These last two Sundays before Christmas, I’ve been preaching a two-part series on the theology of Christmas. Next Sunday we’ll look at what it means that the Son of God was born as a man but last Sunday we looked at what Christmas tells us about God, that there is an Eternal Son who has an Eternal Father. As I was thinking through all this, my ears pricked up watching an evangelistic video that explained that the Trinity meant that ‘God is a united family’, ‘a loving community’ and that the three persons ‘together make the one God.’ This kind of explanation has become, I think, an increasingly popular way of thinking about the Trinity. It seeks to emphasise, rightly, the relational nature of the Godhead. It also seems to have the advantage of negotiating the tricky relationship between threeness and oneness because the oneness emerges from the threeness, just like the oneness of a family emerges from the union of three (or more) distinct individuals. Therefore, if three persons make up one united family then the mystery of how threeness and oneness relate in God is solved. That makes the Trinity much easier to understand and, therefore, to discuss with non-Christians. What had seemed like an embarrassing theological knot has now become something to share confidently. What’s not to like?
I fear though that, in the end, this approach, sometimes called ‘social trinitarianism’, is fraught with dangers, dangers which, if left unchecked, could lead us to lose our grip on the orthodox, Christian, doctrine of God that the church has held for centuries. Here’s why:
‘God is a united family’ risks robbing the persons of their deity.
It may seem strange that an approach that starts with the three persons, rather than the one divine essence would diminish the status of those persons but, if we think the matter through, this is the surprising result of saying that God is a united family. In locating God at the level of the oneness, the three are subtly relegated to less than God. In his discussion of the Trinity, Augustine writes that, ‘Nor because he is three must we think of him as triple, or three by multiplication; otherwise the Father alone or the Son alone would be less than the Father and the Son together.’ Augustine is quick to point out that because the persons have relational names, it is difficult to think of the Father alone, ‘since the Father is always and inseparably with the Son and the Son with the Father’. Nevertheless, his point is that if we think of God as a corporate entity, ‘made up’ by the three persons, as the evangelistic course would have it, we are saying that the Father and Son together are greater than the Father and Son alone. This means that the Father as Father is not God, he is only God when he is combined with the Son and the Spirit. Augustine concludes,
‘In God, therefore, when the equal Son cleaves to the equal Father, or the equal Holy Spirit to the Father and the Son,God is not made bigger than each of them singly, because there is no possibility of his perfection growing. Whether you take Father or Son or Holy Spirit, each is perfect, and God the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit is perfect, and so they are a three, a triad or a trinity rather than triple or three by multiplication.’
Each of the three persons is perfect, since they are divine, and their perfections are not increased in their oneness, any more than it is diminished in their threeness. The persons are not 33.333% God who become 100% God in combination. This is, of course, harder to understand, and to explain, than the idea that God is a united family but it has the advantage of entailing that when the Apostle Paul said that Christ possessed the ‘fullness of deity’ in Colossians 2:9 he was speaking the truth.
‘God is a united family’ risks making God less relational.
The impetus for much of this kind of theology is to emphasise God’s relational nature. Since families are all about relationships therefore, if God is a family then God must be very relational. Now, it is true that God is relational and that is a very important truth about Him. It is ironic, therefore, that this approach which seeks to highlight God’s relational nature, actually renders him less so. How? Because if God is a corporate entity which emerges from the unity of the three persons then God as such is an impersonal being. A few years ago, during the U.S. Presidential campaign, Mitt Romney, running for the Republican nomination, was mocked for saying that ‘corporations are people too.’His point was that taxes on corporations are eventually paid by people. Now, even if one might agree with Romney economically, semantically he was wrong. Corporations are not people. We might say ‘The Such and such family really care for me’ but really the Such and such family doesn’t care for us, the care comes from Mr and Mrs Such and Such and their five lovely Such and such children. Corporate entities, whether families, football teams, insurance companies or elephant herds aren’t really personal, as such. Their personal characteristics emerge from the persons contained with them. So, if God is a united family, a corporate entity, then ultimate reality, for that is what God is, is fundamentally impersonal. In this construction, while the persons might be able to know, to love, to act etc, God as God is unable to do any of these things. God as God is simply the product of the actions and relations of the three. If we want to locate relationship at the heart of reality, then God cannot be a corporate entity.
‘God is a united family’ risks being tacitly atheistic.
It may seem strange but to say that ‘God is a united family’ implies that really there is no such thing as God, or at least that nothing really possesses what the Bible attributes to God. I realise this may seem the least intuitive of my three points, so I’ll try and explain how I come to this conclusion. Let’s say that to be God is to be absolute and infinite. God is absolute in that He is the final explanation of existence, He is the one who gives being to all things and receives being from none, there is nothing behind God that explains him. God is infinite in that nothing restricts Him, there is nothing at his level of reality that curtails Him. To say that God is absolute and infinite is to say that God is qualified by nothing other than Himself. Now, we have good scriptural warrant for affirming this because God reveals Himself to Moses as ‘I am who I am’ in Exodus 3:14, the one whose existence is unqualified by another. Now, here’s the question, does saying that ‘God is a united family’ dovetail well with God’s self-description in Ex 3:14? I don’t think it does. If God is a united family, then, as we discussed earlier, the three persons are individually not God, God only emerges from the unity of the three. But this means that the three are not infinite since they only become God in combination. They do not possess unqualified infinite being in themselves. On the other hand, at the level of oneness, God as a united family, God does not possess absoluteness. God is no longer the absolute explanation of his existence since behind God’s oneness sits the three persons who explain the oneness of God. So, we have three who are not infinite and a one who is not absolute since he (or, really, it) emerges from the three. We are forced to conclude therefore, that there is no such thing as an absolute and infinite being. Nothing, either at the level of threeness or oneness fits with the definition of deity given in Exodus 3:14 (and in many other places of Scripture). Therefore, ultimately, there is no God, at least as defined by the Scriptures.
This may seem like a massive exercise in theological nitpicking and it is true that in seeking to explain and proclaim the revelation of God’s nature we are all likely to fall into inadvertent mistakes. Thanks be to God that we are saved by the Triune God and not by our explanations of the Triune God! Nevertheless, the name of the Lord is holy, we are not to take it in vain and we must be sure, therefore, that our descriptions of God of the Bible accord with the whole sweep of biblical revelation, even when this makes it harder to explain. We must, therefore, say that unlike a united family, the Father Son and Spirit share the exact same, infinite, absolute divine nature so that there is a single being called God and the persons posses a numerical, rather than corporate, unity. The Athanasian creed’s explanation of this, that, ‘So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods, but one God’ is harder, in fact impossible, for us to comprehend than a description of God as a united family. Yet, in the substantial and numerical unity of the Father, Son and Spirit as one God, we can affirm the fully deity of each person, the relationality of the one God and that God is absolute and infinite in his being, the one who is ‘I am who I am’. Augustine writes in his ‘On the Trinity’ that in Trinitarian theology, ‘nowhere else is a mistake more dangerous, or the search more laborious, or discovery more advantageous.’ May we all, this Christmas, discover the wonderful truth of the Trinity to our great advantage.