CHAPTER 4 (pp 45-54)

TRINITY : Personal Love

God is love, and God invites humanity into a loving family fellowship. The doctrine of the Trinity fits this idea perfectly. God is not like a solitary person but like a society of persons. The gospel declares God to be a fellowship of the Father, Son and Spirit in the unity of one essence, essentially a fellowship of loving mutual relationships.

Love, then, is not just something that God decides to do, not just an occasional attribute. Loving is what characterizes God essentially -as a dynamic livingness, a divine circling and relating. God is not a solitary monarch but a tripersonal mystery of love. God is a fellowship of persons, a relational being, open to the joy and pain of the world. This model of God in Christian faith helps us understand the purpose of creation. God creates in order to create love and relationships, because he delights to hear in the love of finite persons an echo of the love that constitutes his own reality. [For some introduction, see Alister E. McGrath, Understanding the Trinity (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1988).]

How do we know this about God? We know it because this is what has been revealed in the history of Israel and in the event of Jesus Christ. It captures the heart of the biblical revelation of God's redemptive activities in the world. It is an inference drawn from the incarnation and the outpoured Spirit. As we see the Father, Son and Spirit relating mutually and lovingly with one another in the history of salvation, we learn that God is a social trinity. Jesus is differentiated from the Father and the Spirit while sharing deity with them.

Father and Son are not just metaphors of an earthly relationship - these names point to an eternal relationship that together with the Spirit constitutes a threefoldness in God. For this reason we are baptized in the name of Father, Son and Spirit, the three centers of divine personality and activity (Mt 28:19). This is why Paul speaks of receiving love from the Father, grace from Jesus Christ and fellowship in the Spirit (2 Cor 13:13). Salvation has a triune structure: we have been chosen by the Father, redeemed by the Son and sealed by the Spirit (Eph 1:3-14). [Leonard Hodgson assisted in the recovery of this truth: The Doctrine of the Trinity (London: Nisbet, 1943). Also, Arthur W. Wainwright, The Trinity in the New Testament (London: SPCK, 1962).

The Unsolitary God

Such triadic speech employed in describing God represents a very special kind of monotheism. God is not seen as a solitary power but as the costly love that renews life. The Trinity is the God who grounds other-affirming love, for whom giving and receiving love is of the essence. God is not a distant monarch, a supreme will to power, but One whose being is to give and receive love. It follows that God's will is for community in which power and love are shared, where love and not compulsion reigns. [Jürgen Moltmann lifts this truth up in The Trinity and the Kingdom (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981).]

Daniel Migliore comments: "God is not absolute power, not infinite egocentrism, not majestic solitariness. The power of the triune God is not coercive but creative, sacrificial, and empowering love. The glory of the triune God consists not in dominating others but in sharing life with others." [Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1991), p. 63.]

The doctrine of the Trinity defines the goal of salvation as being part of the divine fellowship, participating in the loving interaction of the Trinity. No legal model can capture this. Of course we need to be forgiven of our sins, but pardon is only a first step along a path to the real goal: fellowship with the triune God. Human beings are social creatures, made for mutuality, cooperation and interaction with one another. We are made not just human but cohuman, designed for communion, called into the fellowship of the triune God. Thus the Bible speaks of our being summoned to a banquet, called to life in a new city, gathered together in a great throng - the goal is oneness with others and union with God.

The Trinity signals relational fullness and a richness of being in God. It depicts God as an open and dynamic structure, the essence of loving community. Atheism rejects God as the enemy of human freedom because God has been presented as an alienating solitary Ego. But this is a caricature of the truth. God is not the enemy of human freedom but its very ground and support. God is for us, not against us. God seeks our wholeness and delights in doing us good.

The Trinity means that God, though self-sufficient in divine fullness, is capable of creating and opening up to creation in overflowing love. Though he does not strictly need the world, he loves it. As a relational being, God delights to invite creatures into fellowship. He has created a dynamic world with real value out of the abundance of his own inner richness. It delighted God to make a world like ours, a world with free agents, capable of choice, because this is the sort of world in which loving community can occur, a world that can echo back God's own social life. To make such a world was risky, but this world is a place that brings pleasure to God-a world not wholly determined by him, but one that can provide occasions of meaningful interaction and involvement.

