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No (good) trinitarian theologian wants to have a fourth thing - a divine substance considered apart from the Three Persons.  But it's important to be aware that this error (effectively having a quaternity) has two versions.  There is a vulgar quaternity and a more insidious one.

The vulgar one looks like this:

Oneness and Threeness 1

Here is the "shamrock" trinity - three bits growing out of an underlying stuff.  In practice this is, roughly, how many unthinkingly view the trinity.  Such a vulgar quaternity is rightly rejected by theologians.  It can be seen immediately that the 'Godness of God' is considered at a completely different level to the three Persons in their roles and relations.  What makes God God is fundamentally impersonal attributes that may be expressed in the Persons but not constituted by their mutual inter-play.  So we can safely reject this version of things.

But I find that many theologians, having rejected the vulgar quaternity, congratulate themselves prematurely.  There is also the insidious quaternity to be dealt with.  There is another way of having a fourth...

Oneness and Threeness 2

Fundamentally this error consists in conceiving of the one God separately to a consideration of the three Persons in communion.  Recently I read a theologian say "God is both one and three - both a person and a community."  This is an example of the insidious quaternity.  One-ness and Three-ness are laid side by side to uphold a belief in the equal ultimacy of one and three.  Yet the one-ness of God is conceived of as a uni-personal one-ness - that is, it is separately considered to the multi-personal three-ness.  One and Three were not mutually interpreting truths but instead the 'one God' is thought of in non-communal (that is, non trinitarian) terms.

This is the approach taken by by so many doctrine of God text books where De Deo Uno (on the One God) is addressed prior to De Deo Trino (on the Trinity).   Yet, unless the two section are integrated at the deepest levels then there is grave danger of a fourth thing - i.e. "God plus Trinity" or "God apart from Trinity."

When this theological method is followed, often (not always but most times) section one unfolds such that the Three Person'd interplay takes no meaningful part in the discussions of the attributes.  Yet, typically, these attributes are asserted to be the virtue by which God is God.  On this view it is still possible to discuss the 'Godness of God' without reference to the perichoretic life of the Three.  Here One-ness and Three-ness are considered to be non-competing perspectives on the same God.  This effectively means that it is possible to speak in non-triune terms about the living God.  'God', then, is not the same thing as 'the Three Persons united in love'.

This is also a quaternity.  Just a more insidious one.

And the only way I can see to avoid this fourth thing is to side with the Cappodocians: God's being consists without remainder in the Three Person'd perichoresis .

Oneness Threeness 3b

The one-ness of God is not a simple divine essence but the very unity of the Three.  The being of God is not an underlying substance (contra the vulgar quaternity).  But nor is it a separately conceived essence (contra the insidious quaternity).  Rather God's being is the very communion by which the Three are One.

Trinity is not a perspective on the one God.  Rather the only God there is is trinity.  And the only way to conceive of Him is in triune terms.  'God' is 'Trinity'.  Unless this strict identity is maintained a fourth enters in.

Thus we must never conceive of the one God in any other terms than trinitarian ones.  (Re-write the text-books!).  God's being is in His communion (to use Zizioulas's phrase).  His One-ness is in His communion.  And (let's not forget) His Three-ness is in His communion - the Three are only who they are in this eternal perichoresis.   To put it another way: God is love.

 

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This is a re-working of an older post on One-ness and Three-ness.

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:

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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.

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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.

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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."

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Much of this is from a comment or two I've made here at Dan Hames' excellent blog.

The trinity is a very old doctrine. See The Trinitarian Old Testament for just how old. But Nicea (by which I mean the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed of 381 which we say in church today) gave us certain terminology that is accepted by both East and West.  Its creed is basic to all Christian churches.  Yet its doctrine of God is a particular one - one that is sometimes unwittingly (sometimes wittingly) side-lined, ignored or opposed.

The first thing to notice is Nicea's doctrine of 'the one God.'  To the untrained eye, it looks like it doesn't have one.  It simply says 'We believe in one God' and then immediately goes on to speak of 'the Father Almighty', 'one Lord Jesus Christ' and 'the Holy Spirit'.  Nicea gives absolutely no definition of the one God except to unfold His being in the description of the Three. No doubt many scholastic theologians (if anachronistically present!) would have inserted quite an extended treatise on the omnis in between "I believe in God..." and "...the Father Almighty". But Nicea doesn't let you force a breach between a description of the One and the Three.  To describe the One is to unfold the Three.

When looking for a doctrine of God's 'ousia' (being), again a typical western theologian may be disappointed.  All we have in the creed is the controversial phrase 'homo-ousios'.  Jesus, the Son, is 'homo-ousion tw patri' (of one being with the Father).  There is not here a prior definition of 'ousia' which is then mapped onto the three Persons.  Let me repeat: There is not a prior definition of 'ousia' which is then mapped onto the three Persons.  Instead we infer what the 'ousia' is from the fact that Father and Son are 'homo-ousios'.

