Is there any better symbol for God than the Trinity?

What is the best, most complete possible way to speak of the nature of God? In the Christian Tradition, the answer is clear: The Holy Trinity. And for the sake of argument, let us posit that the idea of the Trinity is the most complete expression of the data about God that has been revealed in Christ, through Scripture, within the Christian Tradition.

Even if it is the most complete expression of God available on the basis of the data of revelation, does this mean that there could not possibly be a better model, or symbol, of God's nature, if we were only able to increase our intellectual ability, or develop new categories of linguistic expression?

This seems to be what philosopher Keith Ward is hinting at in a portion of his book "The Philosopher and the Gospel". This is, for the most part, a solid book and a very helpful philosophical exploration of the Gospel accounts from the perspective of idealist/ontological realist philosophy. However, I find myself struggling with parts like this:

"[The Triune nature of God derived from John's Gospel] is not something that belongs to the hidden and timeless nature of God, whether or not there is a universe (the so-called “immanent Trinity”). Of such a thing I do not think we can dare to speak, nor have we any licence to do so. Some theologians have suggested that unless we know that God’s ousia, God’s innermost being, is Trinitarian in form, then our knowledge that God’s being is Trinitarian in relation to us (the economia of God) must be incomplete, inadequate, or even false. This is not so.

It may be that God’s being-in-itself is unknown to human minds, yet God’s being is truly expressed in relation to us. The appearance is not false, for God is truly expressed as fully as is possible for finite human minds. Appearance is not illusion. Thus it is perfectly coherent to say that God’s being-in-itself is largely unknown and unknowable, but it is such that it is truly expressed in Trinitarian form in relation to us.

What is sometimes called “Rahner’s Rule”, that the immanent Trinity is identical to the economic Trinity, is not compelling if it means that God’s being-in-itself must be exactly the same as God’s being-as-it-relates-to-us. I think it would be very odd if this were so, for it would commit us to a form of naive realism about human knowledge that would not be generally accepted in the realm of scientific and commonsense knowledge...

[The] essential being [of God] is beyond any adequate human understanding. What we can say, perhaps, is that God’s being-in-itself is truly expressed in the only way we can understand, and as fully and adequately as we can understand it, in Trinitarian form. And that understanding requires us to think of God as truly – not in an ephemeral or illusory way – expressed in the history of the cosmos."

Keith, Ward. The Philosopher and the Gospel (p. 164-165). Lion Hudson. Kindle Edition.

This seems to me to open the door to saying that the Economic Trinity (God experienced as Triune in Salvation History) does not necessarily correspond to what God really is, in Godself, outside of space and time. And, as a corollary, this seems to imply that if our capacity were greater, or our language were richer, we might be able to formulate a symbol for God's essence that was both fundamentally different from, and fundamentally better than, the Trinity. In other words, the symbol of the Trinity may be wholly mistaken, but God gives it to us anyway in economic form so that we have some positive concept of God.

I know this is NOT what Ward explicitly says (or perhaps even thinks). But the train of thought he lays down here, despite his protestations, seems to open the door. This is because this mode of thinking shares in the chasm found in the philosophy of Kant. For Kant, there is a chasm of unknowing and unpredictability between reality as we experience it (phenomena) and reality as it is in itself (noumena). Likewise, for Ward there is a chasm between God as we experience God (economically Triune) and God as God is in Godself.

But if God is able to express Godself to human minds at all in revelation, it would seem that God would be able to express Godself truly (that is, in a way that somehow directly corresponds to what God actually is, even if adapted to human limitations). Furthermore, if we were to take all the symbols of God's nature from the panoply of human religious experience, it would seem that some of these symbols would be more correspondent to God's nature, while others were less correspondent. Finally, we could see that at least one of these symbols would be most correspondent.

This does not mean that the other symbols do not in some sense point to the reality of God, or represent God's nature in ways not explicit in the "best" symbol. Clearly if there is an infinite, inexhaustible Reality such as God, there would have to be a multitude of perspectives and dimensions that could not be covered by one symbol. It just means that at least one symbol would be "central", which does the most complete job of signifying the Divine Nature.

