Chapter Three | Theological and Biblical Framework

Biblical and Theological Perspectives

Key theological themes and/or lenses that frame the social science research from a theological perspective

In the previous chapter we highlighted the interdisciplinary nature of this research and highlighted two key theoretical frames. The first is the field of Adult Learning Theory. The second is the field of sociology and urban studies with a special focus on suburban studies. In this chapter we highlight four key theological lenses that frame the research in this dissertation. The first is the doctrine of the social Trinity. The second is the study of spiritual formation, or Christian spirituality. The third is missional ecclesiology. The fourth is Religious Education, specifically focused on the education of adults in the church. Finally, we will highlight two key Biblical passages from which the core theology is informed.

Key texts and theologians

The Social Trinity

The twentieth century saw a resurgence of interest in the subject of the Trinity.[1] Catherine LaCugna outlines the history of this conversation in God For Us.[2]  She notes that there are historically two primary ways to imagine the Trinity. The first is the economic Trinity, which is the three persons—God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit—as revealed in the New Testament with no explanation as to their interrelatedness. The second is the immanent Trinity, which is the post-Nicene formulation of God as three in person and one in essence within Godself. The history of Western theology has abandoned the economic Trinity in favor of a transcendent, immanent Trinity. This Western bias has, through the alleged individualization and internalization of spirituality through Augustinian influence, rendered the Trinity as a mere footnote on the pages of theology.[3]

LaCugna, and other Trinitarian theologians, call for a revisioning of the economic trinity for today. It seems that what is at stake for LaCugna in this discussion is nothing less than the cosmos. If God is trapped in the box of the immanent Trinity and disconnected from creation, then we are left all alone in the cosmos to figure things out. We have not been doing a great job of it so far. We need a God who is both Almighty Creator and immanent sustainer. It is only through Christ in the power of the Spirit that we can come into the eschatological hope of reunion with the Father and restoration to wholeness and new life.

The relationality of God’s essence is another key factor in this theological framing. This connects to the theoretical lens of Robert Kegan’s fifth order of consciousness, as mentioned in the theoretical framing section of this proposal. Here we must discuss how the social Trinity is connected, not only to ideas about God, but to the ideas about and formation of the human self in relation to the other. This comes to light most powerfully in the work of John Zizioulas.[4] He proposes that it is not only our eschatological hope that is connected to the social trinity, as LaCugna stated above, but it is our very essence, our ontological essence, that is constituted by the relationality of the persons of the Godhead. Zizioulas calls this relational ontology. In the use of communicative action, the assumption of this research is that the congregations might discover the reality of its interdependence with the other, both within the congregation and within the suburban and metropolitan community as a whole.

A missional spirituality can be formed by fusing the horizons of Augustine’s homologue of the Trinity with Zizioulas’ relational ontology. Humanity, both as particulars and collectively, has the imago dei of the robust Trinity imprinted on/in us ontologically. The image of the robust Trinity is this: God is three-in-one and one-in-three. God is transcendent, immanent, and relationality. 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. 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. 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.

It is the assumption of this research that the suburban, ELCA congregation is the product of the dominant Western, immanent Trinitarian view mentioned above, and that its ideation and praxis of spiritual formation has been heavily influenced by it. The introduction of the economic, or social trinity,[5] to the congregation through action research methodologies will both expose the congregation to a, presumably, new way of thinking about God, and will allow them to experience the relationality of God through the communicative action inherent in the process itself.

Missional Ecclesiology

A missional ecclesiology is an understanding that the Triune God has a mission (missio Dei) to restore and recreate all of creation according to God’s original and ongoing vision of peace and wholeness for all things. The conversation in the West around missiology and ecclesiology has seen a dramatic shift in the past one hundred years. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were dominated by a Christendom model in which the church sent missionaries into the world to convert heathen nations to Christianity, thus colonizing the world into Western European culture and propagating oppression and marginalization of non-European people and cultures in the name of Jesus. A missional ecclesiology recognizes the Eurocentric and devastating effects the Christendom model of missions and ecclesiology has had on the world and strives to reimagine the nature of the church as missional at its core. It recognizes the polycentric and pluriform nature of the Holy Spirit at work in the world.[6] The church, within this perspective, is the congregation of those who are both gathered around the risen body of Jesus and sent into the world to find and proclaim the reign of God in and among all cultures as the church forms an interdependent relationship with all nations.[7] This missional activity is not uni-directional, moving from one central place where God is located and correctly understood to another place where God is completely absent. Rather, it is a polycentric, pluriform, multi-directional movement of God at work in all cultures, in diverse ways, bringing all cultures into generative conversation, in order to bring about peace and unity through the particular incarnation of the risen Jesus of Nazareth and the diverse incarnations of the Spirit within diverse cultures.

