Perichoretic Trinity in Transcendence

Just how personal are the divine persons? We know that when the Eastern Church sought an appropriate vocabulary by which to distinguish the Father, Son, and Spirit from the divine substance, it finally settled on the impersonal word hypostasis, which might be appropri­ately translated as “subsistence” (see “The Search for Hypostasis“). Over the past century or two, though, the term has taken on a personalist connotation in presentations of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The divine hypostases have become something akin to individual agents, even centers of consciousness. Hypostases have become persons. Some theologians have objected to this development—most famously Karl Barth and Karl Rahner; less famously, John Behr, Stephen Holmes, Karen Kilby, Nicholas Lash, Andrew Louth—but others have enthusiastically embraced it, with qualifications—most famously, John Zizioulas, Dumitru Staniloae, Vladimir Lossky, Jürgen Moltmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and the social Trinitarians of the analytic school. The question arises: to what extent does this development find support in the classical period?

Khaled Anatolios explores this question in his essay “Personhood, Communion, and the Trinity in Some Patristic Texts,” included in the multi-author collection entitled The Holy Trinity in the Life of the Church. Anatolios believes that modest support for the personalist elaboration can be found in the writings of several of the Church Fathers, including Tertullian, Origen, St Basil of Caesarea, St Gregory of Nazianzus, and St Gregory of Nyssa. He proposes three general rules for discussion of the topic.

First, scholars need to broaden their analysis from a narrow focus on Trinitarian vocabulary (hypostasis, ousia, prosopon, koinonia) to a more comprehensive assessment “of the complex reception of the biblical narrative as a whole by the patristic tradition” (p. 150). The Church Fathers were first and foremost exegetes. They were as aware as we are that the biblical story presents the Father, Son, and Spirit as differentiated subjects of activities and doings that we would describe as personal. The Father speaks to the Son; the Son prays to the Father. The Father glorifies the Son; the Son glorifies the Father. The risen Christ pours out his Spirit upon the Church, and the Spirit intercedes for us “with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). How is this not a dialogical relationship between distinct selves? Do “modes of being” talk to each other?

Second, scholars need to test the assumption of a unbridgeable discontinuity between patristic and modern understandings of personhood. Discontinuity has been presupposed by many, but has not yet been demonstrated or “even closely argued” (p. 150). Neither should we simply assume that the question is peremptorily resolved by appeal to the sixth-century conciliar rejection of monothelitism, when it was determined that in his divine nature God possesses a single will. This is true, says Anatolios, but this principle should not be construed as “delineating different areas of the divine being“:

But, in fact, the co-incidence of unity and distinction in the Trinity is such that there is nothing of the divine being that is singular without also and at the same time being diversified and there is nothing that is diversified without also and at the same time being unified. This principle pertains first and foremost to the correspondence between the divine essence and the three divine persons. There is only one essence, of course, but this one essence is not a separate thing from the three distinct persons. Rather, as Orthodox theologians tirelessly insist, the one essence exists only as tripersonal. It strictly follows, therefore, precisely on the premise of the co-incidence of will and essence, that the one will also exists only as tripersonal. Just as the essence is distributed distinctly among the persons, so is the divine will appropriated distinctly by Father, Son, and Spirit such that each of them enjoys a personal will within the unity of divine being and action. (pp. 154-155)

Third, at all times we must remember the analogical nature of theological language. “Whenever the same language is applied to God and creation,” comments Anatolios, “its signification is realized only through a dialectic of likeness and difference” (p. 150). Hence discernment must always be exercised in determining continuity and discontinuity. We may not assume willy nilly that Trinitarian personhood is equivalent to human personhood, yet neither may we assume that human personhood and inter-personal dialogue do not reflect a reality in the eternal life of the Godhead. The biblical narrative must be allowed to inform our theological analysis, in the give-and-take of similarity and dissimi­larity. If we do not, then we introduce a wedge between the God who has done good things for mankind in the economy of salvation and the ineffable Deity who remains forever inaccessible and inscrutable to us. Anatolios touches on the question of analogy and theological language in his book Retrieving Nicaea, but a more substantive treatment would be welcome.

