The Common Good

The Trinity and God’s Nonviolent Atonement

You may not realize this, but senior pastors throughout the world were on vacation last Sunday. Not because they were celebrating the American holiday weekend of Memorial Day. No, senior pastors the world over were conveniently on vacation because it was Trinity Sunday.

Stained glass illustration of the Holy Trinity, Nancy Bauer / Shutterstock.com
Stained glass illustration of the Holy Trinity, Nancy Bauer / Shutterstock.com

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Of course, I can’t blame pastors for taking a nice weekend vacation and leaving the challenge of preaching the Trinity Sunday sermon to their associates. I’ve always had a hard time with the Trinity — not because of the math. I was always horrible at math. I frequently tell people I became a pastor and a blogger because I failed Algebra. So, the concept that 1 + 1 + 1 = 1 has never been an issue for me.

Anselm on the Trinity

My problem lies within the history of the doctrine’s conception of God. For example, in the 11th century a man named Anselm of Canterbury developed the Trinity in a new way. In his book Why God Became Man, Anselm struggles with the question, “How does God respond to sin?” He came up with the Satisfaction Theory of Atonement.  The doctrine has developed over time, but it generally goes something like this – God is holy, and humans, through sin, have offended God’s holiness. This makes God very angry, even wrathful, because God is just. And so a debt needs to be paid so that God’s holiness and justice can be satisfied. Jesus, the Son of God, substitutes himself for humanity by taking the Father’s wrath upon himself.(For more on the Atonement, see James Alison’s essay “Unpicking Atonement’s Knots” in his book On Being Liked.)

An Authoritarian Father?

I had to reject that theory because, as many feminist theologians have stated, it smacked of divine child abuse. I mean, the picture of God that emerges is that the Father is authoritarian and distant, like the father on the 1990s television show The Wonder Years. What’s the Father going to be like today? Nobody knows for sure, but we better be quiet and hope he had a good day at work! The Son is basically our hippie friend. He says, “Yeah man. It’s cool. I’ll take your wrath. No big deal.” And the Holy Spirit, well, nobody knows anything about the Holy Spirit. The point is that this theory holds that there is a violent impulse within God, and I couldn’t believe that was true, so I rejected it out of hand.

The Two Gregory’s and Basil Delve Into the Trinity

Some may say that I was imposing my own nonviolent view upon God. Fair enough. But as I continued studying, I discovered that Anselm wasn’t the first person to explicate a theory of the Trinity. In fact, the doctrine was explored at least 500 years before Anselm by three men: Gregory, his brother Basil, and their friend Gregory.2 They saw in the Bible many passages that seemed to refer to multiplicity within the one God. In the Old Testament, for example, you know the verse, “Hear oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Many Christians have noticed that the Hebrew word for “one” is echadEchad means multiplicity within the one. What does that look like? When a group of people speak with one voice, they speak echad. When Adam and Eve became one, they became echad. And with that slightly awkward picture, I think you get what echad is about …

(Incidentally, there is another word in Hebrew that means solitary oneness. It is yachid. Why did the final editors choose echad over yachid to describe God? I don’t know. But it points to the mystery of God and opens the door to seeing multiplicity within the one God. And they looked to other verses, too. Like Genesis 1, where God creates the world and the Spirit of God hovers over the waters. They also looked to the book of Proverbs and the Hebrew word chokmahChokmah means wisdom and the Wisdom of God in Proverbs becomes personified as a woman.)

Then the Gregorys and Basil looked to the New Testament, where the words Father and Son and Holy Spirit are frequently used in some kind of mysterious relationship. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (28:19) In the Gospel of John, Jesus says that he only does what the Father tells him to do, and that if you know him you know the Father. (14:7) So it’s not that the Father is stern and distant and that Jesus is our hippie friend. No, Jesus and the Father are not essentially different; rather, they are essentially the same and live in the same Spirit of love.

God is a Nonviolent, Eternal Dance of Joy

Does this mean that God exists in some kind of Trinity? I don’t know. But what’s essential to know about the early doctrine of the Trinity is that, unlike later developments, it claimed that God has nothing to do with violence. Those of us who believe that God is non-violent need to reclaim the Trinity because it describes God as an eternal dance of joy, where there is mutual giving and receiving in the spirit of love. In fact, the doctrine was based on a letter in the Bible that states that God is love. What the doctrine of the Trinity helps us understand is that for God, love isn’t so much a noun as it is a verb.3 God is eternally love because God actively loves eternally. In the early development of the doctrine of the Trinity, God is pure love where there is no room for violence.

Jesus and the Forgiving, Non-violent Atonement

So, we can answer the question, “How does God respond to sin?” God atones for human sin the same way Jesus did. Jesus didn’t respond to sin with “holy wrath;” rather he entered into it. Nor was Jesus offended by the people that the religious establishment labeled as “sinners;” instead, he went to them, not with judgmental wrath, but with love and forgiveness. Think of the word “atonement” simply as “at-one-ment.” We are meant to be at one with God and with one another. This is a spiritual form of echad. Jesus becomes one with those that the religious establishment accuses of being sinners, he went to them, as he comes to all people, in the Spirit of love and forgiveness.

