On Trinity

I have my teen’s club at Church in mind as I write this piece. Their questions keep my feet rooted in the real world. Besides that, I have repeatedly come across questions pertaining to Trinity, all from well-meaning Christians in Churches and quite often from seminary students. Some have genuine problems in reconciling the three and the one, and others are interested in knowing how to answer when they are asked about Trinity especially by Jehovah’s witnesses or their Muslim friends.

Sadly discussions on Trinity are still absent from the pulpits. Lack of knowledge on the question has led many Christians to push the doctrine of Trinity as a peripheral belief rather than hold it as a central belief. We tend to reluctantly accomodate the doctrine rather than happily embrace it.

The modern sensibilities of the earlier era that favoured ‘hard facts’ and ‘scientific precision’ weren’t conducive to any discussion of the mysterious. That’s at least one reason for Christians to celebrate postmodernity! Given that our worldview is fundamentally a worshipview as argued by Thom Wolf, we as individuals, as families, as societies merely live the theologies we embrace. That is, our world takes the shape of the object of our worship. If so, Trinity is not merely a concept that we ought to grapple with to get a doctrine right, but rather, it becomes so central to the Christian faith that it could shape our life, culture and society.

The Question of Three and One: The first question that is asked is, “is it not a contradiction to say that the same being (God), is both Three and One?” The answer to this is, “no”. It would be a contradiction only if both “three” and “one” were used in the same sense. The early Fathers clarified the meaning of ‘one God in three persons’ where, one is used in one sense and three in another sense. God is one in the sense of substance or essence and three in the sense of persons or expressions. Although some incorrectly use ‘mystery’ and ‘contradiction’ interchangeably, they are not synonymous. Just because something is a mystery, it does not thereby become a contradiction. “Contradiction” refers to a formal and logical structure where the positions in question cannot both be held as true in the same sense as in a ‘square-circle.’ Trinity is a mystery, yes! But not a contradiction!

Expect Limits in Comprehending Trinity: Undoubtedly, the concept of Trinity is not fully comprehended by the human mind. But what else shall we expect when finite minds try to comprehend the nature and being of God? One should therefore anticipate the incomprehensibility of God even as one begins to explore the doctrine of God. Again, “incomprehensible” is not synonymous with either “irrational” or “illogical”. In fact, many theologians consider “incomprehensibility” as one of the attributes of God. How can humans expect to fathom God exhaustively? This being the case, we ought to avoid the common human appetite towards a reductionism that slices God into “manageable” bits with our cookie cutter minds. We are still figuring out our own human nature that bears God’s image, and is sufficiently complex for that reason. So Trinity ought not to be replaced with the more “manageable” ‘Unitarianism’ or ‘polytheism.’

Alternatives to the Doctrine of Trinity?: We could begin by considering (just the immediate) alternative notions of God. On the one end of the spectrum we find Unitarianism and on the other is polytheism. Both err in swinging to the extreme although both share something that the doctrine of Trinity holds together: unity and plurality. While these polarities have some truth to it, they are nevertheless only partial imaginations of the nature of God!

In fact, the tendencies toward reductionism were evident in the early church in the challenges to doctrine of Trinity from both Modalism (a form of Unitarianism) and polytheism. For most believers, the challenge primarily comes from within a Unitarian framework: Jehovah’s Witnesses or Muslim friends.

Unitarian conception of God, which often is accompanied by a belief in the immutability of God, presents an irresolvable problem for itself. In terms of God’s essential nature, the Unitarian conception leaves God as potentiality rather than as actuality. As C S Lewis argued in Mere Christianity, “All sorts of people are fond of repeating the Christian statement that ‘God is love.’ But they seem not to notice that the words ‘God is love’ have no real meaning unless God contains at least two Persons. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, He was not love.”

So then, within the Unitarian imagination of God, his nature as love exists only as potentiality. God then has to create if he has to actualize that potential. But God as potentiality is inherently deficient (and no Unitarian would accept it!) as it leaves room for self-actualization. However, conceiving God as Trinity would undo this problem as there is perfect expression of his character within His very being and is under no compulsion to create to self-actualize his potential. Thus the Christian believes that God creates out of pleasure rather than by compulsion.

Social Implications of Theological Imagination: A corollary to the above discussion is another pivotal question. What are the consequences of entertaining certain notions of God? Does the Trinitarian doctrine have any significance other than merely getting the doctrine right? I believe so – because, we create earthly kingdoms in the image of our imaginations of the kingdom of God. Our social anthropology is an imitation of our theology! Generally applied, this means that we take the image of those objects we love and worship.

Trinitarian doctrine informs us of how our families, communities, churches, societies and nations ought to function—as unity in diversity. Following Moltmann, we understand that our imaginations of earthly kingdoms/ governments are not too far off the mark from our imaginations of the kingdom of God. As political derivatives of a Unitarian theology, monarchies tend to function as ‘extensions of God’s kingdom’ often as direct divine agents on earth; expectedly, autocratic and authoritarian. While gradual appropriation of the Trinitarian doctrine has facilitated the Christian imaginations to move from totalising monarchies the Unitarian theology continues to inform Islamic social and political imaginations.

These role-plays are fostered not only within nations and societies but more closer home, within families as well. This brings us to the other alternative: polytheism. If Unitarian imagination of God breeds and justifies totalitarianism within social and familial frameworks, what does polytheistic imagination entail? I suppose that it is a lack of unifying principle, exhibited in the lack of epistemic and moral absolutes where societies tend to function on the basis of pragmatism with shifting and opportunistic centers of power.

Epilogue: All said, Trinity is not a concept that can be “proven”. But neither is any other conception of God. However, Trinity provides a better conceptual framework from where creation and reality can be interpretted better than its competing frameworks.

It seems like a bad idea to not believe in Trinity just because it is hard to comprehend. After all, should we not anticipate incomprehensibility for the simple reason that it is God we are talking about?

The alternatives we considered seem to be a reduction of the Trinitarian doctrine; and in so far as it is a reduction, it will remain inadequate and impoverished. Finally, the social consequences of alternative imaginations of God seem to be hardly desirable: one leaning towards authoritarianism and the other perpetually lost in lack of a unifying principle.

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