Thursday, 1 June 2017

Tweeting the trinity: because heresy is meh

I spent a few days compulsively tweeting on the doctrine of the trinity. I've just come to the end of a 12-week class on this doctrine and I enjoyed having the opportunity to collect my thoughts like this at the end. Say what you like about twitter, but it can be a good exercise to try to explain yourself in such a constrained form. Anyway I've gathered all the tweets together here, with a handful of additions and minor changes. Enjoy! And have a heresy-free Trinity Sunday!


#1. Start by abolishing Trinity Sunday, that fateful day on which preachers think they have to explain the Trinity

#2. Teach children to make the sign of the cross when they say the words "Father, Son and Holy Spirit"

#3. When someone offers to tell you the practical implications of the doctrine, just smile and move along

#4. Have you come up with a really helpful analogy of the trinity? Well done! Now please don't tell anyone about it, ever

#5. The doctrine is not a mystery. It is simple & precise. The reality it points to is the mystery

#6. Don't try to get rid of the biblical words. Don't try to stick to them exclusively either

#7. In this doctrine every word is used in a very limited way. Even the numbers 1 and 3 can't be taken literally

#8. Don't partake in meaningless debates about whether "oneness" or "threeness" is more important (see #7)


#9. Don't worry about whether you prefer Augustine or the Greeks. You don't have to pick a favourite, it's not Masterchef

#10. How does Augustine differ? He takes just one principle of "Greek" theology (the inseparability of persons in action) and proves that it's not absurd or unthinkable. That's all.

#11. Cappadocians: it's a simple doctrine even though we don't know what it means. Augustine: yes, and it makes good sense to believe it!

#12. Irenaeus (Greek tradition): this doctrine is shorthand for the unity of God in OT & NT. Tertullian (Latin tradition): ditto


#13. The biggest change in modern trinitarian theology was one of scale: the most minimalist & modest of all doctrines became a Theory of Everything

#14. Ancients: it's the key to scripture (which in turn shapes practice). Moderns: it's the key to practice (even though it's not scriptural)

#15. Ancients: the choice of words is easy & their meaning is restricted. Moderns: the meaning of words is vast & the choice is impossible

#16. Ancients: the word "Father" must be stripped of all connotations except mere relation. Moderns: those ancients thought God was male!

#17. Ancients: the doctrine is a tonic against idolatry (since it names an undepictable mystery). Moderns: the doctrine depicts God as an advocate of my social cause

#18. Ancients: it's the worst theory about God apart from all the other ones that have been tried. Moderns: it's the greatest theory ever!


#19. The canonical principle. OT and NT are a diverse but coherent witness to one God

#20. The creation principle. The one God is creator of all things and so is not on the same plane as anything else

#21. The spirituality principle. God is spirit. God has no body and is not comprised of anything like a material substance

#22. The simplicity principle. Because God is spirit, and because the creator transcends space, time, & matter, God must be indivisible and without parts

#23. The abstraction principle. Words can be used to speak of God only if they are stripped of all connotations of space, time, & matter

#24. The revelation principle. How do we find the best words to use? We'd better stick to revelation. (These words will still need to be abstracted as per #23)

#25. The fitness principle. Language about God should be used in a way that’s fitting to God's character. (Early Christians had a special term for this: theoprepes)

#26. The fitness principle comes solely from Greek philosophy and is by far the biggest piece of "hellenisation" in this doctrine

#27. But this piece of Greek philosophy was used critically against the Greeks: it was used to distinguish monotheism from pagan anthropomorphism (where, e.g., the gods literally make love and “beget” offspring)

#28. So there is a true hellenisation at this point (and really only at this point) but it is a critical and subversive use of Greek philosophy. It distinguishes the one God of Israel from the gods of Greek culture


#29. The ingredients of the doctrine, supplied by revelation, are the words "one God", "Father, Son, Holy Spirit," "begotten" & "proceeding"

#30. From these words is constructed a formula that refers in shorthand to the knowledge of God revealed in OT & NT

#31. The revelation of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is an unveiling of the incomparable and unknowable uniqueness of the one God

#32. The "oneness" of God is not a number. It refers to God's incomparable mystery. This is mysteriously revealed (not contradicted) by the "threeness"

#33. The "threeness" is not a number. It refers to the incomparable fullness of the life of the one God, who is God as Father, Son & Holy Spirit

#34. So the words "one" and "three" have to be abstracted away from their ordinary numerical meaning, and from any image of three things. The doctrine is not a mathematical puzzle

#35. God is one. The divine attributes (love, will, power, goodness, justice, mercy, freedom, etc) are attributes of the one God, not of the Father or the Son or Spirit

#36. God is one. When we say that the Son acts, we mean that the whole triune God is acting in the revelation of the Son. There is no separate act of Father or Son or Spirit

