Christian Doctrine (5)

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“Indeed, how can the mind by its own leading come to search out God’s essence when it cannot even get to its own? Let us then willingly leave to God the knowledge of himself.” Institutes I.xiii.21

Summary notes for Chapter 5, “Who is God? The Doctrine of the Trinity” in Shirley Guthrie, Jr. Christian Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994) 70-96.

Guthrie’s exposition of Christian doctrine really begins with the preliminary “who are we as theologians?” and then with revelation – so far, so Calvinist, and Barthian. Now he has a choice, and he chooses the Trinity – in a sense, still part of special revelation, since the Trinity is a doctrine derived from special revelation, or rather, made necessary by special revelation.

Christians do not ‘believe in’ the doctrine of the Trinity (or any other doctrine). We believe in a living God. But the God we believe in is the God this doctrine confesses, the one living and true God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Faith in this God – and lives shaped by faith in this God – is what distinguishes Christians from people who do not believe in God at all and from other religious people whose faith and life is shaped by other views of God. Moreover, within the Christian circle itself it is faithfulness to the will and word and work of the one ‘triune’ God that distinguishes authentic Christian faith and life from misunderstandings and distortions of it. (71)


Three problems right off the bat: (1) the classical language of Trinitarian doctrine is “meaningless and misleading for most Christians in our time” (72) and requires translation into contemporary terms; (2) interreligious dialogue – the doctrine does make for difficulties, because it does constitute a non-negotiable point of difference, but that’s what makes inter-religious dialogue honest and interesting; (3) feminist critique – Guthrie sees the point in feminist critique, in essence a critique of the patriarchal effects of church linguistic practice: repetitive, exclusively masculine language for God, as with the formula “Father, Son, & Holy Spirit,” has the practical effect of masculinizing people’s understanding of God (who becomes in people’s minds “the great big guy in the sky”), and reciprocally deifying the masculine (so that kings, fathers, etc. feel to people rather more “godlike” or “image of God” than queens, mothers, etc.) His approach is to continue to use classical language (as Biblical and traditional), but with efforts to mitigate the negatives: to use inclusive language where possible, to call out the possible distortions, and to bring in other ideas (later) that might help.

The roots of Trinitarian doctrine lie in affirmations central to Christian revelation. (1) Christians affirm one God. Affirming other Gods “alongside” that one – identified as Creator of all that is, historically the God of Israel – constitutes idolatry. No compromises allowed on this. (2) Christians affirm Jesus’ “unity with God” which implies a simultaneous “distinction within God”. So, “whoever has seen me sees him who sent me” (John 12:45), but also “the Word was with God” (John 1:1) A Similar realization applies to the Holy Spirit. And then, there is scripture where all three Trinitarian names show up at once (e.g., Ephesians 4:4-6, 2 Corinthians 13:13), at a minimum evidence that the earliest Christians were already thinking and speaking in terms of this formula.

The main point becomes how to think about the relationship of these understandings, the relationship of God (of Israel, YHWH, etc.), Jesus (Christ, “Word of God,” etc.), and the Holy Spirit (Spirit of God, Spirit of Christ, etc.) The doctrine of the Trinity evolved out of the experience of problems with approaches that (1) overemphasized distinction (so, ending up with de facto polytheism) or (2) overemphasized oneness (so, effectively denying real divine presence to Christ or the Spirit).

[I continue to find it fascinating that the Asharite-Mutazilite controversy in early Islam, over the status of the Qur’an’s relationship to God, is essentially the same problem as the Arian controversy in early Christianity, which gave us the Trinitarian doctrine embodied in the Nicene Creed. And, it’s resolved in the same way, for fundamentally the same reason: the Asharites’ position of the eternal, uncreated status of the Qur’an (Word of God) wins out over the “low Christology,” so to speak, of the Mutazilites.]

What are these problematic overemphases? Thinking of the Trinity, for instance, as (1) a committee of separate people with separate job descriptions; (2) a team, with a leader and a couple of subordinates; (3) three players on a team who rotate into the game as needed [all ways to overemphasize distinction to the point of separation]; (4) a person who “wears three different hats” [a way to overemphasize unity to the point of indistinction – this is probably my own heretical direction]. [By extension, this indicts all the easy “children’s message” illutrations: the egg with its yolk, white, and shell, the water that is ice, liquid, and steam, the caterpillar/cocoon/butterfly – all too much separation, not enough unity – and the one where Pastor Loveable is Mom, Sister, and Friend all at the same time – still a little too little distinction.] The classical language of “essence,” “persons” or “hypostases” doesn’t help those of us who don’t live in ancient Greece or Rome and have a keen experiential sense of what those words mean, at least not as much as we might wish.

