Sunday, August 19, 2012

explaining the trinity

I'm now in the throws of my 3rd systematic theology class. Enjoy this, my first paper ;-)
Explaining the Trinity

Trinitarian theology is by far one of the densest subjects among all world religions so it is understandable that this particular doctrine can become an impassible hurdle to many Christians. Ironically, most paradoxically ignore it and assent to it by association with other doctrines they can handle. Still others choose to focus on either the unity of God or the “three-ness” of God. The church catholic maintains a belief in a Trinitarian monotheism with room to wonder. This is a difficult subject, but not as impenetrable as one might assume at first brush.

            To initiate the topic, I would first like to comment on the vast differences between the western church as manifest in Roman Catholicism and Protestantism and the Eastern Orthodox traditions collectively. Coming from the western church, I can attest first hand to the minimalistic place that is given to Trinitarian theology in Protestantism; only by study have I made note of the extreme vitality of this doctrine and been able to incorporate it into my personal faith. In the west, the language of Augustine of Hippo has become benchmark to the discussion; in fact, “in a very real sense, Western Christianity is Augustinian Christianity.”[1] Veering from orthodox thought on the trinity, Augustine developed his pragmatic metaphor for the trinity. In his City of God, book XI, he draws a parallel between humanity and his ideas of the trinity: “for we are, and we know that we are, and we love to be and to know that we are. And in this trinity of being, knowledge and love there is not a shadow of illusion to disturb us.”[2] In Augustine’s assignment of functions to each member of the trinity, he displaces mystery and leaves a very wooden picture of what many early church fathers referred to as  “the divine…dance, a circling round of threefold life, as a coming and going among the Persons and graciously in relation to creation.”[3]

            Augustine’s explanation of the mysterious Godhead can be tempting to assent to as it is clear-cut and simple. Furthermore, it preserves a strong monotheism in only seeing the three persons of the Trinity in a very modalistic and matter-of-fact view where each member serves a function of the one God. To this end, western theology has been right in employing Augustine’s ideas; they are simply easier for the average person to accept. I fear, however that there is much richness that is lacking in such a simplified version of Trinitarian thought. Simply put, there is just too high a price to pay for a fa├žade of certainty. I’m not advocating throwing out the bulk of western tradition, only that we as contemporary Disciples of Christ need to remember that mystery is a very intrinsic part of our faith. God has revealed himself in the Messianic person of Jesus; however, there are many parts of God we have not been clued-in to. This is no impoverishment to Christianity; only a vivification of a real relationship with a God who maintains a perpetual relationship with his creation.

One of the major differences between the eastern and western wings of the church is the approach with which each side grapples with the doctrine of the trinity. German reformed theologian, Jürgen Moltmann puts it succinctly in his book The Trinity and the Kingdom when he says that “the western tradition began with God’s unity and then went on to ask about the trinity. We [the Eastern Church] are beginning with the trinity of the persons and shall then go on to ask about the unity.”[4] It is this subtle difference in approaches that colors how theologians across the world have thought about the trinity. In the East, there is little fear of losing God’s unity as it is an assumed fact that has been so engrained through the monotheistic, Abraham traditions of Judaism and Islam. Because of this foundational assumption, the focus has largely been on the “three-ness” of God and not the unity for the trinity is what is unique among the other two major world religions.

This focus is advantageous in discipleship by boldly confronting the confounding paradox of God’s unity and tri-unity.  This is not a point that will be particularly attractive to non-believers nor will it draw any favor with new converts; in spite of this, the eastern approach effectively maintains the mystery of the Godhead by only revealing what we find as true from scripture. A major handicap to the west as compared to the east is that the unity-focused explanations of Augustine and his contemporaries come straight out of their apologetic debates and not from scriptural exegesis. At the end of the second century, Tertullian utilized a phrase that has stuck with orthodox theology: “God is ‘una substantia, tres personae’.[5]  By using this language, Tertullian decisively summed up what many voices were trying to get at: God is one “what” and three “whos”.   

As a Christian in a contemporary culture where we maintain a multi-verse of religious conversations, it is important to first identify that, in endeavoring to explain the trinity to anyone, we must approach the one engaged in dialogue at whatever theological level they might be. It is unfair and unproductive to talk over someone’s head because they are not versed in theologically technical terms. It is equally foolish to talk to someone who is theologically astute as if they knew little of the Christian faith. While this may seem like a given, I find it vital to the conversation. It is a human trait to try and out talk the other person while never really answering the questions at hand.

For a more theologically perceptive person, I would find it most productive to explain the trinity by way of defining personhood through relationships. The trinity is the perfect relationship and in that relationship is such a unity that the three distinct members are each one in will, substance and power; their diversity lies in their self-awareness and the implicit differences in their internal relationships such as Spirit to Father vs. Son to Father. This covers, in my opinion, the most accurate picture theologically speaking and preserves both the unity and tri-unity of God.

For the believer who not spent much time in thought over the complexities of the trinity, I would more than likely use the metaphor utilized by early church fathers that the trinity is like a divine dance that is ever evolving and becoming more beautiful turn by turn. For context sake, I would add that it is into this dance that we are invited as adopted children of the Father by way of our divine brother, Jesus through the power of God’s Spirit. The three dancing members are such that each compliments another and none are out of rhythm in any way; this also preserves the unity and tri-unity of God.

Finally, for a non-believer, I would probably explain the trinity as the ideal community in which each member considers themselves in servitude to the other two. By this explanation, one can understand that it is indeed love and nothing else that bonds the members; God is unified by way of the substance of love. This community is the ideal for humanity to imitate in all relationships. Jesus leaves the command to love others as he has loved us (John 13:34) as an invitation to learn to love the same way that God loves; in community and as a servant.

There are a great many things to be said about the trinity, most of which I have not the space to cover. What is important in communicating this foundational belief of ours is in the idea that, however complex, paradoxical and perplexing it may seem, God is indeed one God, always undivided and always good while at the same time maintaining the distinction of three individual persons who are different in many relational ways. It is God’s unity that we are loyal to and it is to the collective glory of all three members that we strive to further the kingdom.

The Dread

[1] Hart, David Bentley. "The Age of the Fathers." The story of Christianity: an illustrated history of 2000 years of the Christian faith. London: Quercus, 2007. 75-76. Print.
[2] Baird, Forrest E.. "Augustine." From Plato to Derrida. 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2011. 290. Print.
[3] Pinnock, Clark H.. "Spirit & Trinity." Flame of love: a theology of the Holy Spirit. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1996. 22. Print.
[4] Moltmann, Jürgen. "Trinitarian Theology Today." The Trinity and the kingdom: the doctrine of God. !st Fortress Press ed. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993. 19. Print
[5] Zizioulas, Jean, and Douglas H. Knight. "The Doctrine of God." Lectures in Christian dogmatics. London: T & T Clark, 2008. 49. Print.