For exegetical and philosophical reasons, I believe I am justified in thinking that this central symbol which is most sufficient is in fact the Trinity. Furthermore, I hold that this symbol grants us real, if limited, insight into what God's nature actually is beyond space and time. Thus, when speaking of the "economic" and "immanent" Trinity, I prefer this formulation:

The "Economic Trinity" (God expressed in history as Father, Son/Word, and Spirit) corresponds to the "Immanent Trinity" is such a way that: (a) Positively, the most accurate conceivable symbolic descriptor of God's essence is the Trinity; (b) Negatively, God's essence cannot be anything that diminishes or contradicts the Trinity; (c) Even while undoubtedly the actual essence of God is infinitely deeper and more expansive than the symbols we use to point to God.

And it is at this stage that I wonder whether I am actually disagreeing with Keith Ward, or merely stating his case from a different perspective. For me, this seems to close up quite a bit of the Kantian "chasm" opened by Ward. Economic knowledge of God is real knowledge of God, even if it is limited. And yet, there is my own hesitancy about proclaiming that the symbol of the Trinity somehow exhausts all that can be said about God. Surely there is more to say, and yet this more will definitely cohere with a Trinitarian understanding. And perhaps this is exactly what Ward is saying too, using a more tentative, skeptical mode of speech.

Regardless of how much actual distance there is between myself and Ward, I do think we have to guard ourselves from two extremes: On one extreme, we must not confuse our verbal symbols with God. Our symbols point us to God. They do not replace him. To confuse God and the symbols we use for God is to commit linguistic idolatry.

On the other extreme, we must not think that God could be less than or other than the Trinity. That is to say that God has given us a fundamentally false image of Godself in Christ and the Spirit. It is to commit ourselves to a "Deus Absconditus" (a Hidden God) who is possibly hiding some defect of character from us. It brings back to us another form of Arianism (in which God is too distant to reach us, so he sends created mediators to meet us instead of Godself) or Modalism (in which God is always hiding behind masks, never truly revealing Godself to us).

But, what if the Hidden God is not "worse" than we believe? Might God in actuality be "better" than models of the Trinity dream of God being? Perhaps. But what would "better" mean?

Better could not mean that Christ was less than the full embodiment of God as a human being. That would be worse, for there would be no God who met humanity where we are, as one of us, to reconcile us to God in his body. So, we are committed to a robust doctrine of Incarnation.

Better could not mean that the Spirit is something less than the full presence of God guiding and empowering the faithful. That would be worse, for there would be no continuing presence of God, living in the depths of our being, filling us with God's own life. So, we are committed to a robust Pneumatology. And that commits us to a model of God in at least two distinct persons.

And finally, better could not mean something less than God as a Universal Parent who is the source of both the existence of the universe, and the absolute positive value of the persons within it. That would be far worse, for we would be left in a reality that is either indifferent to us or hostile to us, rather than a reality that fundamentally desires our full human flourishing. And thus, something "better" than the Trinity cannot mean something less than three fully Divine Persons sharing Love with each other eternally and enacting that Love in the history of the Universe.

So, if we posit that the essence of God is somehow "better" than the Trinity, how might we conceive that without deleting portions of what is good in the doctrine of the Trinity? I confess, I do not know.

We might want to say that this Trinity finds expression implicitly in other religions and philosophies, even if these symbolic ways of describing the Divine have not recognized it, and even if most forms of Christian theology have denied it.

Many religious traditions have spoken of Ultimate Reality as what cannot be spoken of, and thus they do not try to go as far "into" God's essence as the doctrine of the Trinity does. Hinduism's doctrine of Brahman, Buddhism's doctrine of Nirvana, the Jewish idea of God, and many other religions and philosophies tend to conceive the essence of Ultimate Reality as not only beyond all symbolic descriptors, but also beyond all temporary, contingent embodiments of Ultimate Reality in Gods or Goddesses or Buddhas or Bodhisattvas or Theophanies or Orishas or other spiritual beings.

