Monday, July 13, 2009

the trinity

The Trinity is a rather strange doctrine, because on the surface it doesn't have much to do with Christianity or faith, but just seems like a kind of strange belief that Christians are supposed to ascribe to. The Trinity as such is never mentioned in the Bible, and in fact there is a major emphasis on the fact that there is one God. Some feminists actually find the doctrine oppressive (which I will explain shortly), and there have been many splits in the church over the years regarding the level of divinity of each of the three “persons” we call the Trinity.

Early Friends, including Barclay, apparently basically agreed with the doctrine of the Trinity, in that they believed Jesus was somehow part of God (in a way different from how anyone else can be), and they believed in a spiritual being called God who they had no trouble calling Father or Spirit. Barclay doesn't actually address the doctrine of the Trinity in his Apology, but he does make it clear that he believes Jesus to be divine (Freiday in his introduction cites Barclay's Confession of Faith, Article IV on this point).

Also, in Barclay's Apology, Proposition 2, he is discussing revelation but he makes a fairly Trinitarian claim:

“The only knowledge of the Father is by the Son
“The only knowledge of the Son is by the Spirit
“God has always revealed [God's] self to [God's] children by the Spirit....” (p. 23)

What it seems like to me is that early Friends kind of assumed the doctrine of the Trinity was more or less correct, but they didn't get caught up in its nuances. The point is, Jesus is God, we learn about God through the Spirit, the Spirit is both God and Christ, and we don't have to split hairs about who did what in creation, redemption, etc., and who is doing what now—all we know is that God is here, speaking to us, and the God who is present is the God of Jesus and is Jesus.

Other people, however, find the doctrine of the Trinity to be extremely important, and there is a lot of theological work devoted to figuring out exactly how the Trinity works over the centuries. There are two aspects of the Trinity: the “economic” Trinity, meaning the part we can see, the three ways God has interacted with humanity to enact the things going on in our world; and there is the “immanent” Trinity, the speculated internal relationship between the three parts of the Godhead in their own being and essential self, regardless of how they interact with us.

Migliore helpfully distinguishes between the confession of the Trinity and the doctrine of the Trinity: “The Christian confession of God as triune is a summary description of the witness of Scripture to God's unfathomable love incarnate in Jesus Christ and experienced and celebrated in the community of faith. The doctrine of the Trinity is the always-inadequate attempt to interpret this witness in the most suitable images and concepts available to the church in a particular era” (Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 2004, 67). In other words, we see these three aspects of God named over and over throughout the Bible, so the confession of the Trinity is simply naming how we see God interacting with humanity across time. The doctrine is the attempt to explain those different aspects in a way that makes sense to the context of a particular community. When seen this way, the Trinity can be a helpful concept.

There are some positive and negative things about the doctrine of the Trinity, however. Feminist thealogians point out (and I believe rightly) that the way the Trinity is often envisioned is both hierarchical and all male, both of which are not helpful because they are so often used as the basis for other Christian doctrines (Catherine Mowry LaCugna explains these well in the chapter I read for this week, “God in Communion with Us: The Trinity,” in Freeing Theology, 83-114. Migliore also does a good job of presenting these issues in his chapter “The Triune God,” 64-91.)

In many explanations of the Trinity, it is seen as a hierarchy of “persons,” from the Father-God who is the supreme divine being, to Jesus who is “his” Son and therefore heir but not quite equal because he was a human being for a time, to the Spirit who is sent by the Father through the Son as sort of their messenger or mediator. On this basis, many have tried to back up the hierarchy they posit in church leadership, family roles, races and/or slavery, and the hierarchy some see in the natural world (with human beings at the top).

Another major problem is that all the “persons” of the Trinity are spoken of as male. We use masculine pronouns for all of them in English. (In Greek, all nouns are assigned a “gender,” masculine, feminine or neuter. “Spirit” is neuter, so technically in the original language the Spirit is referred to as “it.” But the other two are masculine.) If you ask most Christians, I think they will tell you that God is neither male nor female, and yet often people think of God's qualities as more “masculine,” and males as more like God than females. There is the ever-pervasive analogy of Christ and the church, where Jesus is a prototype for males and the church (submissive, obedient, passive) is the model for females. I think this misses the whole point of that analogy, but that's for another post. The point is, because all the “persons” of the Trinity are set up as male, it is easy to support a hierarchical ideology in all areas of church dogma.

