Monday, May 19, 2008

Individualism & Trinitarian Theology

Perhaps there are many reasons for the resurgence of Trinitarian theology in the last century, but whether an impetus or an outcome, Trinitarian theology forces substantial reconsideration of the individual. Yet I think the Trinity can still be subject to individualisms tendencies. The common expression of God as the “three in one” and “one in three” highlight the dangers of individualism penetrating from both ends by an over emphasis on the unity or diversity of Persons. I do not think that the struggle to define the Trinity throughout our Christian history is will ever be over. We may arrive at balanced theological assertions but the full practice of such is much more difficult.

Certainly Christians are monotheists and must retain the witness to the scriptural witness of a God who is one. I wonder, could the unity of the Trinity have the potential, like the individual, to take priority and be solidified as an undifferentiated, monistic entity.

Or perhaps the opposite is more likely where the danger lies in our common usage of “persons” which we tend to think of as individuals each with a distinct ego and center of consciousness free to exercise their wills against each other.[1] It again is no large step to transfer the self-contained, self-sufficient autonomy of American individuals upon the Trinity. According to Bellah, the “individual is prior to society, which comes into existence only through the voluntary contract of individuals trying to maximize their own self interest.”[2] This cannot be for God. “Although God’s being is characterized by the hypostatic distinctions…all three persons are one in their will and activity.”[3] The loving essence of Trinitarian relations would be exchanged for the self seeking of each person. Bellah’s concept of the individual renders the divine Tri-unity into tri-theism and makes no further sense when applied to the Christian story and the cross.

Potentially, the individuating tendency will dissect each Person from the others and subsequently overemphasize that one member. Migliore recounts H. Richard Niebuhr’s accounts of theological unitarianisms. Unitarianism of the Father, often highlighted by American civil religion, acknowledges God as the “source of life, of certain inalienable rights, and providential guidance of American destiny.”[4] Accompanying this unitarianism of the Creator, there is also a diminished sense of sin, need for forgiveness and repentance, or transformation of life. Unitarianism of the Redeemer renders Jesus is more like a sentimental “cult figure” than the Jesus of the Gospels.[5] Salvation is consummeristic and exclusive. Unitarianism of the Spirit overemphasizes the gifts of the Spirit for the self rather than building up of the church.

[1] Roger E. Olson & Christopher A. Hall, The Trinity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 36.
[2] Bellah, 143.
[3] Olson, 36.
[4] Migliore, 64.
[5] Ibid., 65.