Friday, December 26, 2014

When theology says more than it ought: A critique of the concept of the trinity

I wrote this article several moons ago, and after trying semi-valiantly to get it published, with one near miss due to deadlines and the birthing of a baby, I have gone down the admittedly inferior path of self-publishing.  Nonetheless, I hope you will find it entertaining at least, perhaps even enlightening; and I am bracing myself for a hearty debate in the comments.  As long as you are polite, please feel free to disagree passionately.  I couldn't disagree with the Greats without expecting some backlash, after all.  And if you happen to find yourself agreeing with my thesis, please share the link with your friends so that more can share the joy, and I can feel pleased that my many sleepless nights ruminating on these concepts were not in vain.

So, without further ado, here it is.


Why I love God, but the Trinity? ...Um, Not So Much.
(Or: Recovering the Spiritual Unity of God:  Why the Trinity is an unbiblical, linguistically implausible, and unhelpful concept; an alternative way of speaking about God; and practical implications for Christian worship and evangelism.)


God: one, three, all at once.  Huh?

“I have been given the topic of “Trinity” for my sermon today,” the pastor began.  In the congregation, eyes gazed straight ahead; hairs raised slightly on end.  “It’s a confusing topic,” he continued.  “If you’re not confused by the end of this sermon, then you should be...”; and with such a desperate introduction as that, there began a toe-numbing discussion of three-ness, one-ness, Godheads, essences, substances, and, of course, the heresies which quickly ensue, should your grip on one of these prized tenets so much as think about loosening.  As if the sheer weight of the vocabulary wasn’t enough, the good fellow’s native tongue was laid aside in a bid to derive some deeper meaning from Latin, Greek, and English - almost as if, by pulling in more languages, the smell of panic accompanying the words might somehow be fanned into the next room.

The Trinity has always been a doozy.  No-one really claims to understand it, and no-one really claims that we should understand it.  Can a pot understand the potter, after all?  And yet, having sat through all-too-many sermons and theological lectures claiming that the received doctrine of the Trinity is vital to our belief system; having read through many a dense and smug-sounding textbook designed to persuade me (with proof-texts as watertight as a pretty Dutch doily) of the perfect reality of the orthodox trinitarian worldview; having sung too many a song where “Father”, “Son” and “Spirit” were awkwardly interchanged in each verse, making me say things I never normally would say; having wondered at night over who decided to turn my beloved heavenly Father into a Godhead; and having seen too many diagrams where the Father, Son and Spirit were each represented by the same kind of symbol, each relating to the others in the same kind of bland symbolic way - I feel the time has come to make the case for the Spiritual Unity of God, as testified to by God himself in Scripture - in a “non-three” kind of way.

In this little essay my main goal is to advocate a return to simple, biblical terms for God - none other than Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  I advocate placing the terms “Trinity”, “three”, “persons”, “Godhead”, “perichoresis”, “essense” (and their multiple close companions) into the incinerator - at least in popular level discussions - for the love of God and for the love of future generations of those who seek Him.  I will not try to say that the Trinity, as it has been conceived, is all wrong; or that Father, Son or Spirit are actually not God; or anything else heinous and heretical.  I just want us to go back to talking about God the way He reveals himself to us.  And I have some reasons for wishing this.

I’ll first explain why the terms we use for God do really truly matter.  With great restraint, I don’t focus on my biggest personal irk (the “Godhead”), but rather choose to fire my flaming arrows into the idea that God should be described as “three persons”.  I will do this by explaining why the theological concept of “persons” had to be emptied of normal meaning before it could be used to refer to Father, Son and Spirit, so that it means nothing anyway; and then, from the dark closet of my linguistic history, I will bring forth an explanation of why numbering divine persons as “three” actually distorts our understanding of God.  Thus, the traditional terminology relating to the Trinity will be shown to be not only Bad Language (from a multi-lingual perspective) but also Bad Theology.

Some of the effects and implications of the traditional trinitarian view of God will briefly be discussed, and then I will suggest how we might now forge our way into this next millennium with a clean, fresh, accurate and endearing way of speaking about our God - as none other than Father and Son, who share one Holy Spirit, and are therefore One.

Before I go on, two confessions.  First, I acknowledge that I am trampling over generations upon generations of cherished church doctrine in this essay.  I confess that I am not more clever than Augustine, or whoever else took the time to come up with the original formulations.  I readily acknowledge their Greatness of Brain, and my normal-ness.  I can’t even begin to engage with the likes of Karl Barth, Bruce McCormack or others who have delved into this topic before me, and no doubt said many useful things.  On the other hand, I do believe that I have the same Spirit as they did, and the same Word, and that if God wills it he can reveal things to whomever he chooses.  And of course, I do see this as getting “back to the Bible” in a small but significant way - as all good mini-reformers ought - and if I have written it, it surely passes the ploughboy criteria.

And secondly:  I confess that, while the thoughts in this paper have been brewing over many years of Bible study (sometimes of the academic variety), life, and ministry, I haven’t done a lot of specific academic research for this essay.  I’m a mum of three small kids, living in a developing country (or bouncing between there and somewhere else), doing jobs, living life; and what’s more, passion rather than thoroughness is my forte.  I’m counting on my lively and (hopefully) witty style to cover a multitude of factual errors, and that the main point of the essay will not be completely ignored if, for example, Augustine had nothing to do with the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity.  I see this paper as a sort of modern Wisdom Literature - intended for provoking thinking - so do allow me to make bold assertions, and I will allow you to vocally disagree, as long as it is done in the spirit of seeking wisdom.  May God guide us.

And now, on with the show!


What’s in a name?

said Juliet, wistfully, ruing the effect of her name Capulet on her budding love-life.  Do names matter?  Well, a rose may certainly smell as sweet by another name, but a frog which is called a rose is misleading, disappointing and moist.  All this to say that naming things correctly has value.  Thankfully, God, even when called “the Three-Personed Godhead”, is still wonderful in reality; yet this rather ghoulish naming of Him may leave some of us with a diminished will to live.

Come on a metaphor with me.  Say you had a friend who, one day, held out his cupped hands and invited you to guess at the three things he held inside.  After a few tries, you correctly identify a marble and a safety pin.  You spend your next guesses in vain, until you reach the limit of 50 attempts, and your friend triumphantly opens his hand to reveal a marble, a safety pin, and... “air!” he gloats.  Of course, you indignantly reply, “But air is not a thing!”  “Aaah,” he replies, with the aura of someone in the know, “I wasn’t using ‘thing’ in its usual meaning.  I’m using the [insert Greek word here]-ological meaning of ‘thing’.” 

Now, depending on your particular pathology, you will respond in one of two ways.  Perhaps you are the type of person who would be impressed at his wisdom and understanding, and ask many questions about [insert Greek word here]-ology, until they are fully conversant and also able to display an aura of being “in the know”.  Then, the new convert will go and perform the same trick on other people, just for kicks.

The second type of person will find themselves annoyed, perhaps even angry, and decide to leave the smug friend to his own devices and find someone else to play with, someone who speaks normal language and doesn’t make them feel silly for using English properly.

The same thing happens, unfortunately, in discussions on the Trinity.  “The Godhead,” theologians say, “Is made of three persons - Father, Son and Spirit.”  “Wait!” someone cries, “A spirit is not a person!”.   “Aaaaah!” cries the theologian, who has been eagerly anticipating this naive reaction, “I meant ‘person’ in the trinito-theological sense...” - and so it goes on.  People either join the party, emptying language in a specialised kind of way until it no longer refers to any thing; or they leave, feeling slightly irritated and belittled, and certainly none the wiser about the so-called Godhead, to whom they had always enjoyed relating perfectly well anyway.

From my description you can possibly pinpoint my own particular pathology and which camp I have fallen into.  I have dear friends of both persuasions, and no offence is intended.  But I would not be sitting up at midnight writing this article in the dark if I had no strong opinion on the matter.  It now falls to me to convince you that saying that God exists in “three persons” is:
  • not only (subjectively) annoying, 
  • but also (objectively) bad Human Language, 
  • and ultimately (also objectively) unbiblical - bad Theology.


Why talk of “the three persons” is unbiblical

Did you ever notice that the word “three” never appears in the Bible in relation to God?  Father, Son, and Spirit are mentioned, sometimes all at once; but not once in all 66 books is there a single simple statement like “and the three are one” or even “Father, Son, and Spirit - these three”.  This, of course, will be no surprise to you well-researched friends; nor will it come as a surprise that at one point a wily scribe thought a reference to “threeness” would be a helpful addition (1 John 5:7), but actually... no.  God never describes himself as “three”, not in the context of “three in one”, nor in any other context.  Isn’t that something!

I know what you’re thinking.  “Extrabiblical does not mean unbiblical!”  Quite right, quite right.  I am a woman - extrabiblical, yet quite true, right, and consistent with sacred writ.  However, there is more to “three” than meets the eye, and I would like to prove that applying that label to God (even in the context of “unity”) is yea, unbiblical; hence it is important to first show that it is, at the bare minimum, not in the Bible.

Before we proceed with a theological evaluation of the phrase (leading to the claim that it is unbiblical), allow me to delve into the linguistic realm, to uncover the hidden meanings which are always unwittingly affirmed when we speak of God as existing in “three persons”.


