Sunday, June 11, 2006

Thoughts On The Trinity with MacGrath's Help

I thought that everyone who considered themselves evangelical are trinitarian. However, in the Philippines, a unitarian group called oneness considered themselves as evangelical also. In this blog, I will try to look at the doctrine of the Trinity and relate it in the Philippine context with materials taken from Allister McGrath's Christian Theology: An Introduction.

Some theologians say that you can cite only two verses from the Bible that could possibly support the Trinitarian structure. Nevertheless, the foundations of the doctrine of the Trinity are found in the pattern of divine activity in the New Testament. A Unitarian conception of God is inadequate to contain this dynamic activity expressed in the doctrine of the Trinity. As McGrath says, “the doctrine of the Trinity can be regarded as the outcome of a process of sustained and critical reflection on the pattern of divine activity revealed in the Scripture, and continued in Christian experience. This is not to say that Scripture contains a doctrine of the Trinity; rather, Scripture bears witness to a God who demands to be understood in a Trinitarian manner."

The Historical Development of the Doctrine

Tertullian invented the terms Trinitas (Trinity), persona and substantia. It was his influence that the term Trinity became normative in the western church. Persona literally means “mask” which seems to imply that “that the one God played three distinct yet related roles in the great drama of human redemption” (295). It means that God was understood as one God who acted in a multiplicity of manners within the “economy of salvation.” The term subtantia was introduced to express the idea of unity of God; substantia is what the three persons have in common.

The doctrine of the Trinity resulted from the issue about the relationship of God to Christ. Irenaeus distinguished the roles of the Father, Son and Spirit within the economy of salvation. In the east, the tendency was to emphasize the three persons and in order to protect the unity, stressed the fact that the Son and the Spirit were both derived from the Father. On the other hand, in the west, the tendency was to emphasize the unity in revelation and redemption and explain the relation of the three persons in terms of mutual fellowship. The term used is “mutual interpenetration” (perichoresis). Another idea is the “appropriation.” The argument is that God exists in different “modes of being” at the different points in the economy of salvation.

Trinitarian Heresies

The two most important forms of Trinitarian heresies are “modalism” and “tritheism.” Modalism states that the self-revelation of the one and only God took place in different ways at different times. Tritheism on the other hand, wants to convince that the Trinity consists of three equal, independent, and autonomous beings, each of them is divine. Unity is explained in the sense that each person has one common divine nature.

Six Models

McGrath surveys six approaches to the doctrine of the Trinity. First is the Cappadocians. This is basically a modalistic approach. Its distinctive feature is the priority assigned to the Father. Their approach is best understood by its emphasis on divine unity and that godhead exists in three different “modes of being”. They explained Trinity by appealing to the relationship between a universal and its particulars.

Secondly is the Augustinian model. All the persons in the Trinity are co-equal though Son and Holy Spirit appear subordinate to the Father. The distinctive feature of this approach is the Holy Spirit’s identification with love. The Holy Spirit is the love that bounds the Trinity together. He also developed a “psychological analogies.” Trinity can be traced by looking at the human mind—the triad of mind, knowledge and love.

Thirdly is the Karl Barth’s model. The activity of the Trinity is best seen in God’s revelation of himself. God has spoken in revelation and human being could only understand and respond to the revelation through the Holy Spirit. Thus, the Father is revealed in the Son and the Spirit interprets the revelation. The most difficult aspect of Barth’s Trinity is the idea “revealedness” (Offenbarsein). It is about recognition of revelation as revelation that constitutes this “revealedness” and it is the work of the Holy Spirit. This is necessary because of sinfulness human is incapable of understanding the revelation. The weakness of Barth’s approach is its tendency to be modalist.

Fourthly is Karl Rahner’s analysis of the relation between the “economic” and the “immanent” Trinity. Economic Trinity is a way in which human experience the diversity and unity of God’s self-revelation in history. Immanent Trinity is God’s diversity and unity as it is in God. In other words, the way God is revealed and experienced in history corresponds to the way in which God actually is. “The same God who appears as a Trinity is a Trinity. The way in which God is known in self-revelation corresponds to the way God is internally” (310).

