Monday, November 22, 2010

Am I a tritheist?

Having read and reflected on the Patristic Fathers over the past six months I have concluded that my imagination of God is tritheist. I have been brought up to believe that the Father and Son are two people (and the Spirit a third). Then conceive of these three as one. One being; three persons. But most of the conversation is about Jesus or the Father (or the Spirit) not about the one God. If I am brutally honest it is hard to understand what is meant by one being in three persons.

Reading Hillary who attempted to explain Greek terms to his Latin friends was helpful. Translation often has an ability to clarify. The terms that came to be settled were ousia for the one and hupostasis for the three. Hillary argued they were both words relating to existence because both speak of what a thing was permanently. Existence (ousia) particularly referred to a reality that is always. Substance (hupostasis), following Athanasius, refers to how the thing subsists in itself. (De Synodis, 12.) That is, the concrete reality of the thing. Basil explains the relationship between ousia and hupostasis as the common to the particular.

I have two reflections on this.
First, the three persons are really the same reality. They are the same being. Thus the term homoousia (same being). There is one God as the scriptures proclaim so loudly. There is no other God besides the one true God.

To my ears this sounds modalist. (And explaining this to a friend he gently told me so.) Modalism argues the persons are different manifestations of the one. There really is only one that appears different at different times. Responding to this Athanasius explains that orthodox doctrine is not modalist because the Father and Son are the same being. Confused? He argues that there are two persons who are the same being thus distinct. Calling the Father, 'Father' indicates the presence of a Son. And vice-versa. They are not the same subject but the same in what they are, God. Thus this is not modalist.

My second reflection concerns my imagination. I imagine God as a committee of three humans. Or a three person rugby team (like scrums in rugby sevens). But I don't think that is a correct imagination and tends towards individualism. I must learn to imagine that when I meet Jesus Christ I meet the Father. Likewise the Spirit's work in me is the work of God. Interestingly I use some of these triune expressions but somehow I forget that all three are working together in all things, God is working!

Actually Hillary argues that we ought to preach the story of the gospel first before preaching metaphysical truths about God's triunity. (De Synodis, 70). Similarly Bauckham argues that Christian authors of the New Testament cared more for who God was than metaphysical conceptions of deity. I believe that to revive the teaching about the trinity we need to explain the need for the trinity. God is trinity because that is who we meet in Jesus Christ, who God really is.

Imagination helps us hope and create in this world. Imagination about the true God and his relating will help us relate well. Obviously imagination involves an analogy to creation and will always be incomplete. I suspect we should stop explaining God as three and one or one and three as a logical equation. But explain that God is known in three. This is not a retreat into modalism but an adequate explanation that there are not three Gods, as many imagine (although all will confess that they are one being). Our pluralist society has no problem conceiving of three individuals. The problem is their unity in each other. We live in a world that simply does not believe that God is one. Why do we wonder that Christians living in that world struggle to image God as one. Simply put our problem is not modalism but tritheism.

So how do we explain the trinity to our children. What are some expressions and phrases that will rightly imagine God. Every reality is concretely expressed. The reality of God is known in the three persons. Each fully and equally God.

This is my attempt at grappling with the trinity. I don't think that we need to do away with the creeds. Rather we stand with Hilary attempting to explain concepts across language. Unlike Hilary there are traditions of language within our church. However possibly being, substance, person, individual, etc. don't mean what they meant when we transliterated them from Latin 4 centuries ago.

So friends, help me express God truly in this world.


Michael Eric Hund said...

My sincerest apologies, as you do sound like you are really searching for meaning, but please get past the stumbling-block of the Trinity. Go deeper into our history and don't get so bogged-down along the path. We need to preach the Good News, not mumbo-jumbo mysterioso. Just a thought. Good luck, and many blessings to you!

Matt Bales said...

Michael, thanks for your comment. You have hit upon a profound truth that it is the gospel we need to preach and go on preaching.

I do need another post outlining more of what's at stake. I'll say this for starters.

The trinity is not a stumbling block but who we meet when we meet God. The bible asks who God is not what God is. (Richard Bauckham in God Crucified argues this clearly.) Who is a relational question, what is more metaphysical. When we meet Jesus in the gospel we meet his Father, God. I think this obviously asks questions for people. Certainly the early Christians sought to explain Jesus relationship to the God of their forefathers (the Old Testament Yahweh).

I think the trinity does matter. Simply because that is who God is. Who made this world. Who redeemed us from sin and evil. Who will judge the world. And who gives life.

At stake is an understanding of relationships. What are they? Who is the other person in relation to yourself? Where is God in this world? and where is love?

Living in a culture of personal choice with a profound lack of other-person focus allows us to think that inter-dependence upon others is nonsense. People believe that they are free to choose who they relate to and God is evil to restrict that.

Rather the gospel teaches us that who we are is never independent of Him or those around us or the world. Rather the profound self-giving of God teaches us what it means to truly be human. Even when we must deny ourselves.

A tritheist understands that their is reality behind relationships. The persons of God exist before they relate. A trinitarian understanding of God understands that who God is is in relationship. I actually think getting the relationship between the Father and Son right matters.

Christians care about their doctrine because our choices are determined by our doctrine.

Matt Bales said...

But I do think that preaching the gospel is of first importance.