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Survey of Theology 2. The Doctrine of the Trinity

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Topics

1. The Problem of the Trinity

1.1. The Doctrine of the Trinity as Stated in the Nicene Creed

1.2. The Problem for the Rational Mind

1.3. Some Quotations

1.4. Summary

2. Approaching the Mystery of "One in Three" and "Three in One"

2.1. Perichoresis

2.1.1. A Community of Being, Mutually Interpenetrating

2.1.2. Sharing an "I-You" Relation

2.2. Appropriation

3. Two Trinitarian Heresies

3.1. Inadequate Understandings of the Trinity

3.2. Modalism

3.2.1. Chronological Modalism

3.2.2. Functional Modalism

3.3. Tritheism

4. Models of the Trinity

4.1. Some Terms and Definitions

4.1.1. Immanent Trinity versus Economic Trinity

4.1.2. The Filioque Clause

4.2. Western Models of the Trinity

4.2.1. St Augustine’s Model of the Trinity

4.2.2. Karl Barth’s Model of the Trinity

4.2.3. Karl Rahner’s Model of the Trinity

4.3. Eastern Models of the Trinity

Primary References

 

 

1. The Problem of the Trinity

1.1. The Doctrine of the Trinity as Stated in the Nicene Creed

St. Augustine restated the doctrine of the Trinity as we profess it in the Nicene Creed in 7 statements: (from: On Christian Doctrine):

  • 1. The Father is God

  • 2. The Son is God

  • 3. The Holy Spirit is God

  • 4. The Father is not the Son

  • 5. The Son is not the Holy Spirit

  • 6. The Holy Spirit is not the Father

  • 7. There is only one God

 

 

1.2. The Problem for the Rational Mind

The problem for the rational mind: 

  • The numbers do not add up: three individual beings are named as God but they do not add up to three Gods, but rather to One God:

  • 3 = 1, 1 = 3

 

 

1.3. Some Quotations

 

“No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the splendor of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish them than I am carried back to the One. . . When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the undivided light.”

- St. Gregory Nazianzen

 

 

 

“When I speak of God you must be illumined at once by one flash of light and by three. Three in Properties, or Hypostases, or Persons, if any prefer so to call them, for we will not quarrel about names so long as the syllables amount to the same meaning; but One in respect of … the Godhead. For they are divided indivisibly. . . and they are conjoined dividedly. For the Godhead is one in three, and the three are one. . .”

- St. Gregory Nazianzen

 

 

1.4. Summary

The doctrine of the Trinity is:

  • ultimately irrational: “beyond rational understanding,” a “mystery”

  • something revealed to us by God, not demonstrated to us by our own reason

  • something in which, in the end, our "argumentation and analysis must give place to wordless prayer, 'Let all mortal flesh keep silent, and stand with fear and trembling.'" (Bishop Kallistos Ware)

 

 

2. Approaching the Mystery of "One in Three" and "Three in One"

Two concepts useful in trying to approach the mystery of "one in three" and "three in one:"

1. Perichoresis

2. Appropriation

 

 

2.1. Perichoresis

2.1.1. A Community of Being, Mutually Interpenetrating

Perichoresis (Greek) = circumincessio (Latin) = “mutual interpenetration:” the way the persons of the Trinity relate to each other

Describes “a community of being:” each person, maintaining a distinctive identity, “penetrates” the others and is penetrated by them, to the point that they have one will.

 

 

2.1.2. Sharing an "I-You" Relationship

“I-You” relationship (Martin Buber):

  • The “You” can never be objectified, or “boxed” into our understanding. The “You” has no borders, cannot be measured or “turned into content.” The “You” “fills the sky” of our mind's eye. The “You” is a Presence, is Presence as power.

  • An encounter, a transitory event (the “event of relation”) which is mutual and reciprocal

  • Can be called love

  • Comes to us by grace

The “mutual interpenetration” of the three persons of the Trinity should be thought of as involving a continuous (rather than a transitory) “I – You” relationship of each person of the Trinity with the other persons

 

 

2.2. Appropriation

All three persons of the Trinity are involved in every action of God.