Fifthly, from a Lutheran perspective, Robert Jenson provides a fresh understanding of the Trinity. He sees the need to remain faithful to God’s self-revelation. The argument is that “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” is the proper name of God who is revealed through Jesus. It is also a corresponding identifying description. In biblical polytheistic culture, the term god does not provide enough information. Hence, the doctrine of the Trinity identifies and names the Christian God in accordance to biblical witness. It serves as a protection of the concept of the Christian God against the developing concepts of god from polytheistic contexts such as Hellenistic culture. Thus, a personal conception of God derived from metaphysical speculation is a new way of understanding the Trinity. “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” is a proper name that Christians are asked to use in addressing God in accordance with God’s revelation in history.

Finally, John Macquarrie’s approach comes from an existentialist perspective. God’s dynamism requires a Triune understanding, if not then human could have devised other ways of understanding God. He explores the dynamic conception of God within Christian tradition in the following manner. The Father is the primordial being. The Son is the expressive Being and the Holy Spirit as the unitive Being. Macquarrie’s idea is helpful because it links the doctrine of Trinity with the existential situation of humanity. Its weakness is the assigning of existential functions to the persons of Trinity.

The Filioque Controversy

McGrath explore the issues involved in the filioque controversy. Filioque means “from the Son” an additional phrase added by the western church centuries later to the Nicene Creed. The Greek theologians could not agree with the idea that the Holy Spirit proceeds form the Father and the Son. They hold that there is only one source of being within the Trinity. Some theologians believe that this disagreement contributes to the split of eastern and western churches.

For the early Greek patristic writers the Latin approach seemed to express that there are two sources of divinity in the Godhead, they argued that the distinction between Son and the Spirit were became unclear and it tended to depersonalize the Holy Spirit. However, the Latin intent was to ensure the distinction between the Son and the Spirit and show their mutual relationship. They argued that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son not from two origins but from one. MacGrath concludes that the controversy would continue for a long time.

Application to the Contemporary Situation

The doctrine of the Trinity defies explanations. Christians have realized that there is no analogy that could explain the “mystery” of the Trinity. Analogical attempts to explain it only resulted in heresies. Many Christians upon intense reflection of their strongly held understanding of the Trinity realized that it is not enough.

In the Philippines in general, Christians mostly in Roman Catholics are just resigned to the fact that the doctrine of the Trinity is a mystery and an attempt to explain it is a useless undertakings. This doctrine will remain a mystery. This is a doctrine that is illogical but accepted because it is the tradition handed to them by the church. Perhaps, it is because of the tendency of the Filipino to be polytheistic. It is easy for Filipino “Folk Christians” to believe that there are many gods. It is discussed in the class how Mary was considered divine without any problem.

On the other hand, the Iglesia ni Cristo, one of the largest Filipino independent sects considered as cult refuse to believe in the Trinity because of its illogicality. Their stance is very similar to Arianism. Basically, if one wants to be Christian but could not accept the doctrine of the Trinity he or she can become a member of this sect or Jehovah’s Witness for that matter.

In Evangelical churches, the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity to the health and growth of the church has not really been explored. But some observations will be made here. First, evangelicals seem to focus much of their attention to the second person of the Trinity—Christ. The Father and the Holy Spirit are only mentioned occasionally. This “overemphasis” in Christ is responsible for the emergence of a cult called “oneness” meaning that Christ is both the Father and the Holy Spirit—heresy of modality. Second, with the renewed focus on the Holy Spirit, many churches tend to focus on the activities of the Holy Spirit. Evidently, explosive growth occurs when the church claims that the Holy Spirit is openly working in the church. But this reporter believes that a truly healthy evangelical church is a Trinitarian church.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thanks for a very helpful exposition. Have had a look at some of the other posts too. It is very helpful to get perspectives from an area of christianity I know so little about.