But there is hope! LaCugna and Migliore both spend a good deal of time in their chapters explaining the original reason the doctrine of the Trinity came to be (controversy in the church over the divinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit), and the original understanding of the Trinity. The Cappodocians (two brothers and a friend who were priests in the fourth century, as well as, probably, their sister Macrina) first really explained the Trinity, and their understanding was that the Trinity was an essentially social entity: one God who was in relationship with God's self in an inexplicable way. The three “persons” we have come to know through history exist in constant, perfect, loving communion with one another, and it is this love and communion into which we are invited.

This became the basis for the Eastern Orthodox understanding of the Trinity, while the Western understanding became more one of a single God with three aspects, like Augustine's more psychological analogy, where the aspects of God were less persons and more like aspects of one's personality or something akin to Freud's id, ego and superego. Western thought became more focused on the singularity of God, of God's fullness and autonomy in God's self, while Eastern Christianity focused on the social nature of God even within God's self, and how God invites us to live within that social structure of love and mutuality.

Western theologians today, it seems, are beginning to stress the social Trinity more than in the past, which I think is a good thing.

The problem still remains, however, that all these “persons” are considered male. This is a problem because it limits the way we view God, the ways we connect with God, and the way we value human persons. I think part of the problem is that our analogies have become rigid dogma, rather than something to help us understand different parts of God and how they can be part of a whole. The Bible uses many different names for God, and yet over the years, Christians have focused mainly on three, deciding with no actual scriptural basis that God is three persons, no more, no less. I understand the need to make it clear that Christians believe in the divinity of Christ and of the Holy Spirit, but I don't think this means we must limit God to only three persons, or three ways of relating to us. These are helpful analogies, but they are only that: analogies. God is not Father, God is like a father, and we can call God “Father” as a way of helping us know how to relate to God. At the same time, God is also like a mother, and it seems to me like we should have permission to call God “Mother” if that name helps us connect with God. I don't see God having a problem with that, and yet many people do have a problem with it.

Now, I understand how easy it is to get set in one's ways and want things to be done how they have always been done. I've actually noticed myself experiencing that a few times this week. I'm at a summer camp where my husband and I have led worship for middle schoolers several times, and there are certain ways we like to do things. We're leading this week with some people who we've never led with before, and they have some great ideas, and yet I find myself chafing about having to do things a little differently. I like the patterns we've set up. They work for us and they seem to help people draw in to worship and attentiveness. And yet, I have to take myself aside and say, “Cherice, are you just annoyed here because we're not doing things the way we've always done them, or do you have a genuine concern that this will be something that will make it difficult for these middle schoolers to practice worship?” Sometimes it's the former, and sometimes the latter. So I've been trying to be really intentional this week about letting my little forms and boxes I want to put around God be broken. But it's hard, and I don't always like it. So I can understand why people don't want to start using other names for God with which they're not familiar—it's hard! It takes work to let ourselves be drawn out of our familiar patterns and the ways we like to connect with God.

But I think it is in these places that we really meet God.

I think that's what Quaker silent meetings were originally about. I think the point was to listen for God as God, not through our familiar forms or comfortable patterns, but just to stop and listen, to be vulnerable to the point of being moved, to receive courage and insight that allows us to break out of the ways we've always done things, and to be moved to do something new. It is only through this kind of opening that we are actually able to live out justice and love in the world.

In Quakerism, whether we are programmed or unprogrammed, Christ-centered or not, whether we talk about the Trinity in formal, informal or nonexistent ways, I think we've still allowed ourselves to build up these kind of forms and boxes that hold us in, that keep us from really experiencing God in God's fullness. Perhaps some of us don't use the traditional “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” language, and I know many of us do, but either way, when was the last time any of us allowed God to be someone bigger than we imagined? When was the last time we allowed God to draw us in to God's playful, loving, co-suffering relationship?

Whether we use Trinitarian language or not, I challenge all of us to allow God to envision God's self to us, to break out of the mold we have put around our concept of God, and to experience God ourselves, unmediated, no walls, no forms, and to see where that experience—of a relationship so deep and loving and painfully aware of others' circumstance—leads us.


Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Hi, Cherice!

You mention in your second sentence that “The Trinity as such is never mentioned in the Bible....” Perhaps, then, I should point out I John 5:7, which in the so-called “King James” Version, the dominant translation in the time of the early Friends, read: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.”

