The story of Ebenezer Scrooge, read afresh each year at Christmas, reminds us what to live for, what in life really matters. What could be worse than a life lived and nearly finished only to be full of regrets, haunted by the past? Thanks to the Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge is scared sober, with still enough time to change his ways. And change he does.
But it’s not just individuals who can be haunted by the past; entire movements and historical eras can be too. Sometimes we are so nearsighted that we cannot see the big picture of where we’ve been and where we’re headed. And so, the haunting begins—if we’re lucky enough for a ghost to scare us stiff.
Lewis Ayres, one of today’s leading experts on the Trinity, tells us that there is a great divide between the biblical, orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, which can be traced back to the Nicene Creed, and the modern understanding of the Trinity over the past hundred years.
However, this modern Trinity has snuffed out the biblical, orthodox Trinity, even pretended to be the orthodox Trinity, until there is little of orthodoxy that remains. It’s not merely, Ayres writes, that “modern Trinitarianism has engaged with pro-Nicene theology badly.” The situation is way worse: “It has barely engaged with it at all. As a result the legacy of Nicaea remains paradoxically the unnoticed ghost at the modern Trinitarian feast” (emphasis added).
Not that long ago, this ghost went unnoticed at the Trinitarian party, but now it haunts us, and its moans are only growing louder, its blinding light so bright no candle snuffer can extinguish it. To see why, we must walk through the rooms in this haunted house we call modern Christianity, rooms that explain and expose the recent past.
But don’t be fooled; it’s our recent past. It’s my recent past too. I was once taught a modern view of the Trinity as if it were the Bible’s view of the Trinity. But the Ghost of Orthodoxy Past kept haunting me.
What I discovered in these haunted rooms will be frightening for us to see: The Trinity of the Bible, our Trinity, has been manipulated beyond recognition. The guest of honor at the Trinitarian feast is not the biblical, orthodox Trinity at all. Trinity drift is real. And we are its victims.
The Trinity goes social
One of the most influential theologians of the past century—and that is no exaggeration—is Jürgen Moltmann, well-known for his belief in a God who suffers. As it turns out, two Karls—Karl Rahner and Karl Barth—taught him the Trinity when he was a student. But Moltmann believes his mentors got the Trinity wrong: By starting with “the sovereignty of the One God,” they were “then able to talk about the Trinity only as the ‘three modes of being’ or the ‘three modes of subsistence’ of that One God.”
Moltmann may detest Barth’s trinitarianism the most because it prides itself on the way God reveals himself as Lord. This obsession with lordship can only be the outcome of a Western, individualistic preoccupation with the one divine substance and monarch. Moltmann even criticizes the Nicene Creed, that historic standard of orthodoxy, as “ambivalent where the question of God’s unity is concerned.” For it “suggests a unity of substance between Father, Son, and Spirit” with all its talk about the Son being homoousios (of the same essence) with the Father, begotten from the Father’s essence from all eternity.
Moltmann bucks against this Western emphasis on lordship because it stems from an unwavering commitment to monotheism—a most terrible word in Moltmann’s opinion. The “unity of the absolute subject is stressed to such a degree that the trinitarian Persons disintegrate into mere aspects of the one subject”; this stress on unity leads “unintentionally but inescapably to the reduction of the doctrine of the Trinity to monotheism.”
By contrast, he has “decided in favour of the Trinity.” No one who calls themselves a Christian decides in disfavor of the Trinity, so what does Moltmann mean exactly? “I have developed a social doctrine of the Trinity, according to which God is a community of Father, Son, and Spirit, whose unity is constituted by mutual indwelling and reciprocal interpenetration.”
Notice what word social Trinitarians like Moltmann use to define the Trinity: community. The Trinity is a communityorsociety, a cooperation of divine persons, each with his own center of consciousness and will. Since each person in this society is equal, equality is distributed and hierarchy eliminated.
By redefining the Trinity as social, Moltmann now has the solution for the evils that plague society. If his social Trinity is the way to go, then “we find the earthly reflection of this divine sociality, not in the autocracy of a single ruler but in the democratic community of free people, not in the lordship of the man over the woman but in their equal mutuality, not in an ecclesiastical hierarchy but in a fellowship church.”
Moltmann rejoices that feminist theologians can now fight for the equality of the sexes thanks to the Trinity being an equal society of persons—God himself is no longer patriarchal but bisexual, giving matriarchy a divine voice. Moltmann cheers on a liberation gospel as well. We can now champion the cause of the oppressed in society over against “political monotheism” thanks to the lack of hierarchy in the triune community.
