|Perichoresis by Faithdance|
11 Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. 12 Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.
13 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.
Trinity Sunday offers a challenge, especially to non-creedal churches that don’t prescribe its observance or even require a trinitarian understanding of God. That is true for me, as a minister within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Although I affirm the doctrine of the Trinity, there has always been a certain uneasiness with the doctrine within the denomination. Alexander Campbell, for example, had what looks like a trinitarian understanding of God’s nature, but refused to identify himself as trinitarian or use the word Trinity to speak of God. While I’ve written a small book on the Trinity for my denomination, I know that a significant number of my colleagues would disagree with my assessments and suggestions. Nevertheless, I will persist in my advocacy of the value of the doctrine of the Trinity for the church.
If we look only to Scripture for guidance on this matter, we are left with hints and intriguing formulas, like the one found in the final verse of 2 Corinthians 13, but we won’t find a fully developed trinitarian doctrine present in Scripture. But, as Karl Barth notes the Church Fathers and Reformers knew that to be true, but they also recognized the doctrine to be present in the words of Scripture. In other words, it is a reflection of good interpretation of Scripture [Church Dogmatics 1/1 309-310].
Here in 2 Corinthians 13, Paul concludes a letter that deals with difficult issues within this community. Now that he’s bringing the letter to a close, he appeals to them, asking that they agree with each other and live in peace, reflecting the presence of the God of land peace. The suggestion that they greet each other with a holy kiss is probably not appropriate at the moment I write this reflection, as we are being encouraged strongly to keep physically separate from each other due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But a warm greeting, even at a six-foot distance, is appropriate. Good interpretation here doesn’t require us to agree on every matter of doctrine or even practice, but it does ask that we be of one mind when it comes to the center of our faith, that would be Jesus as the Christ.
I would like to use this reflection to consider the concept of the Trinity as the Christian way of understanding the nature of God. Augustine wrote at length on the Trinity, and in his treatise On Christian Doctrine, he writes this classic statement:
The Trinity, one God, of whom are all things, through whom are all things, in whom are all things. Thus the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and each of these by Himself, is God, and at the same time they are all one God; and each of them by Himself is a complete substance, and yet they are all one substance. The Father is not the Son nor the Holy Spirit; the Son is not the Father nor the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit is not the Father nor the Son: but the Father is only Father, the Son is only Son, and the Holy Spirit is only Holy Spirit. To all three belong the same eternity, the same unchangeableness, the same majesty, the same power. In the Father is unity, in the Son equality, in the Holy Spirit the harmony of unity and equality; and these three attributes are all one because of the Father, all equal because of the Son, and all harmonious because of the Holy Spirit. [Saint Augustine. OnChristian Doctrine (With Active Table of Contents). Kindle Edition.]
There was for a time a sense that the Trinity was an outmoded doctrine. It seemed to make God rather complicated, and besides preachers and even professors have had a difficult time explaining it. Then along came Karl Barth who reaffirmed its importance and value to the church. For Barth and those he influenced, directly and indirectly, the conversation centers around the confession that Jesus is the Christ, and by that he means the Word of God incarnate. This is not the place for a full-blown discussion of the Trinity. On that, I suggest reading my brief treatise The Triune Nature of God: Conversations Regarding the Trinity by a Disciples of ChristPastor/Theologian (Energion, 2019).
For our purposes, especially at this moment in time, I’d like to highlight the relational nature of the Trinity as expressed in the doctrine of the social Trinity. While this perspective risks a slide into tri-theism, it is worth the risk to think in terms of God’s nature as relational. Thus, human relationships reflect the internal relationships that is God. Jürgen Moltmann is one of the most influential theologians to advance the idea of the social Trinity. He makes use of the doctrine of perichoresis. He writes here of the interrelationship of the three persons of the Trinity:
An eternal life process takes place in the triune God through the exchange of energies. The Father exists in the Son, the Son in the Father, and both of them in the Spirit, just as the Spirit exists in both the Father and the Son. By virtue of their eternal love they live in one another to such an extent, and dwell in one another to such an extent, that they are one. It is a process of most perfect and intense empathy. [Jurgen Moltmann. The Trinity and the Kingdom (Kindle Locations 2544-2548). Kindle Edition.]
As I reflect on Paul’s closing statement, there is a relational quality that reflects the concept of the social Trinity. Note how Paul uses the words grace, love, and communion. These are all relational terms. The idea of the social Trinity suggests that human relationships reflect the relationship that exists within the Godhead. What is key is the affirmation that this relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is eternal. Traditionally, it is assumed that each member of the Trinity is always present together, though as Moltmann suggests, this is to be understood in terms of perichoresis. Some theologians have envisioned this as a dance in which the three persons are engaged with each other. Catherine Mowry LaCugna notes that while the philological evidence for this idea of dance is not great, it is an effective metaphor. She writes:
Choreography suggests the partnership of movement, symmetrical but not redundant as each dancer expresses and at the same time fulfills him/herself towards the other. In interaction and inter-course, the dancers (and the observers) experience one fluid motion of encircling, encompassing, permeating, enveloping, outstretching. There are neither leaders nor followers in the divine dance, only an eternal movement of reciprocal giving and receiving, giving again and receiving again [LaCugna, God for Us, pp. 271-272].
While there might be questions concerning this metaphor for understanding the internal relationship within the Godhead, and as to whether the Triune God wishes to invite creation into the dance, as for me, without being overly dogmatic, I can envision this description of God’s nature. I can also envision God inviting humanity/creation into the dance.
Thee key for us is not only in relationship to God’s internal nature, but how we can understand ourselves within this conversation. Might we, if we exist as the image of God, reflect God’s relationality in our own human relationships? LaCugna writes that “mutuality rooted in communion among persons is a non-negotiable truth about our existence, the highest value and ideal of the Christian life, because for God mutual love among persons is supreme” [LaCugna, God for Us, p. 399]. To live the trinitarian life is to live “together in harmony and communion with every other creature in the common household of God ‘doing all things to the praise and glory of God’” [LaCugna, p. 401].
While the doctrine of the Trinity is not an easy concept to digest, and it can easily end up leading dwelling in abstractions, it can also serve as the foundation for living together in the church and beyond. It is a vision of God’s nature, one that envisions God being in communication with creation, bringing wholeness and healing to broken people and communities. Considering we livin in a moment of brokenness, when the nation is more divided than we’ve seen in years, when a pandemic and the continuing challenge of racism and its presence in all parts of the community, including the police, we need to hear a word like this. So, may “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you” (2 Cor. 13:13).