I have been asked to explain the Trinity. The first thing I would say is that the doctrine of the Trinity is the way the Christian church frames our understanding of God. Notice I used the word ‘frames.’ A frame is the structure but it is not the house. The wisest in the history of Christianity have always known this. The term they use with reference to this is ineffability which means that which cannot be described with words or indescribable. Words or language, the frame of the house, will only take you so far. Fools reduce their knowledge of God by thinking that language is a medium capable of bearing the infinity of the divine.
We humans created our gods when, in our primordial evolution, we ritualized the mechanism of generative mimetic scapegoating. This action, which in its repetition spawned first religion then culture, is where all human language originates. Language is bloody. This is why it is important for any discussion of language’s capacity to carry revelation to have as its epistemic base the transformation of language in blood. Linguistics, or at least all Christian discourse, can only begin with the cross of Christ and the problem of its relation to sacrifice.
Second, having read and delved into both the Patristic as well the great 20th century writers on the Trinity, I would note several crucial elements of the way we measure the frame, the doctrine of the Trinity. Anyone can claim they are trinitarian because they believe God to be three persons but the same substance. However, what lies definitionally behind the words ‘person’ and ‘substance’ create all manner problems which are adopted as solutions and warp the frame considerably. What is eventually erected is like something out of a Tim Burton movie. Trinitarian doctrines of God abound in popular Christianity, but they are cartoons.
The first measurement tool has already been stated: the death of Jesus. In other words, the Christian doctrine of God is developed with specific reference to Jesus’ passion. Paul and the writer of the Fourth Gospel insist that the Father was actively engaged in the death of Jesus “reconciling.” For the writer of the Fourth Gospel, the giving of the Spirit is intimately tied with the death of Jesus as Paraclete, defender of victims. The three modes or words by which the Christian describes God, Abba, Jesus, Spirit make no sense if they do not begin here. If these words take their definition from anywhere else, be it from holy writings or human philosophy or science, then they have no connection with the God being described during the Passion of Jesus. A doctrine of the Trinity that cannot withstand the hell of Golgotha is not worthy of consideration.
The second tool by which to measure a stable, and I would claim, orthodox doctrine of the Trinity is to ask about the role economies of exchange play. An economy of exchange is any relationship that is reciprocal, one gives in order to receive. This most ancient way of relating, from archaic potlatches to contemporary Christmas parties, has to do with the exchange of gifts. Life is all about exchange. You exchange your time for a paycheck which you exchange for cash which you exchange for goods and services. We are so culturally embedded in economies of exchange we cannot see the forest for the trees. Our religion is replete with it. God must have something from us in order to relate to us whether it is good works, obedience, faith, whatever, God needs something from us in order to give to us.
Economies of exchange were born in the process of humans learning to substitute the one for the many, that is, what Girard calls the victimage mechanism or scapegoating. Human life in its broken, bent or ‘fallen’ state is lived in the Matrix of Exchange. If you have any view of an economy of exchange in your theology (or what J.B. Torrance has identified as a 'contract’ theology) you cannot speak of grace, unmerited or freely given. This is where the principle of a theologia crucis is integrated with the problem of economies of exchange and becomes the solution of grace.
God did not theoretically reconcile the creation and all humanity back to God’s self, God reconciled all things, on earth and in heaven (so to speak). This is simply a fact. Reconciliation is a done deal, once for all. Period. End of sentence. Mic Drop. God did what God did because of who God is; God’s character in the drama of human history in the figure of Jesus of Nazareth is where economies of exchange were challenged at every level, political (“You shall not rule as the Gentiles”), ethics (“give to the poor”), economics (“sell all you have” [and note Jesus apparently did not carry money]), theology (“God makes sun and rain for both good and evil”) religious (“mercy is better than sacrifice” and the prophetic act in the Temple) etc. The entirety of the life of Jesus is against our human orientation to relating through the mechanism of an economy of exchange.
A healthy doctrine of the Trinity has no economy of exchange. God is love. God is not love and something else. God is light. God is not light and darkness. In short God is not Janus-faced. God is gracious and merciful and loving and gentle and kind because that is who God is in God’s self. God is not different in God’s self than God is toward humanity at Calvary. All that needs to be said and can be said about the character of God can only be done in Calvary’s light. Jesus’ death is the revelation by which all things are brought to light.
This is where PSA advocates have turned the Gospel of Jesus into its very antithesis and thus created Christian myth. Their understanding of Calvary is replete with economies of exchange and so they must read Jesus’ death through a sacrificial lens, justifying once again that old serpent, the mechanism of sacred violence. One must say that their god is an ugly God, not worthy of being compared to the Abba of Jesus. Their god is no different than all the other gods who require sacrifice. This view of god is the most pagan one of all. It has completely taken the very story which deconstructs the Janus-faced god and economies of exchange and made that god into the image and likeness of all gods of sacred violence. Protestants have yet to discover the Gospel!