Thus, in those religions, a claim to connect with the Ultimate through one of these temporary forms is not a claim that the form is a necessary expression of what Ultimate Reality eternally is. God is not, in these religions, eternally identified as Vishnu or Shiva or Mahdevi or Amida, in the same way that Christians would eternally identify God as Father, Son, and Spirit. In other words, in most other religions, an individual God or Divine Being is just an "economic" phenomena. God's inner essence is far above and beyond the phenomenal forms of the gods that represent it. In Christianity, on the other hand, the economic Trinity is an accurate, if limited, representation of God's inner essence.

This opens up an immense amount of room to say that what is good and true and beautiful in these religions is some sort of reflection of the Triune God. This is not to say that everything in every religion is "of God", anymore than saying that everything done in the Name of Christ actually reflects Christ. But those things in any religion which reflect the character of God revealed in Christ can be seen as some sort of trace of the Triune God's work in that religion. In fact, the great religions of the world can be seen as preparations to encounter the Triune God in Christ, in a way that is similar to how first century Judaism (and the Jewish Scriptures) were a preparation for the coming of Christ.

This is because most religions only claim to reach only so far into the eternal nature of the Divine. It is completely compatible with the Trinity to say something like "where your religion or philosophy stops, let us take it further and show how this is actually a reflection of, and preparation for, the Triune God". Thus, the "economy of salvation/liberation" in historic or mythic or contingent ways deals with God's actions in the world through a panoply of cultural forms and religions. And this is the level that most religions are working at. The insistence that God's "undefinable" essence is best symbolized by the Trinity is operating at another level above the "economic" claims of God's activity in the world.

Thus we have a series of "economic" descriptors of God's work in the world in the various world religions. All of these "economic" models present different perspectives on, and different facets of, God's work in the world. One of these models not only reveals God's unique incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth, but also most sufficiently symbolizes God's inner "immanent" life as Triune. Thus, among world religions, there is much overlap and some contradiction as regards models of God's "economic" work, while there is one "immanent" model which supersedes claims of the "undefinability" of God's inner nature, and tells us that God is Triune.

Even the Christian claim of Incarnation is, I think, categorically different than other religious claims to Divine Embodiment. For Buddhist Bodhisattvas the claim is that a contingent person became aware of the infinite, and by that contact, became the embodiment of the infinite in the world. This is a "bottom up" vision of divine embodiment. Some versions of the Hindu Avatars make a similar "bottom up" claim. Others versions make the "top-down" claim that Brahman (Ultimate Reality) did choose to become incarnate in a human person, but this incarnation did not happen in history. Rather, like the stories of Valmiki or Rama or Krishna, these "incarnations" happen in mythic time, outside of actual history.

On the other hand. the claim of the Incarnation of God in Christ is that Ultimate Reality became intentionally, specifically embodied in a human person, within human history. Jesus' self awareness was the same self that had always existed in God, in eternal communion with the Father and Spirit. That self now expressed himself through the finitude of a human life. This is a "top-down" vision of divine embodiment, that happens within space and time.

Thus, conceptually, there is the possibility that saying the divine lived in Krishna or Buddha in a categorically different way than the way in which the divine was incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. There is the possibility that these are not contradictions because, for Buddhists, we have a bottom-up "contingent-reaching-eternal" vision of Divine Embodiment; for Hindus, we have multiple Divine Embodiments that happen in either a "bottom-up" way or in mythic time; Yet for Christians, we have a top-down "eternal-reaching-contingent" embodiment within actual history. One could even make the claim, similar to CS Lewis, that Divine Embodiments in Buddhism, Hinduism, and other "Eastern" religions actually point to the real "Myth become Fact" in Jesus of Nazareth.

And thus, we have possibly opened the door conceptually for a "better" version of the Trinity: One that allows genuine participation in the life of God by diverse religious traditions who do not acknowledge the Triune God. Perhaps it is "better" to speak of the Trinity as an overflowing of creative Love that is working even in places and cultures that do not know or acknowledge the Trinity.

