The Social Trinity of God
The Social Trinity is an interpretation of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Its central idea is that the Trinity consists of three persons whose unity consists of a loving relationship.
Positively, the traditional teaching emphasizes that God is an inherently social being. Human unity approaches conformity to the image of God's unity through self-giving, empathy, adoration for one another, etc. Such love is a fitting ethical likeness to God - but is in stark contrast to God's unity of being.
Orthodox Christian theology asserts that the one God is manifest in three 'persons' (this term was generally used in the Latin West). Social Trinitarian thought argues that the three persons are each distinct realities--this was generally presented in the East with the Greek term 'hypostasis' from the First Council of Nicaea onward. Hypostasis was here employed to denote a specific individual instance of being. So, the Trinity is composed of three distinct 'persons' or 'hypostases' which are in integral relation with one another. The Cappadocian Fathers outlined the traditional set of doctrines describing the relational character of the Trinity: the Father is the Father by virtue of begetting the Son; likewise the Son is the Son precisely by being begotten. These two hypostases do not have their identity first as individual entities that then relate; rather, they are what they are precisely due to their relations. John Zizioulas is perhaps the best-known contemporary proponent of this emphasis in Trinitarian theology, which he labels relational ontology.
Many proponents of the Social Trinity, including John Zizioulas, criticize modern individualism by mapping human relationships onto this relational ontology as well. This suggests that the individual is not constituted over and against other persons. On the contrary, say these proponents, a person's identity and self are deeply constituted by their relationships, such that a person could not be the same person were it not for the relationship - the relationship, in some sense at least, precedes (ontologically, though not necessarily temporally) the person rather than the person preceding the relationship.
Two theological keys to the idea of person found in the Social Trinity are the Trinitarian concept of perichoresis ("interpenetration"--associated most strongly with Saint John of Damascus), and the Christological doctrine of two wills in one person (which was central to Maximus the Confessor's defense of orthodoxy). The doctrine of the two wills of Christ stems from the Council of Chalcedon where the Church affirmed that Jesus is fully human and fully divine, without division and yet without mixing. Thus Jesus is one person, yet with two natures, which two natures yield two wills. This was intended to combat both Nestorius' two-persons approach and themonophysite doctrine of Jesus as being so divine that his humanity was overwhelmed. This allowed the Church to affirm that Jesus was truly one person who both participated in the divine Trinitarian "economy" as well as in the human sphere of material being.
The three persons of the Trinity must not be confused as three distinct gods, an error that the name 'Trinity' itself was developed to combat: Tri-unity (as first outlined by Tertullian). All three persons/hypostases have one divine nature: their essence ("ousia" in Greek). It was in the development of the Trinity that the Greek terms ousia and hypostasis were fully separated; before the First Council of Nicaea, they had often been used interchangeably. Social Trinitarian thought argues that this one essence can be thought of as the loving relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit. This relationship can be analogized to human loving relationships; however, as mentioned above, it is a complete unity--it does not arise from the three hypostases but is intimately involved in their very ontological constitution. The idea of perichoresis of the persons of the trinity has been cited to provide at least part of this greater unity.
It is important to note that though the Cappadocians, for example, tended to begin with the three persons and from there develop the sense of unity, while Augustine of Hippo more or less began, drawing from the Latin tradition of Tertullian, with the unity and then developed the three distinct persons (along a psychological metaphor), neither the Eastern nor the Western traditions actually see either the 3 or the 1 as ontologically prior to the other: the three are always united in and constituted by the one; the one is always expressed in the three.
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The Paradox of the Trinity
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Are the Social Trinity and Panentheism Incommensurable?
by Tony Jones
May 10, 2011
Last week, I wrote about a question at my dissertation defense over which I stumbled. There was one other question that tripped me up.
Stacy Johnson is one of my favorite professors at Princeton, though I never took a class from him. (He is also the author of possibly the very best book on GLBT issues in the church, A Time to Embrace.) Stacy is not, however, a fan of Jurgen Moltmann, my theological muse. And at my defense, he asked me a question that he really has for Moltmann:
How can someone be committed to a social doctrine of the Trinity, in which the godhead is seen as an eternal, interpenetrating relationship of three divine persons, and also a panentheist, in which God is in all things and all things are in God?
It’s a good question, for it would seem that a commitment to the social Trinity requires an understanding of God as sovereign Other, whereas panentheism seems at odds with that commitment.
Moltmann is also committed to the [sectarian] Jewish Kabbalistic belief that God was all before the creation, but God withdrew Godself just enough to make room for a creation that is other than God. This was God’s first act of self-limitation. As a Christian theologian, Moltmann goes on to argue that, as Paul memorializes in the great hymn of Philippians 2, the incarnation/crucifixion event is the ultimate act of self-limitation by God, to the point of humiliation.
