The Trinity and Christian Life


What kind of sermon should be preached in our churches on Trinity Sunday? Fergus Kerr, prior of Blackfriars, Edinburgh and former president of the Catholic Theological Association of Great Britain, gives us some ideas as to how we might answer that question by reviewing the way the Trinity has been understood in the tradition and by looking at some recent literature on the subject.

Time and again in modern theology, at least in the west, theologians have striven to bring the doctrine of the Trinity back into connection with Christian life and worship. Professional theologians periodically voice their fears that more ordinary Christians have little or no sense of the specifically Christian doctrine of God.

Sermons on Trinity Sunday, for example, in the average parish church, often set out from the assumption that the congregation (and indeed the preacher) need to be reminded that the historically distinctive Christian doctrine of God as three persons in one nature is not some arbitrary speculative exercise in celestial metaphysics, intelligible only to the better class of seminary professors, but something of indispensable and vital relevance to the ordinary believer. Much sweat is generated in the presbytery study (or office, as it is more likely to be nowadays, if not the lounge) the day before the annual call to preach something intelligible to the simple faithful about the central doctrine of the Christian faith.

Karl Barth, the greatest Protestant theologian of our century, in the first volume of his Church Dogmatics (1936), inveighed against the theological tradition which starts by considering God 'in the abstract' rather that with the historically specific Christian experience of God as Trinity.

Twenty years later, Vladimir Lossky, in his Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (1957), argued (from his Russian Orthodox perspective) to much the same effect. In expounding the dogma of the Trinity, western theologians, both Reformed and Catholic, traditionally begin with the one divine nature and then pass on to consider the three divine persons, and in doing so, Lossky claimed, they implicitly (if of course unintentionally) encourage a form of modalism - the heresy that the distinctions within the Godhead should be regarded as supplementary and transitory. In effect, there would be only one person in God, self-manifested in three modes.

Karl Rahner, in a famous essay first published in 19960 (see Theological Investigations volume 4), asserted that, whatever they might say, most Catholics were indeed modalist in practice. God became man in Jesus Christ, with the help of the Holy Spirit, but, for most of us, 'the Christian idea of the Incarnation would not have to change at all, if there were no Trinity'. Our devotional literature would have the same effect, so Rahner claimed, if references to the Blessed Trinity were erased. At the level of seminary teaching, so he thought, the treatise de Trinitate remained rather isolated from all the other supposedly more practical and relevant topics in theology, such as the sacraments, morals, the spiritual life, and so on.

Blame Clergy training

Basically, according to Rahner and many other Catholic theologians in his wake, the eclipse of a properly Trinitarian faith in the average Catholic's experience must be blamed on the education of the clergy. At least for the last hundred years, with the disjunction between the lecture courses de Deo uno and de Deo trino (so the story goes), the average student has come away with the impression that the doctrine of the Trinity is an appendage to the metaphysical account of the divine nature. Given the perceived threat of scepticism and atheism in our intellectual environment, perhaps most of the energy understandably went into securing the foundations of belief in God in the first place, leaving the specifically Christian complications to the last few weeks of the academic year. If you could believe in the existence of God at all, so to speak, the Trinitarian extras would hardly raise a ripple.

There may well be something in this story. In addition, theology courses were usually (as they still are) organized on a cyclical pattern. Moving from one Dominican study-house to another, as I did in 1962, from Oxford to Paris, meant that I ever hear any lectures on the Trinity at all - or on the sacrament of marriage, as it happens. Such were the contingencies of the rigorous theological formation one received in pre-Vatican II days. (Perhaps I should be thankful for these lacunae in my education).

Radical consequences

Thirty years on, the complaint is still to be heard. In God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (Harper Collins, 1991), the latest major essay by a Catholic, Catherine Mowry LaCugna, who teaches at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, insists once again that the doctrine of the Trinity is not about 'the abstract nature of God,' nor about 'God in isolation from everything other than God', but about 'God's life with us and our life with each other'. Her starting-point, then, is once again that the doctrine of God as Trinity plays little or no significant part in our lives. Far from being esoteric theorizing about God's inner life with no bearing on anybody's existence here and now, 'the doctrine of the Trinity is ultimately a practical doctrine with radical consequences for Christian life'. Instead of being 'presumptuous prying into something about which we know nothing', as some might fear, the doctrine of the Trinity is the result of reflecting on 'what it means to participate in the life of God through Jesus Christ in the Spirit'.

