Category Archives: The Trinity

A Brief Summary of the Social Trinity Conversation

My use of social/relational draws most heavily on relational ontology as presented by Zizioulas.[1] To summarize, Zizioulas proposes that humanity, both as particulars and collectively, has the imago dei of the robust Trinity[2] imprinted on/in us ontologically. The image of the relational Trinity is this: God is three-in-one and one-in-three. God is transcendent, immanent, and relational. God’s transcendence is the immanent Trinity that is constituted by relationality. This relational union is wholly other from its creation. God is also immanent in the economic Trinity. The Father is arche, the Son incarnate is the demonstration of God’s love and the great victor over death.[3] The Spirit is the animator and mediator of life and relationality. God is also relationality that constitutes all being and out of which human particularity is formed. Humanity is created in the imago dei. We are homologues of the robust Trinity described above.[4] We are many-and-one and one-and-many. We are individual selves constituted by the relatedness to each other, to nature, and to God, the transcendent other.

Relational ontology connects to the theoretical lens of Robert Kegan’s fifth order of consciousness.[5] The social/relational Trinity is connected, not only to theological language, but to ideas about and formation of the human self-in-relation to the other.[6] Zizioulas proposes that it is not only our eschatological hope that is connected to the social Trinity, but it is our very essence, our ontological essence, that is constituted by the relationality of the persons of the Godhead.[7] The use of communicative action as the research methodology in this project assumes that the congregations might discover the reality of their interdependence with the other, both within the congregation and within the suburban and metropolitan community as a whole.


[1] Zizioulas and McPartlan, Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church.

[2] I have introduced the term robust into the conversation. This is Shults’ term to distinguish the relationality and futurity of God from the transcendent/Immanent Trinity.

[3] I will agree with Volf and not go so far as Zizioulas to warrant patriarchal authority in the church based upon the arche. Volf, bringing Moltmann into conversation with Zizioulas, calls for an egalitarian power structure based upon a flattened perichoretic power structure. Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity, Sacra Doctrina (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1998).

[4] I am intentionally hinting at the Augustinian use of “vestiges of God.” A fascinating sub-conversation within the larger Trinitarian conversation is that of Augustine’s culpability for the demise of the Economic Trinity in the modern West. LaCugna blames him for the problem. Barnes disagrees and notes that LaCugna’s argument is built upon a resurgence of de Regnon’s claim in the 19th century, which, Barnes argues, is unfounded. I agree with Barnes and follow Sheldrake’s assessment that Augustine understood relational ontology inherently, since he did not breath the air of Cartesian dualism. Michael R. Barnes, “Augustine in Contemporary Trinitarian Theology,” Theological Studies 56, no. 2 (1995); Philip Sheldrake, Spirituality and Theology: Christian Living and the Doctrine of God (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998), 75-83.

[5] See chapter two.

[6] Both Groome and Farley emphasize this as essential to the practice of formation in the congregation and in any theological inquiry. Groome names the individual as agent-subjects-in-relationship. Farley names it as being-together in the reciprocity sphere. Groome, Sharing Faith: A Comprehensive Approach to Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry: The Way of Shared Praxis, 9; Edward Farley, Practicing Gospel: Unconventional Thoughts on the Church’s Ministry, 1st ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 68.

[7] Eschatological hope is central to the historicity/futurity grouping that Grenz noted: Moltmann, Pannenberg, and Jenson. Zizioulas does not deny this dimension, but simply emphasizes the ontological aspect of this Trinitarian conversation. Here, too, I argue that we must abandon substance dualism in light of relationality and entanglement.