So, the Moltmannian answer — and mine — to Stacy’s question is that throughout the “trinitarian history of God,” and most poignantly in the incarnation/crucifixion/resurrection, the eternal relationship that is the Trinity re-embraces all of creation back into Itself. We are ever-invited into this divine, loving relationality.
PS: the thesis of my dissertation is that our church structures should reflect this eternal, egalitarian relationality. They don’t, but they should.
Tripp Fuller's Reply -
Tripp's Reply as transcribed by R.E. Slater:
The Immanent Trinity – This speaks to who God is in Himself prior to creation, regardless if there was ever any creation, was exists from eternity to eternity.
The Economic Trinity – How the Triune God relates to the world in His activities of creating, redeeming, sustaining, and consummating. And how the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit relate to one another as three equalitarian Persons in eternal relationship with one another.
Thus, a Social Trinitarian affirms all of the above while emphasizing the relational or social aspects of the Godship of God within God both to Himself and to His creation.
Now Panentheism is one of those philosophical frameworks used for talking about divine actions, presence, power, and the understanding of God’s presence within-and-to His creation. More specifically it speaks to God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ. In essence, it speaks to God’s in-breaking of Himself through Jesus into creation itself. This self revelation/imputation/giving may therefore be considered as the divine (or new creation) breaking into all that isn't God (or old creation). It is a paradox because how does God break into something that isn't God? But this is an issue which panentheism through relational-process theology tries to reconcile as versus the more classic understanding of Augustinian theism based upon Greek thought.
To this idea Jurgan Moltmann connects the Immanent and the Economic Trinity with Panentheism so that everything which will keep God’s creation (including us) from participating in His relational activity to all things can now become participants through Jesus Christ. And it is in this incarnate act of God through Jesus that God may now redeem, reconcile, and transform His creation back to Himself.
More specifically, we may now enlarge our concept of the eschaton of God (the future of all things, or eschatology) because now God has broken into the world through the Cross so that the world (or, that which isn't God) may begin participating in the divine life that has always has been present with God’s self. Again, a paradox set within a paradox described in different ways and lenses (cf. Moltmann's attempt in Jone's article above via Jewish sectarian Kabblistism).
And so, it is through the Cross of Christ as He engages with all that it means to be human, with its humanity and suffering and injustice - even its forsakedness from God. So that now everything is radically changed from whom God is and always has been. This is our experience. And it was also Jesus' experience. So that now, through the Cross, humanity and creation may begin to experience and be transformed into the divine life in God. It is through the Cross then that Godself becomes the actionable promise of God to what He will do through Jesus as He brings in the eschaton of His divine life into the very holds of His forsaken and separated creation.
This God who created the world, sustains the world, and now redeems the world, will consummate the world so that the world will come to know precisely the egalitarian, loving, and relational, God whom we have come to know and proclaim as Jesus Christ. God's Redeemer and holy Atonement. That this Social Trinitarian God who has always been, and will always be, through time immemorial, has come into His creation to transform it. And through His Economic Trinity is the story of God’s salvation where the Triune God redeems the world and makes the world new into the divine life and presence of Himself. That this eschaton has now begun in Christ and will culminate to a finality.
Therefore, Moltmann’s main point is that it is precisely this economic relationship of God in His self-revelation through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that gives to us the ability to understand who God is in Himself. So that when we look at Jesus’ life and His desire for His disciples to be in Him you see why the social trinity makes sense. And why the economic activity of God ends up revealing Himself gloriously, along with the church's eschatological hope of cohering with the immanent trinity, or Person(s), of God who is the Triune God of creation that binds and heals, transforms and redeems.
And when you put this all together than its not so crazy at all to be panentheist and a social trinitarian as described in its classical designations because the consummation of creation is a kind of eschatological panentheism when the world finds its place in God, and God becomes all-in-all, and sin and death are ultimately defeated.
- Tripp Fuller
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Part 3: The Problem of Social Trinitarianism
This is a three part series on “Trinity, Gender, and Subordination,”
which was a contribution to Rachel Held Evans’s Week of Mutuality.
