Skip to content

So what??!

A friend of mine is at Bible college and has been set an essay on trinitarian theology and the difference between east and west.  He emailed me to ask "So what??! I mean realistically what are the implications of the different approaches?"

Here's part of my response.  I have obviously caricatured positions to make a point.   I'm trying to be as stark as possible to drive home the difference.  And the west is obviously not as bad as I've suggested, nor is the east the paragon of virtue.  There are basic things about eastern trinitarianism I disagree with - but not their starting point.  And that's my focus here.  So here is my response:


Ok, you say 'So what?'  I say - 'So everything!'

De Regnon [who my friend mentioned in his email] is a good lead.  Let me re-phrase his insight:  The west begins with One and then tries to figure out how to get Three.  The east begins with the Three and then figures out how the Three are One. 

Re-read this until you have the distinction firmly in mind...

The west begins with One and tries to get to Three.  The east begins with Three and then gets to One. 

Now between these positions there is all the difference in the world.

If you're eastern you say: "I've met this guy Jesus and He introduces me to His Father and sends His Spirit."  And then, having met the Three Persons in the gospel, you say 'what kind of one-ness do these three Persons share?'  And because you think in this way you can conclude: "These three Persons are *one* because they are united in love." 

So you go to John 17 and you see Jesus saying He wants His followers to be one the same way He and the Father are one.  And then you say "Aha!  The one-ness of the church is loving unity, therefore it stands to reason that the one-ness of Father and Son is loving unity."  And then you remember 1 John 4 and you say with joy: How is God one?  God is love!  God is a loving community of Three Persons. 

And this means that the greatest thing in all reality is love (because God is love).  And it means that reality is relational.  And it means that loving community among disinct people is very important.  One-ness for the east is a loving union of particular Persons who don't lose their individuality (Father, Son and Spirit are all different Persons - they are not one because they are identical.) 

So the east simply says: God is three distinct but totally united Persons loving one another.  Let me flesh out three implications of this:

1) It means that difference, distinction, community, relationship, mutuality, reciprocity and LOVE are all at the very very centre of who God is.  God's identity is not primarily a collection of attributes but a community of love

2) Because even the Father, Son and Spirit find their identity in relationships we see that relationship is at the heart of personal identity.  God is who He is because He is love.  God is who He is because of the relationships of Father, Son and Spirit.  Therefore I am who I am because of the relationships I share in.

3) Community is hugely important.  Even in God, different voices are not silenced by one dominant ruler.  Instead different voices contribute to a one-ness that's all about distinct persons working together in love.


On the other hand the west begins by saying: "we know that God is one.  We know that this one God has all sorts of attributes that go with the 'Creator' job description. So God is omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, impassible, immutable etc etc."  Then the west says, "Ok we've got the one God, but now in the gospel we meet these three Persons.  So how can the three Persons qualify as this one God?" They figure that since the one God is defined by these attributes then the way these Three are One is by sharing in all these same attributes.  And so they map these attributes identically onto the three Persons.  In this way the distinctions between Persons gets lost.  Every difference is blurred into the one God who is defined not by relationships but by attributes (i.e. He's big and clever).  Three implications of this:

1) God's identity is primarily a collection of attributes - attributes that are about His distance from creation, His difference to us.

2) If God is who He is because of His attributes - personal identity is essentially about *attributes* (about being big and clever).  Therefore I am who I am because of how big and clever I am.

3) Community is not really that important - there's only one voice and will that counts.  Distinctions and difference will get bull-dozed before the all-important one.


Ok, now that I've laid it out like this, hopefully you can see some of the 'so what' significance??

Let me tease it out by discussing the three implications:

Regarding 1):  In the west, God has been defined as a collection of attributes that place Him at an infinite distance from us.  Now if you go out on the streets and talk to people about whether they're religious, basically (keeping eastern influences out of this) people will say either they do or they don't believe in a distant, uni-personal God who is approximately the 'omni-being' of philosophy.  Whether they believe in "God" or don't believe in "God", the "God" they're talking about is the collection of attributes which the western theologian began with before they examined the gospel!  The god that our western culture has either embraced or rejected is not the God of the gospel!  Instead the "god" of the pub discussion is pretty much the "one God" that the western theologian began with.  And if the bloke in the pub rejects that god - I don't blame him!!  That's not a god who is obviously related to Jesus of Nazareth (or His Spirit or the Father He called 'Abba').  And therefore its not a god who appears to be particularly interested in us - its not a god revealed in gospel love but in philosophical speculation.  Now the cultures shaped by the western church have been shaped by this doctrine of God.  When they accepted "God" it was this "God" they accepted.  When they rejected him, it was this "God" they rejected.

Atheism has basically been the rejection of this god.  People have decided they don't want a distant omni-being over against them and proclaimed his non-existence.  And what people like Colin Gunton are trying to ask is "Would the west have rejected "God" so thoroughly if the "God" they were presented with by the western church was the community of committed love revealed in Jesus?"  The answer still might be yes, but it's an interesting question anyway!

