TRINITARIAN FORMS OF LIFE
Philosophy & Religious Studies Department
Much of the philosophy of religion and theology that grew out of the Enlightenment avoided or denied the doctrine of the Trinity due to its apparent ethical insignificance. Jefferson criticized the "incomprehensible jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic, that three are one, and one is three" as an artificial barrier between his contemporaries and the "simple doctrines" of Jesus. Kant found "no practical relevance at all" to the doctrine when "taken literally" because the distinction between Persons in God makes no difference for "rules of conduct."
Over a century later the pragmatism of American culture was exemplified in William James's proposal that "metaphysical disputes" should be tested by a rule (which I will apply here to the doctrine of the Trinity): if it makes no practical difference whether God is one or triune, then "the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle." There can be no serious dispute between the unitarian and the trinitarian if we cannot "show some practical difference that must follow from one side or the other's being right."
Today the spirit of Enlightenment skepticism and American instrumentalism continues to preclude serious inquiry into the doctrine of the Trinity in many institutions of higher education and the churches. However, the renewal in trinitarian reflection since Barth and Rahner has initiated a quest to think God anew as triune and to enact in life the implications of trinitarian convictions. Ethical implications of trinitarian worship and theology provide a practical test of the doctrine of the Trinity as the primary model for a contemporary Christian doctrine of God.
In light of skepticism and instrumentalism, why this renewal today? Theology is rediscovering worship as the "hermeneutical continuum" of biblical interpretation and theological ethics. To the degree that the activity of worship, liturgical texts, the reading of Scripture, and proclamation are structured by trinitarian doctrine, worship of God shapes and forms the moral life of churches and believers. Thus Christian practices and ethics are implicitly and explicitly trinitarian. As Paul Ramsey noted, between the order of prayer, the order of believing, and the order of well-doing, there are "multi-directional, shaping influences."
Does this suggest that "moral theology is a series of deductions from doctrine"? James McClendon has warned that moral theology so conceived is "unworkable." Certainly, moral theology is not simply a series of deductions from doctrine. However, I agree with Ramsey that there is parity between the order of prayer, the order of faith, and the order of doing well. Therefore the interplay between Christian worship, shaped by trinitarian doctrine, which informs and inspires the moral living and ethical reflection of Christian institutions and individuals makes possible theology's inquiry into the ethical implications of trinitarian doctrine. Implications should not be equated with deductions. Implications themselves may be tested in at least three ways.
When I discuss trinitarian forms of life, the ethical test will be applied. With regard to the theological test, it will be carried forward by the work of a group like this with our concern for reconstructing the doctrine of God. Concerning the doxological test, worship is crucial as a context for making sense of and testing trinitarian forms of life. Reflecting on new uses of the social analogy of the Trinity, Alistair McFadyen has wondered, "if the Trinitarian God is only a regulative ideal and not an active, empowering agency in our lives, is there any ground for hope concerning humankind?" What is needed is not just another model of God with ethical implications, but "the communication of the energies of true relation and individuation from the Triune being of God."
Further, the post-foundational turn in philosophy and theology proposes new and different ways to order theological reflection. If there is no one doctrine or theological discipline (e.g., the doctrine of revelation or theological epistemology) that provides foundations of certainty for other doctrines and disciplines, then we are free to work with new points of departure in theological inquiry. The modern order of disciplinesC philosophy of religion, systematic theology, followed by practical theologyCwas predicated on the search for foundations of certainty for religious knowledge, which philosophy of religion was to supposed to provide. Once we have exchanged the foundational metaphor of knowledge for holistic metaphors, like the web of belief, inquiry can begin with the practical concerns of ethics, or the subject matter of worship, or the concluding chapter of Schleiermacher's theology, the divine Trinity. In fact, inquiry could even begin with something as obscure in theology today as church polity.
In the historic principles of the polity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) dating back to 1788, the fourth principle states:
If "truth is in order to goodness," and here Presbyterians and pragmatists, Christians and secularists may find agreement, then theological ethics should be one point of departure for reflection on the doctrine of God, not an appendix.
In light of the contemporary renewal of trinitarian theology, the concept of trinitarian forms of life is one way to describe the distinctive character of Christians as a people seeking to be conformed to the God of Jesus Christ. The following forms of life use trinitarian doctrine as rules for worship, interpreting Scripture, and life together.
