Who Is God? Part 2 - A Disciple Conversation about God's Triune Nature

Today, I am sharing part two of a two-part conversation about the nature of God. I take up what might be controversial in Disciples circles --- the doctrine of the Trinity. We are not of one mind on this topic, but the majority of our ecumenical partners embrace it. So, it's important that we be conversant. I will state up front that I am a Trinitarian, so much of what I share below reflects my own perspectives. I invite your contributions to the conversation. For that is what this is intended to be, a conversation starter about the key elements of Christian theology. 


                The Christian understanding of God has been largely defined in Trinitarian terms.  The Trinity is the way in which most Christians have named God.  We maybe monotheistic, but Judaism and Islam have a much more consistent and narrow understanding of monotheism. While the majority of Christian traditions are Trinitarian, the Disciples have been largely ambivalent about the doctrine of the Trinity. Thus, as Ronald Osborn notes:
The Disciples regarded themselves as neither Trinitarian nor Unitarian.  Alexander Campbell would not use the term Trinitarian because it did not appear in scripture.  He even changed one line in the great Trinitarian hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” so that instead of saying “God in three persons, blessed Trinity,” people would sing, “God over all, and blest eternally. [ Ronald Osborn, TheFaith We Affirm: Basic Beliefs of Disciples of Christ, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1979), p. 52.]
One could say that among Disciples affirmation of the doctrine of the Trinity is not a test of fellowship.

While Disciples have not taken a firm position on the Trinity, it is important to understand this doctrine if for no other reason that we have as a denomination affirmed the doctrine through our ecumenical partnerships, such as the World Council of Churches, which holds to a Trinitarian doctrinal standard as seen in its faith statement: "a fellowship of churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the scriptures, and therefore seek to fulfill together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit."

                As Osborn noted, Alexander Campbell refused to use the term Trinity because it was not biblical, which leads to the question of whether the Trinity has biblical support. Arius, the great opponent of Trinitarianism insisted that it wasn’t, pointing to the lack of biblical support for the idea.  But, in making this claim he also questioned the idea of Christ's full divinity.  Others have been a little subtler in their questions than Arius, but they also have found the doctrine difficult to accept.

                Alexander Campbell objected to what he called the "Calvinistic doctrine of the Trinity" because it "confounds things human and divine, and gives new ideas to bible terms unthought of by the inspired writers."  One of the ideas that Campbell found especially vexing was the pre-existence of the Son of God, an idea required by most Trinitarian theologies.  Campbell insisted, however, that "there was no Jesus . . . no Son of God, no Only Begotten, before the reign of Augustus Cesar.  The relation that was before the Christian era was not that of a son and a father, terms which always imply disparity."  Instead, Campbell thought of the relationship as simply between God and the Word of God.  As Word of God, Campbell could affirm pre-existence, but not as son. [Alexander Campbell, A Compend of Alexander Campbell's Theology, Royal Humbert, ed., (St. Louis:  Bethany, 1961), pp. 94-98.] Campbell also had great difficulty with Trinitarian vocabulary, much of which he thought was unbiblical.  Yet in the end he affirms the idea of the Trinity, even if he had difficulties with it:
Paul and Peter indeed speak of the divine nature in the abstract, or of the divinity or godhead. These are the most abstract terms found in the Bible. Eternity and divinity are, however, equally abstract and almost equally rare in Holy Writ. Still they are necessarily found in the divine volume; because we must abstract nature from person before we can understand the remedial system. For the divine nature may be communicated or imparted in some sense; and, indeed, while it is essentially and necessarily singular, it is certainly plural in its personal manifestations.  Hence, we have the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit equally divine, though personally distinct from each other. We have in fact, but one God, on Lord, one Holy Spirit; yet these are equally possessed of one and the same divine nature. [Alexander Campbell, The Christian System, (Cincinnati:  H.S. Bosworth, 1866; reprint, Salem, NH:  Ayer Company, 1988), p. 20.]
                We need to state up front that much of the vocabulary that undergirds Trinitarian doctrine is not found in the Bible. This includes the word Trinity itself. Indeed, very few verses of scripture give explicit or implicit expression to Trinitarian formulas. There are only two passages that provide us with a Trinitarian formula: Matt. 28:19 and 2 Corinthians 13:13. If you are Trinitarian, however, all hope is not lost. This is because there are many verses of Scripture that make sense when read in a Trinitarian way. Brevard Childs puts the issue in this way:
It is a formulation of the church in its attempt to reflect faithfully on the biblical witness. But it was precisely by observing the unity and differentiation of God within the biblical revelation that the church was confronted with the Trinity. The divine subject, predicate and object, are not only to be equated, but also differentiated. Indeed, it is the doctrine of the Trinity which makes the doctrine of God actually Christian. [Brevard Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the ChristianBible, (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1992), 375.]
                Ultimately, as we will see, the need for a doctrine of the Trinity ultimately arose from the need to make sense of the church's affirmation of the divine sonship of Jesus Christ. The doctrine emerged from the need to "do justice to the Christ who was from the church's inception confessed as Lord."  As Child's also notes that when nineteenth century Christians lost interest in the doctrine of the Trinity their Christologies also began to blur and become distorted. [Childs, Biblical Theology, p. 376].

