God as Trinity

*Note:  This is adapted from a short paper I wrote last year for my Doctrine of God class*

One of the biggest insights I had about God this week was that the Trinity aspect of God actually makes God more, not less, knowable.  Learning about the Trinity growing up, I never understood it to have much real significance as to God’s character.  It was, more or less, just a complicated explanation for how Jesus was God.  The more I tried to understand it, the more confused I became.  Learning all the Greek and Latin words used to explain the Trinity in church history class made it even more impossible to understand.  Because of all this confusion, the fact that God is Triune has never been at the core of my faith.  Therefore, reading Elizabeth Johnson’s chapter on Trinity opened my eyes to a whole new vision of God in which the Trinity is the very core of God’s being.

Johnson emphasizes the fact that the notion of Trinity should not be detached from Christians’ actual experience of God.  Too often, it has become rooted in abstraction and turned into nothing but discussion fodder for the highly educated.[1]  In contrast to this version of the Trinity, Johnson describes the rich experience of God that original Trinitarian formulations meant to convey:  “The experience of salvation coming from God through Jesus in the power of the Spirit sets up such a powerful encounter with the Holy that it requires a new language.”[2]  The Trinity was not meant to be confusing; it was meant to give meaning to the way people experienced God.  The early Christians experienced God as beyond them (transcendent), with them (in the person of Jesus), and within them (in the Holy Spirit).  This threefold experience required a new way of speaking about God.[3]  God is too multifaceted to be just one, but all three of these types of experiences are so closely linked that they all reflect the same God.

Reading Johnson’s description of the Trinity as three different “inflections” of the one God helped me to see what makes the three aforementioned experiences distinct from one another.  The first person of the Trinity is the part that is beyond us—the part of God that maintains God’s otherness and transcendence.[4]  In Tillich’s words, this is “that which makes God God”:  God’s majesty and status as “ground of being.”[5]  The incomprehensibility of the Hebrew Divine Name is an illustration of that divine otherness.[6]  The second person of the Trinity is the now-approachable revelation of that same God, made human so that we can know God with us, in person.[7]  The third person of the Trinity is that which moves within us to draw our attention to the God who is already beyond and with us.[8]  It is the all-encompassing actualization of the other two persons of the Trinity, helping us to know the three-in-one.[9]  This formulation of Trinity as three ways that the same God expresses Godself to humanity makes a lot of sense to me.  It gives an explanation for why the three are different that is not modalist (because the functions are the same, the manifestations are just different) and not simply ontological (i.e. one is Father because the other is the begotten Son).  The Trinity as an explanation of our experiences of God was, to me, a major revelation.

Because this formulation does not rely on modalism or ontology, it has no need to place any one person at the head of the Trinity.  The three persons can all be equal and in mutual relationship with one another.  This is where the Trinity becomes a more practical theology:  it shows that at the core, God is mutual relationship.  In other words, God truly is love, after all.  We, as Christians, are called to be like God— to be loving and in mutual relationships.  Johnson describes this beautifully:  “Called to be a sacrament of the world’s salvation, the church is to be a living symbol of divine communion turned toward the world in inclusive and compassionate love.  Only a community of equal persons related in profound mutuality, pouring out praise of God and care for the world in need, only such a church corresponds to the triune God it purports to serve.”[10]

God’s very self is rooted in mutuality, in self-giving love.  Christ embodied that self-giving love in physical form through his suffering and death.  I now think of Christ’s death as a concrete representation of the very essence of God’s character, rather than seeing it solely as a sacrifice for our sins.  Because Christ, the second person of the Trinity, is the one who makes God knowable to us, it only makes sense that the most obvious example of God’s self-giving love would be in Christ.  This understanding of the Trinity gives new meaning not only to God-as-a-whole being Triune, but also to who Jesus is and how he fits in.  To me, it really drives home the idea that our calling as Christians is to minister in self-giving love.  Now that I see just how essential self-giving love is to who God is, it has become all the more fundamental to my own calling.

[1] Elizabeth Johnson, Quest for the Living God:  Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (New York:  Continuum Books), 207.

[2] Johnson, 202.

[3] Johnson, 203.

[4] Johnson, 216-17.

[5] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1973), 250.

[6] Johnson, 216.

[7] Johnson, 218.

[8] Johnson, 218-19.

[9] Tillich, 249-50.

[10] Johnson, 223.

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About carissalick

United Methodist deacon, ESL teacher, wife, learner, mom
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One Response to God as Trinity

  1. Barb says:

    A little heavy to digest on a Friday evening, but I get the main point, and I like it!

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