Bad Trinity Formulations: Part 1

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Getting the Trinity right is a difficult thing to do; in fact, given the utter transcendence of this mystery, it is and will forever be impossible to do so. At best our efforts aim at describing the eternal relations in as least inadequate a manner as possible.

Yet the mystery of the threeness and the oneness of God is absolutely central to Christian theology, which means that while we will never get it right (in the sense of fully comprehending the triunity of God), we can hopefully at least not get it totally wrong.

The traditional formulation of orthodox trinitarian theology is deceptively simple: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This formulation has the advantage of a scriptural pedigree, and for most of Christian history forms the nomenclature within which trinitarian theology is discussed and developed.

It is within modern times primarily that the formulation of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as designating the three distinct persons of the Trinity has come to seem less adequate, perhaps reflecting (so the argument goes) the presumptions of cultures and philosophies steeped in patriarchalism, itself obviously a poor way to express the ineffable.

As such, other Trinitarian formulations have popped up, perhaps promising a less inadequate way of formulating the nature of the divine relations. And while one can appreciate the impetus to have the Trinitarian mystery utilize language more becoming to modern ears, it is my contention that these sorts of formulations ultimately sacrifice the meaning of the orthodox understanding of the relations between the divine persons for the semantics of expression. The end result is bad theology wrapped up in bad formulations.

The Offender

One of the more recent and popular ones substitutes Father, Son and Holy Spirit for Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. In other words, the person of the Father is identified with the role of Creator, the person of the Son with Redeemer, and the person of the Holy Spirit with Sustainer.

On the surface this seems a reasonable formulation, for there is nothing about the particular titles which is necessarily opposed to being identified with either of the divine persons. And in fact, one can easily discover biblical support for identifying each person with the respective function; God the Father certainly is Creator, God the Son certainly is Redeemer, and God the Spirit certainly is Sustainer.

Further, this sort of functional relationality is somewhat easier to comprehend, since the relationality is focused not around some esoteric and impenetrable relation of hypostases, but rather around the creative and redemptive act of God, something to which the scriptural witness has much to say, whereas it can seem somewhat more markedly silent regarding the traditional understanding of the Trinitarian relations.

Yet for all of this formulation’s potential strengths, it has even greater weaknesses, necessarily falling into a sort of modalism and ultimately not really describing what the orthodox understanding of the Trinity actually means when it describes the relations between the divine persons.

The Modalism Problem

Firstly, let’s begin with its modalistic nature. One of the hallmarks of any form of modalism is describing the distinction in relations of the Godhead by means of their role or function or mode. In historical modalism the language of Father, Son and Holy Spirit was retained, but the understanding was that behind each ‘person’ was the one person of God, the persons of Father, Son and Holy Spirit ultimately becoming roles that were employed. The end result was that there were not actually any divine relations.

The difficulty with the formulation of Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer is that it ultimately collapses the distinctions between the divine persons into their economic functions, which inevitably- from a theological standpoint- has the exact same effect as an explicitly modalistic explication, whether one intends that or not.

The reason is located in the oneness of the divine being, which entails that any action of God belongs to God whole and entirely. As such, there can be no parceling out of functions within the Godhead without demolishing the oneness of God. If God’s action is ultimately one, then any economic function of the Trinity is beholden to that same oneness, and thus we cannot actually locate any distinction in act as it pertains to the divine being.

What for us is a separate act (creation vs. redemption, for example) only seems so because we are not capable of comprehending the infinity of God- something which, incidentally, only God can do. Thus, by trying to delineate the persons primarily by means of their economic functions we are essentially making arbitrary distinctions in the action of the Godhead where none actually exists. As such, this sort of formulation not only fails to provide any reasonable distinction in person, but also destroys any meaningful understanding of the oneness of God’s essence.

The Scriptural Problem

On the surface this formulation seems to take the scriptural witness seriously and actually offer more substantial points of connection between the mystery of the Trinity and the story of creation and redemption through God’s action in history. And to be sure, there is certainly nothing inherently wrong with that and a lot that is commendable. Unfortunately, this formulation also runs into significant problems in regards to its connection to the scriptures, since one is forced into the same sort of arbitrary distinctions.

As an example, it is true that God the Father has traditionally been especially connected with creation as Creator, and there is no lack of scriptural support for such an identification. However, the scriptures also ascribe the act of creation to the Son, both implicitly and explicitly, and thus one cannot- from a purely biblical perspective- describe only God the Father as Creator.

In a similar mode, while one can find scriptural support for the Holy Spirit as Sustainer (e.g., Psalm 104:27-30), the Son is even more explicitly described as the one who sustains all thing (e.g., Colossians 1:17).

Thus, it is exceedingly difficult to delineate the persons primarily according to their economic functions, and it is hard to see how this formulation does not merely fall into arbitrary designations. A further difficulty is that the arbitrariness must be extended in that we are designating these functions and these alone as the basis of distinction between the persons, when the scriptural witness contains hundreds of other designations and functions of God’s action in creation. What reason do we have for supposing that the action of creation, redemption and sustaining the universe (which are actually the same act in the divine being…) exhaust the potential distinctions in persons?

The Relational Problem

What is most problematic, however, is that this sort of formulation completely misses what the orthodox understanding of the divine relations is trying to convey: the relations between the persons themselves.

What ends up happening in locating distinctions between the persons by means of their economic functions is that one ends up not saying anything about the relationship of the persons within the Trinity itself, but rather subsumes the relationally of the persons to God’s action in history, and ultimately makes creation the point of reference for the Trinitarian relations.

In the traditional orthodox understanding the relations between the persons are conceived of as existing irrespective of and logically prior to creation, and thus the terms Father, Son and Holy Spirit actually denote some distinction within the relations of the Godhead itself as it relates to itself. While the formulation of Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer may not necessarily preclude such relations, it also offers no insight into them. Worse, it co-opts the language as traditionally understood (that is, to be about the eternal relations) and re-appropriates them to delineate temporal economic relations, something they were never intended to do.

While perhaps not intentional, this actually unravels the eternal intra-Trinitarian relations and essentially gives us no entry into the divine mystery of the eternal relations whatsoever, precisely because there is no relationality possible with a function.

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Jason Watson

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