In a recent seminar paper, a Calvin Theological Seminary student observed that Herodotus (A History of the Persian Wars) amused himself in his Mediterranean travels with noting how much Persian gods looked like Persians. The tendency to make God in our image has had a long run. We still project both our best and our worst onto the object of worship.

One of my friends once preached a sermon in which he pointed out how twentieth-century American depictions of Jesus often seem remarkably familiar. Jesus Christ has been arranged, for instance, as an industrialist (did he not say, “I must be about my father’s business”?). But he can also be packaged as a labor unionist (remember, he was a carpenter). Indeed, Jesus was the first socialist (recall his warnings to the rich and his love for the poor). He can be set up as a revolutionary, a feminist, and as a pop psychologist and success preacher.

Publishers of children’s Vacation Bible School materials sometimes have portraits of a well-barbered, Hollywood-handsome Lord peering out at us from soulful blue eyes.

About a decade ago, a reviewer of Hans Küng’s best seller On Being a Christian noted the similarities between Küng’s Jesus and Küng himself. Writing from the heat of battle against the Vatican, Küng sketched Jesus as an uncompromising churchman, asserting God’s will “in face of the resistance of the powerful—persons, institutions, traditions, hierarchs.” Jesus, in Ralph McInerny’s immortal phrase, emerges as “The Man Who Would Be Küng.”

The human tendency to push ourselves forward into the target area for worship has by now become so usual—and so hazardous—that many Christians have learned caution where distinctive images of God are concerned. How much, for instance, is the God of process thought merely a product of modern evolutionary thinking? Suppose God is portrayed to look like Eisenhower rather than Gandhi: To what extent is the portrait more revealing about the artist than about God?

For that matter, how final for us are the biblical images of God as shepherd, or eagle, or lamb, or king? Must we struggle to generate cross-cultural relevance for these ancient pictures, or may we substitute more current ones? If we may, what are the rules and where are the hazards?

A Ménage À Trois?

One of the most striking developments in twentieth-century thought about God is the emergence of a social theory of the Trinity. For social theorists, God must be imagined not as a single or individual divine person. God is not a successful role player who can simultaneously manage the parts of creator, redeemer, and renewer, or Father, Son, and Spirit. Nor is the Trinity to be conceived along Augustinian lines. Augustine suggested that God is to Father, Son, and Spirit as a human person is to, say, his own memory, understanding, and will.

Augustine knew perfectly well that such analogies were inadequate and said so. Still, especially because of certain philosophical pressures, his Trinitarianism tended in a monist direction (perceiving ultimate reality as a unified whole), and his favorite analogies were all psychological.

Social theorists go another way. God must be thought of not as a single self, but rather as a society or community of three persons in the richest sense of “person.”

Each of Father, Son, and Spirit is a vibrant center of act, knowledge, and loving relation. Each is in fact so tightly and reciprocally attached to the others that the most proper referent of the word God is not the Father, or the divine essence, but the three-membered society itself—a society overflowing with a zestful life of light, joy, mutuality, and verve.

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The social analogy of the Trinity has roots in the fourth-century Greek fathers (especially the Cappadocians), and can also claim an orthodox Latin adherent or two along succeeding centuries. For example, in the twelfth century, Richard of Saint Victor claimed that all real love requires both a giver and a receiver. Love is essentially other-directed. But, for God, creatures are insufficiently spacious receivers and depressingly low-wattage transmitters of love. Hence, said Richard, there must be at least two persons in God himself. Yet God is also perfectly good. A thoroughly good being would not jealously protect two-personed love, but would generously share such love with a third.

Thus, Richard’s remarkable conclusion: “In order for love to be true, it demands a plurality of persons; in order for love to be perfected, it requires a trinity of persons.”

Here one detects a certain ad hoc tendency in the argument. One also fears that some embarrassing recommendation of ménage à trois, rather than standard marriage, might be lurking in the wings. For whatever reasons, Richard’s theory has enjoyed only modest popularity in Western theology. The mainline has been occupied instead by more monist-tending theologians: Augustine, Aquinas, and in our own century, Karl Barth.

