The Holy Trinity and
Christian Education in a Pluralist World
John M. Hull
Education for peace and reconciliation should occupy a central position in the world mission of the church. Christian commitment itself, however, can sometimes prevent greater understanding between religions. This takes place particularly when Christian identity is supported by negative images of other religions. This phenomenon is widespread in religion, and I have suggested elsewhere that we should call it ‘religionism’.(1) We should be seeking to develop a form of religious education which will set people free from religionism, or which will help prevent them from becoming religionist in their outlook. Modelled upon anti-racist and anti-sexist education, such anti-religionist education would be one of the liberating forms appropriate to religious education today, and Christian faith should take an active part in this enterprise.
Christian faith does not offer a privileged immunity from religionism; indeed, partly because of its history and its geographical and economic position in the modem world Christian believers seem particularly vulnerable.(2) One of the effects of Christian religionism is to put Christianity into a competitive relationship with other religions of the world, building up an exclusivist Christian identity through denigrating the faith of others. Since it is western and mainly Christian scholars who have reified various religious traditions by using the suffix ‘-ism’ (3), whereas Christianity has not been regarded as an -ism, it might be appropriate to use the expression Christianism to designate the Christian form of religionism. On the other hand, this might suggest that Hinduism, Buddhism and so on, usually take a religionist form, and so on the whole ‘Christian religionism’ seems preferable. The word expresses the tribalistic and sectarian character of the commitment which is typical of religionism.
Raimundo Panikkar has suggested distinctions between Christendom, Christianity and Christian-ness. (4) Christendom was the geopolitical unity achieved by Christian faith during the mediaeval period; Christianity is the popular name for the reified form taken by Christian faith under the impact of the western scholarly enlightenment, in order to distinguish Christian faith from other religious traditions.
Panikkar suggests that we are now entering a period when Christian-ness will emerge as the next stage in the spiritual evolution of this tradition, a stage where being Christian will become more important than being a Christian, and being committed to Christian-ness will offer new forms of Christian consciousness and discipleship to Christians for whom Christianity as a specific religious tradition is no longer perceived as an appropriate object of devotion. ‘. . . what we call christianity is only one form among other possible ones of living and realising the christian faith.’ (5)
Using Panikkar’s distinctions as a starting point, we notice that Christianity emerged at a time when Christian faith had become aware of the existence of other religions and found it necessary to give itself a name. ‘Islam, which is felt as a threat (partly providential as a warning not to become lukewarm) becomes the image of all other religions. Christianity begins to develop the idea of being the only true religion. The others are false. To be sure, vera religio (true religion) is a consecrated phrase, but the meaning shifts from true religiousness to the only true salvific and institutionalised religion.’(6) Christian-ness emerges as a stance of Christian discipleship at a time when increasing knowledge and understanding of other religions is making many Christians conscious of the limited character of Christianity as it has been known in recent centuries. This form of self-critical awareness, characteristic of post-modernistic spirituality will inevitably divide into two streams? Under the conditions of modernity, post-modernity, highly developed capitalism and world-wide inter-faith dialogue, Christianity will tend to become either Christian-ness or Christian religionism. There will be those who, in response to what they will perceive as a challenge to Christianity, will affirm even more vigorously the tribalistic and sectarian character implicit within the concept of Christianity and will thus lapse into Christian religionism. On the other hand, there will be those who in this new situation will recover the practice of Christ-like discipleship. It is the purpose of this paper to examine the doctrine of the Holy Trinity in the light of the distinction between Cnristian-ness and Christian religionism and to develop some implications relevant to the educational mission of the church.
Christian Religionism and Christian Doctrine
The distinction between Christian-ness and Christianism or Christian religionism is functional rather than theological in the first 'instance. It depends upon psychological and sociological insights about the way in which religion functions in certain situations. The distinction is also ethical and spiritual, referring to different ways of being religious in the world. However, religionism is an entire form of religion and not a mere application or consequence of it. It normally possesses its doctrinal or theological aspect. The relationship between the doctrine and the function will be reciprocal. The doctrines will justify, motivate and reinforce the attitudes and actions of the religionist and will themselves be generated as a result of the religionistic commitment. The generation of doctrine may occur at the unconscious level, the relationship between the religionistic life commitment and the social context on the one hand and the theological or ideational level on the other hand being explicable through techniques of projection, displacement and rationalisation drawn from psychoanalysis (8), through selective attention to the evidence and other techniques drawn from cognitive psychology (9), or through phenomena such as false consciousness (10) and mimetic engulfment (11) drawn from sociology and social psychology. The relationship between doctrine and life in the case of religionism is similar to that which is envisaged by the psycho- analytic anlysis of neurotic religious ritual (12) and belief formation.
The doctrines relevant to religionism are of two kinds. Firstly, there are doctrines which explicitly disparage other religions and, secondly, there are doctrines which disparage other religions only implicitly. We must distinguish between the weighing or the comparative evaluation of doctrines and the disparagement of others which is one of the marks of religionism. Various judgements may be made about the criteria for the evaluation of various religious doctrines and any believer whose faith is more than mere unexamined convention will hope to find reasons for his or her commitment. Having a reason for the faith that is in one is not the same as having a religionistic commitment. To be religionistic, religious beliefs must feed upon and be fed by exclusive individual or group identity and be sustained by negative views of those who believe in something else. Milton Rokeach has shown that every belief system has its anti-belief system (13). Believing in this may imply that I do not believe in that. We may, however, distinguish between those persons in whom the relationship between the positive and negative belief systems is reasoned, adaptable and enquiring, and (on the other hand) those where the relationship is dogmatic, rigid, very important in itself and (above all) productive of a tribalism which is expressed in an us/them view of social and religious community.
