This continues a dialog, engaging statements 7 through 9 of Ben Myer’s blog post on how to avoid heresy with the Trinity:
#7. In this doctrine every word is used in a very limited way. Even the numbers 1 and 3 can’t be taken literally
The call of all good communication is to be careful with our words. When speaking of God, we must always begin with the humility to recognize that our words cannot fully grasp the nature and being of God. At the same time, we must have the confidence to believe that Jesus was the Word and used words that do not keep God separate from us. He brings us to share life with the Wholly Other God who takes on our form to connect. The limitation we must keep in mind is that only God can fully fill the meaning of the words we use of God—we cannot take our experience and project it onto God. For example, the word God is pointing to the triune God being revealed in Jesus when it is used of the Christian God. However, when we are careless and speak of God as a distant, uninvolved force out in the universe, we are violating the use of the term and creating illusions instead of speaking of God. If we think God is Father as a larger form of our biological fathers—which is projection and mythology—we are creating God in the image of our experience. But if we see the Father as one uniquely revealed in Jesus, as the One who sent Jesus and the Spirit, we are using appropriate, listening care. Instead of our varied, developing human experiences, God is filling the meaning of the word.
Thus, when we say God is one, we cannot think out of our experience of objects, like one rock or one hour, but must have our thinking shaped by the self-confession of God. Consequently, the term one becomes open in a way that allows for clarification and an expanded understanding. Even to say there is one universe is to speak of one thing, but it is not simple within its unity.
To be clear then, when Jesus says that He and the Father are one, we must allow that revealed relation to inform who this one God is that includes Father and Son, and also how the Spirit is part of this oneness. The oneness must include an openness that fits the biblical revelation. This means we cannot take our experience of oneness and fit God into it. Our understanding of the meaning of that unity of God must be shaped by the self-disclosure of God, recognizing that it is God who brings us into encounter as a gifted relationship, not requiring us to “figure it all out” in order to share life together.
When we say three, we are using a number as a symbol in order to count objects. We call this a literal meaning—if we think literal can only mean a simple straightforward human counting of objects. Three, when referring to the Trinity, is not counting three humans or individuals. The word person must be used here as a concept referring to a being who is capable of and actually exercises relationships of knowing and being known, or is in the process of growing into this as their end (when referring to humans). To refer to the persons of the Trinity as three is to hear Jesus as a person revealing His Father and the Holy Spirit as persons who act and interact within their unity of a life. The one Jesus reveals the three distinguished persons who interact in a shared life. Together, they create and engage human life; all three are involved in engaging humans as persons who are created in God’s image for response.
Literally is a word that cannot be taken literally. Every word and number, every symbol and picture, must be interpreted. Each points to a particular thing or action, but cannot give us the entire context necessary for a full and complete understanding. An appropriate interpretation of a good literal meaning asks about context, speaker, and audience. Only with these clarifications in place can we enter into a meaningful dialog with words as tools of communication instead of confusion or domination. This is supremely true of the one God in three persons who invites us into exactly that kind of dialogical life.
We need to allow our literal meanings about God to be God-informed. Let’s be more literal, meaning more filled with the wonder of God, revealed by God, and always interpreted by God when speaking of God.
#8. Don’t partake in meaningless debates about whether “oneness” or “threeness” is more important (see #7)
Debates are about being right, winning an argument, and having power over another. However, if debates were for the purpose of clarifying and pursuing a better living of life together, then that would be a better use of our time.
We must recognize that God will be God no matter what we say or think about this God. It is we who are affected by the outcome of our discussions and conclusions. If we think God needs us to meet conditions to receive love, we will focus on meeting those conditions, believing we have earned our reconciliation to God. If we fail the conditions, we think God will punish or reject us. However, if we believe that Jesus has reconciled us in His cross and resurrection, we will enter the relation as a gift received. If we fail, we know that love will find a way towards reconciliation and redemption. Jesus offers a covenant relation that is meant to last a lifetime, not an insurance policy for when we need it. But many think that we have a legal relation with God, which is full of stipulations. We have missed that it is a familial relation with obligations of love, but these are not conditions; they are the outworking of love appropriate to the relationship. The one God—Father, Son, and Spirit—defines the nature of Family, of which our biological families are but a dim shadow.
Debates in theology seek to find meaning proper both to human claims about God and for the task of discussing our human responses. Some say the doctrine of the Trinity has no practical application (Stephen Holmes)—to talk of God should not inform our human activity. However, I think God reveals Godself for meaningful relationship—who God is shapes our understanding of whose and who we are.
We need to affirm oneness. I claim that God is one because that is the claim of the Shema (Hear, oh Israel, the Lord our God is one), and Jesus claims that He and the Father are one.
We need to affirm threeness. I also see Jesus revealing His Father and Spirit, so that I am inclined to assert that there are three persons with names who constitute this one God. The Speaking God of the Bible is the place for me to discover what ‘literal’ means when referring to this God. I agree with Ben that we cannot affirm one as more important than another—nevertheless the debates drone on. Simplicity (oneness) and Social (threeness) are pitted against each other.