Augustine and Aquinas appear to have three full persons in God, but each theologian also states that since God is perfectly simple, each person is really identical with the divine essence. Readers are left with the impression that we have to think of Father, Son, and Spirit as distinct personal centers, but that as a matter of fact, there is actually just one thing in God: the divine essence. Everything else in the universe is a creature.

In the case of Karl Barth, the conclusion is inescapable. Barth thinks of three persons in God as tritheist, and opts for one person perpetually existent in three modes of his being. All the rich “connexion and fellowship” in God of which Barth speaks eloquently, all “loving coexistence and co-operation,” are assigned to a single divine “individual,” a sole subject, whose fellowship is only with himself: God is “I only in relation to Himself who is also Thou, and Thou only in relation to Himself who is also I.”

The social analogy offers a tempting alternative. First in British Anglicanism before World War I, and then, more recently, in a wave of love, suffering, and liberation theologies, one finds statements of Christian Trinitarianism that resist every attempt to reduce the personhood of Father, Son, and Spirit to roles or modes of one person. These theories contend that the divine threeness is at least as much a given of our Trinitarian confession as is the oneness of God; that the life of God is a continuous, reciprocal play of interpersonal harmony and fellowship; that “God” is better used as a communal than an individual name; and that the most apt analogies for God are social rather than psychological.

In the last two decades, certain Catholic and Protestant writers have presented such theories in the context of reflection on human suffering and human community in the face of it. By contrast with the earlier Anglicans, these “suffering and solidarity” theologians (e.g., Jan Lochman, Juan Luis Segundo, Geevarghese Mar Osthathios, and especially JÜrgen Moltmann) offer ethically and even politically ambitious Trinity statements. They tend, for instance, to associate monotheism with oppression and to find in the doctrine of the Trinity vast implications not only for life in community but also—and particularly—for socialism.

Moltmann is representative; the Holy Trinity (especially on the Easter weekend of God’s forsakenness, and then vindication by God) is a divine model of suffering love and of solidarity in the face of the evil that love must suffer. The Trinity is in fact a model of “social personalism” or “personal socialism” in human community. Here there is no dominating privilege for the strong, or hopeless subjugation of the weak, but only “the glorious liberty of the children of God.”

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Theology By Smoke And Mirrors

What is a proper response to such ideas? It is hard to suppress the feeling that at least some social Trinitarians might be trying to validate favorite ideas by divinizing them. If a theologian is a socialist, for example, how fitting if God should be one, too. The theologian’s position can then claim “grounding” in the very nature of ultimate reality. One is reminded of the clever way the Austrian-American violinist Fritz Kreisler used to gain a hearing for his own compositions. In a sort of reverse plagiarism, Kreisler would write recital pieces and then claim to have discovered them in neglected manuscripts of baroque composers. Kreisler thus freed himself both to program and to praise these pieces.

Where the social analogy is concerned, an initial wariness seems appropriate. For one thing, like process theologians, social Trinitarians do not linger long over Scripture. Some scarcely mention it. For another, social Trinitarians who seek historical precedent for their theories sometimes find it in odd figures. Moltmann’s favorite pioneer, for instance, is a genuine eccentric—Joachim of Fiore, a twelfth-century prophet who expected the Age of the Spirit to begin promptly in 1260.

Finally, some social Trinitarians candidly reveal the real source of their theory. Human desire and experience—not revelation—generate portraits of God. The theologian’s task is therefore to match what we want in the way of deity with what we get from the theologian’s desk. Portraits of God are drawn to order. Consider what Joseph Bracken says: “… human beings are more aware than ever before of the need for community, of the fact of change or development, often accompanied by deep suffering, in human life, and finally of the distinctively bisexual character of all human relations. If the concept of God, specifically of God as triune, does not in some way reflect those all-pervasive human concerns, then it will cease to be truly relevant to present-day men and women.”

