A New Theology of the Trinity

I don’t usually write about theological matters in which I cannot make a clear and not so obvious connection to issues of politics, economics, or social justice, mostly because I feel a bit out of my element, and I’m prone to mistakes easily identified by smarter people. Yet, for as much time as these smarter Christians put into talking about the Trinity, most make clear mistakes. These mistakes distort the church’s image of who God is and what God is doing as proclaimed by Christian scripture and tradition, and it leads to a misunderstanding of Christian life. So here’s my best shot, easily identifiable problems and all. The verdict: most Christians are heretics.

I’m not going to attempt to recap the formation of the Trinity because neither you nor I have that kind of time. Instead, I’m going to present what I think most Christians, particularly Protestants, think about the Trinity. Then, I’m going to try to show a better way. Warning: in my attempt to correct what I believe is heresy, I’m probably going to engage in it. At best, I’m walking the line between barely acceptable and blasphemy. That line is where all Christian theology should start. A god incarnated as a poor man from nowhere whose mission is a kingdom over and against the kingdoms of man who is tortured and murdered on a cross – a theology for that god can only exist on such a line. “Acceptable theology” is inherently heretical. Christianity without scandal is not the Gospel.

Trinitarian theology is what I think of as “negative theology”. By that, I mean it was developed in response to heresy. Early Christians were not particularly interested in defining the inner-workings of the “persons” of the Trinity, nor were they eager to define terms and develop a grand theology of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But as Christianity developed, people began to speak about Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in ways which began to undermine the message of Jesus Christ, particularly as the faith spread across different languages and cultures. Christians began to define what was “acceptable theology” and what was heresy, and the people who did so didn’t speak the same language, come from the same culture, or from the same social or economic class as Jesus or the original disciples. The Christian understanding of God began to look more Greek and less Jewish dominated by the rich instead of the poor. The model for the basic formula developed by the Church Fathers over a few hundred years of study, discussion, argument, and excommunication, is still with us. I call it the “Traditional Model”:

The Traditional Model above describes what most of us were taught about the Trinity and what most of us would say “the Trinity is”. Simply put, one God in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are of one substance, but the persons of the Trinity are distinct from the other persons. Most Christians simply understand it as “three-in-one, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”.

The details of all of this are lengthy, but it is important to remember that the Trinity is a “negative theology”. Most of Trinitarian theology is a reaction to theological errors, either faulty interpretations of Scripture, or reasoning whose conclusions undermine what Scripture proclaims about God. So to understand it fully is not only an act of a responsible and faithful reading of the Scriptures and the Tradition of the church, but also a study in language, culture, and philosophy of all the various theologians, both orthodox and heretic in the church’s history that has led to the doctrine’s development. Unfortunately, the result of the complexities of Trinitarian theology hasn’t been correct belief as was sought by the original “negative theology” project. Due to its complexity, and church leaderships’ obsession with avoiding error, the response has been non-engagement.

Christianity can survive theological error. Christianity cannot survive a church that doesn’t engage. So Christians memorize Trinitarian theology to its simplest level, and leave it alone creating a massive chasm between theologians who imagine what God is like, and the church who attempts to make the prophetic imagination meaningful in lived experience.

As a result, most Christians, I believe, make a terrible error in how they understand the Trinity.

The Traditional Model shown above is an image of the “Immanent Trinity”, or the inner-life of God. It aims to describe the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and how all the persons of the Trinity are one God while remaining distinct from the other persons.

The problem with Traditional Model and the “Immanent Trinity” is that Scripture doesn’t talk about the inner-life of God very often, and when it does, Scripture is, at best, indirect and vague, leaving us to make numerous assumptions independent of what God has revealed. Worse yet, it assumes that the fullness of God’s nature exists separate from creation. How can a god whose nature is to create, redeem, and sustain exist separate from what was created and have that existence somehow be “full”? By definition, a creator cannot be a creator without creation. A savior cannot be a savior without anything to save. How can created beings say anything of a god who exists “outside of creation”?

