The doctrine of the Trinity … it’s a trap!

I wasn’t joking on Friday when I wrote that I’m probably guilty of the old Christian “heresy” of Patripassianism.

The Wikipedia entry on that heresy notes that, “This view is opposed to the classical theological doctrine of divine apathy.” And, well, me too — even if that contradicts 1 John 4:8, where it says “Whoever is not apathetic does not know God, for God is apathy.”

Patripassianism, roughly, is the idea that God the Father suffered in the passion of God the Son. Because, apparently, the idea that a loving Father would suffer from the suffering of a beloved son is heretical. Someone here seems deeply confused about the meaning of the words “father” and “beloved.” The early church authorities say it’s me who is confused. This makes me wonder if the early church authorities had any kids of their own. And it makes me suspect that their own dads must’ve been colossal pricks.

Patripassianism, by the way, is apparently related to Modalistic Monarchianism. Theologian Scot McKnight offers a description of Modalistic Monarchianism here. And here, in a post three days earler, theologian Scot McKnight seems to get his Patripassianism on in a big way. And I say good for him. His post about the various gradations of trinitarian heresies is arcane, confusing, and not obviously helpful when it comes to, say, loving my neighbor. But his post chiding the theology of miserable comforters and commending Bonhoeffer’s appeal to “the suffering God” is a helpful discussion of a necessary subject — even if it could easily be criticized for straying too near the forbidden zone of all those arcane heresies.

This is why the smartest thing I’ve read recently about the doctrine of the Trinity is this post from Reverend Ref back on Trinity Sunday in May:

Today is Trinity Sunday. The day when all regular preachers try to find or draft a seminarian or deacon or guest preacher to fill the pulpit. Because, really, once you get past “Three in One and One in Three,” or, “I am He and He is Me and We are All Together,” one generally begins to wander off into heresy-land — The more you talk, the more trouble you get into.

He’s right. It’s a trap. See also “St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies,” from Lutheran Satire:

As the Irish twins with the Scottish accents in that video illustrate, one is “allowed” to recite the lawyerly formulations of the Athanasian Creed, but if you stray at all from that narrow path or attempt to say anything more — any positive statements, clarifications, analogies, applications — you’re screwed. And as that video shows, this doctrine creates so many different ways in which you can be screwed that it’s hard not to suspect this was the intention — a doctrine more useful for generating and then condemning heresies than for avoiding error.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the Trinity, in one God in three persons. This is a historically Christian way of talking and thinking about God. It’s a helpful and insightful metaphor. And it’s a metaphor that can be supported by several passages in the Bible. But it’s not actually a biblical metaphor. It’s something that Christians have, for many centuries, laid on top of the scriptures, but it was never something we found there in any explicit form.

Set aside all the whole Monster Manual of traditional heresies and heretical -isms, where theology often starts to get into trouble is when we elevate our metaphors about God and begin worshiping and serving those metaphors rather than worshiping and serving God.

That word — “metaphor” — tends to infuriate the defenders of doctrinal purity, but it’s a necessary word. Anything else leads to laughable overreach, to the claim that we can define or confine the infinite.

I believe in God. And I believe that God, being God, is more than I can comprehend, more than I can pin down, define, contain, master or bind into a formula.

And that’s OK. Because I also believe that everything I need to know about God has been revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. And that is not a metaphor.

As for my Patripassianist tendencies, if I go for a very long walk and think about it very hard, then I can almost imagine some way in which it might be marginally useful to clarify precise ways in which God did and did not suffer in the passion of Jesus Christ. Almost. Just as I can almost conceive of some way that something called “the classical theological doctrine of divine apathy” might be something other than slanderous blasphemy. But all of that still strikes me mainly as an elaborate exercise in evading some other, far more urgent business.

All of which is to say that if anyone is looking to catechize me on the particulars of the doctrine of the Trinity, let me save you some time. I will fail that test. I’m afraid that may delegitimize everything else I have to say among those who regard that test as essential and paramount, but then this illegitimacy was already a given since I don’t have much interest in joining those who regard that test as essential and paramount. (Does that make me some kind of defiant heretic? Well, duh. What part of the words “Baptist” and “evangelical” didn’t you understand?)