Grammar speaks volumes: Why talk of “three persons” is bad English, and bad Chinese too

Oh dear friends, as you explore the concept of the Trinity, don’t leave home without this key of knowledge firmly fastened around your lanyard:  

Linguistically speaking, enumerating (counting) objects - any objects - says something about the objects.  

Before we go counting persons in the Godhead, we need to discuss if Father, Son and Spirit can be counted, or if by doing so we are perhaps saying something - grammatically - which is not true of Father, Son and Spirit.

Let me explain.  In English, you can only enumerate things or people which have something in common.  For example, 
    • Three different birds can simply be enumerated: “three birds”;
    • A couch, a table and a bed need to use a more general category: “three pieces of furniture”; 
    • Likewise a dog, a cat and a fish:  “three animals”;
    • A wedding ring, a bottle top and a door handle have little in common but can be enumerated by reference to material:  “three metal objects”;
    • A boy, a dirt road, and a photo cannot be enumerated in any of these ways.  Try it... “three... errrr...”  Even the most general words available to us, ‘things’, doesn’t work, because of the boy; nor even ‘entities’, because the road isn’t one.  They are simply too different in kind to be counted.

So you can see that in order to count in English, the things counted must be the same in kind.  You will notice that even if things share characteristics (such as a brown boy, a brown road and a brown photo), they can still not be counted (“three brown... errr...”).  The very act of counting means “these things are the same kind of thing”.

Hold on with your thoughts of essences and the like - we’ll get to deity in a minute.  But first, this meaning of “sameness” attached to enumeration is common to many (maybe even all) languages.  It is even more noticeable in languages (such as Chinese) which always employ classifiers for counting nouns.  For example, in these languages, they can’t go on and say “three birds”, but they say things like this:
    • Eight “animal” birds
    • Three “long-thin-thing” pens
    • Four “people” students
    • Six “round-thing” apples
    • And so on.
In languages like this, you would never be able to count together, for example, a pen,  a student, an apple, and a bird, because there is not only no noun-word to describe them all (like “thing”), but also no classifier which applies to them all - and they need both before they can count them.

So you see, around the world, counting things means they are all the same kind of thing.  To say that God is “three”, then, is to say that all of the “three” of God are of the same kind.    Now, what kind of thing are they?  The obvious choice is “the divine kind of thing” - but “three gods” or “three divinities” takes us places we really don’t want to go.  So that’s out.  

Well.  Hmm... where to from here?  If not three “gods”, then perhaps - persons?  It solves the polytheistic implication, at least, so worth a try.  History has indeed selected the word “person” to attach to “three” to explain in what way Father, Son and Spirit are the same kind.  Of course, this works well for Jesus (post-incarnation, at the very least).  However, to call the Father a “person” is obviously strange; and much more so, the Spirit, who is, of course, a spirit.  Sure, using “persons” gives some helpful information in terms of characteristics (such as ability to feel and speak), but as discussed above, in order to count things they need to be of the same kind, not just share some characteristics.  In order to successfully use “person” of Father and Spirit, then, it is necessary to strip the word “person” of all of its “kind” meaning when referring to God.  It becomes a semantically empty word, created simply to enable the enumeration of God.  

Well, yay, us!  We’ve successfully created a way to count God.  But wait... did we ever stop to consider what this would imply? 

More on implications in a minute.  First - there’s the added problem of ethnocentricity to raise.  In classifier languages (as mentioned just before), what would the classifier for the “persons” be?  Three “people” God-persons?  Oh no, that doesn’t sound right at all.  Much too human.  Three “god” God-people gets us right back to polytheism.  Would a new classifier, devoid of meaning, have to be made up?  We have achieved that very glory with “person”, so why not create an semantically empty classifier too? 

Bzzzzz, my friends.  Not possible.  Classifiers can’t be made up.  In English, we can make up a noun; “Hey, that’s my snozzbong!” is acceptable - you just need to learn what a snozzbong is.  But we can not create a new preposition (‘near’, ‘at’, ‘off’ etc): “Get that disgusting insect frecky my arm!” is not acceptable.  Classifiers, like English prepositions, are a closed set - no new entries allowed.  Therefore, classifier language people, unfortunately (or not?), are doomed to a life of not being able to call God “three persons” without violating not only their semantic sensibilities, but their grammatical structures as well.

So, we in the West (who are not burdened with classifiers as a way of life) have gone down the perilous path of creating new, vacuous words so that - hooray - we can now count God.  Our ethnic neighbours don’t have that luxury.  Unlucky for them, perhaps - or are they divinely blessed with an extra safeguard from thinking silly thoughts about God?  [See the comments for more discussion of the Chinese way of talking about the Trinity.]


I have shown that enumerating God defies normal English semantic rules, and is grammatically impossible in other languages.  Now, let’s turn to what happens to our understanding of God when it’s asserted (albeit implicitly) that each of the three “persons” are of the same kind.


Why “three persons” is an unhelpful way to discuss Father, Son and Spirit

As explained above, the “three persons” model of God carries the implication that Father, Son and Spirit are the same kind of being.  This in turn has resulted in all sorts of diagrams which portray these “persons” as the same, and relating to each other in the same way, with no distinctiveness.  

Now I know these diagrams are often criticised for their lack of nuance and so forth, yet they still persist in google searches and the popular consciousness; and rightly so, because three things of the same kind should be basically representable by three things of the same shape.  Here are some exhibits of this “same-same” approach to Father, Son and Spirit (Trinity), which I have collected in my travels.


Exhibit A:



Exhibit B (a pumped-up version of Exhibit A):



Exhibit C (specifically depicting perichoresis):




Exhibit D (also depicting perichoresis):




In all of these diagrams, each “person” is depicted in exactly the same way: a circle, a point on a triangle, a tail-less fish, a ghoul.  Each could be interchanged with the other.  Each relates to the others diagrammatically in exactly the same way.  So, the concept of “three persons” not only implies that the three are “of the same kind”, but this concept is reinforced by popular depictions of trinity.  Chicken and egg, perhaps.

Various word-explanations of the Trinity fall into the same type of pattern, with each “person” relating to the others in exactly the same way:

Exhibit E:

The Father is God, but is not the Son or the Spirit - yet he is one with them. 
The Son is God, but is not the Father or the Spirit - yet he is one with them.
The Spirit is God, but is not the Son or the Father - yet he is one with them.


Exhibit F (derived from exhibit B):

The Father is in the Spirit and the Son, and glorifies the Spirit and the Son.
The Son is in the Spirit and the Father, and glorifies the Spirit and the Father.
The Spirit is in the Father and the Son, and glorifies the Father and the Son.


As fun and cute as all these exhibits are, and as much as they have been deemed suitable for public consumption (with the obvious caveats of simplicity), the biblical evidence - when weighed up carefully - actually contradicts all of these models, not just in terms of their lack of complexity or nuance, but in the basics of what they are setting out to assert.

Allow me to challenge first the notion that the three are all “one with” the others in the same way.  The Father and the Son are one - Jesus’ own words.  But where does the Bible say that the Spirit and the Son are one?  And where does it say that the Father and the Spirit are one?  Nowhere, my friends.  So, are they one, in the same way that Jesus and the Father are one?  If you think so (and I’m not sure I do), where’s the evidence?

Neither are Father, Son and Spirit all “in” the others in the same way.  The Father is in the Son, and the Son is in the Father - biblical.  The Spirit is in the Son - true, but is that in the same way that the Father is in the Son?  And then, is the Father “in” the Spirit?  Is the Son “in” the Spirit?  The Bible never talks of it this way; and with good reason.  The Father and Son are not “in” the Spirit in the same way that the Father is in the Son.

You will find, if you scour the scriptures, that Father and Son have many of these reciprocal-type phrases applied to them (especially in John), and also a person-to-person-type relationship (speaking to each other, and so on).  The Spirit, however, is excluded from these kinds of formulations.  Jesus and the Father don’t seem to talk to the Spirit - more by the Spirit, or in the Spirit; and they don’t seem to feel the need to emphasise their unity with the Spirit, or reciprocal relationship with him, as much as their unity and reciprocal relationship with each other. 

This significant tendency of the Bible to expressly teach the unity of Father and Son only is glided over glibly in the literature.  But the question is begging to be asked:  Why is this?  Why in the Bible is the Spirit clearly identified as nothing other than God, and yet not given the same “one-ness” treatment as the Father and Son are?  What is unique about the Spirit?


The Holy Spirit is God’s Spirit

To answer this, the obvious starting place is that the Spirit is described in the Bible as a spirit.  This is obvious, but often not given much weight.  Why is he called a spirit?  Because in human language, the closest thing we have to what he is, is a spirit - human or other.  Have a look at 1 Corinthians 2:11, which directly parallels the Holy Spirit’s relationship with God to our human spirits’ relationship with us.

Although in my home culture (Australian) we don’t tend to think much about spirits (again, other cultures may have an advantage here), we do acknowledge in our more poetic moments that we have one (“my spirit soared”, etc).  Is our spirit anything other than us?  Certainly not.  So is the Holy Spirit nothing other than God.  Is my human spirit “one” with me?  Well - I wouldn’t put it like that.  My spirit is my spirit.  If you wound my spirit, you wound me.  My spirit isn’t all there is to me, but it’s none other than me, and it’s personal to me.  Do these categories apply to God’s Spirit?  Quite nicely, I think.

