On God and Three-headed Dogs: Personhood in Social Trinitarianism

Read the companion article.

It’s not partisan to declare that social trinitarianism abandons Nicene concepts of divine Personhood.1 It does. It adopts a completely different framework. Many non-confessional evangelicals likely adopt it unwittingly.

With one exception, the most influential social trinitarians are not widely read in evangelical circles; certainly not by the average seminary-trained pastor. They are Jurgen Moltmann,2 Leonardo Boff,3 Wolfhart Pannenberg,4 Robert Jenson5 and Millard Erickson.6 Pannenberg’s influence is profound; Erickson, Jenson and William L. Craig each studied under him.

Is revision allowed?

First, we need to decide whether it’s possible to put a new framework on biblical truth. Millard Erickson suggests three ways to contextualize theology:7

  1. To transplant. You simply state the message using biblical categories, and do no contextualization at all
  2. To transform. The faith needs to be “updated” for modern times, and truth is not found in outdated doctrines.
  3. To translate. “The translators attempt to say what the Bible would say if it were being written to us in our present situation.”8

Erickson is a translator, and his social trinitarianism is an example of him doing just that.9 If you believe it’s possible to re-frame theology in contemporary terms, if necessary re-working allegedly outmoded frameworks while retaining “timeless truth,”10 then you’ll be open to accepting a re-framing of divine personhood in the Trinity.

What do these social trinitarians do with “personhood?”

A new framework

The first thing to note is a dissatisfaction with the classical understanding of Person.11 Robert Jenson, for example, rejects divine simplicity as incoherent.12 He dismisses Augustine’s thinking on the trinity,13 claiming he was undone by “the old dissonance between the metaphysical principles of the Greeks and the storytelling of the Gospel.”14 If the Persons are just active subjects of the same, identical nature, then it does not matter which Person does what. It’s irrelevant. Jenson criticizes Augustine, who admitted as much.15 The classical doctrine has Father, Son and Spirit as the same Being, so all their actions are the same action. The Persons do not merely work together, they do the same thing. Their actions are indivisible.16

How, then, can we know the Persons at all!? Pannenberg observed that the idea of “person” seems to require an individual subsistence, but this is “not compatible with the unity of divine essence.”17

So, social trinitarians argue, we must cast aside the straightjacket of Greek metaphysics and see the Persons as scripture sees them.18 The answer, Jenson argues, is in the Cappadocian scheme of perichoresis and unity of action.19 The Persons don’t perform the same action, but the same thing together. If there is no meaningful self-distinction within the Godhead, Jenson insists, then we are really speaking nonsense. We’re inventing formulas without meaning, and that makes dogma useless.20

What is a person?

So, we have a quest to define “person” more precisely; to put flesh on what is otherwise an alleged abstraction. Leonardo Boff is one such pilgrim.21 Pointing to John 14:11 and 17:21, he sees divine Personhood as defined by an “I + Thou” relationship:

… a knot of relationships, an identity formed and completed on the basis of relationships with others … Interiority (consciousness in its ontological aspect) and openness to the other (freedom and ethical dimension) constitute the mode of being proper to a person.”22

Pannenberg explains:

If the trinitarian relations among Father, Son, and Spirit have the form of mutual self-distinction, they must be understood not merely as different modes of being of one divine subject but as living realizations of separate centers of action.23

The classical position, remember, sees the divine Persons as active subjects of the same nature. Consciousness, will, emotion (etc.) all each proper to a nature, not a person. The Father does not think one thing, while the Son thinks another. The Son does not will one thing, and the Spirit another. There is no individual self-consciousness. Everything is collective, because the Persons are the same Being.  

Social trinitarians say no. Each Person has his own will and self-consciousness. The old, stale view of Personhood is “merely an item of linguistic debris knocked from Hellenistic philosophy by collision with Yahweh.”24

“A person,” Boff declares, “is a subject existing as a centre of autonomy, gifted with consciousness and freedom.”25 But, in the closeness of their union, they are really one:

the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are three intelligent and free subjects; but they possess the same intelligence and the same will, like a triangle with three angles but only one area. All three Persons affirm themselves as an ‘I,’ not in order to close in on themselves, but in order to give themselves to the other two. What emerges is a real psychological perichoresis.26

Boff explains he does not reject the classical position; he “develops and completes it.”