Unitarian or Trinitarian?

But Professor LaCugna too, like so many of her predecessors in academic theology, obviously takes it for granted that the doctrine of God as Trinity has little or no reality in the average believer's life. The average Catholic, or all our repetition of our Trinitarian creed, might as well be 'unitarian', except that, for the most part, we have some belief in the divinity of Christ.

Are things really as bad as all that? Has the doctrine of the Trinity been so disastrously neglected in the ordinary believer's experience?

It is of course true that some recent Anglican theologians, such as Maurice Wiles (Working Papers, 1976) and Geoffrey Lampe (God as Spirit, 1977), have maintained that the doctrine of the Trinity is neither scriptural nor intelligible. Far from regretting the absence of properly Trinitarian faith in the average believer's life, such theologians would then favour our abandoning the dogma altogether. Even the most crypto-unitarian Catholic, once his or her secret proclivities were laid bare, would hesitate to take up that option. (It is not likely to find much sympathy among Anglican laity either, for that matter.)

'God has not being apart from communion'

Some scholars such as David Brown (The Divine Trinity, 1985) and Colin Gunton (The Promise of Trinitarian Theology , 1991) argue that everything went wrong in western Christianity with Augustine's De Trinitate (completed in the 420's). It is of course quite common, even among Catholic theologians nowadays, to lay the blame on St Augustine for everything that has gone wrong in western civilization. The claim, in this instance, is that the rectification of our doctrine of God as Trinity depends on our returning to the Cappadocian Fathers, who will teach us, to quote John Zizioulas (Being as Communion, 1985), that God has no being apart from communion.

The reality of the Godhead, so to speak, is intrinsically relational - or, as Basil of Caesarea put it, God is 'a kind of continuous and indivisible koinonia, (Letter 38, Migne, PG 32, 332a). Indeed, as Zizioulas points out, it looks as if Basil and his younger brother Gregory of Nyssa (who may have been the author rather than the recipient of this particular letter) were perfectly well aware of how radical the conceptual (and theological) innovation was that they were making - 'a new and paradoxical (conception of) united differentiation and differentiated unity' (333a).

Such language (from the 360s) is so audacious that the phrase deserves to be quoted in the original Greek (it is in the accusative case in the text): kainen Kai paradoxon diakrisin te sunemmenen kai diakekrimenen sunapheian. Remote as it obviously is from the letter of the New Testament, and somewhat breath-taking (not to say jaw-breaking) in verbal concision, this paradoxical innovation certainly strives to secure and protect a much more sophisticated understanding of the divine mystery than one finds in a great deal of Christian theology since the eighteenth-century Enlight

enment, which is often little more than deism with a splash of supernatural dressing.

The aloof and isolated deity, whose being is also often alleged to be 'static', and by whom many modern atheists seem to be persistently haunted, bears no resemblance to the God whose very being is intrinsically communion, as the fourth-century Cappadocian jargon seeks to express it.

Obscuring God

According to Professor LaCugna, however, the Cappadocian settlement of the fourth-century Trinitarian controversies, far from being the golden age to which Zizioulas and Gunton would send us back, is precisely the source of all the trouble. In her view, great as their intellectual achievement no doubt was, they (unintentionally of course) inaugurated the long process of obscuring the Christian God from the average believer.

The doctrine of God as Trinity shifted (she says) from reflective experience of God's ongoing transformation of humanity, through Christ and in the Holy Spirit, towards conceptual analysis of the intro-Trinitarian 'space' in which the divine 'persons' dwell in majestic seclusion, relating exclusively to one another. The God whose gracious salvific dealings with us are intrinsically and manifestly Trinitarian - all humanity being drawn through Christ to God in the Holy Spirit - becomes the God about whose self-sufficient inner life we feel compelled to speculate, at least if we are to retain our theological self-respect. God for us gets separated from the Godhead in itself, which would be the Trinity. The latter becomes the focus of the theologians and as a consequence the ordinary believer is increasingly bereft of real participation in the divine trinitarian communion as historically offered in the 'economy' of salvation.

