Rethinking the Doctrines of the Trinity and the Holy Spirit
I was sitting on the balcony of a high-rise hotel in Southern California. The Pacific Ocean sparkled under a smog-free sky. A rabbi we’ll call Sol was enjoying the view with me. I had originally met Sol a few years earlier through a phone call: “I represent a group of several dozen rabbis,” he said, “who have read all of your books. We would like to meet with you sometime.” I wasn’t expecting that! Since that first phone call, we had met a couple of times and a warm friendship had begun. I was in his neighborhood to speak at a local seminary, so he kindly came by to say hello.
“Sol, we’ve become good enough friends now that I can ask you something kind of personal, right?” I asked.
“What do you think of Jesus? I’m not asking that as a test question or as a prelude to an evangelistic presentation,” I explained. “I’m just curious.”
“Of course, he was one of ours,” Sol said. “He was a Jew in the prophetic tradition. And many of my colleagues would agree with me when I say I think he spoke from God, and the leaders of the priestly tradition were wrong to reject him.”
There was a pause. We both surveyed the Pacific Ocean shimmering in the afternoon sun. Then Sol continued, “But look, after two thousand years of anti-Semitism, I hope you won’t expect us to get excited about the doctrine of the Trinity anytime soon.”
I hope you can feel the power of his words. Confessing the Trinity served as the litmus test of acceptability in much of European history, forcing Jews into the status of outsiders and outcasts, noncitizens in “Christian nations.” This exclusion and marginalization led to ghettoes and pogroms, and eventually to gas chambers, as James Caroll has discussed in his book Constantine’s Sword. Muslims similarly experienced Trinitarian and related doctrines as a threat, as have Hindus, Buddhists, and members of indigenous religions.
Can Trinitarian Doctrine Be Redeemed?
Many sensitive Christians have concluded that Trinitarian doctrines are irredeemable, that they must be quietly minimized if not outright abandoned. Trinitarian controversies have been so much a part of the problem that Trinitarian thought cannot be part of the solution.
I agree they have been part of the problem. But I believe that Trinitarian doctrine—held as a healing teaching, not as an imperial loyalty test—can, properly understood and practiced, contribute much to the solution.
I find wisdom in this passage in Anatheism by Richard Kearney:
The best way to tackle the violent tendency within religious conviction is to go all the way down to the source that religion does not master and that refuses to be rendered into dogmatic formulae or ideological manifestos.… It is in this hearkening to a source beyond and beneath oneself, a superfluity one does not possess or manipulate, that we may find new resources for nonviolent resistance and peace.
Few doctrines can surpass the doctrine of the Trinity in either the fervency or the ambiguity with which it is held. The Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon are seemingly convened all over again whenever the doctrine of the Trinity is seriously discussed, and seemingly orthodox Christians expose themselves—often to their own surprise—as closet adoptionists or Arians, unconscious Nestorians or Apollinarians, or implicit monophysitists or monothelitists. (I expect that some doctrinal experts will find fault with something I say about the Trinity.) The doctrine of the Trinity has been so central to the Christian faith that to deny it, and sometimes even to affirm it in a new way, has been an excommunicable offense.
As a result, many good Christians—perhaps most—avoid thinking about the doctrine of the Trinity as studiously as they avoid denying it. The less they think about it, the less they’ll say about it, and the less trouble they’ll get in for misspeaking about it. So, without venturing too far into the conceptual minefields of homo-ousios and hypostases, of being and persons, of nature and will, they try to uphold a few basic mysteries—that God is one and in some sense three; that Christ is man and in some sense God; that the Spirit is the Spirit of the Father and the Son but in some sense not reducible to the Father and the Son.
Most Christians understand that the doctrine of the Trinity is historically important, but they seldom understand why. Some suspect that the doctrine is little more than a sinister tool of mind and speech control, used from the time of Constantine to centralize the power of heresy-hunters and to test Christian teachers on their submission to church authority. Others simply accept that Trinitarian doctrine is part of the gospel bargain: if you want to go to heaven, here’s what God requires you to assent to. (The corollary professional bargain might be expressed like this: “If you want to have a job in a Christian institution, here’s something you have to say you believe.”) Relatively few have grappled with the philosophical, biblical, and practical issues that energized Trinitarian controversies throughout Christian history. Fewer still have critically examined how the doctrine has been abused as a weapon against others through history, as my rabbi friend pointed out. And even fewer have imagined how the doctrine could become a bridge rather than a barrier in the future.