Rejecting the Social Trinity

August 31st, 2016 / 5 Comments

In his new book, Christ and the Cosmos, Keith Ward argues that “the idea of God as a sort of society is a bad idea.” I think he’s right. But the social Trinity concept is so popular that rejecting it may sound heretical!

Of course, making sense of the Trinity is difficult. Some of the finest minds in Christendom argue past one another when discussing it. Ward does his best to provide clarity as he works through the relevant biblical passages, leading Christian theologians, and crucial philosophical notions. But the book is still dense.Christ-and-the-Cosmos-by-theologian-Keith-Ward-196x300

Ward’s main point, however, is simple: Christian theology would make better sense if Christians did not say God is comprised of three persons, each with distinct centers of consciousness, distinct freedoms, distinct responsibilities, distinct wills, and distinct relations between one another. This formulation of the Trinity is more tritheistic than monotheistic.

Furthermore, says Ward, Christians should not appeal to mystery when the social Trinity’s problems become evident. Instead, they should reject the concept of the social Trinity. God is one not three, and God has one mind and will.

I think Ward is right. And for a host of reasons, Christians should conceive of the Trinity more like Ward does. The Trinity makes better sense if we say one God instantiates in three forms that includes other-creation, relationship, and inclusion. A doctrine of the Trinity expressed in these terms should prove more winsome for most 21st century contexts.

Ward’s Doctrine of Divine Love

I like Ward’s book so much that I want to post a series of blogs on it. In this first, I address Ward’s overall doctrine of God. I think he’s right about the general theology he proposes.

Ward rightly rejects theologies closely derived from ancient Greek philosophical notions of God, which proposed on divine timelessness and God as a substance. The Greek philosophical aversion to change and its appreciation for static categories fail to fit well the broad biblical witness. These notions fail to match how Christians relate to God in their piety. And they fail to make sense to many people influenced by contemporary philosophy, culture, and science.

Most appealing in Ward’s doctrine of God is his emphasis upon love. A Christian description of God is “guided by the key teaching that ‘God is love,’” says Ward (86). In fact, God’s love is other-creating and dynamic. God’s goodness is understood in relation to creation, because God is compassionate and seeks cooperation from creatures.

Love is also essential for helpful conceptions of the Trinity. “The threefold form of divine love – as creating finite persons, relating in love to them, and uniting them to the divine life – is the manifestation,” says Ward, “of the supreme goodness of God as creative, self-giving, and universally inclusive love” (62). Divine love is expressed “naturally” in these ways.

Ward is right in how he thinks about God’s love and freedom in relation to evil. God must love, says Ward, because God does not have moral freedom. And God cannot choose evil (167). “Yet evil must have its origin in God,” argues Ward, “since God is the cause of everything other than God. Therefore some things originate in God, but not by [God’s] choice. They presumably arise by necessity” (162). God’s freedom is “necessarily conditioned” (165).

Other Aspects of God

Other dimensions of Ward’s doctrine of God are also winsome. Ward rightly says that some aspects of God – the divine nature – do not change, while other aspects – divine personal experience – do change.

Ward rejects the classic view of divine simplicity, because it undermines the personal and relational aspects of God. God is simple, however, in the sense that God does not have separate and independent parts. God is one subject. The most natural reading of the biblical narrative, says Ward, is that God relates and responds to creation, thereby seeking synergistic cooperation from creatures.

Ward is an open and relational theologian who believes that God essentially experiences time in some way analogous to how creatures experience it.  In other words, God is temporal in some respects. This time-full God does not have one, preordained plan to be worked out in a predetermined and precise way. God wills that creatures cooperate in the work to create new expressions of love and goodness, and that plan can take many forms (77-78).

Ward is right to say the language of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit need not be truth of the divine being in itself. In God, there is “one will and experience,” Ward puts it, “necessarily instantiated in different forms by Father, Son, and Spirit” (229). On alien worlds, God would likely not take the form or be expressed well in the language of Father, Son, and Spirit. Ward calls his view of the trinity “cosmic,” because it “conceives of God in relation to a hugely expanded cosmos and not just to humans on this planet” (221).

So… Why is the Social Trinity Attractive to Some?

I find so much about Ward’s view of God helpful. We’re both open and relational theologians, so this should come as no surprise.

I also think he’s right to reject the concept of the social Trinity. But there are good reasons some theologians have embraced this concept. In my next blog, I’ll address those.

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Comments

Kirk Wayman

Dr. Oord,

Thank you for an informative and respectful blog. It would be helpful to hear your articulation of a social trinity conceptualization of God as a way of clarifying what is being rejected.

Thanks,

Kirk Wayman


Ryan Scott

I’m not sure if you’re aware of Peter Rollins’ suggestion that YHWH should not be translated as a noun, but as a verb. His rendering is “I shall be there howsoever I shall be there.” As an example, Rollins uses the story of Jacob wrestling with God – Jacob demands to know God’s name, but instead God blesses Jacob, implying that God is not a thing to be named, but an embodied action. God is, quite literally, love (or blessing). God is not a thing (or even a person) that can be objectified; God can only be experienced. This whole perspective is an attempt to see God as necessarily relational – when we experience God we are “receiving something that cannot be conceived.”

He compares this to the story of Ra, who, once his name was known and spoken, could be objectified and controlled. Rollins argues that the YHWH revelation is an attempt to communicate and entirely different kind of “existence.”

I’m no Hebrew expert, but those I’ve talked to say this is consistent with the language and certainly an intriguing idea. It would also play nicely into the notion you lay out here. I think it also gives us new perspective on the arguments over how to define and describe Christ – the original Christian creed was “Jesus Christ is Lord,” but we only got into trouble when we tried to figure out exactly what that meant. If we focus more on how to embody or experience that creed instead of defining it, I think we get a lot closer to scripture.


thomasjayoord

Kirk and others,

I submitted the final installment in this 4-part review. I’m not sure I addressed your question fully, but I hope you get the contours of an answer in the other installments.


Enoch

God is not a Trinity. Man is not a trinity. From Taylor’s book:

According to the Word of God, God formed Man’s body from the dust of the ground, breathed God’s breath of life (spirit) into Man’s body, and Man came alive, became a living soul; that is, Body + Spirit = Soul. Genesis 2:7 shows that The Trinity is a false doctrine. The Trinity, or any trinity, has 3 equal parts. This equation accurately reflects Genesis 2:7, and it demonstrates that body, spirit, and soul are not 3 equal parts. This equation says that body and spirit are two parts each by itself, but the soul is not a part by itself, for the soul is dependent on the other two parts, body + spirit. Can a body exist by itself? Yes. Can a spirit exist by itself? Yes. Can a soul exist by itself? No. A soul needs both body and spirit in order to come into existence, as this verse explicitly says.


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