only a meager summary of the forthcoming essays. Erin Kidd kicks off the symposium by providing a concise summary of the text, and provoking reflection on the dramatic, biblical, and liberative challenges that remain to be addressed. Rodney Howsare challenges Long’s understanding of the relationship between theology and philosophy, especially with respect to divine causality. Frederick Bauerschmidt brings a Thomist acumen to bear on Long’s understanding of speculative and practical theology. Jennifer Sanders pushes Long on his account of Thomas’s psychological analogy, arguing that it, rather than divine simplicity, is what illuminates Thomas’s Trinitarian theology. And Thomas McCall concludes the symposium with a full-throated response to Long’s critique of analytic theology. As we begin this conversation, I wish to express my gratitude to D. Stephen Long, and each of the respondents for their thorough, critical, charitable, and punctual work in preparation for this symposium. May the conversation that follows continue to shed light on the important issues that follow upon one’s affirmation or denial of the perfectly simple triune God.