I’m not saying that a human spirit is exactly the same kind as God’s spirit - the Holy Spirit clearly functions in different ways than my spirit does - but I do think they are more the same kind than Father and Spirit, or Son and Spirit are.  I think this because God chose to reveal his Spirit in human language to be a “spirit”; and also because the “same kind” theory is backed up by the 1 Corinthians 2:11 (above).

So, the Spirit of God is not a person (in common speak), but a spirit; different to, but of the same kind as, our own human spirits.  Now, how then does he relate to the Father and the Son?  Clearly, he’s the spirit of the Father (Matt 10:20 (cf Mark 13:11); Rom 8:11, among others), and he’s also the spirit of the Son (Rom 8:9; Gal 4:6; 1 Pet 1:11, among others)!  This one Spirit does not just belong to one person (like my personal human spirit does), but he belongs to Father and Son.

This is, of course, the precise uniqueness of the Christian concept of God.  God, one with Jesus, not by logical impossibility, but by his Spirit.  This is the very “analogy” which we have been given by God!  One Father, one Son, who are One in the Spirit.  Without the spirit’s uniqueness - not a person, but a spirit belonging to both Father and Son - the two would not be One.

Think of this God-given analogy in human terms.  If there was a (human) father, who had a (human) son, they would be two people, and not one.  But imagine - just imagine as best you can - what if these two people did not have two separate spirits, but shared one spirit?  Would they then be two, or one?  Is this not the kind of unity we see between Jesus and his Father?  Doesn’t this make great sense of why the scriptures emphasise the unity of Father and Son, but talk about the Spirit in a very different way?

The danger, then, of saying that Father, Son and Spirit are “three”, and therefore (implicitly) “of the same kind”, is that you lose the very thing which makes the Father and the Son one - the Holy Spirit.  If the Spirit is a “person”, he cannot unite the Father and Son.  He is just another person needing to be united.  Three people cannot be one.  A father and a son, however, could conceivably be considered one - if they share a spirit - and that is how God has chosen to reveal himself.

Augustine (OK so yes, I did a tiny bit of research) described Father Son and Spirit as “the lover, the beloved, and love”  [The Trinity, Books VIII.14; IX.2, and XV.10].  This is somewhere on the way to that concept.  How much more effective, though, (sorry Augustine), to say that the best analogy for Father, Son and Spirit is “a father, a son, and one spirit”?


Father, Son and Spirit: recovering the spiritual unity of God

So, I have argued that calling Father, Son and Spirit “three” is unbiblical, linguistically very bad, and theologically problematic because of the implicit assertion that all are of the “same kind”.  If we leave aside language emptied of its meaning, and cutesie three-pronged diagrams, and revert to the biblical analogy of “father, son and spirit”, we will have a clearer picture not only of the oneness of God, but also how God can be one when he reveals himself as both Father and Son.

Not only this, but it enables us to have a more nuanced understanding of the Spirit - not just a “bit” of God which does cool things, but a real spirit who unites Father to Son, and us to Christ (and each other).  How amazing to plumb the depths of how this spiritual unity between Father and Son can also occur (in some way) between the Son and ourselves, and between you and me (John 14:16-20, 17:20-23; 1 Corinthians 6:17)!  Using the biblical terminology deepens our understanding of this, without confusing us with matters of essense, substance, heads, perichoresis, and so on. 

So, voila.  Is the mystery of God’s unity - how Jesus, the Father, and the Spirit can possibly be One - therefore solved?  Not at all.  But we can know at least what the mystery is - how a Father and a Son can share a Spirit.  This mystery is imaginable; it is biblical; and best of all, it is not a logical impossibility caused by our drifting off into linguistic wastelands, where no man should e’er have trod.


So, how can I explain the Trinity - oops, I mean, Father, Son and Spirit - to people?

So, if I am making a plea here to banish “Trinity” and “three” and “person” from theological language, what can we replace it with?  Here’s my attempt at a simple explanation of God in his interesting oneness:

The Father is God.
The Son is the Son of God, but unlike most sons, he is one with the Father, because they share the Holy Spirit.  (That’s why Jesus said he’s in the Father and the Father is in him.)
The Holy Spirit is God’s own spirit, the spirit of the Father and the Son.  He is the reason the Father and the Son are one.

As for a diagram, how about something like this?


This has the beauty of showing their spiritual unity!  “What the Father does, I do.”


Or this:



OK, those are pretty good, but were mainly jokes.  Maybe more like this:




That yellow haze with dots around them is meant to represent the Spirit (I’m not savvy enough to make it look any good) - but the idea is simple.  One father, one son, and one spirit.  No more three weird ghoulish fishies swimming around each other hoping that they will somehow look like “One”.  Not a perfect representation of God, but a useful one which does some good and less harm - which is more than I can say for the previous applicants.


Implications

Is all this really important enough to keep me up late into the night?  I think it is.  Apart from having a biblically informed, consistent understanding of God (which is certainly nothing to sneeze at), there are more implications and applications to dropping the old terminology and using just Father, Son and Spirit.  I’ll just note them here as a list, although they are very significant in my view, and warrant more attention another time.

Firstly, it should be acknowledged that the terms we use of God shape the way we think of him.  What does “Godhead” imply to us, versus “Father”?  How might use of these terms shape how we, as people, relate to God - as a “being”, or as our Father?  What about singing about the “Blessed Trinity”, rather than “Blessed God”, “Blessed Jesus” or “Blessed Father”?  The words we use shape our concepts and thoughts.  We should be pretty careful to call God a certain kind of being which he doesn’t call himself - especially in normal conversation and worship.

Secondly, as mentioned above, the use of these relational terms is very important to our understanding of the role of the Spirit in uniting not just Father to Son, but also us to Father and Son, and us to each other (as the body of Christ).

Thirdly, it demonstrates our belief in biblical authority and sufficiency, by using the words the Bible uses to teach what the Bible teaches.

Fourthly, it means we can stop singing songs which have a verse for each of Father, Son and Spirit, as if the Spirit would feel left out if we just sang to Father and Son.  Would my spirit feel hurt if you sang a song about me?  Would you compose a song specifically to my spirit?  Thinking of God in the terms he’s given us encourages us relate to him more sensibly (following also the pattern of the New Testament church in their prayer life).

Fifthly, talking about God in biblical ways has great potential for enhancing global and cross-cultural theology.  How wonderful to be able to teach about God to a new tribe without mutilating their language while doing so!  How wonderful that we might be able to communicate with the Chinese in actual Chinese, and with the English in normal English, about our most precious truths!  How wonderful to begin a sermon on God’s oneness not with “Brace yourselves for impossibility and brainfreeze”, but with “Brace yourselves for a thing of wonder and marvellous joy - Immanuel, God with us!”?

Sixthly, and following from this last point, using biblical-relational terms of Father, Son and Spirit has huge implications for evangelism and apologetics. Imagine the two scenarios: 
  1. “What’s the Trinity?” a seeker asks.  “Oh help!”  I reply.  “This is so hard to explain.  Look, well, it means God is Three and One at the same time.  Jesus, the Father, and the Spirit are one Godhead, but are three divine persons (no, not that kind of person - it actually doesn’t mean anything the way I’m using it...), but not three Gods.  I have a diagram here which helps... no, it’s not a mutant fish, it’s God... well, it’s not God, but it shows how he can be three and one at the same time.  Doesn’t it?  Well, let’s just say it’s pretty complex.  People have been debating it for millennia.  Cool, huh?”

    Compare with:
  2. “What’s the Trinity?” a seeker asks.  “I don’t really know,” I reply.  “It’s something people like to talk about.  But, if you’re interested in the relationship between God and Jesus, I can tell you something amazing.  Let’s have a look at how the Holy Spirit came down on Jesus in his baptism.  And let’s see how Jesus says that everything he says is from the Father.  And you know how he does all these cool miracles without needing to draw power from anyone else?  That’s because God’s own spirit is in Jesus.  That’s why Jesus can say he’s one with the Father.  Cool, huh?  That’s why we love learning about Jesus - because when we see him, we’re actually seeing God himself.”
This also has obvious boons in the area of apologetics/evangelism to people of belief systems which have an strong (and dare I say it, understandable) aversion to anything smelling of Trinity.  So - why not just ditch the talk of Trinity?  We can do so without losing God, or the Bible.  When people get to know Jesus, they will realise that he was not just sent from God, but was one with God.  The Bible meters out truth softly, gently, relationally and convincingly.  We don’t need to confuse the matter with loaded and misleading concepts.


Last words

In conclusion, then - there are linguistic, theological, aesthetico-sensory (if I may), spiritual, and practical reasons for abandoning talk of Trinity (and its swathe of related concepts).  Instead, we can speak of God in the simple, biblical way: we can speak of God, our heavenly Father; Jesus, his one and only Son, our Lord; and the Holy Spirit, who unites them - and us to them.

I desperately hope that some dear readers - maybe you, dear reader? - may finally sound the death knell to their (love-hate?) relationship with the language of the Trinity, and be converted to using natural, biblical words to talk about God - as I have.  May it be for His glory and praise.