Early Friends quoted this verse whenever they were challenged on the matter of the Trinity, saying that they affirmed what this affirmed, but that they declined to go beyond it. Their so-called anti-Trinitarianism therefore consisted in a refusal to embrace the details of the Nicene Creed, rather than in any denial that God the Father, Christ the Word, and the Holy Spirit all exist and all are one.

Since their day, scholars have unearthed many early manuscript copies of the Bible, older than the ones used to prepare the “King James” Version; and none of the oldest of these manuscripts contain this verse. And so this verse is omitted from most modern translations.

But in the time of the early Friends, no one had any doubts about the authenticity of this verse. And so George Fox affirmed the verse in his “Answer to all such as falsely say the Quakers are no Christians”, in a letter dated at Kingston, 27th of 5th mo., 1683, and also in his “Answer” to the Speech of the Great Turk. Isaac Penington affirmed it in his “Epistle to All Serious Professors of the Christian Religion....” Barclay affirmed it in his Catechism. Penn affirmed it in his Sandy Foundation Shaken, his reply to Jonathan Clapham, his “Serious Apology”, his “Key”, and his “Testimony to the Truth, as held by the People called Quakers”. And I could cite other examples as well.

Tom Smith said...

Although I do like to get in "semantic" discussions and examine the meaning of words, etc., I still believe the most meaningful expression to me is As I am in the Father and the Father is in me, so shall I be in you and you in me.

Otherwise it seems to me (as people) that the way in which we experience the divine may be interpreted in so many ways (The Hindu 1,000 gods?)

forrest said...

But suppose the question were not, "What does the Bible say?" or "What did Early Friends think about it?"

Don't we need to concern ourselves more with, "What is God like?"

Jesus, to my mind, did the definitive job on that question ("The Son" introducing us to "The Father"?) in the Sermon on the Mount where he is telling us what way of behaving is "like God."

God can be terrible--but this puts that in context. It comes out much as Abraham Heschel says in _The Prophets_, that God's "wrath" is a manifestation of God's compassion, a catastrophic response to the human suffering that "business as usual" has been producing. People think there needs to be "divine justice" in some quantitative sense, "Harm done plus suffering done = accounts balanced." But Jesus is saying, "Sun and rain for everybody." Rain being a necessity of life.

"The Trinity." Is good poetry, if you read it right. If you treat it as a concrete fact and try to reason from there, you could end up burning people.

"The son" was a male because a female wouldn't have received a hearing in the ancient world. But the concept needs to be seen as God embodying into meat. Your body, mine, all life that tacitly knows "I am" in this ongoing activity of creation-from-within. If we want to distinguish the deeper, more-purposive-than-us aspect from our everyday, kvetching selves, we can talk of "The Spirit," (and mean, incidentally, what a lot of people mean by "Christ.") "We can speak of "The Father", if we want to abstract out that transcendent whole that somehow gave birth to the concept of "world", or if we want to recognize God at work even in what we think of as inert matter...

Where people have tried to treat all this as if it were a system of mathematical logic... Oy vey!

Anonymous said...

Fatherhood isn't about gender, it's about gift. Motherhood is, too, but motherhood is natural while fatherhood is not. This is the underlying significance. This is the inner dynamic that the Eastern church has always retained while we in the West have lost it.

In that "inner dynamic" you touched upon, the Father gives himself in eternal love-gift to the Son who returns all that in thanksgiving (what the Greeks called "eucharist"). That breath (Hebrew: "ruach") between the two is the Spirit. Gender is in the language more because of the limitations of language itself more than anything else. There's also the significant identification of Christ w/ the Wisdom literature of the OT wherein Wisdom is always portrayed as feminine.

Hystery said...

For those who are up to it, there's a truly fascinating exchange between Benjamin Ferris (a Friend) and Eliphalet Wheeler Gilbert (a Presbyterian) about the Trinity found in the Letters of Paul and Amicus which were written in 1821 and 1822, Ferris, a Hicksite, argued that Trinitarian thinking was Tri-theistic, illogical, and without scriptural support. I get the feeling that for a significant number of Friends, especially those who would become the Hicksites later that decade, the issue of the Trinity was quite important and that this belief differentiated them in important ways from Protestants. Interestingly, Gilbert points to the use of the plural noun in the Hebrew Scriptures to describe God (Elohim). Ferris discounts this as a peculiarity of the language but archaeology indicates that the early Hebrews were in fact, polytheistic. I have been interested in the connection between the asherim found even in the Temple itself, the Near Eastern goddess traditions, the Wisdom tradition, and what would become "Sophia's Revenge" in the gender-bending Christ-Sophia phenomenon. All very cool stuff.

nemo said...