And yet, is this "better" version speaking of God's INNER life in a new way? This "inclusive" vision of the Trinity turns out to be just another "economic" claim about God's activity in history, not about God's nature. We could say "Well, this demonstrates that God is Love!" But we already knew that by positing God as Trinity. God is Love because God is a communion of Persons giving to one another eternally, and from the overflow of this Love we live and move and exist. So, such claims of the inclusivity of the Triune God's work in world religions do not so much add to a definition of God's essence as they do illustrate and elaborate on what is already posited in the nature of the Trinity.

And thus, we are back to the conundrum. Could God's essence be "more than" or "better than" the symbol of the Trinity without denying or contradicting the Trinity? I do not doubt it is. I do not doubt that when I fully experience God in Christ "face to face", that experience will be so much fuller than what I can currently experience or conceive. Yet, I have no conceptual apparatus right now, nor do I conceive any while I am trapped in the limits of mortal finitude, that can more fully express who and what God is than the Holy Trinity.

When light is trapped in the dimensions of our universe, it is inherently limited to 186,000 miles per second. So also while humans reside within this universe, I believe that the nature of our knowledge and language is such that the model of the Trinity is the absolute limit for understanding God's inner nature. We may find better ways to describe the Trinity and illustrate how this Triune God is at work in the world. But nothing less than the Trinity- nothing that diminishes or contradicts the Trinity- can give us true knowledge of God.

And after all this writing, I'm not entirely sure I have said anything different from what Keith Ward has said. Our lines of nuance have been laid down in different places. I want to emphasize how much we do in fact know about God. I think he wants to emphasize how tentative our knowledge is. But, at the end of the day, I think we can both whole heartedly, with full conviction and philosophical integrity, pray the ancient prayer:

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

On Elisha, Bears and Bullying

In light of recent tragedies, I wanted to comment once again on the issue of violence in the Bible. On the whole, I tend to view Biblical violence, done in the Name of God, as a series of object lessons about how the God revealed in Jesus Christ does NOT want God's Name to be used, and how systemic violence can rot the core out of a society.

First of all, there are episodes of horrendous violence done in God's Name. Think of Joshua and the Israelites wiping out entire cities in Canaan, killing every man, woman, child, and animal for God. When we read these stories and then look telescopically across the trajectory of Scripture, I think we must ask ourselves: Do these violent actions create the society of justice, compassion, and peace that God repeatedly asks for?

And the answer is no. Across Scripture, we see many examples of cultures that fall into violence, injustice, and oppression, often while citing religious justification. Yet, in every case, whether done in "God's Name" or not, we find that violence begets more violence, injustice gives birth to more injustice, and oppression leads to more oppression. In every case, it spirals out of control, until the whole culture implodes from within, while often being invaded from outside as well. Thus, these stories give us a sad object lesson: Societies that use God as a justification for hatred and violence wind up being destroyed by monster they create.

There is also a parallel read of these stories of divinely sanctioned human violence. This is that these cultures had become so corrupt that God allowed their invasion and destruction as a kind of amputation to cut off their dead and dying social structures, so they could not keep on poisoning the larger civilization. That is to say, if the Biblical descriptions are anywhere near accurate, both the culture of Canaan before the Israelite invasion, as well as the culture of Israel and Judah centuries after the invasions, had become horrible places that were unable to support healthy human life. The accepted rule of the day was repeated abuse of women, children, the elderly, the poor, the marginalized, and basically anyone not belonging to the gang of the local ruler (i.e. warlord). And without a massive destruction of the social structures, and replacement of their oppressive "norms", the systemic cycle of abuse would just keep going. So, God allowed their implosion, invasion, and destruction.

So, a broad read of Scripture seems to show me that God does not want God's Name used as a justification for violence, oppression and genocide. It shows me that those who do use God for such a justification are sowing seeds for the eventual implosion and destruction of their own culture, because of the insidious infection of hatred and oppression it creates. And it shows me that God does allow the merciful destruction of civilizations that are so sick and malignant that they must be cut off and rebuilt from the ground up.

So much for Biblical violence, done by human agents, in God's Name.

But what about the Scripture passages where there seems to be a direct act of Divine Violence visited upon people, apart from direct human agency, in a supernatural, or at least highly improbable, way?

