Posted by: Brooke | February 26, 2009

Christianity’s heart, passion, and foundation

When I say the phrase doctrine of the Trinity what is your immediate reaction?  A great number of Christians feel apathy or boredom because the doctrine does not have any immediate application or influence upon their lives. Still others have not ever heard the term before.  This is a pity because when the doctrine was originally formulated it had a significant spiritual and salvific influence on Christians. The purpose of Elizabeth Johnson’s chapter, Trinity: The living God of Love, is to give an overview of the development, demise, and reawakening of the truly practical doctrine of the Trinity.

The doctrine of the trinity developed out of the salvation and life experiences of the early church.  They discovered that in order to more fully articulate their experiences they had to describe it in a three fold manor; transcendent, present historically, and continually present (204).  This description provided a rich way of understanding the divine, which inspired and spiritually fed the early Christians.  However, with in this Trinitarian description there was an opening for the possibility of a separation between the concept of God with in God’s self and the economy of salvation.

This possibility of separation was not an issue for the early Christians because their Trinitarian theology was still very much rooted in salvation history.  However, with time, the contemplation of the economy of salvation separated and decreased in importance compared to the study of God with in God’s self.  This separation ultimately leads to the abstraction and decentralization of the doctrine of the Trinity.  This decentralization has robbed Christianity of its heart, passion, and foundation.

Elizabeth Jonson points out that in order to renew and re-centralize the Trinity three things must happen.  First we must express how the trinity is rooted in the history of salvation and not just an abstract notion of the metaphysical realm. This means that God’s grace and love is continually acting in the world drawing it into the future.

Second we must clear up the conceptual inadequacy of the term person and the numbers one and three.  Currently person is understood as “an individual with a distinct center of consciousness and freedom in relationship with others” (211).  This understanding can very easily lead to trithesim if taken literally.  The original term used to describe the Trinity was Hypostasis which means “a distinct manner of subsistence” (211).  Karl Rahner suggests that we should rephrase the description of the trinity from three persons and one ousia to “The one God who subsists in three distinct manners of self-subsistence” (213).  This way of describing the trinity seems less confusing to me because the terms are not laden with alternative meanings. I agree with critics that Rahner’s reformatting of the trinity is vague, but this vagueness opens up avenues for further questioning and deeper understanding of the trinity.  The numbers one and three are also conceptually inadequate to describe the trinity.  They cause mathematical quantities to come to mind. The problem with this is mathematically one is less than three so therefore the whole is greater than the parts which is contradictory to our understanding of the trinity.

Johnson proposes a possible solution to the insufficient concepts of person and the numbers one and three. The concept of God as dance (perichoresis), is a metaphor for the inner life of God as “each of the persons dynamically moving around the others, interacting with the others, and interweaving with the others in a circling of divine life” (214).  It is a depiction of God’s life that is renewing, flowing, and in constant motion toward the future. This notion of perichoresis depicts God as love which is at the heart of Trinitarian understanding of God.

The third part of Johnsons plan to reorient the trinity is to describe the mystery in a new way that is coherent and applicable in the world today.  This can be done by first focusing on Trinitarian God in engagement with the world.  We must also avoid extravagant investigations into God’s inner life outside of what is necessary to describe the trinity because they will lead to further abstraction of the trinity.

Elizabeth Johnson describes in the last part of chapter 10 the renaissance of Trinitarian thinking that is currently happening.  She goes into a detailed description of R. Kendall Soulen’s suggestions about the Trinity.  Soulen holds that the “language about the Trinity should be itself Trinitarian… the name of the holy Trinity is one name in three inflections” (215).   This some what confusing statement means that we should look at Gods action in salvation history and recognize that God is always referred to as a whole being but in 3 distinct ways or forms.  The first of which is the theological form of YHWH the god of the Jews who was known for his covenant and stead fast love.  The second is the Christological form of “Father Son and Holy Sprit,” this is depicted and known as the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  The third is the pneumatological form, which is inclusive of all three persons and constantly affecting the world.  In essence it is the Holy Sprit.  Soulen’s description of the trinity in Trinitarian language provides a jumping point for other theologians to pursue their studies about the Trinity.
The language used to describe the trinity is diverse and ever growing; many modern theologians are moving away from the personal terms and into more abstract metaphorical ways to describe the trinity in order to avoid the usual misunderstandings associated with three persons one ousia. God is incomprehensible and any form of description we give God will be inadequate to describe him.  Johnson makes a very good point when she says that “ the existence of God, our thought about God, and our language about God exist in descending order of capability, so that no word really makes sense” (212).  To me this is an astute acknowledgement that allows room for reinterpretation and reapplication of the Trinity in light of the modern way of life and understanding.

When the trinity has been reapplied to life and has regained a central role with in the life of the church Christianity will regain its heart, passion, and foundation. The trinity is “a most practical doctrine” in that it provides a basis from which to shape our actions and resist oppressive tendencies. It reflects the loving relationship that we should be in with our community and with nature.  When properly formed and articulated the doctrine of the Trinity is an inspiration for us all to live in a way that is constantly moving, interacting, and interweaving within the community expressing love and striving for the future.



  1. This winter break I was able to chill with my buddy Steve in Boise, ID. He is a non-denominational Christian and rather conservative, almost literalist in his interpretation of scripture, and goes on “crusades” to evangelize in Europe and South America. Despite our differences, we are very close and I consider him one of my best friends. His support and friendship has been invaluable. And during this break, we had a talk about the Trinity.

    He thinks it’s just a creation of the early Church Fathers and greek philosophy. The Trinity doesn’t exist!! Jesus is the Messiah, he is the Prophet, etc. but his a man. There is only the Father; the Holy Spirit is just a way of talking about the action of the Father. He claims all of this because he prides himself in being rooted in scripture, and that scripture provides no root to claim God as Trinity.

    He makes a good point, and it’s interesting that in Fr. Voiss’ class we never discussed the very idea of the Trinity as a legitimate Christian teaching. What do you think? Peace,


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