Third, a healthy, robust and orthodox doctrine of the Trinity has made the ‘shift to relationality’ (which LeRon Shults documents in his Reforming the Doctrine of God, Reforming Theological Anthropology and Christology and Science). Many are the disciplines which conceive of ‘reality’ and ‘person’ as relational from physics and cosmology to biology and eco-systems, to linguistics and semiotics, to sociology and anthropology, to the cognitive sciences, to philosophy and economics, political theory and psychology (systems theory) to gaming and computer simulation. The 20th century saw a profound and deep shift to being-as-relation all across the frame of human knowledge.
Much of the older language of the doctrine of the Trinity as it is used in the West stumbles because it seeking to do two things: the first misstep seeks to relate non-created being to that which is created in philosophical language and second it has the unfortunate merit of having to understand the Trinity as ‘personae’ with a faculty view of person (inherited from Greek philosophy), thus requiring each ‘person’ of the Trinity to be self-autonomous beings, yet somehow all one is substance (ousia, substantia). The vast majority of clergy and laity thus come to the doctrine of the Trinity, can’t make heads or tails of it and so ignore or dismiss it. Those who do show an interest just gum it up for failure to bring the doctrine under the critical control of the cross.
If being is in fact ‘being-in-relation’, if there is nothing autonomous, if humans are not islands making social contracts, if all reality is related on the quantum or string theory level, and if with the great theologians of the twentieth century we reconsider ‘person’ as ‘being-in-relationship’ the only way to speak of God is to speak relationally, and this is just what the first Christians did and has been rediscovered in our own time by luminaries like LaCugna, Moltmann, Barth, Zizzioulas, Rahner, inter alia.
One of the crucial aspects of this last century’s conversation on the Trinity can be highlighted from the work of Karl Barth. It has powerful ramifications on a number of levels. The first is that any discourse about God apart from God’s relation to humanity is speculative and idle talk. It is not Gospel. Thus Barth often faults Catholics and Protestant divines on the same score: they seek to speak of God apart from the way God has chosen to reveal God’s self.
Revelation is reconciliation in Barth and reconciliation is revelation! The second implication of relationality is that rather than conceiving of God as three stages (as every form of dispensationalism does), that is sequentially, one, two, three, the term God is rather conceived of as a verb rather than a noun. The third implication is that all forms of Sabellianism are rejected which assert that there is a God behind God. In classic theological language this is the separation of the economic Trinity (God as revealed in space, time, history) and the ontological Trinity (God in God’s self). There is no hidden God or part of God or side of God or characteristic of God that is not revealed in Jesus. In Jesus we see the holon of God, but we see it always as relationality: Abba to Son and Spirit, Spirit to Abba and Son, Son to Abba and Spirit. This is the way Jesus speaks and, as Chris Tilling has demonstrated in his book on Paul’s Christology, this is also the way Paul speaks. One could make a case that relationality suffuses the Johannine discourse about God as well.
Here are the necessary things one measures a healthy, strong and beautiful doctrine of the Trinity by:
~ It begins and ends with Jesus’ Passion
~ It rejects all economies of exchange (God is free, grace is the character of God)
~ It provisionally thinks in ‘relational’ categories and worldviews (God as –being-relationship)
~ It understands the ‘person’ in relational, vibrant and dynamic terms
Now having said all of this some might say I have skirted the question to ‘explain the doctrine of the Trinity.’ The fact is because I do not accept so many of the hidden premises and presuppositions, that is, the underlying definition of the average person’s understanding of terms like ‘being’, ‘substance’, ‘nature’, ‘person’ etc., I cannot ‘explain’ the doctrine of the trinity for it needs no explaining. Only that which is unclear or off the mark needs ‘ex-plain-ing.’ God’s self, revealed as pro nobis in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. God is experienced as Abba-Source, Son-History and Spirit-Existential Awareness, all of which are one and the same realia. However, the Christian experience of God is going to center on the middle term, Son-history, in order to understand and know Abba-Source and Spirit-Existential Awareness. In short, a doctrine of the Trinity, or a doctrine of God shorn of the humanity of Jesus and thus the redemption of our humanity, is no doctrine of God; and further a Christology or any form of the telling of the life and teaching of Jesus which is not cruciform is no Christology at all.
A vibrant, healthy, life-giving doctrine of the Trinity is beautiful. Don’t be fooled by so-called Trinitarian grace movement preachers; they talk the talk but they do not walk the walk. All of them, to my knowledge end up with a Janus-faced god and/or a docetic christology (often manifested as Apollinarian). The regular Jane or Joe does not know this of course and so thinking they are getting real good Trinitarian thinking they end up getting sucked into some real piss-poor thinking about the character and activity of our God.
There is so much one could say about a doctrine of the Trinity but my response to the question to ‘explain it’ has to be one of ‘let’s redefine the terms in light of all we know to be true scientifically rather than remain in the quagmire of Greek psychology and philosophy.’ If you are willing to do that hard work then we can have a conversation; if not, well, best of luck with your Burtonesque doctrine of God!