Shamrocks and the Trinity

Happy Moltmann Monday! And, in honor of St. Patrick, who, it is said, used the shamrock to explain the Trinity to the Irish, I thought I’d quote from The Trinity and the Kingdom today. Of course, I don’t know what good old St. Patty had to say about the trinity while using the shamrock as a teaching aide. It’s hard to say much of anything about the Trinity, in my opinion, without getting yourself into theological hot water. Moltmann, but of course, spends the whole book telling us why we’ve painted ourselves into a corner for no reason, and how we should just look at the whole thing differently to clear up all these pesky problems. Here’s what he proposes, which I’m sure I’ve talked about many, many times before. It’s called perichoresis.

Only when we are capable of thinking of Persons, relations, and changes in the relations together does the idea of the Trinity lose its usual static, rigid quality. Then not only does the eternal life of the triune God become conceivable; its eternal vitality becomes conceivable, too…

The Father exists in the Son, the Son in the Father, and both of them in the Spirit, just as the Spirit exists in both the Father and the Son. By virtue of their eternal love they live in one another to such an extent, and dwell in one another to such an extent, that they are one. It is a process of most perfect and intense empathy. Precisely through the personal characteristics that distinguish them from one another, the Father, the Son and the Spirit dwell in one another and communicate eternal life to one another. In the perichoresis, the very thing that divides them becomes that which binds them together…

The unity of the trinitarian Persons lies in the circulation of the divine life which they fulfill in their relations to one another. This means that the unity of the triune God cannot and must not be seen in a general concept of divine substance. That would abolish the differences… The Persons cannot and must not be reduced to three modes of being of one and the same divine subject. The Persons themselves constitute both their differences and their unity.

Here’s why I think we have such a difficult time talking about the Trinity: we just cannot imagine the kind of mutually beneficial, mutually indwelling, mutually respecting relationship that is shared between Father, Son and Spirit. To hinge the whole thing on the relationship seems impossible, and highly vulnerable, like they could suffer a “deity break-up” at any moment. Or it seems idealistic, or soft, or too emotional or something. So what we do, in order to feel a sense of control over this, is create these stalwart philosophical and theological declarations which show how God MUST work out logically to be three and one at the same time. But the Trinity isn’t based on logic. It is based on love. 

It is based on and exists as the very same steadfast and faithful love that binds God to us. Love and mercy that are unconditional and free and everlasting? That’s as illogical as one can get. It doesn’t make it any less real, or true. And it doesn’t mean it doesn’t make sense, either. It makes total sense–far more sense than all the philosophical leaps and twists we often have to do to hold onto many of the other trinitarian arguments.

We’re perhaps too skeptical to imagine the kind of unity that can have space even for difference, even for distinct Persons, and be strong enough in love to hold them together in total mutual reciprocity. But that’s what the biblical history of God shows us, time and again. Within the life of God, there is never-ending love. Within God’s relationship with God’s people, there is never-ending love.

The most important thing about the Trinity is not the substance or the subject, although we’ve got to talk about those. The center of the Trinity is perichoretic love, a mutual indwelling that does not eclipse one Person into the other but keeps them completely connected and yet distinct.

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12 Responses to “Shamrocks and the Trinity”

  1. Travis I. March 17, 2014 at 3:56 pm #

    So how do you claim modalism then or that statement that we are all modalists? Sorry this is my head right now so I am thinking about it quite a bit.

  2. danielle March 19, 2014 at 9:46 am #

    Readers should know Travis and I discussed this in person last night, but just because it’s fun, here’s the backstory: I mentioned on Sunday that just about everyone is a modalist when it comes to the Trinity. I think of all the “heresies” you can fall into, modalism has quite the pileup. I probably slide into modalism myself. Philosophically, I see the problem with that. But that’s actually the problem- it’s philosophical first, theological second.

    I think, thanks to Moltmann, that the best thing we can do in the trinitarian debate is to STOP beginning the conversation with philosophical things like subject and substance and instead begin with the revelation of God in history. Subject and substance end up painting us into philosophical corners that are near impossible to escape and unnecessary. You can get all you need from those two conversations and in a better way if you start with who God reveals Godself to be in history through Scripture. Then the philosophical conversation about subject and substance are not just arbitrary philosophical assertions, but are asked in light of the real theological point. So, to circle back around, the beginning point is not philosophical logic but the revolutionary love of God who lives in community within Godself and opens that love up to be shared by all of creation.

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