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Notes on the Trinity

Over the last few years I have made a few “mental notes” on the topic of the Trinity.  I share them here in case they are helpful or stimulating to others.  Eventually, perhaps, I will be able to develop these inchoate thoughts into a more compelling project or argument.  But for now, here they are: 

1.) The inappropriateness of appropriations.  Supreme knowledge and love are proper to the divine  nature.   But there is a long tradition in the West (from Augustine, to Aquinas, to Rahner, and beyond) according to which knowledge is “appropriated” to the Son/Word and love is “appropriated” to the Holy Spirit.  My question is this: what is the point of these appropriations?  Do they, in fact, clarify or illuminate anything?  I am inclined to be rather sceptical.  For where is compassion more clearly shown than in Jesus?  Where is wisdom to be found if not in the Holy Spirit?  I simply fail to see the point of suggesting that the knowledge/love distinction maps onto the relation between these two divine hypostases.  The only reason to insist on it seems to be that it could shore up the idea that the human mind (composed, in a unified way, of memory, intellect, and will) is constituted as an image of the Trinity.  But this brings me to my next point.

2.) The banality of the 3-in-1 structure.  It is not especially difficult to come up with examples of three things that are really one thing, at least if one is willing to let the rules of counting be somewhat flexible.  Memory, intellect, will; lover, beloved, love; wife, husband, and child; three leaves of a shamrock; etc.  If an image of the Trinity is going to be compelling, awe-inspiring, thought-provoking, it would seem to require more than a 3-in-1 structure.  One needs a sense of how each one of the three is like a particular divine person, along with a sense of how the one in which they are united is like the unity of God.  But then the question of an imago Trinitatis has to be fundamentally concerned with the determinate characteristics, relations, or manners-of-being of the triune God and, therefore, not primarily with the 3-in-1 puzzle.  Perhaps a case could be made that the Son/Word is more like knowledge and the Holy Spirit is more like love, but I don’t see how this can be done without implicitly deemphasizing the love which Jesus embodies or the knowledge which the Spirit grants.   

3.) The ambivalence of the economic/immanent distinction. The significance of this distinction differs depending on whether the question on the table is one of access or of positive doctrine.  Let me explain.  Any insight into the Trinity to which we have access in this finite, created, historical, and fallen world belongs to what is called the “economy,” that is, God’s action for us, the divine life ad extra.  Within the economy, God’s innermost nature remains unknown, incomprehensible, ineffable.  This is the constant theme of mystical theology, of the doctrine of analogy, of genuine Christian apophasis.   But this means that there is no access to the immanent Trinity as such but rather only to the Trinity as mediated by worldly conditions of knowing or thinking.  Hence, our access is wholly economic.  However, there is no implication here that the Trinity itself is only economic.  On the contrary!  As a question of positive doctrine, it is necessary to affirm that God is not absorbed by the world, realized only within it, or finally subjected to its laws.  In short, the distinction between economic and immanent is important to maintain as a teaching, even though we cannot abstract ourselves from the economy–which is to say, even though our only knowledge of the Trinity is mediated, worldly, dependent on God’s free external self-communication.  The recognition that the economy is the inescapable condition of our Trinitarian reflection is important.  It keeps one from thinking, falsely, that apart from a more narrow understanding of economy (limited to the images and stories in scripture) there would be some sort of access to the immanent Trinity (provided by conceptual notions of relation, etc.).  The latter are (epistemologically) no less economic than the former, and in fact become more and more questionable to the extent that they depart from or no longer interpret faithfully what is disclosed in scripture.

4.) Abstract and concrete sociality. That God is revealed as three persons in loving and self-giving relation provides the highest level of support to the idea of sociality (mutuality, reciprocity, intimacy-in-distinction, difference-as-communion, etc.).  However, it does not follow from this (admittedly important) point that any sort of specific understanding of proper relations among human persons should be derivable from reflections regarding the relations between Father, Son, and Spirit.  There will, in any case, be more difference than similarity in any analogy which might be drawn here.  But no less important is the fact that the relations among human beings are extraordinarily more diverse, if only because much more numerous, and this excess of complexity warrants careful attention.  The Trinitarian validation of the abstract ideal of sociality is not something to be taken for granted.  But the significance which the Trinity has for our concrete relationships depends, it seems to me, much more on the particular ways in which the triune God is encountered in the midst of these relationships  than it does on the mere fact that God is a unity of persons.

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  1. Tyler Wittman
    April 5, 2011 at 9:19 am

    I largely agree with point #4; it’s the basic problem/question behind my own research.

    The amazing thing is how readily some so-called social Trinitarians apply the (originally Christological) notion of perichoresis to human relationships, or abstract the concept into a general (and univocal) metaphysical blueprint for all things.

    • Todd Walatka
      April 5, 2011 at 1:42 pm

      This is also one of the principal claims of Kathryn Tanner in last book.

  2. Todd Walatka
    April 5, 2011 at 1:44 pm


    I really like all four of these suggestions. Do you have any initial thoughts on theologians who succeed or fail on one or more of these?

  3. April 5, 2011 at 2:19 pm

    Wow, thank you. This is a very helpful (and brief!) post. I’m curious about #1. It seems strange to say the Holy Spirit in particular is love, when after all God is love. But I don’t think the knowledge/love “appropriation” is solely a result of the psychological analogy. The Son is the Word of John 1. And the Spirit is the site of our communion with the Father.

    But I agree that this can’t be the only thing we say about each. The Spirit is the “Spirit of truth” who teaches all things (John 15:26). And obviously, “for God so loved the world that he sent his only-born Son” (John 3:16). So maybe the knowledge/love appropriation doesn’t need to be discarded but only complexified? Or do you think both Son and Spirit so have to do with both knowledge and love that it isn’t helpful to “appropriate” these characteristics at all?

  4. Andrew
    April 6, 2011 at 6:59 pm

    Thanks Tyler, Todd, and Steve for the comments.

    Todd, I’m continuing to think about your question regarding which theologians do the best job. My sense is that Balthasar would probably do pretty well on most of these points, though I’m not prepared to say more at the moment.

    Steve, yes, I think you’re right to clarify that the appropriations are inspired by a few important biblical passages and, therefore, may not result entirely from the psychological analogy developed later in the tradition. My honest sense of things, though, is that the appropriations aren’t really helpful, except as a way of preserving the psychological analogy. Of course, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t speak of Jesus as the Word and as Wisdom; nor am I saying that we shouldn’t think of the Holy Spirit as offering grace, love, and communion. What I am saying is that we should understand Jesus as love incarnate and that we should also receive the Spirit as one of knowledge and understanding. If we do this, I don’t see how to make sense of the idea of specific appropriations, though much of what the tradition says about Jesus as Word/Wisdom and the Spirit as grace/love would still be meaningful.

    • April 6, 2011 at 7:10 pm

      Thank you. Yes, that seems true. Both offer wisdom and love in their own ways. I guess if we’re to be strict Thomists on the matter, we can say that only relations of origin can distinguish them–so all three Persons have to do with knowledge and love. Balthasar goes for a somewhat in-between position if I remember, picking up Richard of St Victor’s (?) analogy of lover, beloved and love. That complexifies the whole thing in a similar way I guess.

  1. April 4, 2011 at 8:19 pm

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