Participating in the Triune Persons: An Oikonomic Critique of Paul Fiddes and Subsistent Relations


What might it mean to participate with the Triune persons of Parent, Child and Spirit? Is there a way to define personhood that encourages this participation? A popular children’s church song came to mind as I explored these questions in the work of Oxford University professor and theologian Paul Fiddes: “Deep and wide, deep and wide. There’s a fountain flowing deep and wide.”[1] This song echoes the words of the Psalmist who sang about a God who was the “fountain of life” with “justice like the great deep” and steadfast love like wide wings of refuge.[2] As a child I was not aware of how these dynamic images of God suggest what Fiddes calls the personal “currents of love” which exist as Trinity. Fiddes develops a Trinitarian theology of personhood in response “to the demands of experience in pastoral care for others” and considers how “participation in this triune God affects both our images of God and our acts.”[3] He reimagines the being of Trinitarian persons in a way that avoids the “language of a spectator” in favor of a language which “only makes sense in terms of our involvement in the network of relationships in which God happens.”[4] However, Fiddes’ notion of divine persons is at serious risk of becoming disconnected from what Roman Catholic theologian Catherine Mowry LaCugna has rightly argued is the critical basis of Trinitarian theology: the oikonomia – the “economy of salvation” in which God self-communicates “in the person of Christ and the activity of the Holy Spirit.”[5] LaCugna offers an alternative conception of Trinitarian personhood in which human persons can participate that is based firmly in oikonomia.

I write as a Euro-American male whose way of imagining God has developed within the highly Westernized, Enlightenment-shaped theological tradition of the Southern Baptist, United Methodist, and, currently, the charismatic Vineyard churches. This paper symbolically represents a return to my theological roots as my understanding of Trinity and personhood continues to be reshaped on my journey of theological education. Therefore, I begin with a brief discussion of “person” within the Western theological tradition before presenting Fiddes’ pastoral doctrine of the Trinity with specific attention given to his conception of Trinitarian persons. I then look to LaCugna to provide an oikonomic warning to Fiddes in addition to a participatory theology of Trinitarian personhood drawn for the persons of Jesus Christ and Holy Spirit. I conclude with a praxeological application concerning the worship praxis at my local congregation and end with a brief credo stating my personal doctrine of Trinity.

Tracing Person in the West: Tertullian and Augustine

The term person was first used in a Trinitarian context in the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries by the African theologian Tertullian. In his polemical writing Against Praxeas, Tertullian defends the unity of God against the Monarchian heresy which claimed that “the Father [sic], the Son [sic], and the Holy Ghost are the very selfsame Person.”[6] Tertullian’s response defends the “mystery of the dispensation,” which he also calls the oikonomia, in which “this one only God has also a Son [sic]… who sent also from heaven from the Father [sic]… the Holy Ghost.”[7]  In order to be faithful to this oikonomia, “which distributes the Unity into a Trinity, placing in their order the three Persons,” Tertullian explains how the Parent, Child, and Spirit are three yet “not in condition, but in degree; not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in aspect; yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power.”[8] Without these distinctions of person, Tertullian argues that there would be no real unity in God but only “uniformity, sameness, and redundancy in the Godhead.”[9] He develops a series of analogies “drawn from dynamic operations” like a fountain flowing into a river and then to a stream “to link the persons through relationships of origin that do not separate them.”[10] For Tertullian, person was a term indicating the necessary relational distinction and substantial inseparability of God’s being in accordance with the personal revelation of Parent, Child, and Spirit as God in human history.

In the writing of St. Augustine two centuries after Tertullian, person acquired a more complex philosophical meaning as it was placed within the divine substance, or “the essential nature” of God’s reality.[11] Like Tertullian, Augustine was intent on defending “the Catholic faith that Father [sic], Son [sic], and Holy Spirit are of one substance.”[12] For Augustine, God the Parent, God the Child, and God the Spirit were called persons “not that any diversity of essence [or substance] is to be understood, but so that we may be able to answer by some one word when anyone asks three what or what three things.”[13] However, this “one word” was problematic for Augustine because, for him, person meant a subjective, individual “I” and did not entail relationship.[14] Since “person” could not “express what distinguishes Father [sic], Son [sic], and Spirit… [or] their mutual interrelatedness” in a way that preserved their equality and, hence, their unity, Augustine resituated the term within the Aristotelian category of relatio.[15] This shift allowed him to distinguish “between things that are said of God’s substance and things that are said of God’s relations.”[16] Any language about God existing as three persons referred to God’s distinct relations – the unbegottenness of the Parent, the begottenness of the Child, and the procession of the Spirit – and categorically excluded any argument that the three divine persons implied three separate, divine substances..

