Reading Chapter 10

Trinity – The Living God of Love 

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No matter what Christians profess to believe, if we are not living in relationships that serve the reign of God, then we don’t have a clue about who God is.

(1)  The point:  The first Christians’ awareness of salvation, which they experienced as coming from God through Jesus in the power of the Spirit, was such a powerful encounter with the Holy that it required new language. Trinitarian language is really Christian code for the experience that the living God, known through Jesus and the Spirit, is dynamic love encompassing the universe.  ¶  But in recent centuries, the doctrine of the Trinity has become unintelligible – even religiously irrelevant – on a wide scale.  This chapter looks at how the idea of the Trinity became disconnected from Christian life, and how some contemporary theologians are working to weave them together again.

(2)  History of a breach:  As Christian communities grew in the first century, they believed the transcendent God of Israel had come near to them in Jesus – and was still with them in the Spirit.  (We might say that they experienced God in a three-fold way: as beyond them, with them, and within them.)   ¶  The first followers of Jesus were  Jews who worshiped the one God who is revealed in the Hebrew scriptures as YHWH.  ¶  The New Testament does not contain a full-blown doctrine of the Trinity; by the fourth century, controversies over the divinity of Jesus Christ led to formulation of the creeds. The creeds did not explain how the one God could also be triune; the creeds they just confess that this is so.  ¶  As more centuries passed, theologians started to make a real distinction between the God revealed in human history and the God who exists apart from the world in an eternal, divine realm.  By the Enlightenment, trinitarian doctrine had become very abstract, saving little about salvation; theology had lost touch with the historical story of redemption, where trinitarian meaning has its roots.  ¶  The trinitarian idea that God’s very nature is communion, relation-to-another-who-is-equal, became submerged in waves of theory that justified the domination of some over others.  This had disastrous consequences for the symbol of God.  The Biblical story of encounter with God – the story of the personal God of Israel encountered in the concrete life and destiny of Jesus of Nazareth and present through the Spirit in the life of the church and the world – was now being described through an abstract, complex, literal, and oppressive trinitarian theology.   ¶  Theologians today are working to heal the breach by speaking of God only through the lens of saving history.

(3)  The point, again:  The Trinitarian symbol is not meant to give literal information, but to acclaim the God who saves and to lead us into this Mystery.  Today a great ferment is brewing in trinitarian theology.  At least three tasks are involved.

(4)  Rooted in the experience of salvation: Christians believe that God has acted in history through creation, through Jesus of Nazareth and – again and again – through the renewing Spirit.  So Christians experience God in three ways:  first, as the uncreated origin of all (God as Creator); second, as the embodied presence of God in human time and space (God in Jesus); third, gifting the world with gracious divine presence (God as Spirit).  All this experience is of one God, but Christians use a triple mode of address to describe the three-fold way God has acted and communicated in human history. 

(5)  Spoken allusively:  “Trinity” is not a literal description of God but a symbol – and symbols always present their meaning indirectly and metaphorically. ¶   Person:   Over the centuries, “person” (from a Latin word referring to an actor’s mask or role in a drama) has evolved in meaning. In the beginning, God was seen to ‘act’ in the human ‘drama’ by wearing three masks; but believers knew it was the same God behind all three masks.  However the concept of “person” has changed in our modern world; we now think of ‘persons’ as having ‘personalities’, or as separate individuals.  Applying the old word to God almost inevitably leads to the danger of tri-theism – imagining three distinct “persons,” and then trying to explain how the three can be one. (The agony of the Trinity Sunday homily results.)   ¶  Numbers One and Three:  Already struggling with the idea of ‘person’ in the sixth century, Augustine said that in the symbol of the Trinity, “one” and “three” do not refer to numbers in the usual sense – God is not divided into three separate parts.  ¶  A fresh insight into the idea of trinity comes from contemporary Western theology’s rediscovery of the idea of perichoresis.  (Perichoresis = Greek for “a revolving around.”) Some theologians muse that trinitarian perichoresis conjures up the lovely picture of God’s inner life as a divine round dance.  And the metaphor can be extended further: if God is dancing, why not step out to the contagious rhythms of salsa, meringue, calypso, swing, or reggae, or to the intricate a-rhythmic patterns of modern dance?  The point is, with the three circling around in a mutual, dynamic movement of love, God is not a static being but a plenitude of self-giving love.

(6)  Expressed in concepts of our day:  The God we are trying to describe has been experienced beyond, with, and within the world. Today’s theologians are working to describe the mystery of God in new language – always remembering that whatever language we choose, we are attempting to describe a God who is beyond language As we do this, we need to focus primarily on the trinitarian God who is “God for us” – even when we stop to reflect on the meaning of the Trinity apart from the world, we must never disconnect the life of God from God’s saving work in the world.  ¶  We can think of the Trinity as one name with three inflections.  (Inflection = a change in pitch or tone of voice.)  To say that Trinity is one Name with three inflections is to identify three different voices, or musical tones that sing this truth. The theological inflection (theology = reasoning about God) focuses on the first “person”, it speaks about the Trinity in the light of Israel’s covenant YHWH, and identifies Jesus and the Spirit with reference to the Creator and God of Israel.  The Christological inflection (Christology = reasoning about Jesus Christ)  focuses on the Word made flesh; it speaks of the God of Israel and the Spirit in the light of Jesus Christ.  The pneumatological inflection (pneumatology = reasoning about the Holy Spirit) focuses on the gift of life continuously coming from God.  Pneumatology today comes through the rich and varied speech of many peoples, tribes and nations.

(7) The point, yet again:  Naming God as Trinity sums up the experience that the unfathomable mystery of God is a communion of overflowing love, enfolding the world with gracious compassion.

(8)  A most practical doctrine:  A revitalized trinitarian theology has strong, down-to-earth ramifications.  If God lives as the mystery of love, and human beings are created in the image of this God, then we are called to live like God – to live in love with others. The symbol of the Trinity gives us vision; it can shape our actions in the world, it can be a criterion to measure the fidelity of our lives, and it can become a basis for resisting every form of oppression that diminishes community.  ¶  As individuals, we are called to enter into the dynamic of God’s love and communion with others; unless we also enter into the dynamic of God’s love and communion with others, a  life of integrity is impossible.   ¶  As the church, we are called to be a living symbol of divine communion, turned toward the world in inclusive and compassionate love.  Only a community of equal persons related in profound mutuality, praising God and caring for the world in need – only such a church corresponds to the triune God it purports to serve.

No matter what Christians profess to believe, if we are not living in relationships that serve the reign of God, then we don’t have a clue about who God is.


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