The Divine Trinity: Beyond Monads, Irrelevant Mysteries and Scrambled Eggs

What difference does the Trinity make for Christian thought and life? While opinions vary, I share Lesslie Newbigin’s conviction that when many Christians think of God, they don’t call to mind the Father, Son, and Spirit, but the great divine monad. Newbigin maintains that Greek philosophy and Islamic thought have combined to shape the Christian imagination since the High Middle Ages, replacing the Trinitarian perspectives of the fathers of the first four centuries of Christian history.[1]

Newbigin is not alone in his critique. Michael J. Buckley argues that Christian apologists in the medieval and modern eras failed to debate their opponents in view of their Trinitarian heritage. According to Buckley, this lack of Trinitarian reflection was instrumental to modern atheism’s emergence. Beginning with Christian apologists’ critique of Baruch Spinoza, whose naturalistic perspectives on God and the world at large led to his Jewish community’s censure and the church’s harsh criticism, Buckley writes,

One of the many ironies of this history of origins [of modern atheism] is that while the guns of the beleaguered were often trained on Spinoza, the fortress was being taken from within. The remarkable thing is not that d’Holbach and Diderot found theologians and philosophers with whom to battle, but that the theologians themselves had become philosophers in order to enter the match. The extraordinary note about this emergence of the denial of the Christian god which Nietzsche celebrated is that Christianity as such, more specifically the person and teaching of Jesus or the experience and history of the Christian Church, did not enter the discussion. The absence of any consideration of Christology is so pervasive throughout serious discussion that it becomes taken for granted, yet it is so stunningly curious that it raises a fundamental issue of the modes of thought: How did the issue of Christianity vs. atheism become purely philosophical? To paraphrase Tertullian: How was it that the only arms to defend the temple were to be found in the Stoa?[2]

Further to Newbigin’s and Buckley’s claims, I find that there are many forces at work today that keep us in the church from thinking and acting in view of the Trinity. Some of these forces are rationalism, pragmatism, and individualism.

Let’s start with rationalism. One noted Christian thinker told me once that we should leave the Trinity alone since it is the greatest mystery of the Christian faith. I beg to differ. As the greatest revealed mystery, Christians must think and act in view of this doctrine. While the Trinity cannot be reduced to a mathematical formula of 1 x 1 x1 = 1 or a recipe involving an egg white, egg yolk and an egg shell, we Christians can and must approach everything in view of the God revealed in his personal Word, Jesus Christ, in the power of the Spirit.

How might this bear on the rational enterprise of modern science? There are many implications. I note several such possibilities in Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths. Here is one of them:

The creation of all things out of nothing by the personal Word of God safeguards science’s search for unity according to the canons of reason (affirming the link between minds and the universe as rational) as well as science’s free reign to pursue its course unhindered by an ideology that demands one recognize vestiges of God in creation or presumes that one must pursue science religiously. In his famous article on how Christian theology was instrumental in the rise of modern science, Michael Foster claims that modern science was able to arise and flourish when the quest for timeless frames of reference gave way to an empirical approach that focused on space and time forms. This involves the claim that God’s voluntary activity, which goes beyond the determination of reason, brings forth the creation in a dependent and contingent manner. What Foster points to as the voluntary will of God resonates in my estimation with the trinitarian doctrine of the creation of all things out of nothing by God’s Word. Just as God has relational space within his own being for otherness, God grants space for the creation to be the creation through the voluntary activity of God’s declaration by his personal Word.[3]

There is more to come. Let it suffice to say that for me—as well as for a growing number of Christian thinkers—the Trinity is not to be replaced with some great divine monad, removed to mysterious seclusion as irrelevant for broader consideration, or reduced to a recipe for how to make scrambled eggs.

This piece is cross-posted at The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and at The Christian Post.

[1]Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), pp. 27–28.

[2] Michael J. Buckley, S. J., At the Origins of Modern Atheism (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1987), pp. 33. See also pp. 55, 64–67, 350–69.

[3]Paul Louis Metzger, Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012), p. 202; see also Michael Foster, “The Christian Doctrine of Creation and the Rise of Modern Natural Science,” in Science and Religious Belief: A Selection of Recent Historical Studies, ed. C. A. Russell (1964; London: Open University, 1973), p. 311. For other treatments of how natural modern science owes much to its Western Christian context, see R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1972); Stanley Jaki, Cosmos and Creator (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1980).

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