Bracken’s reference to the “distinctively bisexual character of all human relations” suggests still another feature of some social Trinitarianism. Following Gregory of Nazianzus, a fourth-century Cappadocian, certain theorists have lately begun to identify the Holy Spirit member of the suffering God as explicitly feminine. On their view, the right social analogy of the Trinity is a nuclear family—for example, Adam, Eve, and Seth of Genesis 5:2–3, where Eve represents the Holy Spirit.

In considering all this, orthodox believers may be properly uneasy. We seem to be back in the same department that retails a Silly-Putty Jesus, moldable for any market. So with the social analogy: It appears all too familiar a product of smoke and mirrors, the self-portrait of modernist theology.

A Scandal’s Ramifications

What is therefore remarkable is that the social Trinity, shorn of certain angularities and excesses, is probably the most biblically faithful and theologically redolent theory now available. You would not guess this by reading its most recent proponents, perhaps, but you might if you read some of the earlier Anglican writers such as Leonard Hodgson. When these theologians claimed that much Western Trinitarianism is biblically distorted and disappointingly reductionist (three persons in God reduced to roles or modes of one person), they were surely right.

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The unmistakable impression given by the New Testament is that Jesus Christ is a fully divine person who is nonetheless distinct from the person he calls “Father.” Especially in the “high Christology” literature of the New Testament (Paul, Hebrews, and, most particularly, John), Jesus is not merely a man in whom God is specially present—though he is that. Nor is he only a deft and absorbent bearer of God the Father’s work, purpose, and love—though he is that, too. What is stunning about Jesus Christ, what scandalizes his skeptics and gradually dawns on his followers, is that this person is himself a divine being.

He—not just the Father in him—is worthy of divine titles (God, Lord, Son of God), and of sacramental devotion (Matt. 28:19; John 6:54), and of human doxology (2 Peter 3:18), and even prayer (Acts 7:59–60; 1 Cor. 16:22). In fact, Jesus Christ deserves worship (Heb. 1:6). Either distinctly or with God the Father, he requires the sort of reverence one reserves for God (John 14:1; Rev. 5:13, 7:10).

Moreover, as just suggested, New Testament writers distinguish Jesus Christ from God the Father at every stage of Jesus’ career—pre-existence (John 17:5) through incarnation to exaltation (1 Peter 3:22). There is one God, the Father; there is also one Lord, Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 8:6).

Add the (admittedly somewhat hazier) testimony to the personhood and divinity of the Holy Spirit (he is “another Counselor” in John 14:16; he does appear with God and Christ in such tripartite formulas as 2 Cor. 13:14) and a conclusion emerges: The precincts of heaven are occupied by more than one divine person. Christian monotheism must include more than one divine thinker, doer, actor, lover. For if God the Father and the Son of God are “one,” they are not one person. Their unity is more like a marriage in which two persons become one flesh, or like persons bound together in a single community.

In fact, insofar as the New Testament suggests any analogy for the Holy Trinity, it does so in John 17:21–23 where our Lord prays for the new community of believers. The offered analogy is social: Just as Father and Son, though distinct, are “in” each other and one with each other, so the new community must be unified both vertically and horizontally. Jesus’ last will and testament, presented to the Father, is that the new community may be “in us” and “that they may be one as we are one.”

Here is an undeniable source and model for social Trinitarianism. As Father, Son, and (by extension) Paraclete, though three persons, are yet communally one God, so the church, though many members, is still only one church. And just as Father, Son, and Spirit, though three, may be referred to with a singular pronoun such as “he,” so the church, though multimembered, may be referred to with a singular pronoun such as “she.” She is the new creation of Jesus Christ, her Lord.