Regarding 2): The question of personal identity.  Well if we go with the west, my identity is all about my attributes.  I need to build up a CV of my big-ness and clever-ness.  That will define me.  But if I go with the east then my identity is about my relationships.  I am who I am because fundamentally I'm in Christ (and what's more I'm a son, a brother, a husband, etc). When I take this seriously, my western status-anxiety can be relieved in a second.  I find liberation from the western drive to prove myself and forge an identity for myself.  I am given identity in the relationships I have (primarily my relationship with Christ). 

Think also of the abortion debate. What is it that defines whether this foetus has personal identity?  Ask a westerner and they'll instinctively answer you in terms of attributes: "This foetus can/can't do X, Y, and Z therefore the foetus can/can't be aborted."  But what if the foetus is a person not because of its attributes but because it already stands in relationships of love?

Regarding 3): The point about community.  Here's a quote from the website: (

"...what can we learn about relationships and community from The Relationship? In gender relations, in multi-ethnic society, in equal opportunities policies, in the church, in our families - we are constantly confronted by people who have real and important differences and yet people who ought to be treated with equal respect and dignity. How do we appreciate the differences and uphold the equality? If we treat all in exactly the same way, are we not ignoring the valuable distinctives? This ‘melting pot' approach falls foul of oppression-by-assimilation. The incumbent majority always wins out at the cost of the minorities - they either become like the majority or they die. Do we, therefore, treat specific parties differently in an attempt to give them a leg-up? When this happens stereo-types can be re-enforced by ‘special treatment' and work against the value of equality. Furthermore: who defines the appropriate yard-stick of "success" in a culture? Perhaps it is better to abandon the idea of community altogether and accept along with Margaret Thatcher that there is "no such thing as society."

"Well what can the Trinity teach us? At the heart of reality lies a Community of different but equal Persons who have their own identities constituted by their mutual interdependence. They work together as One. There definitely is such a thing as society. Person-hood can never be considered individualistically but is made up of relationships on which we depend. Within The Community, the Persons freely submit to one another in roles of subordination while never losing their equal status. They do submit to differences in treatment and in function - but they maintain a definite equality of being and uphold one another in bonds of unconditional love. Here is a Community on which to model our own."


0 thoughts on “So what??!

  1. Missy

    Glen, I think you have helped me with a basic element I was missing while attempting to discover the root of my compassion for Pullman's drive with the Dark Matters series. I think this relates in a great way to his atheistic passion. And I think understanding this is a great gift from God as I am trying to also understand my Dad's weary, hopeless, atheistic passion. I know this comment won't make much sense to you, but this post is very much an answer to months of paryer.

  2. glenscriv

    I'm so pleased. I wasn't going to post it, but my friend who I emailed was helped too so I figured someone else might be too. Really pleased.

    I think if Pullman wants to reject the omni-being who is only ever defined in opposition to his creation anyway then let him. Christians should be equally opposed to *that* god. That god is not the One Jesus calls 'Abba'!

    I have a friend who, whenever he speaks with an atheist, asks '*which* god don't you believe in?' When they (inevitably) describe the omni-being my friend says 'Great! I don't believe in that either. Let me tell you about Someone else! One who is engaged and engaging, committed, tangible, loving, brave, humble - let me tell you about the God you never imagined: Jesus.'

    Thanks very much for your encouragement.

  3. bobby grow

    Nice survey, Glen.

    I think this is why we get along so well . . . we LOVE the same God :) . This in fact is what my most recent article is driven by . . . combating an errant understanding of "theology proper". It has led to all kinds of aberrant theological perspectives and attitudes. Go Gunton . . .

  4. glenscriv

    How can you not love the God who *is* love? I'm with you in your latest post. When attributes are at the heart of your doctrine of God, faithfulness to God will mean stricter adherence to dogma (the fundamentals!) rather than deeper allegiance to Persons.

  5. dave

    Really helpful summary. Gives me some useful context and implications from what Mike Reeves has been teaching. Given this seems so obvious - why has 'the west' believed as it has for so long?

  6. glenscriv

    Thanks Dave and thanks for stopping by.

    I'm no historical theologian but a few reasons spring to mind.

    One is that Augustine was just *such* an immense theologian. Massive brain. And a comprehensive theology that held together the empire in the aftermath of Rome falling apart. His opposition to Pelagius was absolutely crucial and we can thank God for being in an Augustinian tradition with regards to the priority of grace. His influence wasn't just up to the reformation but includes the reformation itself and beyond.

    But, everyone has blindspots and takes theological cul-de-sacs. (And he's not to blame if we foolishly follow him in error!) Augustine set the tone for pretty much *everything* in the west - not just trinity - so it's no surprise that mistakes that he made were repeated down through the centuries.

    Famously, Augustine even acknowledged that he didn't understand the difference that the Cappodocians were making between ousia and hypostasis. That's a massive blind-spot because really once you've accepted 'one ousia, three hypostases' as your working definition then it's incumbent on you to know what the one-ness and three-ness is that you're affirming. Augustine made up his own distinction and as the premiere theologian of the west took it with him.