Anatolios advances three theses (Trinitarians love to talk in threes!):

  1. “Father, Son, and Spirit are persons inasmuch as the scriptural narrative presents them in conversation with one another that cannot be reduced to a mere monologue without destroying the intelligibility of that narrative” (p. 151).
  2. “Father, Son, and Spirit are persons inasmuch as the biblical narrative presents each of them as a distinct agent, a possessor of active intentionality, even though together they constitute a single unified agency in relation to creation” (p. 151).
  3. “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are persons in communion not only in the minimally ontological sense that they all equally share in the divine nature but also inasmuch as the biblical narrative indicates that the mutual relations by which they equally share in the divine substance may be appropriately characterized according to the interpersonal categories of delight and mutual glorification” (p. 151).

Anatolios devotes the remaining portion of his essay exploring these some of the Church Fathers in light of the above theses. Rather than summarizing the results of his research, I’d like to segue to the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart. In his now classic book The Beauty of the Infinite, Hart warns of the danger of divorcing Trinitarian speculations from the narrative of Scripture. He highlights the story of Christ’s baptism by St John the Baptist. The passage needs to be cited at length:

In Eastern Orthodox tradition the church’s celebration of Jesus’ baptism by John is called the Theophany, because what is revealed in the audible and visible coincidence of the voice of God declaring the Father’s pleasure in his Son, the dove descending, and the incarnate Word is nothing less than the Trinity itself, in the fullness of its shared love, its immanent dynamism of distinction and unity. The constellation of figures in this tableau constitutes an icon, a crystallization of the mystery of faith in one perfect image: not, that is, a simple allegory, but a real showing of God, manifesting simultaneously the full drama of salvation and the full order of intradivine relations, revealing them to be not only compatible motions but identical. The descent into the waters, whereby Christ submits to a sanctification of which he has no need, is an image both of the way of the Son into creation, his gracious descent into flesh, time, and space, ultimately into the darkness of death and hell, but also of the way the Son goes forth eternally from the Father, receiving all from the Father and restoring all to him in “selfless” adoration; Christ’s emergence from the waters is at once his resurrection, his ascent and return of all creation to the Father as a pure offering, and also his eternal “response” to the Father as the Father’s everlasting Word; the descent of the dove is at once the blessing of the Spirit, sent by the Father upon the Son and imparted by the Son to his church as the teacher of all truth, who bears tidings of Christ, but also the Father’s eternal gift to the Son of the Spirit, who forever bears joyous tidings of the Son to the Father. This is, in fact, the aspects of this passage in the Gospels that seems most difficult to reconcile with too spare a speculative scheme of trinitarian relations, and that is most easily overlooked: that in declaring himself, even in uttering himself eternally, God both addresses and responds. In Matthew’s Gospel, at the baptism of Jesus (as at the transfiguration), the voice of God proclaims the Father’s favor; the Son is indicated, declared, offered outward as the Father’s true image. In Mark and Luke, however, the Son is directly addressed by the Father’s voice, as “thou”: “in thee I am well pleased” (was well pleased, εὐδόκησα). And according to Mark, Christ is immediately (εὐθὺς) sent by the Spirit into the desert to pray and fast, to answer and offer himself to the Father. Here where Christ’s ministry begins, where his proclamation of God’s love is shown to belong to his identity as the eternal utterance of the Father, he not only speaks with the Father’s authority but addresses the Father, regards him, responds to him; and the Spirit, witnessing this reciprocity, answers it as well, differently, reflecting and reinflecting it. If the economic Trinity is God in himself, graciously extending the everlasting “dance” of his love to embrace creation in its motion, then one dare not exclude from one’s understanding of the Trinity the idea, however mysterious, of a reciprocal Thou. …