                If Osborn speaks out of the traditional Disciple reticence to define God from a Trinitarian viewpoint, a more recent Disciple theological discussion of the concept, suggests that Disciples need to develop a “robust Trinitarian theology.” Peter Goodwin Heltzel suggests that such an engagement is required of us because of our engagement in the ecumenical movement. [Peter Goodwin Heltzel, “Singing the Trinity,” in ChaliceIntroduction to Disciples Theology, (St. Louis:  Chalice Press, 2008), pp. 92ff.]

Trinity in the Bible

                Christian theology is rooted in the Hebrew Bible, and so the question has always been there—can one find the roots of the Trinity in the Old Testament? Christian theologians, especially in the pre-modern eras, were very adept at finding those links, but we must be careful with how we read and appropriate these texts—for Judaism is not Trinitarian. Texts like Genesis 1:26 have proven intriguing for Christian reflection. The use of the plural in the phrase “let us make human kind in our image, according to our likeness” is at least suggestive of a plurality of some kind within God. Theologians have wondered what the word “our” means. Now, it is doubtful that the author(s) had Trinity in mind, but could the seeds be there? Is it appropriate for Christians to make use of this phrase in developing a Trinitarian theology?

                There are concepts present in the Hebrew Bible that can give support to a Trinitarian interpretation. This is especially true of such words as “Wisdom,” which is often personalized in the Psalms and Proverbs as “Divine Wisdom” Wisdom is usually thought of in feminine terms as well.  While, Divine Wisdom, is sometimes depicted as distinct from God, Wisdom is often depicted as being involved in the creation of all things (Prov. 1:20-23; 9:1-6; Job 28; Ecclesiastes 24).  There is the concept of “Word,” or divine speech, which at times is personified (Ps. 119:89; Ps. 147:15-20; Is. 55:10-11).  And then there is the “Spirit of God,” who is depicted often as God's presence in the world, active in creation (Gen. 1:2); present in the life of the promised Messiah (Isa. 42:1-3); and as an agent of new creation (Ezek. 36:26; 37:1-14). Then there is the concept of Shekinah (another word that is feminine in nature), that describes the means of God’s dwelling in the world (Exodus 25:8; 43:9; Zech. 2:10; 8:3). These passages don’t make for a doctrine of the Trinity, but they leave open the possibility of a broader understanding of God’s nature. What we need to remember is that whatever understanding we might have of these concepts and similar concepts, they must be understood in the context of the Old Testament insistence on the oneness or unity of God (Deut. 6:4-5).

                There are no explicit statements of a doctrine of the trinity in the New Testament., either. The doctrine is a theological construction that attempts to make sense of the biblical witness, especially those texts that affirm the primary relationship between Father and Son.  

                There is perhaps no more explicit statement relationship than Matthew 28:19, the Great Commission, which provides us with the traditional baptismal formula – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  While this is the only New Testament expression of this formula, it has become the standard formula for most churches.  A second passage, 2 Corinthians 13:13 (14), is more helpful in defining the relationship, but it’s not without its own difficulties: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” Romans 8:11 speaks to the relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit to the issue of the resurrection. “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

                For the most part, however, the doctrine of the Trinity is built on a realization that Scripture affirms the oneness of God, but also hints at the divinity of Christ and of the Spirit.  Theologians have decided that the only way to really do justice to these affirmations is to assume a doctrine of the Trinity.

The Historical Development of a Trinitarian Vocabulary

                One of the needs the church faced early in its existence, especially as the church spread in the Latin West, was a vocabulary that could express their developing understandings of God.  Tertullian, a brilliant theologian and apologist for the church, filled that void in many ways.  We look to him for many of the terms that the church would eventually use in this regard.  He came up with several terms that are important to our conversation. These terms include the very word trinity, which comes from the Latin trinitas.  He also introduced the term substance (Latin—substantia; Greek ousia), to describe the essence of God. Speaking in Trinitarian terms, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share one substance. The third term was persona, which he used to translate the Greek hypostasis. God is one in substance, but still three persons. Tertullian interpreted the work of the three persons of the Trinity in terms of God's salvific activity in the World. 

