Beyond Justification 4 – Understanding the dance of the Trinity

I was struggling to frame my thoughts for the next post in this series when I realized I needed to pause for a moment and explore the Christian concept of the Trinity, that is of a triune God. I will say up front that anything and everything we can express about the essence and nature of God will always be in some sense inadequate. We are finite and God is not. This is, in fact, so true that as soon as we say something about God, we almost have to say that insofar as we’ve encountered or experienced or understood that thing, God is not like that to which are comparing him.

For instance, we can positively say, as the Holy Scriptures affirm, that God is love. But when we say that, we need to also say that the love I have or which I have experienced from others falls so short of the love that is God that in terms of the love I have known God is not love at all. God transcends my understanding of love. Nevertheless, even though it is limited and finite, my understanding and experience of love do help me begin to understand God.

If we do not maintain that tension in our thoughts, especially when discussing the Trinity, it becomes far to easy to attempt to rationalize the Trinity, to make the essence of God make sense to us. This has been true throughout Christian history. When people have fallen into this trap, they have tended to overemphasize either the oneness or the threeness of God. In so doing they have on the one hand reduced God to a single person who adopts different roles or masks. And on the other hand, they have subtly shifted to three persons who can somehow act separately, stand apart from one another, or even act in opposition to each other. Tritheism tends to be subtle rather than overt.

So it is with fear and trepidation that I venture into this arena of words, praying that I will not misspeak or be misunderstood. This discussion is risky, but it is essential. For if we do not have some understanding of the nature of the Trinity, it is not possible to understand what salvation means in the Christian sense of the word.

Before I delve into the heart of what I want to discuss, I did want to mention one principle I very recently picked up from Orthodox theology that I have found surprisingly helpful. My first reaction was “so what?”, but as I’ve reflected on it, I’ve found that it sounds simple, but runs very deep indeed. Here it is:

Everything that can be said about God is either unique to a single member of the Trinity or is common to all of the persons of the Trinity.

Here’s how it works. Most things are common to all. All are uncreated. All are love. All together fulfilled certain roles. All are creator (we see that in both Genesis and more explicitly in the NT). All are our redeemer. Redemption of creation was a wholly triune act. However, only one person is Father, one is Son, and one is Spirit. Only the Son is incarnate. Only the Son is begotten. Only the Spirit proceeds. Most importantly, no two persons of the Trinity ever share an attribute or quality or role or action that the third does not. Unique to one or common to all. Think about it. As it sinks in, I think the value of this dogma in keeping our way of thinking about God on track becomes clear.

The best metaphor for the Trinity I’ve yet encountered is that of the dance, a dance which lies at the center of reality. The greek word for this dance is perichoresis. The word is used to capture a reality of three persons who are so mutually indwelling, interpenetrating, and united that they can be said to share a single nature, a single essence, to be one with each other even as each retains their own unique personhood. This perichoretic nature is described as a dance, each person constantly twirling with, around, and through the other two. It’s a dance where, as soon as one person finds themselves in the center of the dance, they immediately yield that place to the other two. It’s a perfectly spinning, eternal, communal dance of self-sufficient love. It is perfect relationship in eternal motion.

This is the God made known to us through Jesus of Nazareth. This is the God inviting us to join the dance.

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