The Trinity: Reframing the Model

What then, is the alternate model that I proposed to the RT? I named this model the social Trinity in the research question. It was my attempt to present a model that was true to the contemporary conversation about the Trinity. Western theologians have wrestled with the Trinity question throughout the twentieth century. Stanley Grenz offers a helpful schematic to map the landscape of this conversation. He articulates three major types of Trinitarian thought in the twentieth century: (1) those emphasizing the historicity and futurity of God—Moltmann, Pannenberg, Jenson; (2) those emphasizing the relationality of God—Boff, LaCugna, Zizioulas; and, (3) those emphasizing the transcendence, or otherness of God—Johnson, Urs von Balthasar, Torrance.[1]


Figure 11. A Visual Representation of the Trinity Conversation

Each of these theologians contributes important aspects to the conversation. The term social Trinity, however, is most readily associated with Moltmann and Volf. I must confess that my language has changed since the initial crafting of this research question. I no longer find the term social to be the most helpful label for this model of the Trinity. This became apparent to me early on in the research project. The first indication came when I had the initial meetings with my pastoral contacts in the congregations. Whenever I got to the term social Trinity I could tell that there was pensive hesitation. They shuffled in theirs seats, and eventually asked the awkward question, “What do you mean by social Trinity?” This was a helpful experience for two reasons. First, it affirmed my assumption that the terminology was not commonplace, even among clergy. Second, upon further conversation, I realized that the term social was a trigger associated with one of two prejudices. One prejudice was the immediate association with the term social Gospel that harkens back to the liberal/fundamentalist schism of the early twentieth century. The other prejudice was the immediate association with the issue of social justice which signals work projects and activist movements.

I found myself immediately using the terms relational and relationships in order to explain the meaning of the social Trinity. One pastor suggested that I simply change the question to read “the relational Trinity.” This was a valid suggestion, but I opted to leave the language as it is because it is associated with a certain body of theological literature, whereas the term relational Trinity is not as widely used.


[1] Stanley J. Grenz, Rediscovering the Triune God: The Trinity in Contemporary Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004).

Hope in the Trinitarian Community

Postfoundational theology is a story of hope. Hope has a future orientation. It invites us to look forward with anticipation and imagination. Proverbs tells us that, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life” (Proverbs 13:12). Spiritual formation in the missional church is a hopeful endeavor. The DITB project is one of a public prophetic imagination of hope in God’s preferred and promised future.[1] This is a countercultural move. Taylor suggests that the modern, buffered self has lost this hope.[2] The modern schism between fact/value, public/private, and science/faith has collapsed our public sense of identity to radical individualism, the loss of meaning and purpose, and the reduction of life to that of utilitarian transactions for the sole purpose of individual survival. The modern self is left in isolation and with no ultimate hope.

The hope of the world rests in the Triune God. Kiefert argues that the church has lost hope because it has lost its connection to the life of God.[3] The Trinity is the life of the world. The Triune God is the ground of being-in-time, moving the world in the past, present, that is a hope of a preferred and promised future.[4] God is not a timeless, transcendent being that is separate from the created universe. Nor is God the animating, non-personal life energy that is completely synonymous with the universe. God is the relationality of the Triune persons from which we realize that all people—and all things—are interdependently entangled.[5]

I will explore this more closely in the Trinity Frame. For now, it is enough to agree with Keifert that the church exists in the life of God and “is a being in communion within the history of God that is drawn into a promised future, coherent with, but not fully available to us, in the fate and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.”[6] The church is invited to dream God’s dream and to live into the hope within it. Gorringe says, “that everything that we do as Christians, including our politics and our fashioning of the world, should be shaped by that hope.”[7] This creative frame is not a subjective romanticism or the whimsy of the idealistic artist, but it is a public imagination. Simpson argues that

As prophetic public companions, missional congregations acknowledge a conviction that they participate in God’s ongoing creative work. In a communicative civil society, these congregations exhibit a compassionate commitment to other institutions and their moral predicaments and to contesting the systemic colonization of the lifeworld. In these two senses, congregations as communicatively prophetic public companions are thoroughly connected, both to God and to the social and natural world. This vocational conviction and commitment yields a critical and self-critical, and thus fully communicative, practice of prophetic engagement. Finally, as communicatively prophetic public companions, congregations participate with other institutions of communicative civil society to create, strengthen, and sustain the moral fabrics that fashion a life-giving and life-accountable world.”[8]

The Deep in the Burbs Research Team came together to dream. I invited them to be open to explore new ideas about God (the social Trinity) and imagine new ways of engaging in the practices of spiritual formation. Dreaming is a struggle and the team experienced the agony and ecstasy that always accompanies the process of renegotiating boundaries of identity to be able to welcome the other. The specific stories that I will share in chapter five will give granular texture to this rich story of a group of suburbanites who were willing to say, what if?