since there are not three consciousnesses there, but only one … At most we can say that in the Trinity there is one substantial consciousness (nature) which is really expressed by three divine, conscious beings (Persons). What we can say is that, analogically, each divine Person is a center of interiority and freedom, whose raison d’etre (nature) consists in being always in relation to the other Persons.”27

His contribution is that he sees a divine Person as more than a particular active subject of the divine nature; more than even a specific, unique existence of the divine nature. He emphasizes the personal, conscious, relational aspect of each to the other in the same nature through perichoresis. Jenson suggests we drop person and use the term identity; “there are three identities in God …”28

Jurgen Moltmann believes it is a strawman to say social trinitarians believe in a “modern” understanding of Personhood. Critics like Karl Rahner, he charges, are actually imputing a caricature of extreme individualism.29 Instead, real “personhood” can only truly be defined as an individual in relationship with others; “the ‘I’ can only be understood stood in the light of the ‘Thou’ - that is to say, it is a concept of relation. Without the social relation there can be no personality.”30 Pannenberg warns that, if the only way you can distinguish the Persons is by their manner of origin, then “one cannot do justice to the reciprocity in the relations.”31

In this way, social trinitarians have re-framed the doctrine of God. However, to Moltmann, because the classical position understands the Persons as merely active subjects of the same nature, this means God communicates only with Himself in an internal, self-dialogue. There is no “I + Thou” conversation; there is only the one subject speaking to Himself. There is no community. Interpersonal relationships with the Trinity are surrendered. Man looks to God for a communal example and can only become “turned inwards and solitary,”32 for God speaks only to Himself, about Himself.

So, Moltmann flatly denies that the Persons are the same identical essence.

If we search for a concept of unity corresponding to the biblical testimony of the triune God, the God who unites others with himself, then we must dispense with both the concept of the one substance and the concept of the identical subject.33

Moltmann points to the imago dei for support. “A person is only God’s image in fellowship with other people.”34 Many theologians, independent of this controversy, have agreed.35 Accordingly, the Persons must relate to one another in a real “I + Thou” relationship. This means the Persons must have individual self-distinction, intelligence, consciousness and will.

Thus Erickson, the one conservative evangelical proponent of social trinitarianism, suggests the Trinity must be understood as a society of persons.36

In union with each other

How do social trinitarians avoid tri-theism? Through perichoresis, a doctrine first formulated in the East by the Cappadocian Fathers. The Persons are united without confusion and mutually indwell one another without any blending or mingling, without change or division. Erickson calls perichoresis the “guard against tritheism.”37

If God is love (1 Jn 4:8), then He must be more than one person. Love needs an object. “Thus, if there were not multiplicity in the person of the Godhead, God could not really be love prior to this creation of other subjects.”38 Unlike human persons, however, the Trinity is incorporeal and has no spatial limitations that hinder interpersonal relations. Their union is such that there are no separate experiences and so none of the typical barriers to perfect love. Nor is there any self-centeredness.39

Moltmann likens this union to a “circulation of eternal divine life.”40 He explains that “[b]y virtue of their eternal love they live in one another to such an extent, and dwell in one another to such an extent, that they are one.”41 There is not one subject; there is only “the living fellowship of the three Persons who are related to one another and exist in one another. Their unity does not lie in the one lordship of God; it is to be found in the unity of their tri-unity.”42 Erickson, echoing Moltmann, explains the Persons “are so intimately linked and intertwined that they are unable to live apart from one another. Each supplies life to the others. What they do, although it may be primarily the work of one of them, is done together.”43

He suggests we stop thinking of God as metaphysically simple and consider Him as an organism; a union.44 In a similar fashion, Pannenberg describes God’s essence as a “single constellation.”45 No Person can exist without the other; “[n]one has the power of life within itself alone.”46 Boff notes, “[t]heir relationship is one of reciprocal participation rather than production and procession.”47 This abolishes the classical doctrines of eternal generation and procession. Yet, Moltmann avers, without this “perichoretic unity, then Arianism and Sabellianism remain inescapable threats to Christian theology.”48

Indeed, Moltmann contends that this perichoresis of three individual centers of self-conscious Persons is the only way to make sense of salvation history.49 All ideas of subordinationism are now gone; the concept “has no validity within the eternal circulation of the divine life.”50 Each Person eternally brings glory to the other in this circulation.51

Analogies

Following the classical model, we recall that Donald Bloesch proposes the analogy of the Trinity as different dimensions of the same space; height, width and depth.52 The dimensions, though real, are distinct aspects of the one shape. If the dimensions had independent status, you would have three shapes. But, you do not have three shapes. You have one shape with three facets.