Nonetheless, it is appropriate to think of some actions as distinctive actions of one person of the Trinity. For example:

  • creation as the work of the Father

  • redemption as the work of the Son

 

 

3. Two Trinitarian Heresies

3.1. Inadequate Understandings of the Trinity

Heresy = an inadequate or deficient understanding of some aspect of Christianity

 

Two understandings of the Trinity considered to be inadequate:

  • 1. Modalism (a danger in going too far to affirm the unity of God)

  • 2. Tritheism (a danger in going too far to affirm the distinctiveness of the three persons of the Trinity)

 

3.2. Modalism

3.2.1. Chronological Modalism

Chronological Modalism (Sabellianism): the one supreme God acts in different ways at different points in history

  • God acting as creator and lawgiver = “The Father”

  • God acting as savior = “The Son”

  • God acting as santifier = “The Holy Spirit”

 

 

3.2.2. Functional Modalism

Functional Modalism: the one supreme God acts in different ways (has different “functions”) at the same time in history:

  • God acting (functioning) as creator is the Father

  • God acting (functioning) as redeemer is the Son

  • God acting (functioning) as sanctifier is the Holy Spirit

 

 

3.3. Tritheism

Tritheism: Trinity consists of three equal, independent, autonomous beings, each of whom is divine

  • the analogy: "The Trinity is like three human persons sharing a 'common humanity'" borders on Tritheism

 

 

4. Models of the Trinity

4.1. Some Terms and Definitions

  • Immanent Trinity” (or “Essential Trinity”) versus “Economic Trinity

  • The Filioque Clause

 

 

4.1.1. Immanent Trinity versus Economic Trinity

  • Immanent Trinity or Essential Trinity

    • “God in Godself”

    • God as God is outside of creation. God as God is in eternity

  • Economic Trinity

    • “God for Us”

    • God as we experience God in creation: in history, in the “economy” of salvation, and in our personal lives

 

Through much of the development of their thinking on the Trinity, Western and Eastern Christianity have started with different assumptions about the relationship between the Immanent Trinity and the Economic Trinity:

  • Western Christianity:

    • Economic Trinity = Immanent Trinity

    • the God we experience in creation is fully God as God is outside of creation. “God for Us” = “God in Godself”

  • Eastern Christianity:

    • Economic Trinity ¹ (not equal) Immanent Trinity

    • the God we experience in creation is not fully God as God is outside of Creation. There is more to God than what we experience in creation. “God in Godself” is more than “God for Us”

 

This difference has had significant ramifications in other areas of theology, for example:

  • Western Christianity:

    • God in Godself” = “God for Us

    • Someday we will be able to see fully “God in Godself,” = the essence of God, in the “beatific vision”

  • Eastern Christianity:

    • God in Godself” more than “God for Us

    • God for Us” = “Energy of God

    • We will never fully know the essence of God, never fully know “God in Godself,” but someday we will be able to participate fully in the “Energy of God” and so become “deified”

 

(We will explore the Eastern Doctrine of the Energies of God in a section below)

 

 

4.1.2. The Filioque Clause

Nicene Creed (p. 359 Book of Common Prayer):

 

“We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.”

 

However, Nicene Creed, as written by Eastern and Western bishops at the Ecumenical Council in 381 read:

 

“We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father.”

 

The additional phrase “and from the Son” is the “filioque” clause (filioque = Latin for “and from the Son”)

  • phrase was added by the Western Church to the Creed

  • this addition was never agreed to by the Eastern Church

 

 

4.2. Western Models of the Trinity

4.2.1. St Augustine's Model of the Trinity

St. Augustine brought together several strands of thinking:

  • 1. there are “triadic” traces of the Trinity in the human soul: For example:

    • triad of self-knowledge (memory, understanding, will)

    • triad of self-love (Lover, Beloved, Love)

  • 2. the Spirit is the basis of the union between God and believers, and believer to believer. That is, the Spirit is the giver of community

  • 3. “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16)

 

And proposed:

  • the Holy Spirit is Love personified

  • Just as we experience the Holy Spirit as the “bond of love” between believers, the “giver of community,” so too within the Godhead, the Holy Spirit is the Bond of Love between Father and Son

    • Hence that triadic trace of the Trinity in each of us -- the “triad of self-love”

  • “Economic Trinity” = “Immanent Trinity” is being assumed

 

In this model, Love (the Holy Spirit) must of course proceed from the Father and Son, not merely from the Father. Scripture (John 20:22) provides further support: Jesus, appearing to his disciples after the resurrection, breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 

The Son is the Word of God, Spirit is the Breath of God, proceeding from the Father and the Son.

