The Trinity is not our social program(me)

516Ym6AgZLLThere are moments of the year which all preachers dread. Perhaps ‘dread’ is too strong a word; but there is a definite sinking of the shoulders as we, once again, think about finding something new to say on the occasion of the major festivals. Christmas and Easter are, of course, the regular challenges—yet in both biblical stories there is so much rich material that finding a new insight or angle isn’t that hard. Where dread really does descend is as we approach Trinity Sunday.

Fortunately for us, there has been a remarkable revival in Trinitarian thinking in the last 70 years or so—so we no longer need to feel like Robbie Coltrane in Nuns on the Run (‘The Trinity is like a clover.’ ‘What, you mean it is green?’). In the opening chapter of his excellent exploration of The Quest for the Trinity, Stephen Holmes traces the shape of this revival. If the scholasticism of the middle ages had made the doctrine of the Trinity speculative and obscure, the rationalism of the 18th and 19th centuries had (in effect) rejected the doctrine as implausible. Karl Barth rejected this rationalist approach, and aimed to reinstate the Trinity as the centre of Christian theology.

Barth was, famously, not interested in natural theology; he also took decisive leave of the intellectual tradition of Schleiermacher.  He insisted on the priority and particularity of revelation in identifying the God of the Christian tradition— he chose, that is, to write a church dogmatics.  As Barth himself says, ‘The doctrine of the Trinity is what basically distinguishes the Christian doctrine of God as Christian…in contrast to  all other possible doctrines of God’. (p 4)

(Incidentally, this might suggest that Trinity Sunday is the most important, most distinctively Christian, Sunday of the whole year. So, no pressure…) Holmes goes on to trace the development of thinking about the Trinity, through the Catholic Karl Rahner and the Greek Orthodox bishop John Zizioulas. Rahner’s key dictum was that ‘the “immanent” Trinity is the “economic” Trinity and the “economic” Trinity is the  “immanent” Trinity’. In other words, whatever it means for God to be Trinity in godself (‘immanent’) is expressed faithfully by how God is revealed in God’s dealings with the world (‘economic’)—there is no need for further speculation about aspects of the Trinity which are not revealed there. Zizioulas’ book Being as Communion looks at the development of patristic thought on the Trinity—and then famously argues that the Trinity provides the pattern for human relationships in the redeemed community of the church.

Holmes then looks at the influence of Barth, Rahner and Zizioulas on Pannenberg and Moltmann and the further reflections of liberation theologian Leonardo Boff and Croatian Miroslav Volf. This line of thinking leads to the ideas of perichoresis, the mutual relationships between the ‘persons’ of the Trinity in a community of love, and the model this offers not just for the church, but for humanity made in the image of God. If you have studied theology, you will be familiar with this idea; if you have not, the chances are that you will have heard this idea expressed in a Trinity Sunday sermon at some point (though you might not have known where it came from). In addition to the ideas of the ‘immanent’ Trinity (God as he is in himself), the ‘economic’ Trinity (God as he is known through his interaction with the world), we then have the ‘social’ Trinity (God in relationship with himself as a model for human relationships).

But Holmes points out that there is something of a problem in this way of moving from the relationships within the Trinity to relationship between people, as shown by the radically different conclusions theologians come to about the implications of this move.

 For Zizioulas, the monarchy of the Father, as cause of the Son and the Spirit, leads to a monarchical view of the role of the bishop, and they strongly hierarchical, and tightly ordered, church. For Boff, perichoresis  is the decisive principle, and it is completely mutual and symmetrical. (p 26)

So the life of the Trinity is either egalitarian, or it is hierarchical, depending on your viewpoint. The sceptical reader might, at this point, wonder whether this doctrinal discussion is little more than a projection of the theologian’s prior viewpoint on to the blank screen of speculation about God’s inner life. But the discerning reader might also recognise Zizioulas’ hierarchical conclusion in another, rather surprising, context. Conservative evangelicals have also read hierarchy in the relationship between Father and Son, and since ‘the head of every woman is man, and the head of Christ is God’ (1 Cor 11.3) then the hierarchical ordering within the Trinity is expressed not so much in the specific hierarchy of the bishop over the people but generally in the hierarchy of men over women. In this way, debates about gender roles and women’s ordination are elevated to central questions about the nature of God, and are therefore ‘primary’. It is odd that this argument can ever be applied to ministry only, rather than to society in general, though perhaps not as odd as evangelicals being in logical debt to a Greek Orthodox bishop.