Is Moltmann alone in his social agenda? As it turns out, he launched a social crusade carried on by one of his own students and one of today’s most popular thinkers: Miroslav Volf.
The Trinity is our social program
Volf is from Croatia, but he has been influential in America. Much of his career has been devoted to political and public theology, so it is not surprising that Volf has something to say about the Trinity and society. In fact, the title of his book says it all: After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity.
Volf is just as convinced that the historic doctrine of the Trinity must be modified or even rejected, at least if the Trinity is to serve as a model for church and society, which it must. The Trinity, in some sense at least, is to be our social program. With his aim set on the church in particular, Volf concludes that there must be a direct correspondence between the type of community we see in the church and the Trinity.
We must understand what Volf was responding to. Some social Trinitarians said the secret to the Trinity was to redefine God’s being as communion. Rather than defining the “being” of the Trinity as the Great Tradition did, as an essence with three modes of subsistence, it was argued instead that “being” refers to the interpersonal love relationships or communion that the persons have with one another. Just as there is hierarchy in the Trinity, the Father at the top, so too, this group argued, there is hierarchy in the church, the bishop at the top.
Volf, too, is a social Trinitarian. “Amen!” he says to interpersonal, societal relationships of love. “Amen!” he says to being as communion. But the Trinitarian communion is one of equality rather than hierarchy, and since the Trinity is the paradigm for church and society, then so too should the church’s polity reflect such equality. Authority rests in the gathering of the whole, not in a single patriarch or bishop at the top. In a word, the church is to be as congregational as the Trinity and the Trinity as congregational as the church.
With all this talk about church, don’t miss the real issue: To meet the agenda of the church, the Trinity has been redefined. But don’t miss the irony either: Social Trinitarians are coming to opposite conclusions; some want hierarchy, others want equality.
To see such revisionism with crystal clarity, let’s travel to Brazil and meet a theologian whose name just happens to sound similar to Miroslav Volf. His name is Leonardo Boff. What’s so unique about Boff is this: He believes the Trinity is the prototype not only for the church but for politics as well. Boff has been a long-standing voice for liberation theology, especially in South America.
Liberation theologians read the Bible and conclude that its main message is the promise and hope that the oppressed in society will be set free from their oppressors. The gospel is not the triune God’s plan to send his Son, as if Jesus substituted himself for us, taking the penalty for our sin so that we can be forgiven and receive eternal life. Rather, the gospel is social and political liberation, setting free those pushed down in society from those in power.
So why did Jesus die? “The incarnate Son died as a protest against the slaveries imposed on God’s sons and daughters,” Boff writes in Trinity and Society. That redefinition of the gospel assumes a redefinition of the Trinity, to be sure.
Redefining the Trinity begins with swapping out the orthodox definition of person for a modern one: “The modern notion of person is basically that of being-in-relationship; a person is a subject existing as a centre of autonomy, gifted with consciousness and freedom.” In this one sentence, Boff sums up social trinitarianism. But Boff anticipates an objection: If this modern redefinition of person is applied to the Trinity, how can it not result in tritheism? Boff is convinced he escapes this heresy because the “stress is laid on relationship, the complete openness of one person to another.”
Redefining person as one who is in relation ship with others, Boff then redefines the Trinity as a society and a community. Boff looks to the human society for help. “Society is not just the sum total of the individuals that make it up, but has its own being woven out of the threads of relationships among individuals, functions and institutions, which together make up the social and political community.” The outcome: “Cooperation and collaboration among all produce the common good.”
So too, then, with the Trinity: It is a divine society where the individuals are persons in relationships with one another, persons who cooperate and collaborate as would a human community. Human society is a “pointer” to the Trinity, and the Trinity is the “model” for society.
The Trinity is a “community vision”: “God is a community of Persons and not simply the One; God’s unity exists in the form of communion (common-union).” Such community means there is “total reciprocity” between the Father, Son, and Spirit, a “loving relationship” one to another.
Evangelicalism is no exception
But wait, the Ghost of Orthodoxy Past is not finished. Evangelicals, too, have contributed to Trinity drift.
