Some Thoughts on Social Trinitarianism

The Question

Roy asked: can you elaborate just a bit on what you are envisioning Social Trinitarianism (ST) to be, as you describe the problems with it? I doubt you would deny that the F/S/HS have true and real relationship between themselves and that they are distinct as Persons (but not separate, if you will, so as to jeopardize the one Godhead). Is the problem you envision when ST emphasizes their distinction to the detriment of their perfect unity/harmony?

The Difference

Social Trinitarianism (ST) is a thorny thicket that one needs a machete to hack their way through. Different types of folks try to do different things with social models of the Trinity. You have the ST of the (liberation/feminist/political) theologians and the ST of the (analytic) philosophers and all types of diversity within the ranks of both camps. For the sake of the point I want to make I’ll categorize them as “Theological Type” and “Philosophical Type” Social Trinitarians, even though, in reality, they’re all engaged in the task of theology.

Theological Type Social Trinitarians

The theological types (e.g., Jürgen Moltmann; Leonardo Boff) say that the Trinity is all about relationality and want to use the Trinity as a model for society. According to them the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share a common bond of deity while living in perfect harmony in an eternal society of mutual love and self-giving; occupying the same divine space in perichoretic union. This is the example of how the world should be, i.e., an egalitarian utopia where all individuals are equal and everyone does for everyone else. The problem, of course, is that they seem to be reading their ideal of what a perfect society should be back into the Trinity and then using the Trinity as a foil to critique societies as they presently stand (e.g., oppressive regimes; patriarchal cultures; etc.).

Far be it for me to say that the Father, Son, and Spirit don’t live in perfect harmony, or mutually love each other, or give themselves to each other (whatever that might mean exactly), but find me a Social Trinitarian of this variety who would affirm the monarchy of the Father (J. Scott Horell is a Social Trinitarian who affirms order in the Trinity but he’s certainly no liberation/feminist/political theologian). They want to do away with all ordering because ordering is antithetical to the type of egalitarian equality they hope for. If the monarchy of the Father is affirmed then the world would have an example for all of its corrupt rulers to model themselves after.

But there’s also this trend among these types of Social Trinitarians to see a division or rupture in the Trinity when Jesus was crucified. They read the cry of dereliction as the Father actually abandoning the Son and thus there being a genuine break in God (this gets explained differently by different people). Now it’s no big secret why they understand things the way they do, which is to say that if there wasn’t some genuine rupture in the Trinity then it would be hard to say that the Father and Spirit (the emphasis is usually on the Father though) suffered along with the Son, and for this type of Social Trinitarian there can’t be any asymmetry where only one person could be said to suffer. But if the Trinity can genuinely be divided then we end up with three gods and that’s no good.1

Philosophical Type Social Trinitarians

The philosophers, on the other hand, approach the Trinity as a logical problem to be solved. For them they want to figure out how the Three relates to the One without contradiction. It can get kind of confusing wading through all the syllogisms these guys use and it seems like each philosopher who espouses ST adds something unique (Brian Leftow has identified at least 3 types of ST and finds them all wanting2), but for the most part, this type of ST conceives of God as “three distinct centers of self-consciousness, each with its proper intellect and will” who all share a generic divine essence/nature.3 Now this seems to be understanding “persons” in the modern sense of the term with little difference (if any) of how we’d understand human persons; Richard Swinburne has referred to them as “rational individual[s].”4 Barth famously said:

“Person” as used in the Church doctrine of the Trinity bears no direct relation to personality. The meaning of the doctrine is not, then, that there are three personalities in God. This would be the worst and most extreme expression of tritheism, against which we must be on guard at this stage.5

For all that bugs me about Barth’s project, I think he was onto something here. But let’s take a standard syllogism that analytic philosophers work with in order to point out some of my concerns:

  1. The Father is God
  2. The Son is God
  3. The Holy Spirit is God
  4. The Father is not the Son or Holy Spirit
  5. The Son is not the Father or Holy Spirit
  6. The Holy Spirit is not the Father or Son
  7. There is one God

The important word to focus on in is “is.” There are different ways of understanding what “is” means here (I’m reminded of Clinton’s grand jury testimony in talking about this). There are a few options but the two major ones are: (1) the “is” of (numerical) identity, and (2) the “is” of predication.6 Now most of the Social Trinitarians I’ve read understand the “is” in 1-3 to be an “is” of predication (while 4-6 uses an “is” of identity) so they say something like “The Father is divine; the Son is divine; the Holy Spirit is divine.” This isn’t so much of an issue as far as it goes since everyone affirms that each person is divine, but then what do we do with God? Do we not also say that God “is” divine? Of course we do! So then do we have four divines? Or we can ask: if the three Persons are the one God, but are not identical with the one God, then doesn’t that make at least two Gods?