For Augustine, personal terms like Parent did not refer to the divine substance, but to the Parent’s relation to the Child within the one substance shared equally among the three persons. He therefore upholds the unity and inseparability of the three persons in the one divine substance by placing personal language in the category of relatio. However, this move made the Trinitarian persons dependent on substance so that “each of the three persons from the vantage point of substance is identical with the others or with the divine substance itself.”[17] While he may have begun with the oikonomic, “salvation-historical view of the Bible,”[18] Augustine developed a Trinitarian theology of persons which no longer safeguarded what Tertullian called the “mystery of the dispensation,” but was rather “a linguistic crutch” for expressing the diversity of interior relations within the divine substance shared by the Parent, Child, and Spirit.[19]

Paul Fiddes’ Pastoral Doctrine of the Trinitarian Participation

 As Paul Fiddes begins constructing his pastoral doctrine of the Trinity, he notes the accomplishment of early church theologians like Tertullian and the Cappadocian Fathers who emphasize how “the ‘distinct identity’ of a person is inseparable from relationship.”[20] He notes how person lost its relational foundation and was transformed into “an otherness which was an aloneness” as person became synonymous with individual subject.[21] According to Fiddes, the result of this shift was not the expected tritheistic understanding of Trinity, i.e. the Parent, Child, and Spirit are separate “gods,” but a return to a Monarchian understanding of Trinity in which “for all practical purposes God is treated as ‘a person’ or one individual being.”[22] This loss of Trinitarian relationality and the subsequent loss of diverse personal identities existing as community is a major concern for Fiddes who is trying to address “the perplexing problem of the relation of the individual to the community.”[23] As unique persons cultivate relations in community, Fiddes’ primary pastoral concern lies in helping others “create a balance between the person and [social roles], between self-integrity and openness to others, between independence and dependence, and between diversity and unity.”[24] These pastoral questions form the impetus for Fiddes’ doctrine of Trinitarian participation in “a personal God who lives in relationships.”[25]

In order to address these pastoral concerns, Fiddes’ insists on a Trinitarian theology that offers more than a strategy for imitating the personal relations of Trinity. He states his point clearly: “It is not enough to plead, ‘God is united and yet lives in relations, so we should be like this too.’”[26] Fiddes is looking for a way to talk about Trinitarian persons which goes beyond imitation because imitation makes the divine persons into objects which can be observed and mastered. He identifies the root of observational language in the “view of the human subject stemming from the Enlightenment, in which observation in the basic paradigm of knowing [and] takes the form of subjecting objects to the control of our consciousness.”[27] Since Trinity is not a human subject, an imitation of God assumes an impossible task: that God can be described “from the standpoint of an external watcher or perceiver”.[28] For Fiddes, a true person cannot be objectified and controlled since the person “inhabits the space of the ‘between’ of communication”; persons are “other.”[29] Therefore, a Trinitarian theology of personhood which calls for imitation is inadequate because it does not consider the full implications of otherness which constitute personal identity.

In order to find a Trinitarian language of personhood that overcomes observation and imitation, Fiddes looks to the notion of persons as subsistent relations developed within the Western theological tradition, specifically in the work of Thomas Aquinas. According to Fiddes, the notion of divine persons as subsistent relations “proposes that relations in God are as real and ‘beingful’ as anything which is created or uncreated, and that their ground of existence is in themselves.”[30] In other words, “there are no persons ‘at each end of a relation’ [because] the persons are simply the relations.”[31]

Fiddes looks to Aquinas’ Trinitarian theology for help because Aquinas “begins his discussion… with the two processions of ‘begetting’ and ‘breathing forth’” and goes on to define persons in a way that is similar to that of the Cappadocian Fathers but not entirely the same: “the critical point is that Aquinas has begun with movements or actions within God rather than subjects who act in various ways.”[32] He finds further support for his participatory language of Trinitarian persons in the work of Augustine. While admitting how Augustine left “the impression that he conceived of God as an absolute individual,” Fiddes explains how  Augustine also wrote about “the actions of our mind’s remembering God, understanding God and loving God” which demonstrates how he “associated the triune persons with our involvement in God.”[33] In Aquinas, Fiddes finds dynamic relations; in Augustine, he highlights the idea of human involvement.

