Vincent Brümmer, a Dutch philosopher of religion, pens an extraordinary text. The title may give one the impression that the work is systematic in nature and wrestles with specific theological doctrines. However, the goal of the text is much more fundamental in nature. Brümmer articulates a specific approach to Christian theology and then subsequently examines these doctrines in light of this approach.
The first chapter examines the role of metaphor and analogy within theological discourse and the ability to make Christian doctrine intelligible. Brümmer recognizes, with so many others, the limits of the human mind and therefore human language to understand the divine appropriately. Humans are limited beings. Our theological language necessarily falls short of the reality that is God. Yet our minds and our language are all we have available. What is essential, then, is that we distinguish between the theological puzzles which are conundrums to be solved by theology and divine mystery which rests at the heart of the divine. Theology may be able to solve some puzzles. But theology can only witness to the mystery that is God.
Chapter Two makes the argument that all people want to be rich and famous. I am neither. The real issue before Brümmer is to determine what ultimate happiness is. For Christians, true happiness is fellowship with God. Our greatest desires can only be fulfilled by God and God's love. But how are we to understand this love? Can we compare our interpersonal love relationships with the loving relationship with God? These are the driving questions of the text. How can we compare our human experiences of love, estrangement, and reconciliation with the Christian drama of grace, sin, and salvation?
The answers to these questions lie in the definition of loving fellowship proffered. Love is concerned with the interests of the other. Secondly, love partners are unique and irreplaceable within the relationship. Thirdly, these relationships must be entered as free beings. Coerced love is not truly love. The fourth characteristic does not receive enough attention in contemporary analyses of love—love must include the vulnerability of the lover. There is doubt, uncertainty, and suffering. Hopefully, Brümmer will return to this concept in a further publication. Finally, love is personal, it is between persons. Clearly Brümmer's list functions well in using human love as the analogy of the love between God and humanity though he astutely notes the differences and the significance of these differences. He balances human analogies with the temptation to anthropomorphize God. I find him to be successful in this endeavor.
The third chapter turns to the heart of Brümmer's text. All relationships, at some point, experience estrangement. Some times the relationship ends as a result of this experience. Often, especially in love relationships, there is reconciliation. Forgiveness is necessary and it requires the wronged person to not only reconcile but to identify with the one who caused the estrangement. The penitent must be truly sorry and demonstrate a change of heart. What is essential here is to recognize that reconciliation is only possible if both parties identify with the other and act toward the other to move the relationship back to a community of love. There is a price for reconciliation but its value is greater than the price. Human sin is what estranges us from God. "[T]he necessary and sufficient conditions for reconciliation with God are not punishment or satisfaction or condemnation, but repentance and forgiveness. God willingly forgives us if we demonstrate a change of heart. The perfection of God's love can be ours again The communion with God can be restored. It is this cycle of love, estrangement, identification, change of heart, forgiveness and reconciliation that defines the relationship between the Christian and God. It is the Matrix of Faith."
The next four chapters look at the doctrines of atonement, Christology and the Trinity within this matrix of faith. Each examination begins with the reminder that the goal of the spiritual life is the attainment of ultimate happiness which is fellowship with God. Brümmer quickly examines some of the historical theology related to these topics. He does not reject the theories of penal substitution or recapitulation outright but places the historical theology within the context of his matrix of faith. When placed within this same theological context, the doctrine of the Incarnate Christ is able to move beyond the pitfalls of the natures and functions of Christ. The issue becomes the mediation of Christ within the estranged relationship. Christ is the one who brings reconciliation. Finally, the doctrine of the Trinity can be complicated by the issue of methodology. Is one to use a social doctrine where the plurality of the divine persons is examined first or the Latin approach which begins with the unity of God and the monarchy of the Father? Brümmer examines this issue in greater than necessary depth but concludes with the location of the Trinity as the final goal of reconciliation. The forgiven share is the true mystery of God.
This text is well argued and an important one for systematic theologians. Its title is a bit misleading. The true goal of the text is to present a methodological analogy rooted in the concepts of love, estrangement, and reconciliation. The three doctrines examined demonstrate how this method could be applied. While I find the matrix of faith to be an interesting means of approach it needs better explication and more dialogue with other theological methodologies. Brümmer is an excellent philosopher of religion. His contribution to this field of the study of Christian doctrine can be significant if more thoroughly explained and if one does not reject his work because of the underdeveloped doctrines of atonement, Christology and Trinity. Nonetheless, I recommend this text.