There 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.
It 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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