Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Developing Alternative Trinitarian Formulas

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Developing Alternative Trinitarian Formulas

Article excerpt

Developing Alternative Trinitarian Formulas1


The biblical narratives describe how the earliest Christians came to the belief that they had beheld God in their midst. They had seen Jesus' works of power; they had seen him crucified by the authorities of the day; and they were witnesses to his resurrection. He had ascended into heaven, but God's presence had not thereby departed from those who believed in him. Instead, Jesus had breathed the Spirit upon them, giving them "another advocate" (John 14:16) in his place. The entire narrative is well summarized in Acts, where Peter proclaims that the one God of Israel, ever transcendent and all-powerful, had nevertheless come to dwell among the people-twice. First, in Jesus of Nazareth, God had worked "deeds of power, wonders, and signs" (Acts 2:22) and eventually worked the greatest sign of all-raising him from the dead, making him Lord and Christ. Then, the Spirit of God had been poured out on all flesh, fulfilling the prophecy of Joel and empowering the disciples to proclaim Christ's resurrection and saving power (Acts 2:16-21).

The doctrine of the Trinity is, at the most fundamental level, an attempt to account for these phenomena. Christians believed that (1) God remained all-powerful and transcendent, and yet (2) Jesus, who died and was raised by God, was somehow also God; moreover, (3) the Spirit, poured out on the Church, is also God, and yet (4) there is only one God. To an outsider, this could make no more sense than a mathematical problem that ended with the equation 3 = 1. How can these Three be One?

To answer this question, Christian theologians speculated on what would need to be the case with respect to God, in order to hold together all four of the aforementioned claims. This was not an abstract speculation; the circumstances that engendered it were the very concrete events to which the biblical narratives bore witness. The concrete basis for these speculations often goes unnoticed, especially since they resulted in a rather complex description of the inner life of God. This account included the rather arcane-sounding claims that there are processions in God, and that these imply certain internal divine relations. These processions and relations were, in turn, the basis for two divine missions: the incarnation of the Word in Christ and the pouring out of the Spirit upon the Church (both described in Peter's speech in Acts). Thus, the traditional account of the inner life of God-what some theologians have referred to as the "immanent Trinity"-is already firmly rooted in the economy of salvation. However abstract it may seem, the speculative account of God's inner life is "simply the biblical account in drastic summary, construed as an account of God's own reality."2

Speculative accounts of God's processions, relations, and missions have not been at the very center of the recent renewal of trinitarian theology. As Nicholas Lash wryly observes, "nobody, nowadays, except a theologian, would talk about 'processions' and 'relations' in God."3 Indeed even theologians appear to be eschewing these terms; one recent contribution offers an extended polemic against all speculative accounts of the inner life of God.4 Nevertheless, I believe that an account of processions and relations in God can provide a framework within which we can begin to address one of the most contentious debates in contemporary theology: whether there can be any alternatives to the traditional formula "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" to name the triune God-and, if so, what such alternatives might look like.

I will not here rehearse the vociferous arguments that have been offered as to whether such alternatives are possible. Elsewhere I have commented on the unsophisticated nature of much of this discussion, noting that (for example) almost all parties have ignored one of the most important facts about the traditional trinitarian formula-namely, that it is a translation, with all the inherent ambiguities that this implies. …

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