Fiddes takes these two insights along with a “clue” from German Protestant theologian Karl Barth to state his reformulation of Trinitarian persons as subsistent relations on “a different basis from that of one divine essence”: “we may speak of God as… ‘three movements of relationship subsisting in one event.’”[34] According to Fiddes, this revised doctrine of subsistent relations moves beyond “the language of a spectator” into “the language of a participant” because “we cannot observe, even in our mind’s eye, being which is relationship.”[35] Speaking of Trinity as three dynamic relations subsisting in one event, therefore, requires an “epistemology of participation.”[36]

In Fiddes’ understanding of Trinitarian personhood, the personal names of Parent, Child, and Spirit “lead us into movements of divine love, which cannot be reduced to a relationship between a subject and an object.”[37] He identifies how human persons are participating in “three distinct movements of speech, emotion and action which are like relationships ‘from father to son’, ‘from son to father’ and a movement of ‘deepening relations’” as they pray to the Parent, through the Child, and in the Spirit.[38] He emphasizes how these relational metaphors “give us an entrance into engagement in God” and also highlights how “these movements of giving and receiving cannot in themselves be restricted to a particular gender.”[39] What is central to Fiddes’ Trinitarian theology is that the Parent, Child, and Spirit are not objects for human observation, possession, or control, but “currents of love” with “a self-existent reality which embraces us from beyond us.”[40]

Speaking as a pastor, Fiddes hopes that this participatory Trinitarian language will “open up new dimensions of empathy and ‘indwelling’ in our knowledge of our world.”[41] However, if human persons are to participate in Trinity, they must not consider themselves analogous to the Trinitarian persons. This kind of thinking is a return to observational, spectator language. Instead, Fiddes’ revised notion of persons as dynamic subsistent relations suggests that

the closest analogy between the triune God and human existence created in the image of this God is not in persons but in the personal relationships themselves… It is the relations between a mother and the baby in her womb, between children and parents, between wife and husband, and between members of the church community that are analogous to relations in God.[42]

As the Pauline author reminded the church at Corinth that “we walk by faith, not by sight,” human persons cannot “see” this God who exists as event and relations, but, with eyes of faith, they can reach out their hands and learn to “walk” together as persons in community as they are swept up in the relational movements of Parent, Child, and Spirit.[43]

An Oikonomic Critique via Catherine Mowry LaCugna

As Fiddes constructs his revised notion of persons as subsistent relations, he follows Thomas Aquinas’ “strategy of beginning with processions (actions) in God [emphasis added].”[44] This starting point within the being of God is somewhat unexpected given the introductory chapter to Fiddes’ work on Trinity which describes how “the early Christians moved back in thought from the ‘economic’ Trinity to the ‘immanent’ Trinity, from the activity of God in ordering the household (oikonomia) of the world to the being of God within God’s own self.”[45] Why, then, does Fiddes begin his Trinitarian theology with the “immanent” Trinity and not with the “economic” Trinity? Fiddes attempts to answer this question by highlighting the correspondence between the immanent processions and the economic missions of the Trinitarian persons in Aquinas’ theology.[46] However, according to LaCugna’s reading of Aquinas, Fiddes is overestimating the correspondence between theologia, “the eternal being of God,” and oikonomia in Aquinas’ theology.[47] She argues that “the correlation between oikonomia and theologia in Thomas’ theology is weak” and, consequently, it contributed to “the marginalization of the doctrine of the Trinity.”[48] By following Aquinas, who takes up the work of Augustine,[49] Fiddes risks making the classic Western mistake of forgetting the oikonomia, treating “the ‘immanent Trinity’ as a purely intradivine reality,” and arriving at a conception of personhood based on “a fantasy about a God who does not exist.”[50]

