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The Social Trinity in the Life of the Church: An Evaluation from a Central American Perspective

Author: Lenin Munguia
Published: Winter–Spring 2019

MD 10.1

Article Type: Text Article

This paper explores the dynamics between the trinitarian nature of God and ecclesiology in Central America in order to suggest a better theological understanding for the worship and mission of Churches of Christ in Central America. The history of Churches of Christ in Central America dates back to the 1960s.1 Salvadorian missionaries graduated from the Sunset Bible School in Texas and established the church in Nicaragua in 1969. Their formation was rooted in the spirit of the Texas tradition, which emphasized preaching as making plain God’s requirements in the plan of salvation and a focus on the marks of the true church found in Acts and the Pauline epistles, such as its name, terms of admission, and organization.2 In contrast, this paper argues that the Christian faith, practice, worship, and proclamation of Churches of Christ in Central America must be shaped by a holistic trinitarian vision inviting human beings to align with the life of the Holy Trinity.

There has been a reemergence of the doctrine of the Trinity in modern theology.3 This interest is, in large part, the result of the groundbreaking efforts of Karl Barth in his Church Dogmatics.4 By placing the doctrine of the Trinity at the beginning of his theology, Barth challenges theologians to consider the experience of God as triune as the proper starting point for Christian theology.

Churches of Christ in Central America neglect the doctrine of the Trinity and its importance for Christian faith, worship, and community.5 This paper is a theological examination of the doctrine of the social Trinity from the perspective of liberation theology in particular. This paper proceeds in three steps. First, there is an examination of the doctrine of the social Trinity in the theology of Jürgen Moltmann, Leonardo Boff, Gustavo Gutiérrez, and Miroslav Volf. Second, there is an evaluation of the arguments pointing to key theological issues with the doctrine. Finally, this paper will offer suggestions for Churches of Christ in Central America to apply the doctrine of the social Trinity to its worship and mission.

There is a particular challenge, however, that the doctrine of the Trinity must overcome, namely its relevance for Christian ministry. Given the doctrine’s complex problems, including its central conceptual threeness-oneness relation, the Trinity is considered at best paradoxical or mysterious, at worst, contradictory.6 Further, this misguided perception of the Trinity as irrelevant for Christian ministry is, in part, rooted in the Western theological tradition, which emphasizes the unity or oneness of the Godhead, following the tradition of Augustine.7 Augustine used a series of “psychological” analogies which related the Trinity to the human person, including the mind, knowledge, and love.8 The Western tradition therefore tends to emphasize divine oneness in order to stress the equality of the three persons. The Eastern church, by contrast, was influenced by the Cappadocian fathers. They used more “social” analogies than Augustine.9 For instance, Peter, James and John all are persons who share a single, common humanity and could form a community.10 The Eastern tradition thus emphasizes the monarchy of the Father along with the threeness of the persons.

This general overview sheds light on a contemporary trinitarian emphasis that this paper takes up, namely the social model of the Trinity.11 The contemporary theological articulation of the social Trinity begins with Jürgen Moltmann. He rejects the individualistic concept of experience espoused by Schleiermacher and followed by Liberal Protestants.12 Likewise, Moltmann integrates the experience of the self into the experience of God. He writes that “experience of God has to be integrated into the trinitarian history of God with the world.”13 The image of God therefore should not be sought in human individuality alone but also in human sociality.14 The focus then is not only on the individual experience of God but also on social relationships and human society. The human experience of God as Triune is a communal experience of the revelation of the immanent Trinity. Moltmann argues for the significance of perichoresis. He writes that in the doctrine of the Trinity, the term perichoresis is used to capture the mutual indwelling of the equal divine persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.15 All life thus is community in communication.16 This implies that through their mutual indwelling the divine persons are giving each other themselves and the divine life in selfless love.17

