Is Trinity “Useless”? Hear this Theologian Out

By Geoff Holsclaw, pastor at Life on the Vine and colleague at Northern Seminary.

Does the Trinity really matter to our regular lives?  And with this supposed “trinitarian revival” of the last 75 years, what are the options? Have things really changed? Or is it all useless?

Well, Zondervan’s Two views on the Doctrine of the Trinity brings together two examples of a “classical” understanding and two examples of a “relational” understanding of the Trinity into conversation, and we’re going to spend sometime looking at them.

Stephen R. Holmes and Paul D. Molnar offer “classical” perspectives and Thomas H. McCall and Paul S. Fiddes talk about a “relational” perspective, which seems to be a chastened, evangelical version of the “social Trinity” as espoused by Moltmann, Boff, Lacugna, and others.

Stephen Holmes opens up volume with a strong, clear, and accessible essay, even though at the end he says the Trinity is useless (I’ll let you know exactly what he means at the end).  This will be the longest post because I want to use Holmes to set up the conversation around which the other authors are engaged.

War of Words

Holmes begins by reminding us that words are slippery little things, often meaning different things in different contexts, especially different historical contexts.  After the Enlightenment the word “person” is a psychologically rich word indicating an individual center of will, reasons, creativity, and imagination.  But Holmes reminds us that this psychologically expansive understanding of “person” was not what the ancient church understood by the term when applied to the persons of the Trinity (instead, hypostasis indicated a particular or individual mode of existence within the Godhead).

Holmes brings this up put us on guard against an over hasty connect from what was a technical term of theology to our existential yearning for relationship with a personal God (and yes, Holmes affirms that God is personal, so don’t worry).

War of World (or Not)

Holmes also attempts to clear the air about the so-called split between an Eastern (relational) and Western (ontological) orientation toward the Trinity (and this is key).   The engrained idea is that the Eastern church fathers (Cappadocians) had a “good” perspective on the Trinity because they began with a plurality of persons (Father, Son, Spirit) and only then attempted to think the unity of God.  But the Western church fathers (see Augustine, the supposed father of all modern theological ills) began with the unity of God’s being and then only thought about the plurality of persons at the end.

This  “split” has been repeated for over a 100 years by “systematic” theologians, even though most historian have abandoned it (for the brave, Holmes rightfully points to Lewis Ayres Nicaea and its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology).  Historians have shown the significal cultural, linguistic, and theological congruencies that existed between East and West such that this split is more of modern creation than an ancient reality (I’d be happy to deepen this in the comments if asked).

Why has this “East/West split” persisted?  Usually because 20th-century systematic theologians have a “story” to tell and the historical facts don’t always fit into that story.  As in biblical interpretation so too in historical narration, beware the theologian with an agenda.

Holmes clears air in these two ways because he wants us to be able to see and hear what the classical doctrine of the Trinity was really trying to express.  But first he speaks of the origins of the doctrine.

Origins of the Trinity?

Before looking at proof texts for the Trinity, Holmes suggest that we first remember the dogged commitment to “Oneness” that we find in the Old Testament, the commitment to monotheism.  We must remember that the history of God’s relationship to Israel consisted in God’s own uniqueness and Israel’s relationship to this God alone.  Before “monotheism” is a philosophical category or an apologetic argument, we must remember that it was first supposed to be a lived loyalty between God and Israel.  So the oneness of God is not a Greek philosophical fixation, but a Hebrew commitment of the highest order.

But then comes Jesus, and the church’s immediate and spontaneous worship of him, worship that traditionally had been reserved only for God.  How can they worship Jesus without violating monotheism?  Well this is a great question (and if you want details read anything by Larry Hurtado).  The doctrine of the Trinity comes out of these existential and practical commitments of the early church (and don’t forget about the baptismal formulas).

As Holmes says, “The doctrine of the Trinity is a set of conceptual distinctions and definitions that offer a theological account of the divine life that made sense of these primitive practices of worship.  At the risk of oversimplifying, the church always knew how to speak to God.  Yet it took four centuries or so to work out how to speak about God in ways that were compatible with this” (33).