[1] This statement merges Simpson’s prophetic public companion with Keifert’s preferred and promised future.

[2] Taylor argues that pre-modern Western culture and most non-Western cultures understand the self to have porous boundaries. In other words, the human self understands that it is not an isolated, atomistic substance, separate from all other substances—human or otherwise—in the universe. Rather, the porous self recognizes that it is interconnected and interdependent with the world—both physical and spiritual, seen and unseen. Taylor calls this the enchanted world of the porous self. Taylor further argues that the rise of rationalism in the Enlightenment project of Western Europe in the sixteen and seventeenth centuries denounced the porous self and gave rise to the buffered self. The modern Western “enlightened” self functions within the perspective of Cartesian dualism and understands that the only acceptable form of knowledge comes from the acquisition of scientific information through the process of empirical observation. The only thing that actually exists is that which can be observed with human senses and explained by human reason. Anything else is ignored as superstition and relegated to the private sector or disregarded altogether. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007).

[3] I will discuss this premise in the Epistemological Considerations section of the Adult Learning Frame. See Gary M. Simpson, “No Trinity, No Mission: The Apostolic Difference of Revisioning the Trinity,” Word & World 18, no. 3 (1998); Simpson, Critical Social Theory: Prophetic Reason, Civil Society, and Christian Imagination; Keifert, Welcoming the Stranger: A Public Theology of Worship and Evangelism; Patrick R. Keifert, “The Trinity and Congregational Planning: Between Historical Minimum and Eschatological Maximum,” Word & World 18, no. 3 (1998); Keifert, We Are Here Now: A New Missional Era, a Missional Journey of Spiritual Discovery; Keifert, Testing the Spirits: How Theology Informs the Study of Congregations.

[4] I will explore this more fully in the Trinity Frame. For now I will acknowledge that this language of being-in-time and God-as-history draws upon Robert Jenson’s understanding of the Trinity framed in Heideggarian and Hegelian thought. Kiefert connects this to the life and hope of the congregation. Keifert, “The Trinity and Congregational Planning: Between Historical Minimum and Eschatological Maximum.”

[5] I define my use of the term entangled in the Trinity frame in chapter three.

[6] Keifert, “The Trinity and Congregational Planning: Between Historical Minimum and Eschatological Maximum,” 288.

[7] Timothy Gorringe, “Living toward a Vision: Cities, the Common Good, and the Christian Imagination,” Anglican Theological Review 91, no. 4 (2009): 523-524.

[8] Simpson, Critical Social Theory: Prophetic Reason, Civil Society, and Christian Imagination, 144-145.

The Trinity and the Bible

One of my goals throughout the process of getting a PhD has been to always keep the people in the local congregation in mind. It is painful to see someone’s eyes glaze over when I start to talk. That’s when I realize I’ve slipped into academic-speak. I don’t want to be that guy. If the people in the local church can’t understand what I’m saying, then what’s the point of saying it?

This is a difficult balance to maintain, because the deeper one goes into the academic world, the more one realizes that big words are more efficient to communicate complex ideas. This process, however, creates an elitism–whether intentional or unintentional–within the academy that creates an unfortunate gap between professional theologians and lay theologians (after all, we are all theologians, right?)

That said, I share this video as an example of an attempt I made to bring my studies regarding the Trinity into the local congregation. This is the second session of a twelve-part, one-day event I presented at Grace Lutheran Church called Bible Mania. This session tries to demonstrate how a robust Trinitarian understanding of God can bring peace and healing to the various “camps” in our culture that are divided over the nature of God, the Universe, and how scripture relates to it.

I’m not sure if I succeeded, but it was an attempt to communicate for the benefit of the local congregation.