My argument thus far implies that the existence of an economic Trinity, which entails the existence of a created world, adds something to, and actually changes, the being of God. It enables us to see God as contingent and creatively free in actualising ideals of goodness for this cosmos and in bringing into being finite, cooperative creators and contemplators of new values. In this way, this cosmos generates new values of relational creativity which logically could not exist in God alone. The creation of a universe will change God and add something quite new to a postulated immanent Trinity – a God without creation.
This supposal is based on what I take to be the distinctive insight of Christian faith that the union or communion of the created order and the divine is the distinctive purpose and goal of creation. God creates the cosmos and gives it creative autonomy as conscious agents emerge within it, and as such becomes ‘Father of the Universe’. God is manifested on the planet earth in the particular form of the fully human person of Jesus, and as such becomes ‘Son of the Father’. This is a focal and decisive moment in the process of uniting finite human beings and the divine, a process which is carried through by the Spirit.
Seeing God as Trinity in this way involves belief in, and is in fact a way of formulating, the cosmic goal of union between finite persons and the divine. And it implies a specific view of the personal nature of God. Because of Jesus’ peculiarly intimate relationship with the creator, God is known as his ‘Father’. God is thus not seen as a remote and rather impersonal reality (a Platonic ‘Form of the Good’ or even the Thomist ‘Pure Form of Subsistent Being’). God is responsive and interactive in a personal way and possesses the divine being in relation to the ‘other’ of created personhood.
It would be absurd to write a book on modern discussions of the Trinity without referring to the writings of Karl Barth. He has been largely responsible for a revived interest in the doctrine of the Trinity in recent theology. He is one of the chief defenders of a one-consciousness or non-social view of the Trinity – though, as I shall argue, his defence is in the end rather ambiguous. As I have mentioned, he saw that the word ‘person’ can be misleading for modern readers and proposed the phrase ‘mode of being’ for what were traditionally called the three ‘persons’ in God. He also made the idea of the Trinity central for Christian faith in a new way by arguing that the very idea of Christian revelation depends on the concept of the Trinity. Thus we cannot, he thought, first develop a concept of revelation and only later develop a doctrine of the Trinity. What we think Christian revelation is already implies the centrality of the Trinity for Christian faith.
In the Church Dogmatics (1, 1), Barth argues that the very idea of revelation – he means ‘Christian revelation’ – already implies a threefoldness. There is the revealer, the one who reveals; there is the act of revealing; and there is the reception of the revelation by a person – what Barth calls ‘revealedness’ – without which no revelation would have occurred. All three, he thinks, are in some sense identical. I believe he is right in this, though he seems to draw some implications from it which are not well founded and which could be positively misleading.
There are, of course, many alleged religious revelations in the world, of which Christianity is only one. All would agree, I think, that there needs to be a revealer, and most would agree that this is God. There has to be an ‘act of revealing’, but at this point many divergences arise. The act of revealing may, as in most Islamic interpretations, be performed by an angel and consist of the recitation of words which a prophet remembers or writes. In orthodox Hindu traditions, too, revelation primarily consists in the words of the Veda and Upanishads, held to have been virtually dictated, or at least inspired by, a god to seers.
I will begin my discussion of the Biblical texts with the Gospels. Although they are to be dated later than most of the Letters in the New Testament, they are the only records we have of the life and teachings of Jesus. As such, they have special importance in the search to understand the relation between Jesus, God the Father, and the Spirit of God. Do the Synoptic Gospels really imply that God, Jesus, and the Spirit are three centres of consciousness? New Testament scholars would be very wary of reading later Christian doctrines or perspectives back into the Scriptural texts, and they are much more likely to stress the great diversity of views that exists in the texts, as well as the relatively undeveloped character of those views.
There would be agreement that early Christian communities were committed to the worship of one creator God. Those communities found that in relating to the risen and glorified Jesus, they were in some way relating to God. And they believed that God was present within and among them as the Spirit of Jesus. It was this experience of a threefold manifestation of God that was to lead to the development of Trinitarian thought. But there is not much agreement about what exactly might be said of the historical Jesus and his precise relation to the creator God.
