Thursday, 4 June 2015

Doctrine of the Trinity: 21 grammatical rules

I've been teaching the doctrine of the Trinity this semester and it was our last class today. By way of summary and synthesis, I offered this list of “grammatical rules” for talking about the Christian God (similar to the grammatical rules for christology that I posted last year).

(A) The triune God and creation
  1. As the infinite Source of all things, God totally transcends the creation.
  2. Yet God’s otherness is not remote from creation. God’s being is also Word – infinitely self-communicating, infinitely accessible.
  3. And God’s being is Spirit – infinitely reaching out, infinitely gathering, infinitely opening creatures to God’s self-communication.
(B) Trinitarian language
  1. Because God is the transcendent Source, no language can fully describe God’s reality.
  2. Because God is self-communicating Word, human language is capable of speaking truthfully (yet imperfectly) of God. Our guide is the language used in scripture – especially the language of “Father,” “Son” and “Holy Spirit.”
  3. Because God is Spirit, human language about God is never fixed or finished. The Spirit who speaks through scripture also opens our language to speak truthfully (yet imperfectly) of God in new ways.
(C) Trinitarian analogies
  1. Because God is transcendent, no analogy of the Trinity is ever adequate.
  2. Because God is creator and self-revealer, analogies of the Trinity are possible. For example: God is the source, the emanation, and the radiance of light. Another example: God is the hidden well of water and the spring and the flowing stream.
  3. Because every analogy is limited, it is always best to use multiple analogies, never just one.
(D) Trinitarian monotheism
  1. The central vision of Christian monotheism is not hierarchy but self-communicating love.
  2. The “power” of God is not domination but God’s infinite capacity to achieve love’s purposes.
  3. The triune God revealed in the gospel is the one God of Israel. There is no difference between the “God of the Old Testament” and the “God of the New Testament”. The differences are of degrees of revelation, as well as the contexts in which revelation was received.
(E) Triune relations
  1. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not three beings but three persons of the one God. We use the word “person” to avoid using worse words, but the exact meaning of this word remains a mystery.
  2. The Father is the source of the triune God. The Father is not begotten and does not proceed. The Son is “begotten” by the Father. The Spirit “proceeds” from the Father through the Son. We use the words “begotten” and “proceeding” because they are used in scripture, but the exact meaning of these words remains a mystery.
  3. The most we can say is that “begetting” and “proceeding” describe relations within the one being of God. The only difference between the Father and the Son is that the Father relates to the Son in a father-like way, while the Son relates to the Father in a son-like way. These differences of relation are the only differences within the one being of God.
(F) Triune actions
  1. In every act of God, the triune persons work together inseparably.
  2. Yet certain acts are properly attributed to distinct persons of the Trinity: the Father is creator, the Son is redeemer, the Spirit is sanctifier.
  3. The Father creates using the two hands of the Son and Spirit. The Son redeems as the Son is sent by the Father and made incarnate by the Spirit. The Spirit is poured out from the Father through the Son. Each person acts distinctly in a way that reveals the whole work of the triune God.
(G) Trinitarian spirituality
  1. What a triune God wants from creatures is not primarily submission, obedience, or service, but loving participation.
  2. Christian spirituality is a spirituality of pilgrimage in love. It is about the journey of the human person into an ever fuller participation in love.
  3. Human beings come to know God through participation in the triune life of love. Receptivity to an infinite love requires an unceasing and unlimited process of sanctification: eternal life.


Andrew Harris said...

Thanks for your thoughts on a complex subject, I thoroughly enjoyed it, very well thought out.

Josh Harris said...

>>What a triune God wants from creatures is not primarily submission, obedience, or service, but loving participation.<<

Doesn't the language of "wants" seem to imply some sort of unrealized potency or incompleteness on God's part? Why not something like "What a triune God invites his creatures to ... "?

Travis Tolbert said...

Well said....he also said, "the Spirit who speaks through scripture also opens our language to speak truthfully (yet imperfectly) of God in new ways.

Travis Tolbert said...


John Hartley said...

Seven threes, hmm? I wondered if it ought to have been three sevens?

Because of my nit-picky nature I tend to major on a rather different grammatical priority: always make sure we speak of God in personal terms. Christian people are particularly bad at lapsing into "it" language when trying to describe the workings of the Holy Spirit. Some of them even have gender-issues problems when it comes to using the word "him", which renders them incapable of using pronouns for the Holy Spirit at all.

I have issues with the first sentence of E2. How could the triune God have a "source"? But, as you said, we wrestle with inadequate language - well done for trying.

Yours in Christ - JOHN HARTLEY

Ben Myers said...

John, when I call the Father the "source" of the Trinity, I'm just copying this terminology from the Cappadocians. "Source" (Gk. arche) is one of their main words for describing the Father in relation to the Son and Spirit. This wasn't a subordinationist claim: in the 4th century, the language of one "source" within the Trinity was a way of countering Arian-like claims of a (divine) Father who infinitely transcends the (less-than-divine) Son and Spirit.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, Ben. Hope some will find my work on perichoresis in John Damascene helpful in fleshing out some of your points. Charles Twombly

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