Anti-social Trinitarians, also called Classical Trinitarians, are concerned that we do not propose that there are three Gods. Good. Social Trinitarians would also deny that there are three Gods, so it is in the nuances of description that the confusion comes. Social Trinitarians see a God who is vibrant in love and acts freely in love both within God’s life and the life extended to humans. The call to hear the value of the three persons of the Trinity is a deep reaffirmation that God’s life of love is the paradigm for how we love. God has loved us, both as a unity and with particularity. We are called to do the same. Thus, Social Trinitarians stress the three and may not equally emphasize the unity because they are trying to open up the Gospel that reconciles us to the full harmony of the Father, Son, and Spirit. If Social Trinitarians have made a construct of God merely to meet our whims and desires, then we can express our concern that they have missed God and created an idol, but also invite a return to three and one in balance. On the other hand, if they have called for reengagement with the living God to see what has been missed, that is of value as the goal of a debate. To assert that we cannot have been wrong for 1000 years is not helpful when there is good evidence that western philosophy may have taken us on significant detours—think dualism, materialism, idealism, enlightenment, humanism, power struggles, and all the other lenses that have infected theological thinking. And, yes, those are all connected to oneness and threeness debates!
Social Trinitarians are concerned that the God of classical theology has been reduced to a God locked up in Greek and scholastic terms and arguments. Definitions and descriptions have lost the dynamic God of the Bible. Preachers avoid the Trinity. Why? Because we have turned the doctrine into a dense fog of unknowing in an attempt to affirm the mystery and majesty of God. It is a worthy call to find language that speaks to the non-theological, opening the life of God to invite them in.
Classical Trinitarians are trying to be true to the Bible and the long history of debate that has kept us from heresy. This is to be valued. We need doctors with deep and extensive knowledge, but also with bedside manner to heal the patient. But if a debate inoculates the church from a relationship with this God, it has missed its mark. It is a worthy call by Classical Trinitarians to ask for a return to creedal language to clarify the nature of this one God as living one shared life that needs to be adored and respected so we may encounter the mystery with humility.
Ben’s point to be affirmed is to not make one view more important than the other. When we think of the one God, we should be caught up in the wonder of the three who in love make that oneness. When we think of the three persons, we ought to be drawn to share the unity of their life without separation as the great drama of love for humanity and us particularly. One and three, can’t you see?
II. TRINITARIAN THEOLOGY, EAST AND WEST
#9. Don’t worry about whether you prefer Augustine or the Greeks. You don’t have to pick a favourite, it’s not Masterchef
This is a complex discussion. There are many Ancient Greek (Athanasius, Cappadocians) and Roman (Augustine) voices. And then there are many traditions that interpreted those past voices, either clarifying or confusing them. Finally, there are contemporary Greek (Orthodox) and Roman (both Catholic and Protestant) voices that are connected to East and West, but bring these ancient conversations to their current contexts. They are not all using the exact same language, illustrations, or meanings. Sometimes they use the same words with different meanings. Sometimes different words point to similar meanings. It is a bit like Masterchef, with similarities in the task, but diversity in the applications.
The history of how Augustine has been interpreted would say that we need to recognize that problems may have developed along the way. Although he may have had some errors to begin with, and some may have misread him, he is worth critically engaging today. Additionally, there may be things that the ancients like Augustine did not address, but we now need to develop or find language to clarify what was said and what we may say today.
Thus, we need to be clear about what interpretations of Augustine, the Cappadocians, Athanasius, Aquinas, Calvin, Barth, Torrance, Gunton, Zizioulas, and all the others we are working with. We cannot pick a favorite; we must learn to eat the parts that are helpfully nourishing insights and avoid the parts that will make us sick. We need church doctors today like never before.
Did Augustine have echoes of dualism that created problems in theological thinking? Probably. Did he use images of the Trinity that were intended to hold the one and the three together? Yes. Could they be misread as human-based images with problems? Sure, so we need to clarify how the errors enter in so we can be master chefs in what we feed the people. Did his “inward turn” take Western theology and culture to look inwardly for its spiritual development? Probably. Does that mean we ought to now neglect the inward? Absolutely not. Is it time to recognize that we are whole beings who reflect inwardly in order to live in relation? Yes, we need to see that these things matter and the church today is not clear. In most cases, she is stuck in either a thought world that observes from the pews, but is not acting out love, or an activity-driven agenda that has relegated God to retirement as humans take the stage. Hopefully, a lot of excitement is now brewing in churches over the possibility of living in the Trinity—a God who cares about us as persons. But there is still a lot of fear that we will make God to be our servant.
God has chosen to be with us and for us in Christ. He has shown us the complexity in His simplicity as one God in three persons. He has shown us His particularity in the ongoing love of the Father, the mediation of the Son, and the empowering and transforming work of the Holy Spirit. But as a church, we are the window washers who are invited to clear away human illusions so the light of God will fill our place and our misinformed thinking will be seen as destructive and be removed.
So, we do not need to pick favorites, but we do need to live within the hospitality of God as Masterchef with a lot of sous-chefs who need to serve the guests and not assert their own superiority. I see too much competition and not enough collaboration in how we think we are honoring God. I do not want us to choose between chefs or their best insights; we need to listen to them all, as a cloud of witnesses to guide and protect. The anticipated outcome is that we share with God in serving and feeding a hungry world, rather than worshipping our favorite chefs. The way of God is one of hospitality that is more concerned with bringing in the lost from the highways and byways than certifying or judging the chef. We know the Bread of Life; let us eat of the one loaf and share in the one body with many parts by which we commune with Father, Son, and Spirit.