Social trinitarians cry foul and see this as modalism by any other name. William Craig is a social trinitarian. In perhaps the very worst analogy in the history of the Church, he offers up the analogy of Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards Hades, to explain the Trinity.53 In a more responsible fashion, Erickson suggests the idea of the human organism consisting of heart, brain and lungs. Each is distinct, but not separable. Each depends on the other for existence. They can only exist together as a unit. They share the same life. He also proposes the analogy of Siamese twins who share the same organs. There are two, but also one.54

We close by returning to Erickson’s notion of “translating” doctrine. Can it be done? Donald Bloesch, independent of this issue, warns, “We can and must avail ourselves of philosophical concepts, but we must not let these concepts rule our thinking. We must always be prepared to modify them and perhaps set them aside as new light breaks forth from God’s holy word.”55 If this be true, have social trinitarians done it here?

Barth warns that, if you have three separate objects of worship, you have three gods.56 In denying the Persons’ numerical identity of essence (homoousia), is this what the social view hath wrought?

It is time for thinking Christians, especially pastors, to decide what “Person” means. Unfortunately, most don’t know it’s an issue. One may be right to stand in opposition to Church doctrine that is nearly 1600 years old. But, you should at least do it consciously!

Notes

1 Robert Letham declares, “The idea of social Trinitarianism is alien to the classic doctrine, for which the unity and indivisibility of the Trinity, together with the inseparable works of God, are axiomatic,” (The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship, revised ed. [Phillipsburg: P&R, 2019; Kindle ed.], KL 386).

2 Jurgen Moltmann, Trinity and the Kingdom, trans. Margaret Kohl (reprint; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993; Kindle ed.). 

3 Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society, trans. Paul Burns (reprint; Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2005).  

4 Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, trans. Geoffrey Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991).

5 See both The Triune Identity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1982) and Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). 

6 Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons: A Contemporary Interpretation of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995). Erickson did postdoctoral studies under Pannenberg and dedicated his Christian Theology (in part) to him.

7 Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013; Kindle ed.) KL 1681-1842. 

8 Erickson, Christian Theology, KL 1771.

9 In addition to Erickson’s God in Three Persons, see his other two monographs on Theology Proper and Christology in which he goes his own way on a number of issues; (1) God the Father Almighty: A Contemporary Exploration of the Divine Attributes (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998; Kindle ed.), and (2) The Word Became Flesh (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991). 

10 “… the really crucial task of theology will be to identify the timeless truths, the essence of the doctrines, and to separate them from the temporal form in which they were expressed, so that a new form may be created,” (Erickson, Christian Theology, KL 1842).

11 Robert Jenson believes that, had the gospel been birthed in a culture other than one steeped in Greek thought, then the Church would have used a different framework for understanding God. “The fathers did not, as is still often supposed, hellenize the evangel; they labored to evangelize their own antecedent Hellenism, and succeeded remarkably if not fully,” (Systematic, 90). 

12 Jenson, Systematic, 110-114. 

13 “Augustine imported Eastern doctrine, interpreted it according to his lights, and passed on the result … he was mostly blind to Athanasius’ and the Cappadocians’ specific achievement, and where he saw it he rejected it,” (Jenson, Systematic, 110-111). 

14 Jenson, Systematic, 112. 

15 Jenson, Systematic, 111.

16 Augustine, “On the Trinity,” 15.5, in NPNF1, 14 vols. (Buffalo: Christian Literature Company, 1887), vol. 1.3. “He who is sent is not therefore less than He who sends because the one sent, the other was sent; since the Trinity, which is in all things equal, being also equally in its own nature unchangeable, and invisible, and everywhere present, works indivisibly.” Emphasis added.

17 Pannenberg, Systematic, 1:286. 

18 “To find a basis for the doctrine of the Trinity we must begin with the way in which Father, Son, and Spirit come on the scene and relate to one another in the event of relevation,” (Pannenberg, Systematic, 1:299). 

19 Robert Letham has a good initial definition but, as a classical trinitarian, he shows his cards in his description: “The mutual indwelling of the three persons of the Trinity in the one being of God. In social Trinitarianism, the word is used in a quite different way, to claim that the three hypostases are like three human persons engaged in a dance around one another, a development hinting at tritheism,” (Holy Trinity, KL 11553). It is not an accident that theologians allow no wiggle-room on the issue of divine Personhood; it goes to the heart of who God is.