If you are ever called on to parse or to try to explain the doctrine of the Trinity, remember this: It’s a trap.

Your safest response may be something like what a theology student of Ben Myers’ turned in for a class on the Trinity. Myers read the paper’s delirious conclusion and called the student aside, to say: “As your teacher, I have to tell you that this is completely unacceptable, and you must never do this again in an academic essay. As a human being, I loved it – can I post it on my blog?” (This is a response every student should aspire to inspire — but probably only once.)

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  • Golly. About seven years ago when I was a Catholic, I struggled quite a bit with the idea that the Father and Holy Spirit didn’t really care much about me. Jesus seemed like a marvelously approachable and compassionate being, but since he was inexorably bound to the Father and Holy Spirit, that didn’t comfort me as much as it might have. All this time, I’ve thought of that struggle as a kind of crisis of faith. Now that you’ve acquainted me with the doctrine of Divine Apathy, I see that my spiritual misery was really the only outcome orthodoxy allows. A creator who doesn’t suffer in empathy with his creation? What a useless belief!

  • “God is like a shamrock…” :P

  • I was taught that God explicitly suffered and died on the cross. All the while looking on and suffering because his son was dying on the cross, as well as being sad that everyone else was dying on crosses and killing other people and etc. I’ve never heard of the idea that God could not suffer before, not even while studying year year 500ish heresies in history classes.

    The idea that God is consistently heartbroken at humanity’s behavior is absolutely central to the Lutheranism I was brought up in.

  • Space Marine Becka

    I don’t think you’re really a Patripassian, Fred. You don’t apparently think the Father is the Son. I do think you come to the rather orthodox (with a small o) conclusion that the Trinity is actually inexplicable in human terms (this is why Catholicism calls it a mystery). Any attempt to explain it ends up being heretical or apparently nonsensical due to the inherent limitations of language. Everything we say about it is approximation.

    I mean I am very orthodox when it comes to the Trinity but it’s definitely the theological equivalent of non-euclidian geometry.

  • The trinity is certainly a trap, but most of all for those who believe it, because no one absolutely agrees on how to define it,alll the while claiming everyone who disagrees on their exact definition is a damned heretic deserving of endless suffering. Yep, not only is every Christian utterly alone in how they perceive God as a trinity, they all think God is going to condemn anyone who doesn’t get it… Or at least they would think this, if they bothered to let anyone talk about the trinity.

    I like it when Christians break this mold and actually try to talk about how to understand that doctrine up on the pedestal, and don’t condemn everyone who doesn’t formulate in the exact same way (or even if they disagree with the ‘trinity’ concept in itself.)

  • Wow- this is pretty much exactly how I feel about the Trinity. Like you have to use really weird unclear language, and if you try to actually explain it, you’ll always end up saying a heresy.

  • Reminds me of a story I was writing a few years back (never finished it because it skeeved me out when I looked back at what I was writing and realized it was spiraling out of control) where the protagonist, as a young girl, is approached by a priest who tries to explain the nature of the trinity. He ties it into redemption, saying that God sent his son to die and absolve humanity of their sins. She doesn’t take much to the idea. When he grabs her by the hands as his proselytizing grows ever more earnest, she digs her nails into his palms and demands to know what kind of father could take pleasure in watching their son die a horrible, torturous death to save the very people killing him.

  • That combined with the above image and now I get “God is like… onions!”

  • aunursa

    I don’t have a problem with a Christian not being able to explain the Trinity. The only problem I would have is when a Christian tries to prove the Trinity to me, a Jew — or tries to convince me that the God of the Hebrew Bible is a Triune deity — and yet this person is unable to explain it.

  • One could make an argument that the God of the Hebrew Bible is at least a duality deity, since Genesis references the breath of life, which some consider to be synonymous with the Holy Spirit, and the third component just hasn’t shown up yet (though is referenced in prophecy, so if God is at all places in all times, then one could count Jesus as already being present and thus the trinity existing even then…)

    But I’m not trying to convince you to convert, so it doesn’t count. :D

  • MikeJ

    I don’t understand why we must stop at three. Ok, Jesus refers to his father, so that gives you two, there are mentions of a holy spirit, so you could stretch that to mean three, but why stop there? Where’s God the sister? God the second cousin twice removed? God the guy that used to work in that liquor store that would cash paychecks?