Thus the tares and the wheat grow side by side. We cannot provide descriptions which will guarantee correct diagnosis in every case. On the other hand, the similarity should not cause us to abandon the effort, particularly at a crucial time in the history of spirituality. The distinction between Christian religionism and Christianness is demanded not only by the social and political ambiguities and complexities of religious life today, but is a valuable aid to introspective and collective self-criticism as a defence against self-deception. ‘The faith of the enlightened christian must strip itself of the "christian religion" as it actually exists and free itself for a fecundation that will affect all religions both ancient and modem.’ (14)
Let me be blunt. There are Christians who believe that the Qur’an is inspired not by God but by the devil (15). There seems little doubt that such a belief is an indication of Christian religionism, especially when it is held vigorously and emotionally, when it is associated with feelings of horror and revulsion against the Qur’an, and is part of a way of life which builds up Christians and fellow Christians into a superior group while Muslims and those who revere the Qur’an are regarded as being in an inferior group to be subjected to denigration and proselytisation. There may be other Christians who believe that the Bible is the word of God but believe and say nothing about the status of the Qur’an. Even as part of the negative belief system, it remains implicit. However, if the belief that the Bible is the word of God and the implicit belief that the Qur’an is not the word of God are not reached as a result of the application of consciously held criteria but are aspects of a dogmatic assertion, then the belief in the Bible will have an absolute character. Sometimes this absolute character will be acknowledged and defended explicitly; sometimes it will be part of a taken for granted set of faith assumptions. Either way, it has a potential relationship with Christian religionism, and if the belief enters into a two-way relationship with the religionist way of life then the belief could be correctly described as forming part of Christian religionism.
No religious doctrine can be regarded as religionist when taken in isolation. Religionism is a structure of religious life and practice involving beliefs, attitudes and behaviour of a certain kind. The most that one can claim is that a doctrine may have a potential to arouse or be aroused by religionism. We might think, for example, that the belief that Christ died for all is not very likely to encourage exclusive identity and the rejection of others, whereas the belief that Christ died only for the elect while others are condemned to eternal loss may have quite a high potential for supporting the rest of the attitudes and practices which make up the structure of Christian religionism. Such beliefs, however, may be held in a purely scholarly way, and may remain unrelated to the emotions and behaviour which constitute religionism. Moreover, people are not always consistent. A Methodist might become prejudiced and tribalistic, condemning and excluding others in spite of holding the traditional Methodist belief that Christ died for all.
We may also distinguish a number of ways of becoming Christianist. It may be the case that Christian faith as a whole has been skewed in a religionist direction due to certain historical factors. If that is the case, Christians inheriting that tradition, whether by birth into a Christian family or whether through adult conversion, will tend to adopt Christian religionism unconsciously and innocently. They will not realise that their Christian faith is contaminated with Christianism, because they are not aware of the distinction between Christian religionism and Christian-ness. Christian education is particularly appropriate for such Christians, since education can disclose the contaminated character of the tradition and may enable such Christians to reappropriate Christian faith, since they have no particular emotional investment in perpetu- ating Christian religionism.
There may be other Christians, however, who have not only been born into Christian religionism but have become emotionally involved with it, who have invested in Christian religionism their personal and group identity. There may even be Christians who, not content with the degree to which the Christian tradition has been skewed in this direction, will make their own contributions to a renewed and more aggressive Christian religionism. In cases such as these, the prospects of transformation through Christian education are more remote. Christian education is one of the gifts given by the Holy Spirit to the church, but it is not the only one and it cannot be expected to do everything.
Are the Doctrines of the Incarnation and Trinity Christianist or Christian-like?
We must now face the question whether the central doctrines of Christian faith, the doctrines of the Incarnation and of the Holy Trinity, do not have a potential for generating and being sustained by Christian religionism. ‘If Jesus was God incarnate, the Christian religion is unique in having been founded by God in person.’ (16) John Hick points out that over the centuries a ‘religious superiority-complex’ has been typical of Christianity, 'which readily manifests itself in arrogance, contempt, condemnation and hostility' toward the other major world religions?
Robert Jensen says ‘Other religions can perhaps be relaxed about the question of God’s identity, about the question of which God they in fact worship, and whether it is the same one they once set out to worship. . . For the gods of the religions are accommodating on this point and meld easily into one another. But the church’s God is the jealous God of Israel, the God whose primary saving mandate is "You shall have no other gods. . ." ‘ (18). Elizabeth Achtemeier thinks that ‘unlike every other religion of the world, the Judeo-Christian faith (imitated by Islam) does not start with the phenomena of the world and deduce the nature of God from them; in this respect, the biblical religions are unique in history. . .’. The result is that oriental religions, whether of India or China, together with such contemporary secular forms of life as existentialism, all offer what is ultimately a meaningless way of life. Only Christianity is the absolute revelation of God (19). Gerhard Forde explains ‘the foundational belief upon which thisessay is built is the scriptural assertion that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself (2 Cor 5:19). That is to be understood in an exclusivist sense: apart from Christ, we are not reconciled to God. Furthermore, all human attempts to effect such reconciliation are futile and ultimately counterproductive’ (20). The thought is continued in the same collection of essays, by T. F. Torrance. ‘By its very nature, divine revelation is essentially singular and once and for all, because there cannot be a multiplicity of revelations any more than there can be a multiplicity of Gods. "That is the exclusive nature of God’s self-revelation. . .’ (21). Alvin Kimel asserts ‘the Nazarene is God; the Gallilean rabbi is a member of the Holy Trinity’. ‘As with any other object, we may now pick out our God: "There he is. That one, the son of Mary. He is the One I worship." In the concrete particularity of the crucified Jew, we apprehend the deity. . .’ ‘Once the Incarnation has taken place, once the eternal Word has made himself object in Jesus, we may no longer look anywhere else to find divinity’ ( 22).
