I explore here the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity and the connections between the Trinity and the origin of creation according to Bonaventure and Duns Scotus.
The Trinity might be seen by some as just some strange and impossible thing to believe in, More rightly it is about a communion of divine love and basis for all loving relationship. The doctrine of God as Trinity is foundational to how we should think of God and how we should also see the world that comes ino existence from the divine loving
In defence of the Trinity
The Christian doctrine of the God as Trinity proceeds from the special revelation of God in the life of Jesus called “The Christ”. It is from what was written about Jesus in the gospels and in the early church writings that God was later defined as Trinity in the great councils of the church.
Modern day critics of the Christian faith and theology church often make reference to the great church councils of Nicea and Chalcedon as being a departure from a simple faith in Jesus of Nazareth as messianic prophet, claiming they were constructing a Greek philosophical view of God at odds with an original simple faith. However this is a mistaken view. Contrary to such a view Paul Tillich in his Systematic Theology, volume 3, defends the development of the doctrine of nature of God as Trinity and that it was not some alien development of something from outside of the early faith but rather attempted to define and defend that which was felt and experienced in the actual lives of the disciples as they experienced something utterly transcendent in Jesus, and which became present in their preaching. Although surrounded by some political objectives of the time the councils are none the less faithful to what they have received from earlier generations, and of things rooted also in the Old Testament.
Tillich insists that the symbols of the Trinity in relation to God, which are more than symbols, are essential and necessary, and in relation to God as our Ultimate Concern. It is very necessary to the Christian faith that we understand that the Logos (Word) was in the man Jesus and this doctrine is necessary to safeguard oneness of the Ultimate concern in its different manifestations to the world and to our consciousness. This was all well established in the belief and practices of the church before the councils, which tried to make explicit and plain what had already accepted as something orthodox and arising from Jesus Himself. Tillich argues that whoever sacrifices the Logos doctrine and the Trinity doctrine sacrifices the belief that the Ultimate Concern has come close to us in Christ and for our sakes. When alternatives were offered that did not fit the received faith they had to be rejected (although of course without the bigotry and violence that was also falsely and erroneously done).
Even so for many today the churches definitions of God who is Trinitarian remain a problem as they have for other generations of Christians. We need to recognise there is both an emphasis upon the Unity of God, the special and only nature but manifest in three ways that can only be expressed as something like distinct “persons”. We must maintain the three but also the essential character of a unity that is one. The Trinity is an expression of the Being of God and how that is related to our being and indeed the being of all things in the cosmos. It could be a problem that the doctrine of God as Trinity becomes an unfathomable mystery to be placed on the altar, or to be left at the door of the church after Trinity Sunday has been celebrated. It ceases then to be part of the mystery of our being and our Ultimate Concern. It is in the exploration of the make up and meaning of the Trinity tfhat we attempt to fathom more of the mystery of the divine life from which we come and to have communion with everlastingly.
The doctrine of the Trinity raises questions for the searching mind. Franciscan scholastics as well as other generations wrestled with it, examined it and defended it, as did others at the Reformation. In the Scholastic theology of the era of Bonaventure and Scotus things about God as divine being lead to considerations of God as Trinity. Bonaventure and Scotus follow those considerations in their own way. What becomes clear is that if we believe that “God was in Jesus” then we must ask what kind of a God and what part of divinity becomes present in the life of the man Jesus and in what way that part of the Trinity is then able to be united to man in Jesus.
However the doctrine of God as Trinity cannot be reduced to philosophical speculation, or moral and philosophical education. Today as in times past we need to rediscover in the symbols and language the doctrine of the Trinity and some of the spiritual dynamism of relationship and purpose of which it contains. We need to rediscover what it means for our modern cosmic perspective and our place as naturally evolved persons, our being that comes from the Triune Being.
The discriptions of two persons in the Trinity as the Father and Son have been criticized in recent times as just painting all of God as masculine, in gender specific terms from male dominated societies. We may need today to go beyond these traditional gender specific images that for many have psychological relational and society related problems. We may need to find fresh expressions of Trinitarian relations in more egalitarian and gender neutral terms, yet preserving the sense that the one Unoriginated Being that we call Father, comes to “beget” the Word and breath out the Spirit. Also perhaps we need new understandings of the Word, while spoken of as Son, is only so in the context of being manifest in a particular man Jesus of Nazareth and that in other contexts has feminine expressions as well as masculine.
It is with this in mind that I take an exploration of the Franciscan tradition about the nature of God as Trinity, and in relation to the world, our relationships with each other and with the vast array of the non-human world and cosmos.