I'm not prepared to make broad interpretations of those themes across Scripture. Perhaps some of these stories are symbolic descriptions of God's destruction of evil spiritual realities and oppressive social systems (I think that is largely what is going on in the visions of Isaiah and Revelation). Perhaps other stories are ancient people mis-interpreting natural disasters as a direct act of God's wrath (one might think of the ancient flood stories here). And perhaps in some of these stories, God is actually getting rid of especially heinous, hateful, malignant people in an extraordinary way, so we can learn from their pathology. These stories need to be interpreted on a case-by-case basis before I could draw any broad themes.

In this case, I would like to focus on one story of supernatural Divine Violence that can alternately be seen as hilarious or heinous. It is a story that, depending on how it is told, could be put on a sketch comedy show, or could be a damning piece of evidence in a courtroom scene where God's goodness is put on trial. This is the story of Elisha calling down God's wrath upon a group of 42 "youth" in the form of two angry bears, found in 2 Kings 2.23–24.

And just so that what I am about to say has a clear basis in how scholars actually translate this text, I want to quote three different translations:

New American Standard: A Conservative, High-Reading Level Translation

[23] Then he went up from there to Bethel; and as he was going up by the way, young lads came out from the city and mocked him and said to him, “Go up, you baldhead; go up, you baldhead!” [24] When he looked behind him and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two female bears came out of the woods and tore up forty-two lads of their number.

New International Version: A Moderate, Mid-Reading Level Translation

[23] From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” [24] He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the LORD. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty–two of the boys. 

Common English Bible: A Mainline, Low-Reading Level Translation

[23] Elisha went up from there to Bethel. As he was going up the road, some young people came out of the city. They mocked him: “Get going, Baldy! Get going, Baldy!” [24] Turning around, Elisha looked at them and cursed them in the LORD’s name. Then two bears came out of the woods and mangled forty-two of the youths.

A few notes on the actual meaning of the Hebrew text are in order before I make any generalizations:

First of all, we must note that Elisha was at least an older adult, if not what we might consider "elderly", at this time. He already had a distinguished, apparently multi-decade, career as the assistant to Elijah. He later lives with a widow without a hint of sexual impropriety (2Ki 4). This is something that would have been considered scandalous if he was of marriageable age (i.e. young adult to mid-life). And he was old enough to be bald. So, what we have is an old man walking a road alone, when he is suddenly mocked and jeered by a crowd. Keep that in mind.

Second, what type of people are doing the mocking and jeering? There are two terms translated here. In verse 23 we have na'ar (נַעַר) which can signify a young male, from the age of childhood up to the age of young adulthood. The word na'ar in this verse is supplemented by the adjective for "small", which is qaton (קטן). Small has a very wide range of meanings, from physically small, to small in age (young), to a more metaphorical sense of small in importance or small in moral character.

So we have a group of "na'ar qaton", or "small lads". This combination term "small lads" can likewise have a range of semantic meaning, from literal "little boys", to a metaphorical reference to lesser servants, or even adult males as "little men" (cf. usage in 1Sa 20:35; 1Ki 3:7; 11:17; 2Ki 2.23; 5:14; Isa 11:6).

In verse 24, this same group, after they flee, is referred to a group of "yaled" (ילד). This word, likewise has a range of semantic meaning, from literal babies or young children, to a metaphorical way of speaking about adults who are acting childish. Similar to how we might say to an adult who is whining "stop being a baby!". We know that these cannot be literal babies or small children, because they are at least considered "na'ar" in the previous verse. And if we are looking for more clues about their age, that leads us to the next question.

Third, how many were there? According to the story, 42 of these young people were mauled. That is a large number. And unless every single person doing the mocking stayed still during the bear attack, we have to assume there were some from among the crowd who ran away and escaped the mauling. So, in all probability, the story is referencing a group of more than a hundred people, gathered outside of the city, who are intentionally mocking an old man.