Jesus, in all His difference from the Father, is still homo-ousios with the Father. In His divinity He is 'God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, begotten not made." Even in His divinity He is 'ek tes ousia tw patri' (out of the being of the Father). There are important differences between Father and Son that are not papered over but rather affirmed by and included in the homo-ousios.

The homo-ousios does not denote three-fold repetition but rather, in TF Torrance's words:

"The Father/Son relationship falls within the one being of God.” (Trinitarian Faith, p119).

Homoousios “meant that the Son and the Father are equally God within the one being of God.” (ibid, p122)

The homo-ousios upholds the distinction (as well as unity) of Father and Son. Remember that you can't be 'homo' with yourself. And it points us to the fact that the Father is Begettor, the Son Begotten. The Father from Himself, the Son from the Father (even according as He is God, contra Calvin but with Nicea!).

There are genuine differences in Persons that in no way compromise their equality of divinity. There is never a time when the Son is not homo-ousios with the Father nor is there a time when the Son is not begotten of His Father. Therefore there is not an ousia of the Father that could ever be separately conceived and then assigned in equal measure to Father, Son and Spirit. Instead the ousia of God is a mutually constituting communion in which Father, Son and Spirit share. The ousia of the trinity consists in three Persons who are 'homo' with one another. While Nicea does not say explicitly that the 'ousia' is the communion of Persons, it points decidedly in this direction. (See Torrance's 'Trinitarian Faith' for more).

All this is to say that distinctions between Father, Son and Spirit are upheld within the divine nature. The divine nature is not a set of pre-determined attributes which are identically mapped onto the Three. The divine nature is constituted by difference, distinction, mutuality, reciprocity - it is a divine life (a dance even!) not a divine stuff.

Compare this with so much doctrine of God in the west.  First an ousia of 'omnis' is determined.  The one God is discussed for 600 pages in terms of 'uncreated Creator'.  And then we face the Three.  What do we then do?  Simply give to each Person this CV of attributes and insist that this is what the Nicene homo-ousios demanded!  On this understanding all difference, distinction, mutuality and reciprocity is banished from the status of deity.  In preference to the lively interplay of Father, Son and Spirit, a 'simple' doctrine of the One (read divine simplicity) is forwarded.  And God's own being is conceived of as a stuff not a life.

Think I prefer Nicea!

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For a sermon of mine on trinity go here.  For some excellent talks by Mike Reeves on the subject go here.

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I remember a friend asking me what I thought God was doing before the creation of the world.  I answered "They were enjoying one another."  He looked very quizzical and then said, "....Oh! You mean the Trinity!" I remember thinking "Well yes, what god were you thinking of?"

Yet many will think of God in ways that are divorced from the lively interaction of Father, Son and Spirit.  What about you?  How do you think of God's pre-creation life?  His OT activity?  His work in providence?  His divine attributes?  Do you naturally and enthusiastically conceive of these as the out-flow of the mutual relations of Persons?  Is your account of these shaped by triniarian inter-play?  Or do you try to conceive of these as, to all intents and purposes, unitarian activities to which we add trinitarian nuances (when we discuss salvation).   

Another way of asking this is - how do you think about the relation of Oneness and Threeness in God. 

Is it like this?  (Forgive the very amateur graphics/formatting)

Oneness and Threeness 1 

Here, Oneness is defined as the substrata - the substance of God underlying the Persons.  The fundamental truths about God are cast in unitarian terms.  To this is added multi-Personal considerations.  Is this how you consider the interplay of Oneness and Threeness?

Or what about this view:

Oneness and Threeness 2

Here Oneness and Threeness are laid side by side.  We consider 'De Deo Uno' and De Deo Trino' but separately.  We can even subscribe to phrases like "the equal ultimacy of the One and the Three."  Yet what we mean by this is a commitment to hold two fundamentally incommensurate doctrines of God together.  It can even foster a refusal to let the Threeness of God define the Oneness.  Here the One God is not constituted by the relations of the Three - Oneness is something else (divine simplicity, aseity etc etc).  And the Three do not find their particular identities in the Oneness communion.  No.  Instead Oneness and Threeness remain unco-ordinated.  It's a tri-unity by forcing One and Three together not because the 'tri' and the 'unity' mutually inform one another. 

But what about if we saw things like this...

Oneness Threeness 3b 

Here the Oneness is precisely the mutual relations of the particular Persons.  And these particular Persons find their identity in the communion that is God's Oneness.  "God's being is in His communion" (John Zizioulas).  The Three are three in their Oneness (not considered apart from it).  The One is one in the Threeness (not considered apart from it).

This is truly a trinity.  Here the 'tri' and the 'unity' are maintained from precisely the same perspective.  Here is a real 'equal ultimacy of the One and the Three.'

 The benefits of such a perspective?  Many - I hope to blog on many more in the fulness of time.  But for now (since we're in the middle of a series on mission) - we see that our doctrine of God, whether considering 'De Deo Uno' or 'De Deo Trino' is always a doctrine of the interplay of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  It is always an investigation of the economy of salvation in which the Three are disclosed.  It is always 'Gospel' theology.  The God of missions is a Gospel-alone God who is served in the world by a Gospel-alone mission.

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