Najib George AWAD. Persons in Relations: An Essay on the Trinity and Ontology. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2014. pp. xi-341. Paper. $39.00. Reviewed by Peter C. PHAN.  Georgetown University, Washington, DC 20057.


            A sequel to his doctoral dissertation, later published as God without a Face? (Mohr Siebeck, 2011), Persons in Relations presents Awad’s research on the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Whereas its predecessor restricts the discussion of “person” to the Holy Spirit, this book treats the application of the twin notions of “person” and “relation” to the immanent or transcendent Trinity as a whole. Furthermore, Awad places this discussion of “person” and “relation” within the wider problematic of how theology should engage its cultural context, in this case the postmodern concepts of “person” and “relation.”

There is thus a double prong in Awad’s theological project. The first is epistemological, and the issue is devising the appropriate way to relate theology to the secular modes of thought and vice versa. The second is ontological or onto-theological, and at stake is the usage of the concepts of “person” and “relation” in speaking of the Trinity. Needless to say, ontology and epistemology are strictly intertwined and mutually correlated. Reality, in this case the Trinity, cannot be known unless the correct way to know the Trinity is followed; in turn, this epistemology is dictated by the very nature of the Trinity and not by modes of thought or rules of discourse external to it.

In his discussion of the theology of Trinity, however, Awad gives pride of place to epistemology since in his judgment, contemporary Trinitarian theologies are on the wrong path, especially in their understanding of person and relation, precisely because they adopt a faulty epistemology vis-à-vis postmodernism.  Awad does not of course advocate disengaging the Christian faith from its surrounding culture; on the contrary, theology’s duty to engage its context is beyond question as theology cannot be but contextual. However, in his view, contemporary theology has adopted either of the two misguided postures toward the postmodern culture with its secular thought-forms, hermeneutical methods, and rules of discourse. It either submits to postmodernist culture by incorporating its attendant epistemology lock, stock, and barrel, or dominates it by trying to convert it into a crypto-theological system. Both positions operate from the vantage point of what Awad terms “hierarchism.” Awad suggests that there is a third epistemological way, which he calls “unity-in-self-distinction,” and which he claims is derived not from secular modes of thought and rules of discourse but from the orthodox way of conceiving “person” and “relation” in the immanent Trinity. This is, Awad argues, the only way to preserve the integrity and autonomy of both theology and other forms of knowledge as well as their mutual “perichoresis” or correlation.

Awad deploys his argument in Persons in Relations in three parts. The first, entitled “The Roots,” traces the development of the notion of “person” in modernity. Awad charges that modernity misrepresents Boethius’s definition of person as “an individual substance of a rational nature” to mean not individuation and particularity (“individual substance”) but rational self-mastery, self-reflexivity, self-awareness, all of which eventually lead to holding individualism and rationalism as the essential components of human selfhood. This conception of “person,” Awad argues, hold sway in modern theologians such as Paul Tillich and Karl Barth, who in spite of their (especially the latter’s) opposition to the modern project, continue to adopt the “modernist epistemological hierarchism” in their conceptions of “person” and ‘relation.” Awad characterizes their theological approach as “submission” to modern thought.

            The second part of the book, entitled “The Challenges: Trinitarian Theology and/in Postmodernity,” continues to examine the way theology engages other intellectual forms of inquiry. Of course, in postmodernist thought, espoused by such thinkers as Friedrich Nietzsche, Michel Foucault, Jacques, Derrida, and Emmanuel Levinas, the self as autonomous self-consciousness and the person as a rational subject are deconstructed into nothing more than an illusion. Confronting this postmodern condition, contemporary theologians, in Awad’s judgment, have taken either of the two approaches mentioned above: submission to postmodernity by swallowing its modes of thought line, hook and sinker, or converting/proselytizing it by redeeming its hidden theological tendencies. As examples of the latter Awad cites Kevin Vanhoozer, George Lindbeck, and John Milbank, who desperately side with some of the concerns of postmodernity in a futile effort to liberate theology from the irrelevance to which modernity has relegated  it. However, Awad’s view, the greatest harm to the doctrine of the Trinity is the wholesale intellectual submission to the postmodern concept of the self and the person. In reaction to the postmodern deconstruction of the self, some contemporary theologians−Awad names Patricia Fox, Robert Jenson, Ted Peters, Paul Fiddes, and Michael Scanlon−seek to rescue the “person” by affirming not its ontological traits of individuality and particularity but relation to, and participation in, the other(s) that are the hallmarks of postmodern anthropology. Thus, to be is to become, and to be person is to be in relation with and to participate in the other(s). Applying these categories to God, these theologians no longer speak of the three “persons” in God but of God-in-relation-to-the-universe and of God and the world in mutual “interdependence.” To combat this anthropologization of theology and the reduction of person as individuality and particularity to a mere network of relationships and mutual participation, which he calls the “theological re-conditioning ambition,” Awad invokes Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of substance, person, and relation and his analogical attribution of these notions to the Trinity.