Bonaventure – Multiplicity and Partnership
In the Breviloquium Bonaventure reflects on God as Trinity and of creation coming from the Trinity. The Father came first and then the Son (begotten of the Father) and then the Holy Spirit who “proceeds from the Father and the Son”. Bonaventure expounds a common traditional view that the Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father, and this love between Father and Son is the Holy Spirit. This love in God between Father and Son in the Holy Spirit is so great and fruitful that God wishes to make a gift of this love. Creation is the result of the overflow of this “abundance” of God’s love. God conceives of all individual creatures in his Son, His Word. Therefore the elements of the cosmos are conceived by the Father in His Son, His Word and are created through love in the power of the Holy Spirit. It would seem that the sum of the love of the Trinity in its relations are spilled out into the desire and will of God to produce our material world and existence.
The plurality within God as three persons with one “substance” is the origin of the multiplicity of things that take shape in the order of the cosmos and all relationships of things within it. Divine activity in making the cosmos in its origin is through the partnership between the three persons. Everything exists because of that love and partnership within God who is Trinity and Community. Partnerships within the cosmos stem from the original partnership in the Trinity. Each thing in the cosmos is a realized expression and thought of the love of God. Therefore, all creatures and parts of the cosmos are revealing the Word of God, the Son, and God’s love. While we may see the various patterns of relationship between things in the observed world and universe we should know that this is a manifestation of the plurality and partnership within the Trinity. This has profound implications for how we see and use things in creation. It is always the grounds for a critique of our selfish exploitation of the world. If all is loved of God, all must be loved by us.
Although there is often the modern assumption that the order and patterns within what we observe in the universe are the result of random developments we should instead see that even this potential randomness that gives rise to the patterns and order of the universe is still from the intention of God who has made these potentials possible and actual. Even the apparent patterns of chance and chaos are a manifestation of the free plurality that the cosmos has been given as its character. Where there is chance it is part of the freedom that comes from love within the Trinity. (This will be discussed further in “Good and Humble God”).
Bonaventure also argues that the Son is the “Word” and as such dwells at the very centre of the Godhead. The same Word is the invisible principle of unity and meaning through which God reaches out to create the world. The Word manifest in various ways becomes a visible centre of the cosmos and its history in the form of the incarnate Word that is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. The shape of the life of Jesus ministry embodies and shows forth the revelation of the divine nature and also points to the shape of all reality still to come. Bonaventure appears to think that the Word is the centre of the Trinity because of the special role given in organising things on behalf of the Trinity and having a special role in salvation and the future of the world. More Orthodox tradition would argue that it is really the Father, as fount of the Word and Spirit that is real origin and centre of things.
Duns Scotus –The Character of God as Trinity
In Ordinatio 1 and other works Scotus carries out an elaborate series of questions and answers about God as Trinity in addition to his elaboration of God as author of causation and origin. The philosophical explorations of causation should not be separated from his extensive questions and answers on the nature of God as Trinity. While scholastically in the curriculum of the time the God of causality and Being, as First Principle, may have been separated from Trinitarian discussions that is not enough to create a division between them.
Scotus defends the idea of three “persons” although such ideas of individual personhood we apply to people cannot apply to God because the divine essence and how it is expressed in God is different to our understandings of persons as independent rational beings. He tries to tease out the relations between the three persons, the production of the Word/Son and the “spiration” of the Spirit. He also discusses in what way the different persons may have different properties related to them.
My first point in response is that we only have to take into account the fact that the divine essence is Infinite Being to realise that a simple description of “persons” like us would be false. Even so through Scotus complex argument he shows that God is both a unity and in some way differentiated into persons, albeit sharing something of a common nature that is an inclusive unity of the divine life and not separate existences so as to be three separate gods.
In various places Scotus emphasises the working of God’s Will over the power of God’s knowledge. Perhaps his special emphasis on the divine Will comes from his Franciscan association with Francis of Assisi sense of wanting to know what God wills so he could be obedient to it. However, God’s will cannot simply be something that is arbitrary like some medieval King who can do as he likes because He is the supreme King. According to Richard Cross, Scotus writes that God produces Love, and hence the Spirit from His Will, but surely God must already have Love in the Divine Essence before His Will produces more of it in the production of the Spirit and the love produced then overflows into the cause of creation and its manifestation in creation.
While some Augustinian tradition (including Bonaventure, as above) had maintained that the Holy Spirit acts as love between the persons, Scotus argues instead that the love the Father and Son have for each other is not just some mutual love for each other that we may have, rather what joins them, and also the Spirit, is their mutual love of the Divine Essence from which they come and which unites them. The production of the Holy Spirit adds nothing to this existing love for the Divine Essence, which is also the highest of all loves. The love they each have for other is because of the prexisting love in them that is part of their shared essence and that essence, because of what it is and how great it is loved. They love their shared essence and love each other sharing it. This is no narcistic self centredness. It is fully and most perfeclty the best that can be loved.
