A friend of mine is at Bible college and has been set an essay on trinitarian theology and the difference between east and west. He emailed me to ask “So what??! I mean realistically what are the implications of the different approaches?”
Here’s part of my response. I have obviously caricatured positions to make a point. I’m trying to be as stark as possible to drive home the difference. And the west is obviously not as bad as I’ve suggested, nor is the east the paragon of virtue. There are basic things about eastern trinitarianism I disagree with – but not their starting point. And that’s my focus here. So here is my response:
Ok, you say ‘So what?’ I say – ‘So everything!’
De Regnon [who my friend mentioned in his email] is a good lead. Let me re-phrase his insight: The west begins with One and then tries to figure out how to get Three. The east begins with the Three and then figures out how the Three are One.
Re-read this until you have the distinction firmly in mind…
The west begins with One and tries to get to Three. The east begins with Three and then gets to One.
Now between these positions there is all the difference in the world.
If you’re eastern you say: “I’ve met this guy Jesus and He introduces me to His Father and sends His Spirit.” And then, having met the Three Persons in the gospel, you say ‘what kind of one-ness do these three Persons share?’ And because you think in this way you can conclude: “These three Persons are *one* because they are united in love.”
So you go to John 17 and you see Jesus saying He wants His followers to be one the same way He and the Father are one. And then you say “Aha! The one-ness of the church is loving unity, therefore it stands to reason that the one-ness of Father and Son is loving unity.” And then you remember 1 John 4 and you say with joy: How is God one? God is love! God is a loving community of Three Persons.
And this means that the greatest thing in all reality is love (because God is love). And it means that reality is relational. And it means that loving community among disinct people is very important. One-ness for the east is a loving union of particular Persons who don’t lose their individuality (Father, Son and Spirit are all different Persons – they are not one because they are identical.)
So the east simply says: God is three distinct but totally united Persons loving one another. Let me flesh out three implications of this:
1) It means that difference, distinction, community, relationship, mutuality, reciprocity and LOVE are all at the very very centre of who God is. God’s identity is not primarily a collection of attributes but a community of love.
2) Because even the Father, Son and Spirit find their identity in relationships we see that relationship is at the heart of personal identity. God is who He is because He is love. God is who He is because of the relationships of Father, Son and Spirit. Therefore I am who I am because of the relationships I share in.
3) Community is hugely important. Even in God, different voices are not silenced by one dominant ruler. Instead different voices contribute to a one-ness that’s all about distinct persons working together in love.
On the other hand the west begins by saying: “we know that God is one. We know that this one God has all sorts of attributes that go with the ‘Creator’ job description. So God is omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, impassible, immutable etc etc.” Then the west says, “Ok we’ve got the one God, but now in the gospel we meet these three Persons. So how can the three Persons qualify as this one God?” They figure that since the one God is defined by these attributes then the way these Three are One is by sharing in all these same attributes. And so they map these attributes identically onto the three Persons. In this way the distinctions between Persons gets lost. Every difference is blurred into the one God who is defined not by relationships but by attributes (i.e. He’s big and clever). Three implications of this:
1) God’s identity is primarily a collection of attributes – attributes that are about His distance from creation, His difference to us.
2) If God is who He is because of His attributes – personal identity is essentially about *attributes* (about being big and clever). Therefore I am who I am because of how big and clever I am.
3) Community is not really that important – there’s only one voice and will that counts. Distinctions and difference will get bull-dozed before the all-important one.
Ok, now that I’ve laid it out like this, hopefully you can see some of the ‘so what’ significance??
Let me tease it out by discussing the three implications:
Regarding 1): In the west, God has been defined as a collection of attributes that place Him at an infinite distance from us. Now if you go out on the streets and talk to people about whether they’re religious, basically (keeping eastern influences out of this) people will say either they do or they don’t believe in a distant, uni-personal God who is approximately the ‘omni-being’ of philosophy. Whether they believe in “God” or don’t believe in “God”, the “God” they’re talking about is the collection of attributes which the western theologian began with before they examined the gospel! The god that our western culture has either embraced or rejected is not the God of the gospel! Instead the “god” of the pub discussion is pretty much the “one God” that the western theologian began with. And if the bloke in the pub rejects that god – I don’t blame him!! That’s not a god who is obviously related to Jesus of Nazareth (or His Spirit or the Father He called ‘Abba’). And therefore its not a god who appears to be particularly interested in us – its not a god revealed in gospel love but in philosophical speculation. Now the cultures shaped by the western church have been shaped by this doctrine of God. When they accepted “God” it was this “God” they accepted. When they rejected him, it was this “God” they rejected.
Atheism has basically been the rejection of this god. People have decided they don’t want a distant omni-being over against them and proclaimed his non-existence. And what people like Colin Gunton are trying to ask is “Would the west have rejected “God” so thoroughly if the “God” they were presented with by the western church was the community of committed love revealed in Jesus?” The answer still might be yes, but it’s an interesting question anyway!
Regarding 2): The question of personal identity. Well if we go with the west, my identity is all about my attributes. I need to build up a CV of my big-ness and clever-ness. That will define me. But if I go with the east then my identity is about my relationships. I am who I am because fundamentally I’m in Christ (and what’s more I’m a son, a brother, a husband, etc). When I take this seriously, my western status-anxiety can be relieved in a second. I find liberation from the western drive to prove myself and forge an identity for myself. I am given identity in the relationships I have (primarily my relationship with Christ).
Think also of the abortion debate. What is it that defines whether this foetus has personal identity? Ask a westerner and they’ll instinctively answer you in terms of attributes: “This foetus can/can’t do X, Y, and Z therefore the foetus can/can’t be aborted.” But what if the foetus is a person not because of its attributes but because it already stands in relationships of love?
Regarding 3): The point about community. Here’s a quote from the website: (http://www.christthetruth.org.uk/threepersonsunited.htm)
“…what can we learn about relationships and community from The Relationship? In gender relations, in multi-ethnic society, in equal opportunities policies, in the church, in our families – we are constantly confronted by people who have real and important differences and yet people who ought to be treated with equal respect and dignity. How do we appreciate the differences and uphold the equality? If we treat all in exactly the same way, are we not ignoring the valuable distinctives? This ‘melting pot’ approach falls foul of oppression-by-assimilation. The incumbent majority always wins out at the cost of the minorities – they either become like the majority or they die. Do we, therefore, treat specific parties differently in an attempt to give them a leg-up? When this happens stereo-types can be re-enforced by ‘special treatment’ and work against the value of equality. Furthermore: who defines the appropriate yard-stick of “success” in a culture? Perhaps it is better to abandon the idea of community altogether and accept along with Margaret Thatcher that there is “no such thing as society.”
“Well what can the Trinity teach us? At the heart of reality lies a Community of different but equal Persons who have their own identities constituted by their mutual interdependence. They work together as One. There definitely is such a thing as society. Person-hood can never be considered individualistically but is made up of relationships on which we depend. Within The Community, the Persons freely submit to one another in roles of subordination while never losing their equal status. They do submit to differences in treatment and in function – but they maintain a definite equality of being and uphold one another in bonds of unconditional love. Here is a Community on which to model our own.”