43 comments:

  1. The formulation of the doctrine of the trinity was done to express the fullness of the biblical data and to guard against erroneous views such as unitarianism, Arianism and the view currently expressed by Oneness Pentecostalism.
    I don't see how this simplified presentation can achieve this, without more nuances, such as trinitarianism provides.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, David. Which nuances do you think need adding? If I was trying to counter those erroneous views, I would take people to specific Bible passages, rather than a theological concept. Personally, I doubt referring to the doctrine of the Trinity would convince anyone to change their view anyway - it is more a descriptive tool than a persuasive one.

      In addition, because I believe the doctrine of the Trinity says importantly wrong things (implicitly) in its attempt to say right things, I would suggest that whatever its usefulness may be, it shouldn't be used.

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    2. So I'm guessing you wouldn't be comfortable with these sorts of statements?

      "The unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in the Godhead" AFES

      "We believe in the one, holy, sovereign, creating and redeeming God, eternally existing in three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit." OMF

      Or other older confessional theology like the 39 Articles, the Westminster Confession and the like?

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    3. I would be more comfortable with these tweaks:

      "The unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit."

      "We believe in the one, holy, sovereign, creating and redeeming God, eternally existing as Father, Son and Holy Spirit."

      I don't see that's saying much different, just avoiding the unhelpful language. As for the 39 Articles, there are plenty of reasons I don't sign up to (all of) them... but I feel I've slain enough holy cows for now. :)

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  2. Mmm my original comment got gobbled up by the computer / browser / website...

    Short version: no worries re. trying to use biblical language but let's try to reflect the coherent comprehensive account of what the Bible says about God, i.e. what God has to say about himself.

    My concern is that the above account offered by Anna Blue leaves the Spirit without much of an intentional, volitional or emotional life, reduced to a mere instrument and no longer a loving agent.

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    1. Hi, thanks for your comment!
      It is a very important point that the Spirit doesn't get reduced to a bland or automatic "force" - and I think that this is a vital point regardless of whether you subscribe to Trinitarian theology or this Father-Son-Spirit theology. I haven't gone into detail about this, but I'm not sure why this critique applies specifically here?

      A commenter on another forum was concerned that the Spirit was not seen as "distinct from the Father and Son" and "his own person" in my formulation. Perhaps this is a similar thread. However, as I said in the other forum, I think that is precisely the point! In Scripture I see that the Spirit is always being shown to be NOT separate from the Father and Son, and certainly not "his own person"... rather, if the Spirit does something, it is none other than the Father/Son himself who is doing it.

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    2. But on your account and the illustrations used both visual and verbal the Spirit is no longer someone.

      And that I submit IS a fundamental problem.

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    3. I believe he IS someone - God! He is someone, just not "someone different".

      Admittedly the visual illustration is limited, but I blame that on the fact that spirits don't have a body, and so are hard to illustrate.

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    4. Aargh... Had another substantial comment erased by the browser / website.


      This is the problem paragraph:

      "So, the Spirit of God is not a person (in common speak), but a spirit; different to, but of the same kind as, our own human spirits. Now, how then does he relate to the Father and the Son? Clearly, he’s the spirit of the Father (Matt 10:20 (cf Mark 13:11); Rom 8:11, among others), and he’s also the spirit of the Son (Rom 8:9; Gal 4:6; 1 Pet 1:11, among others)! This one Spirit does not just belong to one person (like my personal human spirit does), but he belongs to Father and Son."

      So the Spirit is God, but not in the same way as the Father is God and the Son is God. Mmmmm...

      Where's John 14-16 in all this?

      BTW I couldn't help but notice you applied the language of persons to the Father and the Son.

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    5. "So the Spirit is God, but not in the same way as the Father is God and the Son is God." - I didn't say that, and I wouldn't say that. Where did that statement come from?

      Which part of John 14-16 are you thinking of?

      When did I use the language of persons to describe the Father? (Son is ok - I think we would all agree Jesus is a person!) I will go back and change it. Old habits die hard...

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    6. (1) (a) Because the spirit is not a person (line one of the quotation from you)
      (1) (b) Because the Son is a person (last line of the quotation)
      (1) (c) Because the Father also implicitly is a person (last line)

      I'm sorry Anna, but I think you're really missing the important clarity that adopting the language of either hypostasis or person brings to the discussion. Too many people through the history of the church have wanted to deny that the Spirit is God in fundamentally the same way as the the Father and the Son are God (from the Pneumatomachi through to errant Baptists that Spurgeon had to combat in the C19 and onwards...) that tinkering with the terminology doesn't really help.

      (2) John 14:16ff inter alia.

      (3) In the last line of the quotation ... BTW I think your nervousness about 'person' is largely unwarranted. To begin with I suspect that it was more commonly used in English language theology prior to its later more widespread adoption into the language more generally. It's just we've forgotten where it came from. And like even the Biblical language of "Father" - it gets to define our idea of fatherhood, rather than our natural language idea getting to define what divine fatherhood might be like (cf. Eh 3:14-15 in the greek).

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    7. 1 - I think we'll have to agree to disagree. I certainly am not saying the Spirit is not God (I was using person in the normal English sense, not the theological sense, in that paragraph), but to me, adding terms like "hypostasis" and "person" to the biblical terminology is the "unhelpful tinkering".

      2 - I have no problem with John 14:16, or alia.

      3 - Eph 3:14-15 is talking about fathers, which is a term God uses for himself, but as he doesn't use "person" to describe himself, I think it's crazy to suggest that we apply that same line of reasoning to "person". If someone in the 3rd century decided to call God a leaf, should that then define our concept of leaves? Of course not... Anyway, whatever it meant hundreds of years ago has very little bearing on what it communicates to people today, which is what my thesis deals with.

      Anyway - thanks for your engagement with some of these ideas.

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  3. Here's a footnote I originally had about the Chinese:

    So, what do the Chinese do then, when they talk of the Trinity? They use “三位一体", which basically means “Three (person-classifier) in One”. This defies normal Chinese grammar by omitting the noun, so that a normal Chinese person would be left wondering “Three (person-classifier) whats in One?” Perhaps we should make a motto: “Christian Theology - perverting God-given human languages across the world!”

    Another one I've since heard of being used in Taiwan (thanks Aaron) is 三位一體 "Three (person-classifier) One Body". Grammatically, it is also unusual i that it omits the noun. I'd be interested to hear what Chinese-speaking people think of when they hear that.

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    1. I think your linguistic insights about Chinese are fascinating. But one of the first things I learned about thinking and speaking about God was that his reality meant that our language had to be re-shaped. This was the case in Greek and Latin and I guess pretty much any language you choose. Reality is just stranger than we think.

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    2. That's very true, and a good point. If a language can't say something, it doesn't necessarily mean it isn't true.
      Thanks for your thoughtful interactions.

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    3. Also - I can't work out how to edit my above comment about the 2 Chinese terms, but it turns out these two are the same term, the second one is just simplified characters.

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  4. Hi Anna,

    When I talk to myself, I am the Speaker, the Listener and the Conversation that flows back and forth. When I love myself, I am the Lover, the Beloved and the Love that flows between. Were this not so, self-consciousness would be quite impossible.

    The Trinity is God knowing and loving himself. The Father is the Lover, the Son the Beloved, and the Spirit is the Love that flashes between. Hence "I am that I am."

    God, being perfectly self-aware and perfectly loving, is utterly personal. Nothing about him is impersonal. Thus, the Lover, the Beloved and the Love are personal, distinct from one another, yet one God. If you like, the life of God is a feed-back loop that resonates off to infinity.

    This makes enough sense for me to continue speaking in terms of the Trinity. The real mystery, in my view, is the Incarnation. I mean, how does eternal Truth become a man? :)

    Cheers.











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    1. Thanks for your comment! You have some cool analogies there which are interesting to think through. The Lover one is the same as Augustine's which I quoted in the article. I wonder why the Father always seems to get the role of "lover" though, when Jesus clearly loves the Father too? (I can see why the Spirit doesn't - don't you think it would be weird to say that the Spirit "loves" the Father? This is part of my point about the Spirit being a spirit, and different in kind to the Father and Son.)

      I think one danger to look out for with these analogies is modalistic thinking (one God appearing in 3 "modes", as if there is no distinction between the Father and Son and Spirit, just three roles he is playing). The other issue I have with these kinds of formulations is that they aren't God's own descriptions of himself - not Trinity, not Lover-Beloved-Love, not anything like that - except One God: Father, Son and Spirit. I just wish we'd use those terms instead of "Trinity", even if the concept we're thinking of may not be that different!

      The incarnation - yes, there's a whole 'nother article waiting to be written there! I have thoughts about this. Just a teaser (as it may be years before I can write it up), I think much of our mind-boggling with the incarnation comes from an idea that God and Man are mutually exclusive categories. I don't think I'll get to the bottom of the incarnation, mind you, any time soon...

      Any way you look at it though, God is indeed very WOW, and that's the way it's meant to be, right? :)

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  5. The areas we agree on are easiest to comment on, so I'll begin there, in no particular order...

