Trinity, Substance, and Process – June 2014

Question: What can be done to bridge the gap between process thinkers and the orthodox Trinitarians who base their thought on substance categories?

Publication Month: June 2014

Reducing the gap with regard to the doctrine of the Trinity is an important issue, but I do not believe that the problem lies in the distinction between substance and process thinking. Actually, substance thought posed more extreme problems to those who developed the doctrine of the Trinity than do process categories. Whitehead himself commented that in order to develop both Trinitarian and incarnational doctrines, theologians in Alexandria made a great metaphysical advance. He considered this a development that his own process-relational philosophy generalizes. Before proceeding with an answer, I want to elaborate this point.

Fundamental to substance thinking is that no two entities can occupy the same place at the same time. Most ideas of substance preclude this. Relations among substances are necessarily external to the substances themselves. The book lies on the table. The book occupies one space, the table another. The book as such is not changed by being picked up and held by someone. That is, the relation to the table does not affect what the book is. As long as we take entities like books and tables as the basis for our ideas of ultimate entities, we will picture reality in this way.

Those who thought of the three persons in God as substances pictured three divine individual beings, like three human beings, relating intimately with one another and sharing a common property, deity. This clearly affirms the threeness of the Trinity, but the unity is abstract. The alternate view, the Augustinian one, clearly affirms the unity, as like the unity of a single soul, but the three are compared with reason, will, and memory. They are not really distinct substances.

These two views, formulated in substance categories, are understandable but, from the perspective of the Alexandrian thinkers that eventually became orthodox, neither was satisfactory. The three needed to be distinct actualities, but they also needed to constitute a unitary actuality. The metaphysics of substance did not allow this. The philosophical speculation that helped was one that held that each divine person participated in the very constitution of the other persons. The Alexandrians proposed that each person was constituted by its relations to the other two. They are distinct persons, but none has any existence apart from its relationship to the other two. They thus constitute a unified whole.

Whitehead’s metaphysics can be thought of as a generalization of the idea that each actual entity is inseparable from, even largely constituted by, its relations to other entities. From a Whiteheadian perspective, there is no metaphysical reason in principle to deny that the divine being has this kind of complexity. Hence there is no inherent reason for process theologians to reject this classical Trinity. If one thinks of the task of the theologian as explaining the classical developments of thought in the church, one should celebrate the greater clarity that process ontology makes possible.

So why is there a problem? There is a problem because most of those theologians who have been attracted to Whitehead’s conceptuality come from the segment of the Christian community that wants to avoid dogma that is not congenial to scripture. We do not like having doctrines that are to be believed simply or primarily because at some point the church declared them to be correct. The Trinity appears to be the prime example of that kind of doctrine. It affirms some important ideas, such as, the unity of God, but it seems to posit three distinct deities in a way that would have offended Jesus, Paul, and the gospel writers. They were all believers in one God. That there were three divine persons was not an idea compatible with their vision. We ask why should we try to solve problems that arise only because of the development in the later church of unbiblical, one might say anti-biblical, ideas?

Our resistance is heightened by considering the actual historical effects of the treatment of this highly speculative idea as essential to Christian belief. As the questioner knows, many have been persecuted for no other reason that they could make no sense of the doctrine. Many who have been deeply attracted to Jesus and wanted to follow him have been turned away from the church because they believed, as Jesus did, in the unity of God.

Also the insistence on the acceptance of this doctrine encourages an understanding of “faith” as acceptance of highly questionable ideas on authority. The real test of “faith” becomes whether one will accept the authority of a particular human institution. This is radically different from the saving faith called for in the New Testament. The supposition that Christianity requires this intellectual sacrifice is widely held in our culture. In defense of the New Testament understanding of faith, some of us want to make our opposition what we regard as an idolatrous “faith” explicit.

Let me be clear that many of those who affirm the Trinity today would never dream of persecuting those who do not affirm it. It is all too easy to attribute guilt by association. Some of them do support the idea of faith as belief in the authority of the church, but many do not. Also, I realize that much of what I find offensive was not part of Trinitarian thought before Anselm, and that one can be a Trinitarian without accepting Anselm’s theory of the atonement. I do not want to polemicize against contemporary orthodox Trinitarians. I want simply to say that my understanding of Christianity has much more to do with being a faithful follower of Jesus, and that I find affirming orthodox Trinitarian doctrine to be more an obstacle than an aid.

