The Social Trinity, Part 1: A Quick Overview

The Deep in the Burbs Research Project is off to a good start. The team has met twice and is gelling nicely. We’ve been wrestling with the nature and purpose of Spiritual Formation. This week we turn our attention to the Trinity. What is it? Does it matter? How does it relate to spiritual formation?

I have created a series of videos to introduce the conversation. This is the first video in that series. This video provides the basic overview of, what some theologians call, the Social Trinity. (view part 2)

The social Trinity begins with the three persons of the Trinity (as described in the Christian Scriptures) and seeks to understand how the relationship1 between the persons is the very essence2 of life itself. The fancy-schmansy word for this is relational ontology.3 The social Trinity is also known, by some, as the Economic Trinity.  The term economic comes from the Greek word oikos–meaning house. It does not refer to money, as we understand economy, but, rather, refers to the activity of God within the “house” of the created universe. The social–or Economic– Trinity stands in contrast to the traditional view of God as three persons within Godself. This traditional view is known as the Immanent Trinity (immanent means “operating or existing within”) and emphasizes the oneness of God as God relates to the world from outside of creation.

  1. thus the term “social” []
  2. the Greek word for essence can also be translated substance. The discussion of the substance of God–and of all things–is called ontology. Thus, the social Trinity speaks of a relational ontology as opposed to a substance ontology []
  3. Zizioulas is a Greek Orthodox theologian that speaks about this. read a review of his book. Or, view the relational ontology tag for all the related posts. []

10 thoughts on “The Social Trinity, Part 1: A Quick Overview”

  1. I am not so sure that we need to choose between Social Trinity and Immanent Trinity. I think that both of those theologies can be clearly taught from the scriptures. e.g. Jesus teaches his disciples to pray “Our Father in heaven”(Immanent). In the ascension Jesus disappears behind a cloud(Immanent). The teachings of Christ in the upper room(Social). The teaching of St Paul concerning the indwelling Triune God within every believer in Romans 8.(Social) Which is it? Is Christ ascended in heaven or is Christ dwelling in me? Since scripture does not answer this question I also refuse to choose between Social and Immanent definitions of Trinity.

  2. You have correctly pointed out some of the abuses that have resulted within a theology of Immanent Trinity. However you have failed to point out any of the blessings that come through a of a theology of Immanent Trinity. For example: The Righteousness and Holiness of God, also the worship and praise of God on high. You have also failed to point out some of the inherent dangers of a theology of Social Trinity taken to extreme. A God who is not in the heavens and is everywhere might just as easily easily become a God who is nowhere.

  3. DITB623, you have made some important points. First, you have correctly named the fact that I have not adequately addressed the good and bad of both positions. That is one of the dangers of presenting a 6-minute animation. I have, of course, biased my presentation to privilege the Social Trinity, since this is, after all, a persuasive argument. Given more time, I would–and will–name the very benefits and limitations that you have identified.

    Second, I find it interesting that you have opted for a both/and approach to the question. This is good Lutheran theology, of course. Lutheran theology dwells in the paradox. That’s one of the reasons I have been drawn to the Lutheran tribe in recent years. However, the both/and theology resonates more closely with the Social Trinity than with the Immanent Trinity. The Social Trinity does not deny the otherness of God. The reduction into nothingness that you describe is the danger of pantheism–another monist theology. The beauty of the Social Trinity is that it embraces the otherness–Transcendence–and the nearness–Immanence–of God in the the relationality of the three persons.

    This will become more evident as the next videos are released. Especially in part 4.

    I look forward to this robust and important conversation. Thanks for the initial post.

  4. I don’t think that I would say that I am preferential to Social Trinity as opposed to Immanent Trinity. The former doctrine gives fire to my daily walk with God where the latter doctrine gives fire to much of my personal devotion and and corporate worship. However, after reviewing Romans 8 this morning I must admit that a doctrine of Social Trinity seems indeed to be a natural extension of the NT Gospel message.

    I formerly stated that for Spiritual Formation there were 2 NT Gospel Messages and 1 NT Gospel Story. But now I must correct myself and say that there are in fact 3 NT Gospel Messages and 1 NT Gospel Story:

    1. “Jesus is Messiah” is the NT Gospel Message directed to the Jews. This is the Good News that Jesus is the promised King of Israel.

    2. “Jesus is Lord” is the NT Gospel Message directed to the Gentiles. This is the Good News that Jesus is King of all nations and Lord of all creation.