    1. The language we use to describe God is important.

    2. The further away from the original descriptions/language we go, the more care we need to take.

    3. God is bigger & more complex than we are.

    4. We don't want to give up the deity of Jesus.

    5. Describing God with diagrams is difficult.

    6. We should aim to begin conversations where people are at, rather than using language/terms/systems that they aren't familiar with.

    7. While getting closer to the truth is excellent, we aren't gnostic, and should allow gracious discussion without immediately labeling things as heresy.

    8. I do think you rightly identify that there are differences between Father, Son & Spirit, e.g.:
    - the Father seems to do all the sending & everyone, including the Son, will eventually submit to Him
    - the Son was physically incarnated
    - the Holy Spirit interacts with our spirit & inside our mind(?)

    9. I think it's unfortunately often a neglected topic, which is a shame because who we think God is, affects other areas of theology. Not only that but it makes evangelism with non-Christians, especially Muslims, harder.

    10. That we get to have God in us (God being "all in all") is mind blowing & seems to imply that static triangle diagrams aren't adequate... that with humanity, the Trinity becomes a Quadnity(?) or Multinity(?)??

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    1. A brief introduction to Anna: I'm Jason Pratt, a trinitarian Christian theologian (and Christian universalist by the way), invited by Alex Smith to comment on your article. I don't have a degree or a professional 'theologian' position anywhere. But Alex knows I've done a ton of work on the scriptural and the metaphysical details of what, for convenience, is called the Trinity.

      (Note: I'm using an older browser which may explain why I can't find a general "reply" button to start a new thread. In lieu of that I'm "replying" to Alex's first comment, which I largely agree with though not entirely e.g. 10.)


      Anna: {{History has indeed selected the word “person” to attach to “three” to explain in what way Father, Son and Spirit are the same kind. Of course, this works well for Jesus (post-incarnation, at the very least). However, to call the Father a “person” is obviously strange; and much more so, the Spirit, who is, of course, a spirit.}}

      As if a spirit cannot be a person? And a father cannot be a person? But a son can be a person, so that isn't strange?

      The Father, the Son, and the Spirit, interact with each other and with created persons (who are indisputably persons) in personal ways -- you seem to affirm that and don't deny it, right? So it isn't in fact "necessary to strip the word 'person' of all of its 'kind' meaning when referring to God", as you put it: 'person' is not after all "a semantically empty word, created simply to enable the enumeration of God".

      {{[W]hat would the classifier for the “persons” be? Three “people” God-persons? Oh no, that doesn’t sound right at all. Much too human.}}

      It's only too human if you are necessarily importing "human" as a primate biological species into the concept of "people", which after all is only a variant multiple of "person". But you don't argue that only the primates we call "humanity" can be persons or people, although you may be tacitly assuming it by your difficulty with the idea that anything which is a spirit can be a person. By contrast, I would argue that only that which is spiritual can be personal per se, regardless of the species -- or of the ethnicity within the species, if we must talk about ethnics.

      You seem to agree in principle and in practice that, in talking about God (capital 'G' in English tradition), we're supposed to be talking about the one and only independently existent ground of all reality, the only one of its kind (which is what 'sui generis' means). You also seem to agree that the Father, Son, and Spirit, are all legitimate ways of talking about this single unique divinity. That means, whether we go the route of Trinity language or not, or the route of trinitarian theology or not, we're necessarily going to be using language to talk about this unique reality where the language normally refers to something very different from that reality, and only partially similar to it in some limited ways.

      You're doing it yourself when you (and the scriptures) talk about "Father" and "Son" (and, arguably, "Spirit"). But you don't thereby complain that by doing so you are reducing "Father" and "Son" (or "Spirit" for that matter) to semantically empty words, created simply to enable the enumeration of God but stripped of all their "kind" meaning when referring to God!

      This is aside from the question of whether the scriptures (or metaphysics for that matter) indicate the Spirit operates distinctly and personally in relation to the Father and the Son and to created persons.

      JRP

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    2. Thanks for all these "Agree" points, Alex! Yes, lots to be wary of and careful with. Your last point is indeed mind-blowing, and I'd like to explore more about that, the human-divine unity, at some point! (Maybe when the last kid heads off to college, ha ha)

      How we talk about God is vitally important, and as you said, impacts the way we think about all sorts of other topics. For me, our understanding (or lack thereof) of the Holy Spirit is one area where the Trinity theory has made a big dent. By seeing the Holy Spirit not just as "personal" but as a "person" has muddied the waters for us, I'm sure. More about that in another reply section.

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    3. Hi Jason,

      Thanks so much for your comments. It's really great to hear your thoughts on this! Here's some responses.

      you wrote:
      "As if a spirit cannot be a person? And a father cannot be a person? But a son can be a person, so that isn't strange?"

      A normal father can, of course, be a person. But God the Father - I wouldn't tend to call him a person. (I'm using "person" in normal terms here, not theological terms.) Nonetheless, even though he isn't human, I have less trouble with calling the Father a "person" in theological-speak, because the Bible's use of "Father" to describe him suggests it is not totally inappropriate. To call a spirit a "person", though, I think is out of the question. Have you ever seen a spirit and said, "Look, there's a person over there!"? Surely a spirit is a different kind of being.

      you wrote:
      "The Father, the Son, and the Spirit, interact with each other and with created persons (who are indisputably persons) in personal ways -- you seem to affirm that and don't deny it, right?"

      Right! However, I also think the way the Spirit relates to people (and Father/Son) is different to the way the Father and Son relate to us and each other. I think this distinction is not paid attention to enough by theologians! If you look at the references to the way the Spirit interacts with the Father/Son, compared with the way the Father/Son interact with each other, there are vast differences. Would you agree? (If not, I might have to write another blog post about that in particular.)


      you wrote:
      "So it isn't in fact "necessary to strip the word 'person' of all of its 'kind' meaning when referring to God", as you put it: 'person' is not after all "a semantically empty word, created simply to enable the enumeration of God"."

      I'm arguing that it becomes semantically empty as a noun, not an adjective ("personal"). The reason I argue that is because it is only used as a noun to enable enumeration of Father, Son and Spirit (they needed something to put after "three"). You're right though - not totally empty - it still carries some meaning; but that meaning is adjectival, not nominal (nouny - referring to a *kind of* being). I have no problem with saying that Father, Son and Spirit are personal (because of how they are seen to relate in Scripture).

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    4. (continued)

      you wrote:
      "...you are necessarily importing "human" as a primate biological species into the concept of "people"."

      I wouldn't say I'm importing that! "Human" is part of the natural language meaning of the term "person/people". I'm just sticking fiercely to natural language rather than theological language here.

      you mentioned:
      "...your difficulty with the idea that anything which is a spirit can be a person. By contrast, I would argue that only that which is spiritual can be personal per se, regardless of the species..."

      I think we need to distinguish between *having* a spirit and *being* a spirit. I agree that only spiritual beings can be personal, I think. If you *are* a spirit, though, you cannot also be human. I suspect we in the West have all too little awareness of the spirit world to understand this, which would be common sense for the majority world.

      you wrote:
      "You're doing it yourself [using human words to describe something beyond human understanding] when you (and the scriptures) talk about "Father" and "Son" (and, arguably, "Spirit"). But you don't thereby complain that by doing so you are reducing "Father" and "Son" (or "Spirit" for that matter) to semantically empty words, created simply to enable the enumeration of God but stripped of all their "kind" meaning when referring to God!"

      There are 2 differences as I see it.
      1 - These terms are used by God himself in the scriptures! This is absolutely key for me. If he used them, then they are terms I can embrace, and ponder over, without a niggling fear that they will lead me astray. So no, I won't complain about those terms!
      2 - I am not using those terms to enumerate God! I never call him "three" anythings. I don't think we should or can call him three anythings. Using Father, Son and Spirit but NOT saying they are "three of the same kind" means that those terms can function as they are - nouns referring to three kinds of being. My problem with the term "person" is not ONLY that it means something (in normal language) which I think is wrong at least in regard to the Spirit, but that it is used to describe Father, Son AND Spirit, as if they were all the same kind of being. Sticking with the terms "Father, Son and Spirit" (but no "three Xs") avoids both these problems (and has the not insignificant bonus of being Biblical...).

      Anna

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    5. Hi again, Anna!

      Anna (and hereafter): {{But God the Father - I wouldn't tend to call him a person. (I'm using "person" in normal terms here, not theological terms.)}}

      Ooooookay. You only mean a personal power that interacts personally with persons, and is described using an obviously personal term (Father). But you wouldn't want to call that personal power a person. But the Son yes, once He becomes human.

      That seems a lot like person == biological primate of a particular species.

      {{Nonetheless, even though he isn't human, I have less trouble with calling the Father a "person" in theological-speak, because the Bible's use of "Father" to describe him suggests it is not totally inappropriate.}}

      Plus all the other things the Bible says about how the Father personally operates. The name-title "Father" alone isn't the deciding factor, maybe not even the most important factor. (Relatedly, the Son is never called a "person" either in scripture. But the Son is obviously a distinct person.)

      The problem here may be that I don't see any relevant distinctions between "person" "in normal terms" and "in theological-speak" (or not in what I the theologian regard as proper theological-speak about God). Especially since any animal's person-ness depends on a special gift from God Who is "the Father of spirits".

