Christian theology does not exist for the sake of the theologian. Theology is for the sake of the Church; it is for the sake of the challenges of the community. If it is not received by the Christian community, it has failed, for it has to echo the responses of that community. Christian theology has to be historical, and cannot be separated from contemporary issues. Christianity is an incarnational religion, which lives also within time and circumstances.
Systematic theology is a connection of the whole of Christian theology. Trinitarian theology is central and foundational to Christian theology, which has to do with the logos of theos. In the history of the development of Christian dogma, which has been played out in concrete circumstances, affecting concrete lives and palpable consequences, has been a struggle for the Christian understanding of who God is and how he related to Creation, particularly to the ones created in his image and likeness – and the foundational result has been the conception of the Trinity (which includes the attending Christology). Christians worship God, but God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Ontologically, Trinitarian theology is at the foundation of all things, for God is the creator, sustainer and redeemer of all reality. All our social, human, and historical problems are rooted in Trinitarian theology. This is why the Fathers spent so much energy grounding everything they did and taught in the outworking of the reflection of the Trinitarian life in time and space, in the Church.
This is why the medieval theologians also did so; the Summa Theologiae begins with the doctrine of one God and the Trinity. This is why Barth deals with Trinitarian methodology in his first volume.
Epistemologically, on the other hand – given our fallen state which has affected our intellect, our nous, our heart – we do not know God first and foremost. Our order of knowing does not include the Trinity at the very beginning; the Fathers’ formulations were the result of a long process of reflection and development. It is the Church’s role to bring us to the road back to God, which is the road of repentance, of restoration of His image, of remembering God, and remembering us in the context of God. Exitus, reditus.
One thing that is common from the earliest fathers (Justin, Irenaeus, Origin) is the very important distinction between God in his own essence and God in relation to the created world, as known through creation and special revelation. We do not know God in his essence, but only as he has revealed himself to us, in his energies and through his effects.
Christianity affirms both the essential incomprehensibility of God and God’s condescension to reveal himself to us. We do not have an insight into the Trinitarian God apart from what he tells us. Epistemologically, the place of Trinitarian theology in systematic theology is always a controversial topic, even if Trinitarian theology always has to be the ultimate horizon of Christian theology.
As a reaction against essentialism, and under the impact of postmodern critiques, many modern theologians have been moving more to a pluralistic tradition, beginning with Father, Son and Holy Spirit (rather than the idea of the simple divine essence). There is a discernible tendency towards social trinitarianism. Essentialism – the emphasis on the unity of the divine essence as a starting point, among other things, is seen as totalitarian.
Trinitarian theology arose because of Christology, since, without the question of the divinity of Christ, simple Jewish monotheism would have remained. If, however, Christ is divine, are there two gods, is he a lesser god, or are there other options? Many today are looking for alternatives to the traditional conceptualities.
Also, it is perceived by many contemporary theologians that there is sexism in the traditional Trinitarian theology. Some, as a reaction, do away with Trinitarian theology and invocation. Others redefine it.
Importance of the History of Trinitarian Theology
Scripture does not explicitly spell the doctrine of the Trinity as such. Trinitarian and Christological doctrines are the result of historical development, even while have roots in Scripture. The failure to understand this basic concept has, in the context of fundamentalism, crippled some conservative theologians who in turn do not engage many of the ongoing challenges presented to them in modernity.
History means contamination – by blood, power struggles, etc. This is part of any history of human ideas; the more important they are, the more blood is likely to be spilled. This has been true of revolutions such as the American, French, Russian, etc. Some enlightenment rationalists put blame in religion without realizing that ideologies of freedom (as with many other ideologies, including, for example Marxism), have always been abused by the State. State persecutions have killed millions of people.
Historically, Nicean orthodoxy has prevailed – as believed and affirmed by the Church, under divine providence and inspiration guiding infallible councils – but it was not a foregone conclusion, and at many times it seemed as though it had failed. An important question, then, is to consider whether orthodoxy can be measured by the status quo; the place of God’s providence also has to be assessed. Outside of dogmatic formulations of Ecumenical Councils, what criteria can we build Trinitarian theologies today, and how are they binding?
We cannot avoid using human models, since, again, we do not have an insight into the essence of God. How do we avoid the problems inherent in any human models – anthropomorphism and its attending ideologies? It seems as though contemporary theologians are often unaware or unconcerned with these two essential problems.
Human beings historically have used ideas to oppress other people, which is the development of ideologies. Are we projecting our own ideologies in our conception of the Trinity? Are we projecting our ideologies when we want to determine who God is, and thus how our imitation of him should be? When we want to determine what is or is not important or central in Christian theology? When we want to determine how God should me made relevant, or how we should worship him? (or her?)
Moltmann, for example, begins with a contemporary critique of oppression, and argues that monotheistic conceptions of God need to be discarded because of their inherent oppressive character. For him, it needs to be replaced with social trinitarianism, which is the only way to preserve equality. Thus, he projects his own ideas into the reconstruction of Trinitarian theology, where equality and plurality come first. Then, he derives from that theology a reconstruction of social relations and structures. This amounts to Feuerbach’s idea of theology as anthropology.
Today, under the influence of Derrida, Heidegger, and others, there are some important metaphysical categories of being, relation, etc.
- How do explain the unity and plurality of God using such categories?
- How do speak of one God as three irreducible distinct realities?
- How do we speak about their relations?
- What are the pitfalls to avoid (modalism, subordinationism, etc.)?
- How do we speak of the relation of the Triune God in relation to the world?
These are all important issues that still call for theology to be done today.