 

 

4.2.2. Karl Barth's Model of the Trinity

In Barth, God’s self-revelation to us is the root of the Doctrine of the Trinity (Immanent Trinity = Economic Trinity)

God moves out of God’s hiddenness (veiling) in two movements:

  • In the Word / the Son (movement of “objective” Word or unveiling)

  • In the Spirit (movement of “subjective reception” or imparting)

 

The movement of the Holy Spirit (imparting) is necessary because human beings are incapable of hearing the Word of God. God must effect a personal (subjective) response to the Word in each individual.

 

Barth gives the following scenario to explain this:

Consider two individuals walking outside Jerusalem in 30 A.D. They see three men on a cross.

  • First man points to the crucified figure in the center and says: “There is a common criminal being executed”

  • Second man says: “There is the Son of God dying for me”

Jesus as the objective revelation of God is not enough (first man); the Spirit as the imparting of a subjective recognition of that objective revelation, is also necessary (second man)

 

The movement of “imparting” = the Spirit = movement of “subjective reception,” logically follows (proceeds) from both:

  • God’s hiddenness = “veiling” = the Father

  • God’s “unveiling” = movement of “objective Word = the Word or Son

 

(Thus Barth affirms the filioque clause that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son)

 

These movements are not merely “modes” of God’s “economic” activity, but reflect true “modes of being and existence” within the eternal Godhead (Economic Trinity = Immanent Trinity; “God for Us” = “God in Godself”)

 

Grace in Barth’s model:

  • grace is God’s “good favor,” God’s “good-pleasure”

  • grace is the “Holy Spirit received”

 

 

4.2.3. Karl Rahner's Model of the Trinity

Karl Rahner explicitly declares that Immanent Trinity is the Economic Trinity and visa versa. “The way God is revealed and experienced in history is the way God is.”

As in Barth, God’s self-revelation or self-communication is the root of the Doctrine of the Trinity

 

God’s self-communication occurs by way of four “double-aspects:

  • past

  • history

  • offer

  • knowledge

future

transcendence

acceptance

love

 

Rahner reduces these four “double aspects” to two fundamental modalities of God’s self-communication:

  • knowledge” (encompassing past, history, offer)

  • love” (encompassing future, transcendence, acceptance)

 

In Rahner's model of the Trinity:

  • The Father is “God as Such”

  • The Son/Word/Logos, and the Spirit, are distinct “modes / manners of subsisting,” or “modes of God’s givenness:”

    • Son/Word/Logos = God’s self-communication as “knowledge

    • Spirit = God’s self-communication as “love

 

God’s self-communication presupposes a personal recipient. Whereas Barth emphasizes Man's sinfulness and inability to hear the Word of God (requiring the Spirit in order to recognize the Word), Rahner emphasizes that God made human beings capable of receiving God’s self-communication. In particular, the four “double aspects” of God’s self-communication are also present in human beings ("traces of the Trinity"):

  • elements of our personality that move us to step beyond ourselves (past, history, offer, knowledge)

  • elements of our personality reflecting our openness and receptivity (future, transcendence, acceptance, love)

 

The presence of these “double aspects” of God’s self-communication in ourselves "allow a duality:

  • of word and response"

  • of going out and return"

between ourselves and God

 

Grace in Karl Rahner’s Model:

  • "uncreated grace" – the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within us

  • "created grace" – the result of God’s indwelling within us

 

 

4.3. Eastern Models of the Trinity

We will here combine common elements of models of the Trinity in the works of Orthodox theologians Georges Florovsky and Vladimir Lossky

