Tuesday, May 17, 2011

God as a Trinity of Persons (Trinitarian Theism)

A Trinitarian flower (Trillium)
who lives in my neighborhood.
Tomorrow in Redeemer Ministry School I will be teaching on Trinitarian theism; viz., the idea that God is a "trinity" of persons, a 3-personed being. I'm going to use Paul Copan's analysis in “Is the Trinity a Logical Blunder? God as Three and One” (in Contending With Christianity's Critics). Here is the handout I'm giving my students. [A commercial - want to study some deep and life-changing stuff with me for 10 months in 2011-2012? Go to our RMS website for  information.]

“Unfortunately, in our age of vanishing biblical literacy, the average Christian’s understanding of the Trinity is minimal or even heterodox.” (Copan, Trinity, 205)

Antitrinitarian thought includes: Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormons (Copan, Trinity, 205)

“Muslims reject the tri-unity of God as heretical and blasphemous; this is shirk – ascribing partners to God.” (Copan, Trinity, 206)

Copan’s position is:

- Three persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – fully share in the one true God’s identity.
- From eternity there has existed not one solitary person but a God-in-relation, three divine persons fully loving and enjoying one another.
o NOTE: Greg BOyd says this makes conceptual sense of the idea that God is love. That is, that God, in his being, in his essence, IS love.
- Personal relationships did not come into existence when God created finite personal beings (angels and humans).
- Relationship has always existed in this triune divine family.
- “This tri-personal God, though “over all” (transcendent), is also “in all” (immanent) and ‘not far from each one of us’ (Acts 17:27).” (Copan, Trinity, 207)

“In the history of Christianity, the Western church [Catholic and Protestant] has stressed God’s unbreakable oneness of God’s being] whereas the Eastern Orthodox church has emphasized the distinctiveness of the three persons.” (Copan, Trinity, 207)

- Overemphasizing threeness leads to tritheism – a version of polytheism (many gods). This error is found in one version of Mormonism that denies God’s oneness.
- Overemphasizing oneness leads to modalism – that God is just one person who appears in different modes or manifestations (e.g., God appears as Father in the OT, Son in the NT, and Spirit during the NT church age). This denies God’s threeness. The modal example is: Just as the one substance "water" comes in three modes (liquid, solid, and gas) so God has three modes (Father, Son, and Spirit).
- Rejecting equality leads to subordinationism. In this case the three persons do not possess alike the divine nature but are a kind of hierarchy. Acc. to Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Father alone is God. Jesus is “a god” and the first creature God made. And the Holy Spirit is not personal but merely a force. Copan says: “This subordinationist error undermines the equality of the divine persons.” (Copan, Trinity, 208)

The orthodox doctrine of the Trinity is:

- Only one God exists (oneness)
- This God exists eternally in three distinct persons – Father, Son, and Spirit (threeness)
- These three persons are fully equal in their essential divine attributes and perfections (equality; thus, no subordination)

Copan calls this “the Divine Family.” He writes: “From eternity, the triune God has existed. Indeed, the self-sufficient Trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit have existed from eternity in their free, mutual self-giving and self-receiving love. Relationship or communion is intrinsic to this “household” (or economy) of divine persons who, though distinct from one another, are inseparably united in other-oriented love.” (Copan, Trinity, 209)

This is a “divine inter- (and inner-) connection of mutuality, openness, and reciprocity [that] has no individualistic competition among the family members but only joy, self-giving love, and transparency.” (Copan, Trinity, 209)

God is “supremely relational in His self-giving, other-oriented nature.” (Copan, Trinity, 209)

“Within God is intimate union as well as distinction, an unbreakable communion of persons. The persons of the Godhead can be distinguished but not separated. God is both community and unity.” (Copan, Trinity, 209)

Copan uses the analogy of Siamese twins to explain. With Siamese twins we have two distinct centers of awareness within one unified organism. “Likewise, God is one immaterial soul (substance) with three distinct centers of consciousness, rationality, will, and agency (persons) who are deeply and necessarily interconnected, and they share the same unique divine nature.” (Copan, Trinity, 209)

God, therefore, is a relational being.

