People of God, Body of Christ, Koinonia of Spirit: The Role of Ethical Ecclesiology in Paul's "Trinitarian" Language

Article excerpt

The relationship between trinitarian doctrine and human society is intensely debated today. Can Paul's ethical ecclesiology help? Paul's missionary theology requires a careful working out of the interrelations of the term "people of God" taken from Israel's Scriptures, and another term, the "body of Christ," deriving from the sacraments and popular social theory. Are these opposing ecclesial descriptions? Has one superseded the other? At issue is nothing less than the integrity of God. This paper argues that a close study of a third Pauline ecclesial term, "koinonia of Spirit," can clarify the problems of sameness and difference and of the one and the many in Pauline theology. A complex integrity holds together: Israel and the Gentiles; Christ and his church; and the Oneness of God with the divine Lordship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Paul's practical problems led to his "trinitarian" reflections, suggesting that the relationship between dogmatics and practical theology works both ways.


Recent articles by Karen Kilby and Miroslav VoIf have reviewed and critiqued what they describe as a growing interest in "social doctrines of the Trinity."1 According to Kilby social theories of the Trinity often project our ideals onto God. For "social theorists" God is more appropriately modeled on three human beings than one, yet the three are somehow one, bound together by the divine perichoresis, which is then glossed in human communal terms as "interrelatedness, love, empathy, mutual accord, mutual giving and so on."2 Given the difficulties that result from such projection, she calls on theologians to renounce the idea that the point of the doctrine of the Trinity is to give insight into God and to see it instead as a grammatical rule for reading the biblical stories, describing the experience of prayer, and otherwise structuring Christian discourse.3 Miroslav Volf, on the other hand, although critical of the naively optimistic claims that Nicholas Fedorov and others made for humanly realized historical programs based upon the Trinity, does want to argue that the doctrine of perichoresis teaches us not only about the unity of God but also about God's identity. Theological constructions of God's identity as "non-reducible" and "not self-enclosed" when situated in the biblical "narrative of divine self-donation" can indeed provide a social "vision" for the church, if not a social program.4

From the perspective of the church's rethinking of its relation to the Jewish people and vice versa, Kendall Soulen is also interested in the doctrine of the Trinity and the identity of God.5 While the church has revived its interest in the ancient doctrine of the Trinity with newfound pride, it has been much more self-critical of its past teachings about the Jewish people. Soulen insists that these two questions (the triune identity of God and the church's relationship to Israel) must be rethought together. Trinitarian theology must affirm that "the triune God is the Holy One of Israel" in such a way that God's identity as YHWH is "genuinely constitutive for understanding God's eternal identity and ultimate purposes for creation."6

These theological discussions and others like them suggest that ecclesiological and ethical dimensions of trinitarian thinking are very much alive in the church today. While contemporary theologians usually begin with the doctrine of the Trinity as given, in order to explore its social and ethical implications for the church, the church's first theologians addressed social and ethical issues arising in the church and found themselves writing in ways that would eventually be called "trinitarian." One of the clearest examples is the apostle Paul. Writing from within the world of what we now call the New Testament, Paul only knew that he was sending advice-filled letters to early Christian communities whose presenting problems were myriad and complex. As Paul attempted to address their ethical and ecclesiological issues, he found it necessary to speak of God's complex identity. …


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.