The social emphasis of the doctrine of the Trinity finds support among liberation theologians. Some of the key representatives among liberation theologians from Latin America include Gustavo Gutiérrez and Leonardo Boff. They are relevant for discussing the social Trinity because they share the conviction that the church’s mission to the world includes challenging unjust political and social structures that oppress and marginalize human beings.18

Liberation theologians also highlight community and relationship at the core of the Trinity. Leonardo Boff writes, “By the name of God, Christian faith expresses the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in eternal correlation, interpenetration and love, to the extent that they form one God.”19 The divine community and interpenetration within the Trinity becomes a theological model for understanding human dynamics, including society.20

Boff explains that as creatures, humans are the image and likeness of God. The relationality of God as three personae with the creation means that God is absolute openness, supreme presence, total immediacy, eternal transcendence, and infinite communion.21 The implication of Boff’s argument is that God must be perceptible in true form in the historical revelation of Scripture.22 In order to recover God’s image, humans are invited to participate in communion with the Trinity, because to be a persona means to be in a relationship both with God and creation.

Ecclesiology plays a major theological role for Boff’s understanding of the social Trinity. He expresses that the church is the community of faith, hope, and love seeking to live the ideal of union proposed by Jesus “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us” (John 17:21).23 Boff supports his ecclesiology with the help of Tertullian when he argues that the church is the body of the three divine Persons, suggesting that by the living out of faith, sharing in worship, and the holy organizing of the church, something is made known of the mystery of the Father, of the intelligence of the Son, and of the love of the Holy Spirit.24

Boff rejects the efforts of Barth and Rahner in replacing the term person in trinitarian language.25 He finds their terms insufficient because they are very abstract, and they fail to deal with the trinity of Persons and the relationships stirring among them. “Ultimately,” Boff adds, “these approaches do not manage to escape from monotheism, and they run the risk of modalism.”26

Gustavo Gutiérrez is another key liberation theologian. He explains the significance of the immanent Trinity in human experience. The encounter with God takes place in the encounter with our neighbor.27

Gutiérrez affirms that there is a close connection between creation and salvation.28 For Gutiérrez salvation encompasses a progression from “the less human to the more human.”29 Gutiérrez wants to avoid a false dichotomy between the spiritual and the physical. Salvation should also contribute to concrete human life.30

The concern for reaching a better understanding of the Trinity in liberation theology comes from the way people experience God. The doctrine of the social Trinity therefore becomes an interpretative model for understanding God in relation to the world. Moreover, to speak of the Trinity in terms of community is to understand God as being relational in nature.31

During the 1960s, there were several revolutions going on in different Latin American countries. Some of these revolutions did not survive even a decade.32 Central America also experienced various revolutions during the 1980s. These war conflicts contributed to poverty and marginalization. How do humans experience God in these conflicts? Again, how does the church, the community of God, experience the Triune God in war and poverty? In view of such questions, community is a significant theological issue for those at the margins of society.33

The relational and communal nature of God is at the core of the doctrine of the Trinity. When Christians invoke God as Father and Son, they are using analogical language that refers to God in terms of parental and filial relationships.34 The practical implication of this trinitarian language is that it reveals to us a God who is relational and communal, thus humans too must be relational and in community.35

Social trinitarians, therefore, conceive a God who is both “one and three” and whose being consists in a relationality that derives from the “otherness-in-relation” of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.36 Moreover, the objective of the revelation of the Triune God in human history is to invite creation to enter into the eternal relationality of the Trinity. Iain Taylor writes, “the triune God of reconciliation is the same triune God of creation.”37

The divine community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the origin of human community. The implication is that as the origin of human community, the Trinity is the model that human community, first the church and then society at large, should imitate. Moreover, this theological assumption is a variant of the Eastern Orthodox theme of divinization. Donald Fairbairn agrees when he writes that “the concept of deification was primarily a way to focus on the relational aspects of sonship . . . thus sharing by grace in the fellowship the Son has with the Father by nature.”38