These views are not necessarily indicative of religionism, or its Christian form. To carry out such an enquiry, one would need much more information about the psychology of these particular authors and the sociological context from which they write. It seems clear, however, that such beliefs do at least have a potential for supporting religionism.
Similarly, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity may be expressed in an exclusivist way, which also has potential for supporting religionism. If God is in three persons, then it might be thought that those who believe in Unitarian monotheism or in polytheism or that ultimate reality is beyond the personal, must be mistaken. Their errors must be accounted for either by ignorance, lack of insight or disobedience. It may also be possible that God has not willed to disclose his true nature to them. However, if faith in the Holy Trinity is a uniquely saving faith, the only faith which saves, God's failure to communicate it to all people must at least be disturbing and probably rather ominous for the future of such peoples.
The most famous mandate for the church’s mission is that recorded in Matthew 28:18-20. Baptism in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is to take place as the gospel is proclaimed to all nations. If this is interpreted in a religionist manner, the only imaginable future compatible with the successful outcome of the mission would be one in which the other religions would ultimately disappear. Their place would be taken by the one true religion.
Until then, the world seems to be divided into a privileged sector and an unprivileged sector. The former would be mainly white and mainly wealthy and mainly Christian. The scene would thus be set for a religionist interpretation of history and society. Latin America and Africa, both substantially or significantly Christian continents would pose problems of interpretation, but Christian religionism would be able to meet this challenge through some form of the prosperity Gospel.
It is not the purpose of this study to deny that the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity may have this religionist potential. The religionist interpretation is plausible. Indeed, interpreted in the way we have been illustrating, the religionist potential is probable. However, there remains a curious ambiguity about these doctrines. Closure and openness are equally possible. Exclusion and inclusion seem to alternate as one examines the doctrines, a bit like the fluctuating pictures in the duck and rabbit kind of visual puzzle.
T. F. Torrance in his exposition of the Nicene and Constantinopolitan Creeds, says ‘In its commitment to one God the Father Almighty, the Nicene Creed is necessarily exclusive of belief in any other god than God the Father and of belief in any other revelation of this one God than his only begotten Son. This gives clear expression to the fundamental biblical asseveration that faith in the one God rules out the possibility of having any other gods and that faith in Jesus Christ as "the Way, the Truth and the Life" excludes access to the Father by any other way than that provided by God himself in the incarnation of his Word in Jesus Christ’ (23). He continues, ‘In unconditional obedience to that normative divine revelation, Christian faith adopts an approach to God which sets aside any alternative approach, entails a judgement which excludes divergent belief, and endorses an affirmation of truth which thereby rejects other affirmations as false’.(24) The anathema, appended to the creed, testifies that 'its intrinsic structure excludes alternative doctrine’. (25)
However, there is more to be said. Even as it apprehends God, ‘faith is bound to confess that it is incapable of comprehending him. Thus while God infinitely transcends the human mind he may nevertheless be known through a movement of faith in which it is opened toward the infinity and ineffability of God.’ This means that theology is ‘engaged in a fathomless inquiry, for the truth which we seek to know is so deep that we can never probe it to its end, let alone reduce our knowledge of it to adequate formulation’. Torrance calls this an 'open boundless range of faith’.(26) He concludes ‘Quite evidently, affirmations of belief which we are obliged to make before God under the pressure of his divine revelation and its inherent truth, must remain open to whatever may yet be learned of God through that revelation ‘. (27)
Torrance is illustrating the way the Fathers were forced to go beyond the words of scripture in order to defend the faith. However, the principle of boundless openness, boundless enquiry, must throw a doubt upon the finality of the absolute exclusiveness which he believes to be bound up in the revelation. The statements made by the Fathers about the Holy Trinity ‘must be regarded as incomplete and inadequate in themselves and therefore as subject to revision in the light of deeper and fuller understanding of God’s self-revelation’.(28) Hence it should be recognised that the creedal formulations of what we may know of God, even under the control of what he has revealed to us, are not final but partial, not closed but open confessional statements which are revisable in the light of deeper and fuller understanding of the Gospel ‘.(29) In a somewhat similar way Colin Gunton hopes that his work will 'show the doctrine of the Trinity not as a closed dogma, to be swallowed or not as the case may be, but as a continuing enterprise of conceptual refinement and development’.(30)
In view of the frequency with which the exclusive character of the doctrine is emphasised, it is not surprising that the British Council of Churches Study Commission on Trinitarian Doctrine Today notes that ‘it is also argued that Christian trinitarian belief presents an obstacle to conversation with members of other religious communities, and that it would therefore be expedient to reduce emphasis on this aspect of our beliefs’.(31) This is why the study commission goes on to ask 'Does it make relations with other religions, whether monotheistic or not, easier or more difficult? (32) The study commission acknowledges that ‘there are in the past behaviour of the Church historical grounds for suspicion, that the doctrine [i.e. of the Holy Trinity] has often been used as the basis for the rejection and anathematising of other human beings who are no less than we the objects of God's love. An over-dogmatic particularism, therefore, should be avoided. . .’(33) However, the commission takes a more positive and optimistic line. The doctrine of the Trinity may have ‘positive implications for the way in which the task of conversation is to be approached ‘ (34) and they ask 'whether the failures of the Church have been due not so much to the doctrine of the Trinity as to our failure to think trinitarianly enough’.(35) It is to the exploration of this hope that we must now turn our attention.
