In previous posts in this series, we have seen that the Trinity matters a lot because it is who God is, and we have then seen that although we can’t know everything about any aspect of God, the Bible does give us “models” to help us think about Him. Last time, we took a look at one of these analogies – the psychological analogy.
The psychological analogy has been immensely influential in Western Christianity (i.e. Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, but not Eastern Orthodoxy), but has become more criticised over the past century. There are a few reasons given for this – e.g. it’s too abstract and useless for the Christian life; it overemphasises the one against the three; it was influenced by fourth-century secular philosophy; it has limited biblical backing.
What has become more popular over the last century is the social analogy. This is not completely new (for example, it’s similar to a theory put forward by Richard of St Victor in the twelfth century, and Social Trinitarian scholars argue that it was supported by the Cappadoian Fathers in the fourth century). However, it has certainly been much rarer before the past century.
Social Trinitarians argue that Augustine was right that there is something like the Trinity in human beings. However, it isn’t different parts of our mind. Instead, they suggest that the thing that is most like the Trinity in us is our capacity to form loving relationships. Just as the Father and Son love each other, so human beings are able to love each other.
We know from our own experience that when we have a warm relationship (whether romantic or friendship), there develops a kind of unity between the two people taking part. Well, say Social Trinitarians, that loving relationship reflects the Trinity. They point to Bible texts like John 17:22, where Jesus prays for Christians to be united – so “that they may be one even as we [God the Father and God the Son] are one.”
This could sound a lot like tritheism – the belief that the three persons are different gods, and therefore that monotheism is wrong. If it was, it wouldn’t be Trinity at all, but mere heresy. However, Social Trinitarians have various ways of responding to this.
These responses revolve around the idea that the relationships within God are deeper than ours. For a start, they might point out that God is infinitely greater than us. That means God’s relationships are infinitely greater than ours. That must mean that when God relates to God, the unity is infinitely greater than when we relate.
On the other hand, they might point out that the names of the person’s are relational – it’s “God the Father” and “God the Son” – neither name would make any sense without the other one. You can’t have a father without a son, or vice versa. So, therefore, people argue that the persons are so dependent upon each other that they can’t be separated from each other. Without the Father, there would be no Son. That’s a very deep unity.
Alternatively, social Trinitarians point to language of perichoresis, or “mutual indwelling.” The Bible talks about the Father and the Son being “in” one another – e.g. in John 17:21, Jesus says to the Father: “you, Father, are in me, and I in you”. Social Trinitarians often point to this language as being a way of talking about the persons having a union that is like our relationships, but also deeper.
In the next post, I’ll offer my own reflections on these two models (social and psychological).