  • bluesky

    ‘The early church authorities say it’s me who is confused’.
    They would be right, because Patripassianism doesn’t means that the Father doesn’t care, it ‘roughly’ means that there is no distinction at all between God the Father and God the Son. It means they are not separate persons. So Patripassianist love would actually be love of yourself, not of others.
    Divine ‘apathy’ is also best ‘roughly’ translated as the idea that God does not experience things (like grief, anger, pain) out of forced necessity (suffering them passively because he must), but chooses to do so out of free and abundant love for what he has made.
    It is unfair to make the early church fathers whipping boys for a rhetorical argument of this kind. Many of them suffered a great deal to defend the idea that God is person (and community of persons) who can genuinely and freely love us.

  • rrhersh

    Not really on topic, but I had not previously seen those Lutheran Satire videos, and I have browsing through them. I’m Lutheran, and I like satire, so it seemed a pretty sure bet. The one Fred posted is excellent, but looking at the others leaves me a bit queasy. Many of them seem to consist of the smart protagonist with his proof texts ready at hand beating down the stupid antagonist, who absent mindedly left his proof texts at home. Even when I agree with the position of the protagonist, the technique is lazy at best, and implicitly supports the position that the way to discuss theology is with proof texts. These videos easily slide into hurtfulness: Hey, look! I’m making fun of anyone who disagrees with me! From there is is a short step to outright hatefulness.

    Except for the Westboro Baptist one, of course. They have it coming.

  • Turcano

    The doctrine of the Trinity is so good at creating heresies that I have to wonder if the trap was deliberately designed for that purpose. After all, it apparently didn’t achieve any sort of prominence until certain factions of Christianity allied themselves with the government, and a doctrine that can make a heretic out of anyone would be extraordinarily useful for keeping people in line.

  • Now this sounds much more like what I was taught in church, and also fits with what I learned in history.

    Not to defend all the church fathers — the fact that we even call them “fathers” and don’t put “mothers” in there shows there are some serious problems with following them. But it’s much better to criticize people for things they actually do and say, rather than for one’s misunderstanding of those things.

  • Baby_Raptor

    So God’s an ogre?

  • Pseudonym

    To be fair, most of the historic heresies sought to over-define the nature of God in one way or another. The heresies were largely positive claims (e.g. Arianism taught that God the Son was subordinate to God the Father). Orthodoxy developed as negative claims, like “Arianism isn’t true”.

    This isn’t true of all of the heresies, of course. But I see the Orthodox response largely as trying to keep the nature of God deliberately vague.

    That makes historic sense when you think about it. The early Church was trying to reconcile several seemingly contradictory beliefs, such as “Jesus is God” and “there is one God”. Any time you try to reconcile those beliefs in a way that makes sense, you risk breaking something and changing the nature of the religion. Better to keep everything under-specified.

  • Some Christians actually think God is nine persons, based on (what I think is) a dubious reading of a single verse in Revelation 1.

    But I do agree with your line of questioning. Several aspects of God are personified in the Bible as well: wisdom, glory, name, etc. Taking the references to the holy spirit as a third ‘person’ apart from God and Jesus seems somewhat arbitrary when held alongside these other ones, especially when the spirit of a human is spoken of in identical terms to the spirit of God… so if God’s spirit is a distinct person, consistently, why don’t we speak of our own spirits as distinct persons?

  • ‘Orthodoxy’ didn’t form simply as a negative claim against Arianism. The Nicene Creed and Athanasian Creed, both developed in direct contrast to ‘Arian’ ideas don’t at all intend to keep the nature of God vague; the writers had a definite (even if paradoxical, possibly even self-contradictory) idea of what they understood God’s nature to be.

  • Okay, that’s a lot less creepy that Fred’s take on the doctrine. Thanks for clarifying.

  • William Farrar

    When I think of Partipassian I think of the bonus track on Current 93’s All the pretty little horses. With Nick Cave.