The Nicene wedge

So the story goes, anyway. From the beginning, in its first definitive formulation in the fourth century, so Professor LaCugna maintains, mainstream doctrine of the Trinity tended to divert intellectual energy to the explication of the internal relations within the triune Godhead. Prior to the Council of Nicaea (which took place in 325), so she says, nobody imagined that there could be any knowledge of God himself apart from knowledge of the self-communication of God in the economy of salvation. In pre-Nicene Christian communities the faithful worshipped God the Father as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ and in the activity of the Holy Spirit without any suspicion that this God might not be simply and absolutely God. In the tranquility of their faith they took it for granted that the God into whose life they has been graciously drawn was indeed God. But at Nicaea, the introduction of the concept of homoousion ('of one substance', consubstantial) to safeguard faith in the equality in ousia (substance) of the Father and the Son, and thus to secure the divinity of Christ, drove a wedge between the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity by thus shifting all the emphasis to the internal relations within the Godhead.

The concept which defeated the 'Arian' heresy would thus inadvertently have generated the quasi unitarianism from which the average Catholic has suffered all these centuries. The Nicene language to express the equality of the relations of the Father and the Son within the Godhead, while it secured Catholic faith in the divinity of Christ, was also eventually to deprive the ordinary believer of any real sense of sharing the divine life - exactly what Catholicism is supposed to be all about. Such would be the irony of theological development.

Of course there must be something in LaCugna's story. No doubt seminary courses on the doctrine of the Trinity have often created the impression that understanding the triple self-differentiation within the divine mystery is all that really matters, especially for examination purposes. The failure of systematic theologians to do their New Testament homework, as well as the reluctance of New Testament scholars to 'speculate' beyond their texts, and the lack of communication between practitioners of the two disciplines, have certainly helped to entrench the gulf in seminary theology between 'God pro nobis' and 'God in se', God for us and God in himself.

Drawn into God

On a much wider canvas, it may well be true that, down the centuries, the greatest theological minds (being philosophers rather than historians) have felt more challenged by questions about God in se, with the result that most of the intellectual energy and ingenuity have gone into developing appropriate concepts to discuss the immanent Trinity. Questions about God pro nobis have often been reduced to questions in Christology. This might also explain why discussion of the Holy Spirit often seemed belated and rather awkward.

Then again, if we may say that, properly understood, the historical dispensation of grace is simply the beginning of a process of drawing created persons such as we are into the eternally existing communion of love which the divine Persons have for one another, then no doubt many Christians, and Catholics among them, have never fully appreciated their status and destiny. Solus Deus deificat, St Thomas Aquinas says in his treatise de Gratia (Summa Theologiae I-II. 112, 1) - 'by communicating a share in his divine nature by assimilative participation' - unusually 'rich' language for the laconic Aquinas, alluding of course to II Peter 1:4 and no doubt rediscovering in his own way something of the Greek-patristic theology of the life of grace as 'divinization'. Far too often, no doubt now as in the past, Christianity has been presented as obedience to divine law rather than communion in divine life. But, impoverishing and lamentable as this is, can it really be equated with a neglect of the doctrine of the Trinity as such? Is it not rather just a failure to preach the fulness of the Gospel? - an understandable (if inexcusable) failure too, one may say: after all, who among us, as we come to preach and proclaim our faith, often has the courage to say that 'we are God's children now' (I John 3:1-2)?