Unless the people surrounding Bethel were prone to allowing all their young children to live outside of the city walls "Lord of the Flies" style, we must assume that these young people were on the older, metaphorical range of semantic meaning for both "na'ar qaton" and "yeled". What this text pretty clearly points us to, in a metaphorical way, is that there was a large gang of rogue young men, probably made up of adolescents and young adults, who roamed outside of the city as bandits, and probably made their living by robbing and pillaging travelers who were going to the local commercial hub of Bethel to trade. Gangs of bandits like this, preying on travelers and merchants, are common in ancient literature from all cultures, including that of the ancient near east [for instance click here].

Finally, what happened to them? The text intentionally does not use the word "killed" or "destroyed" to describe their fate. Instead, it says the two bears "mauled" them. The hebrew is baka (בקע), meaning to cleave or split open, and in this case, to get ripped up by two bears. Now, might there have been life threatening injuries sustained here? Of course. But, for the most part, the wording would signify instead what Texans might call "a good ass-whuppin". So, we have a group of "little men" who have fun bullying and taunting the elderly, who are sent running away, screaming like "little babies", after they are thrashed by the bears.

What does all this mean?

Well, for me, it is pretty clear we have an ornery elderly prophet, walking alone on a long road, who is suddenly bullied by a group of over a hundred young thugs. And like most mob actions, you never quite know when the whole thing is going to erupt in violence. So, in fear the elderly man curses the young bandits in the name of God, right before they are about to attack him. To everyone's surprise, God actually answers the curse on this occasion, and sends (or providentially allows) two bears to protect the solitary elderly man from mob violence. And in a very memorable way.

It was not enough for God to protect the elderly. God did it with flair. And perhaps also with a dark sense of humor.

The moral of the story? It seems that in this case, God protected the most vulnerable person from the hateful and powerful. God seems to be against rogue mob violence. God seems to be on the side of the oppressed and vulnerable. God does not seem to like bullies: People who use their power and vigor and numbers to intentionally harm others. That is something we would do well to remember as we debate social policy in our world today.

If I were to push the issue further, I might ask of this story: Is violence ever necessary, and if so, what is the justification of using violence? There are extreme cases where no peaceful or rational methods will stop a powerful, unjust oppressor from harming the innocent and the vulnerable. For those who have the power to stop the oppressor, the question then becomes which is the greater evil and which is the lesser evil: Is it worse to do nothing and allow violence to be done to the vulnerable, or to do violence against unjust human beings and stop their oppression?

Clearly, on the basis of this story, violence is sometimes the lesser evil to protect the vulnerable. I believe this is a principle that is generalizable across Scripture, drawing on Old Testament prophetic texts about defending the vulnerable, as well as New Testament texts such as Romans 13 and 1Peter 2. Thus, we come to the principle of "defensive violence": If all other peaceful, rational options have been tried and failed, it is the lesser evil to protect the vulnerable by harming their oppressors.

Thus, there is a place in a just society for "bears": Police and armed forces who defend the needy and vulnerable from injustice and violence. Yet, their defensive actions must not be done in God's Name. For God "takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live" (Eze 33.11). Violence is only justified as the lesser evil in the face of a greater evil. And if that "defensive violence" takes a turn toward oppressing other vulnerable parties (such as non-combatants), it is no longer justifiable on ANY grounds. So if violence is ever said to be justified in someone's name, it is not in the name of God, but rather in the name of the oppressed, who are being defended for God's sake.

Yet, questions of the legitimate use of violence are never the final question to be asked. Violence, as we have shown, is at best a lesser evil to protect the vulnerable, and at worst a blatant rejection of God's will. Without a God of healing who can redeem the world from our hopeless cycles of systemic violence and oppression, there literally is no hope. And that is why the trajectory of the Bible begins with a good Creation, and moves through Elijah and the young thugs and all the other stories of violence and evil, until it ultimately points us to the God who became embodied in Jesus. It is finally this God Incarnate, crucified, and risen again, who brings resolution to the problems raised by Scriptures such as 2Kings 2.23-24.

I know this meditation has gone far beyond the pale of what is being considered in this passage about one elderly man, two angry bears, and 42 young bandits. But if it is truly Scripture, then that is what it should do: Point us beyond itself.

No wonder Douglas Adams said the meaning of life is 42.

This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.