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Put God’s unity first

20 November 2015

Richard Harries looks at arguments against the ‘social’ Trinity

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Star of wonder: the star that led the Magi to Jesus has an eternal fascination: what exactly was it? In The Great Christ Comet: Revealing the true Star of Bethlehem, Colin R. Nicholl seeks to explain it using research and computer software. This is a 19th-century depiction of the Great Comet of 1861, one of the images in the book (Crossway, £26.99 (£24.30); 978-1-4335-4213-8)

Star of wonder: the star that led the Magi to Jesus has an eternal fascination: what exactly was it? In The Great Christ Comet: Revealing the true Sta...

Christ and the Cosmos: A reformulation of Trinitarian doctrine
Keith Ward
CUP £54.99 hbk; £18.99 pbk
(978-1-107-11236-0 hbk)
(978-1-107-53181-9 pbk)
Church Times Bookshop £49.50; £17.10 (Use code CT692)


EVER since, many years ago, I read Leonard Hodgson’s 1943 book on the Trinity, I have been attracted to a social understanding of this mystery. Drawing on the Cappadocian fathers of the fourth century, this picture says that the Trinity is best understood as three persons held together in an unimaginably profound unity of mutually indwelling love and purpose. Since then, this social doctrine has been championed by many of the biggest names in theology.

In this important book, Keith Ward brings his analytical skills as a philosopher, and his wide theological sympathies, to subject it to a devastating critique. In particular, Zizioulas, Swinburne, and Moltmann, but also others such as Rahner and Gunton, are probed, and found wanting. In short, the idea that the Trinity contains three centres of consciousness simply cannot stand up to analysis. It leaves God divided within himself, and however much we might emphasise the doctrine of perichoresis, or mutual indwelling, this cannot lead to the kind of unity that is inherent in an individual personal life.

Instead, Ward argues, we must state unequivocally that God is only one centre of consciousness. At the same time, he is concerned to defend a fully Trinitarian God — that is, one who originates all things, expresses himself, and works to unite everything to his own life, or, in traditional Christian language, creator, redeemer, and sanctifier.

For Ward, however, this is an economic Trinity, that is, one that takes three forms, or, in Barth’s terminology, three modes of being. He distinguishes this from an immanent Trinity, which seeks to describe the Godhead in itself. The reason for this is suggested by Ward’s title: Christ and Cosmos; for it may be that there are many universes that God creates, very different from ours. The language of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is gendered, and assumes a fallen world that needs to be redeemed. Neither may be true in other universes.

So, while in our universe an understanding of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is definitive for uniting our lives with the Divine life, we cannot say what might apply in other worlds. We can say that God originates all things, expresses himself, and seeks to unite all things to himself, but beyond that we have to leave the mystery of God in himself as mystery. Ward defends his view of God as three forms or modes of being from the traditional charge of modalism; for they are not just temporary expressions of his being, but permanent in relation to this universe of ours.

Ward is, I think persuasive in arguing that the unity of God, as suggested by one consciousness, not three, must be the controlling image in our understanding of the Trinity. Nevertheless, there remains something hauntingly beautiful about the picture of two persons united in a communion of love which is also, in some sense, personal; for love is not only about giving: it is also about receiving, and mutuality.

In such a picture of God as a social Trinity, there is a totally complete mutual giving and receiving, a fullness that overflows within the Godhead itself. A love that is all give and is not willing to receive is defective. So it may be that a social understanding of God needs to remain as a subordinate, correcting image to that of one that focuses on the unity. As we can understand light only in terms of both waves and particles, so we need both images for God.

As Austin Farrer used to put it, there is in God a greater love than between any two people, and a greater unity than there exists in any one.


The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is an Honorary Professor at King’s College, London
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