In response to the latter move, Kevin Giles has set out a review of what orthodox understanding of the Trinity looks like, under nine headings. Noting that patristic exposition of the Trinity understood the three ‘persons’ as acting inseparably, having one will, and ruling as one (which, incidentally, makes the idea of one ‘person’ of the Trinity doing things to another ‘person’ in atonement rather problematic), he carefully reflects on the questions of ordering and subordination.

In becoming incarnate in history, the Son of God did not cease to be God in all might, majesty, and authority, but he did “empty himself,” take the form of a servant, and become the second Adam to win our salvation by going to the cross.

This means that not everything that is true of Jesus Christ in his earthly life and ministry—specifically, what is creaturely in him— can be read back into the eternal or immanent Trinity. The Son continues as God and man after his resurrection, but in returning to heaven, his humanity is exalted and glorified, and he rules as the one risen and ascended Lord and as the Mediator of our salvation. We rightly, therefore, make a contrast between the Son’s earthly ministry “in the form of a servant,” or, as Reformed theology calls it, his “state of humiliation,” and his heavenly reign as Lord and King, in all might, majesty, and authority, in “the form of God,” or, as it is called in Reformed theology, in his “state of exaltation.”

Giles goes on to make the more general conclusion that the life of the Trinity does not offer us a programme for human relations.

The way in which the three divine persons relate to one another in eternity is neither a model for nor prescriptive of human relationships in the temporal world. God’s life in heaven does not set a social agenda for human life on earth. Divine relations in eternity cannot be replicated on earth by created human beings, and fallen beings at that. What the Bible asks disciples of Christ to do, both men and women, is to exhibit the love of God to oth- ers and to give ourselves in self-denying sacrificial service and self-subordination, as the Lord of glory did in becoming one with us in our humanity and dying on the cross. In other words, the incarnate Christ provides the perfect example of Godly living, not the eternal life of God.

Specifically, appealing to the doctrine of the Trinity, a three-fold perfect divine communion, to support either the equality of men and women or their hierarchical ordering, is mistaken and to be opposed.

51OKMnjyj-LIt is interesting that, in opposing hierarchical deductions from the Trinity, he is also opposing egalitarian deductions from the Trinity—not because of the conclusion reached, but because of the methodology involved.

In another excellent book on this, Trinitarian Theology for the Church, Mark Husbands offers a more detailed critique in a similar direction. In his chapter ‘The Trinity is not our social program’ (sic), he points out that there is one obvious reason why the relations within the Trinity cannot model relationship between humans: he is God, and we are not! It is not possible to enjoy both the distinctions of hypostasis but the unity of homoousios because humans are not divine. I might be made of similar substance to my fellow human beings, but I am not of one substance in the way the Father, Son and Spirit are. To make the social Trinity a model for human society is to collapse the divide between creator and creature, which cannot be done even with the help of the Orthodox idea of theosis. Rylands supports his case by going back to the Cappadocian fathers, in particular Gregory of Nyssa, and looking carefully at what they actually said. It is perhaps worth adding that, if the Trinity did provide a model for gender relations, we should have three genders and not two.

Where does all that leave us on Trinity Sunday? That is probably the occasion for a separate post. But returning to the ‘economic’ Trinity might not be a bad place to go. We experience God as transcendent, as Father over all. We experience him as involved in the world, as the Son who came to redeem us. And we experience him as present with us, immanent and empowering, by the Spirit. God’s speech to us and his missional self-involvement in his creation are indispensably Trinitarian. There is probably enough there for a sermon or two.

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52 thoughts on “The Trinity is not our social program(me)”

  1. I wonder if this conversation also has implications for the theological rationales for ecclesiology and mission outlined in “Church for Every Context” by Michael Moynagh, which seem to me to depend quite heavily on the kind of reading out from the Trinity that is critiqued here.

    • Thanks Tim—I am sure it does. I think I have the book on my shelf, so will have a look. (Michael might also want to comment!).