20 Jenson, Systematic, 113. 

21 Boff, Trinity and Society, 118ff. 

22 Boff, Trinity and Society, 89. 

23 Pannenberg, Systematic, 1:319. 

24 Jenson, Triune Identity, 108. 

25 Boff, Trinity and Society, 115.

26 Boff, Trinity and Society, 116. 

27 Boff, Trinity and Society, 89. 

28 Jenson, Triune Identity, 111. 

29 “What Rahner calls `our secular use of the word person’ has nothing in common with modern thinking about the concept of persons. What he describes is actually extreme individualism: everyone is a self-possessing, self-disposing centre of action which sets itself apart from other persons,” (Jurgen Moltmann, Trinity and the Kingdom KL 2133-2134).

30 Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2135-2136.

31 Pannenberg, Systematic, 1:319.

32 Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2290.        

33 Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2199-2200. 

34 Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2277.

35 Robert Reymond quotes Charles Hodge approvingly, who believed the imago dei consisted in both knowledge of God and moral rectitude toward one’s neighbor. The fall ruined both our vertical relationship with God and our horizontal relationship with our neighbors (A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, revised ed. [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998], 429). To be in the image of God includes the concept of relationship.

Erickson takes a structural view and explains that God made us a certain way in order to fulfill the relationships He meant us to have. “Humanity qua humanity has a nature encompassing all that constitutes personality or selfhood: intelligence, will, emotions. This is the image in which humans were created, enabling them to have the divinely intended relationship to God and to fellow humans, and to exercise dominion,” (Christian Theology, KL 10321).

36 Erickson, God in Three Persons, 221ff. 

37 Erickson, God in Three Persons, 228-238. 

38 Erickson, God in Three Persons, 221. 

39 Erickson, God in Three Persons, 223-225. 

40 Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2548. 

41 Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2547-2548. 

42 Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2558-2560. 

43 Erickson, God in Three Persons, 234-235. 

44 Erickson, God in Three Persons, 231, 264. 

45 Pannenberg, Systematic, 1:359. 

46 Erickson, God in Three Persons, 264. 

47 Boff, Trinity and Society, 145; see 145-147. 

48 Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2208-2211. 

49 “For this trinitarian history is nothing other than the eternal perichoresis of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in their dispensation of salvation, which is to say in their opening of themselves for the reception and unification of the whole creation. The history of salvation is the history of the eternally living, triune God who draws us into and includes us in his eternal triune life with all the fullness of its relationships. It is the love story of the God whose very life is the eternal process of engendering, responding and blissful love. God loves the world with the very same love which he is in himself,” (Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2300-2303).

50 Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2562. 

51 Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2567-2568. “The Persons of the Trinity make one another shine through that glory, mutually and together. They glow into perfect form through one another and awake to perfected beauty in one another.”

52 Donald Bloesch, God the Almighty (Downers Grove: IVP, 1995), 186. 

53 William L. Craig and J.P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove: IVP, 2003), 593. 

54 Erickson, God in Three Persons, 233-234. 

55 Bloesch, God the Almighty, 35. 

56 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 1.1, trans. G. W. Bromiley, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975), 349.

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There are 8 Comments

Paul Henebury's picture

Tyler,

The classical view of God fully embraces perichoresis (i.e. the interpenetration of each Person in the Godhead with the other).  The social Trinity, especially as espoused by such as Moltmann, redefines perichoresis as though it demanded separate essences.  But the classical position says there is one essence while the Persons are distinct and individual within that essence.  Thus Ursinus:

By the term, "Essence," we are to understand...that which the eternal Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are considered, and declared to be, singly and absolutely in themselves, and which they is common to the three.  By the term, "Person," however, we are to understand that the three persons...are considered and declared to be individually and relatively, or as compared with each other, and which they are according to the mode of existence peculiar to each,  Or, we may define "Essence" as the very being of God...whilst the term "Person" refers to the mode, or manner, in which the being of God...subsists in each of these three. - Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, 130.   

Ursinus does not refer to perichoresis here, but he helpfully shows that there is no confusion of being and person in the classical formulation (which incorporated much from the Cappadocians).  

As for the supposed confusion carried over from Greek categories, this is often overstretched.  Yes, we see some incursions in early Augustine, but as Gerald Bray demonstrates, the Church "selected their terminology and defined it much more carefully than the ancient Greeks had ever done." - God Is Love, 119 (though see his full treatment 118-133).     

