Throughout my life, the Trinity has been taught as an abstract concept that claimed to explain how the one, true God could be three persons: Parent, Child, and Spirit. While God was said to exist as three persons, God’s unity was trumpeted over God’s diversity by emphasizing how the three persons were equal in position, singular in purpose, and alike in character. These persons were only differentiated by their functions: the Parent created the world, the Child redeemed the world, and Spirit indwelt God’s people to guarantee their salvation. However, these functions were taught without connection to a broader conception of God as Trinity. This separation meant that the doctrine of Trinity could only focus on explaining the nature of God’s being in Godself. This singular task virtually guaranteed that any teaching on Trinity would end in confusion or frustration because my context assumed that God’s nature was beyond human understanding. As a result, teaching on Trinity functioned only as a means to deepen worship and encourage further submission to God by inspiring a heightened sense of humility and awe.
My understanding of God as Trinity was transformed when I learned of the early church’s primary concern in their formulation of Trinitarian doctrine: the nature of their salvation in Jesus Christ.1 When this same soteriological concern became the foundation for my own understanding of Trinity, I was compelled to examine God’s saving actions within human history as the primary source for constructing a renewed Trinitarian doctrine. In stark contrast to the transcendent focus of my embedded Trinitarian doctrine, this new focus on salvation history created a profound connection between the life of the Trinity and my everyday experience in relation to God, myself, and others. In more concise theological terms, my understanding of Trinity made a dramatic shift from a static, inconsequential tradition to a dynamic, saving reality because oikonomia – “the self-communication of God in the person of Christ and the activity of the Holy Spirit”2 – became the foundation for my thinking on theologia – “God’s ‘inner’ life.”3Instead of “looking up” in attempts to perceive God as existing apart from my everyday reality, I was freed to “look around,” to “taste and see,”4how God has acted in the past, is acting in the present, and will continue to act in the future to bring about salvation for all creation.
This new foundation for my Trinitarian thought begins with God’s salvific work in the world. This work is accomplished by God entering the world on a mission of redemption and sanctification as the incarnate Child alongside the indwelling Spirit respectively.5 While the full nature of God is present in these missions, they reveal God’s multiplicity: the Child is God but not the same as the God who sends the Child and the Spirit is God but not the same as the God who sends the Spirit.6
This plurality of God, witnessed in oikonomia,necessitates a discussion of theologia because “theologia and oikonomia, the mystery of God and the mystery of salvation, are inseparable”7. What is said about God’s internal nature in light of God’s self-differentiated missions describes God as three persons – Parent, Child, and Spirit. The Trinitarian persons are not individuals – they are relations that cannot exist apart from their communion with one another8: the Parent is Parent by relation to the Child and Spirit, the Child is Child by relation to the Parent and Spirit, and the Spirit is Spirit in relation to Parent and Child. As persons, these three have freedom to be “other”; the Parent is not Child, and the Child is not Parent, and the Spirit is not Parent or Child.9However, this freedom must be for the other and never from the other because isolation violates personhood.10As a result, these Trinitarian persons are essentially ecstatic relations – existing on behalf of another and always moving out beyond themselves towards the other.11
These three ecstatic, free relations that define Trinity are also one God. The best explanation for how these three persons are one is captured in the idea known as perichoresis. This term, literally meaning “dancing around,”12evokes an image of Parent, Child, and Spirit bound together in an eternal dance of “encircling, encompassing, permeating, enveloping, [and] outstretching”13one another. This inter-Trinitarian reality of communion characterized by “relationships of equality, mutuality, and reciprocity”14cannot be contained in Godself: theologia fades into oikonomia as thePerichoresis proceeds as Parent, Child, and Spirit into creation in order that all may join in the dance.
God as ecstatic, perichoretic Trinity has serious implications for the broad sweep of middle class, North America to which I belong. At its core, this context is driven by rampant individualism. The individual – not the person – is of utmost importance. Entire political and economic systems are built upon this core principle. The freedoms of individual choice are enshrined and praised in our laws. Our markets inundate us with an overwhelming array of products to appease our every desire. In this context, the only rule is the individual’s freedom from the other. This rule requires that there be no explicit telosfor society; as long as the individual has the freedom to choose, the end result is irrelevant.
Into this mass conglomeration of lonely, anxious individuals, the Triune God cries out for community. Over against North Americans’ insistence on individual liberties, the life of the Trinity calls for the giving up of our rights for the sake of communion with others.15 In opposition to an over-consumption that fuels a false sense of independence and self-reliance, Trinity reminds us that we are persons, not just individuals, who “flourish in friendship at its deepest and most real…[and] depend upon courtesy, mutual commitment and love.”16
Markedly different from prevailing North American deontology, the doctrine of Trinity demands a rule of radical inclusion opposed to all ways of life that undermine, exclude, or dehumanize others.17Individual freedom cannot be allowed to keep others from equal participation as persons in all facets of life. For example, Delores Williams reminds us that a Trinitarian ideal challenges even the dominant symbolism of our culture because of its tendency to exalt one group and devalue another.18
Trinity also provides a stark contrast in teleology: all human endeavors should be judged based on their contribution to the construction of a human community characterized by “equitable and egalitarian political structures… and respect for difference and diversity among people and groups.”19 All societal systems – political, economic, cultural, and ecclesial – that tend to exalt individuals over community or force community onto individuals are called into question by this Trinitarian telos.
In conclusion, God as Trinity completely overthrows the North American idol of the individual and reveals a new ethic of life based in perichoresis: all are invited to the dance of friendship, interdependence, and shared joy as persons created in the image of a personal, communal God.
1 Catherine Mowry LaCugna, “The Practical Trinity,” Christian Century 109, no 22 (July 15-22 1992): 678.
2 Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity & Christian Life (San Francisco: Harper, 1973),2.
4 Ps. 34:8, New Revised Standard Version.
5 David S. Cunningham, “The Doctrine of the Trinity: A Thumbnail Sketch,” in Essentials of Christian Theology, ed. William C. Placher (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 87.
6 Ibid., 88.
7 LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity & Christian Life, 4.
8 John Zizioulas, “Communion and Otherness,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly38, no. 4 (1994): 358.
10 Zizioulas, 358.
11 Ibid., 359.
12 Loida I. Martell-Otero, “Doctrine of the Trinity.” Lecture, Systematic Theology and Ethics THLE 520, Palmer Theological Seminary, King of Prussia, PA, September 18, 2012.
13 LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity & Christian Life, 272.
14 Anne Hunt, What Are They Saying About the Trinity? (New York: Paulist Press, 1998), 11.
15 Zizioulas, 353.
16 Kenneth Wilson, Methodist Theology ( London: T&T Clark International, 2011),66.
17 Hunt, 25.
18 Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1993), 85.
19 Hunt, 12.