Though the Gospels refer to him as ‘son of God’, Jesus, as he is depicted in the Gospels, does not usually refer to himself as ‘Son of God’. He more often refers to himself as ‘Son of Man’. This expression, Bar Nasha in Aramaic, means, as Geza Vermes points out, the son of a human, and so a human person. Jesus was certainly believed to be a unique human being in many ways. He has authority to forgive sins, to exorcise evil spirits, and to control wind and sea. His life is a fulfilment of prophecies that he will be rejected, will suffer, and will die as a ‘ransom formany’ (Mark 10, 45). He was raised from death and will appear in ‘the glory of his Father with the holy angels’ (Mark 8, 38). This situation certainly puts this human in a very close relation to the Father and distinguishes Jesus from all other human persons.
‘In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit …’ These are familiar words to millions of people throughout the world who accept the Christian faith. Yet they can be troublesome. To many Jews and Muslims, it sounds as if Christians believe in three gods. The Qur'an says, ‘They blaspheme who say “God is one of three in a Trinity”’ (Qur'an 5, 76). And many Christians would be at a loss if they had to say exactly what the Trinity is, and how God could be, in the words of the technical definition, ‘three persons in one substance’. I have even met Christian clergy who dread having to preach about the Trinity on Trinity Sunday, or who make do with some vastly oversimplified version which has little connection with any established theological traditions.
In my own church, the Church of England, on thirteen days of the year the Athanasian Creed is appointed by the Prayer Book to be recited by the congregation at Morning Prayer. That creed says, among other things, ‘There is one Person of the Father, another of the Son: and another of the Holy Ghost … and yet they are not three incomprehensibles, nor three uncreated: but one uncreated, and one incomprehensible.’ It is perhaps not surprising that I have never heard this creed publicly recited – except that I once made a congregation do so, and most of the worshippers had to smother a laugh when they came to that part.
It is clearly possible to state the doctrine of the Trinity in ways that make little sense to a modern congregation. Yet belief in God as Trinity is central to Christian faith. Indeed, in the late twentieth century Christian theologians began to put renewed emphasis on the doctrine. The English theologian Leonard Hodgson was one of the first to argue explicitly that God is not just a personal being with one consciousness and will (Hodgson, 1943). The Christian God is, he held, an organic unity of three persons, with differing personal histories.
Anyone who thinks about God as Trinity must keep firmly in mind the statement that Mark's Gospel attributes to Jesus: ‘The first of all the commandments is, “Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God is one Lord”’ (Mark 12, 29). Christians need to be clear that the most important commandment in the Bible, therefore, is that there is one and only one God. There are not three Gods, and nothing must be said which suggests that there are. That must be the starting point.
How, then, does talk of a Trinity arise? It is worth pointing out that even the strictest monotheists may use many different terms to refer to the one God. The most rigorous Muslims accept that there are ninety-nine beautiful names of God, even though they often interpret the Arabic word tawhid, oneness, as forbidding any plurality within God. Hindus, who are sometimes alleged to worship many Gods, often quote the Scriptural verse, from the Veda, that ‘God is one, but has many names’. And many Jews, especially Kabbalistic Jews, are happy to say that there are many ‘emanations’ – or almost personalised properties (it is hard to find the right word) – of God, including such things as Wisdom, Power, and Spirit.
If God is in some sense infinite, it is hardly surprising that humans cannot just find one word which adequately describes God. We think of God in many ways, and perhaps we have to do so if we are to get anywhere near an understanding of divine reality. Thomas Aquinas puts the point well: we must think of God as wise, good, and beautiful, and though these terms do not apply to God as we understand them, in some sense God really is wise, good, and beautiful (Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1a, Question 13).
These facts do not lead at once to a doctrine of the Trinity. Why should these different ways in which humans may speak of God be limited to three? And are these just ‘ways of speaking’, or do they correspond to something real in God?
Perhaps it is important at this point to say that when I raise problems I am not meaning to undermine the point and profundity of Christian belief in God as Trinity. Quite the opposite – I am seeking a way of bringing out the profoundness and spiritual relevance of Trinitarian belief for the modern world. The problems I will discuss are problems of finding ways of saying things which are at the very limits of human comprehension – which are, as the Athanasian Creed puts it, ‘incomprehensible’.
