On the Trinity

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

On the Trinity

Aug. 31, 2006    News media contact:  Tita Parham*    
tparham@flumc.org     Orlando {0540}

NOTE: A headshot of Whitaker is available at http://www.flumc.info/photo_gallery2.shtml.

An e-Review Commentary
By Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker**

When I was a candidate for the episcopacy in 2000 I met with a small group of clergy who asked me to name the major issues facing the church. They were surprised when I mentioned first that the church needs a stronger emphasis upon the doctrine of the Trinity.

In many of our churches we who are clergy have inadvertently blocked Christians’ growth in understanding the Trinity by convincing them that it is a “complex concept.” There are two errors here. First, the Trinity is more than a “concept”: it is the identity of the living God revealed in history according to the witness of the Scripture. Second, while the Trinity is a mystery beyond our capacity to fully comprehend, the church’s teaching is not as difficult as we suppose.

The doctrine of the Trinity means there is being because God the Father is and God the Father is not solitary, but is always in communion with the Son who is eternally begotten of the Father and the Spirit who eternally proceeds from the Father. As John Zizioulas said, the Trinity means “being is communion.”

One of the reasons many find the Trinity confusing is because they assume it means there are three persons in one substance (or being). This way of putting it suggests there are four, not three, in God — substance, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The crucial point to understand is that there is “substance” or “being” only because God the Father is. The Father as a free Person is the source of “substance” or “being.” The Father is not just a Person who participates in something called “substance” or “being;” rather there is “substance” or “being” because the Father is. Yet the Father is not alone, but is always in the communion of the Son and Spirit who share in the “substance” or “being” of the Father as the two Persons who proceed in different modes from the Father. As Christians, we do not believe in a divine “substance,” but we believe in God the Father who is in communion with the Son and the Spirit.

Of course, the Trinity seems hard to understand because of our assumption about what a “person” is. We are conditioned to think of a person as an individual — a solitary, autonomous entity. Naturally we are puzzled over the idea of how there can be one God who is three individuals. The very idea of a “person” was first discovered in the church’s reflection upon the Trinity. In the context of the doctrine of the Trinity “person” does not mean an individual in our modern sense, but it means distinct concrete reality (called a “hypostasis” by the Greeks) whose being interpenetrates and dwells in others. In other words, to be a “person” means to be in relationship in order to be. Rather than our trying to understand the Persons of the Trinity according to our defective concept of a “person” as an individual, we should understand ourselves as “persons” according to the meaning of “person” in the Trinity. When we see ourselves as “persons” created in the image of the Triune God, then we realize that while we possess a distinct identity we are not solitary, autonomous “individuals,” but beings who are in relationship with others in ways that determine what our own being really is.

The Trinity explains what we mean when we say “God is love.” God is love because God is the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit in a communion of superabundant love in which each Person gives himself completely to the other. Our creation and salvation are the gifts of the outpouring of the mutual love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The doctrine of the Trinity governs our understanding of the mission of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the incarnation of the Son of God. He is the exact human image of the Father, and he exposits the Father in his human life by his voluntary reliance upon the power of the Spirit from conception to resurrection. In his life Jesus shows us the Father by his loving obedience. Note that in his human life the incarnate Son acts exactly in the same way as in his divine being as the eternal Son who is always offering himself in obedient love to the Father. When we see Jesus’ work in history in light of the Trinity, we realize how grossly distorted is the interpretation of his death on the cross as an appeasement of the Father’s anger. No, his death for us is the exposition of the love of the Father for us who utterly identifies with us as sinners and takes our sin upon himself through the Son just as anyone who forgives must take her friend’s guilt and estrangement upon herself to restore a relationship broken by the friend’s betrayal (even though human forgiveness can only be a weak analogy to the divine forgiveness of the human race).

The mystery of the Holy Spirit is more difficult to conceive. The Spirit’s action is clear: the Spirit is the bond of love between the Father and the Son and the love sent by the Father and the Son in the mission to consummate the divine purpose of making us and the whole creation new. Yet the word “bond” is not sufficient to describe the Holy Spirit because, while it indicates how the Spirit is a relation within God, it does not indicate exactly how the Spirit has his own distinction in the eternal relations in God. The reason that the Spirit’s distinction is elusive for human thought is because the Spirit’s essence is not to draw attention to himself, but to the Father and the Son both in the life of God and in the life of the church and its members.
There is a difference between Western and Eastern Christians regarding the Holy Spirit. The West affirms that the Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son, while the East does agree that the Spirit is sent on his historical mission in the world by both Father and Son since his purpose is to make effective the work of the Son in his life, death and resurrection; but the East says that the divine procession of the Spirit is from the Father. I agree with the East because the Eastern view makes clear that all being is from the Father from whom the Son is begotten and the Spirit proceeds. To fail to perceive that all being comes from the Father is the course of most of the confusion in the West about the doctrine of the Trinity. This Eastern view also allows for the understanding of the Spirit as the bond between the Father and the Son. It seems to me that it is important to preserve the full distinction of the Spirit as a Person (and not just a relation) because it enables the church to grasp how the Spirit’s work is not limited to salvation history, although that is his primary center of activity, but also includes action in creation and all of human history and experience.

In the Wesleyan tradition the doctrine of the Trinity is applied more than explicated. John Wesley’s application of the orthodox doctrine is seen in his understanding of the Christian life and the church. The Christian life is the experience of the Holy Spirit by faith in the Son who came and died and rose for us so that we may know the Father who loves us. The church is where we experience being true persons in communion with God and one another. Wesley developed small groups for mutual confession, accountability and support so that we may really be church. As he said, there is no such thing as “a solitary Christian.” The assumption is that we are not mere individuals, but persons created in the image of the Triune God who are restored to our true nature by the action of the Triune God. Wesley could devote his attention to applying, rather than explicating, the Trinity because he was a part of the Church of England with an orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. Today we have more responsibility to teach as well as to apply the doctrines.

The Triune God is whom we worship, not merely talk about. How we are moved to adoration as we contemplate the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the fruitfulness of their communion with one another and with us!


This article relates to Christian Theology.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.

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