Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Are You a Trinitarian?

This coming Sunday has been designated by the ecclesial calendar as Trinity Sunday.  For much of Christian history Christians have designated God as Trinity -- "One God in Three Persons."   It is a key divider of Christians from the other two Abrahamic faith traditions, that like Christianity affirm monotheism.

Saying that you believe God to be Trinity, however, is not the same thing as understanding what it means for God to be Trinity.  My sense is that most Christians nod at the idea of Trinity and then move on, adopting one of two basic ideas -- unitarianism or tri-theism.  Many Christians think of Jesus as more divinely inspired prophet than God in the flesh, in that they would embrace a view that is shared by unitarianism -- as well as Muslims.  Many other Christians, however, end up in what is best called tri-theism.  That is, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are essentially three separate beings.  It's no wonder that many Muslims see Christians as tending toward polytheism, or at least adding something to God that doesn't belong to the nature of God.

So, as we head toward Trinity Sunday, if you're a Christian, are you a Trinitarian?  If so, why?   If not, why not?

I have struggled with my definitions, but end up affirming a Trinitarian view of God.  Much of the debate over the centuries has been semantic in nature -- how do we understand words like person of substance?  Much of the debate was held when Platonism or Neo-Platonism held sway, so the vocabulary used in the debate reflected that philosophical bent, but we no longer operate in a Platonic context.   As we talk about God, we must recognize that all language is insufficient to describe God's nature and purpose.  We can use analogy and metaphor, but in the end our language breaks down, as God transcends this language.  That, however, does not excuse us from the need to reflect on who God is and how God engages us.

 So, how then do we engage God as Trinity. The idea of the economic Trinity, that is, knowing God as Trinity through the way God encounters us is helpful.  The ontological or immanent Trinity, the Trinity in God's essence is difficult to comprehend without turning to abstract thought, but we can understand God in God's activity as Trinity.   

With this in mind, I like the way David Lose of Luther Seminary puts it.      

Perhaps the best way to approach the Trinity, then, is to think of it backwards. It is through the power of the Spirit that we can receive Jesus as God’s surprising and unexpected messiah who reveals to us the gracious and loving nature of the Father. 
The ultimate question for us concerns the character of God who is revealed to us through Christ in the power of the Spirit.  

So, once again -- are you a Trinitarian?  And does this confession make a difference in your understanding of the Christian faith?  Is it an essential or is it non-essential?

6 comments:

Jeff said...

Yep, I am. (<making no claims here). I make the claim that God is one god AND that there are indeed three persons in that godhead. I am also a gen Xer and who doesn't need competing truths to "make sense". I had a pastor once that was a modelist though he thought he was a trinitarian. Esssential for what?

Robert Cornwall said...

Jeff, thanks for the comments.

The question of essential/non-essential goes to the question of what makes one a Christian. Many would say that affirming the Trinity is one of the essentials. Others would point out that the Trinity isn't explicitly defined in the New Testament and isn't fully developed for three centuries, so how can you make it an essential?

Rev. Steven F. Kindle said...

I guess I'm an economic Trinitarian, or more to the point, a metaphorical Trinitarian: these are the traditional ways to describe the work of a monotheistic God. So I can relate to Lose's statement.

Asking the question of the essentiality of belief in the Trinity seems to me to be a throwback to faith as belief, not trust. Anyone who claims to be a high Trinitarian without knowing the homoiousios vs. homoousios debate which brought the Trinity fully into Christianity is giving verbal assent to something of which they know little or nothing, but they think it is expected of them. Yes, since we are neither Platonist or Aristotelian, these arguments about substance no long inform. If we could make this clear, we would go a long way in Interfaith dialog.

Robert Cornwall said...

Thanks Steve -- you are right about making affirmations/declarations without understanding the dynamics out of which the doctrines were formed is problematic.

The philosophic ground has shifted, but I think one can make effective arguments for why the Trinity is a helpful way of understanding the nature of God. Being a Disciple, of course, I'm loathe to demand others follow my course!!

John said...

So how about this: the trinity is an occasionally helpful explanation tool, typically an unnecessary distraction, and occasionally a source of unhealthy division.

It is a helpful explanation of the presentation of God in the Scriptures. It often causes the well intentioned believer to use it to define (and circumscribe) the ineffable; and belief in particular understandings of it is all to often used as a litmus test for exclusion from official church.

Bottom line: God IS ineffable, and however we visualize and explain God, our efforts will always be wholly inadequate.

Soulspeaker said...

That symbol is a pagan symbol. Christians don't use symbols because it is commanded you are not to have any graven image.