Of course, if something is completely incomprehensible it is just nonsense. But for most of us there are many things that we are unable to comprehend even though someone else may have a pretty good grasp of them. For instance, the Schrödinger equation, as used in quantum physics, is something that many of us just cannot understand. We can learn it, we can see that it is used, but we just cannot really see what it means. It is quite possible to see that an equation is useful, even to learn to repeat it and to see roughly how it works, yet fail to understand it.
An even better example would be the wave-particle duality of light. I think I am safe in saying that no one can understand how light can behave both in wave-like and in particle-like ways (in John Wheeler's ‘delayed choice’ version of the two-slit experiment, for example). There is no doubt, however, that it does, and various models have been invented to try to explain the mystery of it. We can
see that there are good reasons for positing such a duality. What we cannot see is what sort of objective reality can account for the duality – though we assume that there is such a reality.
By analogy, we might see that there are good reasons for referring to God variously as Father, Son, and Spirit, and for insisting that there is just one God. But we might not be able to understand the sort of objective reality which would account for the appropriateness of our linguistic references. If this sort of analogy holds, we see how we could say that we cannot understand the reality of God, as it is in itself, but that we can see the appropriateness, perhaps the necessity, of referring to God, perhaps for different purposes, as both one and three.
Moltmann speaks of God necessarily creating a world which contains evil, chaos, and the threat of non-being. ‘When we say “God is love”, then we mean that he is in eternity … a process which contains the whole pain of the negative in itself. God loves the world with the very same love which he himself is in eternity’ (Moltmann, 1981, p. 57). So the intra-Trinitarian relations already (from eternity) contain pain. God is self-communicating, self-limiting, suffering, and redemptive love.
I find this a moving and powerful exposition of the New Testament Gospel of the unlimited, creative, and redemptive love of God. But it does not entail that these properties belong to God in se, even without any creation. For if God's love creates a world of ‘unlike’ persons to receive and return divine love, that in itself enables God's nature as agapistic love to be fully realised. There is no need to postulate a strange sort of internal opposition and battle between suffering and goodness within the being of God.
Is it satisfactory, anyway, to see the divine persons as distinct subjects in fellowship? Moltmann, as previously noted, refers to Biblical texts which stress that the Father ‘sends’ the Son, the Son refers to ‘God’ (the Father) as another, and the Spirit is sent by the Father at the request of the Son. That can certainly sound like three distinct subjects of experience and action. But there is a major problem, and it lies at the heart of Moltmann's concern with the crucified God. John's Gospel says, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son … ’ (John 3, 16). But it does not seem in keeping with suffering love for a Father to send his own Son to be crucified. Surely it must be God who is crucified for human sin, not just one of three divine persons. Of course God is crucified in the human person of Jesus, and the great theological tradition has held that the divine nature did not suffer, though the human nature of Jesus did.
These problems are stated strongly by the philosopher David Wiggins (Wiggins, 1980), who argued that the doctrine of the Trinity was incoherent because it held that the Father is the same God as the Son but not the same person as the Son. Indeed, the Athanasian Creed states that ‘the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God, and yet they are not three Gods, but one God’. But, Wiggins argued, if two things are identical, then they must be identical with one another in every respect. However, this charge can be evaded if one says that no person, or aspect, of the Trinity is strictly identical with God. Each person is identical with an aspect of God, and so in a sense one could say, with the Athanasian Creed that ‘each person is God’. But the ‘is’ here is not the ‘is’ of strict identity. It is an ‘is’ of inclusion, like saying that ‘each person is divine, or has the nature of God’. The Father is not, however, strictly identical with God in Wiggin's sense of possessing every property that God has. Nor is the Son, and nor is the Spirit. So the Father is not ‘the same God as the Son’. The Father and the Son are not gods at all. They have the nature of God. But the one God is an inseparable composite of Father, Son, and Spirit, as we clearly discern when we see that the Trinity always acts as a whole in relation to created things. It is never the case that the Father, Son, or Spirit acts on its own. That is why we can correctly say that God dies on the cross, not just that Jesus dies on the cross. Yet it is true that it is Jesus who goes to the cross and who suffers the pains of his body. In other words, it is Jesus as God united to a human person who suffers on the cross and who contributes suffering to the experience of God. This is also why, if we are concerned for technical correctness, it may be better not to say that Jesus is identical with God just like that.