Why the Trinity Matters

Still, one of the other reasons that I’ve had problems with the Trinity is that it seems to have nothing to do with everyday human relationships. If you Google the Trinity you will come across incompressible Greek words like persona and hypostasis and ousia and perichoresis and consubstantiation and many other words that should never be used in any sermon.

But here is why the Trinity matters to human relationships. The two Gregorys and Basil believed that we could participate in the life of God. They believed that humans could become like God as they embrace one another in relationships of mutual giving and receiving in the Spirit of love. They called this participation in the life of God “divinization.”

Why does this matter? Because our relationships are often not like this. Whenever three people are together, there’s always the danger of two people turning against the other. Whenever problems or conflicts ensue, which they inevitably will, we want someone to blame. Scapegoating, uniting in blame against another person, is always a danger among human beings. Violence and exclusion can quickly ensue. We can easily fall into the mentality of the survival of the fittest – the mentality that you are only as strong as your weakest link – so get rid of your weakest link! (Paul Neuchterlein makes this connection at his Girardian Lectionary website.)

But if we are caught up in the life of God, then there can be no scapegoating, no violence, no exclusion. If we are caught up in the life of God, we will acknowledge the spiritual truth that we are mysteriously echad with our fellow human beings. Once we acknowledge this, we won’t get rid of our weakest link; we will attend to him or her in the Spirit of love.

Inter-dividuals not Individuals

Here we discover that the Trinity is as much anthropology as it is theology. Our culture is influenced by a hyper-individualism that tells us we are our own man or our own woman. But the remarkable thing that science is teaching us is that, from subatomic particles to solar systems, the universe exists in interdependent relationships. As part of that universe, we humans are not so much individuals as we are inter-dividuals, dependent upon one another for our identity and, indeed, for our very existence. Science is helping us understand the spiritual truth that we are created in the divine image of the God who is echad! We exist in a web of interconnected and interdependent relationships of oneness. The question we must ask ourselves as inter-dividuals is, “Will we live into the mutual love of giving and receiving by participating in God’s love, or will we live into a spirit of individualism that seeks to fulfill my needs and my desires over and against another’s?”

The Holy Spirit of Truth and Advocacy

In our passage from John, Jesus says that the Spirit of truth “will declare to you things that are to come.” Did the Spirit of truth reveal the doctrine of the Trinity as one of the “things that are to come?” I don’t know. What I do know is that the Spirit of truth is like Jesus who is also like the Father. What I do know is that the Spirit of truth that animates the Father and the Son is the Spirit of nonviolent love that can animate us, too.

In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is frequently referred to as the Advocate. Like Jesus, the Holy Spirit stands with, and advocates for, those that the religious establishment accuses of being “sinners.” Similarly, the Holy Spirit guides us into being with, and advocating for, those that the religious and political establishments exclude from relationships that are based on mutual giving and receiving in the spirit of love.

The Trinity as a Metaphor

Still, maybe it’s best to think of the Trinity as a metaphor.4 Doctrines, after all, cannot contain God. They point beyond themselves to something more. God is an infinite mystery of love that no doctrine can contain. Rediscovering the history of this doctrine has helped me to not only understand the biblical statement that God is love, but also the biblical statement that “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” In the eternal dance of joy and love that is the Trinity, there is no room for darkness or violence. But, try as you might, you will never find God dancing as three physical beings united in one essence of love. God is Spirit, after all. So, in this sense, I’ve come to believe that the doctrine of the Trinity is metaphorically true. Along with the creation story in Genesis, it reveals the truth about relationships – that it is not good for humans, and maybe not even for God, to be alone – and that meaning is created in relationships of mutual love.

So, whether you believe in the Trinity, may you find yourself caught up in God's divine dance of joy. May you participate in relationships that are based on mutual giving and receiving in the Spirit of love. And may you discover yourself, your fellow human beings, and all of creation as eternally loved by God.

Amen.


1In his book, Cross Purposes, Anthony Bartlett quotes Hastings Rachdall’s book The Idea of Atonement in Christian Theology and states, “From Anselm onward penal substitution simply leaps the formal steps of satisfaction moving at once to the point of wrath that lies behind the whole, and making Christ bear this passively rather than offer compensation actively. The Anselmian scheme opened the ‘opposition between the justice of the Father and the love or mercy of the Son, which was to become so prominently a feature in popular religious thought.’”

2 Gregory of Nyssa, Basil of Caesarea, and Gregory of Nanzianzus lived in the fourth century and made major developments to the concept of the Trinity, but were not the first to use the word. The earliest document that uses the word comes from the writings of Tertullian who lived in the years 160-225 AD.

3 See Frederick Buechner's section on the Trinity in his book, Wishful Thinking, page 114. He states that the Trinity reveals that, “The love God is love not as a noun but as a verb.”

4 For more on the Trinity as a true metaphor, see David Henson’s excellent article, “Wrestling with the Trinity: Truth, Myth, or Metaphor?

Adam Ericksen blogs at the Raven Foundation, where he uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Adam on Twitter @adamericksen.

Image: Stained glass illustration of the Holy Trinity, Nancy Bauer / Shutterstock.com

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