Under no necessity to do so, God freely created a world with real significance and accepted the risks involved in entering into relationship with it. Genesis says God found the creation good because God is dynamic and open. He loves a creation that is open like this one. The Trinity can be likened to a dance that expresses itself by inviting others to join in as new partners. This is what the Greek theologians meant when they declared "deification" to be the goal of human life.

As personal life in relationship, God is eager to enter into loving relationships with us. God is faithful Father, serving Son and enlivening Spirit. Himself existing in community, God wants to establish community among us. Church and family can be expressions of God's nature. We make visible his love of open friendships, caring relationships and inclusive communities. God is the power of a self-giving love that will prove stronger than even sin and death. When Paul says, "God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom" (1 Cor 1:25), he means that God takes the apparently foolish path leading to suffering and death for the sake of our salvation. Only a triune God who treasures other- regarding love would think of such a strategy.

We believe in one God who is not solitary but a loving communion marked by overflowing life. What stands at the center of the universe is shared life. As perfect sociality, God embodies qualities of mutuality, reciprocity, and cooperation. This is fundamental to creative love theism. It underlies our major concerns: God is inclusive love, more like a loving parent than a judge. God's will from the foundation of the world has been to share his life with the human race in the creation of community.

A Rational Conundrum

This may be biblical and theologically inspiring, but does it make sense? Is it not a contradiction to say God is one (in essence) but three (in person)? No, it is not a contradiction or merely a puzzle. Outside mathematics, where 1 equals 1, most entities are far from numerically simple. Is an atom simple? Is an organism simple? Is a human being simple? The higher the form of an entity, it seems, the more complex its unity. Only in mathematics is oneness simple. In most other areas, unity and complexity coexist. This is true of God, who is complex oneness and a society of three distinct but associated persons in a mysterious relationship.

To see the rationality of this, compare the triune and unitarian models. How can God be personal and loving without being triune? How would personality and love be expressed before creation in the absence of any world? A unitarian-type God would need a world to fight off loneliness and to express a loving and personal nature. It would be necessary to create a world in order to solve God's inner deficiencies. A triune God, on the other hand, could create a universe and love it for its own sake, not because he needed it. Creation would be an overflow of his loving, not a necessity.

So the trinity model makes God free in his creation of the world. Though often criticized as a conundrum, the Trinity seems actually to be rationally superior to the alternatives.

The Eternal Conversation

The doctrine makes practical sense as well. [This is brought out by Cornelius Plantinga, "The PerfectFamily," Christianity Today, March 4, 1988, and by Catherine M. LaCugna, "The Practical Trinity," Christian Century, July 15, 1992.] It sanctifies loving social relations between humans, since these are grounded in and mirror interactions within the Trinity. Relating to one another in family, church and society can be a reflection of God's own social nature. The divine society is mirrored in the bondedness of our own loving relationships, because God is the essence of other-regarding love.

The Hebrew word for God is a plural noun. Whatever the reason for this in antiquity, for us it hints at God being both social and communicative. Language too is an important vehicle of loving relations. The Bible opens with an account of loving communication. Its record of the conversation begins as God says, "Let there be light." It continues as names are given to day and night, sky, land and sea. At each stage God steps back and says: "Yes, this is good." This part of the conversation draws to a close with "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness." The verb here is plural, indicating plurality in God. And the creatures here are social beings, and from the moment of creation they are addressed in language about their calling to love, worship and obey God

The social Trinity, then, is the picture of an eternal conversation that issues in a world where humans engage in conversation with one another and join in the conversation that God has initiated. The second chapter of Genesis depicts the beginning of a conversation between men and women, who are partners with God and one another in the grace of life. Despite human failure, the story of salvation goes on depicting God as continually seeking to bring sinners back into the conversation. The story ends in the new creation as an expanded, loving conversation between God and people from all nations.

The doctrine of the Trinity is an essential part of creative love theism. If God's very nature is love, then God was love before the creation of human beings. And since it is impossible to love when one is alone, in order for love to be possible, God's being must have a structure that permits it. It requires the sort of plurality of persons in the single divine nature which the Christian revelation discloses.