    3. “Jesus is calling us to a life of discipleship” is clearly the Gospel Message that is directed to new believers. St Paul in Romans chapter 8 describes this life of discipleship as a life being lived in spiritual union with the Triune God. I find it especially interesting that when St Paul first introduces the doctrine of the Trinity that he does so in the context of the indwelling rather than transcendent Father, Son, and HS (Romans 8:9-11). I am convinced that it is this message of the indwelling Trinity is the engine behind discipleship for Paul and the promised Good News of a “Righteousness of God” that is to be experienced by each new believer.

    4. The Story of the Gospel found in the Gospels.

    Therefore it seems to me that the modern “John 3:16 Gospel” is clearly misguided. Even though it is indeed a part of the Gospel Story giving comfort to believers at end of life, it has not only usurped the role the Gospel “Jesus is Lord” from our proclamation to the Gentiles, but it has also usurped the role of discipleship and the doctrine of indwelling Trinity as being Gospel Message to new believers in Christ.

  5. I am still wrestling with the need for a fully developed doctrine of the Trinity.

    In retrospect, I do not think that either Jesus in the upper room dialogue or St Paul in his epistles is really interested in producing a fully developed doctrine of the Trinity that is either Immanent or Social. But rather they are both interested in helping us to understand WHO WE ARE now in relationship to the Transcendent God that has come down to earth and HOW WE SHALL NOW LIVE in relationship with the Triune God and with each other in response to that divine visitation.

    In the upper room Jesus helps the disciples to develop a fuller self understanding of who they are and how they should live by washing their feet and giving them the great commandment to Love one another and by talking about the mystery of his relationship with them and with the Father and the Holy Spirit.(You can attempt to produce a fully developed doctrine of Trinity from this dialogue, but in doing so I think you are missing the point of the dialogue)

    In his letter to Romans St Paul does the same thing. He takes this just a step farther and also attempts to define WHO WE ARE and HOW WE SHOULD NOW LIVE by saying that we are… 1. Dead to all the laws of Moses, 2. And if left to our own efforts we would be enslaved to the law of sin and death 3. But that we are not alone, and that through the mystery of our spiritual connections with the Triune Transcendent God come down to earth WE ARE NOW a people empowered to live a Godly life, a life of loving one another. For St Paul the Indwelling Triune God effectively creates a new Torah of Love within the heart of every believing Christian. But beyond this practical application he sees no need to further develop a doctrine of the Trinity.

    The doctrine of Trinity remains a mystery and I think that is where it needs to be.

    1. DITB623, you are really on to something here. There is no doubt that the NT writers were not interested in developing a doctrine of the Trinity. If they were interested in that, they would have developed it. They simply take the Triune nature of God for granted. It was not a problem for them. That is what makes it a mystery to us.

      I completely agree that the point of all these passages is who we are and how we should live. Some might argue that talk of Trinity is frivolous. It can be, under certain conditions, to be sure.

      Perhaps what is really under scrutiny here is not the Trinity, but our cosmology. The terms transcendent and immanence are only applicable in a dualistic universe where we conceive of an “up there” to which we go after death and a “down here” to which the second person of the Trinity descended in order to rescue a remnant of humanity from eternal damnation and separation from God. How would we speak of God in a non-dualist universe, if it is such?

  6. All of the apostles follow suit. They are NEVER interested in offering a developed doctrine of the Trinity but they are always very much interested in helping us to understand WHO WE ARE in relationship to the Transcendent God that has come down to earth and HOW WE SHALL NOW LIVE in relationship with the Triune God and with each other in response to that divine visitation.

    And so St John in his Gospel declares “In the beginning was the Word.” I am not so sure that this is mysticism or Gnosticism so much as St. Johns own way of keeping the mystery of the Trinity intact while helping us consider our personal response to the incarnation of the one that spoke at creation. And in the epistle of 1 John instead of elaborating on a doctrine of Trinity John simply declares this as the testimony of those who have seen and touched the word made flesh: “God is love”, “God is light” and “We are the children of God”. Each of these descriptions certainly has parallels to the three persons of the Trinity but once again the mystery is kept hidden, but what is not hidden at all is an understanding of who we are and what our response must be.

    We could go on and add each of the “I am” declarations of Christ and their associated teachings. And to that we could add the parables in which Jesus continually declares the mystery of the Kingdom of God.

    So, where do we look to find a developed NT doctrine of the Trinity? As Sweet Brown might say,”Ain’t nobody got time for that!” And rightly so, for that is part of the mystery of the Kingdom of God.

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