Yes, Marshall's mention of 1 John 5:7-8 is problematic, most translations say "Spirit, water and blood" even the KJV says Father, Son and Holy Ghost in one verse and Spirit, water and blood in the next.

The authority for the Trinity I've most ofter read is Matthew 28:19 part of the Great Commission "Go ye, therefore, to all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost." Since baptism is one of the sacraments, the Trinity goes along with it for believers by implication.

Now, it not being in the manner of Friends to outwardly manifest the sacraments, I guess we would not outwardly profess the Trinity, under the usually cited authority.

leftistquaker said...

I would like to bring to your attention a recent deployment of the social trinity in the World Council of Churches initial draft "Toward an Ecumenical Declaration on Just Peace." I especially appreciated these sentences:

"25. The oikos of the world and of the Church, the oikoumene of God’s design and purpose therefore, are not arbitrary constructs. The oikos finds its meaning and purpose in the Trinitarian
perichoresis, an embrace of love, peace, and beauty. Building peace is our participation toward that
perichoresis, that eternal dance. Therefore, peace-building is not just about repairing what has been
broken, but about expanding and completing relationships that make the oikos the mirror of the

The full draft is found here:

Though I am nontheistic myself, as a Friend, I am glad that this ancient doctrine still has some positive work to do in this world.

Peace! Charley

Bill Samuel said...

I think you might say that early Friends objected to the doctrine of the Trinity (landing Penn in the Tower) not to the Trinity itself. There was (still is) an evolved doctrine that went far beyond what scripture says, but was treated as central to Christianity. Quakers objected to the "man-made religion" elements of that, which at least bordered on polytheism in their minds. They said we should stick to what scripture says.

It is Jesus himself who kept making the distinction between the Son and the Father, which he also called one, and then added a third element/person variously called the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, the Holy Ghost, etc. Clearly all three are divine, and yet Jesus was clearly monotheistic.

So it's hard for me to see how you can be Christian and not in some sense Trinitarian, although ways to describe the Trinity may differ. I think it is a mystery, but various conceptions of it do provide some windows into the truth of it. I do like the social construct aspect which the Eastern church is strong on and is gaining strength in the Western church.

Anonymous said...

One way you can put it: the Trinity means that God is not merely a singularity; it rather means that God is Family.

In other words, God, in God's own perfect, inner life from all eternity is expressed in familial love and self-gift. And the Incarnation plays pivotal role in human history b/c it's God's way of bringing us into that very Inner Life. To quote Anasthasius: "God became man so that man might become God." As Peter reminds us, we are "partakers of the divine nature". Which is to say, as John writes in his letter: we don't yet know what we are, but when it's revealed/unveiled (parousia) we know "we will be like Him".

leftistquaker said...

Hi again, Cherice,

You inspired me to blog about the Ecumenical Declaration, here:

Peace! Charley

Hystery said...

Here's a Link to an article about unitarianism among early Friends

Of course there are many Christians who do not believe in the Trinity. Additionally, the belief in Christ's divinity is far from universal among Christians (although the early Friends and the Hicksites as represented by "Amicus" in 1822 did not reject the divinity of Christ).

Marshall Massey said...

To “nemo”: The reason all modern translations say “spirit, water and blood” is simply that there is no question about the antiquity of that part of the text; most modern translations omit “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” because none of the really ancient manuscripts contain it.

Yes, Matthew 28:19 does join Father, Son and Holy Ghost in a baptismal formula. The three are also linked in verbal formulas at I Corinthians 12:4-6, II Corinthians 13:14, I Peter 1:2, and I John 3:23-24. And chapter vii of the Didache gives the same baptismal formula as Matthew 28:19.

But only in I John 5:7 is it stated that these three are one. And without that statement, there is no Trinitarianism. Matthew 28:19, and all those other verses, are completely open to a Unitarian reading. That is precisely why early Friends put their emphasis on I John 5:7.