      In the end, it depends on what the shape of the argument is. Are we involved in mission because of the *example* of the missionary God, who is not remote but involves himself in his creation? Or are we involved in mission because of the *goal* of a perichoretic, egalitarian humanity as the perfected image of the social Trinity? Argument 1 looks good to me—and is indeed Trinitarian. Argument 2 looks dodgy to me.

  2. One small point – I assume you mean homoousios, not homoiousios?

    It is interesting that, in trying to find suitable analogies for the trinity, Augustine effectively gives up on any involving multiple humans and searches for one based in our minds (and he was aware of the limitations of this, too).

    The issue is live – I recently heard a sermon where women were meant to be subordinate to men because of the Trinity (the Holy Spirit seemed to be sidelined by this whole approach – another issue).

    • Jonathan—yes, thanks for my misspelling—which is rather important! Corrected.

      Quite right on Augustine. I cannot immediately recall whether it is Holmes or Rylands (or another) who distinguishes between the Trinity as psychological verses as social metaphor. Certainly Holmes (and many others) draw attention to the serious dangers of misunderstanding the meaning of ‘person’, particularly once it moves from Greek through Latin to English.

      I am interested that you heard such a sermon—not because they are uncommon, just because you were in such a church! This is now one of the major continuing ‘conservative’ objections to women in authorised ministry. I posted earlier Kevin Giles’ response to this, and I think that this approach does sit at list immediately next to, even if not squarely within, an Arian understanding.

    • I should also add that there is a simple, logical problem to the idea of the eternal subordination of the Son in this interpretation of a hierarchical social Trinity. How can one ‘person’ submit to another ‘person’ if they will with one will?

      It is because of this that Giles makes the important move of arguing that Jesus’ subordination to the Father cannot be a complete reflection of the immanent Trinity, but instead must be located in a Phil 2 ’emptying’.

      • “I should also add that there is a simple, logical problem to the idea of the eternal subordination of the Son in this interpretation of a hierarchical social Trinity. How can one ‘person’ submit to another ‘person’ if they will with one will?”

        It seems to me this is a problem for all concerned, and it doesn’t simply cut to the ‘conservative’ case.

        If the persons of the Trinity all will with one *identical* will – doesn’t that tend towards Sabellianism? Where is thus the distinction within the Godhead?

        It seems logical to me that the Father, Son and Spirit could will one thing but will it in a way consistent with their person. So in the will of the Godhead there is both distinction and difference – while yet having unity.

        • Yes, Phill, it is a problem for all concerned—which is why we should stay away from this kind of speculation altogether.

          ‘It seems logical to me that the Father, Son and Spirit could will one thing but will it in a way consistent with their person. So in the will of the Godhead there is both distinction and difference – while yet having unity.’ I am afraid I have no idea what that means…

          • I’m sorry Ian for speculating, but you did raise the issue…

            I think one of the problems for talking about the Trinity is the issue of language, so I’m sorry if I made no sense in that last sentence.

            I was trying to say that the will of the Godhead is ‘unity in diversity’, that is, in the same way that we can say that there is one God in three persons, so we can say that there is one will which is nonetheless distinct between the three persons.

            This means, for example, that I think Christ could have a will which is to do the will of his father and submit to him, and this does not break my understanding of the oneness of the Trinity. The Son wills to die on the cross and take our sin upon himself, the Father wills Him to die punish him in our stead. Both will this for the one goal, that is the salvation of our souls. So there is unity in diversity. I don’t think this is pure speculation but makes sense of Jesus statements in John’s gospel and fits in with Trinitarian theology as I understand it.

          • ‘The Son wills to die on the cross and take our sin upon himself, the Father wills Him to die punish him in our stead.’

            But that, put in this way, does not constitution ‘subordination’ and doesn’t really match the language in John.

  3. Ian, I’ve only skimmed Holmes and not read some of the other relevant recent works, but I’m working carefully with John and mission at the moment, and it seems to me that the mutual indwelling of Father and Son (perichoresis), with its inseparable missional component, is paradigmatic for the life of the church (whether or not we also call the church’s life perichoretic). So I’m a bit hesitant to discard the parallels just because we are not God, which of course we are not. The same sort of argument is often made regarding theosis (it is impossible because it blurs the creator-creature distinction–which it actually does not). Furthermore, I wonder whether we should make such a clearcut distinction between the preexistent Son and the incarnate one, since Paul seems to imply in Phil 2 that there is similarity between the action of the preexistent Jesus (incarnation) and the action of the incarnate one (self-giving death).