  • Lorehead

    In the 13th century, the Mongol Khan, at the height of his power, sent a Nestorian Christian, born in China, named Rabban bar Sauma as his ambassador to Europe with the goal to form an alliance against the Muslims in Egypt; the Christians could have the Holy Land. He arrived in Rome in 1287, when there was yet no Pope, and spoke to the cardinals, one of whom was the future Pope Nicholas IV.

    They immediately began grilling him about the most important matter they could think about:

    The Cardinals said unto him, “How dost thou believe? Recite thy belief, article by article.” […] The Cardinals said unto him, “Doth the Holy Spirit proceed from the Father or from the Son, or is it separate?

    This started an argument which, in bar Sauma’s telling, he got the better of, but it finally stopped when he told the cardinals he’d hoped to do some sightseeing while in Rome, so could he please go do that now?

    Then RABBAN SAWMA said unto them, “I have come from remote countries neither to discuss, nor to instruct [men] in matter of the Faith, but I came that I might receive a blessing from MAR PAPA, and from the shrines of the saints and to make known the words of King [ARGHON] and the Catholicus. If it be pleasing in your eyes, let us set aside discussion, and do ye give attention and direct someone to show us the churches here and the shrines of the saints; [if ye will do this] ye will confer a very great favour on your servant and disciple.”

    Things went better from there, but there was in the end no alliance and no Christian reconquest of the Holy Land.

  • ohiolibrarian

    Could someone explain “God in a Box” to me? A local church has been advertising it lately. Seems weird to me that every summer some churches have some kind of canned program like that.

  • Katie

    As a side note, I find it interesting, and slightly hilarious, that every Sunday millions of Christians stand up and explicitly reject a whole slate of heresies that are so old that most people don’t know what they are.

  • Amaryllis

    If I am ever called upon to parse or to try to explain the doctrine of the Trinity,I would probably just recite Seamus Heaney’s paraphrase of John of the Cross. Because poetry is the only language that works at all.

  • ReverendRef

    “Holy Cats!!! I got mentioned and linked to by name on Slacktivist!!” he said with a big ol’ grin on his face.

    Thanks, Fred.

  • Bob Gifford

    Fred – you sound like a believer in Open Theism, as am I. I highly recommend Clark Pinnock’s book Most Moved Mover. God’s impassability came from greek philosophy, not from the biblical witness, and open theism is a necessary correction. For his efforts, Clark Pinnock became persona non grata in the conservative evangelical world, a sure sign he was on to something!

  • Jeff Weskamp

    How about seven persons: the Father, the Warrior, the Smith, the Mother, the Maiden, the Crone, and the Stranger?

  • Space Marine Becka

    Oops accidentally upvoted myself tryimng to view my upvotes – very gauche so downvoted myself to get rid of it (then removed the downvote)

  • Donalbain

    If you re-up-vote, the up-vote goes away.

  • arcseconds

    Rev. Ref really loves/hates/has it in for/is obsessed with “I am the Walrus”, isn’t he?

  • arcseconds

    On the other hand, it could just be wind.

  • arcseconds

    Isn’t the trinity an import from neoplatonism, anyways?

    I suppose I could take the view that deviating from Plotinus, who was totally just expounding what was already there in the dialogues of the divine Plato, is in itself heretical.

    How does one go about establishing one’s own Inquisition Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith?

    There must be some start-up funds and how-to packages available, mus’n’t there?

  • arcseconds
  • arcseconds

    I imagine it’s probably a simple model for God’s omnipresence and omnipotence, just as a particle-in-a-box is a simple model for the location and energy levels of an electron.

    A particle has to be confined with an energy well of infinite depth before its probability amplitude has an integral of 1 over a finite space, so that may shed some light on God’s omnipresence, and also possibly on the whole immovable object vs. irresistible force conundrum…

  • flat

    Ah the trinity: the reason I decided to be a christian because althrough I believe God exist in three parts: I still believe He is one.

  • Patrick

    I’ve written a sentence on a piece of paper. I’m not going to tell you what it says.

    It is now impossible for you to believe the sentence on my piece of paper. You can believe that I have written some true sentence (perhaps I say it is true and you trust me, etc), but you cannot believe the propositional content of the sentence.

    Therefore, no one actually believes in the Trinity. They profess it. Not the same.