Drawing Straight Lines

A theologian who draws straight lines out from biblical testimony to theory will thus draft a social statement. The Holy Trinity is a transcendent church family (whether or not the Spirit is feminine), supremely unified by common divine excellences—for example, perfect knowledge, love, holiness, power—and by shared redemptive purpose, revelation, and work.

Of course, it would be a mistake to picture the members of the Trinity as a set of three miscellaneous deities, each of whom discovered he was divine, and all of whom therefore resolved to get on together in combination. The divine church family is not congregationalist. Rather, each member of the divine society, though a person, is hardly an individual person.

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For the Son is Son of the Father and the Father is Father of the Son. The Spirit is the Spirit of God or of Christ. The Son is not only equally divine with the Father; he is also, so to speak, “his Father all over again.” Father, Son, and Spirit are thus not just members of a generic class of divine persons. They are rather what we would call family members—perfect family members. For in the divine life we find no isolation, no insulation, no secretiveness, no fear of being transparent to another.

There may be inside knowledge, penetrating knowledge of the other as other, but as loved other, co-other, fellow, family member. Father, Son, and Spirit, the transcendent church family, are “members one of another” to a superlative and exemplary degree.

Critics have long charged (even carefully stated) social Trinitarianism with the heresy of tritheism. But the charge cannot stand. For, classically, tritheism is Arianism. It is the view that only the Father is fully divine, while Son and Spirit, though ontically inferior, are still worshiped. The polytheistic combination of worship with second-rate deity is what the orthodox church fathers objected to in Arianism. Responsible social Trinitarians join in this objection and also in the orthodox confession of one God.

Responsible theorists affirm just one divine essence (though they would insist that the persons have this essence instead of being identical with it). They further affirm exactly one Holy Trinity. Each of the persons of the Father, Son, and Spirit is essentially divine by the same pattern of excellences. But only God the Trinity—three persons in their mutual relations—is God peerlessly and alone.

With the smoke of criticism cleared away, Christian believers can see some of the striking implications of social Trinity theory. First, the confession that we are created in the image of God begins to resonate with new overtones. In our fellowship and koinonia, in such homely endeavors as telling one another the truth or in doing such honest work as will help those in need—above all in that love which “binds everything together in perfect harmony”—we show not only that we have become members one of another, but also that we as restored community, we-in-the-plural, have become a remarkable image of God. Race, class, sex, and other alienations get transformed into delightful complementarities, so that we may know, and respect the other as other, but as co-other, loved other fellow, family member. For those who reflect on the image of God, in short, the Holy Trinity becomes a model not of narcissism, but of overflowing, other-adoring, agapic love.

Second, baptism in the threefold name marks the adoption of human beings into the joy and warmth of the family of God. This is a family for whom our Lord prays in John 17, that it will one day enter the mysterious union of the Trinity itself. In the interim, as philosopher Richard Mouw once pointed out, we extend the arch of God’s benediction over each new person with whom we share the sacrament. Their concerns become our concerns, their joys our joys. This is a policy with family coverage. If some member should be abused or diminished by other Christians, we oppose this injustice not merely because it is unjust, but particularly because it is a desecration of the communal sacrament.

Third, our devotion to the triune God will include prayer to God the Father (Matt. 6:9), through Jesus Christ our Lord (Col. 3:17), and in the Spirit (Eph. 6:18), always aware that we are invoking not a solitary listener who studies us in splendid isolation, but rather the transcendent family of God. With proper humility and wonder, we seek entrance upon the awesome and resonant triune society that is itself alive with petition (Rom. 8:26, 34), and that pulsates with dynamic knowledge, action, and care. We worship no one person in isolation from the other two. For “the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in unity” (the Athanasian Creed).

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Contemporary social Trinitarians may appear, at times, to be light on Scripture and tradition, politically tendentious, self-portraying. Oddly, the image of God they project is largely on target. Reality is at its core not only personal, but tri-personal and communal.

Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., is professor of systematic theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is the author of three books, as well as the forthcoming article on “Trinity” in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Eerdmans).

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