    • Michael, thanks very much for the comment. I slightly edited the post to include a reference to theosis–though of course this is another whole area.

      Of course I would agree with you about the missional impulse being paradigmatic for the church. But it seems to me that the NT consistently invites us to love others because God has loved us; in other words, the pattern of our love to others comes from God’s love for us, as ‘other’, rather than God’s love for God, as ‘same.’

      As Holmes highlights, there is a real problem in translating the language about God into language about our relationships with one another—and to his credit he notes Volf’s caution here. But the issue, and indeed your question, raises a key issue: in what sense, if any, do you and I (as members of the body of Christ) experience the perichoretic mutual indwelling with which the Father Son and Spirit indwell one another?

      I do think that one of the merits of the ‘conservative’ appropriation of this idea is precisely (as you say) not making such a sharp distinction between the pre-existent and incarnated Son. So the language of subordination of Jesus to the Father, especially in John, becomes an eternal subordination. How would you respond to that, and the consequence of seeing hierarchy (rather than egality) in the Godhead?

    • I should also add that I am equally unconvinced by the transfer of God’s missional action to us in a straightforward way, so that our missional action could ever be ‘incarnational’. Incarnation refers to that which is not human becoming human by enfleshment. Since we start as human, we cannot ourselves take the step of ‘incarnation’, since we are neither transcendent nor divine, that we should then be limited and human.

      • HI Ian. Have you written much on this issue with “incarational” ministry or recommend something to look at? This too comes up in Moynagh’s church in every context.

      • Nice discussion.

        Incarnation, as I understood it, is divinity ‘in the flesh’. Isn’t that basically what happens to us when we receive the Holy Spirit?

          • Thanks for taking the time to reply to me. I’m currently in the middle of writing an essay about mission and am trying to get my head around some of this stuff.

            Inasmuch as it is the Spirit who transforms (is transforming/will transform) us into the likeness of Christ (2 Cor 3:18) then, yes, I’d say that’s precisely what I believe!

            I don’t know if ‘substance’ is the right term to use in that context, but does it need to be, and if so, would there really be a problem if it was?

  4. Nice summary of thoughts that i would want to concur with, Ian. As regards the question of trinity and mission, i come at this as someone who’s first immersion in theology was through the prism of mission. I was thus exposed to material that drew from Moltmann and Volf explicitly, Zizioulas implicitly, and i think i imbibed what i now regard as unhelpful thinking about the trinity. In more popular resources, and especially in the world of “incarnational mission”, these wrong moves are perpetuated. As you say, Ian, we do not replicate the original incarnation (“as the Father sends me, so i send you” is an invitation to follow the pattern of loving service primarily within the Church as modelled at the Last Supper, for example. The typical challenge to incarnational mission for contexts such as mine (poor, inner city, outer faith majorities, or outer estates) might quickly alert us to the prosaic fact that we are never entirely incarnated because “we” can choose to leave at any point.

    My hunch is that missiology often stretches orthodox doctrine of the godhead because evangelical theology struggles with articulating a concept of graced nature (just to lob in a provocative grenade into the debate!). How do we account for the echoes of the gospel that we find elsewhere? The missio dei sounds rather too much like God’s tactic to convert people and explain the Holy Spirit’s actions in people and places beyond the Church (the Holy Spirit as the dodgy, liberal member of the Trinity or the emotional feminine Sophia). Instead, the missio dei observes a creation which is held together in Christ, in whom everything subsists, and where as St Augustine says, “God is closer to us than we our to ourselves.” We need better understanding of trinitarian doctrine couples with a bit more Christian anthropology (and graced nature does not preclude a thoroughly Christian account of a sinful, broken, creation).

    Arguably the best starting point for a Trinity Sunday service is to agree with Herbert McCabe that “theology is the study of nothing: no-thing.” God is not a bigger version of the biggest relational being we can imagine; God is not an item in the universe. Sarah Coakley and Kathryn Tanner are both helpful on taking these points further in much more erudite ways!