One must abide the irreducible mystery of God’s oneness in the persons’ distinctions, of a single and infinitely complete divine utterance that is one precisely as already eminently embracing reciprocity. One obviously must resist the lure of a purely social trinitarianism—which is, if pure, nothing but tritheism—and avoid imagining that the Trinity’s “responsiveness” encompasses another utterance, alongside the Father’s expression of his essence in the simplicity of the eternal Logos; but still one must acknowledge this distance of address and response, this openness of shared regard. (pp. 168-169)

Hart believes that the hypostatic term “person” is indispensable to the contemporary exposition of the doctrine of the Trinity. Alternative proposals, he observes, invariably fail “to reflect the immediacy, livingness, and concreteness of the scriptural portrayal of God, either in the Old Testament or in the New” (p. 171). The infinite difference between Creator and creature must, of course, be respected. Corporeal beings are always related “over against” each other. This cannot be the case for the Trinitarian fellowship: “the constant pendulation between inner and outer that constitutes our identities is an ineffably distant analogy of that boundless bright diapheneity of coinherence in which the exteriority of relations and interiority of identity in God are one, each person wholly reflecting and containing and indwelling the other” (pp. 172-173). Here is a transcendent social Trinity that avoids the tritheism that seems to haunt the expositions of both Moltmann and the analytic school.

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6 Responses to Perichoretic Trinity in Transcendence

  1. Iain Lovejoy says:

    If I talk to myself, to say to myself e.g. “You did a good job there Iain.” am I necessarily two separate consciences or selves? How much less so God who is (a) essentially internally unknowable and (b) to an extent deliberately playing to the gallery in making the public pronouncement. Too much seems to me to be read into such passages.


    • Robert Fortuin says:

      It seems you suggest modalism Iain, but such an understanding of God was roundly rejected as incompatible with the biblical revelation; for instance, Jesus’ cry to the Father on the cross is not considered an address to self (i.e. not intra-personal). This is where any anthropomorphic likeness we reference must embrace divine dissimilarity – for humanity the self (subsistence) denotes a distinction from other human selves (subsistences) which together constitute a plurality (such that we refer to ‘humans’ plural, such that inter-personal speech requires plurality); whereas for God the self (subsistence) denotes a distinction such that when divine selves (subsistences) are taken together they do not constitute a plurality. Jesus address to the Father is not intra-personal, while yet inter-personal address between two divine selves does not imply or require plurality (i.e. Christ’s address is not speech between two gods).

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      • Iain Lovejoy says:

        You misunderstand – all I am saying is that if I, who am undoubtedly not three persons, can nevertheless address myself as if addressing a third party, God who is three persons, can speak in a similar fashion without being supposed because of it to be necessarily entirely separate beings and consciousnesses talking to each other in the way two separate individuals converse. I am not saying that e.g. the Father addressing Jesus is God talking to himself in the sense that I do.


  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    For a better summary of Fr Khaled’s essay on divine personhood, see Peter Leithart, “Are the Divine Persons Persons?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Robert Fortuin says:

    A bit off topic, if you will indulge.

    “the correspondence between the divine essence and the three divine persons. There is only one essence, of course, but this one essence is not a separate thing from the three distinct persons. Rather, as Orthodox theologians tirelessly insist, the one essence exists only as tripersonal.”

    Here Anatolios supports my contention that the divine essence/energy distinction construed as a real distinction (often argued thus by neo-Palamite theologians) is untenable – the divine energies are no more or less shrouded in apophatic obscurity than the divine essence. A distinction where the essence is said to be inscrutable and unknowable, in contrast to the knowable divine energies, conflates divine energies with its effects (the effects of the divine energies are knowable, observable, measurable). As Anatolios insists that ‘this one essence is not a separate thing from the three distinct persons,’ likewise I surmise that the one divine essence is not a separate thing from the divine energy.

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