 

Eastern models start with a sense of the radical transcendance of God. The nature or essence or inner being of God is absolutely:

  • transcendent

  • incomprehensible

  • unknowable

 

“The super-essential nature of God is not a subject for speech or thought or even contemplation, for it is far removed from all that exists and more than unknowable . . . incomprehensible and ineffable to all for ever. There is no name whereby it can be named, neither in this age nor in the age to come, nor word found in the soul and uttered by the tongue, nor contact whether sensible or intellectual, nor yet any image which may afford any knowledge of its subject. . . None can properly name its essence or nature if he be truly seeking the truth that is above all truth.”

- St. Gregory Palamas

 

“God, then, is infinite and incomprehensible, and all that is comprehensible about Him is His infinity and incomprehensibility.”

- St. John Damascene

 

 

 

How then can we know God? What of those who say they have visions of God?

 

At the time of St. Gregory Palamas  (1296-1359), hesychasts were claiming to have an unmediated vision of God:

  • hesychasm: the repetition verbally, then in the depth of being, of the Jesus Prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”

 

Palamas proposed two forms of God’s existence:

  • The essence, nature, or inner being of God (for ever beyond all comprehension and knowing)

  • The energy or energies of God:

    • The actions, operations, power of God in creation

    • The “side of God through which God is revealed in and to the creation”

    • (Doctrine of the Energies of God sometimes called “Palamism”)

 

The energies are:

  • eternal and cannot be separated from the Trinity. They cannot be “appropriated” to individual persons of the Trinity

  • independent of creation

 

It is possible to have an unmediated experience of God by participating in the energies of God. Palamas proposed this is what was happening to the hesychasts.

 

From the Eastern point of view, the doctrine of the Trinity cannot be based on how we experience God in creation (the starting point for both Barth and Rahner), for this would:

  • imply God’s essence / nature / inner being is contingent or dependent in some way on creation

  • confuse the unknowable, incomprehensible essence of God with the energies of God (all of Western theology is only about the energies of God)

 

The Eastern view thus strongly declares that Immanent Trinity ¹ (not equal) Economic Trinity:

  • The Immanent Trinity (“God in Godself”) refers to the essence/nature/inner being of God, and is unknowable

  • The Economic Trinity (“God for Us”) is an imprecise way of referring to that form of God’s existence more properly called the energies of God

 

The nature / essence / inner being of God is a Trinity of three equal Persons. Only the following has been revealed to us of this inner being of God:

  • The Father is the source of divinity

  • There is a movement from the Father to the Son (Son is “begotten” of the Father)

  • There is a different movement from the Father to the Spirit (The Spirit “proceeds” from the Father)

 

 

Grace in the Eastern Models = another name for the energies of God.

  • a “penumbra of glory” surrounding the trinitarian Godhead

  • “shines through” all of creation

  • through ascetic preparation, we can choose to cooperate with the energies (grace) of God and ultimately participate in the energies

  • participation in the energies leads to “deification” of the full person (body and soul)

  • rather than a “passive” “beatific vision” of God in the world to come, Eastern Christianity envisions an ever deepening and growing “deification”/ participation in the energies of God

 

 

Primary References

  • Energies of the Spirit. Trinitarian Models in Eastern Orthodox and Western Theology. Duncan Reid. Foreword by Jürgen Moltmann. American Academy of Religion Academy Series No. 96. Scholars Press, Atlanta, 1997

  • Chapter 10 “The Doctrine of the Trinity” in: Christian Theology. An Introduction. Third Edition. Alister E. McGrath. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 2001

 

 

 

Survey of Theology

 

1. The Doctrine of God

2. The Doctrine of the Trinity

3. The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus, Part 1. Classic Christology

4. The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus, Part 2. Modern Views and Concerns

5. The Doctrine of Salvation in Christ

6. The Doctrines of Human Nature, Sin, and Grace

7. The Doctrine of the Church

8. The Doctrine of the Sacraments

9. Christianity and the World Religions

10. Last Things: The Christian Hope