Some difficult questions unavoidably arise about Zizioulas’ concept of both human and divine personhood. One is the sharp contrast made between the concepts of ‘substance’ and ‘nature’ on the one hand and ‘person’ and ‘relation’ on the other. Zizioulas says that the concept of ‘person’ is logically prior to the concept of ‘substance’. But this seems a very odd contrast to make. If a primary substance is an individual thing of a specific nature, then a person is obviously a substance. Human persons, anyway, are individuals, substances who are conscious, who think abstractly and act freely (or so it seems to them). They are centres of creatively free acts. There is no reason that all substances should be, as Zizioulas describes them, self-contained, isolated, impersonal, and unconscious. In fact, many of them very obviously are not. The individual substances who are human persons are conscious, importantly related to other persons, and dynamic. So it is not true that persons, as such, are to be distinguished from substances. Some substances will be conscious, intelligent, and free (will be persons), and their nature will precisely include being dynamic, changing, creative, temporal, and relational. It is very misleading, then, to suggest that ‘persons’ are ontologically prior to ‘substances’. But it is not at all misleading to hold that conscious, knowing, and willing substances are not reducible to and are ontologically prior to impersonal, unconscious, and inactive substances.
The United Reformed theologian Colin Gunton agrees with Zizioulas that there has been ‘a paradigm shift from natures to persons, from substance metaphysics to a metaphysics of relations’ (Gunton, 1995, p. 141). He holds that ‘the inner relations of God are free and that God is ‘a personal taxis of dynamic and free relations’ (Gunton, 1995, p. 100), not a necessitarian, substantialist, and static being.
The opposition of ‘nature’ and ‘person’ is interesting, and it does mark a change in conceptions of God, though not necessarily in an ‘immanent three-consciousness’ direction. It is true that the traditional concept of the divine nature in Latin Christianity was dependent on the philosophy of Aristotle. Aristotle's God was a perfect self-contemplating, changeless, and non-temporal being.
The importance of freedom, in the case of human persons, is that they can choose one of a number of possible states (that is free creativity), and they can choose between self-regard and love of the good for its own sake (that is moral freedom). These are great goods, and much better than their opposites – having no choice about what happens next or being unable to avoid choosing evil.
But such freedom is not absolute. Humans have varying degrees and sorts of capacities: some are good at music, some at craft work, and some at gardening. Humans do not choose to have those capacities, though they can choose to improve or neglect them. Also, the states that humans can choose are limited by the knowledge of what is possible for them in their social and historical context. An ancient Egyptian could not choose to write a symphony – it would simply not be a possibility for ancient Egyptians. But that is not a fact that is freely chosen. Creative freedom lies in making the best of our possibilities and capacities – or in failing to do so. In other words, the greatest freedom lies precisely in finding and realising a role that is proper for us, that is built into our natures and situations and that will realise ‘what we are meant to do’. We do that creatively, by developing our capacities in original and perhaps, if we are really good, in unique ways. Creative freedom is the ability to develop in original ways the capacities which constitute our nature. Freedom cannot be absolute, because it consists in creatively developing what we by nature are.
Moral freedom, too, is distinctive of human persons. Moral freedom is the ability to choose between self-regard and altruism, or between love of self and love of good. It is not absolute, because there exists an obligation to seek what is good but an inclination to seek what pleases oneself. Obligations and inclinations constrain human actions, and humans are said to be morally free when they decide to follow one constraint rather than the other.
Christianity is founded on belief in the divinity of Jesus, and also on belief in the transcendence over all finite things of the creator God. Difficult though it was in the context of Jewish monotheism to think of God as having two distinct forms of divinity in this way, it seems an inevitable consequence of Christian belief. But Christians believe in a threefold God, and it has not always seemed clear, even to Christian theologians, that this was an obvious implication of Christian faith. At least one major Christian theologian of recent times has questioned whether belief in a threefold God is strictly necessary for Christians.