For example, countless Christian philosophers today have embraced a social view of the Trinity, even at the risk of tritheism. They propose a social Trinity where Father, Son, and Spirit are “distinct centers of knowledge, will, love, and action.” What defines the persons as persons? They are “distinct centers of consciousness,” writes Cornelius Plantinga. Together they form a “community” or “society,” so that “the Holy Trinity is a divine, transcendent society or community of three fully personal and fully divine entities.” With such an emphasis on distinct wills and centers of consciousness, the historic Nicene affirmation of simplicity will just not do anymore.
Others are bolder still. William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland argue that the “central commitment” of social trinitarianism is this: “In God there are three distinct centers of self-consciousness, each with its proper intellect and will.” Three wills, three centers of self-consciousness—this is the very DNA of social trinitarianism. No Trinity otherwise. Rejecting the classic affirmation of divine simplicity, they conclude, “God is an immaterial substance or soul endowed with three sets of cognitive faculties each of which is sufficient for personhood, so that God has three centers of self-consciousness, intentionality, and will.”
However, they also feel the pressure to explain why three wills and centers of consciousness is not tritheism. They even acknowledge that their view contradicts many of the church’s creeds, including the Athanasian Creed. Nevertheless, they find comfort in an appeal to sola scriptura.
Evangelical theologians are no exception either. Take Stanley Grenz, one of the most renowned evangelical thinkers of the past century. The Trinity is a social reality, said Grenz, and the defining mark of this community is love. Love is the all-controlling attribute of God and the defining mark of the society we call Trinity, binding the persons in unity. Their benevolent fellowship, bound by the Holy Spirit in particular, is what keeps the persons united as one single being.
But it takes self-dedication: Each person must be committed to relationships of societal, cooperative love. Grenz rebukes the Great Tradition for emphasizing God’s being, a being with three modes of subsistence. According to Grenz, that creates a fourth person. Instead, we must define the persons as those who pursue eternal love relationships with one another.
The New Calvinist movement is not immune to social trinitarianism either, as much as it thinks it is. Evangelicals like Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware have also redefined the Trinity as a society of persons defined by societal “roles” and “relationships,” cooperating with one another as distinct agents.
In the 20th century, social Trinitarians redefined persons as relationships of mutuality and self-giving love to support equality in society, especially between the sexes.
But Grudem and Ware believe this society of relationships in the Trinity is defined by functional hierarchy. The Son, for example, is subordinate to the supreme, absolute authority of the Father within the immanent Trinity, a novel view known as EFS (eternal functional subordination). Their social agenda comes through just as strong, if not stronger, than social Trinitarians before them, when they then argue that authority-submission inside the Trinity, within the eternal Godhead, is the paradigm and prototype for hierarchy in society, especially wives submitting to their husbands in the home.
Revival or departure?
Many who have experienced the resurgence of interest in the Trinity have drawn the conclusion that there has been a revival of Trinitarian thought. Despite the dismissive attitude of old school Protestant Liberalism, the Trinity matters after all. Through doctrinal CPR, the Trinity has been resuscitated, and never has it been more relevant for society.
But the Trinity they’ve resuscitated is neither the orthodox one nor the biblical one. To be blunt, they have not revived the orthodox Trinity, but they have killed it, only to replace it with a different Trinity altogether—a social Trinity—one that can be molded, even manipulated, to fit society’s soapbox. With the arrival of the 21st century, it’s now conspicuous that there are as many Trinities as modern theologians. With each new Trinity arrives a new social program.
Quests for the Trinity are in the end not about God but about me and my social agenda. As Karen Kilby writes, the Trinity is now a “pretext”: We claim to have a new “insight into the inner nature of God” but only so that we “can use it to promote social, political or ecclesiastical regimes.” I have experienced this firsthand. Within evangelical circles, both in the classroom and the church, contemplating and praising the Trinity was not the end goal (as it should be), but the Trinity was used merely as a means to other ends.
I am not alone in such a conclusion. With a detailed analysis of modern thought, Stephen Holmes voices a lament just as sobering: “The explosion of theological work claiming to recapture the doctrine of the Trinity that we have witnessed in recent decades in fact misunderstands and distorts the traditional doctrine so badly that it is unrecognizable. … [These are] thoroughgoing departures from the older tradition, rather than revivals of it.”
Trinity drift is real. We have not only drifted away from the biblical, orthodox Trinity, but we have manipulated the Trinity to meet our social agendas.
Adapted from Simply Trinity: The Unmanipulated Father, Son, and Spirit by Matthew Barrett (Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2021). Used by permission.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.