Thursday, November 13, 2014

Reinvisioning Trinitarian Language

I am a Trinitarian in a faith community that doesn't emphasize the Trinity.  There are a number of reasons for this, including the fact that the word doesn't appear in Scripture.  In addition there's the rationalist origins of the movement,and rationalism doesn't exist easily with mystery.  The problem is that when we look at God as Trinity through the eyes of reason alone, we tend to end up with a math problem, and that gets us into trouble. But what if the Trinity isn't about math?  What if the Trinity is meant to describe the divine nature and the way God interacts with creation in a way that is much deeper than math can describe?  What if the Trinity is meant to remind us that God is ultimately a mystery.  

I remain a Trinitarian, even if the Trinity as a doctrinal concept can't be fully explained, because the doctrine reminds me that God is bigger than my ability to comprehend.  The Trinity also reminds me that God is relational.  God is internally and externally relational. That is, the relationship that God has with us mirrors in some fashion God's internal relationship as three partners, one God (I borrow the term partner from Ruth Duck and Patricia Wilson-Kastner.  God is more than a formula, but if God is Trinity how do we speak of this God in appropriate ways?    


The traditional formula, one taken from Matthew 28, describes God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In recent years feminist theologians have raised questions about the propriety of using exclusively masculine language.  They have called upon the church to develop new metaphors to speak of God, metaphors that are more inclusive and empowering to women.  This has become increasingly important in our own day as the church fails to capture the imagination of increasing numbers of people -- both male and female.  The use of exclusively masculine language can lead to woundedness (something Carol Howard Merritt spoke of this past weekend).     

One way in which the Trinity has been reinvisioned is the use of the formula:  Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.  These are, of course, functional terms and not relational ones.  The use of these terms to refer to individual members of the Trinity conflicts with a touchstone of Trinitarian theology, and that is that when it comes to functions, God as Trinity works in concert, so that it is the Trinity who creates, redeems, and sustains.  

If this formula, though often used, is problematic, what should we do.  For guidance, at the suggestion of a friend who is also Trinitarian, I've been reading the book Praising God: The Trinity in Christian Worship by the above mentioned Ruth Duck and Patricia Wilson-Kastner.  This book, published in 1999, is very helpful in exploring the way in which the Trinity functions in worship. They remind us that our words to describe God as Trinity are metaphors, and  encourage us to envision appropriate metaphors that stand in line with traditional understandings of the Trinity while being more inclusive and empowering.  Since we often find a brief formula helpful, they suggest one that mirrors as closely as possible the traditional Father, Son, and Spirit.  This formula moves beyond gender specific language, but doesn't fall into the trap of functionalism.  Thus, they suggest Source, Word, and Spirit.  

In encouraging our creativity (within appropriate limits), Ruth Duck writes:  

We praise God as Trinity, simply because the Source of life comes to us in Jesus Christ and seeks through the Spirit to draw us into communion with God's self, all people, and all creation.  Love is the mystery at the heart of creation.  The only appropriate way for us to respond in praise and in the offering of our very selves in love.  And then, when we need to find words for this wondrous, all-encompassing relationship of pure unbounded love, we must apply  heart, soul, and imagination to the task.  "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" is only one way of putting the mystery into words.  Current and future generations face the task of finding additional words to praise the triune God, not only to avoid the pitfalls of exclusively masculine language but also to recover worship of the Trinity as the vital center of life and faith! (p. 45)   

If the Trinity gives voice to the Christian vision of God as being relational, which I believe to true (I affirm its centrality without making this confession a test of fellowship), then how should we speak of this God we serve? What kinds of language is appropriate?  What are the limits?  

11 comments:

Steve Kindle said...

Bob, as I am also from your tradition (DOC), I exhibit the ambivalence you describe. If the Trinity is seen as ontological, I must dissent. If it is metaphorical, I'm on board. For me, God acts and these three important functions (Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer) describe God's activities, not God's being. Yes, Jesus and God are one. But in what way? I see their unity in mutual purpose, "Not my will but thine be done."

It is possible to ascribe much harm to the idea that Jesus is God. This puts Jesus at a distance and makes it difficult, if not impossible, to "follow in his steps." Who can walk as God walks? In an answer to the question, "Since Jesus is God, why did he pray?", and elder responded, "To give us an example, since he was praying to himself." Now, I know that is a poor understanding of the Trinity, but not too far off the mark in popular thought.

