Brethren and the Doctrine of the Trinity

Posted: May 23, 2013 in Church of the Brethren, Theology

ImageAfter reading  a blog entry by a friend and colleague, Allan R. Bevere  (The Trinity Is Not an Appendix to the Christian Doctrine of God), I’ve begun thinking about the doctrine which is often assumed in most Christian traditions yet one with which some Brethren in the last century have been struggling. This coming Sunday Christians around the world will be celebrating Trinity Sunday. So I thought it would be appropriate to take this opportunity to think a bit about this distinctively Christian doctrine.

Rather than speaking from a negative perspective my preference is to look at the doctrine constructively and particularly how it might look from a Brethren perspective. However, before beginning it’s necessary to get a few assumptions out in the open. First, I must openly admit that I reject modernity’s re-(writing)-telling of the Christian story. In spite of a fundamental pragmatism I still end up embracing the triune God. Secondly, with what might be considered a second “naivete” my understanding and development of a theological understanding of God begins with the Christian scriptures (both First and Second Testaments). Finally I acknowledge that my theology is affected by the mystical spirituality of the Radical Reformation in so far as it opens me to embrace mystery and the pragmatic hermeneutics ($3 word involving perception, meaning, interpretation and application) of Anabaptism.

The doctrine of the Trinity historically has been shrouded in controversy, both ancient and contemporary. In the seminal stages of the church the controversies consisted of drawing boundaries as to how God was to be understood, perceived and articulated. Thus there were arguments surrounding the person and relationship of the Father to the Son. There were arguments made for and against the divinity of Jesus and the nature of his person. And there were arguments made for and against the personhood of the Holy Spirit. In more recent times arguments have surrounded the nature of God’s interrelationships.  There has been controversy over applying gender to the person of God, thus reference to the Father is questionable in some circles. In the past fifty years the historical Jesus debate has made arguments questioning Jesus’ divinity (part of modernity’s re-(writing)-telling of the story). Also in recent years the cultural climate being what it is with a resurgence of interest in spirituality questions have been raised as to the nature and role of the Spirit in the life of Jesus, the church, as well as in the divine relationship.

When speaking of the triune God, I have the image of Jesus (as I would imagine him) coming up out of the water of baptism in my mind. This event seems to provide a framework for developing an understanding of the Trinity. In this event Jesus emerges from the water to hear the Father’s affirmation and receive the Spirit’s descent upon him. The only way to make sense of this while remaining monotheistic is to interpret it in the context of the incarnation. Within the gospel narratives this event marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry which involves the charismatic signs of God’s kingdom breaking into the current reality. As Philippians 2 states, Jesus disrobes himself of his divine benefits in order to take the form of a servant. However, as an analogy for the Christian discipleship, upon receiving the Spirit at his baptism he is empowered to accomplish the ministry to which he has been called. This is often referred to as “kenosis.”

So in one sense this provides an example for the life of the disciple. Yet still a strong trinitarian understanding of God can play a more substantial role for a believing community than simply to serve as an example. From an ontological perspective is shapes the fiber of our being.  The works of people like Jürgen Moltmann (Spirit of Life) or Clark Pinnock (Flame of Love) resonate with Anabaptist-Pietist sentiments. These works begin with the fundamental understanding that the triune God is love from which all of the other characteristics of God emerge. Thus with Moltmann I can affirm that the person of the Spirit is God’s essence which binds the Father and the Son in unity. And I can affirm Clark Pinnock’s description of the Spirit as the divine “Loving Fellowship” which moves the Father and the Son in the dance of life. It is in this that one can begin to imagine the loving God inviting the Trinity’s creaturely children to join in participating in the divine dance of life immersed in the loving embrace of the Father, Son and Spirit. John’s Gospel describes the abiding relationship of the Father and the Son to such a degree of intimacy and closeness that when the disciples see Jesus they see the Father. In other words the Father is in the Son and the Son in the Father. Throughout the ages the inter and intra-relations of the Father, Son and Spirit have been described in terms of “perichoresis (inter-penetrating).” This relationship is such that it cannot be separated. The three persons are in complete unity sharing in the perichoretic love which gives and receives life eternally.

An Anabaptist-Pietist perspective would especially move the development of an understanding of the Trinity away from interpreting it through the western lens of (post)modernity’s hyper-individualism. Rather than defining “person” as an “autonomous conscious being,” person is better defined in terms of relationship. Thus the Father, Son and Holy Spirit can only be understood in relationship to each other. This in turn allows for the limited analogy of the family unit which resonates well Brethren thinking. This also allows for an answer to the question of gender when referring to God. In this sense it allows for an argument to be made for the “motherhood” of the Spirit.

These brief reflections are but a few possibilities for understanding and articulating an Anabaptist-Pietist perspective of God. I think there are exciting opportunities for serious theological reflection upon the Trinity from a Brethren perspective. If nothing else it would be a refreshingly interesting conversation for us to explore.

 

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Comments
  1. Bill Kinzie says:

    Thought provoking analysis….like “dark matter” in the physics world, it is difficult to conceptualize the Spirit in Christian theology. We use words to explain the ineffable. Maybe Jewish expression had it right when they simply had no word for God. “I am that I am”.

    I understand the God-Son concept in incarnation much easier. Though the New Testament talks about the Spirit as the third Person, unless it is the Energy of God moving through lives/universe it is more than my limited intellect can wrap around. Sort of like the 4th,5th, dimensions.

    Is it even a useful subject to discuss as in how many angels can dance on the head of a needle?
    Just questions and thoughts from an amateur thinker upon these concepts. Blessings!

    • Andrew says:

      Bill, thanks for the comment. As to your questions, this is certainly thought provoking and leads to deeper reflection. Your last question, however, as to whether this is “even a useful” subject to discuss is one that I have asked before. If everything that has been written regarding the interconnections of a person’s life and belief patterns is accurate, then this alone would make the subject useful for the life of the disciple. Within the Anabaptist-Pietist community, which emphasizes living as Jesus lived (imitation of Christ), the Trinity becomes most instructive to the very nature of the believing community and its relationship to the world. The significance of such theological reflection finds its significance in how the belief patterns affect the way the disciple lives out her/his life.

      • Bill Kinzie says:

        Andrew: Thank you for your kind, cogent reply. Bill Willoughby was one of my profs at Bridgewater and used scholarly theological words in his lectures. I’ve learned to be more appreciative through the passing years.

        Not being a professional, one of my functions may be as a sounding board, representing interested lay people in the thoughts expressed in NuDunkers.

        I’m concerned by the sudden cessation in the numbers of new people added to this community. There was a sudden spurt and then it seemed to end. Maybe there are only a few who are interested or willing to put the kind of thought this group implies.

        Hope to see significant more contributions.
        Blessings. Bill K.

  2. Joshua Brockway says:

    Andy,

    Love the three dollar words- especially perichoesis! That’s one that is just not used enough these days.

    Not much to argue with here. Or to recognize my own theological assumption, I am continually amazed, challenged, and inspired by the Trinitarian theology.

    As I am preparing a brief introduction to theology for a group of college interns I am thinking about the often repeated phrase- Lex orandi, lex credendi, the rule of prayer is the rule of belief. Or, as I describe it to students, the rhetorical statement by many theologians in the early church went like this- “If we pray this way, why would we believe otherwise.”

    For me, the baptismal practice of the Brethren puts us right into the land of Trinitarian theology. Following texts such as Matthew 28, we have dunked 3 times as a sing of baptism into the fullness of God- the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

    Great stuff.
    Josh

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