Reflections on how Christians help each other to grow and mature in loving God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love their neighbor as themselves.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Trinity = Love

            The essence of the trinity is not the functions that are usually emphasized in an effort to avoid using the masculine terms of the traditional divine name. In their place creator, redeemer, sustainer, or similar functional terms are used. While the actions of God are certainly important, they are not the essence or power of God. I contend that emphasis on these actions, or functions, to the neglect of the true nature of the trinity do little to help Christians relate to God or to one another.

            In fact it is an incipient modalism. Describing the triune God by function implies that God can be separated. The creator does not require the redeemer. The redeemer does not participate in the work of creation. The sustainer does not take part in neither creation nor redemption. Each function can be seen as independent of the others. There is no necessary relationship within or between them. This is, of course, antithetical to the Biblical trinity.

            Another problem posed by emphasizing the functional names of creator, redeemer, sustainer (or creator, Christ, Spirit) is functional unitarianism. This approach affirms the unity and one-ness of God; which is a good thing. However, it also lends itself to a unitarianism that neglects the uniqueness of the persons of the trinity. The functional naming of God can be interpreted as a singular God (monad) who performs the three divine functions of creator, redeemer, and sustainer alone. Consequently, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit become redundant and we end up with a unitarian God.

            This is a problem because the essence and power of the doctrine of the trinity is the inherent relational nature of God in communicates. The trinity reveals that God’s nature is revealed in the relationships within God’s self. In other words, God’s nature is not revealed in function or action. God’s nature is revealed in relationships of self-giving love. This relational nature is revealed in the traditional Trinitarian name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

            When wrestling with the nature and name of God one must begin by acknowledging that we are struggling with mystery. Evidence of this is the truth that the Trinitarian name is not meant to assign gender to the persons of the Trinity. Rather, the formula is intended to communicate God’s relational nature. The essence of God’s inner life is the relationship of Parent, child and Spirit. God the Father is not a solitary, divine patriarch. Rather, God is Father/Mother because of God’s relationship with the Son. The relationship shapes the name. Jurgen Moltmann puts it this way in his The Trinity and The Kingdom: 

“If we think in Trinitarian terms … we begin with the second definition [of God the Father] in the Apostles’ Creed: God the Father is the Father of his only begotten Son Jesus Christ, who became our elder brother. It is in respect to this Son that God must be called ‘Father’. His fatherhood is defined by the relationship to this Son, and by the relationship of this Son Jesus Christ to him. Consequently, in the Christian understanding of God the Father, what is meant is not ‘the Father of the universe’, but simply and exclusively ‘the Father of the Son’ Jesus Christ. It is solely the Father of Jesus Christ whom we believe and acknowledge created the world. It is in the Trinitarian sense that God is understood as Father – or he cannot be understood as Father at all. But anyone who wants to understand the Trinitarian God as Father must forget the ideas behind this patriarchal Father religion – the super-ego, the father of the family, the father of his country, even ‘the fatherly providence’. He must gaze solely at the life and message of his brother Jesus: for in fellowship with the only begotten Son he will recognize that the Father of Jesus Christ is his Father too, and he will understand what the divine fatherhood really means. The name of Father is therefore a theological term – which is to say a Trinitarian one; it is not a cosmological idea or a religious-political notion. If God is the Father of this Son Jesus Christ, and if he is only ‘our Father’ for his Son’s sake, then we can also only call him ‘Abba’, beloved Father, in the spirit of free sonship.” 

What this tells us is that the essence and power of trinity is self-giving love. The writer of 1 John expresses this truth bluntly: 

“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16b). 

Charles Wesley powerfully expresses this truth in his hymn “Wrestling Jacob:” 

“’Tis Love! ‘tis Love! thou diedst for me,

I hear thy whisper in my heart.

The morning breaks, the shadows flee,

Pure Universal Love thou art:

To me, to all, thy mercies move –

Thy nature, and thy name is Love. 

Therefore, the triune name of God does not connote gender or patriarchy; it is a theological formula that communicates God’s nature. Like any mystery this presents a challenge to all who seek to know and understand this God who is creator, redeemer, and sustainer of the world. The gift of faith equips Christians to wrestle with and live into the mystery that is the triune God who is revealed in, with, and for the world as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

For example, God’s triune nature sheds light on the meaning of humans as being created in the “image of God.” We can safely say that to be created in the image of God does not tell us that human beings look like God or that God looks like us. Since God is Spirit and spirit by its very nature cannot be seen, the image of God does not mean that God looks like us. What it does mean is that we share something of God’s character. Because love is the essential character of God, to be made in God’s image means that human beings are created with the capacity to give and receive love. In other words, human beings are “hard wired” for relationship. We are created for God and for one another. 

Bishop Desmond Tutu describes this essential human nature with the concept of ubuntu. Roughly translated, ubuntu means “I am because we are.” In other words, “I can only become fully me as long as I am part of the community.” Human beings need love and relationships in order to become fully the persons God created us to be. 

The doctrine of the Trinity also gives us a much more faithful and robust understanding of sin than believe in the unitarian god. I’ll deal with that in my next post.


Blogger Jonathan Marlowe said...

Thank you for this excellent post. "John Wesley already anticipated the inadequacy of such formulas as 'creator, redeemer, sustainer' when intended as equivalent to the trinitarian name. In a letter of August 3, 1771, he wrote to Jane Catherine March: 'The quaint device of styling them three offices rather than persons gives up the whole doctrine.'"

--Geoffrey Wainwright, "On the Doctrine of the Trinity: Where the Church Stands or Falls" in Interpretation, April 1991, p. 121.

9:16 PM

Blogger James W Lung said...

Thank you very much. So much is lost in worship when the Trinity is reduced to hardly so much as an afterthought.

Jim Lung
Greensboro, NC

3:41 AM

Blogger PamBG said...

Snap! I preached on 'I am because we are' on Trinity Sunday. I told a friend that she had a look on her face like 'What the *heck* are you talking about?' during the sermon! She claimed she was thinking. :-)

8:53 AM


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