Miroslav Volf, another social trinitarian, points to the novelty of the social implications of the theme of divinization. He argues that Nicholas Federov interprets the resurrection of Christ as a new ontological state for humanity.39 Likewise, this new ontological state has a major ethical implication for humanity. The gospel is more than just the good news of what God has done: “the Gospel is a social project humanity needs to accomplish.”40

But the question remains, is it possible for human society to imitate the relational and communal life of the Trinity? Moreover, given the influence of sin on humankind, to what extent is the Trinity a valid model for organizing human society and relationships? I will now evaluate the arguments of social trinitarians in order to highlight some key issues.

Ted Peters rejects the attempts of Federov and other social trinitarians to try to use the Trinity as a model for human society. He writes that what attracts social trinitarians is the category of community rather than personality for understanding God.41 In addition, Peters affirms that the ideal of a nonhierarchical community wherein relationships come prior to persons, as espoused by social trinitarians, is the product of the emerging postmodern Western mind.42 Peters therefore argues that the kingdom or reign of God is a better theological basis for human community.43 The symbol of the kingdom or reign of God includes the basic elements that social trinitarians argue for, including a call for social justice, images of a world community at peace, and an expectation of the eschatological kingdom of God.44

Volf is also aware of limitations of modeling human society on the Trinity.45 First, since ontically human beings are not divine, trinitarian concepts such as “person,” “relation,” and “perichoresis” should be applied to human community only in an analogous rather than a univocal sense.46 The implication is that as creatures, human beings can correspond to the uncreated God only in a creaturely way.47 The second limitation is human sin.48 Accordingly, in history human beings cannot be made into the perfect creaturely images of the Triune God because this will be realized in the coming of the eschatological kingdom. The implication of this second limitation is that human beings have the possibility to correspond to God in historical ways as well.49 That is, humans can act to shape history and society to speed up the coming of the kingdom.

Volf therefore revises the methodology of the doctrine of the social Trinity. He argues that the methodology of interpreting the Trinity as the model for human community should not start from above, that is, not from the doctrine of the Trinity down to a vision of social realities.50 Rather, Volf adds, the conceptual elaboration of the correspondences must be interpreted as a two-way street, both from above and from below.51

Mark Husbands rejects the methodology proposed by Volf.52 He examines the doctrine of the social Trinity defended by Volf and offers a critique of its theology. Accordingly, Husbands shares a basic rule to measure the relative value of a given proposal regarding the doctrine of the Trinity: “A theology that purports to be properly ‘trinitarian’—and by this I mean consistent with both the biblical witness and Nicene Christianity—must preserve an ontological distinction between God and humanity in order to maintain an order consistent with their distinct natures.”53 This rule is important because it helps to be aware of some of the dangers of the social Trinity presented by Volf and liberation theologians. First, failure to maintain the ontological distinction between the Trinity and human beings would lead to the eclipse of the doctrine of God by any number of contemporary social, cultural, or political agendas.54

Second, the proposal of Volf and social trinitarians from liberation theology runs the risk of reducing the doctrine of God to ecclesiology and the doctrine of ecclesiology to social practices.55 This critique echoes the concerns of the International Theological Commission, appointed by the Catholic Church after Vatican II to examine liberation theology. The Commission concluded that the force and dynamism of God’s word do not consist in its function of stimulating social and political change.56

Moreover, the practice of Christian faith cannot be reduced to changing conditions in society, because it also involves conscience formation, changes of attitude, and adoration of God.57 Therefore, a proper understanding of the doctrine of God and the practice of Christian faith are key elements for a vision of the Trinity that honors the biblical witness and Nicene Christianity.

What is the function of the doctrine of the social Trinity from a Central American perspective? The basic function must be to ground Christian faith, worship, and practice in a trinitarian vision of God that empowers the church to become a community in imitation of the revelation of the immanent Trinity. This paper will offer suggestions to Churches of Christ in Central America in order to stimulate interest in the doctrine of the social Trinity.

