Trinity 4: The Social Analogy

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).

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Trinity 3: The Psychological Analogy

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.

What models can we use to think about the Trinity?  There are two that people in church history have found particularly useful – the psychological analogy, and the social analogy.  I’ll look at the psychological analogy in this post, and the social analogy in the next one.

The psychological analogy dates back to Augustine of Hippo, who was the most influential theologian of all time.  He wrote one of the most influential books on the Trinity – De Trinitate – which was published in around 417 AD.

Augustine reasoned that because human beings are made in the image of God, we should expect to see something that reflects the Trinity in us.  His argument is detailed and long, but it is based around the idea of what we do when we love ourselves.  If I love myself, I have to have an idea of myself in my head to love – that means a second me in my head.  The eighteenth century theologian Jonathan Edwards explained it like this:

If a man could have an absolutely perfect idea of all that passed in his mind, all the series of ideas and exercises in every respect perfect as to order, degree, circumstance and for any particular space of time past, suppose the last hour, he would really to all intents and purpose be over again what he was that last hour. And if it were possible for a man by reflection perfectly to contemplate all that is in his own mind in an hour, as it is and at the same time that it is there in its first and direct existence; if a man, that is, had a perfect reflex or contemplative idea of every thought at the same moment or moments that that thought was and of every exercise at and during the same time that that exercise was, and so through a whole hour, a man would really be two during that time, he would be indeed double, he would be twice at once. The idea he has of himself would be himself again.

Augustine said that the relationship between God the Father and God the Son is a bit like this.  God loves himself, and therefore has to have an idea of himself to love – but that means there are two “things”, or rather persons, involved.  The lover, and the beloved.  Or, rather, the Father, and the Son.

How does the Holy Spirit fit in?  For Augustine, he is the love that there is between the Father and the Son.  (Many people see the Holy Spirit as the biggest weakness in Augustine’s scheme.)

Because of this theory, Augustine is able to say that different parts of human minds reflect the different persons of the Trinity.  The Son is God’s self-understanding – He is reflected in our capacity for understanding.  The Spirit is God’s love – he is reflected in our will, with which we should decide to love.  The Father is reflected in our memory.

There is certainly some biblical basis for parts of this theory.  The Father and the Son definitely love each other in the Bible.  And there’s some basis for the idea of the Son being like God’s understanding – the Bible refers to him as God’s wisdom, for example.  But it would be much harder to argue that one can get the whole scheme from scripture.

In the next post I will take a look at the other main analogy – the social analogy.

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Trinity 2: What Can We Know?

One of the big questions about the Trinity is about how much it is possible for us to even understand it.  Isn’t it more reverent to say there are things about God we just can’t understand?

Well, if we are to say we love and believe in God, we can’t go around saying that we don’t know the most basic things about him.  Saying you love God would be like saying you love gdghdfhgdfhfdg – the word “God” would be meaningless.  And there are few facts more basic about anyone than how many there are – if someone said they loved John (i.e. my name), but by John they meant five people, they wouldn’t love me.  So we must be able to understand something of the Trinity.

On the other hand, if there’s one thing that we can safely say about God, it is that He is bigger than our comprehension.  And the Trinity is about God – and a particularly hard thing about God to get our heads around.  The Trinity therefore cannot be understood.

So we must be able to understand God – but we also can’t understand God.  What can we say about this?

Well, people who study quantum physics have a similar problem.  They are dealing with ideas that are, like God, like the Trinity, beyond our experience.  Things that work in a very different way to the way we naturally think.

To get around this problem, they use different “models” to conceptualise the ideas.  In other words, they have pictures in their heads that help them imagine what is going on.  So, for example, if they’re talking about the different parts of an atom, they think of it in terms of different balls moving around.  They then modify this image in their head according to what the equations say.

And it’s similar with God.  We can’t fully understand everything about God.  But the Bible gives us images that can help us grasp part of the truth.  We can then use and modify these images to get a clearer idea.  That doesn’t mean we will ever have a full understanding – but we will be able to say something that isn’t just meaningless verbage.

The theologian J.I. Packer has developed this thought in the first half of his magnificent The Logic of Penal Substitution, writing:

All theological models, like the non-descriptive models of the physical sciences, have an analogical character; they are, we might say, analogies with a purpose, thought-patterns which function in a particular way, teaching us to focus one area of reality (relationships with God) by conceiving of it in terms of another, better known area of reality (relationships with each other). Thus they actually inform us about our relationship with God and through the Holy Spirit enable us to unify, clarify and intensify our experience in that relationship.

He goes on to point out that models are not universally good; you can have bad models.  The function of theology is to develop the most biblical possible models.

Their characteristic theological method, whether practised clumsily or skilfully, consistently or inconsistently, has been [for theologians] to take biblical models as their God-given starting-point, to base their belief-system on what biblical writers use these models to say, and to let these models operate as ‘controls’, both suggesting and delimiting what further, secondary models may be developed in order to explicate these which are primary.

