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  • Peter Carnley


I recently happened upon a brave attempt to understand the divine mystery of the inter-personal relations of the Three Persons of the Trinity by drawing upon the analogy of “three distinct people who sing from the same song sheet in harmony.” This is a welcome attempt to express what is in fact a dynamic image of the Trinity, which is far in advance of the very static analogy that is so often drawn between water, ice, and steam, all sharing the same substance!

Even so, I think there is a major problem with the image of “three distinct people singing in harmony from the same song sheet.” The problem is that this image leads to the suggestion of the three divine Persons envisaged as three distinct individuals, each with his own job to do, who sing from the same script in harmony. This is affirmed in talk of God’s “sending of his Son,” and “the Son’s willingness to die on the Cross,” with the Holy Spirit’s role being to “open our eyes” to these things. In other words, this image suggests three individuals who, insofar as they sing in harmony, are in this sense one; however, they are thus only functionally one.

The Creedal affirmation of Christians is that the three identities of the Trinity are “one in Being,” not just “one in function.” This image of three individuals singing from the same script, even in harmony, is really the heresy of Tri–theism. Using technical theological language, this suggestion is that they are functionally one. rather than being “ontologically” one (ie. one in terms of their eternal being and identity).

In fact, in the Christian tradition the three Persons are not just three individuals, even functioning in harmony, because in orthodox Trinitarian theology a Person is quite positively not an individual. The basic difference between a person and an individual is that, whereas an individual is by definition conceived in distinction from others and in some degree of separation from others, a person is conceived in relation to others. This relation is not just functional (like singing from the same script) but ontological in the sense that the inter–personal relation is in some way determinative of the being and identity of each of the related terms. This is why Trinitarian theology speaks of three Persons rather than three distinct individuals.

In conceiving the Persons of the Trinity, the Cappadocian Fathers of the fourth-century were very clear that a Person is not to be thought of as an individual. They rejected the notion of a persona then current in the Roman Empire – conceived as an individual with a specific civic status and a set of legal rights. They saw that to think of the Persons of the Trinity as individuals sharing the same divine status and rights is exactly what leads to an unwelcome Tri-theism – three distinct individuals, equal in divinity and acting together in a kind of harmony. Likewise, they rejected the Hellenised notion of a person of their inherited culture which was signalled by the prosopon of Greek drama – originally the mask and then the role of an actor expressed though the mask ‑‑ for by contrast with Tri–theism this ends up with one God as a single individual, acting in three different roles or modes. This is the third–century heresy of Sabellius (Modalism).

This means that, whether the thought is of God as an individual acting in three modes (Modalism), or the three individuals singing from the same script and acting in harmony (Tri-theism), the Cappadocian Fathers instead came up with the notion of a person in distinction from an individual. They grasped the truth that whereas an individual is conceived in distinction from others, a person by contrast is one who is defined by, and receives an identity from, others. Hence, in the Trinity, the Father is the Father from all eternity, only because of his relation to the Son from all eternity, for a Father has necessarily (ie by definition) to be related to one who is his “begotten” in order to be the Father, and the Son has to be begotten of a Father in order to be the Son, and so on. Likewise, the Spirit proceeds ineffably from the Father and has no being or identity in independence of the Father.

The three inter-related Persons, each having an identity that is not independent of the others, are also one by mutual-self-gift and by sharing a common will and purpose. The Father thus finds his own will freely reflected back to himself by the Son like an image in a mirror. Rather than the Son doing the will of the Father, there is thus in the Trinity a single “coincidence” of willing. Between Persons the inter-personal give-and-take of mutual self-gift, also expresses their interpersonal Unity of Being. Hence, the Cappadocian Fathers spoke of the Trinity as Three Persons in one Communion as distinct from three individuals, even singing in harmony from the same song sheet. This distinction between an individual and a person was the great fourth-century discovery of the Cappadocian Fathers; in fact, this was a great step forward in the history of ideas. It signalled, not just the unity of harmonious action amongst individuals of Tri-theism precisely because the inter-personal unity of Persons as distinct from individuals is ontological, having to do with something essential to their very being and identity; it was not just a matter of function.

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To further compound the problematic nature of the image of three individuals singing in harmony, this kind of talk often occurs in close association with explanations of the work of the Son in terms of “propitiatory atonement.” This is not only problematic in Biblical terms (see below), but something that is immediately troublesome insofar as the doctrine of the Trinity is concerned. For a logically necessary implication of talk of “propitiatory atonement” is its suggestion that one person/individual propitiates or appeases another within a kind of behind-the-scenes transaction of payment-making. Sometimes, the payment of a kind of penalty by the Son on behalf of all humanity, is said to be justified by appeal to the notion of satisfying the alleged demands of God’s justice. But this presupposes that God’s justice is retributive justice (of which the paradigm is “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” though no doubt refined in some way to make it divinely acceptable). This opens up a whole range of theological difficulties, which explains why the Church has never defined any theory of the Atonement of this general kind as a dogmatic or creedal requirement of Christian faith. This is also why current systematic theology has steered away from transactional behind-the-scenes or mythical theories of this kind.