First, the theological heritage of Churches of Christ in Central America continues to ignore the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity for Christian faith, worship, and practice. Moreover, some parts of the region are constantly threatened by social injustice, political corruption, and poverty. While there is no such a thing as a “normative” liberation theory of salvation,58 there is one central emphasis to be observed: The view of God’s manifold activity for the sake of creation, described in the Scriptures as deliverance, redemption, justification, and salvation, should be understood holistically.59 Further, this holistic view challenges Churches of Christ in Central America not to limit the work of the Triune God to the “spiritual” area of life because salvation is integral, thus impacting all areas of human concern including social justice. The work of the Trinity frees human beings from sin while at the same time condemning injustice in any form, including political and social injustice.

Second, the mission of the church must also be transformed by the doctrine of the social Trinity. Bonino argues that mission is participation in the fullness of God’s mission; therefore evangelization cannot but be a testimony to God’s good creation and an announcement of God’s justice with a call to practice and serve it.60 The Trinity, nevertheless, should not be reduced to ecclesiology, but rather the Trinity should shape our understanding of the church as a community transformed by the Trinity to participate in the life of the Trinity.

Finally, the doctrine of the social Trinity proposed by Moltmann, and followed by Boff, Gutiérrez, and Volf must be qualified, lest the ontological distinction between God and man be blurred. Thus, Churches of Christ in Central America must proclaim that the New Testament speaks primarily of liberation from sin and death. Therefore, the New Testament stresses that no genuine change in society will occur except through conversion to Jesus Christ.61 Therefore, the Christian faith, practice, worship, and proclamation of Churches of Christ in Central America must be shaped by a holistic trinitarian vision inviting human beings to align with the life of the Holy Trinity. Human society will change only if it aligns with God.

Lenin Munguia (MDiv, Harding School of Theology) is a Nicaraguan missionary among Churches of Christ. He has served as Bible teacher in various undergraduate programs in Central America, as well as preacher and missionary in Honduras, Venezuela, and the US. Lenin and his wife and son, Mateo, are currently working with Churches of Christ in Managua, Nicaragua, as missionaries of the Waterview Church of Christ in Richardson, TX.

1 See further D. Newell Williams, Douglas A. Foster, and Paul M. Blowers, eds., The Stone-Campbell Movement: A Global History (St. Louis: Chalice, 2013): 285–310.

2 Ibid., 152.

3 Norman Metzler, “The Trinity in Contemporary Theology: Questioning the Social Trinity,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 67 (2003): 271.

4 Ibid. The significance of Barth cannot be overstated. Ted Peters affirms that his significance lies in the fact that Barth places the doctrine of the Trinity at the beginning of his systematic theology. Peter argues that the trinitarian distinctions belong to the primary utterances of the Christian experience. Our most primitive experience with God is as Father or as Son or as Spirit. See further Ted Peters, God as Trinity: Relationality and Temporality in Divine Life (Louisville: John Knox, 1993), 38–9.

5 This is the author’s understanding of Christian ministry among Churches of Christ in Central America since his ministry experience in the region began in 2003.

6 Thomas R. Thompson, “Trinitarianism Today: Doctrinal Renaissance, Ethical Relevance, Social Redolence,” Calvin Theological Journal 32 (1997): 9.

7 Daniel J. Treier and David Lauber, “Introduction,” in Trinitarian Theology for the Church: Scripture, Community, Worship, ed. Daniel J. Treier and David Lauber (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009), 12.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid. However, this analogy, as well as other social analogies, runs the risk of tritheism.

11 Metzler, 271.

12 Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1993), 4–5.

