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Thoughts on the Trinity

April 11, 2009

Some modern misconceptions of the Trinity include:


1.  The plea of ignorance, or, the Trinity is a mystery that cannot be understood so it becomes a dogma to be professed by Christians.  The significance of this is that it discloses a belief that the Trinity bears little practical importance.  Rather, the Christian is to give more attention to the work of Christ on the cross.  Western culture has rooted much of its constitution in a theology of redemption without much thought to one of creation.  The history of Western civilization has continually fluctuated between the poles of law and liberty.


2.  Pantheism – conceptions of God that are too closely wedded with the creation.  When inadequate space is given between the creator and the creation then theories concerning the being of God are grafted into the being of the creation.  But the greater risk moves in the other direction.  Creation divinized constructs a creator in its own eyes.  In both constructs neither the creator nor the creation have legitimate freedom of being; one becomes the extension of the other and thereby limited and controlled.


3.  Immanency – the unknowable (and thus, impersonal) or spiritualized God.  This is perhaps the most dominate perception of the Trinity.  The persons of the Trinity are not understood in relation, but according to their individual tasks (this easily slips into modalism).  The unity of God is not perceived in the communion of the many, but rather, the historic search for the unity of God has looked to God’s oneness as that which underlies the economy of persons.  Consider how most people will attempt to defend the Trinity by showing how the Sod is God, how the Spirit is God, and how the Father is God.  The search reaches for the core attributes that stand for the single divine substance – that which makes God, God.  The “substance” of God resides in certain eternal qualities (or attributes) that are prior to the economy of the divine persons.  The being of God rests in a pre-revelatory state, and is consequently unknowable and spiritualized.  One result is an impersonal creator who has established an impersonal creation.  Augustine made the attempt to reach back into the divine immanency through the mind since the mind, human reason, was perceived to be a carrier of the imago dei.  God could only be known through the individual mind.  Ontology is grounded for Augustine not with persons (in-relation), but in mind.  Knowledge is rooted outside of persons-in-relation accessible rather through the individual mind, which consequently questions materiality.  The Trinitarian analogy used by Augustine was memory, understanding, and will.  The inner structure of the human mind reveals the inner being of God.  Thus, the human mind is perceived as the image of the being of God.  Is it any wonder that Western civilization and Christianity has given so much stock to reason, the individual, and the spiritual life?  Thus my suspicion and caution directed toward Augustine (and the Platonic influences that he embraced) and toward “a rationalism that claims too much for the intellect” (C. E. Gunton).


Colin E. Gunton stated that the doctrine of the Trinity was “a quest for ontology.”  He aptly confessed that “it is only through an understanding of the kind of being that God is that we can come to learn what kind of beings we are and what kind of world we inhabit,” and that “everything looks – and, indeed, is – different in the light of the Trinity.”


The immediate practical implications of the Trinity are seen in Gunton’s statement about how an understanding of the Trinity informs an understanding of the nature of man and the nature of the world.  Creation bears the ontological mark of its Creator.  Other practical suggestions that emerge from humanity and creation would include stewardship, relation, otherness, freedom, personhood, and ethics.  In light of the company Christian classical education keeps with the classical world I believe it is vitally important that we seriously consider how the Triune Creator shapes and forms all reality.   “Everything looks – and, indeed, is – different in the light of the Trinity.”



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