                The next stage in the process came at the Council of Nicaea. At that council the primary positions were espoused by two Alexandrian priests, Arius and Athanasius. While neither of these two men spoke at the council it was their theological work that drove the conversation. In the end the position espoused by Athanasius won the day. The question had to do with whether the son shared the same substance as the Father. While Arius denied that Jesus shared full divinity, insisting that this was the more biblical position, he lost the day and the council embraced the term homoousious (of the same substance) to define the relationship of Father and Son. While the debate did not end at Nicaea, this position became normative for much of the church. 

 Ways of Approaching the Trinity

                The foundational terms used in describing the nature of God as Trinity were introduced in the third and fourth centuries, the conversation continues to this day. Indeed, among Disciples one will find partisans of both Athanasius and Arius.  When it comes to Trinitarian theology, there are essentially two ways of approaching this question. The first view is called the Economic Trinity and the other is the Immanent Trinity.  One focuses on God’s external activity in bringing salvation to creation, and the other on God’s internal identity. Both ways of approaching the question rely on the same formula that was espoused at Nicaea and later at Constantinople in the fourth century.

                The reason why conversations about the Trinity often steer toward the “economic Trinity,” is that it is more relatable. Talking about God’s internal being is difficult to imagine. Talking about God meeting us as Trinity in Christ through the Spirit with the promise of salvation speaks to where we live our lives. When we talk of the economic Trinity, we’re talking about God’s role in the creation, redemption, and sanctification of the created order.  These three activities, however, should not be seen as occurring sequentially. As Clark Williamson puts it: “in each moment of our lives God creates us anew, redeems us out of the narrowness and stupidity of the past, and calls us forward toward God’s future with all God’s friends.” [Clark Williamson, Way of Blessing, Way of Life: A Christian Theology, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1999), p. 118.] Thus, through the doctrine of the Trinity, we name the God of Israel who meets us in Jesus Christ, especially as Jesus is known to us on the cross, and is present to us, empowering us, by the Holy Spirit.   

                When we think about the Trinitarian nature of God, one of the more intriguing images is that of the three visitors whom Abraham and Sarah encounter at the Oaks of Mamre (18:1-15). Clark Williamson draws on this story that emphasizes hospitality to suggest that “the Trinity is a communion of equal persons (coequal, the tradition liked to say), and we are invited into such communion.”  He goes on to say:
We speak of God as one in order to make clear that God is not divided, not double-minded.  We speak of God as three to affirm communion in God. Life is a blessing and well-being when all relations of domination and oppression are expelled. Communion among persons is the divine order and the intended human order of well-being. The fundamental intent of the doctrine of the Trinity is to protect an understanding of God as a profound relational communion.  A relationship (not merely a relation) of authentic communion among God, human beings, and all God’s creatures is the aim of God’s work in the world. [Williamson, Way of Blessing, pp. 126-127.]
There is much more to be said about the Trinity. It is a concept that is full of possibilities. In what I’ve shared so far is an expression of the “Economic Trinity.”  When we encounter God, we don’t encounter God’s inner being, we encounter God as God engages us, bringing shalom, that is healing, wholeness, salvation.

                So, how do we speak of God today? Many raise questions about the usefulness of Trinitarian language, especially in its traditional formulation. Naming God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit can suggest that God is male and that males are superior to women.  Even if we consider the Holy Spirit in feminine terms, this can easily lead to a top-down hierarchy that leaves not only the Son as second in line, but the Spirit as a third person, and sort of an afterthought.  One of the recent formulas that has gained popularity is Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer/Sanctifier.  The problem with this form is that contrary to the biblical witness it focuses totally on function, functions that each person of the Trinity is to express.  Traditionally it has been held that “external works of God are indivisible.”   Clark Williamson, following William Placher, suggests as a solution the formula: “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Mother of us All” [Williamson, Way of Blessing, p. 115.] Trinitarian language has also proven problematic for interfaith conversations.  Both Jews and Muslims are much stricter in their monotheism. This language can be a stumbling block to these important conversations as well.

As we consider the nature of God, a conversation that includes the name(s) we use, we must recognize that no name and no understanding can exhaust the possibilities. Thus, we must continue to push the boundaries. Whatever our theological formulas, they will not exhaust what we would confess as to who God might be.


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