In the next couple of posts, we’ll look at the two main models that theologians have use to talk about the Trinity.

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Is God an Egomaniac?

Step into virtually any church service in the world and, although you might not notice it, within five minutes you will be faced with a profound mystery which I have been struggling with for all my adult life (and am currently writing an MA dissertation on).  This post will hopefully bring the beginnings of my enlightenment…

In every church service, Christians will sing a lot about the depth of God’s love for us.  They will  speak about how he is a God of such self-giving love that he died for us in the person of Jesus.  This is a fundamental Christian belief which exists throughout Christian history and infuses every page of the Bible.

However, every church service will also express the fact that God is a God who seeks his own glory.  This may or may not be explicitly mentioned, but it will be implicit in the very fact that your church service is devoted to worshipping God.  Again, God seeking his own glory is a truth which is expressed throughout the Bible, and has been recognised by every generation of Christians.

However, these two things seem to be fairly contradictory.  We don’t like people who seek their own glory – we call them egomaniacs, narcissists, insecure…

It seems to stand in contrast to what we do like – love – which is other-centred, a thoroughly self-giving attribute.  Love seems to be the opposite of self-centred glory-seeking.

Some people go even further, and say that love is just a manifestation of God’s glory-seeking.  When God loves us by doing good things for us, his ultimate motivation is to get his own glory – he loves us in order to get something else.  One thing that can be said for this approach is that it resolves the tension between God’s love and his glory-seeking.

However, wanting someone for something else isn’t anything we would normally recognise as love – just as if I marry a woman for her money, we wouldn’t say I was marrying her out of love.  This approach is not only unattractive, it actually denies the biblical teaching about God’s love.

On the other hand, some people suggest that God desires to bring glory to himself because he loves us – he wants to show us himself because it will bring us joy to see his beauty and be in relationship with him.  This makes more sense, and is rather more attractive, but still seems to not be true – there are several passages which seem to contradict this (e.g. Ezekiel 36:22).

There is a lot to be said about this, and no doubt I’ll write more in the future.  But I think a key point is that the Trinity helps answer it.

Christians do not believe in a purely monotheistic God.  We believe in a God who is a community of three persons who love each other.  The persons of the Trinity don’t seek their own glory for their own sakes, but only out of love of one another.

If you love someone, you like it when people think highly of them, and don’t like it when they are disrespected.  I remember, for example, when my sister got into Cambridge going around and telling my friends how clever she was.  It seems to be a little bit like that in the Trinity.  They glorify each other, not out of egocentricity or in order to shore up some insecurity in themselves, but simply because they love each other.

When God acts for the sake of his own glory, it isn’t because He is self-centred – it is because They are centred on each other.  There’s no tension between love and glory, because glory-seeking is love.

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Trinity 1: Why Care About the Trinity?

Anyone who knows me at all well knows that I’m very interested in the doctrine of the Trinity.  So I want to begin this blog with a series of posts looking at the Trinity.

Often, when I tell Christians I want to do a PhD in the doctrine of the Trinity, they don’t know what to say.  They’re normally nice enough to say something positive about the idea – perhaps they suggest that I must be incredibly clever for being able to study it (I wish!), or they suggest that my studies might be helpful apologetically.  But, too often, I can see that behind what they say is a feeling of confusion that someone would bother studying the Trinity – a feeling that it is difficult and boring.  They don’t understand why I would care enough about it to spend so much time on it.

Given the state of Trinitarian teaching in churches, their response is predictable – but it is still sad, and it is still wrong.  In fact, the Trinity is phenomenally exciting – and incredibly useful.  (I’ll accept that it’s often difficult – but it’s a good difficult, not an impossible intellectual challenge.)

Why?  Well, because the Trinty is who God is.

People often assume that the Trinty is irrelevant.  But how could who God is ever be irrelevant?  People sometimes say it is boring – are they calling God boring?

On the contrary, I believe that the Trinity is one of the most exciting things that Christianity has to say.  When I first seriously studied it, it utterly smashed apart my view about God, only to rebuild it again in a much greater and more glorious way.  Over this series, I hope to show you just how wonderful a truth the Trinity is.

The Trinity is, at root, about God’s love.  Whatever perspective you take on it (and I’ll look at the two main ones – the “psychological” and “social” trinities – in this series), it involves the relationship between Father and Son (and Holy Spirit… but it’s not quite as clear how he fits in… we’ll probably come to that!)  The Father loves the Son, and the Son loves the Father.

Love isn’t something that you add on to God when he has the opportunity – he loves within his very being.  He loved before the world was created, and the love that exists within himself is the very love that is expressed in the creation of the world.  By studying the Trinity, we learn about the essence of God’s love.

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The Glory of God’s Backside

When I thought about what I should start this blog with, it didn’t take long for me to decide.  I wanted to start with the thing that lies at the heart of all true Christian thought. One of the deepest, widest and most profound things I’ve ever learned.  I wanted to start with God’s backside.