Guthrie formulates this updated statement: “one personal God who lives and works in three different ways at the same time.” (84)

First, look at this through the works of the Trinity (the “economic” view): three works of God (especially associated with the distinct Trinitarian names of Father, Son/Christ, Spirit) are three works of one God – so that “all of God is involved in everything God does” (85) or “the works of the Trinity are indivisible” (86).

[I had forgotten how profound the impact of this formulation was on me some 20 years ago when I read it for the first time. It gave me a way to articulate one of my deep dissatisfactions with what I think of as the “Four Spiritual Laws” story told in the church of my youth, and still told “out there.” It’s a Trinitarian mistake to talk always about God, the loving but perfectly just ruler of the world, who was going to have to punish everyone with eternal death, but then Jesus-God’s-Son basically said “Hey, Dad, let me die instead” and God was OK with that because Jesus-His-Son was so good, so God made Jesus-His-Son die for our sins, (but he always had the resurrection up his sleeve, too) and so now we have eternal life. It’s a Trinitarian mistake because it leaves God-the-God-and-Father-of-our-Lord-Jesus-Christ out of the incarnation and the atonement, as if that’s all somehow someone else’s work, “God’s Son’s” work, instead of God’s work, “in the person of Christ.” And maybe that wouldn’t be so bad, except for the way it gives aid and comfort to the objection that the Christian God is an authoritarian sadist child abuser, which if you can’t tell the story about the work of the Trinity being indivisible is hard to deny, since that child-sacrifice-demanding-God story is the story you’re telling, after all, and if you have heard enough of those horrible sermon illustrations, like the one about the engineer father who has to run over his little boy with the train he’s driving to save the people on board, or the one about the gatekeeper father who has to crush his little son in the bridge gears to let the people into the castle, that is probably the way you have been trained to think the story, and trained to think of God: in this separate and “I have no choice but to kill you” kind of way, which way has always been at odds with the Trinitarian doctrine in which God, Godself, does the heavy lifting of redemption because “the work of the Trinity is indivisible.” So, thank you for this, Shirley Guthrie, Jr., from the bottom of my heart.]

Second, look at the doctrine through the lens of “the social Trinity” (the “ontological” view) – admittedly too mysterious to comprehend, so we are way out on a conceptual limb here. Guthrie contrasts the heuristic device of the western church – the equilateral triangle – with the heuristic device of the eastern church – the circle. The western triangle representation of the Trinity started out assigning Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to the sides of the triangle, but it has shifted to assigning Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to the vertices, usually F at the top (these diagrams are all over the internet, btw). Back to the “team leader & two agents” model. The eastern church’s circular heuristic, and John of Damscus’ concept of perichoresis, emphasizes the inner-Trinitarian community of persons, the God who is personal because a mysteriously inter-personal, self-in-relation reality, an intrinsically social Ultimate Reality. That view has profound implications for our understanding of the Church, which follows from our understanding of God: “God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one as a divine community who live with, for and in one another in mutual openness, freedom, and self-giving love. And this divine community is the model of all genuine human community” (95) – so, the kind of community the Church should be seeking to be or rather to become, the kind of community that would constitute the “exhibition of the kingdom of heaven to the world.”

I have friends who have trouble with the doctrine of the Trinity; who feel it is too … abstruse, maybe, or intellectually compromising. I can’t agree. It seems to me it is about as logical as it can be, in a situation in which we don’t know nearly everything, but need to be able to affirm what we do know, and in which what we do know is superficially contradictory, but which we believe, deep down, is not contradictory.

And from time to time when this comes up I think about “language.” We do not think it is a contradiction to observe that when I, as a person whose native language is English, write or speak, I am writing or speaking language, and yet am writing or speaking English, and I am expressing myself – although, someone might say, I, myself am not independent of my English-ness and linguistic-ness … the familiar mystery of language always seems to me genuinely relevant to the idea of the Trinity.

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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