Does the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity Encourage Totalistic Identity?
Totalistic identity refers to that form of individual or collective identity which becomes secure through creating clear boundaries between the in-group and the out-group. Purity is achieved through excluding impurity. The world is split into us and them. Total identity is to be contrasted with the identity of wholeness, which secures itself through inclusion, through accepting ambiguity and through achieving a kind of loyalty to all beings.(36)
In terms of faith development theory, total identity would be typical of synthetic conventional faith [Stage Three] and of individuative-reflective faith [Stage Four].(37) In Stage Three my community would be opposed to your community and in Stage Four my theology would be opposed to yours. The identity of wholeness would be more typical of conjunctive faith [Stage Five], where wider identities are entertained, the ambiguities of one’s own tradition are realised more fully, and the darker and more shadowy side of the unconscious life is no longer denied or excluded.(38) In the light of this, our question might be framed, ‘Does the doctrine of the Holy Trinity sponsor Christian believers up to but not beyond Stages Three and Four of their faith development?’ (39)
Helmut Reich has shown that there are cognitive developmental factors in being able to conceive of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity (40), but my question is whether, even when cognitive maturity enables a proper grasp of the doctrine to be achieved, there may be a potential in the doctrine for encouraging totalistic identity rather than the identity of wholeness, and whether the more one grasps the logical character of the doctrine the more one would be inclined towards Christian religionism as a style of consciousness and discipleship.
A Question of Method
Our enquiry could proceed in one or both of two directions. Both depend upon the distinction between the immanent and the economic trinity.(41) Before we proceed, it is worth noting that the use of the male pronoun presents certain difficulties. The immanent trinity refers not only to what God is in himself but herself and themselves. There are certain parallels between the problems with which this essay is concerned and the discussion about the appropriateness of the use of male terminology in descriptions of the Trinity. There is some affinity between the arguments for retaining the traditional gender language and those expositions of the Trinity which emphasise its character as excluding other religions. The exclusion of the female is often associated with the exclusion of the non-Christian.(42) In what follows, I shall refer to God the Father, and God the Son by using the masculine gender, while God the Holy Spirit will be designated by the use of the feminine pronouns. When referring to the single godhead I will use either masculine or feminine forms. The immanent trinity refers to the eternal being of God while the economic trinity refers to God as made known in revelation. In his management of creation and in his presence within human history, in the divine economy of salvation, as witnessed by the Bible and in the testimony of Christian experience, God becomes known as Trinitarian.(43) The claim that there is a similarity between the immanent and the economic trinity is based upon the argument that although in the historical contingency of human history God has arranged her self-disclosure in Trinitarian form we have no reason to believe that this arrangement is purely contingent. There must surely be a relationship between God as made known and God as eternally subsistent. God has revealed, so Christian faith declares, what she is like and not merely how we human beings need to realise her.
If the argument about the connection between the immanent and the economic trinity is sound, then the self-disclosure of God could be expected to take Trinitarian form in all self-disclosures not only within the biblical traditions but beyond them. If God in the richness of his grace has instigated several projects for the salvation of humanity, we would expect to find certain similarities between them. On grounds such as these one could search for parallels with Trinitarian faith in other religious traditions. These might become somewhat general, since as one recedes from the particularity of the economic trinity into the character of the eternal or immanent trinity, colourful and concrete detail is necessarily lost. The work of Raimundo Panikkar and the implications of the theology of Karl Rahner are amongst the most outstanding in this respect.
Panikkar finds a triple form of action, knowledge and love present within the human religious experience taken as a whole. He concludes that ‘It is simply an unwarranted overstatement to affirm that the trinitarian conception of the Ultimate, and with it of the whole of reality, is an exclusive Christian insight or revelation’.(44) Although Panikkar's categories may be criticised on the grounds that they are mere abstractions, William Hill remarks that ‘The feeling persists that his [Panikkar’s] instinct is right and that the doctrine of the Trinity offers richest promise as a meeting ground of the religions’.(45)
Karl Rahner’s approach may be described as a generalisation of human experience so that the immanent trinity is reflected not so much (or not in the first instance) in God as he is in himself, but in the transcendence and the historicity which characterise human life. The nature of the Trinity is inferred as it were from below. In his transcendental nature God is Father, in his self-manifestation in history God is known as the Word, and when God who is both transcendent and historical communicates and inspires human beings, we have God as Spirit ‘. . . if God gives and reveals himself, then he necessarily does so in a trinitarian manner: that is, in accord with human nature's dual aspects of transcendentality and historicity’.(46) This may be regarded as an implicit. knowledge of the economic Trinity, (47) and one must note in this connection Rahner’s insistence upon the identity of the immanent trinity and the economic trinity. ‘The "economic" Trinity is the "immanent" Trinity and the "immanent" Trinity is the "economic" Trinity’.(48)
This method of inter-faith comparison and exploration is of great significance, but it does present certain difficulties. I have already referred to the very general nature of the categories with which it is forced to deal. The Father might be regarded as the absolute or the ultimate ground, the Son as that through which the ultimate finds expression, and the Spirit as that which vivifies through reception of its self-utterance. The Father might be unity, the Son diversity and the Spirit that which binds unity and diversity together. The Father might be the ineffable, that which is beyond all names, the Son might be that which is named, and the Spirit might be that whereby the ultimate is both nameless and named, or neither nameless nor named.
