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Doubts on the Social Trinity

20 May 2016

Angela Tilby expresses misgivings about the Social Trinity

“OUR social programme is the dogma of the Holy Trinity.” Those words from the 19th-century Russian philosopher Nikolai Fyodorov were quoted at the start of the manifesto of the Anglo-Catholic socialist Jubilee Group, of which Rowan Williams, then a doctoral student at Oxford, was a founder member in 1974.

At the Group’s opening conference, I remember the sense of excitement that came from reclaiming the doctrine of the Trinity to support a radical social vision of equality and justice. It was one of several attempts to translate an Eastern Orthodox understanding of the Trinity into a social programme for a Western democracy. The “Social Trinity” has now become almost commonplace, with Andrei Rublev’s famous icon The Hospitality of Abraham. It gives theological underpinning to a range of Left-leaning views of society.

Fyodorov’s Trinity dogma was accompanied by a great deal of rather weird speculation. Alongside a belief in the eventual perfection of the human race, he thought that human beings were called to direct the process of evolution, and eventually to overcome physical death. He even thought that science should be trying to resurrect those already dead.

I have my doubts about the Social Trinity. It suggests to me that Orthodox Trinitarian thinking can all too easily be absolutist. Theological dogma produces social dogma. There is no wiggle room for that kind of human deviation which produces genuine creativity. There is ultimately no room for politics, because the Holy Trinity is a programme to be rolled out, whatever the circumstances.

The Western view of the Holy Trinity is more modest. St Augustine gave it coherence. He emphasised the unity of the divine nature and the mutual love between the Persons. There is flow; there is action; there is love given and received.

We perceive the triune nature of God most clearly as we meditate on what is involved in human mental acts, the threefold process that leads from recollection to action. The image of God in and among us points to the reality of God beyond us.

St Augustine did not expect the perfect society to be rolled out any time soon, but was deeply aware of how we have to struggle against our own sinful nature. There remains something ultimately mysterious about the nature of God.

This is why for me the Prayer Book lections are the most appropriate scriptural commentary on the Trinity. The reading for the epistle is from Revelation 4: “After this I looked, and behold, a door was opened in heaven”; and the Gospel from John 3, Jesus’s encounter with Nicodemus: “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.”

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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