I’ve been thinking lately about the Trinity, the central way that Christians throughout history have expressed who God is to us – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. From recent conversations both at church and in academic circles, I’ve come to realize that for many Mennonites, the Trinitarian nature of the divine is crucial. One such person was my uncle, the late Mennonite theologian A. James Reimer, who was concerned that as Mennonites, we tend to reduce God to Jesus, and thereby overlook the mysterious otherness of the divine as well as the “diversity” of the Trinity – the three modes of the divine as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
While I agree that God is not reducible to Jesus, I would take Reimer’s impulse even further, arguing that we tend to reduce God to the Trinity as well. After all, there are many more biblical names for God than just these three – including God as “Woman Wisdom” in Proverbs 8 and elsewhere, God as a whirlwind in Job 38, God as a fierce mother bear in Hosea 13:8, Jesus as a mother hen (Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34), and the Holy Spirit not as a dove but as fire in Acts 2, to name just a few examples. And if you’re sensing a pattern in the neglected biblical names I’ve identified, you’re right: they’re all either female or non-anthropomorphic (not people-based) names and images for God. So, one of the dangers of reducing God to the Father-Son-Spirit Trinity is that we overlook those names for the divine which are not confined to maleness or even to humanness, and we need both of these other kinds of names to remind us that while both maleness and femaleness are in God’s image, God is ultimately beyond gender. In other words, remembering and making use of female and non-anthropomorphic biblical names for God can help us to avoid literalizing the traditional, male-biased Trinitarian language, which makes it idolatrous language for God.
But there is also the problem of misunderstanding the paradoxical three-in-oneness of the Trinity. As Reimer pointed out, we sometimes overemphasize the “oneness,” making Jesus the sum of the divine. But I think the problem is more often that we overemphasize the “threeness,” so that God and Jesus Christ become separated – especially at the moment of the crucifixion, when God supposedly hands Jesus over to be killed or worse, is seen as responsible for Jesus’ death. But as John Driver points out in his book, Understanding the Atonement for the Mission of the Church, “The idea that God is a Trinity composed of three personalities who are able to carry out transactions among themselves is certainly not biblical, nor is it congenial with the best of the Christian tradition. The Nicene creed points toward the oneness of the Godhead (the deity of Christ and the Spirit), not in the direction of threeness. So the idea of the Father and Son as having separate wills and identities to the point of being able to hold transactions with each other has no grounds in the New Testament nor is it the best of the church’s doctrinal heritage” (pp. 58-59). So we also have to be careful that our thinking about the Trinity doesn’t treat them as three distinct gods, who are able, for example, to hand one of the persons of the Trinity over to death while the others remain detached from the situation. This line of thinking neglects the notion of the mutual indwelling or perichoresis of the different members of the Trinity.
Despite these major dangers, though, I wouldn’t want to do away with the Trinity. I think it’s still a wonderfully profound way of thinking about God, and still represents and communicates a number of key truths about who God is for Christians. For one thing, it’s a kind of short-hand for key Christian ideas of linking the Creator God of the Hebrew Scriptures (or Old Testament) to Jesus Christ as God Incarnate or God-with-us, as well as to the Holy Spirit as the aspect of God which is among us, empowering us. Relatedly, it also speaks to us about God’s multiplicity, the fact that no one name or image can contain God’s mystery, and that we therefore need the “threeness” of the Trinity as well as all the other names for God, biblical and beyond, to name the bits and pieces of what we humans can understand about God – that is, what God has revealed to us about Godself and what we have experienced of God’s presence. Another interpretation of the Trinity which resonates particularly with me is the idea that the Trinity is God imaged as a loving community, encompassing diversity and unity, both – meaning that when we human beings are in community, we’re in the image of the divine Trinity.
For all these reasons, I’d rather hang onto the Trinity, but that doesn’t mean that we have to abide rigidly by the terms Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In fact, I think we can celebrate a lot of different, contemporary ways of naming the Trinity, such as the more gender-neutral Trinity of “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” and theologian Sallie McFague’s Trinity of “Mother, Lover, Friend” (from her book Models of God). In these ways, I think we can renew this ancient Christian way of thinking about God, allowing it to speak to our time and to resonate profoundly with our understandings and experiences of the divine today.