Another difficulty lies in the fact that the major religious traditions seem to be divided between those in which the ultimate is seen to be personal, in one of which it takes Trinitarian form, and those traditions in which the ultimate is seen to be beyond the personal. There is a danger that seeking parallels for Christian faith in other religious traditions in the light of the immanent trinity may lead to a tendency to project one's own tradition into others or to see one’s own tradition reflected in other traditions in a way which fails to take the uniqueness and distinctiveness of those other traditions seriously enough. Moreover, this knife cuts two ways. If Christians can interpret eastern impersonalism of the Buddhist or Hindu kind why should not the reverse take place? Christians might respond by claiming that the Father represents eastern impersonalism, the Son represents monotheistic or Trinitarian personalism whilst the Spirit represents that which unites and transcends both the impersonal and the personal. But now the link between the immanent Christian trinity and the economic trinity of Christian salvation history has become dangerously weak. In the Christian salvation history God may have revealed himself to be Trinitarian but in the global history of humanity he appears to have disclosed himself mainly in binary form, as personal or as impersonal. To turn the binary into a trinity by adding a notional third which subsumes the other two sounds a bit like special pleading.
The second method would be to explore the implications of the economic trinity, God as revealed within the biblical and church traditions. Of the four following illustrations three will be drawn from the economic trinity and one from the immanent trinity.
The Inclusive Trinity
We have seen that the identity of totality defines itself behind sharply drawn boundaries, which distinguish that which is inside from that which is outside. Such types of identity not only foster the pronounced individualism which is typical of market economies but thrive upon tribalism, in which one social group or religious community is sharply separated from another. The question then is whether the Holy Trinity is to be thought of as possessing such a totalistic identity, or whether the I model of identity to be found in the Trinity is one of wholeness and inclusion.
It is well known that Augustine regarded the Trinity as the link of love binding the Father and the Son together. Colin Gunton points out that this not only tends to diminish the character of the Holy Spirit as a personal hypostasis or distinct aspect of the Trinity, but tends to regard the Trinity as ‘an inward-turned circle’.(49) If, however, we take the biblical and especially the New Testament teaching about the Holy Spirit as our guide, we see that far from being enclosed within the Father/Son relationship, the Spirit is the breath of God moving in creation. The Spirit is the sign of the fulfilment of the work of God in the world. ‘. . . in the last days, it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh’ (Acts 2:17). The Spirit is thus universal as well as eschatological. Augustine took as his model of the Holy Trinity the internal psychological operations of the human mind, and this has doubtless contributed to the enclosed character of the conception. In pleading for a more open and freedom enhancing role for the Holy Spirit, Gunton concludes ‘. . . pneumatology points us to the transcendent openness of God to the world and the answering openness of the world to God, both of them grounded in the openness and transcendence - the relatedness-in-otherness - of Father, Son and Spirit to each other in the communion that is the one God’.(50)
The farewell discourses of Jesus in the Gospel of John chapters 14-17 have been influential in the formulation by the church of its Trinitarian theology. It is noteworthy that the Holy Spirit here receives a number of distinct and personal titles indicating her characteristic ministry. She is ‘the spirit of truth’ (John 16:13) and the counsellor or comforter (John 14:16). The Holy Spirit is the teacher, whose nature and mission is closely integrated with both Father and Son (John 14:26).
The disciples of Jesus are included within the relationships of the Father, the Son and the Spirit. ‘In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you’ (John 14:20). The third partner in the Trinity is the spirit-filled church, which is incorporated into the Father through the Son. The strictly comparable nature of the relationships is brought out clearly in John 15:19. ‘As the Father has loved me, . so have I loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love’. The unity thus created will be ‘perfectly one’ (John 17:23) so that the world may believe. This inclusion of believers within the Father/Son relationship is the direction taken by the mission of God towards the world. ‘. . .that they may all be one: even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me’ (John 17:21).
