Until quite recently, many theologians thought that the doctrine of the Trinity was pretty pointless. And the churches themselves disagree about the content of the doctrine; the most common Western statement of the Trinity is not accepted by the Eastern churches. It is impossible to overemphasise the importance of the Christian doctrine that God is one in three persons. This has correctly been called the teaching distinctive of the Christian faith, that which sets the approach of Christians to the "fearful mystery" of the deity apart from all other approaches.
Christian worship is inherently Trinitarian. Christians worship God in the presence of Christ and with the Holy Spirit within them. Many Christians see the relationship between the persons of the Trinity as providing a recipe for the best sort of human relationships. These are relationships in which individuality is balanced with relationship; relationships whose basis is mutual love and perfect communication. The relationship that exists within the Godhead is the basis for unity in every human relationship, be it marriage, family, or church.
The American theologian Catherine LaCugna suggested that the doctrine of the Trinity helps humanity answer the question. And the key teaching within this doctrine of relationship is that the best relationships are those of equality and mutuality. The relationships within God as a Trinity discredit any hierarchical power structure in which those lower down are dominated and oppressed by those above them. Instead, using the example of the Trinity leads to an ideal structure of mutual interdependence and support in pursuit of a common aim.
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Thus the Trinity shows the way God wants the world to be run and the power structures that he recommends to human society. This seems to contradict the traditional idea of God as one Supreme Being, Lord of all, but should be seen as demonstrating the non-hierarchical nature of God in himself, without diminishing God's status in relationship to others. The liberation theologians thought it was essential to start thinking about the Trinity by focusing on its three-ness first, then its oneness.
They saw the Trinity as first and foremost a community of divine persons whose essence was in their shared existence, their shared relationship and their surrender to each other. They objected to the hierarchical model of One God, because they thought that it justified political power structures that oppressed the poor and allowed the Church to continue with a patriarchal model that was out of date and unhelpful to the poor.
So the liberation theologians took the Trinitarian theology of relationships to a grand scale. They used it to promote the ideal human society as a closely related and unified group of equal people living so as to promote the good of society as a whole.
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The leading liberation theologian Leonardo Boff said the Trinity was a "model for any, just, egalitarian while respecting differences , social organisation. Some of the problems of the Trinity arise from confusion between the internal life and nature of the Trinity itself and the external life or "self-revelation" of God. The only thing humankind can directly know of God is his external life. The Economic and Essential Trinities are not two separate entities - just two ways of looking at God.
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Are these two the same? Is God's revelation merely the "face" God wears as he turns to us, or is it who God is in himself? The Western Churches believe that they are pretty much the same and that human beings meet God fully and completely as he is through his actions. The 'economic' Trinity is the 'immanent' Trinity and the 'immanent' Trinity is the 'economic' Trinity. To put it another way: God's actions reveal who God is. And since God acts as a threefold God, God himself must be threefold.
Some Western writers hint at the idea that there is no more to God than his actions in the world. The Eastern Churches disagree, and teach there is much more to God than human experience can reveal. Modalism teaches that Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are not distinct personalities, but different modes of God's self-revelation. The idea is that there is only one God, but that this one God reveals himself in different ways and different forms - sometimes as Father, sometimes as Son, sometimes as Holy Spirit.
One of the standard analogies for the Trinity is a good example of modalism: The Trinity is like water because water comes in three forms - ice, water, steam. This is Modalism because these are three states or modes of the substance water.
DOCTRINE OF THE TRINITY
Some modalists believe that God revealed himself differently at different times in history, others believe that during any particular period of history God can reveal himself in different ways; so when God is acting as redeemer, that's God the Son, and so on. Tritheism portrays Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three independent divine beings; three separate gods who are linked together in some special way - most commonly by sharing the "same substance" or being the same sort of thing.
People often make this mistake because they misunderstand the use of the word "persons" in defining the Trinity; it does not mean that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three separate personalities. This would suggest that each of the persons of the Trinity is only part God, only becoming fully God when they are together. Monarchianism stresses God as One and downgrades the idea of the Trinity; it comes in various versions:. This isn't a strictly Trinitarian heresy but it's relevant because it's the idea that the Son is in some way less fully God than the Father.
Well it's true: The greatest row in the history of Christianity centred on a single word filioque and on the doctrine of the Trinity. There were other matters at issue as well, but the row over "the filioque clause" led to the Great Schism of The Churches were arguing about whether the Son played any part in the origin of the Spirit as one of the persons of the Trinity from the Father, who is the only ultimate source. The Latin word filioque , which means "and from the son", was gradually inserted by Western churches into the Nicene Creed so that it stated that the Holy Spirit proceeds not from the God the Father alone, as the early Church Fathers believed, but from both God the Father and God the Son.
The Eastern wing of the Church believed and believes that the Father alone had given rise to the Holy Spirit, and the idea that both Father and Son had done so was condemned as heretical. Even today, the creed used by the Eastern Churches professes faith "in the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father," without mentioning the Filioque.
The Western Churches i. There were fundamental problems of authority as well as of doctrine. The Eastern wing of the Church was angry that the Western wing of the Church had altered a fundamental part of the creed without their agreement - indeed without even consulting them. This didn't seem to them like the behaviour of a united church, and so the two wings eventually went their separate ways. Many church historians think that the Western wing of the Church did behave very badly by trying to introduce such a major change to Christian belief in such a cavalier way.