What is The Doctrine of the Trinity?

Holmes claims that the doctrine of the Trinity is a conceptual framework through which we read Scripture and other doctrine.  In a sense, it is the interpretive lens which makes everything else clear, and with out which we would not be able to properly understand Christian experience or Christian revelation.

As a conceptual framework, the doctrine of the Trinity is not itself an ontological statement (a statement about the “being” of God). As Holmes say, “We can know that God is, but not what God is” (35, emphasis added) because the doctrine of the Trinity states that God is three persons, but not how or in what way God is three.  The early church did not claim to know (and often claimed it did not know) the “what-ness” (essence/nature) of God, but that it did proclaim the “that-ness” (existence) of God.

The “classical” statement of the Trinity (often disparaged as relying on a Greek metaphysical framework) is less philosophically interested in claiming to know what God is and more concerned on how our language often fails us.  The doctrine guards us from saying too much. 

But what does it say?

For Holmes, the “classical” understanding of the Trinity comes down to the 1) simplicity of God, and  the 2) relations within God.

Why is God simple?  The basic idea is that God is not assembled of smaller part into a larger composite.  If something is assembled this implies the agent who assembles, which would therefore be greater than God.  But if there is none greater than God, God must be simple (or incomposite).  Again, this is not a claim of knowledge (that we know what God is like in God’s simplicity), but a claim about the things we know, i.e. that God is not like anything else we can know about because God is absolutely simple, not composed of parts, not beginning in time, not assignable to a general class (practically this means that God’s attributes are all interlinking and in a sense “coterminous” such that God’s wrath is not opposed to his mercy, nor justice opposed to his love, etc).  Basically, divine simplicity is just an explication of divine unity, without any more robust philosophical commitments/ontologies involved.

Why does God have “relations”? The idea as Holmes explains it is that when it comes to the Trinity, heresies stumbles over two problems concern the nature or substance of something.  For the typical ancient mindset, a nature possessed a quality either “substantially” or “accidentally”.  When thinking about the Trinity if divine nature were a “substantial” quality that the something called the “Father” had, and a substantial quality that something else called the “Son” had, then “Father and Son are different in substance, and so they are not one God” but two gods (37).  If “Father” and “Son” are accidental quality of divine nature then God is composed of parts (is not simple) and therefore is not really the God of the Old and New Testaments.  So what is to be done?

Well, basically the early church invented another ontological category (not so behold to Greek metaphysics now is it?) call “relation”.  The Father and the Son are of the same divine nature (whatever that might be), but the Father is “the Father of the Son” and the Son is “the Son of the Father” in a way this is not reversible (for it would be false to say the Son is “the Father of the Son” and the Father is “the Son of the Father”).  These relations are the only “differences” within “unity”.

But Holmes is quick to remind that this is a logical category and that just as “person” should not trigger related ideas of “personal”, so too “relation” should not make us think of “relational” because then we would be tempted to say more about the “what-ness” of divine essence than we should.

The Trinity is Useless

Much more could be said about Holmes proposal, but we should cut if off there.  Holmes ends with the claim that, properly speaking, the doctrine of the Trinity is useless, that we should not attempt to put it to use in the world of our experience or draw practical lessons from it for the world.  Why?  Because something that is put to use is being used for a more ultimate purpose, or a higher goal or later end.  But there is no end that is higher or later than God.  Because God is the last end, or end-less, the Trinity is likewise useless, because it is that end toward which all other uses are directed.

“For us to see the beauty of the divine life and to respond with awestruck worship is not something that serves another, higher, end, not something of use.  Instead, it is, simply and bluntly, what we were made for” (48).

Geoff Holsclaw is Affiliate Professor of Theology at Northern Seminary, and Director of their new Masters in Theology and Mission.  You can also follow Geoff on Twitter and Facebook.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.