You’ll also find certain Social Trinitarians denying divine simplicity and positing that God is composed of parts so that each divine Person is a part of the one God. That’s equally problematic but less so in terms of tritheism and more so from the perspective that a God composed of parts would seemingly be a contingent rather than a necessary being. But to be honest, analytic philosophy makes my head hurt, and I’d much rather just deal with revelation (i.e., Scripture), which I don’t see supporting ST.


1 For the record, Tom McCall has given a good reason why this type of reading of the cry of dereliction doesn’t really work for a ST model in his new book Forsaken.
2 See Brian Leftow “Anti Social Trinitarianism” in The Trinity: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Trinity (ed. Stephen T. Davis, et al.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 203-49.
3 J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic 2003), 583. Cf. Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., “Social Trinity and Tritheism,” in Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement: Philosophical and Theological Essays (ed. Ronald J. Feenstra and Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.; Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), 22.
4 Richard Swinburne, The Christian God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 182.
5 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (2nd ed.; trans. G. W. Bromiley; ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance; London: T&T Clark, 2004), I.1: 351.
6 There is also the “is” of numerical sameness, which I haven’t seen appealed to very often (see Jeffrey E. Brower, “The Problem with Social Trinitarianism: A Reply to Wierenga Faith and Philosophy 21 [2004]: 295-303 for an example) and the “is” of relative identity (see Michael C. Rea, “Relative Identity and the Doctrine of the TrinityPhilosophia Christi 5/2 (2003): 431-45; James R. Gordon, “Relative Identity and Material Constitution and the Problem of the Trinity” (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 2008). Or for a succinct, accurate, and understandable description of all the positions involved, see Thomas H. McCall, Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism?: Philosophical and Systematic Theologians on the Metaphysics of Trinitarian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010.

6 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Social Trinitarianism

  1. Nick I think you are pretty correct in outlining the problems that ST entails however how would you
    suggest someone like Zizioulas who encompasses a social trinitarianism that encompasses order, do you feel that this is a more correct understanding of Social Trinitarianism as of relation in person of the Trinity to one another or not. I found Mccall`s Forsaken helpful as you sayhe also uses a machete at times to show the inconsistencies of some Social Trinitarians. I would also be intrigued to ask where in revelation do you feel a denial of social trinitarianism as I feel Zizioulas has some substance in his presentation of Social Trinitarianism .

  2. well, i liked how clark pinnock talked about it in his book flame of love, though that is about as far as i know anything about social trinitarianism

  3. Andrew: I’ll have to go back and brush up on Zizoulias before I can offer you a definitive answer about what I think of him. If memory serves, I think I saw his theology as devolving into tritheism when I first encountered it because of the conflation between ousia and hypostases. Don’t quote me on that just yet though. I need to refresh my memory. I think if you have to be a Social Trinitarian then J. Scott Horell’s is the least offensive on offer.

    Roy: My pleasure.

    Brian: I haven’t read Pinnock’s book but I’ve seen it quoted aplenty. I’d need to see the quotations in context but almost all of them have been frustrating as I’ve read them.

  4. Could you perhaps give some positive account of the triune God in addition to these valid criticisms? You seem to affirm that the persons really do love one another, but also seem agreeable to Barth’s apparent objection to envisioning the persons as being a centre of consciousness. How can one love and not be conscious? Or is the key not to think of it as a centre… 3 subjectivities in 1 subject, if you will.

    Even Leftow posits three different life streams – ie sets of separate, conscious experiences, streams of qualia if you will – in the one divine being. See his A Latin Trinity.

  5. John: Forgive me for the extremely delayed response. I’m afraid that I’m forced to appeal to both mystery and the lack of adequate analogy here. What I know of love I know from my own experience. It’s nearly impossible for me to conceive of one loving another without having a distinct center of consciousness, because I, having a distinct center of consciousness, love others who have distinct centers of consciousness. But God is unique. There can be a single divine will shared perfectly and without division by three persons (hypostases) even though this is impossible with humans. How these three give and receive love within the unity of the Trinity is a bit above my pay grade.

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