    • Thanks Richard. I think I would agree with you that ‘evangelical theology struggles to articulate a concept of grace nature.’ My strong conviction, though, is that in order to do this, it needs to become *more* evangelical not less. What we need here is a fuller, Scriptural doctrine of creation, where evangelical theology has become obsessed with a doctrine of the fall at the expense of the other.

      My observation about the bizarre connection between e.g. Southern Baptists and Zizioulas illustrates this. When we try and defend a particular theological culture, we end up reaching for all sits of strange partnerships. In the end, evangelicals need to be content to allow their tradition to be reformed by Scripture, even if that appears to take us away from previous reformations…

  5. Hi Ian,

    Thanks for this. You know I’m coming from a conservative perspective here and I disagree with a few of the things you say. I’d just like to pick up on one or two, as we had this conversation last time.

    Firstly: “In his chapter ‘The Trinity is not our social program’ (sic), he points out that there is one obvious reason why the relations within the Trinity cannot model relationship between humans: he is God, and we are not!”

    So … humans cannot be imitators of God (Eph 5:1)? Or be perfect, as our heavenly father is perfect (Matt 5:48)? I think the issue we rubbed up against before was that of analogical language: yes, we human beings are not God, there is a Creator-creature distinction. And yet – we are in the image of God, there are analogies. Saying “God is love” is a true statement, even though human love is not the same as God’s love.

    The question is, whether it is right to draw an analogy between intra-Trinitarian relationships and human relationships? I think the Scriptures do draw those analogies.

    The other thing I wanted to mention I think I’ve already responded to in another comment!

    Thanks again,


    • Phill, there are a couple of problems with your argument, as I see it.

      First, you don’t need to be divine to love. You do, however, need to be divine to experience both distinctness and interpenetration.

      Second, most of the exemplary language in the NT, particularly in Paul and John, is Christological rather than being Trinitarian.

      Third, and more broadly, there is so little in the NT which offers any intra-Trinitarian exploration. To read 1 Cor 11 in this way is mistaken; this is really a text about the economic Trinity, not the social Trinity.

      • Hi Ian,

        I don’t disagree with you on the first point, in fact this is kind of my point. We are both like and unlike God. Where exactly you draw the line is the issue, and I think it is at least plausible to say that human relationships may be modelled on the Godhead.

        It was probably unfair of me to pick that passage from Ephesians as it is I believe the only time in Paul where believers are instructed to imitate God. But my point stands that we cannot say we are unlike God, therefore we cannot imitate him at any level. We are in the image of God, and he is relational – therefore I think it perfectly plausible to look to Him for how we model our relationships in some way, even if for example mutual indwelling is not possible for humans!

        On your third point… I’m not sure that the references are limited to 1 Cor 11 but perhaps that’s a discussion for another time!

          • I can love, I can willingly submit myself to another, and so on…

            It just seems strange to me that we would say God is fundamentally relational in eternity, and yet human beings – who are also relational beings – have *nothing* to do with how God is in eternity. I think it is perfectly rational (and Scriptural) for something about human relationships to be modelled, if you’ll pardon the expression, on Trinitarian relationships.

          • Phill, I don’t know how to put this more clearly. The problem is not with the idea of humans emulating what God is in eternity.

            The problem is with one person in his or her relationships emulating the particular dynamic of the intra-relational dynamics of one ‘person’ of the Trinity.

  6. Ian, i think i’d prefer to see evangelical theology as incomplete, as any human theologies are. There is a scriptural basis for the theology of graced nature that is typical of Thomistic (not neo-scholastic) Catholic theology that has never been a part of classical evangelical theology. It is difficult to see it in the Reformers, and is arguably a blindspot in Barth. Why do we need to be overly partisan and be uneasy with good fusions and syntheses of theological contributions? The strange adoption of Zizioulas in this instance by evangelicals is wrong just because it is wrong, not because it is an Orthodox source.

    • Richard, that is really interesting…but I wonder if we are using ‘evangelical’ in slightly different ways.

      I don’t see how ‘evangelical’ can refer to a fixed tradition, since at the heart of it is a commitment to continual reform in the light of scripture. I am not suggesting here that to be evangelical means to be hegemonic in relation to any other tradition which is ‘scriptural.’ But it does mean that the evangelical ‘tradition’ (if it is such—or perhaps it is a method…) should never shirk embracing elements of other traditions which are indeed scriptural.