    This was revelatory for me when I first figured it out.

  • The_L1985

    No, no. You see, onions have layers, ogres have layers, and God has layers.

    “What about cakes? Cakes have layers!”


  • The_L1985

    Indeed. That old joke about things “making baby Jesus cry” is common in the first place because the idea of divine empathy is damn near universal in Christianity. Unless you’re a fundie-type, in which case, John Edwards applies.

  • The_L1985

    Or God’s breath.

  • The_L1985

    The best part is, they’re also implicitly denouncing the Eastern Orthodox folks with the “filioque” clause, and don’t know that either.

  • The_L1985

    It’s really funny to me that people assume that later, neo-Platonist additions to Christianity are in the Bible somewhere.

    Especially when they act like Heaven has got to be like the one in the Narnia books (admittedly, being able to go to any place you ever wanted to, in any world in the multiverse, does sound like a pretty cool afterlife). Kirke himself says in those books “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato. Dear me, what do they teach them at these schools!”

  • arcseconds

    you forgot about Steve. Or is that another name for one of the ones you listed?

  • arcseconds

    don’t some Jewish traditions personify all sorts of aspects of G-d, including the bit that lives in the Holiest of Holies?

  • Eric Boersma

    Ok, so eight persons. The Father, the Warrior, the Smith, the Mother, the Maiden, the Crone, the Stranger and Steve.


  • alfgifu

    *Analogy nitpicking warning alert*

    The doctrine of the Trinity (and the nature of God in general) strikes me more as a sentence (or perhaps a library) that we can only read a few words from. Or perhaps that we can only see from a distance (or in a glass, darkly?)

    At least for me, one part of Christian faith is a belief that the nature of God is revealed in various ways, but that any effort to extrapolate from what is perceptible to a human runs into mystery pretty quickly.

    Rather than a sentence written on a piece of paper that you won’t show me, it’s a hypercube (or 5- or 6- dimensional shape) pictured in a 3-dimensional world. You can show it to me all you like, and I can try to construct a mental image of the finished thing, but without the necessary 5- or 6- dimensional frame of reference I’m never going to quite get it – and the more certain I am that my representation is correct, the more likely it is that I have simplified, broken or twisted the shape into a mere 3D mockery.

    I can believe that the shape exists, and that there is a frame of reference within which it does reconcile to perfect harmony, without ever seeing more than glimpses of how that might be the case.

    On that basis I would say that I believe in the Trinity.

  • Joseph

    I still can’t decide whether it’s deliciously ironic or entirely appropriate that Tertullian, the father of trinitarian theology as we know, is considered a heretic.

  • DM

    That video is one of the funniest thing I’ve ever, seen, even though I’m a die-hard atheist, allbeit one who’s spent enough time around classicists/ancient historians to get a feel for the convulutions of ancient doctrinal debates about this stuff (and the wars they inspired.) However, on seeing the reference to the Voltron heresy, I do wonder if Voltron created one heresay, just how many giant stompy robot related heresies were created by Neon Genesis Evangelion…
    (For those who’s had enough sense never to wander into the terrifying, kitsch and naked high school girl filled world of Japanese popular TV, Neon Genesis Evangelion is a very popular bat-shit crazy anime about young teenagers punching aliens named after Biblical angels in giant robot* suits, which features lots and lots of mangled Judaeo-Christian symbolism, mostly used without rhyme or reason. It’s kind of like a cross between a toy commercial, a deeply personal and anguished meditation on suffering, suicide and loneliness, and a sort of ‘baby’s first von Trier movie.’)

    *Actually cyborg suits. Do not make this mistake at the wrong convention of nerds ;)

  • AndrewSshi

    Isn’t the trinity an import from neoplatonism, anyways?

    Not really. The formula for baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is in there in Matthew (dating from the 70s or 80s). Rules of faith dating at least to the second and third centuries also described God in terms of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

    In the late third and fourth century people started trying to hash out why the Church prayed that way, and the toolkit they drew on was the logic and philosophy of language of the Greek world–but not neo-Platonism per se. More Aristotle as mediated through Platonizing commentary.

  • That explains the “Nine Names of Aslan” thing referenced in the Narnia novels then.