Any theology of the Trinity that only depicts the inner-life of God is impossible, but separate from what God has done, it also lacks meaning. It fails to answer the question of “so what?” rendering the issue of God’s being pointless to creation (which isn’t a problem if the church’s response is non-engagement). It fails against the basic reality that what we know of God only exists through God’s revelation, and that God reveals through acting in history. Depicting God as anything other than a god who acts in history is to depict a god foreign to the Gospel.

Rather than speculate about what God must be like “outside of creation”, and rather than to be so proud to assume that the limited depiction in Scripture of the Immanent Trinity could possibly give us a reliable way to speak about the inner-life of God, and rather than limit God to our own understanding of what is logically necessary as if the bounds of human logic somehow limit God’s nature, Trinitarian theology should rightly point towards what God has done. What God has done and what God is doing in the created world as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is known as “The Economic Trinity”.

Karl Rahner’s axiom, “The Economic Trinity is the Immanent Trinity, and vice versa” addresses this problem succinctly. His axiom in plain-speak means “God really is what God actually does” or “God acting in creation is God in God’s inner-self”. God isn’t just telling us what God is like through God acting in history; these acts are God. The god who creates, redeems, and sustains does not exist outside of history. There is no god “out there”. God is here, or God is nowhere.

I believe the consequences of this to be immense. Christians should reject a stale, unchanging model of God who doesn’t feel, act, or change. This means that by acting through love, compassion, and mercy, that God is becoming rather than simply is. God is constant in love and the nature of God remains steadfast, but God isn’t constant in being. By being active in history for us, God is changing God’s being to become more like God’s own nature, by becoming more of a god who creates, redeems, and sustains in history.

The traditional understanding of God as unchanging, is inherently contradictory for Christianity and must be abandoned. An unchanging god cannot become human. An unchanging god cannot die on a cross. An unchanging god cannot rise from the dead. A god who doesn’t change, who doesn’t act, who doesn’t feel or think, who doesn’t rejoice, or laugh, or mourn, cannot be fully human. Yet, by doing these things in Jesus Christ, God is no less God. In Jesus Christ, God is not less than, God becomes more of a god for us.

The Traditional Model which has described Trinitarian Theology is at best incomplete and at worst detrimental to a Christian understanding of God and God’s history of salvation. It depicts God “outside of creation” to be what God actually is, but the manner in which the persons of the Trinity are “related” has no meaning for how God acts in the world. Furthermore, the model has no meaning for how Christians should treat each other or how we should treat the people with whom we share God’s creation. Against nearly 2000 years of Christian history, I reject the Traditional Model as heresy, and I propose something different.

Below is my model of the “Immanent Trinity” but I place the Immanent Trinity independently here only for the sake of convenience for a purpose which I will soon make clear. I do not believe the Immanent Trinity exists independently, if it “exists” at all. The model is inspired by Thomas Weinandy’s thesis in Spirit of Sonship, The Father begets the Son in or by the Holy Spirit. The Son is begotten by the Father in the Spirit and thus the Spirit simultaneously proceeds from the Father as the one in whom the Son is begotten. The Son, being begotten in the Spirit, simultaneously loves the Father in the Same Spirit by which he himself is begotten (is Loved).” That model looks like this:

Weinandy believed that his thesis solved a key problem for Trinitarian theology. He argued that this view recognized the proper place for the place of the Holy Spirit rather than relegating the Spirit to secondary status in Christian theology as has been the historical norm. The Spirit, for Weinandy, acts as a sort of “relational person”. The Spirit is what makes the Father, the father of the Son, and it makes the Son, the son of the Father. Without the Spirit, the Father and the Son are not only not Father and Son, but are not one. This process isn’t a linear event in history like the incarnation. This process happens eternally, because begetting and loving is God’s nature. The Son is eternally begotten. The Son eternally loves the Father.

