Trinity and Mystery: Getting the Balance Right. A comment on the Pusey House Conference 2016

Abstract: The question of ‘Why the Trinity matters to us?’ throws up difficult questions of our tendencies towards anthropomorphism in theology. I suggest that anthropomorphism exists at both polar approaches (extreme immanence and extreme economy) and that paradox is the best way to acknowledge the sovereignty of God over Trinitarian discourse.

The first time I read Gregory’s On Not Three Gods I was captivated, and at the same time baffled. Captivated by the lucidity and beauty of the Cappadocian’s argument. But baffled too by the fact that people needed an argument to convince them that the Christian Trinity was not three gods, but One God.

From our modern image of God the Trinity as an old man sat in majesty on a cloud, it is hard to imagine a world in which God’s oneness was ever in doubt. God’s oneness is our starting point (and I think that has more to do with our natural tendency to anthropomorphise than any Augustinian-Thomist monist emphasis). I think we like to think of God as one because we like to think of God as primarily like us, as a person. 

I recently attended my first conference. That this was the Pusey House conference on the Trinity, with many of the greats speaking and in attendance, has terribly spoiled me! But I was struck by a recurring theme: Why do we think that God’s Trinitarian being matters to us?

Speakers at the conference followed Karen Kilby’s arguments against a social trinitarianism, which assumes too easily and lacking theological nuance that because God is three persons in relationship we too must be, in our very being, persons in relationship. And they also resisted challenges from the floor to suggest that the Trinity is a mystery simply revealed to be adored, of no consequence to us other than the simple fact of its being. As Rowan Williams put it, it seems unconvincing to say that God reveals Himself as Trinity so that we can simply say, “Ooh… impressive.”

I think the conference was right to reject both the social Trinitarian approach, which assumes too close a link between the Trinitarian being of God and our own society, and also an approach which conceives of the Trinity as pure mystery, of no direct import to human lives. 

On one level, this is because both fundamentally fail to balance two elements of our understanding of the being of God. Social trinitarianism places too much emphasis on the economic Trinity, how God is to us and what this means for us. Trinity as pure mystery overemphasises the immanent Trinity, the inner life of God which, taken to an extreme, has no significance for human beings at all. As Karl Rahner wrote in 1967 in his great essay on the Trinity, ‘The “economic” Trinity is the “immanent” Trinity and the “immanent” Trinity is the “economic” Trinity.’ To undermine the ‘permanent perichoresis’ between God in Himself and God for us is to begin to undermine the statement that God is a God who saves. It is to begin to say that our salvation, the summation of God’s economy for us, is not in fact a full action of God’s being in Himself. And if God is not a God who saves, where then is our salvation?

But back to anthropomorphosis. Both the extreme Trinities, social and pure mystery, are fundamentally reactions to our shock, our horror, and our fear as human beings and theologians, that God is not like us. To say that God is a relationship of persons, as we could be if only we were perfectly communitarian, is to say that God is like us, albeit perfectly. But to say that God is pure mystery, His being having nothing to do with us, is to hold God at arm’s length. It is to say that because God is different to us, and we are different to Him, we must inhabit different spheres. Though it comes from a desire to preserve God’s sovereignty, it diminishes God in several ways.

Firstly, it assumes that, just was we are different from each other because we are independent, God must be utterly different to us if he is to be utterly independent. This is non sequitur, and is precisely the argument Gregory tackles in On Not Three Gods. We are deluded, and our thinking metaphysically deficient, if we think we are truly independent of one another. Three human beings are not fundamentally three distinct entities, but one humanity. I am concerned that our desire to preserve God’s sovereignty by asserting God’s otherness may arise fundamentally from our own misapprehension of our own independence from one another. There is a constant temptation in human thought to say that because God is different to us, and we are different to Him, we must inhabit different spheres. What this implies is that we are in a competitive relationship with God. If we did not keep God at arm’s length, “over there”, God might displace us, intruding into the reality “over here”, or we might be able to displace the reality of God. But we are not like a boat displacing water in the sea of God. We are not in competition with Him in any way. To suggest otherwise is to diminish God’s total sovereignty over the reality we inhabit. Though the tendency to banish God from our reality often comes from a desire to preserve God’s sovereignty in our thinking, the opposite may in fact be the result. God’s sovereignty is affirmed by the fact that He can be both infinitely present and infinitely self-contained. This is true sovereignty. This model of God’s Trinitarian life therefore, just as much as social trinitarianism, may arise from anthropocentric concerns, and anthropomorphising tendencies within us, towards independence as much as society.

Secondly, there is something profoundly inconsistent about insisting that for God to be sovereign He must have a particular nature. It is tantamount to saying that, for God to be unlimited, He must be limited to being a particular way. I am not convinced that doing away with the economic trinity, in spite of all the revealed data on God’s relational being, in Himself and to His people, is really an assertion of divine sovereignty and divine will. It is rather like a king ordering that his portrait be painted to depict him as he is, and his ministers disobeying him, saying, “But he is sovereign over us: we must paint him as we think a sovereign should be.” That is not really sovereignty at all: it is projection. God’s sovereignty is asserted as much in his revealing Himself to be economic as His being immanent. To ignore God’s sovereign relational and economic revelation is not an assertion of His sovereignty.

Finally, in conclusion and at the risk of being frightfully Barthian, to say that God is either primarily immanent or primarily economic is to deny the paradox, the frustrating of any absolute goals of the theological vocation, which is the mark of God’s sovereignty over the human mind. As Kallistos Ware commented so entertainingly on Augustine, talking about the Trinity is a continuous exercise of saying and unsaying: you can never get it quite right. We are right to try to ask the question, “What does the Trinity mean for us?” and we are right to probe the answers critically. But to say that God is either one or three, or here or there, either immanent or economic, or abstract or real is to miss a beautiful truth of Trinitarian theology. God reveals himself. He is knowable. And yet He is unknowable. This is the sweetest paradox by which God asserts His sovereignty over the theologian. As we noted at the end of the conference, this is what makes Trinitarian theology such an exciting and yet frustrating enterprise.


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