#37. God is one. When we say that God is “personal”, we are referring to the one God. In God there is one mind, one will, one act, one who says “I”. Father, Son and Spirit are not distinct personalities with distinct wills

#38. According to revelation, the Son is begotten; the Spirit proceeds; the Father is neither begotten nor proceeds

#39. "Begetting" has nothing to do with the body or passion or temporal beginning. "Proceeding" has nothing to do with spatial movement. The one God of Israel is nothing like the Greek gods

#40. Abstracted away from ordinary usage, "begetting" and "proceeding" designate relations of origin, nothing more

#41. These relations of origin are distinct (the Spirit is not begotten, the Son does not proceed) but we don't know how, or what this means

#42. "Father" & "Son" have nothing to do with gender or procreation or superiority or a temporal before and after

#43. Abstracted away from ordinary usage, the words "Father" and "Son" designate relations, nothing more. The Father is the Son's source

#44. Because “Father” is a relational word, God cannot be “Father” unless there is also “Son”. If God is eternally Father, then there is also an eternal Son

#45. Apart from a relation of origin, in what other way does the Son differ from the Father? In no other way, or none that we could ever know

#46. Son and Spirit are different relations to the same source (the Spirit is not begotten; the Son does not proceed). In what other way do they differ? In no other way, or none that we could know

#47. So we distinguish Son and Spirit with words whose meaning is unknown to us. We can only confess that the two words (“begotten”, “proceeding”) mean different things

#48. That's how the language of revelation is used in this doctrine. The doctrine is an abstract minimalism that doesn't explain God but only confesses what is found in revelation

#49. The scriptural words are indispensable. But they are a guide, not a restriction. Sometimes other words are useful to clarify what we mean

#50. Examples of useful non-scriptural words: "being", "person", "relation", "homoousion", "light from light", "mode of being", and of course "trinity" and "triune"

#51. Such words are useful for clarifying the language of revelation, but are not central or indispensable in the same way as revelation


#52. In recent theology, much has been written about the grandiose implications of the doctrine. I think its usefulness is much more limited but also more precise

#53. The doctrine is not a revelation of God. But it is a reliable framework for reading OT & NT as a coherent witness to the one God

#54. The doctrine doesn't have any adequate words for talking about God. But it's a procedure for speaking faithfully and truly with inadequate words

#55. The doctrine doesn't have special insight into God's uniqueness. But it is a refusal of projection & a constant warning against idolatry

#56. The doctrine is not a special theory of spirituality. But it explains why responding to God is more about participation than about submission, adoration, obedience etc

#57. The doctrine is not "prayerful" in any mysterious way. But it explains the coherence of prayer. Whether you address the Father, Son or Spirit (or all three), you are praying to one and the same God

#58. The doctrine explains the logic of the economy of salvation. When we see the Son acting, it is the triune God acting in the revelation of the Son

#59. The doctrine shows how the language of revelation can be used confidently and with precision to speak of unknowable mysteries

#60. The mystery is in the reality, not in the doctrine. The doctrine is not "apophatic", unless by that we mean the way it reduces words to a minimal content

#61. So can we speak of God? Yes! (because of revelation). Do we know what we mean? No! (because what's revealed is a mystery)


#62. Practical afterword: This doctrine doesn't create communal bliss, gender equality, social liberation etc. It just helps you not to be an idolator

#63. Philosophical afterword: This doctrine conveys very minimal knowledge. But Augustine argues that we still know God better than we know ourselves. (His proof: anything we know about God is unchanging and eternal; whereas our self-knowledge is doubtful because we're always changing.)

#64. Liturgical afterword: A fitting communal response is not “Trinity Sunday” but the whole church year as a symbolic participation in the economy of God’s saving work as Father, Son and Holy Spirit

#65. Pedagogical afterword: Doctrine is there to be taught; that's what the word “doctrine” means. The doctrine of the trinity is not practical. It has no direct application. It shapes imagination & practice in the long run but only if it's studied, taught, and understood. So learn it! Teach it!

#66. Doxological afterword: Worship the one triune God! (not the doctrine) - they’re not the same thing. “What can all our Christian statements be but a serious pointing away to the One who will himself tell those who have ears to hear who he is?” (Karl Barth).


Jonathan R Wilson said...

Thanks Ben. You have three tweets that begin "God is one" and none that begin "God is three." Are 38ff implicitly tweets about "God is three"? Or??

Ben Myers said...

Hi Jonathan. I can see what you mean. But I don't think I would want to say that "God is three". Basil puts it nicely in his book on the Holy Spirit. He says when it comes to the trinity we're not counting - it's not "one, two, three". Instead it's "one, one, one."

Jason Albertson said...

I loved reading through these. Just discovered your blog today and I'm enjoying it.

I think #65 especially is on target. Attempts to draw direct application from the doctrine of the Trinity can cause us to project our relationships onto the transcendent God.

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