    Problems of language didn't help - 'three hypostases' translates as three divine substances to a latin. 'One substantia' sounds like 'one hypostasis' (one Person) to a greek. Add to this the west's (theologically correct, but ecumenically fractious) addition of the filioque clause to the creed and east and west were not much in the mood to listen to one another. The west was then really cut adrift from eastern influence for a thousand years and Augustine became *it* - the daddy.

    And what was coming next historically? The dark ages. And when theologians retreat into monasteries and the gospel is not proclaimed as story but analysed in the library, then God is conceived more and more like a 'bird in a cage' rather than a 'bird in flight.' A static church will produce a static doctrine of God.

    Trinitarian theology is always gospel theology - Christ is the very heart-beat of both. When the gospel is lost, trinity will be lost too. And philosophical speculation filled the void.

    Now philosophical a prioris are always an enemy of good theology. Augustine had his neo-Platonism and later the scholastics had their Aristotelianism. In both, deity was considered by definition to be simple not compound, or else you could split bits off from God. All deity, they reasoned was essential deity, therefore anything that can be admitted as divine had to be without distinction, difference, mutuality etc. That was what was *really* God, so of course you put that first in your doctrine of God. And to be honest the distinct, mutually related, dynamic Persons of the gospel become a bit of an embarassment for a classical theist. Any attempts at trinitarian theology will be attempts to square the circle and say that the obviously distinct Persons are in fact a mathematical singularity. Then you cough nervously and move on to your next scholastic debate (angels on a pin-head or whatever).

    The reformation recovered the trinity because gospel theology is necessarily trinitarian theology. We stand though in a Calvinist tradition. And Calvin was 90% brilliant on the trinity. But Calvin quotes as much Augustine as he does Scripture in much of the Institutes (and certainly Augustine is very heavily relied upon in book I, chapter 13 - the trinity chapter). Out of Calvin has come two tendencies, one is the gospel tendency which has some very Cappodocian features. The other tendency is the Augustinian one. And so you get Calvinists like John Frame mentioning trinity on page 600 of his 'Doctrine of God.' Now Calvin really did seek to *begin* with the trinity, but there were also other Augustinian commitments that he never properly shook off. And the reformed tradition has contained within itself two distinct tracks - which explains some of why all us Calvinists are slugging it out in the blogosphere!

    I've written on Calvin's Trinity here which goes into some of the Augustinian influence. I haven't read it for a while myself but I reckon I probably still agree with most of what I say there.

    When it comes to explaining why the west believes anything, explaining the theologies of Augustine and Calvin will be at the heart of the answer.


  7. kc

    "Any attempts at trinitarian theology [for a classical theist] will be attempts to square the circle and say that the obviously distinct Persons are in fact a mathematical singularity. Then you cough nervously and move on to your next scholastic debate (angels on a pin-head or whatever). "

    I'm rolling on the floor! hahaha

    Great stuff here brother! I'm more than a little curious though. Don't you see this "western" philosophical perception of God as emerging from the council at Nicea?

  8. bobby grow


    I see the Western philosophical perception of God being ratified by Thomas Aquinas and his integration of the Aristotelian categories. God for him is the unmoved mover, for some of the patristics the monad of stoicism. Nicaea has implications for trinitarianism, but it primarily dealt with Christological issues, i.e. Arius versus Athanasius.

  9. glenscriv

    Hi Bobby,

    Nonsense. I am a mere babe in arms learning at your feet!

    KC, Nicea gets a bad 'philosophical' press for 'homo-ousios' and I can see why. It would perhaps have been bettert to avoid meeting Arius's philosophical 'homoi-ousios' with more biblically grounded language and logic (this touches a little on the 'Fundy Fear' post of Bobby's - not meeting liberalism with counter-claims that are equally distant from the gospel.

    But I think TF Torrance's take on homo-ousios (which I quote in 'Nicene Trinitarianism' nicely avoids the problems associated with the doctrine.

    Aside from that I think Nicea completely out-manouevres the philosophers. Especially with 'God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God' and with 'out of the being of the Father'. There Nicea upholds that Christ is different from the Father even in the way He is one. He is begotten even in His divinity (while the Father is unbegotten in His divinity). Thus difference is truly proper to the very ousia of God (and not merely accidental and relegated to the hypostatic relations). If the west took this seriously they'd have to ditch 'divine simplicity' and the 'Unmoved Mover' which throb behind all their doctrines of God and which take them right away from a trinity of mutually indwelling communion.

    And, having said that... I'm now going on a blog-fast for the next week. Feel free to comment on whatever, but I shall resist replying. For a bit anyway. I think I need to spend my spare time in the word - been over-blogging recently. (I'm sure none of you know what that's like... ;-) )

  10. kc

    Bobby, Glen,

    Thanks to you both. I hope to continue to discuss Nicea with you both later but with Glen in retreat and in light of such a great presentation of the Trinity I will leave off for now.

    You guys really are salt and light! ;-)

  11. Pingback: The New Atheism and the Trinity « Christ the Truth

  12. Pingback: He who loves his wife loves himself « Christ the Truth

  13. Pingback: A thousand posts in a thousand words « Christ the Truth

  14. Pingback: In covenant union, other-love is self-love but self-love is not other-love « Christ the Truth

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Twitter widget by Rimon Habib - BuddyPress Expert Developer