The outline of this series:
by David Congdon
by Robert Letham and Kevin Giles
by David Congdon
June 8, 2012
The Problem of Social Trinitarianism
Barth could never have affirmed the complementarian use of his trinitarian doctrine for the simple reason that the complementarian position is premised on certain claims that he firmly rejected. The most important such claim is what we might now call “social trinitarianism.” Social trinitarianism is the doctrine that Father, Son, and Spirit are three independent centers of consciousness with their own distinct intellects, wills, and energies of operation. The three persons of the trinity are united as a perichoretic communion of distinct persons, in contrast to the traditional unity in terms of the one divine nature or substance. The point of a social trinitarian theology is to argue that what is “social” within God can be applied to human society. Social trinitarianism is therefore intrinsically an ethical or political theology. The position was developed in its present form by Jürgen Moltmann in his influential book, The Trinity and the Kingdom, where he places social trinitarianism in opposition to the “abstract monotheism” that he claims has characterized most of Christian theology. While the complementarians share very little with Moltmann in terms of theological commitments, it is the Moltmannian doctrine of social trinitarianism that the complementarians presuppose in making their claims about the trinity and gender relations.
Like social trinitarianism, the complementarian position depends on the ability to map intra-trinitarian relations onto intra-human relations. The relation between Father and Son is supposed to tell us something about the relation between men and women. The logic of this move depends upon viewing each divine “person” as a distinct subject who then relates to the other divine persons the way we relate to other human beings. If the Father, Son, and Spirit constitute a single agent, then any relations between them would be entirely irrelevant for human relations; there would be no point of similarity between God and humanity. The trinitarian relations are thus only significant for human society if each “person” is an independent center of consciousness. Hence, the complementarian position depends upon the social trinitarian doctrine.
Social trinitarianism becomes possible only because of a conceptual fuzziness regarding the word “person.” Because Father and Son (and Spirit) are understood as divine persons, it is assumed that we can learn something from them about how to relate as human persons. This is only possible because, in both cases (divine and human), the word “person” has here been defined in terms of a center of consciousness, an “I,” with intellect and will. However, as Kathryn Tanner rightly points out, “this is to give the trinitarian term ‘person’ (a rather ill-defined placeholder for whatever there might be three of in the trinity) the modern sense of ‘human person’ and then insist on taking it quite literally.”1 In other words, the move from divine person to human person presupposes the prior move from human person to divine person. It is only because the divine person has been defined according to our notion of a human person that the divine relations are then able to inform human relations. Social trinitarianism—and thus also social-trinitarian complementarianism—depends upon projecting upon God what we think a person is, in order then to model ourselves upon this very projection. It is an entirely circular argument. It makes God in our own image in order then to find our image in God. Social trinitarianism, in short, is a form of natural theology.
The problem is that our modern psychological notion of “person” (understood as a “personality”) has nothing in common with what the tradition meant by persona (in Greek, translated initially as prosopon, but much more commonly as hypostasis) in the context of the trinity. The word persona as it was used by the Latin theologians referred to an individual essence (individual substantia), that is, a particular modality of a nature. The ancient Greek theologians recognized that the word hypostasis (often translated into English as “substance” or “essence”) captures the meaning far better than the usual word for “person,” prosopon, which refers to the mask worn by an actor to play a part on stage. Certainly such a meaning cannot be applied to the trinity. In any case, when the Latin persona became translated into the modern word “person” (in German, die Person; in French, personne), it began to be interpreted in light of our modern understanding of the term. The result has been conceptual confusion. Barth is very helpful here:
What is called ‘personality’ in the conceptual vocabulary of the 19th century is distinguished from the patristic and mediaeval persona by the addition of the attribute of self-consciousness. This really complicates the whole issue. One was and is obviously confronted by the choice of either trying to work out the doctrine of the Trinity on the presupposition of the concept of person as thus accentuated or of clinging to the older concept which since this accentuation in usage has become completely obsolete and is now unintelligible outside monastic and a few other studies.2
Barth decides to avoid both options—neither going with the modern meaning of “person” nor trying to rehabilitate the ancient meaning—by instead speaking of “modes of being” (Seinsweisen). The fear that this leads Barth to modalism is unfounded. Modalism is the “heresy” that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are only “modes” of one eternal being as this being appears to us in time and space. God is only trinitarian in the economy. Behind the economy, however, in the immanent nature of God, there is no trinitarian differentiation, only a single divine being. Modalism is thus a split in God’s being between the immanent and the economic, such that what we encounter in the economy is not truly revelatory of who God is in eternity. Barth has no such problem. For him, God is triune “all the way down”; there is no height or depth of God which is not constituted in terms of Father, Son, and Spirit. And that is because there is no height or depth in God that is not determined by God’s self-revelation. There is no God “behind” the trinitarian God we encounter in history. The Father, Son, and Spirit revealed to us simply is God in eternity. Barth, in fact, goes quite a bit further than the ancient Latin theologians, in that he discards the split between the abstract, impersonal divinitas and the concrete trinitarian persons. Barth seeks to overcome entirely the classical substance ontology that conceives of divinity as a general ontological concept that is logically prior to the particular instantiations it takes as Father, Son, and Spirit. There is no abstract divinity-as-such; there is only this eminently concrete and specific reality of the triune God. Barth replaces the language of substance with the more modern and helpful language of subject. God is a “single subject” rather than a “single substance.” His definition of the trinity is therefore a single subject in three modes of being. The trinity is the one God in threefold self-repetition.