This emphasis on the love of the Divine Essence is also important in another respect. Elsewhere on the matter of the Law Scotus writes, “God is to be loved” and this stems from the fact of the greatest love we can have here is love for the Divine Essence. We may love each other in a mutual way when the other person loves us and we respond to it. But is not the same with God and the divine loving of the Divine Essence that is loved because this Being is the most perfect and most Good and therefore most deserving. We may love God because “He first loved us” us and offers everlasting salvation. But this has some sense of a self-regarding love compared to the greatest love of all that is to Love God because God is God, and hence to love the divine nature because it is divine is the highest thing we can do. (See also section on Natural and Divine Law).
If all this seems dry academic stuff then according to Seamus Mulholand, Scotus’ theology of the Trinity is also about a communion of love and there is an eternal movement of the lover (the Father), the beloved (the Son) and the sharing of love (the Spirit). The Trinity in loving unity creates the cosmos and is therefore the model of all reality and especially of human relationships. God’s love within the Trinity is the reason and origin of creation. Because God is love the divine will wills that the creation should also be infused by love and going beyond the many prior causes and histories of existing, beyond the accidents of struggle and death and dominance of some things over others.
In further respect of creation, there appears however to be a tension here between God as lover wanting creation to have love and another aspect of typical medieval theology that God is “impassable” and cannot suffer. Scotus seems to want to say that God is impassable and needs no-one. Jurgen Moltman is critical of such views of God. It is part of Christian faith that the Incarnate Word dwells in Jesus the man and in the fact of Jesus suffering does not the Word in conscious union also share in that suffering? Furthermore if the Holy Spirit as St Paul says “groans” within us then does not God have the fullest knowledge of human suffering and indeed all creation’s suffering? Is God really so “unfeeling” or is our idea of fellow –feeling and suffering with us a step too far in univocal theology? I rather think and hope that Scotus is wrong and that God in the fullness of the divine nature knows and in some way shares the suffering of all creation that is made free and subject to hurt.
One further thing. Despite Scotus elaborate questions and answers and attempts to define and defend Trinitarian doctrine it is today neither provable nor disprovable by modern science and cosmology. It remains a philosophical and theological matter. His elaboration and defence is an interesting and possibly unique set of arguments alongside others. However, if we accept as a first premise the very concept of Infinite Being then the division of Infinite Being into three distinct aspects or persons, revealed in scripture and tradition, is equally acceptable and believable. It is the Trinity, God as “three persons” that has such Infinity and is the Ground and Source of Being. It is God as Trinity that is the source of our existence and first cause of our existing and first call for our loving and evolution and completed beings. But in Trinitarian theology, in seeking to love and know the divine essence expressed in Trinitarian terms we come to our fullest realisation of who we are as well as who and what God is.
From Christian and indeed Franciscan theology we need to think today of the origin of the cosmos and life on earth having a grounding and purpose that stems from the Trinitarian origin. The great diversity of life and the interconnected evolved ecosystems are the bi-products of the divine love and partnerships, in which there is a unity and need one for the other. Rational creatures like us that developed within the cosmos are destined and desired by God to be creatures who will better make manifest that same love from its origin. That at least is the divine intention and the divine goal. It is in relation to this love and intention of love that humanity is to be seen and measured as good or against that intention that becomes sin and remains unfulfilled. (Further discussed under The Fall).
An ancient hymn (normally sung at Christmas)
Of the Father’s love begotten
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the Source, the Ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see
Evermore and evermore.
Getting into the picture
There is a famous Russian icon of the visit of the three angels to Abraham, seated around a table (shown above). It is often used to symbolise the Trinity. We are to see them as the God who is united as Three, together as the origin of our life and all life and all that we know. There is the cup of fellowship on the table that is also the chalice of Christ’s blood shed for our salvation and completion of God’s purpose for the whole cosmos.
There is a space at the front of the table where the onlooker is invited to sit and to share their meal. The vacant seat awaits us, in our adoration, our joyful union with them in sharing their life. There is the cup of divine salvation and fellowship to drink from.
If we allow ourselves we may join them and changed to be more like them.
Or we may walk on by and miss the invitation, and miss our true focus and purpose in life. The Trinity is not just some abstract philosophy about God, it is an invitation in the greatest of all relationships to be known and involved with.
Come to the table! Come sit and eat and drink and enjoy!