      So I am all for fusion of theses. But I don’t feel the need to ‘leave’ the evangelical ‘tradition’ do so. And yes, I agree that the adoption of Zizioulas is wrong because it is wrong—but it is also curious to observe this particular wrong which is different from ways in which evangelicals are usually wrong!

  7. Phill: whilst the love we see in humans is not perfect, it is the same love that we see in God because “God is love” only makes sense where all that is love flows from God. This is the argument for graced nature. By making a move that describes God as loving independently of who God is, and saying that we as humans can be living in analogical ways, we fall into the trap of making God another item in the universe that i was guarding against. Our resources here are in classic Thomistic theology, which is utterly scriptural. All that is true, good and beautiful is of God. Saying otherwise leads us into impoverished popular theologies that begin with sentences like, “A good God would never do such a thing…”.

    • Richard, I think part of the problem with Trinitarian discussion is that you could well die the death of a thousand qualifications!

      I was arguing against the view that we cannot model any human relationships on the Godhead because we are unlike God. I on the other hand want to say that we are both like and unlike God, and that it is not inappropriate to look at relationships within the Godhead to think about our own, at least when we are permitted to by scripture.

      I’m sorry if I wasn’t careful enough in my language. I am not a theologian, as they say!

  8. Yes, much social trinitarianism is highly questionable. Rowan Williams has expressed concerns in various places, and Karen Kilby is excellent on this:

    As you point out, some evangelicals read male headship directly from the Trinity. It’s also true that some evangelicals read directly from the “different” persons of the Trinity that sexual relations should only be between people of opposite sex, notably the Living Out editors – see the website, and the books by Sean Doherty and Sam Alberry. An equally dodgy argument can be made that sexual relations should always be same sex: the Trinitarian relations are between Father, Son and Spirit who are substantially the same.

    It is my impression that more attempt is made nowadays to make a theological case against same sex relationships, rather than rely on quoting texts (perhaps because that is increasingly less convincing in practice), but this kind of argument looks a bit desperate.

    • Mark, thanks for the links. I knew Karen’s paper, and was tempted to draw on it…but I thought three critiques was probably enough for one blog post!

      I am not sure about evangelicals reading sex binary for humans from the Trinity. As I comment, the logic of this would require 3 genders. Can you point me to the argument on Living Out? The folk I know there would normally go to fairly traditional exegesis of texts.

    • Thanks for the review Paul. This extract seems particularly pertinent:

      With regards to the ontological Trinity, Twombly notes that “will and operation …reside in the common nature or essence and not in the hypostaseis individually.” In fact, “the only thing that really distinguishes the three hypostaseis from one another is the manner of their respective origins. What binds them together, inseparably, in common substance, action, and so on, is ‘their existence in one another,’ their mutual indwelling that is summed up by the single word, perichoresis” (pp 31- 32).

      It completely prohibits the kind of differentiation of persons that would be essential to justify hierarchy.

  9. See this page Ian:
    “The difference between women and men is the way humanity reflects or represents God. The Father and the Son and the Spirit are all fundamentally different to one another, and yet fundamentally united to one another. God is not a solitary individual, but a relational, interdependent being. And at our most fundamental level, we reflect that.”
    Also Sean Doherty’s book:
    Here he expands on the above, and says he always starts his teaching on sexuality with the Trinity.
    Sam Allberry’s book:
    “Marriage is a wonderful God-given way for humanity to reflect the unity and diversity that is seen in the Trinity. God’s oneness is not sameness, as though the three persons of the Trinity were identical to one another… There is this same kind of oneness that comes when male and female are united in this way. The same is not true of gay sex.” (16% in Kindle edn.)

    • Mark, thanks for drawing my attention to these comments. A few reflections.

      First, I don’t think these are particularly strong or persuasive arguments—though I might need to take that up with Sean in particular. part of the reason for that is that Scripture never appears to make the connection between the differentiated unity of God and the differentiated unity of human sexes. And this can only be a very general parallel, since of course the two sexes are not two hypostases of one ousia.

