The Concept of Trinity and Its Implication for Christian Communication in Indian Context
by Joseph Oomen
Rev. Joseph Oomen is a priest of the Mar Thoma Church and has recently completed his Master of Theology in Communication at the United Theological College, Bangalore. The following article appeared in the Bangalore Theological Forum, Volume 34, Number 1, June 2002, page. 75-82. Bangalore Theological Forum is published by The United Theological College, Bangalore, India. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
What is our God like? How shall we believe in the Three-in-One? Is such a doctrine intelligible? Who is the God in whom we trust? These are perhaps the most important questions that any one can ask. No human language or analogy can sufficiently explain what God is like. But still we must explore it. I will be trying to do that against the background of our present Indian context. It includes the Biblical basis, later developments and the implications for Christian communication. I shall then conclude this paper with some practical applications of the concept of the Trinity to the praxis of Christian life.
The Doctrine of Trinity
The Christian doctrine of the Trinity affirms that while God is one, He exists as three persons: The unknown God, creator and source of all life; Jesus Christ who has revealed the Father, and the Holy Spirit, the bond of love between Father and Son, who is always at work in transforming the world according to God’s purpose.
Belief in God as Three-in-One is as old as Christianity itself.1 The word Trinity doesn’t appear as a theological term till near the end of the second century. It was first used as ‘Trias’ by Theophilus, the Bishop of Antioch in AD. 180 and later by Tertullian as Trinitas2 to signify that God exists in three persons. Through the centuries the doctrine has been violently attacked and robustly defended.3 A doctrine then is nothing else than the facts almighty God made known to human beings by revelation, facts about God in Himself, or about God in his relations with His creatures.4 According to Marie Fargues a mystery is a truth which we must believe because God has made it known to us, but which we cannot perfectly understand".5 Trinity is a mystery as well as a doctrine, which is beyond our intuitive recognition and faculty. One God in Three persons, that is the mystery of the Holy Trinity.
The Biblical Basis of Trinity
The word Trinity is not found in the Bible. In the Old Testament, according to K. V. Mathew, we don’t have any definitive description about the nature of God. In the expression ‘Eheh’6 the ‘ousia’ of God is denoted not by a static being but a dynamic creative becoming. The Hebrew word Elohim is plural. So the single Godhead comprises the majesty of divine plurality. The nature of God as it is shown in the book of Genesis implies that God is a family (Genesis 5:2-3); God is one (Deut. 6:4, Ex. 20:3). What we see in the Old Testament is only a foretaste or glimpse of the Trinity, when viewed from the vantage point of New Testament.7 There are many who see the Trinity in the plural form of the divine name Elohim. But there is no doctrine of the Trinity in the Old Testament,
The early Christians had a Trinitarian experience. For them the Spirit of God was personal. In the fourth gospel, the divinity of Christ is explicitly stated (John 1:1, 1:18), and Jesus introduced to them paracletos as Comforter, Councilor and Advocate. The New Testament developed the monotheism of the Old Testament further. Arthur W. Wainwright says that in the New Testament Christ is called ‘Lord’, in the Septuagint it is a title often used as an equivalent of Yahweh.8 The epithets ‘Lord’ and ‘God’ are ascribed to Christ in the New Testament. The triadic passages, Matt. 28:19,2 Corinthians 13:14, Acts 2:33 testify to the Triune God.
Still there are arguments among scholars that the doctrine of Trinity has no real biblical basis. Cyril C. Richardson argues, "It is not a doctrine specifically to be found in the New Testament. It is a creation of the Fourth Century Church,"9 John Hick has the same view: "the doctrine of incarnation and Trinity may turn out to be an intellectual construction,"10 hence he denies its biblical foundation. But according to H. P. Owen, "The Doctrine of the Trinity is firmly grounded in the New Testament".11 He argues that 18 references to the Holy Spirit out of 62 in the book of Acts describe Christ as a person. Another argument is that all the baptisms in the Acts of Apostles were in the name of Christ and almost all the epistles of St. Paul start with binitarianism.12 It shows that Trinitarianism took time to develop. This shift from binity to trinity supports the understanding of Cyril C. Richardson.
