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Sir Lloyd Geering: Rethinking the trinity

Stained glass inside the Basilique du Sacre Coeur in the Paris, France. Photo/Getty Images

A prominent theologian and public intellectual questions modern interpretations of the traditional formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity.

There is an apocryphal yet instructive story of a famous theologian who had just delivered a lecture on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. A student jumped to his feet to thank the professor, excitedly exclaiming that at last he felt he really understood the doctrine. His theological teacher surprised him by heaving a sigh of despair and saying: "If you understand it as clearly as that, then you have misunderstood it and I shall have to start all over again."

The point of the story, of course, is that the doctrine of the Trinity has long been said to be a holy mystery which finite human minds were not expected to be able to understand anyway. Theologians to this day often speak of it as the central mystery of the Christian faith, enshrining the deepest truth of Christianity.

The modern mind, attuned as it is to the wealth of new knowledge provided by science, is not impressed by mystery, particularly if it claims to be a supernatural kind of knowledge, unattainable by either human reason or modern science.

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The term mystery should never have been used of the doctrine as such, for it can be legitimately used only when referring to that ultimate mystery life presents to us and which, in the absence of any better term, we may continue to call God. The doctrine of the Trinity, on the other hand, is clearly a human construction, more properly referred to as a formula. Not only is it composed of human concepts and expressed in human language but we can clearly trace its historical development during the first five Christian centuries.

The way in which that doctrine evolved, and the reasons which led to it, are of much greater relevance to us today than the final formulation itself. To say that God is three persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) in one substance not only sounds today like an illogical conundrum but it quite misrepresents what the ancient theologians were trying to say.

The chief reason for this is that our use of "person" to mean a human being was unknown in the ancient Roman world, where the word persona referred to the mask worn by the actor to indicate the role he was playing. The theologians borrowed the term to refer to the various activities in which, in their experience, God was to be found. They wished to assert that one and the same God was encountered in the Father Creator (who chose the people of Israel), in the historical figure of Jesus Christ, and in the new power which Christians felt present within them.

To speak today of God as three persons readily leads to a mental picture of a heavenly trio (a divine committee!), one which has even been portrayed visually in art. Such a view of God (and it is widespread in popular Christianity) deserves the condemnation which Muhammad heaped upon it. He called Christians polytheists, who had sadly regressed from the pure monotheism of Judaism which he himself felt called to reaffirm. He got the clear impression that Christians worshipped three gods (though he had them confused, assuming them to be the Father, the Son and the Virgin Mary).

But while the traditional formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity is today misleadingly false in that it does not even clearly communicate what the original formulators of the doctrine intended, a fresh look at how it came about could prove fruitful in the present intellectual climate where even the word "God" is proving quite problematical.

First of all we should note that the doctrine of the Trinity did not come suddenly out of the blue. The ancient theologians never claimed that it was divinely revealed. It is not even explicitly enunciated in the Bible, though a few verses are often appealed to by way of support. The doctrine was actually hammered out in a series of conciliar debates, often very fierce, and never reaching a unanimous conclusion. That is the only way in which we shall arrive, in our day also, at a clearer and more satisfying understanding of our religious experience. It is vain to expect complete and final answers to drop miraculously on our plate. This did not happen for the founders of the church and neither will it happen for us.

The second thing to be learned from those early Christian thinkers is that they were not content to appeal to the authority of past tradition. They were aware they lived in a religiously new context. They had inherited the traditions and Holy Scriptures of the Jewish people. They also possessed the tradition initiated by Jesus of Nazareth and embodied in the testimony of the Apostles. Not only was it necessary to find a way of blending these two traditions, but they  also were trying to reconcile them both with the religious philosophy of the Greek culture within which they lived.

This was a tall order. The courage and creativity of those early theologians have perhaps not been sufficiently appreciated today, just because the passing of time has caused even their best efforts to appear quaint and outmoded. Religious thought faces a similar, and perhaps even greater, challenge today. The modern challenge comes from the vast new areas of knowledge which science and research have opened up to us. It is interesting to observe that, when in the late 19th century this challenge to traditional doctrine could no longer be held at bay, the most liberal theologians were hailing the voice of science as the new voice of God, which had to be reconciled with the ancient voice of God. This, of course, was too simplistic.

Yet it does throw light on what motivated the ancient trinitarians. They looked for a way of unifying their various experiences and tracing them all back to a single origin. Because of the compelling significance they found in Jesus Christ, and because of their experience of the power working within them, they found themselves forced to think of God in a radically new way, one more appropriate to their current experience. Instead of being bound by the trinitarian formula devised by the ancient theologians, we should emulate their courage in thinking through freely and creatively whatever, in this strange modern world, we find insignificance.

This article was first published in the February 28, 1987 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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