Posted by: dacalu | 6 February 2015

The Trinity – The Long Answer

In the last post, I gave a short explanation of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. In this post, I look in more detail at some of the theologically tricky bits.

Three Equals One?

This is one of the great “mysteries of the faith “, aspects of our relationship with God that defy strictly rational explanation. This is not to say that the doctrine is irrational. It’s just the best we can do with a cosmos too big to fit into our frame of reference. We use probability and probabilistic interpretations of reality regularly, despite being at a loss for what exactly they mean – and despite their being alien to bivalence (the idea that something must be true or false). Sometimes our minds are too small and we allow ourselves mind-stretching metaphors. Sometimes the cosmos is just weird. Sometimes theologians, like scientists, need to use counterintuitive and paradoxical ways of looking at the world to capture things we understand, sort-of, when full understanding is unavailable.

Inspiration and Reason

I make it sound as though Christians came up with a model to explain things. Don’t Christians believe that the doctrine of the Trinity was handed them by God, either in the Bible or through the Disciples? Many do believe this way. Others see the doctrine of the Trinity solely as a human invention. I fall somewhere in between. God has given us evidence that this is the best way to look at things – in passages from scripture and revelations to believers – but has also given us tools for assembling the evidence – through independent and communal reasoning. I have tried to write in a way that would be consistent with the whole range of perspectives, from passive recipients of Divine wisdom to inspired agents in the creation of doctrine.

GOD and Gods

I have spoken elsewhere about the two ideas of God: the philosophical God and the personal God. I would like to say a little more, because it’s particularly important in the case of the Trinity.

By GOD, I mean an idea developed by Plato, Aristotle, and the neoplatonists, often translated as God, the One, or the Good. GOD is that on which the cosmos rests. When I think the foundation of a book, I might either say the paper on which the marks appear or the mind of the author. The first is called materialism, the second idealism. Note, however, that no-one says the foundation of the book is nothingness. For some strange reason, modern thinkers seem committed to the idea that the universe is fundamentally a void in which stuff can be placed. This notion of space, called extension in the Enlightenment, seems to be relatively rare historically and should not be called materialism. It forces us to ask “what is space?” I find this no less troubling than “what is God?” though I admit both are a bit wonky rationally. Christians have called God that which must by necessity exist (Aquinas), that which nothing greater exists (Anselm) and the ground of being (Tillich). These are ways of saying we assemble our model of the world from God on up to human experience. GOD need not have a personality. Indeed, many theologians from Plotinus to Spinoza to Cobb have seen God more as a cosmic force than a personality. I go back and forth between thinking this is one useful way of seeing the Father or the Spirit in the Trinity and seeing it as an attempt to deny that we have personal relationships with Father, Son, or Holy Spirit.

On the other hand, a god is a being of immense power, usually associated with a personality and preferences. Plato and Buddha have both noted that the existence of multiple gods makes them a poor choice when trying to orient yourself morally. Even if we don’t view them as capricious, the existence of many gods means that they can disagree. Christians have been unwilling to consider the possibility of a split in the Trinity. We want (see) a God whose preference and will are always univocal. It wouldn’t work to have three gods in place of one God, because it would open the possibility of disagreements. We never want to find ourselves in the position of saying that the Father commands obedience while the Spirit urges change. It would work neither practically or philosophically.

Christians want (see) all three persons to be GOD and not just gods.

Why YHWH Must Be GOD

The first person of the Trinity – the Father – is identified with the creator of the world. A branch of Christian gnostics attempted to separate GOD from the creator, but their perspective never caught on. Christians are invested in the idea that the entirety of the cosmos is worthy of our curiosity, love, and care. In our Trinitarian thinking, we have also been clear in stating that the Spirit (Genesis 1:2) and Jesus (John 1:3) were involved in creation.

Christians are also committed to the idea (as was Jesus) that we are not talking about a new GOD or even a new god. The God we worship is the same as a the God of Israel, the god worshipped by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Why Jesus Must Be GOD

At the heart of the Christian message is an idea that GOD became incarnate, that that power which underlies and transcends all reality took on human form and became subject to human will. The meaning of the passion (suffering) and crucifixion of Jesus Christ is intimately tied up with our understanding of him as not only representative, but as the ruler of all. The universe is not blind to our suffering, but suffers with us. The alienation we feel can and has been bridged by true meaning coming to us when we were incapable of reaching out to it.

Why the Holy Spirit Must Be GOD

Christians are also committed to the troublesome, infuriating, and embarrassing idea that God is present in concrete fallible communities of human beings. We think that God continues to live with us as we live – again, not as a representative of heaven or as a perfect overlord, but as a frail human amongst other frail humans. Christianity is not an explanation of the universe (though it has some elements of that) but a response to the world we find ourselves in. Perhaps the most glorious thing about Christianity for the first believers and for us today is this community of faith, hope, and love, this miraculous life we find in our common struggles and squabbling. To state that this messy process is identical to the ground of reality and value is both profound and practical. We will not escape to blessedness, but must find it here amongst the humans.

Against Modalism

Theologians have argued against Modalism, the view that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are modes or operations of one person, instead of three persons. It’s tempting to say that there is just one god (and GOD) whom we see acting in three modes. The problem with this is that it encourages us to see one or another of the modes as a less complete manifestation of God’s personality or underlying reality. It’s often used to prioritize the Father in a way that denies the fullness of Divinity experienced by those who interact primarily with the Son or the Spirit. This can lead us to overemphasize our obedience and underemphasize our friendship and participation. Of course those three nouns are themselves an oversimplification, but you get the point.

Because I object to Modalism, I also shy away from referring to God as “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.” I do indeed think God does all those things and does each in each of the three persons, so I don’t think the formulation is incorrect. I just think it does very different work than “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” The traditional Trinitarian formulation names three concrete people in our common stories and in our personal experience. They are names (nicknames, not proper names) for people, whose reality goes beyond their particular roles. The fullness of God rests in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – at least the fullness of God revealed to the Church. It does not dwell in God’s function as Creator, Redeemer, or Sanctifier of the world – or even in the combination of the three. God is a person and not just an action.

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  1. […] the next post, I’ll dive into some the theological challenges to this point of […]


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