Home > Theology > good Trinitiarianism, bad Trinitarianism

good Trinitiarianism, bad Trinitarianism

Before I wade back into Farley’s book I want to take a swipe at dealing with an issue that is frequently on my mind but that never quite seems to gel, that being Trinitarianism, good and bad.

Trinitarianism is the idea that God is one, in the sense the Old Testament portrays Him, but is three Persons. This is one of the most basic New Testament theological concepts, one of the first things people learn as being something that is taught by Scripture but not actually directly stated by Scripture. For the record, I’m fairly orthodox on the Trinity, but I don’t consider it absolutely necessary for salvation. So if push came to shove I believe the doctrinal content of the Athanasian Creed [link] as pertains to God, but not what it says about salvation.

The creed does a pretty good job of laying out the first distinction I’d like to make between good and bad Trinitarianism when it warns against  “confounding the persons” and “dividing the essence.” The former is what happens when Scripture attributes something to one Person and we apply it to another, such as putting the words of God as He is presented in the Old Testament into the mouth of Jesus. I hear this most frequently when people attempt to answer questions about what Jesus thought or believed. The latter is what happens when we set the two Persons against one another, say by suggesting that because Jesus is our Advocate before the Father that somehow they are not in agreement.

I have to suggest that nowadays we also run into problems when we mistake having a term for the Trinity with understanding it, and this surfaces in a couple of ways: one is in how we use the term, and another is in how confidently we wield it, as say an illustration of something else.

I see this in churches that confidently refer to Jesus by Himself (as Our Lord, or Our Savior, etc.) the Holy Spirit almost never (about which more later) and God the Father almost never as “God,” but almost always as “The Triune God,” frequently as “The Triune God: Father, Son, and Spirit.” There’s an earnestness about this that leads me to suspect that it is accidentally alienating, not intentionally alienating, but it repeatedly strikes me as a tendency to substitute one thing we don’t understand for another and thereby portray God as distant and completely inaccessible.

A Korean friend of mine reached a certain age and started attending the local Roman Catholic church in the hope of meeting a potential spouse, and when asked why she preferred the Latin (Tridentine) Mass over the vernacular Mass she replied “I like the ceremony and the palaver, but mostly I like God nice and far away.” I don’t know if this is a prevalent attitude among people who prefer one over the other, but it’s what springs unbidden to mind whenever I hear someone trudge through theological terms when they could just say “God.”

The other problem is similar but points in the opposite direction. I think if I had to put it plainly I’d say this: the Trinity isn’t an illustration of anything. It’s a unique theological concept, and a label for something we don’t and can’t understand. I heard it recently leveraged to explain our relationship to others (as in “we also are Trinities; we relate to ourselves, to God, and to those around us”). And I’ll get to Farley’s misuse of the concept of the Trinity in describing the nuclear family, but not today.

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