This idea is not confined to the Fourth Gospel. A careful study of the relationship between the Christian and Christ in the Pauline Epistles shows that the structure of the relationship is similar to that which is described in John’s Gospel as existing between the Father and the Son. ‘It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me’ (Gal 2:20). Compare John 5:19 ‘... the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing: for whatever he does, that the Son does likewise’. Similarly ‘. . . the word which you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me’ (John 14:24). The identity of Paul is so grounded in Christ that he can say ‘it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me’ (1 Cor 15:10).(51)
It is not uncommon in Christian theology to distinguish, as Jurgen Moltmann does, between ‘his exclusive relationship with the Father through his origin and his inclusive relationship with his followers through fellowship’.(52) The alternative view rests upon the parallelism between the language which includes Jesus and that which includes Christians, the language of brotherhood ‘that he might be the first-born among many brethren’ (Rom 8:29). In addition to the New Testament theology of the incarnate word, which might lead to the distinction between the ontological status of Jesus as the Son of God and the adopted status of Christians as sons and daughters of God, there is another, possibly older Spirit Christology. According to this, Christ was conceived in the womb of Mary by the power of the Spirit (Luke 1 :35), driven out into the desert to experience temptation by the power of the Spirit (Mark 1:12) and was ‘designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead’ (Rom 1:4). In a similar way, Christians are called, commissioned and transformed by the Spirit.
The role of the Holy Spirit within and on behalf of the Trinity is crucial in considering this question of the exclusive or inclusive nature of the idea. Paul Fiddes has asked whether it is the function of the Spirit to communicate to believers the hypostatic unity between the Father and the Son, or whether the ministry of the Spirit is to mediate the benefits of Christ's atoning death.(53) If the former is emphasised, then we have a Word Christology which would tend to be exclusive, and would support a sharp distinction between the Sonship of Jesus within the Trinity and the adopted sonship of believers. However, if the latter is emphasised, then the Spirit as the ground of unity takes on a more inclusive role. As the theology of the western church was formed, the increasing emphasis upon Christology led to a gradual marginalisation of the Holy Spirit. This is best illustrated in the famous western addition to the creed in which the Holy Spirit is said to proceed not from the Father alone as with the original creed, still observed by the eastern churches, but from the Father and the Son. In other words, the Spirit is deprived of her own sphere of activity and becomes a kind of third tier. Colin Gunton observes that 'the persistent vice of Western theology has been, because it is so Christologically orientated, a tendency to premature universalising. . .’.(54) We must remember, Gunton reminds us, that Jesus’ humanity was enabled by the Spirit not compelled by the eternal Word.(55)
We have seen that there are grounds for an inclusive interpretation of the Trinity, but how wide is the circle of inclusion? Although the fourth evangelist includes believers within the fellowship of the Father and the Son, there appear to be limits to his ecumenism. Jesus speaks of ‘the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you’ (John 14:17). However, the implications of the relationship between the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity suggest that the model of the identity of an inclusive wholeness may be taken further so as to include not only believers, in a sort of Trinitarian ecclesiology, but all humanity, in a Trinitarian humanism. The adoption of the man Jesus as the eternal Word of God in the incarnation brings out the potential salvation of all humanity. What was taken up into the Godhead was our common humanity and not merely the particularity of Jesus of Nazareth. Thus the humanisation of God is followed by the deification of humanity. The doctrines of the Ascension, followed by the Heavenly Session (Heb 4:14-16) indicate that human life is now received into the intimate fellowship which the Father has with the Son in the power of the Spirit. We gain grace and strength through the mediation of the great high priest, not because he is different from us but because he is like us 'in every respect’ (Heb 4:15). Moreover, an adoptionist Christology does not necessarily mean that Jesus was adopted at his baptism, as Mark suggests, which would raise the question of what Jesus was previously, or whether in some moral sense he had proved himself good enough to be adopted. If the Holy Spirit is the principle of the union of the two natures then the adoption took place at the moment of conception which means that incarnation and adoption are concurrent.
The Trinitarian faith thus enables Christians to believe that in principle no human being is excluded from the life of God. ‘. . . all persons are the potential or actual recipients of God's gift of self; wherever that gift is accepted in human freedom, we have the history of salvation. . .’.(56)
If the implications of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity press us towards an inclusive identity of wholeness, we might ask what advantage there is in being a Christian. What is the point, some Christians seem to feel, of being on the life raft unless one has the satisfaction of seeing others struggling in the sea? Is not the edge of mission blunted? Is not the fear of the Lord abated?
The Christian is the one to whom the gift of Trinitarian faith has been granted, and who is therefore subjectively accommodated to the mystery of faith, open to receive its transforming power. However, the Christian has no objective advantage, is not objectively closer to God, since God has no favourites. ‘For God has consigned everyone to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all’ (Rom 11:32). The Christian is not the sole possessor of salvation, since God is ‘the saviour of everyone, especially (but not only) of those who believe’ (1 Tim 4:10). Whether the Christian is closer to salvation subjectively is a matter of actual holiness, and is not affected except empirically by these Trinitarian considerations. In the light of the identity of wholeness possessed by the Holy Trinity, we see that being a Christian is more of a responsibility than an advantage, or perhaps we should say that the privilege of being Christian lies in its responsibility.
The Social Trinity
The previous discussion depended upon the economic Trinity since it drew inferences from the mission of Jesus, the relationship between Jesus and his Father and the experience of the Christian community indwelt by the Spirit and witnessing to the inclusion of all humanity within the life of God. Our next example will be drawn from the immanent Trinity.
A difference of emphasis between the eastern and western churches emerged in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries. The Cappadocian Fathers of the Fourth Century tended to emphasise the plurality of the Godhead using the model of the human family. Seth was Adam’s begotten son but Eve had proceeded from his side. So the family illustrates the different modes of relationship between the persons of the Trinity. In the west, however, mainly due to the influence of Augustine, it became more usual to seek for an analogy in the psychological life of the individual. Augustine developed a comparison between the life of the intellect, consisting of memory, knowledge and love and the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In other words, the western church tended to begin from the principle of unity and to seek differentiation within it, while the eastern church tended to begin with differentiation and then ask about what united.
