The Social Doctrine of the Trinity: Some Problems

By Chapman, Mark D. | Anglican Theological Review, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

The Social Doctrine of the Trinity: Some Problems


Chapman, Mark D., Anglican Theological Review


Theology as Practical Wisdom

The art of politics is undeniably a practical wisdom: politics is nothing without application. In turn politics is also transformative: putting principles into practice involves practical decisions and may well lead to compromise and conflict, and in the application the original principles will be transformed by practice. It is in this way that political change occurs, new freedoms or new oppressions emerge, and conceptions of what is politically acceptable, the "theory" of politics, change over time. Theology might be much the same: there will often be a conflict of principle and practice; theological solutions are frequently practical compromises to resolve a specific problem; and in theology too there is often a transformation of the original principle through practice.

The emphasis on a practical wisdom that emerges in the living of the Christian life leads in turn to a changed understanding of the nature of doctrine: it is not simply a set of propositions, the "theory" that we recite in our creeds in church week by week. Rather, doctrine informs the practice of living the Christian life, and, at the same time, how we understand and how we express doctrine is shaped by the way we live our lives as Christians. It is because God is like this or like that, and because God is related to us in specific ways, that we live our lives in the way we do. But as we begin to relate differently to one another, and to think about the implications of such relating, so also we might begin to think differently about God's relating to us, and thus about what God is like. Practice becomes the sphere of the divine-human encounter, and it is there, rather than in our speculations about what God may or may not be like, that we begin to make sense of the nature of doctrine.

Theological method is thus not a "technical rationality" which encompasses a number of more or less scientifically based skills,1 but rather has to do with the acquisition of a practical theological wisdom, which is far more than merely a body of theory coupled with practical skills. The unifying feature of theology is thus first and foremost the acquisition of a practical tradition, an inheritance, a set of rules which needs to be made alive through practical application in the here and now: it needs to be spoken again. This is indeed reminiscent of Augustine, for whom learning and assimilating a communal tradition is an essential human characteristic and is the necessary prerequisite for any act of communication.2 Christianity is thus a path of growth in practical wisdom that might bring with it new ways of understanding and interacting with the world.3

In this paper I will offer a tentative criticism of a popular recent understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity on the basis of this conception of theology as a practical discipline. What I will suggest is that a form of theology, however immediately attractive, which is divorced from the practicalities of the Christian life and the world in which it is lived, avoids the conflicts and tensions which characterise this world and the formulation of appropriate doctrines. And such a doctrine is inevitably redundant for Christian living. In distinction, the different conception of the doctrine of the Trinity that I shall outline might even turn out to express the creative tension at the heart of human life. This in turn, I will go on to claim, might suggest something about the very nature of God, and might also assist in a realistic approach to problems in both Church and politics.

The Trinity and Society

It would not be too far off the mark to suggest that the doctrine of the Trinity has provided the theological underpinning for many recent attempts at Christian social thought: there is patently much that is appealing in the notion of a God who is perfect communion, and in whom the struggles and conflicts which characterise human life are overcome in a model of harmonious and ordered society.

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