(1) "Perichoretic" love: the mutual indwelling and love of the divine Persons provides a regulative ideal for the koinonia sought by Christian communities. In the doctrine of perichoresis, the mutual interpenetration of the divine Persons points to the mystery of the unity of the Trinity. As a regulative ideal, it implies that koinonia is rooted in the inter-relation of the Father, Logos, and Paraclete to the disciples as a community commanded to love one another. This is vividly portrayed in the Last Supper discourse of the Fourth Gospel. In the high priestly prayer ascribed to Jesus in John 17, he prays for disciples present and future:
The ethical injunction of this prayer is rooted in the life of ancient Israel with Yahweh and Jesus' Sermon on the Mount: be imitators of God. Imitating God is extended in John 17 to include the mutual indwelling, unity, and love of the Father and Logos. To paraphrase Hauerwas, the community of present and future disciples is called upon to be like the Father and Logos, not to be the Father and Logos.
The brokenness of Christian koinonia, east and west, Catholic and Protestant, liberal and conservative, reminds us of how far short of the ideal Christians have come in practice. Following centuries of Christian persecution of Jews culminating in the Holocaust, the quest for koinonia has taken a new turn in renewed Jewish/Christian dialogue and official statements of Christian repentance for anti-Judaism. The quest as expressed in the modern ecumenical movement, which now includes the dialogue of Jews and Christians, proposes models for how to seek trinitarian koinonia across dividing walls of hostility and alienation between Muslims and Christians, women and men, Christians east and west, etc.
(2) Subordination without inferiority: trinitarian forms of life are modeled by ordered relationships that free persons for missions of service. In the theologies of Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Wainwright, and Zizioulas, the first Person, the Father, is distinct as the fount of deity. The first Person is neither generated nor spirated from the other Persons. The second Person, the Logos, is distinct for the Logos is sent by the first Person on the messianic mission to reconcile all things to God by his incarnate life, death, and resurrection. The third Person is distinct for the Spirit is the promise of the Father given at Pentecost as a sign of the birth of the Church and the eschatological down payment on all the promises of God. As the fount of deity, the sender of the Logos, and the promisor of the Spirit, the first Person has an ontological and eschatological priority over the Logos and the Spirit in the New Testament. Yet, this inner-trinitarian subordination is without inferiority or denigration of the Logos and the Spirit. The "sent" Persons are "worshipped and glorified together with the Father" in the history of Christian worship, and their substantial deity with the first Person was officially recognized by the ancient catholic church. A community which worships God by means of this concept should also be characterized by ordered relationships in which there is subordination without inferiority. A distinctive of Christian community should be the transvaluation of "greatness." Within trinitarian forms of life, greatness is defined not by power over others but by service to the community and to all God's creatures. The "greatness" of the Logos was incarnate in Jesus' obedience to the Father for the sake of the "many" he came to ransom. The Spirit intercedes for us in our weakness. In their suffering service to the people of God, the Logos and the Spirit are not lesser than divine, but actually exhibit what true greatness and deity mean: self-giving love for the sake of the other.
Subordination without inferiority as a form of life seems dubious to many today as we continue to learn from feminist colleagues. For is this not a traditional form of patriarchy where Christian communities are ordered around father-figures, e.g., the pope, bishops, priests, ministers, elders, husbands, etc.? The historical and contemporary evidence that father-figures abuse their authority in this scheme calls us to doubt its relevance to our situation.
There are several responses to the feminist critique open to neo-trinitarians. Isn't some form of ordered relationships inevitable in any social institution, including the most progressive? Even a feminist political organization has to have someone who leads and organizes and someone who follows. Even in a marriage or partnership of equals, when two members disagree, someone has to consent to follow the will of the other, or submit their wills to the counsel of another outside the relationship. Even in the church where I worship and the college where I teach, women are practicing and reshaping the traditional offices of minister and president in what I experience as a benevolent hierarchy for the good of the whole community. The critical issue here is not whether we shall have hierarchies, but whether they shall be fulfilled by patterns of service or domination.
The difference that trinitarian doctrine makes here is in liberating us to imagine forms of subordination undertaken in free obedience as missions of service. To be great, to be like the divine, is to be a sent one, a servant, not a Lord or father-figure in the abusive or patriarchal sense.
