3. Living Within God's Story: The Missio Christianus (cont.)
Becoming the Trinity? (Mystery and Dependence)
It must be emphasized that the missio Christianus is the mission of the Church as a corporate body. It is only as a part of a people that any particular person can participate in the missio Dei. To properly discern the Spirit, one must be a part of a corporate body; to be able to persist in cruciformity and in places of godforsakenness, one must be a part of the Church; and to exists as the revelation of the Father, one must be a part of the people of the new covenant that rules in the way that God rules. Of course, the fact that it is the community of faith that acts as the fullest revelation of God leads one to wonder if we can also speak of a movement into becoming the Trinity. Indeed, many theologians are making exactly this argument today, restoring the notion of a “social trinitarianism” to current Christian dialogue.
However, not all have embraced this notion, and Karen Kilby is an articulate and consistent opponent of it. Kilby argues that social trinitarianism engages in a particularly problematic form of projection that makes it distinctly problematic. As Kilby says: “what is projected onto God is immediately reflected back onto the world and this reverse projection is said to be what is in fact important about the doctrine.” Thus, the perichoresis said to bind together the persons of God, is simply an imaginative description of the best of what a given author thinks should bind humans together. Therefore, Kilby warns against attempts to make the Trinity “relevant” and argues that the Trinity is only important in the sense that it allows us to read Scripture in a way that recognizes the divinity of both Jesus and the Spirit, while maintaining that God is one.
Kilby’s desire to exercise caution in the application of trinitarian doctrines should be respected. Certainly this doctrine has been abused in the past. In particular, the notion of the “eternal subordination” of the Son to the Father, has been used to impose an eternal subordination of women to men. In fact, Hans Boersma holds to precisely this notion – even though he critiques social trinitarianism using precisely the same arguments as Kilby! Given such past abuses, it is understandable that Kilby is concerned about too rapidly applying the doctrine of the trinity to whatever gender-perspective is dominant at any given time. However, one must realize that the application of the doctrine of the Trinity to the subordination of women is essentially an abuse of the doctrine – the ecumenical creeds of the Church, and the witness of Scripture all emphatically affirm that the members of the Trinity are co-equal. To try and apply this doctrine to subordinate women is simply “obfuscating terminology to uphold male hegemony.”
However, not only is Kilby’s critique insufficient (she begins by dialoguing with Karl Rahner, Jurgen Moltmann, Colin Gunton, and Patricia Wilson-Kastner but only engages in a concrete critique of Wilson-Kastner -– perhaps the most insignificant of the four), she also overstates her case. The fact is that the triune nature of God is just as significant for Christian living as any of God’s other attributes. Shall we suggest that God’s holiness is only significant as a description of God’s character is it is revealed in Scipture? Certainly not, for we are called to be holy as God is holy. Shall we suggest that God’s love is only significant as a description of God’s character within the biblical story? Certainly, not for we are called to love as God loves, and thereby be perfect in the way that our heavenly Father is perfect. Therefore, as a part of our call to love as God loves, we are also called to model our communal living upon the triune nature for God, for we are called to be one with each other in the way that the Son and the Father (and the Spirit) are one. Therefore, although using the doctrine of the Trinity to affirm gender inequalities is a case of “the tail wagging the dog” the application of the doctrine of the Trinity to affirm a community of radical equality is a natural consequence of this doctrine.
Consequently, we can conclude that the Church, the corporate people of God, reveals the communal nature of the imago Dei. Furthermore, the notion of perichoresis, is an appropriate notion to describe the nature of this communal interaction – and, contra those who want to argue that appeals to social trinitarianism and perichoresis is a new (and, therefore, suspect or heretical) doctrinal fad, it must be noted that this notion dates back to the early Church Fathers. The Church is to be the Spirit-Empowered, cruciform, Father-like revelation of the Trinity as it participates in the missio Dei. All of these elements – empowerment, suffering, being God’s vice-regents and the true humanity -– are fundamentally communal in nature. Living within the story of God is not primarily something that individuals do, it is primarily something a group of people does, and individuals only participate as a part of this people-group. As Michael Gorman says in his concluding reflections on living within God’s Story: “The ‘Church’ lives the story, embodies the story, tells the story. It is the living exegesis of God’s master story of faith, love, power, and hope.” Therefore, the community of people so united with one another and with the broken world that they chose to travel into godforsakenness, actually become, in that process, the imago trinitas.
However, having arrived at these conclusions, the doctrine of the Trinity also forces us to retain a particular element of mystery when we speak of God and of the missio Dei. After all, as we have tried to note, every member of the Trinity is involved in every aspect of that mission. Father, Son, and Spirit all take part in the movements of creation, exile, out-of-exile, overlap, and consummation. Furthermore, the inner perichoretic relationships of the persons of the Trinity also go beyond what we can comprehend or experience, even in our most intimate relationships. Any missiological formulations or reflections upon God are only reflections upon a vision that we have begun to comprehend but will never fully comprehend. As with any human words, whether those be the words of theology, the words of biblical scholars (or even of the bible itself!), the words of missiologists can only bear witness to the Word – they are not the Word in and of themselves.
This reflection upon the mystery of God, should also lead missiologists to a radical dependence upon God – not only in places of godforsakenness, but also in all parts of the missio Christianus and in every form of proclamation. It is only God who can prove himself, and every encounter with God is dependent upon God’s initiative. Encounters with Jesus cannot be fabricated, they depend entirely upon Jesus’ “will to be recognized.” Just as resurrection is an act that entirely depends on God’s power to bring life out of death, so also the radical in-breaking of the new creation is something that can only be accomplished by God. These conclusions do not lead to any sort of fatalism, resignation, or abandonment of mission. Rather, they further the movement into humility that is required of the people who partner with the humble God.
Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, and Prayer.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I.1: The Doctrine of the Word of God, and Dogmatics in Outline.
Kevin Giles, “The Trinity and Subordinationism: The Doctrine of God and the Contemporary Gender Debate.”
Michael Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul's Narrative Spirituality of the Cross.
Colin Gunton, The One, the Three and the Many.
Gustavo Gutierrez, We Drink from Our Own Wells.
Karen Kilby, “Perichoresis and Projection: Problems with the Social Doctrine of the Trinity.”
Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, and God in Creation.
Karl Rahner, The Trinity.
Patricia Wilson-Kastner, Faith, Feminism and the Christ.