A number of contemporary theologians have revived an interest in the plural character of the Trinity because of the rich implications which this has for social relations and community life. ‘If God were one alone, there would be solitude and concentration in unity and oneness. If God were two, a duality, Father and Son only, there would be separation (one being distinct from the other) and exclusion (one not being the other). But God is three, a Trinity, and being three avoids solitude, overcomes separation and surpasses exclusion’.(57)
The word used in the Greek tradition to describe the way in which the persons of the Trinity exist for each other, in a mutual indwelling is perichoresis. Without losing the distinction proper to each person, the members of the Trinity exchange love for one another in a sort of ecstatic dance. There is no hierarchy of power, no monarch from whom the Son and then the Spirit emanate, but a society of perfect order in perfect equality. ‘The Father is in me and I am in the Father’ (John 10:38). 'The oppressed struggle for participation at all levels of life, for a just and egalitarian sharing while respecting the differences between persons and groups; they seek communion with other cultures and with other values. . .’. Leonardo Boff continues ‘For those who have faith, the trinitarian communion between the divine Three, the union between them in love and vital interpenetration, can serve as a source of inspiration, as a utopian goal that generates models of successively diminishing differences’.(58)
Our understanding of the nature of the church and of interfaith relations will be affected by this social understanding of the Holy Trinity. Colin Gunton has shown how the Augustinian understanding of the Trinity tended to encourage a hierarchical and authoritarian conception of the church. The western Trinity had a tendency towards modalism, the idea that the distinctions between Father, Son and Spirit were merely successive modes or manifestations of God. The oneness of God thus receives greater emphasis than the threeness. This was one of the factors which contributed to the great emphasis in the western church upon its unity, of which the bishop was the symbol, and tended to create a monolithic church centred upon a single authority, with descending layers of bishops, priests and lay people within its structure.(59) In some such way the western church became the natural heir of the imperial authority and unity of the Roman empire and a Christianity was thus forged which would serve the European imperial ambition in the centuries to come.
This was the background to the creation of that sense of Christian superiority which maintained the British empire at the height of its power. James Morris notes that when Bishop Colenso of Natal appealed to the Privy Council in 1865, one of the accusations levelled against him was that 'he believed in the universal equality of man. . . all men, Colenso was alleged to think, stood upon the same level before God. There was no difference between them, and the whole of mankind was the recipient of God’s grace in the gospels’.(60) This belief was an affront to the empire as well as a challenge to the then Christian orthodoxy. It was this kind of monolithic Trinitarian faith which had a particularly unfortunate impact upon the Christian mission in its relationship with other religions. 'In regard to the religions and cultures of the Asian peoples, the old Christian identity considered them to be pagan and even judged them to be pre-modern or traditional in a pejorative sense’.(61) The Christian mission must seek to overcome this disjuncture between Christianity and the other religions, argues Kim Yong-Bock, a Korean Christian leader. The Asian ecumenical movement has already meant ‘the rejection and overcoming the dichotomy of western Christianity versus pagan Asia, and the embracing of all the peoples of Asia with their different histories, cultures and religions’.(62) The study commission on Trinitarian doctrine today also suggested that the social nature of the Trinity should support Christians in maintaining conversations and good human relations across a wide spectrum of beliefs. ‘The Trinity teaches us that unity should be conceived personally and relationally, not logically and mathematically (and therefore impersonally) ‘.(63)
The Suffering Trinity
Let us now return to the economic Trinity, to God as made known in the history of salvation. In Matthew 11:27 Jesus is reported as saying ‘no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father, except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him’. I We note that the Father is the Father only by virtue of his relation with the Son. It is through the Son that we know the Father. The starting point for the knowledge of God is thus not creation but the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. Jurgen Moltmann points out that God is mentioned twice as a Father in the Apostles Creed, the first time in connection with the creation and the second time in connection with the ascension and exultation of Jesus. Moltmann suggests that it is this second reference to God as Father which is the most appropriate starting point for a Christian understanding of the Holy Trinity.(64)
Moltmann says ‘The freedom of the Spirit in practice distinguishes the Father of Jesus Christ from the world patriarch of the Father-religion’.(65) The Father is drawn into the destiny of the Son. Central to the story of the Son is his death upon the cross. Through the suffering of the Son and through the mutual indwelling of the Father and the Son, the Holy Trinity is drawn down into the suffering of humanity. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not a piece of abstract metaphysical theology but an indication of God's solidarity with the oppressed and marginalised people of the world.
The idea that the Father is drawn into the suffering of the world through his unity with the suffering Son in whom we see all human suffering, can be extended from the work of the Son to the work of the Spirit. Returning for a moment to Matthew 11:27 we observe that the Father is made known by the Son. Who then makes known the Son? We learn from the Gospel of John that this is the particular ministry of the Holy Spirit. ‘He shall glorify me’, said Jesus (John 16:14). How is the Holy Spirit known? The Spirit is made known in the works of justice and peace, for he is the Spirit of liberty and of emancipation (2 Cor 3:17). We have access to the Father through living in solidarity with all those who are the object of the Spirit’s emancipatory work.