So the question today is how to reconcile with those who continue to believe that belief in the Trinity is essential to Christianity. In some cases, this is probably impossible. However, many Trinitarians are very flexible with regard to the understanding of the Trinity. For some the real issue is the belief in incarnation which, they believe, requires Trinitarian thinking. For some, what is required is that one truly believe in baptism in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. With Trinitarians of this sort, Christian process theologians have no problem. We believe straightforwardly and enthusiastically in God’s incarnation in Jesus. With the earliest believers we share baptism in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

We seek reconciliation through discussion of what the baptismal formula meant in the early church. If Trinitarians could agree with us that preserving the original intention of this formula is the most important reason for Trinitarian doctrine, then we could discuss in what ways that could be done. I would agree that there are some interpretations of the orthodox doctrine that do preserve the original meaning even if they go beyond it. I would hope that the proponents of that doctrine would be willing to tolerate other serious efforts to understand and reaffirm the baptismal formula.

Of course, I recognize that giving priority to scripture over tradition is distinctively Protestant. Hence other branches of Christianity may not be interested in this approach. However, taking the Bible seriously is not alien to all Roman Catholics, and students of the tradition are aware that there is no unanimity among interpreters of the Trinitarian formula. To favor an interpretation closer to the original meaning is not impossible for Catholics.

Obviously, there was diversity already in the early church. In my efforts to understand, I limit myself to the first century Jews who heard the stories about Jesus that were gathered into the synoptic gospels and wanted to follow him. I am quite sure they did not think that the Jesus who prayed to his “Abba” was one person of a Trinity of whom the one to whom he prayed was another person of equal status. A little later John’s prologue introduces the possibility that it was not Jesus, but the eternal Word that became flesh in Jesus, who is to be understood as a Second Person of the Trinity. But I believe that originally the baptismal formula intended the Jesus spoken of in the synoptic gospels by “the Son.” When I claim my baptism, it is this Jesus in whose name I claim it. This Jesus never suggested that he was God or equal with God.

The Jews who were baptized had come to believe that Jesus was the expected Messiah. The idea of this Messiah as being God’s Son was certainly part of early Christian belief. Since the New Testament can also speak of all believers and sometimes all people as children of God, this in itself did not mean very much. But they thought Jesus’ Sonship was very special, indeed, unique. They understood that God declared Jesus to be the son whom he particularly loved and to whom we should listen. Jesus ranked with Moses and Elijah, and actually ranked higher than them. He uniquely obeyed God and uniquely revealed God.

I do not consider this a “low” Christology. To be a human being favored by God above all others and teaching the new way which God calls us to follow is exalted indeed. But there was no suggestion that Jesus was other than a creature belonging to the human species. I think we do better to begin with that. This in no way denies that God was incarnate in him.

Accordingly, in faithfulness to Jesus, one was baptized in the name of the God of Israel, whom Jesus taught us to think of as “Papa.” Since it is in faithfulness to Jesus that we seek this baptism, we are certainly baptized in Jesus’ name as well. What about the Spirit?

The Spirit was what people experienced vividly in their new life. In the early church it often expressed itself dramatically. But it also expressed itself in the spirit of mutual love and selfless sharing that often characterized the life of the community. The difference between life in the new communities and what people had experienced before was palpable. It was a different spirit, and it was certainly experienced as the gift and presence of God. Jesus was the remembered person. The Spirit was the new experience of life in the church or the author of that experience. The author was, of course, the God Jesus revealed, but it was that God as forming and reforming individuals and communities.

These three were crucial for Christian life and thought then, and they are crucial now. The Father and the Holy Spirit are both God, one and the same God. The Father is God imaged and felt as transcendent, other, and related to interpersonally. The Holy Spirit is that same God as immanent in all things, especially in all living things, and even more especially, in the church. But the experience of God as Abba and as Holy Spirit occurs because of Jesus, who is a human being in whom God was incarnate. It is as Jesus’ followers that we know God’s love and empowering presence. Jesus is not God, but he is, uniquely, the Son of God, the anointed one, that one whom God singled out for approval, the one whose disciples we try to become.

Of course, I am expressing all this as my personal belief, not the belief of all Whiteheadians. For me, to believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is in no way a violation of intellectual integrity. In the early church, these beliefs were little more than descriptive of the experience of those who were convinced and convicted by Jesus. For us, for the most part, the experience and its contrast with experience outside the sphere of Jesus’ influence are not as vivid. But they still remain. And as the influence of Jesus in our culture fades, and is replaced unabashedly by the service of wealth, we can see better the enormous difference that Jesus in fact makes. Perhaps the desire to be baptized in Jesus’ name can become more intense, and the openness to the presence of Jesus when we gather in his name will grow. Perhaps it can also be recognized that the renewal of this primitive form of Christianity should be appreciated by all Christians and not dismissed too easily as heretical.