In an important paper, ‘Why Three?’ (Wiles, 1967), the theologian and Patristics scholar Maurice Wiles shows that Christian writers in the first few Christian centuries were quite unclear and diverse in their allocation of roles to the three persons of the Trinity – although he admits that the Trinitarian formula as used in liturgy was present from the earliest times. Among the things that were unclear were these: whether the Spirit was a different person from the Son, whether Son or Spirit could more properly be termed the ‘Wisdom’ and the ‘Love’ of God, and whether the activities of the persons in relation to created reality were indivisible or indistinguishable.
After recounting some main differences of view between major writers of those early years, he proposes that the idea of divine threefoldness is ‘an arbitrary analysis of the activity of God, which though of value in Christian thought and devotion is not of essential significance’ (Wiles, 1957, p. 15). I think the word ‘arbitrary’ is too strong, although it is true that the activities of God could easily be described in different ways.
For example, if you think of what might be said to make the idea of a mind-like, purposive, and supremely valuable creator of the cosmos intelligible, you could say that such a creator would have to know all possible states it could create, evaluate them and perhaps actualise some of them in the divine being itself, appreciate them when actualised, and maybe create new sorts of possible states which might arise from what had already been created.
Barth would claim to derive the doctrine of the Trinity from Scripture, but he admits that nowhere does Scripture say anything like this. In the Old Testament, usually God refuses to reveal himself (‘No one shall see me and live’, Exodus, 33, 20). God reveals statutes and ordinances, but not Godself. In the New Testament of course Christians see Jesus as a manifestation of God in human form. But can it be credibly said that Jesus reveals everything about the nature of God? If so, why have there been so many arguments about it ever since? If we see Jesus, we see the Father, according to John's Gospel (John 14, 9). But no one thinks, I hope, that the creator of worlds looks like a young Jewish male. The word ‘see’ does imply that we meet the Creator in some form if we truly encounter Jesus. There is a sort of ‘event of encounter’ view at work here, and it is by the aid of the Spirit that we see Jesus as the human form of God. But it is important to say that we do not see God in Jesus clearly and in a form that could never be surpassed – there have been too many interpretations of Jesus as sexist and nationalistic, or as stern and judgmental, or as passive and ascetic, for that to be plausible. Jesus may embody God as fully as any human person could; but we, as individual human beings, do not always see that, for even the Spirit does not work in any of us in such a way that it renders us sinless and perfectly wise.
Barth acknowledges this. He says repeatedly that in speaking of the Trinity ‘we do not know what we are saying’ (Barth, 1936, p. 441). So perhaps he would not castigate me too much for saying that he sometimes says things that might be better left unsaid. What I have in mind specifically here is his insistence that the divine persons exist ‘antecedently’ in themselves, in the way in which they appear to us in revelation. For example, in revelation history the Father loves the Son and the Son obediently loves the Father in return, and the Spirit is the form in and through which Father and Son are inwardly united.
The most powerful speculative argument for a three-consciousness view of the Trinity probably lies in the consideration that ‘God is love’ (1 John, 4, 8). The argument is that if God is essentially loving, then there must be someone for God to love. Richard Swinburne defines love partly as ‘giving to the other what of one's own is good for him’ (Swinburne, 1994, p. 177). God is omniscient and omnipotent, and if God is to give fully what is God's own, then God must create another omniscient, omnipotent being. There is a question about whether an omnipotent being can create another omnipotent being. Obviously not if ‘omnipotence’ means, or entails, that one has complete power over every other being so that one can create or destroy it at will. If God exists necessarily (that is, God exists whatever else may or may not exist and could not possibly fail to exist), then it may seem that no created being exists necessarily, since it could not exist without its creator. It may be, however, that God necessarily creates another being which, given the existence of God, could not fail to exist. That would entail that God could not destroy it. Yet their relation would be asymmetric, because God would be the cause of the created being, and it could not be the cause of God. The created being would be wholly dependent on the creating being, since the creator has given what is ‘its own’ to the created. The created being receives its power and knowledge from the uncreated being and could not ever oppose it or know anything that it did not know. This would not be an instance of mutual causation, so they would not be omnipotent in quite the same sense.
If these two beings acted, either one would have to make all the decisions and the other would have to agree, or there would have to be some mechanism which compelled them to agree in all decisions. Thus at least one of them would act under compulsion.
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