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What kind of oneness? Part two

Last time we saw that a married couple are supposed to be one.  But not every kind of oneness is healthy.  So what kind of oneness should we pursue?

Our way forward is to examine the oneness of the triune God.  In part one we thought about the missio Dei.  The Father, Son and Spirit share a oneness that includes and is upheld by an outgoing spreading goodness.  Their oneness is in mission.  Our marriages should be the same.  We have a unity that is going somewhere.  We don't 'live in a world of our own' but our oneness is for the sake of mission and mission for the sake of a proper unity.

In this post we'll think a bit more about the unity of the trinity.  In particular we'll think about how an orthodox account of the trinity avoids certain heresies that can be mapped onto recognizable marital problems.


How to avoid Trinitarian heresies

Any orthodox account of the trinity needs to be able to answer three questions.  How are the three Persons united?  How are they distinct?  And how are they equal?

If you can only answer one of these questions well you're at the corner of the triangle and you don't really have any kind of trinity.

If you can answer all three questions well you are inside the triangle - hopefully in the centre.  You are orthodox.

If you can only answer two of them then you're at A, B or C - along one of the sides of the triangle.  You have two aspects of a good trinitarian theology but not three.  In other words, you're a heretic.

At position A you have subordinationism (also known as Arianism).  Here the Persons are united and distinct but not equal.  So Jesus is the first creature.  God still mediates all his business with creation through him.  But actually Jesus is on the creature side of the Creator-creature line.  He is decidedly inferior to God.

At position B you have tritheism.  Here the Persons are distinct and equal but not united.  You have effectively three gods.  They might defer to each other and work really well as a team.  But there's no substantial unity.

At position C you have modalism (also known as Sabellianism).  Here the Persons are united and equal but not distinct.  Effectively you have only one Person who wears different masks at different times.  The oneness is an all-consuming oneness that swallows up any ideas of difference/otherness/mutuality etc.

Where you want to be is in the centre of the triangle.  There you can respond to all the questions with the same answer:

How are the Persons united?  Asymmetrical mutual indwelling (i.e. love!)

How are the Persons distinct?  Asymmetrical mutual indwelling (i.e. love!)

How are the Persons equal?  Asymmetrical mutual indwelling (i.e. love!)

But if you get this wrong you drift away from the centre and towards one of the heresies.

I would suggest that if you attempt to answer those three questions in three quite different ways you'll run into trouble.  But that's a different post.


How to avoid Marital heresies

Now there are two relationships especially in which we share in this kind of loving, mutual indwelling.  The relationship of Christ and the church.  And the relationship of husband and wife.

In this post we'll limit ourselves to the marriage side of things (though obviously this is derivative of the Christ-church relationship).

So let's think about what it means in marriage to have a healthy sense of unity, distinction and equality.

It's worth asking the questions of your own marriage:

On Unity:

Is there an intimacy between you deeper than what you experience in any other human relationship?

Do you have a oneness that is going somewhere (hopefully the same place!)?

To put it another way, Do you have a sense of 'face-to-face' unity and 'side-by-side' unity?

On Equality:

Do you look at your spouse as your equal?  Do you honour them, upholding and valuing them in love?  Or is there a sense of superiority - contempt even - residing in your heart?

Do you both play an equal part in where you're going as a couple?  (Even though according to different roles)

On Distinction:

Does your relationship foster or smother distinctive strengths in each other?

Does your marriage foster or smother distinctive roles of head and body?

We have to die to our selfish, individualist selves when we marry.  But as you serve one another in love, is your relationship drawing out the real you?

If you're doing well in only one of these categories, it's unlikely you actually have a marriage!  If you're doing well in all three then hopefully the distinction, equality and unity are mutually informing each other in a healthy way.  If you've got two but not three of these areas covered (which is where all marriages tend to be to one degree or another) then you've got problems.


What do Marital heresies look like?

These are the kinds of 'heretical' marriages we tend towards:

At position A we have the Arian marriage: unity and distinction but not equality.  This might take the form of  a Noble Rescuer married to a Poor Unfortunate.  Or an Abuser and a Victim.  Or your garden variety Superior Patroniser and their Silent Admirer.  Here we have the mystery of how such unity is maintained amidst all this inequality.  But codependency is a fascinating study!

There are all sorts of no-go areas within and outside the marriage since the power structure must be maintained.

The danger of an affair here is either the arrogance of the more powerful partner who feels entitled to it, or the amazement of the weaker partner to find someone "who actually respects me!"

In traditional churches, Arian marriages may go unnoticed as a problem.


At position B we have the tritheist marriage: equal and distinct but not united.  The couple run on parallel tracks, more like a working co-operative than a marriage.  There is no 'face to face' closeness and this might well stem from a deep fear of personal intimacy.

In all this shallow engagement, the danger of an affair is the distinct possibility that either one will find someone "who actually touches my soul!"

In busy churches, tritheist marriages may go unnoticed as a problem.


At position C we have the modalist marriage: united and equal but not distinct.  Here the couple get lost in each other.  Not in the Christ-like way of losing your life in order to gain it.  This is more like strategic people-pleasing, but they may not be aware they do it.  They won't really know who they are but tend to think and act in the collective.

They have learnt well the no-go areas within the marriage and are very threatened by no-go areas outside it.

In these marriages there may be an abiding fear of an affair that is completely unjustified.  But the danger of the affair comes when one of them finds someone "who actually appreciates my gifts!"

In nice churches, modalist marriages may go unnoticed as a problem.


Now these are sweeping generalizations and there are massive margins for error.  I'd be glad to hear any feedback you might have.  But, as with trinitarian theology, it's always good to be aware of which particular heresy you're most in danger of falling into.

It also means, when faced with a Superior Patroniser, you don't have to call them a smug git.  You can call them an Arian!


15 thoughts on “What kind of oneness? Part two

  1. pgjackson

    Neat. I like.

    The doctrine of God course I'm leading tomorrow night will look at some implications and applications of the Trinity for life, human relationships, church and mission. Marriage is one of the things I'll be (sadly all too briefly) touching on.

  2. Otepoti

    As diagrammatic theology always makes me smile a bit, I'm trying to think of cases which wouldn't fit the diagram, but I cant.

    Scarily good. Very useful.

  3. Heather

    I'm liking this, too, although would agree that it doesn't guarantee an infallible formula for cooking up a perfect marriage.

    Interesting how one's view of/relationship with God could carry over into one's marriage relationship.

    I'd also say that it seems your position A, Arian type marriage is pretty close to accurate for many traditional/fundamentalist type groups. Over here, there seems to be a huge push in certain circles to focus strongly on "patriarchy", with emphasis on authority structure. While I think it's great to encourage husbands to take their responsibility seriously, the movement has also experienced severe backlash as a lot of families have been damaged when there is overemphasis on the husband's headship and the wife's place of "submission" to his leadership. And "no-go" areas often seem to translate into an intricate legalistic lifestyle framework.

    While visiting a couple of discussions about this trend, it does appear that those who are happily situated within the movement are far less likely to recognize the dangers or abuses than those who sit on the outside.

    I could see myself easily tripping into the A or C perspective at times.

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  13. Tanya Marlow

    Profoundly helpful. Think I will use this in future relationship counselling settings... Thanks

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