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.
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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.