The Trinity: the grammar of divine love

This post continues a series reviewing Daniel Migliore's book, Faith Seeking Understanding, An Introduction to Christian Theology. For other posts in this series, click a number: 1235.

Migliore speaks of trinitarian faith as giving us a "grammar of wondrous divine love that freely gives of itself to others and creates community, mutuality, and shared life" (p76). He summarizes this grammar with three statements (what follows compiles quotes from pages 76-82):

1. To confess that God is triune is to affirm that the eternal life of God is personal life in relationship.
  • In God's eternal being there is movement, life, personal relationship and the giving and receiving of love. 
  • God is one, but the unity of God is a living unity - a koinonia of persons in love.
  • The three persons of the Trinity have their personal identity in relationship.
  • In this oneness, there is differentiation and otherness, for relationship presupposes otherness

2. To confess that God is triune is to affirm that God exists in communion far deeper than the relationships and partnerships we know in our human experience.
  • This thought is well stated by Gregory of Nazianzus: "I cannot think of the one without being quickly encircled by the splendor of the three; nor can I discern the three without being immediately led back to the one."
  • God is no supreme monad [single unit] existing in eternal solitude; God is the covenantal God. God's will for life in relationship with and among the creatures is an expression of God's faithfulness to God's own eternal life, which is essentially communal - a communion expressed by the Greek word perichoresis, meaning "mutual indwelling" or "being-in-one-another." The three of the Trinity "indwell" and pervade each other; they "encircle" each other, being united in an exquisite divine dance; or to use still another metaphor, they "make room" for each other, being incomparably hospitable to each other.
  • The Trinitarian, perichoretic life of God points to experiences of friendship, caring family relationships, and the inclusive community of free and equal persons as hints or intimations of the eternal life of God and of the reign (kingdom) of God that Jesus proclaimed. 
  • Quoting Boff: "The Trinity understood in human terms as a communion of Persons lays the foundations for a society of brothers and sisters, of equals, in which dialog and consensus are the basic constituents of living together in both the world and the church."
  • Since God's being is in communion, human life too is intended by God to be life in communion.

3. To confess that God is triune is to affirm that the life of God is essentially self-giving love whose strength embraces vulnerability.
  • The gospels identify God as the power of compassionate love that is stronger than sin and death. To have compassion means to suffer with another. According to the biblical witness, God suffers with and for creatures out of love for them. Above all in Jesus Christ, God goes the way of suffering, alienation, and death for the salvation of the world.
  • God loves in freedom not only in relation to us but in God's own eternal being. God can enter into vulnerable interaction with the world, even to the depths of temporality, deprivation, suffering, and death, because as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, God is essentially an inexhaustible history of mutual self-surrendering love.


Anonymous said…
Hi there!

I have read this post several times, and each time I am bewildered by it.

The reason is that the post, along with its picture, seems to be teaching polytheism. In other words, there are three Gods having a good time in heaven.

Any thoughts on this?

All the best!

J. Richard Parker
Ted Johnston said…
Hi Richard,

You note one of the great challenges of communicating a fully Trinitarian theology - whether verbally or graphically. That challenge is upholding God's "oneness" while also upholding his "threeness."

Of course, all verbal and graphical representations of God's tri-unity fall short of his fullness and thus his perfection. Yet such representations are meaningful when they point us faithfully to the reality that seek to represent.

I personally like the *abstract* visual representation in this post. To me, it points well to both God as both one-in-three and three-in-one, with his oneness expressed relationally as a "divine dance."

This is what Migliore seeks to represent verbally (in writing), picking up on the ancient idea of God's *perichoresis*. He goes into much more detail about this in his helpful book.

Another helpful (though technical) written resource on this topic is T.F. Torrance's book, *The Christian Doctrine of God (one being, three persons)*. There he unpacks in great detail the early church's understanding of the nature of God's oneness and threeness, and the related issue of how Jesus Christ can be one person with two natures (both fully human and fully divine).

It might be helpful for me to add here that Western (Protestant and Roman Catholic) theologies have tended to emphasize God's *oneness* at the expense of his *threeness.* In contrast, Eastern (Orthodox) theologies have tended to put greater emphasis on God's threeness" in alignment with theologians of the early church (the *Patristic fathers*).

It's important to understand and uphold both God's oneness and threeness. To do so, most of us protestants need to gain greater understanding and emphasis on his threeness (but without falling into the error of tritheism). Moreover, it's vital to understand both God's oneness and threeness on a relational basis. God is not a mathematical construct, but a living, dynamic, loving and creative communion (common-union) of divine persons.