This risk becomes most pronounced as Fiddes discusses how “it is not possible to visualise… three movements of being characterised by their relations.”[51] He considers this visual impossibility as a positive development for Trinitarian theology because God “cannot be objectified like other objects in the world.”[52] If human persons cannot envisage Parent, Child and Spirit as active subjects, this should help them overcome the alienating effects of the Enlightenment divide between subject-object relations. Even if Fiddes is correct about this “advantage”, he is dangerously close to throwing the baby, i.e. the Christ child in whom “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,”[53] out with the Enlightenment bath water. Fiddes’ anxiety over the influence of the Enlightenment causes him to make “the image of the invisible God” invisible once again![54] Is there no room for the incarnate person of Jesus Christ as a human subject – the one who “we have heard, [who] we have seen with our eyes, [who] we have looked at and touched with our hands” – in Fiddes’ conception of the Trinitarian persons as three relational movements subsisting in one event?[55] If there is not, Fiddes has committed the grave error of treating oikonomia as merely “a mirror dimly reflecting a hidden realm of intradivine relations” and has failed to realize how “there is neither an economic nor immanent Trinity; there is only the oikonomia that is the concrete realization of the mystery of theologia in time, space, history, and personality.”[56] If Fiddes wants a Trinitarian personhood that invites participation in God, he should look to the work of Tertullian instead of Aquinas and Augustine to rediscover the persons of the Trinity in the oikonomia.

Unlike Fiddes, LaCugna looks to oikonomia and examines the life of Christ to identify three oikonomic characteristics of personhood. The person of Jesus Christ is theonomous, catholic, and perichoretic. Jesus is a theonomous person; his personal identity is not totally self-defined or other-defined but is instead defined in “reference to its origin and destiny in God.”[57] This empowers him to invite others into true, healing, reconciling communion with Trinity because he is “free in himself and from himself to be open to other persons,” especially to those the world had forgotten, ignored, or oppressed.[58] Jesus is a catholic person in two ways. First, his catholicity was expressed as inclusivity as he practiced compassion and solidarity among the outcasts of his day and opposed “human customs, beliefs, institutions, and religious practices when they stood in the way of persons.”[59] Second, Jesus is catholic because, “while he was unique as a human being, he also perfectly exemplified what it means to be human; he expresses the totality of the [human] nature.”[60] This means that all the circumstances of Jesus’ embodiment – his sexuality, suffering, and cultural-historical conditioning – “apply to Jesus as a person” with no separation between divine and human natures.[61] Finally, Jesus is a perichoretic person because he “is the communion of divine and human”; being divine he is fully human and being human he is fully divine.[62] Perichoresis is a term used to describe the mutual interpenetration and co-inherence of the Parent, Child, and Spirit as they exist as one perfect communion. The perichoretic personhood of Jesus reveals the hope of every human person to be divinized, to be “in communion, in right relationship, with every creature and with God.”[63] Unlike Fiddes’ idea of persons as “invisible” relational movements, LaCugna paints a portrait of personhood drawn for oikonomia in which human persons can truly participate through the person and work of the Spirit who “divinizes human beings, making persons theonomous and catholic” which “brings about the true communion of God and creature.”[64]

Conclusion

As I consider how this discussion of Trinitarian personhood can make a difference in my ministry context, I find instructive LaCugna’s suggestion that “theology in the mode of doxology” is the best way to speak truthfully about the God who is revealed as God-for-us.[65] A language of doxology is a language of praise and worship. What difference does LaCugna’s oikonomic portrait of personhood make for the worship praxis of my local congregation? For the past two years, I have been a member of Six:Eight Community Church (6:8) in Ardmore, PA. 6:8 is a member of the Vineyard USA church network and could be characterized as a charismatic, evangelical, free church congregation. As Robert Webber has identified, our worship services tend to be characterized by an emphasis on the inward spiritual experiences of individuals.[66] This characteristic is evidenced at 6:8 by the lyrics of many of the songs we sing. If our worship is to honor the theonomous dimension of personhood, our singing should lead us out of private, individual experiences and invite us into truly personal experiences with the person of the Spirit and each other which create a greater depth of incorporation into the life of Trinity, one another, and our local community. A very large majority of 6:8’s members are young Euro-Americans who are well-educated and occupy a middle-class socioeconomic status. If we are to worship as catholic persons, our worship must be more inclusive of the cultural, racial, and socio-economic diversity represented in our local community. Catholicity also calls us to honor the full embodied nature of human persons which will mean less time devoted strictly to the mind in the form of hearing a sermon. Finally, persons are perichoretic, seeking to join the “to and fro” of communion with Trinity and others through Christ by the power of the Spirit. In order for worship at 6:8 to honor the perichoretic dimension of personhood, more time and space should be given to the prayer ministry where worshippers actively seek Trinity together towards a more complete participation in the healing, comforting, transforming, and empowering relations of the Parent, Child, and Spirit.