      {{To call a spirit a "person", though, I think is out of the question.}}

      Why? God is spirit; the Father is the Father of spirits in a personal relationship to spirits. The distinction between personal and impersonal animals is a spiritual one. You're a spirit (and also an animal) and I don't have the slightest problem calling you a person. Do you think it's out of the question calling me a person, or do you deny the existence of my spirit?

      {{Have you ever seen a spirit and said, "Look, there's a person over there!"? Surely a spirit is a different kind of being.}}

      I do it all the time! Look, I'm talking to a person right now! {lol} I don't usually call human beings spirits, but that doesn't mean I don't recognize your spirit is what makes you a person instead of only a biological machine like a tree or a flatworm. Nor is your spirit an enabling appendage of some kind (like a non-physical brain): your spirit is also you, personally.

      Relatedly, if I thought a normally impersonal living creature or even normally unliving entity was given a spirit, I'd think the creature or entity was personal and a person and I'd treat the creature or entity appropriately. A tree may not have a spirit, so may not (also) be a spirit, and so not be a person. But a dryad, a spiritual tree, would be a person. Maybe quite an alien person, but a person. And still a sister under God, not because of a shared biology, which would be minimal, but because of her spirit.

      This is of no small importance, if we ever find or meet extra-terrestrial life, or if God brings about more rational life (or already has done so) on this planet. There will be people, whether religious or irreligious, who will be flatly opposed, basically from racism, to regarding intelligences other than human primates as fellow persons. And that problem could easily occur in reverse, too: if they don't recognize us as persons because we don't belong to their species, they're going to be abusing us by treating persons as non-persons! (Historically it already occurred when meeting other human races, and still does to some extent!)

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    6. Zipping forward a bit:

      {{I think we need to distinguish between *having* a spirit and *being* a spirit.}}

      Fine. I, the composite entity who has a spirit and a body, am a spirit. Whereas on the other hand I don't know that I would say "I am" a body, since my body is not the distinguishing factor in my being actively rational and so able to recognize and declare of my self (in a non-illusory way) "I am".

      I have a body, but I am not a body. I have a spirit and I am a spirit.


      {{If you look at the references to the way the Spirit interacts with the Father/Son, compared with the way the Father/Son interact with each other, there are vast differences. Would you agree?}}

      The main interactional difference is that we aren't told of any dialogue between the Spirit and either the Father or the Son. But they do apparently communicate with each other, as well as interacting with each other personally in other ways. (e.g. the Spirit sent by the Father leads the Son sometimes; the Spirit searches the deep things of God, and leads us in prayer to the Father even praying for us wordlessly, where 'God' in nearby context refers to the Father.)

      The Spirit's actions are always subordinate to the Father and, usually though not always, subordinate to the Son. Very broadly speaking, in the scriptures the Spirit brings the Father and Son to us, and brings us to the Father and Son.

      This backgrounding function is one reason why western theologians (myself included) infer that there is a special ontological difference between the Father-and-the-Son and the Spirit: the Spirit, though fully God, and not a separate (created) entity from God, is not God self-begetting or God self-begotten.

      In other words (though not all trinitarians would put it this way), those two persons of God have a special priority by their interpersonal relationship being the actively ongoing and eternal self-existence of God as the ground of all reality. The Spirit is the next possible action after self-existence upkeep: the giving of God, by God, to God.

      This is connected to that dispute about the "filioque" you'll have heard of: the Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as from the Father. (Although those who deny the filioque still often agree the Son gives the Spirit to the Father as well as the other way around.)


      {{You're right though - not totally empty - ["person"] still carries some meaning; but that meaning is adjectival, not nominal (nouny - referring to a *kind of* being).}}

      Yet you (very properly) think "nouny", even though it's a word you just made up, is an adjective that has a meaning in connection to the meaning of the noun "noun". The adjective, when made from a noun, is dependent for its own meaning on the relevant property of the noun for which? the adjective was made as a description. That's exactly why I can figure out what you mean by "nouny" even though you just made up that word.

      The adjective forms of nouns would themselves be semantically empty without first having a meaning for the noun; and then also having a meaning for the adjective related directly to the meanings of the noun! That's why you can create a nounish adjective "nouny" (or "nominal" in one of the grammatic senses of that term), and expect me to understand what you're talking about in relation to "nouns".

      If "person" as a noun is semantically empty in regard to the Father, Son, and/or Spirit, then "personal" will also be semantically empty, by exactly the same proportion, in describing the Father, Son, and/or Spirit.

      In other words, if you treat "person" as a semantically empty placeholder piffle when talking about God (and so you might as well not use it), BY EXACTLY THE SAME TOKEN you should treat "personal" the adjective as being just as semantically empty (and so you might as well not use it when talking about God).

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    7. {{The reason I argue that is because ["person"] is only used as a noun to enable enumeration of Father, Son and Spirit (they needed something to put after "three").}}

      Speaking as someone who actually is a theologian: I definitely DO NOT use the word 'person' as a random set of letters, or some word I randomly chose out of a hat because I needed a common-set noun to go after an enumeration of three; much less (as a grammarian) do I then go on to use an adjective "personal" with meanings related to the concept of 'person' while then simultaneously rejecting or voiding all those meanings totally when talking about the three 'persons' of God (or even when, for shorthand simplicity, I talk about God as a 'person', being a single personal reality.)

      On the contrary, I use "person" because I find the distinctions act in ways which signal they are persons, in interpersonal relationships with each other (and with created persons), instead of non-persons: thus in adjectival description "personal".

      My mind is sort of kvetching over the idea that the adjective of a noun is supposed to have independent positive meaning compared to the noun, so that the adjective can still have meaning while the noun is semantically empty. Whatever else that idea may be, it is not sticking fiercely to natural rather than theological language.

      {{I'm just sticking fiercely to natural language rather than theological language here.}}

      In what natural sense does "personal" ever refer to something that isn't a person?!

      I could imagine someone trying to claim that in "theological" (rather than "natural") language, something (namely God) could truly be "personal" and act thus like a person without truly being a person. But a fierce proponent of natural application of "personal" would be the first and staunchest advocate of the personal distinctions of God being persons.

      Whereupon such a fierce proponent of the natural application of "personal" would be mocked by classical theists who tend to think God is rational but never volitionally or intentionally acts, etc., therefore cannot be a person, though they'd ascribe personal characteristics to God in various esoteric ways -- which they'd tend to reduce away to metaphor. (I have specific examples in mind, but won't bore you with the details.)

      I do know, and generally agree with, what such hardcore "classical theist" theologian/philosophers are trying to defend and trying to defend against, by the way: they're trying to keep a proper distinction between God as the ground of all reality, and creatures within that reality. But when they do it this way, they're going about it in a nonsensical fashion.

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    8. {{I agree that only spiritual beings can be personal, I think.}}

      Okay, so, only spiritual beings can be personal; but a spiritual, personal being cannot be a spirit if a person or vice versa?

      Because that's the only way you're going to get between this statement and any "enumeration" of God (whether that numeration is "one" or "three" or whatever) not being a person (noun) but personal (adjective).

      Nor is that what I would regard as sticking fiercely to the natural language rather than theological language. (Nor would I call it a good example of meaningful theological language.)

      {{If you *are* a spirit, though, you cannot also be human.}}

      That's a very odd position for someone to take, whom I thought I read earlier affirming the full humanity and full deity of Jesus, in the Incarnation, while also insisting on deity being spirit! (Am I misremembering that...??)

      The "pagan" type of "majority world" religion still tends to believe in demigods born of human and spirit union, so if anything their notion of human and spirit in the sense of mere species was (and is) closer than ours! -- we don't regard the Incarnation as being a mixed creaturely result.

      (This gets into the dispute between central orthodoxy and miaphysite trinitarians on one hand and Nestorians on the other: the mia/monophysites don't mean a mixed creature result either, but they do mean the non-creaturely divine and creaturely human natures mix into one nature; whereas the latter in affirming the two natures mean they are so utterly distinct there can be no cooperation between them. The latter don't really mean to say Christ is two persons, human and divine, but they're so hot to avoid confusing the natures into one nature that they sometimes say things which inadvertently imply this.)

      The "pantheist" type of "majority world" religion tends to deny the existence of persons at all, in favor of a single impersonal spiritual power. So you can't be talking about that; they don't believe even in this world involving real multiple spirits, much less a real spiritual world of non-human spirits.


      {{These terms [Father, Son, and Holy Spirit] are used by God himself in the scriptures!}}

      Instead of "person" (even in regard to the Son, or anyone else at any time ever)? -- so that's why you think those terms aren't semantically empty terms "created" (or "applied", more accurately) by God, simply to enable the designation of God but stripped of all their 'kind' meaning when referring to God?!

      Because I see no conceptual difference yet, on why God's use of those terms couldn't be charged as being semantically blank just the way you're charging for the use of "person" along with those (personal) words.

      {{I am not using those terms to enumerate God! I never call him "three" anythings.}}

      Enumeration isn't merely using a number word to refer to multiples of a set: I could talk about the persons of God in reference to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, without happening to also use the word "three" (or for that matter happening to use the word "person").

      It is, however, a fiercely normal meaning, to use a number word in regard to the tally of those multiples in that set. Also to use a fairly common word (like person) as a noun in relation to acknowledged characteristics (such as personal characteristics) of that set.