Because God exists,
and chooses to create humans in his image,
relationality is central to our identity as humans.

Copan says: “No wonder the Ten Commandments divide into two tables – our relationship to God and our relationship to fellow human beings. Jesus Himself summarizes our twofold duty: “love the Lord your God” and “love your neighbor” (Mark 12:30-31).” (Copan, Trinity, 209.

We were made, first, for communion with God.

How we regard our fellow human beings reflects our spiritual condition – 1 John 4:20.

We recognize what love is by the model of the self-giving God in Christ – 1John 3:16. "This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers."

Thinking of Trinitarian theism Jonathan Edwards wrote that “the great things of the gospel are astonishing.” (Copan, Trinity, 210) Personally, I love this idea of God and find it brilliant. And remember "astonishing" does not mean that mystery or partial knowledge equals “contradiction.”

Now, some more Copan-thoughts on the Trinity, saying the same thing again.


“What do the Scriptures mean when they tell us that God is both three and one?” (Copan, Trinity, 210) Not that: “three persons are one person.” (Copan, Trinity, 210) Instead, “the Christian believes that there are three necessarily inseparable persons (not “one person”) who share one divine nature and substance.”

These considerations that can help us:

1. Scripture reveals both a oneness and a threeness to God.

2. God is one in essence or nature but three in person.

3. To distinguish between person and nature we must keep in mind two ways to use “is” – identity vs. predication.

a. “Threeness pertains to persons, and oneness pertains to nature or essence.” (Copan, Trinity, 212)

b. “There is only one divine nature, but three persons share in it.” (Copan, Trinity, 212)

4. The members of the Trinity share the same being, not simply the same nature.

5. The Triune persons are deeply interrelated or mutually indwell one another, sharing a necessary, unbreakable relational oneness. (Copan, Trinity, 213)

6. Because the members of the Trinity share the same essence and mutually indwell one another, they also act as one and not in isolation from one another. (Copan, Trinity, 214)

“In the depth of his being, God is relational. God is relating within himself, and He is relational towards us. This God is for us. He has created us to love Him and to cling to Him (Deut. 10:20; 13:4) – like a husband and wife must cling to each other (Gen. 2:24).” (215)

We have a Three-Personed God. “These three divine persons are one in at least five important ways:

1. They share the same being (compare the three-headed being Cerberus).
2. They share in the same divine nature.
3. They mutually indwell each other (perichoresis), being bound together in relationship.
4. They necessarily act in perfect harmony.
5. Only one harmonious will is expressed in their actions.

Copan writes: “As we look at the story of Scripture, we can gather that, first, only one God exists and, second, three persons can legitimately be called “God.” The Holy Trinity is indeed a mystery but not an incoherent one.” (215)

The Philosophical and Practical Relevance of the Trinity

God is not “a singular, unitary person who is a rule-setting monarch endowed with sheer power to impose His arbitrary standards on humans.” (216) Instead, Copan asks, “What if people viewed God as Triune, relating, self-giving, and other-centered by nature?” “What if God’s rule includes not coercion or bullying but a desire for friendship with humans?” “What if God reveals and commands so that humans, by His grace, may freely ‘choose life’ (Deut. 30:19) and experience it ‘abundantly’ (John 10:10)?” What if God is not about some unilateral, top-down hierarchical arrangement, but He is a relational God “who wants no one to perish but all to experience the holy warmth of His company (2 Peter 3:9).?”

The Christian idea of a Triune God is that of a relating God “who is the foundation for ethics and personal responsibility, for human dignity and rights, for reason and truth, and for tolerance and cooperation.” (216)

Trinitarian doctrine can give Christians valuable insights in dialogue with other religions.
  • Ultimate reality is not abstract and impersonal.
  • A Triune God “offers secure basis for the personal virtues – love, humility, kindness, compassion.” (216)
  • A Triune God is relational and not impersonal, like Eastern ideas of ultimate reality (Brahman [Hinduism]; “nothingness” [Buddhism]). “The triune God offers a more fruitful context to ground and make sense of loving human relationships and interpersonal virtues, in addition to the existence of a finite universe.” (217)