It is from this form of missional ecclesiology and for this missional ecclesiology that this dissertation research project exists. It is the assumption of this research that the average suburban ELCA congregation carries with it an inherited Christian-cultured[8] ecclesiology which is attractional, at best, and does not imagine itself as partnered with God to find the Spirit at work in the neighborhood and join God in it. It is the assumption that an introduction to the social Trinity might act as a catalyst for reimaging the nature and activity of the church. It is also the assumption of this research that, through the process of action research, the researcher may be surprised to find that these assumptions were misfounded and that the process of interacting with the social Trinity may lead to something entirely different.


Spiritual formation, or spirituality, is a concept that lies at the heart of this research. The research question asks how an increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity might impact the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation in the suburban congregation. This question assumes that (a) there is an idea and practice of spiritual formation present in the congregation, and (b) the social Trinity is something that can interface with spiritual formation. It is important to frame what is meant by spiritual formation in the discussion of this research.

Sandra Schneiders is widely recognized as a leading voice in the relatively recent acceptance of scholarly study of spirituality within the academy. Schneiders makes a distinction between the definition of spirituality and the definition of Christian spirituality. Spirituality, she says, is “the experience of conscious involvement in the project of life-integration through self-transcendence toward the ultimate value one perceives.”[9] Christian spirituality “as an academic discipline is an attempt to realize, by bringing serious and personally transforming study to bear on the ultimate human value of union with God, what is arguably the most cited text in the Christian canon, Jesus’ promise, ‘if you remain in my word you will become my disciples and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free: (Jn. 8:31-33)’”[10] She states that “the primary aim of the discipline of spirituality…is to understand the phenomena of the Christian spiritual life as experience…it is a function of interpretation (hermeneutics).”[11]

Schneiders perspective on spirituality gives further justification for the use of action research and constructivist methodologies. The act of the research itself will be a form of spiritual formation as the researchers (meaning the congregation members) interact with the social trinity, each other, and the neighbor.

Another important aspect of spirituality that frames this research is the idea that spirituality is inherently a public practice, not only a private one. Philip Sheldrake is a key voice in this perspective.[12] He says

the mystical-contemplative dimension of spirituality—often described in terms of interiority—is a vital ingredient in our engagement with transformative practice in the outer, public world. Unfortunately, however, Western culture remains deeply polarized. The private sphere (inwardness, family, and close friends) is privileged as the backstage where the individual is truly him/herself, relaxing unobserved before putting on various personae which the self needs in order to play out different roles on the stage of social life. But, from a Christian point of view, is living in public a matter of a role that it is possible to shed or opt not to play…. Human existence and Christian discipleship inherently embody a common task. “The public” is thus better thought of as a dimension of identity, an aspect of the individual self. [13]

Religious Education

A constructivist pedagogy was described in the theoretical framing section as key to the formation of this research project. Here we focus on specifically Religious pedagogical frames as a theological approach to the action research involved in this project. This research will draw upon two key theorists who speak of religious education within a constructivist epistemology and pedagogy. Parker Palmer, in his work To Know as We Are Known,[14] highlights the importance of prayer and listening to the other as an integral part of religious education. Thomas Groome’s theory of Shared Praxis[15] is a well-established pedagogy that emphasizes action as part of the learning process among adults.

Biblical passages, texts, books, or themes that inform theological theme and lens

John 13-17: The Indwelling

All of the theoretical and theological frames for this research are based in the idea that personhood is based in a relational ontology. It is only in the intrapersonal relationality of the persons of the Godhead, the Son with humanity, and humans with each other, that unity and wholeness can be found. This framework is built from the core teaching of John’s Gospel found in John 13-17, also known as the Upper Room Discourse. A brief survey of this discourse will demonstrate a biblical image helpful for envisioning spiritual formation in the missional church based upon a balanced Trinitarian perspective.

It begins with Praxis

Jesus begins by washing the disciples’ feet. This act of service demonstrated to them, through action, the message he wished to present in the rest of the discourse. He showed them that the heart of leadership in God’s kingdom is that the leader is servant of the other. The focus is not self, but other, not preserving position, but putting others first.

It is About Dwelling

The Greek father, John of Damascus, first used the term perichoresis to describe the Trinity. The word denotes the interweaving patterns of particulars to form a whole. Jesus uses the word meno—to remain or to dwell—as a central theme in the discourse. He goes to prepare a place in his Father’s house were there are many dwelling places. The Father dwells in the Son and the Son dwells in the Father. The Father and the Son send the Spirit to dwell in the disciples. Jesus invites the disciples to dwell in him so that he may dwell in them.

This dwelling has multiple facets that demonstrate a relational ontology. (1) The Father, Son, and Spirit share a mutual indwelling. This is the immanent Trinity. (2) The three persons of the Trinity, in their relationality, create and sustain life. The Father is the vine grower. The Son is the Vine. The Spirit is the life energy that flows like sap through the vine and the branch to produce fruit. Apart from a mutual indwelling with the vine the branch ceases to be and is discarded into the fire. (3) The church dwells in the world.[16] Jesus prayed that the Father would not take the church out of the world, but that he would protect the church from the evil one. The church is sent into the world to dwell with the other, to demonstrate the mutual indwelling and unity of God and the church, so that the world will also know the love of God.