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    9. {{Using Father, Son and Spirit but NOT saying they are "three of the same kind" means that those terms can function as they are - nouns referring to three kinds of being.}}

      So, it's okay for you to use "three" and "kind" in talking about God the Father, Son, and Spirit, so long as you say "kinds", plural, instead of "kind", singular. Even though elsewhere you agree they are not three multiple kinds of things (a God, a god, and an impersonal power, for example). Nor three Gods Most High, nor three gods, thus not three of those kinds of things. Nor merely three modes of being like Husband, King, and Judge (thus not three kinds of being in that sense either).

      And it's okay for you to explain that "Father, Son, and Spirit" "refer to three kinds of being" when talking about God; but you don't think "we" should or can call God "three anythings", which would seem from the general plural to include "kinds of being".

      But if someone else says those terms (Father, Son, and Spirit) refer to three of the same kind of something, anything, then they are being unhelpful and saying more than they should. In your opinion.


      {{My problem with the term "person" is not ONLY that it means something (in normal language) which I think is wrong at least in regard to the Spirit, but that it is used to describe Father, Son AND Spirit, as if they were all the same kind of being.}}

      ...okay, so, you don't think the Father, Son, and Spirit, are all the one and only God Most High? You think those terms do refer to three different "kinds" of being after all (God Most High and two other kinds of things)? Except not "three" kinds of things, just multiple kinds of things, except when you want to describe them yourself as three kinds of things. And not three multiple plural anythings, like kinds of being. But not also one kind of being instead of multiple kinds of being, when talking about personal somethings (no) anythings (no) uh... the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, as personal... um... non nouns which are not persons, definitely not persons, nor a person, thus to which the adjective "personal" has no relevant non-reference. But personal, sure, that's okay.

      And also you reject modalism.


      I dunno. To me, even the Trinity seems easier than that. {g}


      {{[To Alex] I think, primarily because we're not saying Father and Son and Spirit are a team or a family, which are inherently a collection of individuals, but they are one God.}}

      So, enumeration language is okay, and you're willing to use it, including in relation to God, so long as you aren't using enumeration language in relation to God? Because you think "one", and singular/plural language, isn't enumeration language?

      Otherwise, the problem isn't with enumeration language per se.

      JRP

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  6. In the Bible multiple descriptions/pictures of God are revealed and all Abrahamic religions need to address this diversity, while maintaining monotheism - the unity of God. A good thing about the Trinity is that it acknowledges that we do need to address (hold together somehow) the diversity & unity, that dwelling solely on either doesn't work. It's taken hundreds of years to develop, & while anything we come up with probably won't perfectly fit everything that's been revealed about God, I'm reluctant to give it up quickly... but still think it's worth considering if there are better ways (as you are doing).

    It's also difficult to know how a new way/system will affect the rest of our theology (e.g. say we decided Unitarianism was better, we'd then need to reexamine everything else in light of that, it may not break anything but then again, we may discover that we end up implying Jesus isn't God & that worshiping Him is idolatry, or that Jesus isn't particularly special, that Mohammed or Buddha are equally good messengers, or whatever). That's NOT to say we should never dare reconsider/reform anything but just that it has to be done very slowly, tentatively, thoughtfully & carefully - assuming new isn't necessarily better.

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    1. Yes, that's true. I'd like to consider the implications more about scrapping the Trinity in favour of Father & Son united in the Spirit.

      One thought I'm pondering at the moment is how humanity is created in the image of God, and is made not "three Xs" but "Male and Female, who are one humanity, because of their one flesh" - there seems to be a significant parallel between this and "Father and Son, who are one God, because of their one Spirit". Early days pondering this, but I think it might be a fruitful line.

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    2. Yes, I've also wondered if marriage was also an analogy for God...

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  7. Some questions for your position:
    a. Could we say, "There are 3 primary ways the Bible talks about the one God: as the Father, as the Son & as the Holy Spirit"?

    b. Could we say the Father, Son & Spirit seem to each have a unique personality, even if their actions don't conflict & they are on the same page as one another, in harmony (different voices singing the same song)?

    c. Does your approach adequately handle Jesus' description of the Holy Spirit as another Helper/Advocate sent from the Father, seemly distinct from Jesus & the Father, yet testifies/speaks about Jesus (e.g. John 14:16, 26; 15:26, 16:7)?

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    1. a. I'm not totally comfortable with that statement, as it lends itself to modalism. I would prefer: "The Bible talks about the one God as the Father, the Son & the Holy Spirit."

      b. Interesting concept. Again, I'm not comfortable with it. I think "unique" is too differentiated. I think God has one personality (in terms of a set of characteristics), and Father and Son share it ("he is the exact representation..." forgot the reference!). But Father and Son obviously have two "personalities", if you mean in terms of being able to say "I" and "you" to each other!

      c. I think so, because "another" here means "another the same" not "another different". It is not "someone else", but Jesus himself who will come to them when the Spirit comes (John 14:18,19, and 20 assuming he is "in them" by his Spirit, and cf 14:28). So I don't see the Holy Spirit as distinct from Jesus, and I don't think he intends us to see the Spirit as someone *totally* different. Cf 16:23 - the Spirit coming *is* the Father and the Son coming.

      I don't think the Trinity model adequately handles these passages!!!

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    2. a. Fair point.

      b. Yes, "unique" is probably a bit too strong - that they can say "I" & "you" to each other is a good way to put it.

      c. I agree there's a sense that Jesus will be with us until the end of the age (Matt 28:20), although not sure He was saying, "Don't worry, the Father will send Me to you in a different form."

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  8. What do you think of these two diverse/unified analogies?

    Good families do things as a unified unit, whilst still being made up of individuals. If you compliment one member, it can be seen as complimenting the family a whole.

    Sports teams. e.g., the German team is a diverse group of individuals but they only win by being unified. When a goal is scored, both an individual & the team as a whole is involved, & takes the credit. Saying Germany has scored a goal is legitimate but it also implies one of their players has scored a goal - the converse is also true. Add to this the team spirit, energy, morale, that can almost have a personality/life of it's own, that all players contribute to but also draw from, get swept up in.

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    1. I think these are really useful & helpful in showing how diversity and unity can go hand in hand. There's lots of good things in there.

      However, they are not particularly useful analogies for God, I think, primarily because we're not saying Father and Son and Spirit are a team or a family, which are inherently a collection of individuals, but they are one God. I think that God really did intend humans to think of him as primarily "one" (eg the confession in Deuteronomy 6:4, and the whole OT generally). Having said that, "God" in Hebrew is a plural term (elohim) which may have had a more collective feel to it in Hebrew - I'm not sure whether that plurality was felt by the native speakers. But I know that God never calls himself "three" or any number other than "one", and I think family/team analogies are perhaps too much leaning towards the basic meaning of plurality rather than a basic meaning of 1.

      Having said that, the family analogy is very close to the analogy God himself uses (Father & Son) - just with one important change to a normal father-son family - just one Spirit, not two. With this little tweak, I would say it's a perfect analogy!

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    2. Have you read/watched "Enders Game"? Just pondering whether the Formics are an analogy?? i.e. similar to the group "consciousness" that occurs in a beehive.

      I've read a little about the plural term but Jason would have a far better idea about that then me :-)

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    3. I shouldn't have replied to your comments just before bed as it meant things buzzed around my head :-P

      Anyway, one idea (which now seems less clever than it did late last night!) is that there's an analogy with sound systems... e.g. one can have:
      (1) a mono system, with one directional speaker
      (2) a stereo system, with two directional speakers
      (3) a stereo system, with a centre directional speaker
      (5.1) same as (3) but with a rear directional speakers & an omnidirectional subwoofer
      (7.1) same as (5.1) but with a side directional speakers

      (Note that in each system all the speakers are "singing" the same song but still have distinct "voices").

      Trinitarians seem to be saying God's like a (3) - one sound system, 3 distinct, directional "voices". Whereas, you seem to be saying God's like a (2.1) sound system - one sound system, 2 distinct, directional "voices" & a subwoofer, which is a distinct "voice" but also quite different from the others, in that it's omnidirectional.

      As an aside, my understanding is that many Muslims think they have a (1) but that seems to be overlooking Allah's interaction with the world i.e. they probably have a (1.1). Guessing Jews have a (1.1) too, although guess it depends on who they anticipate the Messiah being.

      The possibly helpful thing about expressing it this way is that it highlights the nuances, whereas if one says "Father, Son & Spirit", we don't know if they are meaning (3), (2.1), (1.1.1), or (1.2).

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  9. I realize your complaints are not so much about the doctrines themselves but on how the doctrines are presented: too complicated, too much terminology. Just stick with how the scriptures talk about it. (Even though sometimes they use obscure terminology, too, especially in Greek compared to English.) "God's own spirit is in Jesus, that's why Jesus can say he's one with the Father. Cool, huh?"

    Well, if the person is content to just take that and not think about it or apply it to his own religious life, I guess it's cool enough. But the scriptures say a lot (A LOT) more than that about the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. That's why people disagreed on what the pieces (in pieces or in total) meant. And those disagreements were regarded as important because the scriptures treat those details as important for our religious devotion and as important for our salvation (even if our profession of the details isn't so important, though sometimes Jesus and the authors talk that way as well!)