      BUT I don’t think these are key arguments in their respective pieces. Sean particular makes the point that it is exegesis of the creation account, of humanity in God’s image as male and female, that has been key.

      If they are locating that in a general observation about the life of the Trinity, that is rather different from the very specific hierarchical readings of Zizioulas and conservatives, or the egalitarianism of Boff.

  10. It’s worth reading the Concept of Person in God, which disagrees sharply with the notion that divine transcendence means that the social Trinity cannot be a model for human relations:

    As the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, wrote: ‘This trinitarian “we,” the fact that even God exists only as a “we,” prepares at the same time the space of the human “we.” The Christian’s relation to God is not simply, as Ferdinand Ebner claims somewhat one-sidedly, “I and Thou,” but, as the liturgy prays for us every day, “per Christum in Spiritu Sancto ad Patrem” (Through Christ in the Holy Spirit to the Father). Christ, the one, is here the “we” into which Love, namely the Holy Spirit, gathers us and which means simultaneously being bound to each other and being directed toward the common “you” of the one Father.’

    ‘The bracketing from Christian piety of the reality of the “we” that emerges in the three-fold formula “through Christ in the Holy Spirit to the Father,” and that binds us into the “we” of God and into the “we” of our fellow human beings, happened as a consequence of the anthropological turn in Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity and was one of the most momentous developments of the Western Church.’

    • How interesting. But isn’t there a rather big difference from noting the relationally of the Trinity implying community a context for human self-understanding, and arguing that the *nature* of relationships in the Trinity actually shapes the *nature* of human relationships—either in an egalitarian or a hierarchical direction?

      Even on the first one, there are limits to the analogy of society, since my relationship with my neighbour is a relationship with someone who is not me and does not share my will—neither of which is true for the ‘persons’ of the Trinity…?

      • Ian,

        You point highlights the danger for the analogy of relationship in the Trinity to be over-specific in application to certain types of human relationships, which Ratzinger is careful to avoid.

        Admittedly, as you imply, there is no parallel substratum of being at which humans are of one substance with each other, but there is *joining*. Jesus prays to His Father for this: ‘I pray that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.’ (John 17:21)

        St. Paul encapsulates this understanding of joining by saying: ‘But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit’ (1 Cor. 6:17), yet his later application to the Church draws upon the human body analogy, which is not derived from Trinitarian relationship.

        His most poetic expression of how human relationships should be analogous to the nature of relationship in the Trinity is in Philippians:
        ‘In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!’ (Phil. 2:5 – 8)

        The nature of the Trinity has to be understood in the context of the incarnation and the cross. We believe that in one person, Jesus Christ, deity and humanity are uniquely united indivisibly. In becoming man and contemplating the suffering of the cross, Jesus, as the indivisible being he is, exclaimed, ‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.’ (Luke 22:42)

        I think that, while the much of the interior life of the Godhead is mystery, what you mean by the sharing of will needs clarification in the light of what has been revealed through the gospel.

          • Ontologically, Barry Smith provides philosophical insight on Accidents:

            ‘1.3 Accidents
            The category of substance is most intimately associated with the category of accidents. Examples of accidents include: individual qualities, actions and passions, Martha Nussbaum’s present knowledge of Greek, a bruise, a handshake, an electric or magnetic charge. Accidents comprehend what, in modern parlance, are sometimes referred to as ‘events’, ‘processes’ and ‘states’. Accidents are said to ‘inhere’ in their substances, a notion which will be defined more precisely in what follows in terms of the concept of specific dependence.

            In contrast to Aristotle (and to the majority of scholastic philosophers up to and including Leibniz) we shall here embrace a view according to which accidents may be either relational or non-relational. Non-relational accidents are attached, as it were, to a single carrier, as a thought is attached to a thinker. Accidents are relational if they depend upon a plurality of substances and thereby join the latter together into complex wholes of greater or lesser duration. Examples of relational accidents include a kiss, a hit, a dance, a conversation, a contract, a battle, a war.

            Relational accidents are to be distinguished from comparatives (is longer than, is to the east of, is more famous in South Africa than) and from what are sometimes called ‘Cambridge relations’ (is father of, is third cousin to) (Mulligan and Smith 1986). Briefly, relational accidents are entities in their own right, with qualities and changes of their own. Comparatives and Cambridge relations, in contrast, if they can be said to exist at all, exist not as something extra, but only in reflection of certain special sorts of demarcation which are imposed upon the underlying bearers or upon their non-relational accidents.’