Development of the Trinitarian Formula
The apologists were the first to make an attempt to explain Trinity intellectually. Later the antignostic fathers developed the Trinitarian formula further as One Substance and Three Persons. We cannot say that they are three substances, for that would be tritheism.13 By the end of the third century Anus propounded his theory stating that neither the Son nor the Holy Spirit were co-eternal and co-equal with the Father or with each other.14 Two attempts before Arianism were modalism and dynamism. The former denied continuity to the modes and the latter did not affirm personal status to them. The Athanesian contribution of one ousia (essence) and Three hypostases (persons) was later developed by the Cappadocian Fathers and the doctrine of Trinitarian monotheism was developed. The unity is reflected in their mutual co-inherence or co-indwelling. The co-eternity, co-equality and co-essentiality of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit were officially proclaimed at the first great council of the church at Nicea in 325. Later the synod of the Constantinople confirmed it.15
In the later theological development we can see two analogies; individual and social. Augustine followed the individual analogy and he formulated the psychological doctrine of the Trinity in the West. Similarly the social analogy formulated a social doctrine of the Trinity in the East. Through mind, knowledge and love the human being resembles the divine being. In this way according to Augustine, humans reflect the mystery of the Trinity.
"The social doctrine of the Trinity is in a position to overcome both monotheism in the concept of God and individualism in the doctrine of man, and to develop a social personalism and personalist socialism," says Moltmann and adds, "That is important for the divided world in which we live and think."16 When we say the Trinitarian formula, it means ‘Drei-einigkeit’17 three persons, one communion of fellowship in unique unity.
The Trinity gives us more space for pluralistic ways of understanding of God in the Indian context. The Indian context is polytheistic. The early church used epithets like ousia. hypostasis and Logos. And even by the apostles from the Greek philosophical thought highlights their venture in interpreting Trinity in that context. John Hick’s basic contention is that we are required to undergo a ‘Copernican revolution’ in our theology of religion: shift from the Ptolemic world view to a Copernican world view.18 This means a paradigm shift from a Christ-centered or Jesus-centered to a God-centered model. The God of the Bible is not only transcendent but also immanent. He is primarily and originally transcendent, and secondarily and derivatively immanent.
Keshab Chandra Sen expounded the meaning of the Trinity in the light of the Vedantic understanding of Brahman as Sachidananda. He suggests that the Father is sat (being), the still God; son is sit (knowledge), the journeying God and Holy Spirit is Ananda (joy) the returning God.19 But here we see a tendency towards modalism and some argue that Brahman does not exist as an empirical object and its existence has no being, consciousness and bliss according to Upanishads.20 R. Panikkar argues that the Trinity is the junction where the spiritual dimensions of all religions meet. All religions have mystery and the Christian language for that mystery of God is Trinity.21 Panikkar finds in this more room for interreligious dialogue.
Trinity and Christian Communication
All Christian communication starts with the fact that God is communication in Himself. In the Trinitarian communion the dialogue between the persons is ongoing.22 God sent Jesus Christ to the world, his disciples recognized him as a sign of God and He revealed the Father and the Holy Spirit. Martini says, "It is also the Holy Spirit who ‘opens’ the Trinity to the world and at the same time unites the world to the Son and the Father".23 The Trinity is not a monarchic, but a sharing God, interacting and participating. His communication is not like the old transmission model but a novel cultural model. For instance, the mystery of incarnation was first revealed to poor shepherds. The paschal mystery was revealed to women, who were marginalized at that time. The visible support of his Sonship by the Holy Spirit was communicated to John the Baptist, and the mystery of the Eucharist to the disciples, who were ordinary people. He communicates through all the human senses (1 John 1:1-3). "God’s revelation and communication is not passing on of ‘information’ but it is a dialogic process with concrete effects on life like the sacraments and on the relation of men with the ultimate being".24
Eating the forbidden fruit by Adam and Eve in Eden, the killing of Abel by Cain (Gen. 4:1-16), the sin of pride in Babel (Gen. 11) destroy communication. Sin breaks the relationship and communication dies.
According to Marshall McLuhan, the message is the ‘medium’. The Christian message is nothing but a person, Jesus Christ; He is the message and medium. Primarily he addressed the marginalized, poor, sinners, and all those who were despised by society. The Trinity speaks through creative words. The word becoming flesh is the divine plan. The relationship within the Trinity extends to human beings and enters into an ‘I-Thou’ relationship. "Where there is an ‘I’ nor a ‘Thou’, the word ‘love’ no longer has any meaning."25 says, Stephen Neill.
By means of the word we communicate, we enter into relationships, we receive other person’s expressions of thoughts, feelings and intentions, and we communicate our own to them. ‘Word’ and ‘Action’ are identical in God. The Word of the Trinity is powerful in itself. The Word of the Spirit destroys the confusion in the language in Acts 2. The words ‘dabar’ in Hebrew and ‘Logos’ in Greek include action.26 God expresses himself in word. John calls the Word the ‘Logos’ and proclaims that the Word was with God. Thus Trinitarian communication promotes unity in diversity, ecumenical dimension, sharing and relationship, equality, love, liberation, prophetic words, which all come together and which are all principles of Christian Communication.