Throughout his life, the great protestant reformer Martin Luther kept being challenged to defend his ideas (as you’d expect if your theology had split the church in two and caused extreme social and political unrest throughout Europe).  On one of these occasions, he compiled a list of important theological points.  Two of the most important are these:

19. The man who looks upon the invisible things of God as they are perceived in created things does not deserve to be called a theologian.
20. The man who perceives the visible rearward parts of God as seen in suffering and the cross does, however, deserve to be called a theologian.

The phrase translated as “rearward parts of God” is, in the Latin, “posteriora Dei” -also translated as “God’s backside”.  (Translators normally aren’t very crude, but Luther certainly is.  If you’re interested in theology, Luther is a great person to read.  If you’re interested in toilets, he’s also worth a browse.)  Despite the outraegous langauge – perhaps because of it – “God’s backside” is an effective way for Luther to communicate the principle from which all truly Christian wisdom comes.

For Luther, the cross is God’s backside.  Luther advocates a “theology of the cross”, which is the opposite of a “theology of glory”.  A “theology of glory” is any attempt of human beings to reason our way up to God from created things.  Luther stands opposed to this.

That’s not that he thought thinking was wrong, only that we can’t work out what God is like just on our own, or by working it our from creation.  Naturally, what we do is find something(s) in our universe that we like or approve of, and blow it up and make it bigger.  But all we’ll create then is a god who reflects ourselves and our own desires, fears or flaws.  He will be a god who appears glorious to us, but only because we’ve put our ideas of glory into him.

How exactly this will work out might depend on your culture or your personality.  Some people generate massive tyrants – gods whose nature consists in being  glorious and knowing it, and so setting up the universe to serve their own galactic ego.  Others invent grandfather-like figures who are so loving and kind that they mollycoddle tyrants and take Hitler into heaven, no questions asked.  Other people invent all sorts of gods – I’m sure you can come up with your own examples.

But instead of inventing a god like this, we should instead let God to reveal himself to us.  And Christianity teaches that the way God chooses to reveal himself appears, to our natural preconceptions, to be about the most ridiculous way possible.  God revealed himself to us by becoming human.  A specific human, Jesus of Nazareth, of whom the central moment in life was crucifixion – one of the most humiliating and painful deaths that can be conceived.

Luther called this the “posteriora Dei” – God’s backside.  This is where we meet God.  We most truly see God when he is hidden in the cross – something which naturally appears to be truly ugly.  The “theology of the cross” is when we turn to the cross to understand God.

God’s glory is to be found not in making God like something we perceieve as glorious in human creation – a powerful king, or a beautiful sunset, for example.  Those things were created by God, and do reflect His glory, but when we try to work out for ourselves how, our mind is distorted by our sin and just leads us to create our own idol.

Instead, God reveals His glory in darkness and suffering and humiliation.  That’s not because darkness is good, but because it subverts everything we naturally think about God.  We think of him as a powerful king (with the things we associate with power and kingship) – the cross shows him choosing weakness in love.

The language of God’s backside might be shocking – but it reminds us of just how shocking the cross should be. The cross doesn’t show us God as we would guess he is.  It shows us a God who surprises us – who may at first appear disgusting.  It is only through the cross disturbing our preconceptions that we can see God’s true beauty.

The most important test of any spirituality or theology – for the smartest professor of theology, and for the simplest saint in a pew – is whether they allow their view of God to be shaped by the cross, or whether they allow their view of the cross to be shaped by their natural preconceptions about God.

As Luther said – “The Cross Alone is Our Theology”.

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Let the blogging commence…

So, I’m going to start this blog properly tomorrow.  From then on, it will be alive.  There should be fairly frequent postings.

In order to prevent myself from starting a blog which I go off for a few weeks from time to time, I decided instead to write a ton of draft posts which  could be posted so that I regularly update.  I have 16 draft posts coming up from now, which I intend to release approximately twice a week – so one can say with confidence that this blog will be regularly updated for a minimum of two months.

Why, if this blog isn’t even properly started yet, am I posting to inform people of this?  Well, it’s because I want my first actual post to be about theology, and not spend half the time saying “so, I’m starting a blog, and here is how it will be run”.  However, I want this information to actually be on the site, so that people know that despite it appearing quite un-updated for the first period, this blog will actually be updated and it is worth checking back to see future posts!

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The Beauty of Christ

Over this summer, I am studying the glory and love of God.  (It’s a bit more focused than that, don’t worry – otherwise that would be a fairly big topic!)

One thing I’ve realised is that God’s ‘glory’ and ‘beauty’ are inseparable – in fact, God’s glory is his beauty, it’s a profoundly attractive quality which is the origin of everything that is beautiful in creation (from sunsets to love).  Everything in creation should be understood through divine glory – its significance only makes sense as a reflection of God’s beauty.  Furthermore, I’m convinced that we know beauty in the face of Christ – that true beauty is defined by the cross.

I’ve decided to start this blog to share my reflections on this.

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