    "That's why we love learning about Jesus -- because when we see him, we're actually seeing God himself."

    So Jesus is God and not human? Or a human with God inside him? And why do the scriptures talk about us becoming sons of God but treat Jesus as being uniquely son of God, even though God is our Father and Jesus' father, our God and Jesus' God?

    "I don't really know. It's something people like to talk about."

    "Yeah, people in the scriptures definitely like to talk about it! -- enough so that they're willing to die to affirm it, or kill to deny it! So let's talk about it. But you don't really know what to talk about when you're talking about it? I mean, what's so special about Jesus? Can't we all show God just as well?"

    "Well, no, we can all show God to each other, that's true, but Jesus specially can because Jesus is a unique son of God."

    "Why, what makes him so unique? Unique in what way? The scriptures seem to say we're supposed to religiously worship him and also God but only worship God alone, and not to worship each other."

    "Well, that's something people like to talk about. Cool, huh?"

    "So, let's talk about it! Why is Jesus so special? Why should we religiously worship him but only religiously worship God alone and not even angels much less any humans?"

    "Well, Jesus is specially son of God in a way we aren't."

    "Which is?"

    "Uh... Jesus is God?"

    "You didn't sound certain about that, and the scriptural authors (and Jesus) seem to think this is pretty important right or wrong. Jesus is god and son of god? Is God a god like a species of creature which can mate and have children? What did he mate with other gods?"

    "No, he mated with Mary. Or not mated exactly. But Mary was a human woman."

    "Who created God."

    "No, she only gave birth to God like God making a body and coming through a door in a special way."

    "So Jesus isn't human?"

    "Yes, Jesus is both God and human."

    "So we can become both God and human, too, just like Jesus."

    "Yes! uh, no."

    "Well, wth does Jesus have to do with me, then?! So what if he's a god/human hybrid? I'm just a human and can never become a hybrid. It isn't like he needed to be human as well as divine for us to worship him. And how many gods are there anyway?"

    "Just one."

    "But Jesus talks to this one God."

    "Yes."

    "So Jesus isn't this one God."

    "Well, yes..."

    "So Jesus is pretending to talk to this one God."

    "No they're definitely distinct... somethings."

    "Persons?"

    "God no, not distinct persons! Well, Jesus may be a person, but God is not."

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  10. "Jesus is only pretending to talk to an impersonal force?"

    "No, God is personal."

    "Like Jesus."

    "Yes."

    "But not a person. Like Jesus."

    "Yes. I mean no. I mean..."

    "Do you think I'm a person!?"

    "Yes!"

    "And Jesus is. But he wasn't until he became human as well as divine. Because God isn't a person."

    "But God is personal."

    "Okay, that may be some rarified esoteric theological quasi-notion of personal but it has nothing to do with me. You're talking about some notion of personal which is only a semantic void. You might as well say God is ishygibber. That's an adjective I just made up."

    "But..."

    "So Jesus being a hybrid of a human person and a divine ishygibber which you like to call personal but isn't, interacts or interfaces with this ishygibber, having become more personal first. Wait, is Jesus as much of a person as I am, or only half a person and half ishygibber?"

    "No Jesus is fully a person."

    "Okay, fully a person now but originally Jesus was fully an ishygibber... one of many ishygibbers, or the only ishygibber?... and now half ishygibber and a fully personal person. Which was an improvement, right?"

    "Well, I wouldn't call it an improvement..."

    "A declension then? He's worse off than before by becoming fully human and half ishygibber?"

    "No, he's fully human and fully ishygib-- I mean fully God!"

    "So he isn't worse off or better off. Okay, that makes sense I guess: the human nature is so radically different from ishygibber there's no frame of reference for comparison, like Tuesday becoming a melon."

    "Right!"

    "And Tuesday could still remain fully Tuesday while still becoming fully melon."

    "Right!"

    "Which in this case means that something so radically different from being a person you're only pretending to call it personal, became fully a person... for some inscrutable reason, radically unconnected to my existence as a person."

    "What? No!"

    "Oh come on, it isn't as though this non-person ishygibber could care about me in any way, like a person might. Jesus might care, once he becomes human, but the ishygibber wouldn't. Meaning Jesus didn't become human because he cares about humans or the concerns of people."

    "the... uh..."

    "So when I read the scriptures and it talks about loving our neighbor or even our enemy like God the Father does, that's just words, they don't mean anything, less than nothing, because God isn't a person but an unknowable ishygibber."

    "No, Jesus reveals the father."

    "By doing ishygibbery things we can't understand?"

    "No! By, uh, loving us and..."

    "That's only (ONLY!) something a person might personally do. Not an ultimately superior ishygibber non-person. Nor could God possibly share my suffering, thus neither can I suffer with Jesus or submit with Jesus or whatever it is the scriptures talk about: at best that's all an unknowable blank. Jesus either has a single human/ishygibber nature -- which sounds like nonsense, and which is still so different from me that it makes no difference -- or Jesus has two natures so unlike each other that he might as well be two persons, the human son and the ishygibber son. Maybe one of those could suffer with me and vice versa, but the other couldn't. Even if it somehow could, its concerns are so alien to humanity, the only way you can think to talk about it is by saying it's personal but not a person! We had that back with the Stoics, and you know what they said about the Christians, right? The best Stoic, when he got into power, said THROW THEM TO THE LIONS! Because he thought Christians were dishonoring the alien majesty of the ultimate reason by trying to convince people it had personal concerns and characteristics."

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  11. This is exactly what the disputes were about between the central orthodox trinitarians, and the miaphysite trinitarians on one hand, and the Nestorian trinitarians on the other (with parties on either side lumping the centrists on the other side). But it is also what the disputes were about between trinitarians and alt-Christians (modalists and unitarians); and also what the disputes were about between trinitarians and Gnostics and the pagan/philosophical authorities.

    The orthodox have admittedly made things worse sometimes by insisting on a cloud of unknowing when it comes to talking about God Most High.

    But if the Trinity, in its total doctrinal set, means anything usefully coherent at all, it means that the one and only ground of all reality is an active personal relationship between persons, self-giving and self-sacrificial; which therefore must be intentionally and actively committed to fulfilling fair-togetherness between persons (call it {dikaiosunê} like the Bible frequently does if you want, it means the same thing).

    That's why acting toward fulfilling non-fair-togetherness (injustice) between people is wrong (not a game played by us or by God, and not an irrational environmental presure);

    and why we can expect God to act to save all evildoers (not just some) from sin;

    and why we can expect God to be fully (not partially) competent at doing so;

    and why we can expect God to keep at it until He gets it done;

    and why we can expect the self-sacrificial personal aspect of God (the 2nd Person, God self-begotten) not only to be the special ground of God's creation of Nature and creatures, but also to become a creature to reveal God voluntarily suffers with us (whether we are victims or punished victimizers) as God's choice of love even for His enemies -- a love God has and does for us before coming in the Incarnation, and why God comes in the Incarnation;

    and why we can expect God-the-gift-of-God to be given to us by God, and to bring creatures to God (even before we learn about God), and to bring creatures together with each other, in rational and moral cooperation.

    Otherwise, love is only at best something God does, not something God is. At best, the intentional application of power to cause effects is the ultimate reality, not a mutually cooperative relationship between persons. Person(s), plural, might perhaps matter at best; instead of being certainly, definitely, essentially important.

    The Trinity being persons, not ishygibberpersonal non-persons, is important. It is not only important, it is centrally important. It makes all the difference in the world between trinitarian Christianity and any other theology or philosophy.

    I fully grant trinitarian theologians are not good about stressing this -- and that this leads, and has led, to many horrible problems.

    But we should be.

    JRP

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  12. The tl;dr version.

    A large chunk of your article, Anna, involves complaining, in effect, that trinitarian theologians use impersonal technical language, and impersonal relationship analogies, when trying to talk to people about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and you'd prefer and recommend (with frankly very strong and somewhat judgmental language) that they stick with personal relationship language and imagery. Otherwise people quite naturally have a hard time caring about the truths about God Christians are meant to be presenting.

    But a prior large chunk of your article involves complaining at length that trinitarian theologians shouldn't use the word "person" when talking about the Holy Spirit or about the Father (or maybe even about the Son apart from the special case situation of the Incarnation). This is despite acknowledging that okay maybe "person" might sort of be okay when talking about the Father, whereupon you use the term yourself for the Father in stressing the importance of the relationship of the Father to the Son. But even then your radical rejection of the term "person" which you think must and can only be a semantic blank when speaking of God (thus the term should be avoided), leads you to claim things like two people (Father as well as Son!) can be one, but not three people (!?!?! -- you... you are a mother, right? I didn't just imagine reading that up-page somewhere??); and to reject the term "three" as "enumeration" when talking about God but not to reject the equally enumerative terms "one" and even "two" when talking about God, nor to reject the tacitly enumerative language of singular and plural grammar when talking about God.

    In shorter short: you want to "banish... 'person' from theological language", while still leaving "personal" as a meaningful adjective of importance to people for caring about God.

    This does not seem like a plan that is ever going to work out. It carries a fundamental self-contradiction at the core.

    JRP

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