The Implication of Trinity in the Present Context
India as a developing country has made rapid progress in agriculture, industrialization and urbanization. But India is still facing major problems like poverty, illiteracy, casteism, linguism, terrorism, religious fundamentalism, fanaticism, exploitation and provincialism.
All these factors hinder effective communication. The relationships among nations, neighboring countries, religions, churches, members of the churches and even the members of the same family are in decline. In such a condition the role of the Trinitarian communication is crucial. The Triune God who contains the qualities of mutual encouragement and mutual acceptance can be communicated effectively in a multi-cultural and multi-lingual country like India.
In the communication-salvation history-process, God reveals himself and communicated in the Old Testament and collected Israel as the people of God. Then this revelation-communication became personified in Jesus Christ, the Word became flesh. Out of revelation-incarnation the church was born on the day of Pentecost with the coming of the Holy Spirit.27 Thus the church is born through the Son in the Holy Spirit by the communication of the Father. Christian faith is double communication. God communicates with us: we communicate his love with others. That is why Bathasar calls this process God’s drama with humanity and humanity’s drama with God.28 In the pure monotheistic understanding, domination is inevitable since monotheism is a synonym of monarchianism. The Triune God represents fellowship, love, co-operation, mutual understanding, democratization, decentralization, participation, interaction and sharing whereas the monotheistic God supports domination and hierarchy and patriarchism. The Triune God with His inherent love and fellowship demands us to share His qualities and teaches us to share power properly.
The church is the living expression and continuation of God’s communication. The proclamation of the word of God is Kerygma and experiencing communion and community living is Koinonia. The proclamation of the church is based on incarnation and revelation. On the one hand, like Christ, the church lives to evangelize,29 and on the other hand, like Christ, the church carries out the work of redemption from poverty and oppression.30 Jesus came to preach the good news to the poor and not to make them poorer. "The exclusivistic and particularistic claims of the gospel are stumbling blocks to people today, especially in our democratic, egalitarian culture that is distrustful of making distinction between people."31 Trinitarian communion is total communion in love. Without sacrament no church can express her Kerygma. The Eucharist is the extreme manifestation of fellowship and the sharing of the heavenly joy.
Avery Dulles in reviewing the documents of Vatican II arrived at five different models of communication in the church. They are: the hierarchical model, the herald model, the sacramental model, the communion model and the secular dialogue model.32 In this approach, the world of other faiths are not considered as "mission fields" but as a realm in which the Triune God is always at work, including the communication and dialogue with non-Christian religions. Religions are integral part of culture. Any interreligious dialogue must therefore be seen as a form of intercultural communication.33 Genuine dialogue does not include personal interests and diplomacy but always seeks human dignity. Interreligious dialogue is always based on love, faith, hope, mutual concern, mutual acceptance and mutual encouragement. Nothing is imposed on others and such dialogue provides a ‘we’ feeling and an ‘I-Thou’ relationship. The Triune God gives us courage to participate in such kind of interreligious dialogue. Because of this R. Panikkar interprets the Trinity as the meeting point of all religions. Exclusive monotheism can only contribute to the development of feudalism or capitalism but the Triune God can provide social justice, since it is social in nature.
The Triune God is the basis of a classless society. In the Trinity we have the Father, the Mother and the Son. The Hebrew and Syriac languages themselves make It easy to call the spirit ‘The Heavenly Mother’ because ‘Ruach’ and ‘Ruho’ are feminine. This idea helps to overcome masculinism in the idea of God and in the church.34 It recognizes a liberated brotherly and sisterly community of men and women. The Trinity gives freedom, dignity and respect to women. Most of the churches do not give women opportunities to participate in the decision-making bodies. But in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit there arises a community of human beings without superiority or subordination.
If we worship many gods, we will never be one. If we worship an exclusively monotheistic God we will become more and more selfish. If we worship the Trinitarian God we should be able to grow into a sharing, classless, inspired and an empowered community.35
Our world is crying for justice and dignity, for harmony and sharing, and for equality and fellowship. Society is a reflection of the Triune God in which there is equality and justice. When human society becomes a reflection of the Trinity it is the Kingdom of God on earth. Casteism in the church, the tension between the haves and have-nots, the rich and the poor, the divided denominations etc., are challenges in the present context. The descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost created a sharing church to eradicate disparities from the church, which is a visible sign of the Kingdom of God on earth. The claim of the Triune God is not individualism but social relationship.36 The Kingdom of God is a social reality.