The Trinity is an offense to Muslims and to Jews. The oneness of God is the first requirement of their creed. They criticize Christian faith for appearing to suggest the existence of three gods. We agree with them about the importance of God's oneness - that is not in question. The issue is whether the oneness of God allows inner relationships. As already noted, in many fields such as physics and biology oneness allows the unity of several constituents in relationship. Scientists picture the single atom as having an inner complexity. Their model for an atom of helium is a society of entities -proton, neutron and electron held together by atomic force. The inner constituents and relationships of the oneness of uranium are even more complex. And the oneness of a simple cell in biology involves a large number of interrelationships. So the quarrel between unitarian and trinitarian theism is really about the kind of oneness there is in God. In the trinitarian model the unity of God is a unity of persons bound by love and involved in a continuing conversation.

With loving personal conversation and fellowship with God central to our model, an element of process is introduced. God is not impassive but cares deeply for us. God listens, responds, delights, weeps, is grieved. The difficulty with classical theism, so influenced by Hellenism, is that it makes God impassive and unable to relate. It removes God from the process of real involvement with the world and makes it hard to envisage real conversation with the three persons of the Trinity. The narrative of the Bible does not leave the impression of immutability or impassivity on God's part. The Trinity is a lively interacting picture of God. The love that flows within God also flows out to the world and becomes involved in all of its joys and sorrows.

The Greek fathers offered a distinctive way of picturing the inner life of God. They imagined an eternal, loving dance in the unity of the life of the Trinity. The function of the liturgy, in turn, is to embody in our churches this interactive oneness within God and call every human being to join in this fellowship and conversation. We are called to give ourselves over to God and abide in God without losing our identity.

Metaphors of Three Persons

Given the trinitarian logic of our model, let's inquire into our language in relation to the three persons. We do not have access to God's essence - what we can say about God is by way of the metaphors of revelation. There are hundreds of metaphors used in the Bible to talk about God, and together they help us get a picture of the divine nature.

Viewing God as personal means that we cannot avoid the issue of gender. The traditional way of speaking of God makes it sound as if God were a male. This is because we have given preference to masculine images for God and allowed female images in the Bible to go largely unretrieved. But God is not a sexual being; he is neither male nor female. So we need to be careful not to suggest that he is. The solution cannot be to stop using personal language for God, because God is personal, not impersonal. God is someone, not something.

We could speak of the Spirit in female terms to create a better gender balance. This is easy, since the Bible imputes feminine-type activities to the Spirit, such as comforting and giving birth. A better solution, however, is to recognize that male and female images are used in the Bible.

God is a father who cares for us (Ps 103:13) and a mother who gives birth and defends us (Is 49:15). Jesus was incarnated as a male, but does not make his masculinity an issue; he embodies Wisdom (sophia) from the Old Testament. The Spirit is both a mighty wind and a life-giver, creation and new creation - a well of life, nourishing and consoling, sympathizing and empathizing. The art is not to absolutize our language but to enrich our way of speaking with the entire biblical range of metaphors. We can complement the traditional images rather than replace them.

The mystery of God transcends male and female. Since God created male and female in his image, either male or female images can be used to point to God. We must learn to use neglected female images of God without embarrassment alongside the images we have been using. The strategy is one of addition, not subtraction or reversal.

When Christians interact with God, the conversation goes along several lines. We converse with God as parent, as friend and as Spirit. We may feel like a little child crying out to God for comfort or protection. We may talk to God as our friend who walks with us and loves us. Or we may speak to the Spirit at work within use to give us wisdom and strength. In our Christian experience we deal with all three persons of the Trinity.

The Person of the Spirit

The Spirit is the powerful wind of God that moves upon the waters. The Hebrew word speaks of vitality, vibrancy and movement. The Spirit is the life-giver, divine energy, in creation and in new creation. It is God in action in the cosmos and in human life. The Spirit is not confined to any structures, but blows wherever it wills. The Spirit everywhere comes to the rescue of humankind, causing the earth to flourish and love to abound, opening up schools of mercy wherever possible. [For a full discussion of the doctrine of the Spirit, see Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A UniversalAffirmation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992).]

The basic metaphor of wind suggests a power moving us like a sailing ship and lifting us like an eagle. It is the power of God that moved judges like Deborah and Gideon. It is a term for the air we breathe, suggesting images of inspiration and anointing. It was said of Bezalel, an artist in the building of the tabernacle, that he was empowered by the Spirit to do his work (Ex 31:2-3). Prophets like Isaiah were inspired to rebuke injustice and explain visions of God. David was anointed in composing and singing psalms. The Spirit enables us to ride the wind like eagles effortlessly gliding in the sky for hours, letting the wind do the work.

