Monday 28 August 2006

Theology for beginners (8): Triunity

Summary: In the story of Jesus, God defines himself as Father, Son and Spirit in a triunity of love.

We have seen, then, that if we want to speak of God we must tell the story of Jesus. The question “Who is God?” is answered by the story of Jesus. “God” is name of what happened when Jesus was raised from the dead. In the first century CE, a certain Jewish man was executed and then raised into the life of the future: that is what we mean when we use the word “God.”

Throughout his earthly life, Jesus was defined above all by his unique relationship to the God of Israel. He calls this God “Father,” and he understands himself as the Father’s obedient Son. He lives to do the will of his Father. His entire life is nothing other than an expression of faithful obedience to the Father. He gives himself over fully to the will of the Father – and this self-giving obedience finally culminates in his obedient death on the cross. In just this way, Jesus shows that he is truly the Son of the Father, truly the one in whom the Father’s will finds expression.

But Jesus carries out the Father’s will not in his own strength. Rather, it is the Father’s Spirit that empowers him to do the Father’s will. The Spirit – the living Spirit who comes from the future in the power of the kingdom – comes to Jesus and rests on him. The Spirit sets Jesus apart, leads him, anoints him (literally: “Christs” him!) as God’s messenger, and empowers him to be the Father’s Son, to live and act and die in radical obedience.

When Jesus’ ministry terminates in crucifixion, even then he continues to trust in the Father. Even then, strengthened by the Spirit, he continues to do the Father’s will. And when Jesus is dead and buried, the Father vindicates him by raising him into new life through the Spirit. Coming from the future in the power of God’s kingdom, the Spirit proceeds from the Father to the Son and raises Jesus from the dead. Thus the Father bestows on Jesus this final, decisive act of affirmation: he shows that Jesus is the true Son of the Father, the one on whom the Spirit rests, the one with whom the Father is well pleased.

This story of Jesus’ resurrection is the definition of God. God is the historical event that takes place between the Father and the Son through the Spirit when Jesus is raised from the dead. God is not a “divine substance” or a “first cause” or even a “supreme being” – God is a living event. God happens! God takes place as a unity of self-giving, reciprocal life between Father, Son and Spirit. The Father sends the Son; the Son goes from the Father in obedience; the Spirit is the uniting power of this relationship. God is this narrative; God is this triune life.

In a word, then, God is love. In the story of Jesus, God defines himself as an event of self-giving love. He defines himself as a life rich in relationships, full of movement and energy, a harmony of repetition in difference. God is not an isolated, motionless “being” – he is not a static unity, but a dynamic triunity. He is not a single voice, but a harmony; not a monologue, but a conversation; not a march, but a dance.

God is God a first time; and then God repeats himself, and so he is a God a second time; and then God is also the bond between this “first time” and this “second time,” between God and God. Like repetitions and differences within music, God is thus a living harmony – he is always in motion, always on the way from himself to himself, always giving himself and responding to this giving. Thus – in unity and in difference – God is love.

In this vibrant, energetic unity, God is Father, Son and Spirit. He is an event of love. No, he is the event of love – the love that sent Jesus from the Father and then raised Jesus from the dead into the triune life of God’s future.

Further reading

  • Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics I/1 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975), §§8-9.
  • Hart, David Bentley. The Beauty of the Infinite (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 155-249.
  • Jenson, Robert W. The Triune Identity: God according to the Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982).
  • Jüngel, Eberhard. God as the Mystery of the World (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1983), pp. 343-96.
  • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), pp. 259-336.
  • Rahner, Karl. The Trinity (New York: Herder & Herder, 1970).
  • Torrance, T. F. The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996).


byron smith said...

Thanks Ben - keep going!

the Spirit proceeds from the Father to the Son and raises Jesus from the dead
So are you a fan of filioque or not? Is the pattern of Trinitarian relationships 'fixed', or are there 'movements' (in a musical sense)?

Anonymous said...