One-sided teaching

But then again, when one is invited to go back to some golden age, whether to the Cappadocian Fathers with Zizioulas and Gunton, or to these pre-Nicene Christian communities in whose life and worship LaCugna finds no tension between 'God for us' and 'God in se', does one not begin to suspect (even as a philosopher) that history is being romanticized? Indeed, may it not be that the history of the doctrine of the Trinity, as all our theologians have perceived it, has very little to do with the experience of the ordinary believer? By and large, if the theologians are right, the doctrine of the Trinity has been conceptualized and communicated down through the centuries with such a one-sided emphasis on the inner mystery of the Godhead that the average Christian has lost all sense of the economy of salvation as introducing us into communion with God as Trinity. Is this really true?

One of the problems in this history of philosophy is that, if certain questions never occur to us at all, we have a perfectly satisfactory understanding of what is going on - but once the questions arise we rapidly lost touch with reality in clouds of increasingly sophisticated answers. As St Augustine famously noted, so long as nobody wanted him to say what time was he knew perfectly well what it was - the trouble started when the question arose. A great deal of theology seems to have arisen simply because a response of some kind had to be given to questions which it might have been best never to raise. But, as St Augustine also said, 'Woe to those who say nothing when those who have nothing to say keep chattering on'. It is often necessary to say something - so long as it is not taken to mean more than it says.

Imprisoned divinity

In Karl Rahner's essay on the neglect of the Trinity, interestingly enough, he begins by allowing that there have been some theologians and spiritual writers (such as Bernadot, Garrigou-Lagrange and Marmion) who have linked Christian piety explicitly with the doctrine of the Trinity. He also notes, in the history of Catholic devotional literature in modern times, including Ruysbroeck, Ignatian spirituality, St John of the Cross and St Elizabeth of Dijon among others, that, 'in spite of a mystical cult of the supremely one, undifferentiated and nameless God', there has been all along 'a true mysticism of the Trinity'. (It is not clear what Catholics have allegedly gone in for this cult of the One.) And then he goes on to say (as we have seen) that the average Catholic has no sense of being in communion with God as Trinity. As Professor LaCugna would say, for most of us the divine Persons are 'imprisoned in an intradivine realm'.

But is all this really the cast? Of course, now that the charge has been made, we should examine it seriously. There are reasons for thinking that recent seminary theology inclined the clergy to equate the doctrine of the Trinity with the doctrine of the immanent Trinity alone. It may well be that, as we survey the whole history of the development of the doctrine, the emphasis has always been on the question of God in se.

Christian Catholics?

But have these emphases, these perhaps unduly accentuated matters (if understandably so), really unbalanced the average Catholic's spiritual life so dramatically that we have to speak of 'unitarianism'? Is the elderly lady with her rosary at the back of the church really a crypto-modalist? Is it really credible that the equilibrium can be so disturbed in the ordinary worshipper's life - meaning by that the person who acknowledges Jesus as Lord, believing that Jesus is both human and divine, and knowing that it is possible to believe all this only because one has received the Holy Spirit? Can the Catholic who goes to Mass every Sunday and has done so for years really be untouched by the doctrine of the Trinity - whatever sermons there may or may not have been?

No doubt, under doctrinal interrogation, the ordinary Catholic will betray signs of a tendency towards incipient tritheism or (once alerted to the error of that) towards residual Sabellian neo-modalism - from which, at the slightest pressure, he or she will gladly recoil. In the end, even the soundest theologian or the most orthodox bishop will have to settle for the truth that may be held only by denying the alternative heresies.

Where we finish is where we have to start, and is that not with the fact that we have seen something about the figure in the gospels which we could not see but for the gift of the Holy Spirit in our hearts? And what we see, when we look at him, is not him but the One who sent him? We shall soon get confused if we ask whether Jesus is 'really' God, or it the Holy Spirit is 'equal' to God, and such like. If we cannot refrain from such questions, then there are answers available. But we need not suppose that these answers are the staple of our faith or even of much interest if the questions have never gripped us. If we are at home in the practices and beliefs of the Catholic Church it is hard to see that our Christian life could fail to be marked by the doctrine of God as Trinity - as the communion of divine Persons into whose love we are all invited.

The best place to begin meditation on the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity is the ordinary Christian life of the average Catholic.

The Revd Fr Fergus Kerr OP is a member of the English Province of the Dominicans, and editor of New Blackfriars.

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