The perichoresis envisaged by the classical account is not one where the Three act as one as much as they act for one (i.e. for one another).  That is to say, perichoresis is more to do with the "persons" in the Godhead.  The Father is the chief Actor in creation but works with and through the Son and the Spirit.  This has to be the case or else we have, for example, the Father and the Spirit dying with the Son on the Cross.  Hence, I think Erickson's formulation can be included in the classical while Moltmann's (and Jenson's) can't. 

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

TylerR's picture

Editor

Erickson follows Moltmann and Boff pretty closely. He's basically a synthesis of the two, with some Pannenberg sprinkled in. Moltmann is a bit "out there." Surprisingly, Boff (the Brazilian liberation theologian) is much more careful than Moltmann. I thought about including some info about the alleged re-definition of perichoresis, but space forbade it! I'll likely tackle it in the next article, which will be a very long time coming. This next article will list the elements of the classical and social positions side by side, then examine major scripture passages to reach a tentative conclusion. An article after that will address some problems and criticisms of the other side that may result, in an attempt to "solve" them or at least deal with them.

I need to read Pannenberg again; he wades into some very deep waters that I don't fully appreciate, yet. I also need to read more of the Eastern fathers on perichoresis. These essays are basically my initial attempts to grapple with the question. I have more work to do!

Although, I did like Moltmann's explanation of the "circulation of divine life."

Thanks!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

TylerR's picture

Editor

Does nobody have any comment on Cerberus? Heh, heh ...

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

M. Osborne's picture

"Does nobody have any comment on Cerberus? Heh, heh ..."

We could name him Fluffy???

In all seriousness though, thanks for the article, and will there be a part 3, "In which I stick my neck out with a suggestion about 'Person'?"  Smile

Michael Osborne
Philadelphia, PA

TylerR's picture

Editor

Of course there will be another article!

If you can't tell what I actually believe from these two articles, then I have achieved my goal!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Paul Henebury's picture

It is my understanding that Moltmann has pitted his social trinitarian model against monotheism, claiming an either/or.  This isn't all that surprising owing to his "open" conception of God.  This makes him focus more upon the economic Trinity than the ontological Trinity (on which he is unsound).  This may be where Erickson is influenced by Moltmann, although Pannenberg is more careful.  

Erickson's basic construction of the Trinity is fully in line with the classical view: three persons, one essence, but his coming at it from a more NT perspective lends his theology a freer space for intra-trinitarian relationship.  He does though see the importance of the co-inherence of the Persons (and I don't think there is a better term) as relational, and this is one place where he is superior to Grudem.  From his perspective he can be the most insistent defender of the classical view ontologically, while being an important evangelical voice for the social view economically.  

Yes, Pannenberg is deep, and I too must keep going back to him.  One reason for this is because he recognizes both the genius and the failings of the Cappadocians.  He criticizes (if memory serves) their hierachy as over-strident.    

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

TylerR's picture

Editor

I didn't class Erickson with the classical position because he rejects eternal generation and procession.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Ed Vasicek's picture

Paul Henebury wrote:

Erickson's basic construction of the Trinity is fully in line with the classical view: three persons, one essence, but his coming at it from a more NT perspective lends his theology a freer space for intra-trinitarian relationship.  He does though see the importance of the co-inherence of the Persons (and I don't think there is a better term) as relational, and this is one place where he is superior to Grudem.  From his perspective he can be the most insistent defender of the classical view ontologically, while being an important evangelical voice for the social view economically. 

I agree with Paul.  It has become a habit.

Influence from varying sources can be influence toward Biblical viewpoints. For example, I believe in election, not because I follow Calvinist theology, but because Calvinist theologians make a good Biblical case for election.  Is it not possible that Erickson has arrived at some of his conclusions because some of his mentors made a good case?  Since he does not parrot them exactly, it sounds like he has sought to be discerning and selective. This, of course, does not preclude him from being wrong.  But he is not merely programmed by his mentors.

I do think the doctrine of the Trinity has been so taboo to mess with that many simply parrot decisions from councils.  Those councils need to be taken seriously -- they obviously pondered deeply and, at least early on, looked to the Scriptures. So we need to think more than twice if we dare try to hone their rulings.  But, ultimately, we should rigorously compare beliefs -- no matter what their source -- to the teachings of Scripture.

Truth doesn't change, but our understanding of truth improves or declines.

If you believe that the Three Persons of the Godhead seek to glorify one another, that, to me, lends toward some form of a Social Trinity,

 

 

 

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