I'm probably way out of my depth here - is a non-substantial ontology actually viable? What do we mean when we say the Father gave himself to the Son? Is the Father anything more than an idealist concept - even in the mind of the historical Jesus? Is the divine trinity reducible to the relations? Have we slipped too far over into idealism when we say, "God happens." Much rests, of course, on how one conceives the language of event, and I guess, the concept of eternity.

My question arises not only from trinitarian reflection, but from what occurs in christology and anthropology if some form of substantial ontology is not present. E.g. it seems to me that Chalcedon does require some form of substantialism.

I'm am really enjoying this series, by the way, Ben. Thank you.

David W. Congdon said...


Ben is (rightly) following Barth, McCormack, and Jüngel in affirming an actualistic ontology over a substance ontology. We can affirm substance without also a substantialism or a substance ontology. In The One, the Three, and the Many, Colin Gunton, despite a number of other problems, convincingly argues that we should preserve the language of substance but in a radically changed ontological framework, mainly one that is relational (and I would add actualistic).

Now, Ben, I think you should have started this post where you write: "This story of Jesus’ resurrection is the definition of God. ..." Prior to this, you are simply retelling the prior posts with an emphasis on trinitarian language. But a post on the Trinity needs to say much, much more than you have said here. In the last few paragraphs, you tease us with the meat of the doctrine — actualistic ontology, the event of God's being as love, relationality, unity-in-difference — but they seem like leftover statements rather than the central affirmations of the doctrine.

Finally, any intro doctrine of the Trinity must articular Rahner's rule: "The economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity, and the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity." But you did not mention either the economic or immanent Trinity in this post! Any discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity must also discussion how it relates to the doctrine of revelation. We know that God is triune ad intra because God reveals Godself as triune ad extra. This is where any doctrine of the Trinity begins.

I think these posts have been very good, but consider this my request for more interpretation and orientation to the doctrines under discussion. It seems like you wish to emphasize how we arrive at these doctrines through the story of the gospel, but I think we need more emphasis on the substance of these doctrines.

All in all, though, this is great stuff!

W. Travis McMaken said...


I commend all the effort that you are putting into this series of posts. Keep it up!

One deficiency that I find in your work thus far is that you lack anything that even remotely resembles a Chalcedonian Christology. In this post (and in your Jesus post) you deal in terms that are very adoptionist sounding. Your discussion of the interaction between the Spirit and Jesus here is right I think, but it is missing another piece that would provide Chalcedonian balance, and without that you left me catching wiffs of Moltmann's Christology - as opposed to Barth and Torrance, who are in your bibliography.

Will you undertake this kind of a discussion in a future installment?

Anonymous said...

Barth writes: "What He is and does, He is and does in full unity with Himself. It is in full unity with Himself that He is also - and especially and above all - in Christ, that He becomes a creature, man, flesh, that He enters into our being in contradiction, that He takes upon Himself its consequences. If we think that this is impossible it is because our concept of God is too narrow, too arbitrary, too human - far too human. Who God is and what it is to be divine is something we have to learn where God has revealed Himself and His nature, the essence of the divine. And if He has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ as the God who does this, it is not for us to be wiser than He and to say that it is in contradiction with the divine essence." (IV:1, 186)

But you go further: 'In the first century CE, a certain Jewish man was executed and then raised into the life of the future: that is what we mean when we use the word “God.”' And in the summary you use the word "defines" where we might expect "reveals".

Is this identification of "who God is" with "what He does" appropriate? Or is it a confusion of categories? Surely the death and resurrection of Jesus is the supreme moment of God's self revelation, but not itself the content of that revelation.

::aaron g:: said...

Ben, I really like what you had to say about God being a living event and not a substance, and what your paragraph about God repeating Godself. Great stuff!