The decisive error of social trinitarianism in all its forms is its adoption of the modern notion of person as definitive for what we mean by the “divine persons.” The result of such a move is tritheism. If there are three self-conscious I’s in God, then there are three deities. Social trinitarianism is a disguised form of polytheism. The attempt to make perichoresis do the work of uniting God into a single agent is an impossible use of the concept. It was classically used in a purely analytic sense: it described the unity that already characterized the persons of the trinity. Perichoresis cannot then be used to create a unity that is not already present. Even if such a theological move is attempted, however, the prior definition of Father, Son, and Spirit as three distinct self-conscious agents undermines the very notion of perichoresis from the start. The doctrine of perichoresis refers to the ineffable interpenetration of each divine person in the other two, such that no separation of agency is possible. In other words, it serves to support the Augustinian axiom discussed above—precisely the axiom that social trinitarianism rejects!
In a social trinitarian model, perichoresis is merely a uniting of wills or an intimate communion. Divine unity is reduced to relations of self-giving love. The result is that “the persons of the trinity seem more like separately constituted human persons acting harmoniously together in a jointly agreed upon common project.”3 But here again, the notion of perichoretic unity is being defined by what we understand to be unity among human beings. Our notion of a “common will of the people” has been applied to the will of the trinitarian persons. This is in stark contrast to what the doctrine of the trinity ought to say. The will of the Son corresponds to the will of the Father “because in a significant sense they have only one will. Instead of a fellowship of wills, one finds an identity of will.”4 Once each divine person has been modeled after a human person, however, it’s only natural that divine unity comes to mirror our vision of human unity. Social trinitarianism projects upon God the kind of utopian community—whether hierarchical or egalitarian in nature—that we envision for ourselves. Tanner states the problem well: “the danger of such a strategy is that the trinity fails to do any work; it does not tell one anything one did not already know.”5
What social trinitarianism can never achieve is the notion of God’s single subjectivity. It is irreconcilable with Augustine’s axiom that Father, Son, and Spirit act as a single agent in the economy. There are not three intellects, three wills, three self-consciences in God. There is one self-conscience, one “I,” that acts in a triune way—one God in threefold self-repetition. “Because all the other members of the trinity are in that person, when one person of the trinity acts the others are necessarily acting too.”6 A human person is never dependent for his or her own existence upon the existence of another, such that when one person acts, another person acts as well. And yet this is precisely what the doctrine of the trinity claims regarding God, but in a way that is far more mysterious and incomprehensible. There is no deliberation between Father, Son, and Spirit, as there is with human beings. There is no conflict of interest that Father and Son have to work out between them. Thinking about the trinity along these lines brings us deep into the waters of polytheistic mythology. More disturbing still, it results in an essentially Marcionite break between the Old and New Testaments. The starting-point for any doctrine of the trinity has to be Israel’s belief in YHWH as the Lord. As R. Kendall Soulen puts it, “YHWH is the triune God.”7 Any theology that requires the violation of this identification of Father, Son, and Spirit with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob cannot be considered a Christian doctrine.
To reiterate: the complementarian appropriation of trinitarian theology presupposes that the relation between Father and Son is a relation that can inform the relation between men and women. There are many problems with this move—the others I will touch on in the following sections—but the root issue is the assumption that a personal relation within God is similar to a personal relation among human beings. But in order for this analogy between God and humanity to work, one has to univocally (i.e., literally or directly) apply a definition of human personhood to God. By defining God according to humanity, social trinitarian arguments necessarily end up rejecting the radical ontological differentiation between God and humanity. A relation that ought to be indirect and analogous becomes direct and univocal. This brings us to the problem of the divine-human analogy more broadly.
1 Kathryn Tanner, Christ the Key (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 220.
2 Barth, CD I/1, 357.
3 Tanner, Christ the Key, 231.
4 Ibid. Emphasis mine.
5 Ibid., 230.
6 Ibid., 224.
7 R. Kendall Soulen, “YHWH the Triune God,” Modern Theology 15, no. 1 (1999): 25–54.