This is the name that theologians give to the idea that the Spirit proceeds from both Father and Son.
The Surprising Origins of the Trinity Doctrine
When Christians say that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son , what do they mean, and why do they use such an odd word? The word comes from the Greek text of John The Greek word has the sense of movement out of , and early theologians used it to show that the Spirit's origin was within the person of the Father.
Greek theologians restricted this Greek word to this particular technical use - the coming forth of the Spirit from the Father - so that it has a unique reference to the relationship of the Father and the Spirit. The Greek theologians also thought that the way in which the Spirit comes from the Father is similar to, but significantly different from, the way the Son comes from the Father.
The equivalent Latin word is " procedure ", but unlike the Greek word it doesn't include the notion of a starting point within something; it's a more general word for movement. This different meaning may have contributed in a small way to the dispute. Latin theologians taught that the Spirit comes from both the Father and the Son, but comes from each of them in significantly different ways.
These differences do not diminish the Father's role as the only cause of everything that exists. The arguments in the dispute are highly technical, and seem pretty dull to anyone except a theologian - but they stirred hugely passionate debates in the church because they were about something that mattered terribly: the nature of God. To get a flavour of the passion the debate aroused, look at this comment from a 9th century Patriarch:. But when the Counsellor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me.
Jesus said to them again, "Peace be unto you. As the Father has sent me, even so send I you. In December Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople revoked the excommunications of and called for an active pursuit of mutual understanding. Appropriation and Perichoresis are two ideas that are important in reconciling God's one-ness with the three-ness of God in human experience. Appropriation teaches that all three persons of the Trinity do everything God does, but that it is appropriate to see some actions as being particularly associated with one specific person of the Trinity.
So the Father is associated with creation and the Son with redemption, but all three persons are actually involved with these actions. This is the idea that each of the persons of the Trinity shares completely in the life of the other two. Theologians say that each of the persons of the Trinity "interpenetrates" the others, so that the distinctions between the persons are preserved and the substance of God is not divided into three. The theologian Leonardo Boff described perichoresis as "the intimate and perfect inhabitation of one Person in the other," meaning that the three persons of the Trinity live in and relate to each other perfectly.
Many modern writers prefer to use the word indwelling to express the idea of perichoresis. They say there is a mutual indwelling of the persons of the Trinity. All facets of divine activity are reflected in all three persons of the Trinity. They are dynamically intermingled. They may not be separated.
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The traditional statement of the doctrine of the Trinity is this: There are three persons within the Godhead; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. These three persons have equal status and are equally divine. But the word person in this definition doesn't mean person in any sense that modern people understand it - it's an ancient technical philosophical term, which originally meant the mask worn by actors playing parts in an ancient Greek play. The Greek word was hypostases the singular term is hypostasis. The ancient writers said that there were three distinct hypostases in one ousia ousia is the word now translated as substance - see below.
There's a hint here of a very important concept in the idea of the Trinity. Actors playing a part in a play do so in relationship to other members of the cast, and a key element of the doctrine of the Trinity is that the three persons of the Trinity are in relationship with one another. But "person" to modern people means, at the very least, a separate centre of consciousness, and more usually, an individual human being.
That is not what it means in the definition of the Trinity. The idea that the three persons of the Trinity are separate individuals is the heresy of tritheism. Unfortunately, modern theological translations of the word "persons" into phrases such as "distinct manners of subsisting" don't make things much clearer and that particular phrase, as it happens, sounds very like the heresy of modalism.
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This word is used to describe the coming forth of one of the persons of the Trinity from another or from both the others. The use of this word in statements of the Trinity is a reminder that there is movement and dynamic energy in the Christian concept of God. If it cannot be enumerated, there cannot even be one. Given that there are three hypostaseis in the Godhead, distinguished according to Gregory by the intra-Trinitarian relations, then there should be three Gods.
The most pressing task of contemporary Social Trinitarians is to find some more convincing answer to why, on their view, there are not three Gods. Anti-Social Trinitarians typically look to Latin-speaking theologians like Augustine and Aquinas as their champions. To a considerable extent the appeal to Augustine rests on a misinterpretation which results from taking in isolation his analogies of the Trinity in the human mind, such as the lover, the beloved, and love itself On the Trinity 8.
In particular Augustine realizes that these features are not each identical to a person but rather are features which any single human person possesses Identifying the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with the divine memory, understanding, and love would, Augustine recognizes, lead to the absurd conclusion that the Father knows Himself only by the Son or loves Himself only by the Holy Spirit, as though the Son were the understanding of the Father and the Spirit and the Father the memory of the Spirit and the Son!
Rather memory, understanding, and will or love must belong to each of the persons alone Augustine concludes with the reflection that having found in one human person an image of the Trinity, he had desired to illuminate the relation among the three divine persons; but in the end three things which belong to one person cannot suit the three persons of the Trinity Anti-Social Trinitarians frequently interpret Augustine to hold that the persons of the Trinity just are various relations subsisting in God.
But this is not what Augustine says 5. Arians had objected that if the Father is essentially unbegotten and the Son essentially begotten, then the Father and Son cannot share the same essence or substance homoousios.