I will take issue a few less important points:

a. When you say "God defines" himself," the word "defines" seems so dry, so belonging to taxonomies. Your narrative emphasis on the “story” of Israel and Jesus lends itself better to something like “God names himself” (also see Matt. 28.19).

b. Is it God that defines himself as Triunity or the Church? Historically, Trinity is a notion derived more from post-NT church councils than the NT itself.

Again, these are small points. I really liked the post.

Anonymous said...

I have always liked John 10:30, and lately I have gotten more insight into the word one. The verse is as follows (ESV): "I and the Father are one." The word translated one is also found in John 17:11 and Mark 12:29:

And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. (John 17:11)

Jesus answered, "The most important is, 'Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one." (Mark 12:29)

So, God is one, but that does not mean that he is one in a modalistic sense. In Who Was Jesus?, N.T. Wright points out (pp. 48-49) that jewish monoteism "was never, in the Jewish literature of the crucial period, an analysis of the inner being of God, a kind of numerical statement about, so to speak, what God was like on the inside." It was rather "always a polemical statement directed outwards against the pagan nations."


Anonymous said...

Ben, thanks for another great post. And please continue this great series with "Theology for beginners" in mind!

Anonymous said...

Ben: You might also suggest that in the people of Israel the concept of the ‘One God’ was not a numerical concept—one as opposed to two or three—but a dynamic unity of a God embedded within their history but also constitutive of it. James Dunn suggests that there was a tension between transcendence and immanence, between personal and impersonal which had always been present in the Jewish conception of God. “In that sense then we might even speak of a 'nascent binitarianism' in the Jewish concept of God--God far and God near, divine power experienced as both impersonal and personal." James Dunn, Christology in the Making, (Philadelphia: Westminister, 1980), pp. 263-4. This is why I like your concept of ‘triunity’ rather than ‘trinitarian.’

Brannon Hancock said...

Ben - these have all been great, but this installment, to my mind (and in contrast to some of the criticisms above), is the best so far. Really fantastic stuff. Sections of J-L. Marion's God Without Being would be a nice addition to the reading list, and would certainly support your emphasis on God as not being but event, as endlessly self-giving love, etc. Also, I hesitate to mention it with so many names of heavyweight systematic theologians being batted about (Barth, Gunton, etc), but John Caputo's latest book, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event accords with some of what you express here, too.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Ben. Great post.

May I say that all the comments above are good comments, say important things, ask searching questions, suggest areas that will need covering. But, guys, we all need to remember that this is "Theology for Beginners" - and that Ben only has a few hundred words on each topic. I'm not sure that the language, if not the res, of actualistic versus substance ontology, trinitarian idealism, Chalcedonian Christology, or the filioque (Ben, by the way, is hedging his bets on this one - alongside Byron's citation there is the reference to the Holy Spirit as the "bond" (vinculum) between the Father and the Son) will be comprehensible, let alone helpful, to "beginners".

I'm reminded of the following take-off on Mark 9:27-30:

Jesus said to them, "Who do you say that I am?"
And they answered, "You are the ultimate manifestation of the ground of being, the numen tremendum et fascinans, the somatic essence of the Logos, the presupposition of the eschatological kerygma."
And Jesus said, "Wot?"

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for all these excellent and perceptive comments. I'm sorry I haven't had time to reply in detail to any of these -- but I've really appreciated all these comments, and they've given me lots to think about.

In general, I should apologise for my lack of responsive comments lately -- the posts for this series have been taking me so long to write that I haven't had much time to join the discussions! But in spite of that, I've been valuing these discussions immensely.

Anonymous said...

"This story of Jesus’ resurrection is the definition of God. God is the historical event that takes place between the Father and the Son through the Spirit when Jesus is raised from the dead."

The above comment is overly focused. I appreciate your focus on the crucifixion and resurrection, many have lost this emphasis. But, Genesis 1 shows God as Creator, and many other passages frame God as protector, as coming King, etc. The story of Jesus resurrection is better thought of as a prophesied event which also occurred and now is celebrated as a turning point in human history. It is however only part of the theology of God and the definition of God.

John Burke, Ph.D.

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