[1] Alfred B. Smith, Sidney E. Cox, and William Cowper, Deep and Wide, The Christian Children’s Choir, Big Eye Records, MP3, 2008.

[2] Ps. 36:6,7,9, NRSV.

[3] Paul S. Fiddes, Participating in God: A Pastoral Doctrine of the Trinity (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 7.

[4] Fiddes, 37.

[5] Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 2.

[6] Tertullian, Against Praxeas in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3, eds. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. Peter Holmes (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885) in Kevin Knight ed., “Church Fathers: Against Praxeas (Tertullian),” New Advent, accessed 30 September 2013, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0317.htm.

[7] Tertullian

[8] Tertullian

[9] Tarmo Toom, Classical Trinitarian Theology: A Textbook (New York: T&T Clark, 2007), 71.

[10] Gerald O’Collins, S.J., The Tripersonal God: Understanding and Interpreting the Trinity (New York, Paulist Press, 1999), 106.

[11] Toom, 39.

[12] Sarah Heaner Lancaster, “Divine Relations of the Trinity: Augustine’s Answer to Arianism,” Calvin Theological Journal 34, no. 2 (November 1, 1999): 333.

[13] Augustine, On the Trinity: Books 8-15, ed. Gareth B. Matthews, trans. Stephen McKenna (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 4.

[14] Basil Studer, Trinity and Incarnation: The Faith of the Early Church, ed. Andrew Louth, trans. Matthias Westerhoff (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1993), 183.

[15] Studer, 173, 174, 183.

[16] Lancaster, 334.

[17] William G. Rusch, ed., The Trinitarian Controversy (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), 26.

[18] Studer, 185.

[19] Toom, 150.

[20] Fiddes, 16.

[21] Fiddes, 16.

[22] Fiddes, 17.

[23] Fiddes, 19.

[24] Fiddes, 28.

[25] Fiddes, 28.

[26] Fiddes, 28.

[27] Fiddes, 39.

[28] Fiddes, 29.

[29] Fiddes, 32.

[30] Fiddes, 34.

[31] Fiddes, 34.

[32] Fiddes, 35.

[33] Fiddes, 36.

[34] Fiddes, 36.

[35] Fiddes, 36, 38.

[36] Fiddes, 38.

[37] Fiddes, 44.

[38] Fiddes, 37.

[39] Fiddes, 38, 40.

[40] Fiddes, 40.

[41] Fiddes, 39.

[42] Fiddes, 49, 50.

[43] 2 Cor. 5:7.

[44] Fiddes, 36.

[45] Fiddes, 6.

[46] Fiddes, 35.

[47] LaCugna, God for Us, 223.

[48] LaCugna, 158, 167.

[49] LaCugna, “The Relational  God: Aquinas and Beyond,” Theological Studies 46, no. 4 (December 1, 1985): 650.

[50] LaCugna, God for Us, 228, 230.

[51] Fiddes, 36.

[52] Fiddes, 36, 37.

[53] Col. 2:9.

[54] Col. 1:15.

[55] 1 Jn 1:1.

[56] LaCugna, God for Us, 223.

[57] LaCugna, God for Us, 290.

[58] LaCugna, God for Us, 293.

[59] LaCugna, God for Us, 294.

[60] LaCugna, God for Us, 295.

[61] LaCugna, God for Us, 295.

[62] LaCugna, God for Us, 296.

[63] LaCugna, God for Us, 296.

[64] LaCugna, God for Us, 296.

[65] LaCugna, God for Us, 320.

[66] Robert E. Webber, Worship Old & New, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 115, 117.

One comment on “Participating in the Triune Persons: An Oikonomic Critique of Paul Fiddes and Subsistent Relations

  1. DanutM says:

    Reblogged this on Persona and commented:
    A little bit of serious Trinitarian theology. Not for the faint hearted.
    Thanks to Agnusstick Shatat for the link.
    NOTE: By the way, both LaCugna and Fiddes are worth reading by anybody interested in understanding the Trinity.

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