Metaphorical images such as "sitting at the right hand of God," and "heir of all things," fight against ontology, and make it difficult to keep the "mystery" intact. It is virtually impossible to defend the ontological Trinity from the New Testament. (Our readers may recall the effort to make the Trinity explicit in the NT by the gloss on 1 John 5:8, “in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one," which reading no one defends today.) No wonder the doctrine emerged post-biblically, and based more on Greek philosophical categories than Hebrew.

The notion of "relational" as a means of understanding the relationship of the 3-in-1 to each other and to ourselves, is fetching, but highly speculative. But I certainly approve and relate to Ruth Duck's statement above, "We praise God as Trinity, simply because the Source of life comes to us in Jesus Christ and seeks through the Spirit to draw us into communion with God's self." Amen!

Steve Kindle said...

I think I'd like to add that even "God" is a metaphor. If that's where we start, how can Trinity not be?

Henry E. Neufeld said...

As I noted on Facebook I'm ontologically agnostic. One of the labels I have found useful is "Christian agnostic." It's often misunderstood, but there are many ways in which I resemble the label.

Steve Kindle said...

Would I love to see THAT unpacked!

Henry E. Neufeld said...

Have you read The Christian Agnostic by Leslie D. Weatherhead? I stole the term from him.

Briefly, I simply mean that I don't think we know anything significant about the actual nature of God. We only know God as we experience God, but we cannot know how much that reflects who God really is. Thus trinitarian language is, I believe the way God has chosen to reveal Godself to us, and I'd even call it the very best language we have, it's most important goal is to tell us that we don't know, that the reality is mystery, if reality is even the right word for it.

Nancy Petrey said...

What does ontological mean? Henry, I don't think you are ANY kind of agnostic! You have experienced the presence of the Lord (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and know His Word is true!

John McCauslin said...

For me I find that in worship when images of God are made more abstract they become more distant from me, and I feel less worshipful.


Every attempt to image God is metaphorical and incomplete. And since God cannot be comprehended in any literal sense, any metaphor cannot be accepted as but anything but an attempt to lift up only a part of who God is. Its important to always have that limitation in mind.


For me more anthropomorphic metaphors are more meaningful, perhaps because I know how to relate to the humanity in another - I have no idea how to relate to their abstract qualities. While I can love another person, I can only appreciate ideas. It occurs to me that worshiping an abstract idea is awfully close to worshiping an idol.


The relational metaphor lifted up in the "Father, Son and Holy Spirit" is not in any sense adequately replaced by "Source, Word and Spirit" - its just another abstraction, and one which focuses on function just as much as "Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer." Hence, we are no further ahead.


The metaphor of parent and child, lifted up by "Father and Son" seems to defy quality replacements. The belovedness and the emotional investment shared between a parent and child is virtually unique among human relationships. It seems a mistake to surrender it and not replace it with another image dedicated to the same purpose. Perhaps that is the value of the Maryological tradition of Catholicism, it may be an antidote to the patriarchalism of "Father and Son," standing along side of it as "mother and Child," even though the divinity of the parental half is obviously left out missing.

Steve Kindle said...

Another way of understanding the (non)meaning of Yahweh, perhaps. Also, I appreciate Tillich's "God above God," which suggests that the ultimate reality of God is beyond anything we can know. He famously said something to the effect that anything you say after "God is" is a reduction of the true God. The mystery remains and that keeps us from owning God, although we keep trying to.

Henry E. Neufeld said...

But there are many things about which I am agnostic. That just means that I don't believe it is possible for me to know. God is infinite, and my knowledge is always finite. Thus, I proclaim the doctrine of infinite ignorance: I am now, and always will be infinitely ignorant of God.

This doesn't mean I know nothing, nor does it mean that I can't trust God. But full knowledge is incomprehensibly far beyond me.

I find the doctrine of the trinity to be an excellent statement of two things: 1) The experience of God, and 2) The mystery of God, i.e., we cannot express the incomprehensible mystery.

Nancy Petrey said...

Oh, I think I see what you are talking about. Thanks for explaining. God has a lot of mysteries, doesn't He? He is soooooo AWESOME! I count on His revelation in Creation, in Scripture, and, most of all, in Jesus Christ (Yeshua HaMashiach)!! The mind-boggling thing is that Jesus said to call Him "Father."

Henry E. Neufeld said...

I've been interested in how our concepts of God can become idolatry. I wrote about it in a post titled Conceptual Idolatry (http://henryneufeld.com/threads/2006/11/21/conceptual-idolatry/).