The third part, entitled “The Proposal: Trinitarian Theology and Postmodernity: In Correlation?” lays out Award’s “third way” between submission and domination, which he calls “correlation.” But there are inappropriate forms of correlation between theology and postmodernity which subordinate the former to the latter−a type of hierarchism mentioned above−by uncritically appropriating the latter’s contents and rule of discourses. The three theologians guilty of this hierarchical correlation are, in Awad’s assessment, David Tracy, Gordon Kaufman, and Mark Taylor. In contrast, the “correlational correlation” of Hans Frei and Francis Watson is deemed as the more appropriate approach to understanding the relationship between theology and other modes of intellectual inquiry. In this correlation neither side−theology and secular disciplines−is given hegemony; rather, the boundaries among the various modes of knowledge and the disciplinary distinctiveness are preserved. This model of correlation is termed “unity-in-self-differentiation.”  This “unity-in-self-differentiation,” Awad points out, is precisely what/who God is according to the Christian faith: God is one “substance/nature” in three “persons” − “person” being constituted by “relation” of origination.  Jűrgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg are proposed by Award as exemplary theologians who while engaging in a serious dialogue with postmodernity succeed in preserving God’s “unity-in-self-differentiation”

Persons in Relations is an extraordinary feat of scholarship. Awad’s familiarity with contemporary Trinitarian literature is wide and deep: there is hardly any theologian who has written significant works on the subject has been left out. To appreciate Awad’s work it is necessary to recall that his theological project is twofold: it is both an essay on Trinitarian theology (“ontology”) and an assessment of the way theology has been practiced in relation to other modes of inquiry in modernity and postmodernity (“epistemology”). Indeed, the former serves as a case study for the latter.

This two-pronged approach constitutes both the strength and the weakness of Awad’s work. On the one hand, it persuasively shows the intrinsic connection and mutual dependence between ontology and epistemology, especially in the theology of the Trinity: how one engages the modes of thought and the conceptual frameworks of modernity and postmodernity inevitably shapes one’s constructive theology of the Trinity. On the other hand, those who look for a full-fledged treatment either of the relation between theology and the secular disciplines in postmodernity or of the Trinitarian theology as a whole will complain that more could have been said on either topic. Concerning the way contemporary theologians relate to modernity and postmodernity, Awad’s simplistic dichotomy between “submission/surrender” and “domination/proselytization” proves to be a procrustean bed in which to lay some theologians. For instance, Karl Barth would be surprised to see himself grouped among the “submitters” to modernity in his conception of “person.” The same may be said of Awad’s classification of David Tracy among those who have “surrendered” to postmodernity. On the other hand, Kevin Vanhoozer and George Lindbeck would raise their eyebrows when informed that have tried to proselytize postmodern thought. Finally, with regard to a constructive proposal of a Trinitarian theology, Awad falls back on Thomas Aquinas’s metaphysics of substance, person, and relation, which is of course unobjectionable, but it is hard to see how the theology of the Trinity of Jȗrgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg can be lined up with that of Thomas Aquinas, unless the point is simply to say that the three theologians adopt a more or less similar stance to their surrounding cultures, which Awad dubs “unity-in-self-distinction.”

The aim of these critical remarks is simply to raise some of Awad’s interpretations of certain contemporary theologians for clarification and discussion. It is not to take anything away from Professor Najib Awad’s enormous theological expertise in matters relating to the Trinity. Persons in Relations is an outstanding piece of theological scholarship, wide and deep, and those concerned with doing theology within postmodernity will read it with great benefit. From his curriculum vitae I gather that Professor Awad is researching the dialogue between Christian theology and Islam. This new project will establish him as one of the rarest scholars superbly competent in both fields, and any educational institution will be lucky to have him among its faculty.