To be converted to the Holy Trinity need not be understood in narrowly religious terms, as a religionist interpretation of religious pluralism might suggest. Rather, conversion should be regarded as an act of ethical and spiritual solidarity with suffering. In this solidarity of commitment to human dignity and freedom to the point of death the mystery of the Holy Trinity is known. In describing the highest stage of religious consciousness, which from the point of view of the present study is to be regarded as the stage of full Trinitarian commitment, Fritz Oser says ‘God can be experienced as the possibility and fulfilment of absolute meaning - mediated through finite freedom in fragmentary actions of powerlessness and love’.(66)
The kind of identity and solidarity towards which this faith in the Trinity points is often grasped more clearly in the new theologies of the Third World than it is in much western thought. Kim Yong-Bock remarks ‘An Asian ecclesiology of solidarity spells out more than solidarity among Christians; for even at the risk of Christian solidarity, the Churches and ecumenical movement must pursue solidarity with the suffering and struggling people’.(67)
The Future Trinity
While meditation upon the immanent trinity would take us into the time before time began, exploration of the economic trinity, a radical historicisation of the Trinity would take us into the unborn future. Here we wish to emphasise those senses in which the Trinity is not a symbol of completion but a symbol of incompletion, of dynamic movement towards a goal. C. G. Jung regarded the symbol of the Trinity as being incomplete, and pointed out the tendency to add a fourth person, thus creating a Quaternity.(68) The incompletion that I wish to suggest is not however a psychological matter but a temporal or historical question. The triune god was, and is, and is to be (Rev 1 :8). As long as the ‘is to be’ is not yet, the God who was and is has not reached fulfilment. It is to this aspect of the Trinity that the symbols alpha and omega point. The Spirit itself groans with our spirit waiting the revelation of the adoption of sonship (Rom 8:23). Thus ‘futurity is the very mode of God’s being’.(69)
If we take a radically historical view of this, we would view the Trinity as an eschatalogical insight. The age of the Father passed into the age of the Son, but the age of the Spirit is yet to dawn. The implication is that all of our theological thinking must have a tentative quality; our judgements about the character and future orientation of God's saving work with .humanity must be tempered with caution. Within Christian revelation, the church witnesses to saving faith in the Triune God, but this very faith commits the church to an open future. We must explore our own salvation, but it is not given to us to comment upon the salvation which God may yet prepare for others. It is certainly not within the scope of our faith or knowledge to pronounce upon the relationship between what appear to be other religious traditions and the God whose will it is that everyone should be saved.
The Trinitarian Mission of Christian Education
(i) The Church Schools. In 1984 the National Society published a Green Paper on education which outlined a Trinitarian basis for the Church ofEngland schools.(70) Amongst other things, it was suggested that the Trinitarian faith should lead to an education which recognises mystery (God the Father), fosters identification with the suffering and the marginalised (God the Son as suffering servant and Messiah) and encourages creativity (God the Holy Spirit as the Lord and Giver of Life). The distinctions upon which the present study is based (Christianness or Christian religionism, whole identity and total identity, exclusion and inclusion) reflect developments in the relationship between church and society which have developed since then. The ambiguous character of religion has become clearer, since Christian faith is used both to legitimise European power and to promote British tribalism and also as an inspiration for movements of social justice and equal opportunities. The present study would argue that by following a Trinitarian model in their self-understanding, church schools would be more open to the social and educational needs of children from deprived backgrounds while the Church of England secondary comprehensive schools would draw strength from the social aspects of the Trinity.(71) Church schools would be more open in dialogue with people from other religious traditions, and the vision of greater partnership between Christians and Muslims in the management of church schools recommended in the 1984 report would, perhaps, move a step closer.
(ii) The Religious Education Curriculum. The approach to the Trinity outlined in this study would not encourage religious education syllabuses which begin with the assumption of separateness of one religion from another and discourage dialogue between religions. That does not mean that the distinctive and indeed the unique aspects of the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity would not be presented to pupils. Of course, they should be presented as a central feature of Christian faith. However, the emphasis would always be upon the openness, the enquiry and the welcome which those who stand in this tradition should hold towards others. The Trinity as an eschatological promise, pointing to the hope of a resolution of human conflict would be important in inspiring such developments.
(iii) The approach presented in this study has particular significance for the education of adults within the churches. Belief in the Holy Trinity would press Christian adults into the exploration of what God has said and how his nature is understood in the other traditions, his other projects. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity would be presented as an on- going development, still being realised by the church, truly ecumenical in its scope. Christian adults would learn through such study to be more inclusive in their identification, and to treat Christian faith in a less sectarian and competitive spirit. The proselytising of other religious believers would give way to a more common enterprise of mutual education. The idea of the suffering Trinity would lend special support to programmes intended to help Christian adults to realise the mission of the church in human degradation and oppression, while the eschatological Trinity would lead away from rigid and nostalgic patterns of church life into more creative and spontaneous forms.
In its significance for the curriculum, whether in school religious education or in the Christian education offered by churches, the present study is to be understood as a contribution to what I have elsewhere called the "deconstruction strand" of an anti-religionist education.(72)
(iv) Finally, it must be emphasised that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not to be understood primarily as subject matter for education or for dialogue. The doctrine is ultimately to be experienced in doxological terms. It is, in other words, an aspect of the worship and praise which is central to Christian faith. It is in adoration and in obedient discipleship that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit dwell with human beings, so that we might all be one.