The Holy Bible traces the story of God’s communication with humans and human communication with God and with other fellow men and women. Jesus Christ revealed the mystery of the Holy Trinity through incarnation. All theists believe that there is only one God, the creator of humans and of the earth. Only Christians believe that the one God exists in three-fold form of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Trinity is the model for the ideal human society. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are co-equal, co-eternal and co-essential. The Trinitarian paradigm is a self-emptying kenotic model of divine, love and fellowship. In a multi-religious, multi-lingual, multi-cultural society, the Trinity urges us to inter-religious dialogue, inter-denominational cooperation and for a participating outlook. The doctrine of Trinity is an inspiring reality to the church, to other religions and a challenge to the human society as a whole.
1. Louis George Mylene, The Holy Trinity (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1916), 62.
2. Geevarghese Mar Osthathios, Sharing God and a Sharing World (New Delhi: ISPCK, 1995), 1.
3. John Thurmer, A Detection of the Trinity (Flemington Markets: The Paternosten Press, 1984), 9.
4. Louis George Mylene. op. cit., 25.
5. Marie Fargues, The God of Christians, translated by Jennifer Nicholson (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1968), 181.
6. K.V. Mathew, "Trinity-Semantic Considerations", Triune God: Love, Justice, Peace, edited by K.M. Tharakan (Mavelikkara: Youth Movement of Indian Orthodox Church, 1989), 72.
7. Geevarghese Mar Osthathios, op.cit., 3.
8. Arthur W. Wainwright, The Trinity in the New Testament (London: SPCK, 1962), 79.
9. Cyril C. Richardson, The Doctrine of the Trinity (New York: Abingdon Press, n.d.), 17.
10. Huw Parri Owen, Christian Theism (Edinburgh: T and T. Clark, 1984), 142.
11. Ibid., 53.
12. Geevarghese Mar Osthathios, op cit., 4.
13. E.L. Mascall, The Triune God: An Ecumenical Study (West Sussex: Churchman Publishing Ltd., 1986), 12.
14. V.C. Samuel. "The Triune God of Christian Orthodoxy", Triune God: Love. Justice, Peace, edited by K.M. Tharakan (Mavelikkara: Youth Movement of Indian Orthodox Church, 1989), 42.
15. K.E. Kirk, "The Evolution of the Doctrine of the Trinity", Essays on the Trinity and the Incarnation, edited by A.E.J. Rawlinson (Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd., 1928), 159.
16. Jurgen Moltmann, "The Reconciling Power of the Trinity in the Life of the Church and the World", Triune God: Love, Justice, Peace, edited by K.M. Tharakan (Mavelikkara: Youth Movement of Indian Orthodox Church, 1989), 32.
17. Ibid., 22.
18. Huw Parri Owen, op.cit., 141.
19. Robyn Boyd, An introduction of Indian Christian Theology (Madras: CLS, 1969), 34.
20. Ruth Reyna, introduction to Indian Philosophy (New Delhi: Tata McGraw-Hill Publishing Co.Ltd., 1971),53.
21. R. Panikkar, The Unknown Christ of Hinduism: Towards an Ecumenical Christophany (Bangalore: Asian Trading Corporation, 1982), 23.
22. Franz-Joseph Eilers, Communicating in Community: An Introduction to Social Communication (Indore: Satprakashen Sanchar Kendra, 1996), 36.
23. Ibid., 37.
24. Ibid., 39.
25. Stephen Neill, The Christian’s God (London: United Society For Christian Literature Lutterworth Press, 1958), 14.
26. Yves M.J. Congar. The Word at the Spirit, translated by David Smith (London: Cassell Ltd., 1986), 10.
27. Franz -- Josef Eilers. Communicating Between Cultures: An Introduction to Intercultural Communication (Indore: Satprakashan Sanchar Kendra, 1993), 145.
28. Ibid., 147.
29. Franz-Josef Eilers, Communicating in Community, op.cit., 45.
30. Franz-Josef Eilers, Communicating between Cultures, op.cit., 146-147.
31. Donald G. Bloesch. op.cit., 55.
32. Franz-Josef Eilers, Communicating between Cultures, op.cit., 158.
33. Ibid., 159.
34. Jurgen Moltmann. "The Reconciling Power of the Trinity in the life of the Church and the World" Triune God: Love, Justice, Peace, op.cit., 31.
35. Geevarghese Mar Osthathios, op cit., 16.
36. Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1981), 19.