13 Ibid., 5.

14 Ibid., 199.

15 Jürgen Moltmann, “Perichoresis: An Old Magic World for a New Trinitarian Theology,” in Trinity, Community, and Power: Mapping Trajectories in Wesleyan Theology, ed. M. Douglas Meeks (Nashville: Kingswood, 2000), 114. Although the term perichoresis is not found in the New Testament, two passages traditionally used to describe its meaning are John 10:38 and 14:10. For a brief historical survey of the use of the term perichoresis see Michael G. Lawler, “Perichoresis: New Theological Wine in an Old Theological Wineskin,” Horizons 22 (1995): 49–54.

16 Moltmann, “Perichoresis,” 113.

17 Ibid., 115.

18 Mary E. Hines, “Community for Liberation,” in Freeing Theology: The Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective, ed. Catherine Mowry LaCugna (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 165.

19 Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society, trans. Paul Burns (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988), 9.

20 Ibid.

21 Leonardo Boff, “Trinitarian Community and Social Liberation,” Cross Currents 38 (1988): 295.

22 Ibid.

23 Leonardo Boff, Holy Trinity, Perfect Community, trans. Phillip Berryman (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000), 43. All biblical references in this paper are taken from the English Standard Version.

24 Ibid., 44. The organization here refers to the hierarchical structure of the Roman Catholic Church. The ecclesiology of the majority of Churches of Christ in Central America is structured around the figure of the preacher.

25 Ibid., 51. Boff rejects Barth’s “three modes of being” and Rahner’s “three modes of subsistence.”

26 Ibid., 52.

27 Gustavo Gutiérrez, “Toward a Theology of Liberation,” in Liberation Theology: A Documentary History, trans. and ed. Alfred T. Hennelly (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1990), 74.

28 Ibid., 71.

29 Ibid.

30 Ibid., 73.

31 Luis G. Pedraja, “Trinity,” in Handbook of U.S. Theologies of Liberation, ed. Miguel A. De La Torre (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004), 53.

32 Phillip Berryman, “Latin American Liberation Theology,” in Handbook of U.S. Theologies of Liberation, ed. Miguel A. De La Torre (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2004), 142.

33 Pedraja, 53.

34 Ibid.

35 Ibid.

36 Quentin P. Kinnison, “The Social Trinity and the Southwest: Toward a Local Theology in the Borderlands,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 35 (2008): 262.

37 Iain Taylor, Pannenberg on the Triune God (New York: T&T Clark, 2007), 139. Taylor explains that Pannenberg affirms that the work of the Spirit in reconciliation is the continuation of his creative work as the origin of all life.

38 Donald Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009), 9.

39 Miroslav Volf, “The Trinity Is Our Social Program: The Doctrine of the Trinity and the Shape of Social Engagement,” Modern Theology 14 (1998): 403.

40 Ibid.

41 Ted Peters, God as Trinity: Relationality and Temporality in Divine Life (Louisville: John Knox, 1993), 184.

42 Ibid., 185.

43 Ibid.

44 Ibid.

45 Volf, 405.

46 Ibid.

47 Ibid.

48 Ibid.

49 Ibid.

50 Ibid.

51 Ibid. For Volf, then, the doctrine of the Trinity first functions to name the reality that human communities ought to image, and then the doctrines of creation and sin inform the way in which human communities can image the Triune God. See Ibid., 406.

52 Mark Husbands, “The Trinity Is Not Our Social Program: Volf, Gregory of Nyssa and Barth,” in Trinitarian Theology for the Church: Scripture, Community, Worship, ed. Daniel J. Treier and David Lauber (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009), 120–41.

53 Ibid., 121.

54 Ibid.

55 Ibid., 122.

56 Arthur F. McGovern, Liberation Theology and Its Critics: Toward an Assessment (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1989), 51.

57 Ibid.

58 José Míguez Bonino, “Salvation as the Work of the Trinity: An Attempt at a Holistic Understanding from a Latin American Perspective,” in Trinity, Community, and Power: Mapping Trajectories in Wesleyan Theology, ed. M. Douglas Meeks (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 2000), 71.

59 Ibid.

60 Ibid., 82.

61 McGovern, 51.

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