The Trinity for Monotheists

 

Many years ago a story came out of France about a young French-speaking Muslim scholar from Algeria.  It seems that his Islamic mentors sent him to Paris to study Christian theology so as to better refute the doctrine of the Trinity and so discourage North Africans from becoming Christians.  Instead, the young scholar was so impressed with the doctrine that he himself converted to Christianity.

       This story may seem unlikely to those Christians who may have given up struggling with this deep mystery or those others who may have written it off as theological, or even mathematical, nonsense.  But the fact is that, even apart from Christian doctrine, some of the world’s deepest thinkers from the very earliest times have long considered God to be three-fold or triune in nature.   According to the Neo-Platonist philosopher, Plotinus—who had little regard for Christianity—Plato himself had, four centuries before Christ, written of three “gods” or the “triplicity” of the divine: the “One” or “Supreme” who is unknowable, the “Intellect” or “Mind” through whom the universe is created, and the “Soul” who animates and guides the world. Plotinus’ claim has been disputed, but others point to the Stoic philosophers who envisioned God as revealing himself in his Logos or “Word” and as the immanent “World-Soul”. All this had also found echoes in the mystical philosophy of the Jewish philosopher Philo and other Neo-Platonists who greatly influenced early Christian thought.  And there are even echoes of this kind of thinking in the Hindu vedic philosophers, with their three-fold description of the Absolute (Brahmin) as Sat-Chit-Ananda or “Being, Knowledge, and Bliss.”

       Then there is the Tanach or Hebrew scriptures—the “Old Testament” to the Christian way of thinking.  Here too God is pictured as simultaneously transcendent in his glory, yet revealed in his personified Wisdom, and omnipresent through his Spirit. So again we have here a God who is both transcendent or “beyond” but at the same time immanent or “within” creation through his all-knowing Mind and life-giving Love.

       Can there be any wonder then that Christians, in pondering the true identity of Jesus, quickly came to the conclusion that he was here on earth the expression of divine Wisdom—the “Word of God made flesh”?—and that the same Holy Spirit who made this possible is also that same Spirit who enlightens and sanctifies us?

       The only major problem with all of this really seems to be in the terminology. Plotinus wrote of three divine hypostases or “sustances”, speaking as if they were somehow separate beings in and of themselves.  Although some Christian theologians borrowed the platonists’ language, more popularly the early Christians spoke more commonly used the term prosopon (Greek for “face”) or persona (the Latin for an actor’s mask) to describe each of these three aspects of God.  But given the shift in the meaning of the latter to its present, modern, individualistic sense, there are contemporary theologians, who like the late Karl Rahner, thought there should be a moratoria declared on the use of the word “person” as being misleading and counter-productive.  Christians do not, or are not supposed to, believe in three Gods. 

In a sense, then, progressive Christians, like Rahner, tend to agree with the Unitarians.  But they also differ with them, however, in insisting that Jesus Christ was—and still is—the uniquely personal embodiment of the second of this mysteriously three-fold expression of God.    

                                        

R.W.Kropf 6/2/2001  (Emended 3/13/08)  Trinity3.doc       01-06-02.html