Trinitarian Doctrine: Inoculation or Invitation to Health? Dr. Marty Folsom

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Dr Marty Folsom With measles breaking out again in the USA, the question of whether everyone should be inoculated has become a big question. Do we protect the masses by inoculating all or do we allow those who are concerned about their kids (the individual) provide a basic approach? The bottom line question is about protection—a noble concern.

In Trinitarian discussions these days, there is a raging debate over how to “protect the people” from bad doctrine. On one side are those who feel the need to protect the simplicity of God, the unity of the Godhead as a single subject. They are nervous about the social and relational Trinitarians who they fear are focusing on the three persons as a projection of the experience of being human persons onto God. Further, they are concerned that contemporary social concerns are being read into the Trinity in an attempt to be relevant to human needs and social agendas.

Those who are for the simplicity of God fear the disease of tritheism in the social Trinitarians. This heresy would violate the biblical material of there being one God. If believed, this basic tenet of the Old and New Testaments, presenting a monotheistic God, would be lost and people would begin choosing the “god” of three that suited them (some might focus on just Jesus, or the Spirit, some on the Father alone, in any case they might lose the other two). There are many more concerns I am sure.

Those who are concerned for the social agenda fear the disease of modalism with the adoption of the simplicity agenda. This heresy would collapse the three persons into one God to the neglect of the three particular persons. There would be no more inter-Trinitarian dialog, no sense of relationality in God that shapes our life in community, and the divine-human relation becomes severely limited.

As I have been reading and listening to the simplicity people (Holmes, Ayres), who represent the Latin Western theology I sense, in the end, an abstract God who does not engage humanity. Their concern is to be true to the 3rd-4th century creedal statements, and to Augustine. Ayres especially has tried to diminish the differences between the focus on unity in the West (following Augustine) and the threeness of persons in the East (following the Cappadocians), saying that they were not really that different and that, not surprisingly, they all prefer simplicity. He sweepingly sees all contemporary Eastern Orthodox as social Trinitarians (who have abandoned the faith and embraced a form of modern existentialism and personalism). Holmes wants to eliminate any “functional” value for the Trinity in the church , leaving us with a protected God in the heavens, but not engaging and shaping the life of the church. There is a reductionism that sees everyone who differs from them as nothing but an “evil social Trinitarian” as they repeatedly said at the LA Theology conference.

This desire to inoculate the church from the heresy of tritheism is turning God into an abstract, distant God who has truth in the heavens, but is separated from human relations. This sounds like Plato to me, and that was the concern of Colin Gunton with the influence of Augustine on those who follow his theology uncritically (See The One, the Three, and the Many). Plato’s concern for the unity of truth in the realm of the forms and a distrust of the material and physical world set up a trajectory for Christian teaching that majored in abstract, spiritual ideas and resisted the evils of the physical world (where relations exist). Whether Augustine proposed it or the development of theology in the West went there, the concern for the individual in their internal spiritual life, right teaching, and being part of the One, true Church have dominated the agenda. It appears to me the modern crusaders for the priority of the unity of God have followed the Western tradition and are calling people back to the 3rd and 4th century debates, but not back to the Bible itself. Right teaching trumps loving living and a life of worship envisioned in Scripture.

The social Trinitarians need to be careful as well. We must never project onto God. Moltmann, Volf, Grenz, Boff and others are the one’s labeled as the culprits of projection. Their concern is for the particular lived life of humans in this world. Not a bad agenda, unless we take our social concerns and read them into God. Is this concern for finding wisdom in this world a new thing in the church? No, this was the advancement of Aquinas building on the progressive thought of Aristotle. Shedding the abstract, these trajectories aim to be “this-worldly” and feel a sense of realism. This led to the Natural theology traditions that Karl Barth critiques so severely because they build from the human observation of the world and foist those thoughts onto God. Thus, Barth proposed we need to go back, not only to the Bible, but to a careful paying attention to the God revealed in Jesus who reveals a God who is with and for the world, however not merely supporting human agendas.

Both the simplicity and social Trinitarians use doctrine to inoculate the church (I think they believe it will trickle down to help). They want to save it from heresies that they fear will destroy the church. But in their debating they have only inoculated the majority of the church from caring any more. Even as an interested theologian, the tediousness of the debates, the inability to see the good in the other, and the general lack of feeling like any of it really echoes the love of the God revealed in the Bible, leaves me cold.

My wife is a dentist. In dentistry, all doctoral level research (the academy) is for the purpose of helping professionals serve their communities in achieving health. They research procedures, materials, diseases, drugs, and diagnoses in order to help patients understand what health looks like and to facilitate and support them achieving that end. Unfortunately, in theological research I see a disconnect. Either the research is in the academy, for the academy (never to reach the people for whom the Gospel is intended) or research is turned completely to developing practices based on modern definitions of organizational success, not theological health.

We need Trinitarian theology that invites the church and those who are outside to hear and know the God revealed in Scripture. In order to live in a vibrant relationship of love with that God who is revealed as Father, Son, and Spirit, and to develop a love for our neighbor and self. Otherwise, the cure becomes the disease.

I look to JB Torrance, Alan Torrance, and others like them as examples of this paradigm. There is a deep sense that the life of God that is opened to humanity is to be shared. The life of the Church is to have a koinonia fellowship that does not capture God in definitions and descriptions, or try to be relevant to the modern social milieu. Rather, it is to pursue faithfulness to the task of knowing and being known. The Church must find language and mission that actually open the way to the healing of persons, communities, and the world because the Gospel contains such a scope within the life of the reconciling and grace-filled God.

I am not suggesting that we abandon the concerns of simplicity and sociality, but these need to be secondary to the relationality that is revealed through the God of the Bible. If our heads are full, but our hearts are dry, something is amiss. A theologian who does not love is like a skinny chef, you are not sure they eat what they serve up. We need to research, teach, and live in such a way that we are invitational witnesses who are able to nurture and support a healthy relationship with all three persons of the Trinity, other Christians who are different from us, and develop a respect and dignity that we grant to ourselves as God’s beloved.

I often feel alone in this quest. I wrote this blog as an invitation to conversations that do not identify the bad guys, but call us all to rethink the purpose of theological thinking. I had a graduate student who once said, “Is theology simply what we need to learn to fill the content of our adult education classes? You are the first theologian I have met that seems to think that knowing God informs our whole ministry and even life outside Sunday.” We need to be shocked. The church is getting all the packaging with all the ingredients, but I question whether they are getting any of the nutrients contained within. I may be overstating, but I think it is true enough to cause serious concern.

Theologians are a threatened species because the world sees no use for us anymore. The church wants practitioners who will give how-to knowledge to leaders to build successful churches. Those leaders who are high-profile Christians are debating universalism, predestination, holiness, the spiritual life, and other topics that are either abstract or human-centered. We are a distracted people.

We are missing theologians who help us hear and respond to the Triune God in ways that make it the norm to have the kind of relationship that the Bible envisions: a daily walk of love: hearing the Great Shepherd’s voice, led by the Spirit, and through them knowing the Abba of Jesus. The hope of the church in the future is to reorient from merely talking about God to start listening to God and hearing what this Triune God has to say to our generation. We need not abandon the other conversations, but we need to make them invitational to share God’s life here and now.

We must not inoculate people regarding the Trinity, though most are already Trinity-resistant, even in the church. But the Gospel unleased is an invitation to life. God’s life and love will not change, but many will live as malnourished persons because the missed the lifeblood of living in a vibrant relationship with the living, Triune God and focused on their “spiritual” self alone. That is the disease. Restored relations are the cure.