            Could we not use the ontology of Cambridge relations, regarding the Persons of the Trinity as relational demarcations in God that are solely necessitated by His eternal self-donation and mission, even before creation began?

            As Ratzinger puts it:

            ‘It is the nature of spirit to put itself in relation, the capacity to see itself and the other. Hedwig Conrad Martius speaks of the retroscendence of the spirit: the spirit is not merely there; it goes back upon itself, as it were; it knows about itself; it constitutes a doubled existence which not only is, but knows about itself, has itself. 

            The difference between matter and spirit would, accordingly, consist in this, that matter is what is “das auf sich Geworfene” (that which is thrown upon itself), while the spirit is “das sich selbst Entwerfende” (that which throws itself forth, guides itself or designs itself) which is not only there, but is itself in transcending itself, in looking toward the other and in looking back upon itself.9 However this may be in detail—we need not investigate it here openness, relatedness to the whole, lies in the essence of the spirit. And precisely in this, namely, that it not only is, but reaches beyond itself, it comes to itself. In transcending itself it has itself; by being with the other it first becomes itself, it comes to itself. 

            Expressed differently again: being with the other is its form of being with itself. One is reminded of a fundamental theological axiom that is applicable here in a peculiar manner, namely Christ’s saying, “Only the one who loses himself can find himself” (cf. Mt. 10:36). This fundamental law of human existence, which Mt. 10:36 understands in the context of salvation, objectively characterizes the nature of the spirit which comes to itself and actualizes its own fullness only by going away from itself, by going to what is other than itself. We must go one step further. 

            The spirit is that being which is able to think about, not only itself and being in general, but the wholly other, the transcendent God. This is perhaps the mark that truly distinguishes the human spirit from other forms of consciousness found in animals, namely, that the human spirit can reflect on the wholly other, the concept of God.’

            Should we resist the idea that this joining towards otherness has implications for our understanding of Gen. 1:27?

  11. If you want another angle on the Trinity for Trinity Sunday, there is also the ‘proof’ of the Trinity from Richard of Saint Victor (12th century British mystic theologian who ended up in France). What I like about his approach is that it is based on love. The gist goes something like if you have a perfect, loving, yet not dependent on creation God, then for love to exist there must be another to love (this gets you to two). But perfect love is then shared love outpoured to others – thus requiring three. Thus a perfect, loving God must be, in some senses, three persons. I’ve not done full justice to his argument, but it neatly ties up ways in which we can model the Trinity (through loving others, and not in an exclusive way) and keeps the focus on love (I suspect Augustine would have approved).

    • Thanks—that sounds altogether more convincing! I worry though that it still depends on the notion of ‘persons’ in the modern sense.

      There is also a logical contradiction here in relation to creation. It is often argued that God created a free other in order to be able to express love. But if love was already perfect within God then God has no need to create. Creation need not be an expression of the divine impulse of love.

  12. Ian, that’s a feature, not a contradiction. Richard would see the idea that God created in order to be able to express love as utterly misguided. It implies that God needs creation, and also that, for eternal love, creation too must be eternal. God does have no need to create, but creates anyway (still out of love, but without need). Creation is still an impulse of love, but not of necessity.

    Richard develops this after spending some time establishing the divine unity, so your concerns over ‘persons’ may be lessened within the larger context of his arguments.

  13. When I was looking at trinitarian thinking for my MPhil, I realised just how misleading our choice of vocabulary can be, particularly for theologians from different confessions and cultures. Volf also makes the point that the Trinity can’t be a ‘social model’ because that collapses the distinction between the holy God and his creation, sinful humanity.

    I prefer to think of trinitarian theology as ‘inspiring’ us – not for issues of hierarchy etc but for our relationships with one another.

    And I do find that the Orthodox insistence on keeping the three persons together in all their thinking a useful corrective to the western forensic approach.

  14. PS Steve Holmes’ 06 ‘Trinitarian Missiology: Towards a Theology of God as Missionary’ (IJST) paper was critical for my research – brilliant, and thank you for taking me that step further which can make theology so exciting!


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