But this still leaves us with the problem of describing God’s “inner-life” and all the problems that a stale view of the “Immanent Trinity” brings. It doesn’t necessarily tell us anything meaningful about how God interacts with or loves creation, nor does it tell us about how we should treat each other. If, however, we accept Rahner’s view that “The Economic Trinity is the Immanent Trinity and vice versa”, that God’s inner-life actually is what God is doing in creation, then the model that we have created for the Immanent Trinity could also describe what God is doing in and for you as the process of discipleship:

The Traditional Model of the Trinity shown originally does two things really well. It demonstrates that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are God and that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not each other. However, it is a poor model for depicting anything with regard to Trinitarian theology other than those two statements. If Rahner is right, then the Traditional Model should also be able to show what God is doing in the world in the same manner in which it shows that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one with each other in the Immanent Trinity. The Traditional Model cannot do this. The manner in which it holds together the Trinity and shows how the persons of the Trinity are related to each other cannot be duplicated for God’s relationship with humanity or the created world. In this respect, the Traditional Model is a failure.

Weinandy’s view solves this problem when expanded, as I have done, beyond the Immanent Trinity. The manner in which the Father is the father of the Son, and that the Son is the son of the Father, and that the Holy Spirit binds you together as disciple of the Son and children to the Father, is the same manner in which the Immanent Trinity is held together as one. In other words, “The Economic Trinity is the Immanent Trinity and vice versa”. What God is doing in God’s relationship to you is what God is doing in God’s inner-life.

As the Father begets and sends the Son in the Spirit, so too are we made in the image of Christ and sent by Christ in the Spirit into the world. As the Son is obedient to the Father in the Spirit, even unto the cross, so too are we, baptized Christians, obedient to the Son in the Spirit, even unto the cross. As the Father loves the Son in the Spirit, so too does the Son love us in the Spirit. As the Spirit is that which makes the Father, the father of the Son, and the Son, the son of the Father (as the “relational person” in the Trinity), so too does the Spirit make the Son the Lord of humanity and make you a disciple of the Son.

Furthermore, the Scriptures and the Tradition of the church do not just tell us that God is making us disciples of the Son in a relationship that is one-to-one, it also tells us that God’s plan for the salvation of the world is accomplished through making humanity one with each other and by making humanity witnesses to and the object of a church bound by the Spirit with Christ at its head. As Father and Son are made one by the Spirit and the individual is made disciple of the Son in the Spirit, the church is made one with each other in the Spirit.

As the Father begets and sends the Son in the Spirit, so too do we make and send disciples in the Spirit into the world. As the Son is obedient to the Father in the Spirit, even unto the cross, so too is are those in the church subject to one another in the Spirit, even unto the cross. As the Father loves the Son in the Spirit, so too does the church love each other in the name of the Son in the Spirit. As the Spirit is that which makes the Father the father of the of the Son, and the Son the son of the Father, so too does the Spirit make the church brothers and sisters in Christ. The “inner-life” of God is revealed and is truly present in the church with Christ at its head.

The models I have proposed, “The Immanent Trinity”, “Discipleship”, and “The Church” follow the same pattern and subsequently do not exist independent of each other. They are necessarily connected as flowing from the relationship of Father to Son in the Spirit and Son to Father in the Spirit as revealed through Scripture and Tradition. They tell a story of what God has done, and how the disciple of Jesus Christ, and the church to which the disciple belongs, are part of God’s larger story of salvation history. These models when combined together are “The Economic Trinity”. They describe what God has done and point towards what and how God has revealed.

Most pastors and theologians can define an endless number of terms for you about the Trinity. They can give you history, philosophy, and scriptural references about how all this is held together. But my experience has shown me that most pastors and theologians cannot explain why it matters. They can’t tell you what difference it makes. They cannot tell the church who lives its faith in the created world why its Traditional Model has any bearing on their life.

A Trinitarian theology that can’t tell you this isn’t Christian theology. It isn’t good news.

God is so desperate for us to know what God is like, that God becomes human so that we can see and touch and know God for ourselves. A Trinitarian theology that is indecipherable to nearly everyone and breeds non-engagement isn’t Christian theology. It isn’t good news.

Trinitarian theology is the story of what God is doing for us. It’s a story of creation and liberation. It’s a story of salvation and love. It’s a story of mourning and loss, death and resurrection. And this story plays out in your church, in your family, in your community, and inside you. It’s happened. It is happening. It will happen tomorrow. This is God.

Anything else is a theology of less than, and that, in my opinion, is heresy.

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