(3) Community as the form of freedom: trinitarian forms of life are characterized by the shared conviction that one is only free to "find" and "be" oneself in the community God creates, in both its diachronic and synchronic dimensions. Individual liberty without community is solipsistic solitude. The conviction that God is preveniently herself in the community of divine Persons, and that God is the One most free to be for others as triune, means that community is not inherently the enemy of personal integrity. In the name of "the solitary individual," some secular libertarians have criticized tradition and socialization as if personal integrity were achieved to the degree that one liberated oneself from one's inherited community and its formative influence on one's identity. Within trinitarian forms of life such an account of human identity and freedom is alien. Trinitarian freedom is not freedom from others but freedom to be oneself for the sake of others, because others need the unique gifts, talents, and character that an individual brings into each situation she encounters. Trinitarian freedom is characterized by the kind of maturity which can be itself in the encounter with the other because Christians know that in becoming one of us, God did not become like us in our duplicity and fear of the other. Communities are perfected by members who care enough for the community to practice its best virtues even when they must swim against the stream of other members who have forgotten why the community exists at all. In the freedom of triune community, Christ was free to come "to his own home, and his own people received him not." Nevertheless, Christ died for both Jew and Gentile in order to create one new people of God. The tension between community and prophetic critique in the face of the failure of Christian communities to become what they already are in Christ is preserved in a model of trinitarian freedom.
(4) Concerning the peace of God, trinitarian forms of life aim at approximating the peaceful fellowship of the divine Persons in the midst of a violent world. What does it mean for Christians to confess that within the fellowship of the divine Persons, God is at peace, and has shared the divine peace with the world through the community Jesus creates in the power of the Spirit?
In part it means the creation of a community of persons that are free to pursue with passion the possible alternatives to the endless cycle of human aggression and retaliation. Catherine LaCugna writes that trinitarian freedom...
The image comes to mind of former President Carter negotiating beyond the last minute to avoid violence between Haitian and American military personnel this fall.
Does this mean that I have deduced absolute pacifism from trinitarian doctrine? No, for to paraphrase Hauerwas again, the community of disciples is called upon to be like the Trinity, not to be the Trinity. Here I find McClendon's interpretation of Bonhoeffer's decision to join the plot against the life of Hitler instructive. Bonhoeffer's decision was tragic and a part of the tragedy of German Christianity, "No structures, no practices, no skills of political life existed that were capable of resisting, christianly speaking, the totalitarianism of the times." There are tragic situations where the possibility of Christian nonviolent resistance to evil can only be approximated, but not realized.
Or, to summarize one of Paul Ramsey's arguments, Christians who appeal to the justified war tradition are not appealing to a set of criteria that merely underwrite every war their governments may ever want to wage, as if Christian citizens give government a blank check. Rather, Christians are concerned to make the criteria of just war ethically meaningful and persuasive to human government so that when it goes to war the reasons will be compelling and the use of lethal force limited to only what it takes to re-establish a rough but imperfect justice in a violent world where we find God active but not yet the fullness of the rule of God. A Christian passion for the peace of God must also reckon with the tragedy of Bonhoeffer's decision, justified war, the threat and use of lethal force by human government, and continued ecumenical disagreement over whether Christians are ever justified in the use of lethal force. Ramsey recognizes that different understandings of Christ in the church, which are as old as the fact that we have four gospels rather than one in the New Testament, lead to different Christian responses to war and peace. From the perspective of trinitarian forms of life, the peace of God weights the Christian response toward a passion for possible alternatives to violence and away from easy accommodation to the military adventures of nation-states.
I will briefly mention four other trinitarian forms of life without elaborating and conclude:
(5) The ecstatic Persons: to be a person means to exist outside oneself in relationship to others in ways that overcome alienation and resentment without coercion.
(6) The creative Persons: to be a person means to be created by God through the Logos in the Spirit, and therefore "personhood" is not limited to human creatures but extends throughout creation.
(7) The cruciform life: to be a person means to overcome evil by self-giving and suffering love that is stronger than death.
(8) Unity without assimilation: to live in unity as God is one is neither monistic nor conformist but a unity that incorporates difference without destroying the distinctiveness of persons.
In conclusion, there is a practical test of trinitarian truth-claims. To the degree that Christians embody trinitarian forms of life in the world over time, there is evidence that worshipping God as Trinity makes a practical difference in the formation of communities and persons. This practical difference provides a reason for inquiring into the truth of trinitarian claims about God and testing them further by means of both internal and external critiques (e.g., whether God reveals God in se, feminist theology, Jewish witness, Islamic witness, and historical-criticism of Scripture and the history of doctrine).