In addition to the image of the wind and of breathing, there are metaphors of fire and water. Winds blow and fires burn in different modes. They may be violent or quiet, raging or warming. The work of the Spirit is like water poured out in the desert. The Spirit is a friend called alongside to help us, our Comforter.

In one kind of theology it is said that the Spirit is present and active only where persons have repented and believed in Jesus. But this is to ignore the fact that the Spirit goes before Christ to prepare the way for him. The Spirit is present everywhere in the world and active (as the Old Testament shows) among people not yet Christian. Samson knew nothing abut Christ and was not a particularly holy man, yet he was stirred by the Spirit of the Lord. The Spirit was at work in an Arabian like Job. We must not place limits on the Spirit, who is at work in the whole world and not just in our domain.

The Person of the Son

The love of God for the world takes public form in Jesus Christ. In him the glory of God blazes forth into the world. Risen from the dead, he is the proof of the truth and goodness of God. Through the Spirit he stands before every heart and asks to enter.

Because the Trinity is eternal, we do not limit the work of the Logos just to the events of Jesus' life. The Spirit enables the Son to be preexperienced as the friend beside us before the New Testament gospel comes on the scene. He visits and intervenes in the history of every nation.

The second person was born as a male human being. No doubt there were circumstances that made this appropriate. But that does not make the essence of the Logos male, any more that it is Jewish or Galilean. The important thing is that the Word became flesh, not that it became male. "Son of God" itself is a metaphor, pointing to a social relationship with God: it is not a statement about gender. It would be a radical distortion to depict the incarnation as supporting patriarchalism when its outcome is deliverance from all forms of oppression. Jesus is God's Child who seeks the wholeness and full humanity of everyone. He summons men and women to a community where there is neither male nor female.

When the Logos was born among us, we see him touching, loving, conversing, healing, walking, turning the other cheek. He also let himself be sacrificed. He did not begin to do those things only when he came among us in the flesh. There are many references in the Old Testament to God's engaging in the same activities that are familiar to us from the life of Jesus. Each one of these visitations and interventions points to the second person's coming into personal contact with humans. Christ was present when God walked with Adam in the garden and was with the Hebrew youth in the fiery furnace.

The second person is spoken of in the paradoxical metaphors of Lord and servant, shepherd and lamb, lion and child. They picture various aspects of the strength and gentleness of the Messiah. These images were used by the prophets and they are then picked up by the New Testament writers. C.S.Lewis, captured such metaphors effectively in his pictures of Aslan in the Narnia stories. What a different view of power he gives us! Jesus said,

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants
over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must
be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the
Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.
(Mt 20:25-28).

Jesus does not seek power over people. Love is the shape power comes in. This power is the strength that enables the loved one to mature and that inspires people to speak out for justice. This is a power that does not sap but fosters life in the other person. It is a love that bonds and empowers. God-power does not want to dominate-it wants to persuade and build up. The power of the cross is not about a payment but about freedom from sin and death. A servant ministry is always concerned about the freedom of others.

The Person of Father

God is present and at work in every sphere of creation through the Spirit. He is at work in the whole world, upholding and gracing. We dwell in the one world of the one Lord. The divine mystery that surrounds us calls us to love and right living between all peoples.

There are metaphors of God's mothering as well as fathering in the Bible (Deut 14:1; 32:6; Ps 10:14; 18; 68:5; 89:26; 131:2; Is 49:15; 66:13). God ministers to us in the capacity of both parents. When we call out to God like a child crying for its parents, God is there. This is true for anyone anywhere. God does not make people wait until Christ comes on the scene. The Father is not niggardly, refusing to respond to someone who cries out to him using the wrong name. A loving parent responds to any name his or her children may use in their need. God looks to the heart, not to outward appearances.

The Trinity is not divided. God is three persons united by love. When you enter conversation with the Father, the Son is at your side and the Spirit is interceding in the depth of your being. Some people may begin by talking to the Father and only later learn to talk to the Son or to the Spirit. Others may first learn to call on the Spirit. For many others, hearing the stories of Jesus and picturing him as a friend has been the way for them to enter a conversation with God. People can enter into conversation with God in many ways.

The triune God is a mystery, but fortunately, understanding about God is not a prerequisite for knowing God. What needs to be held out to the whole world is that a wonderful divine love invites every person to enter into fellowship with God, and share in a new humanity in the new creation.

Chapter 5 .....