It is About Being Formed into Fruit

Here, then, is the place of spiritual formation in the church. The goal of the indwelling is the production of fruit that can be enjoyed by the world. This is the so that of the priestly prayer. The church focuses on its mutual indwelling, not so that individual souls can go to Heaven when they die, but that the whole world can taste and see that the Lord is good.

Fruit of the Spirit

The fruit of the Spirit, as mentioned above, is articulated in Galatians 5:22-23. The fruit of the Spirit is love. Love is the singular fruit of the Spirit that is pluriform and becomes whatever is needed according to the direction it flows within a particular context. Love becomes what the other needs. Sometimes it is joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.[17] This singular and pluriform nature of love is further exemplified in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8. This is a description of God’s love that is the fruit of the perichoretic power of God-in-community with the Church and the World.

[1] Important conversation partners for the development of the social trinity are, et alia, Stanley J. Grenz, Rediscovering the Triune God: The Trinity in Contemporary Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004); Robert W. Jenson, The Triune Identity: God According to the Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982); Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, 10th anniversary ed. (New York: Crossroad, 2002); Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God, 1st HarperCollins paperback ed. (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991); Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991).

[2] Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).

[3] It is important to note that LaCugna’s, et alia, argument has been critiqued. Barnes states, “The overwhelming presence in systematic discussions of Augustine of a watered-down version of de Régnon’s paradigm, coupled with an ignorance of the origin of the paradigm, reveals the systematic penchant for using grand, broad-stroked, narrative forms. Like turn-of-the-century historians, contemporary systematicians seem to be distinguished by the confidence with which they will deploy such grand, architectonic narrative forms.” Michael R. Barnes, “Augustine in Contemporary Trinitarian Theology,” Theological Studies 56, no. 2 (1995). While Barnes’ critique is an important corrective, the resurgence of the social trinity in Western theology is still a helpful corrective for the individualistic and hegemonic tendencies in Western culture.

[4] Jean Zizioulas and Paul McPartlan, Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church (New York: T & T Clark, 2006).

[5] The term “social” dates back to the Cappadocians analogy of the Trinity as a community of persons in a social relationship, as opposed to the Western/Augustinian use of psychological analogies for the persons of the Godhead. John L. Gresham, Jr., “The Social Model of the Trinity and Its Critics,” Scottish Journal of Theology 46, no. 3 (1993): 326.

[6] Michael Welker, God the Spirit, 1st English-language ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994).

[7] Key voices in the missional ecclesiology conversation are Stephen B. Bevans and Roger Schroeder, Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today, American Society of Missiology Series ; No. 30 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004); David Jacobus Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, American Society of Missiology Series (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991); George R. Hunsberger and Craig Van Gelder, The Church between Gospel and Culture: The Emerging Mission in North America (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1996); Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, ed. Darrell L. Guder (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1998); Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans; WCC Publications 1989); Alan J. Roxburgh, Missional Map-Making: Skills for Leading in Times of Transition, 1st ed., Leadership Network (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010); Craig Van Gelder and Dwight J. Zscheile, The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation, The Missional Network (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011).

[8] I here make a distinction between the term Christendom and Christian-cultured. Christendom was the condition of Europe in the Middle Ages and early Modern Era. The United States has never been in Christendom, but has experienced similar effects as a Christian-cultured society.

[9] Dreyer and Burrows, 6.

[10] Ibid.,  22.

[11] Ibid.,  57.

[12] Philip Sheldrake, “The Study of Spirituality,” Theological Trends; Sheldrake, Spirituality and Theology : Christian Living and the Doctrine of God; Philip Sheldrake, “Practicing Catholic “Place”: The Eucharist,” Horizons 28, no. 2 (2001); Sheldrake, “Imaginative Theology: A Strategy of Subversion.”; Sheldrake, A Brief History of Spirituality; Sheldrake, “Spirituality and the Integrity of Theology.”; Sheldrake, “Spirituality and Social Change: Rebuilding the Human City.”; Sheldrake, Explorations in Spirituality : History, Theology, and Social Practice.

[13] Dreyer and Burrows, 289.

[14] Parker J. Palmer, To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey, 1st HarperCollins pbk ed. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993).

[15] Thomas H. Groome, Sharing Faith: A Comprehensive Approach to Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry: The Way of Shared Praxis, 1st ed. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991). Thomas H. Groome, Christian Religious Education: Sharing Our Story and Vision, 1st Jossey-Bass ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999).

[16] I am extrapolating the church here in that Jesus cites all the disciples that would follow him on account of his original disciples’ witness.

[17] Gary Simpson, “Fruit of the Spirit” in Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics, edited by Joel B. Green (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011). 319.