Not least, this is today seen as very troublesome, given its apparent negative impact on an understanding of the trinitarian inter-relatedness of Persons in one Unity of Being. If, for the moment, we keep the focus on the implications of talk of “propitiatory atonement” on our understanding of the relations of the Persons of the Trinity, the problem of talking of the Trinity as three distinct individuals, even acting in harmony, along with talk of the “propitiatory atonement” achieved by one individual in relation to another, is that the unity of their ontological relatedness, is destroyed, for talk of the propitiation of one individual by the action of another immediately sets up a kind of initial and unavoidable division or “opposition” between the one and the other which then has to be overcome. To introduce notions of propitiation into the life of the Trinity is therefore logically vicious with respect to the harmonious relational identity and unity of Persons that is so essential to the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity.

It also suggests that something that happens in time (the death of Jesus on the Cross) can somehow effect a change in the internal life of the changeless God, which is obviously a contradiction in terms. This alerts us to the fact that the initial problem that leads to the mistaken tendency to speak of the three identities of the Trinity as individuals rather than as Persons-in-Communion, actually arises from attempts to develop a doctrine of the Trinity purely on the basis of the action of God in time – In the technical language of theology, on the basis of the “economy” or “management plan” of salvation. Recourse to talk of a transaction that allegedly happens between the first two Persons of the Trinity in terms of “propitiation” clearly also arises from out of this conceptual context. In other words, the problem begins with a reliance on the human perception of God’s dealing with humanity in the history of salvation. Even though the Church has never defined any one “theory of atonement” a theory therefore has to be devised that will justify the contention that (for whatever reason) the Father has to be propitiated or appeased or somehow re-paid by the actions of the Son. Historically this necessity is argued by appeal to the notion of God’s alleged retributory justice insofar as it is said that a penalty has to be paid by somebody for the human rebellion of Adam. In other words, it is sometimes argued that, as the contractual head of the human race, Adam incurred a penalty of the kind that always attaches to broken contracts, and that has to be paid by the whole human race as children of Adam. This is said to be why the Son has to pay a penalty, as a substitute for the whole human race.

However, most of us understand ourselves as children of Abraham (rather than Adam, for we are only children of Adam “according to the flesh”) and believe that God entered into a covenant with Abraham in which we share by a faith “like Abraham’s,” and by baptism into Christ. We are thus heirs of the covenant of Abraham. But, the essence of a covenant as distinct from a contract is that there is no penalty for failure to keep it. God promises to be the God of Abraham and his descendants, “come what may”; likewise, Abraham and his children will be God’s covenant people “come what may.” God is always faithful to his promise. Talk of the payment of a contractual penalty is entirely alien to the theology of covenant relations. This means that it is methodologically questionable to begin with Adam rather than Abraham, given that the language of the ensuing kind of theory of the Atonement based upon Adam’s broken contract with talk of its required penalty becomes contractual taher than covenantal.

The problems attaching to starting from this point and moving to God’s “management plan,“ or the “economy of salvation,” and coupling this with talk of “propitiatory Atonement” with its presupposed need for some kind of appeasement of one identity of the Trinity by the other, in a kind of behind-the-scenes transaction of payment-making, is that this enterprise unfortunately, then goes awry in terms of its trinitarian implications. This is because it leads logically to a tendency to think of the Trinity in terms of the Father (whom we know in faith and experience as Creator), and the historical Jesus (whom we remember for his Atoning work), and the Holy Spirit (whom we know illuminating our minds). The Trinity, as perceived from the perspective of the economy of salvation, is therefore regularly spoken of as the “Economic Trinity.” However, the resulting “Economic Trinity” of Father/Creator–Jesus/Redeemer–Holy Spirit/Sanctifier leads directly either into a kind of Tri-theism or a kind of Modalism.

As we can readily see, in reaching their conclusions about the Persons in the Unity-of-Being of one inter-personal Communion, the Cappadocian Fathers concentrated almost exclusively on the Essential Trinity rather than the Economic Trinity. The “Essential Trinity” may be contrasted with the Economic Trinity insofar as God is conceived even “prior” to his creative, redemptive, and sanctifying activity - the Father in the timelessness of his Eternity (prior to creation), the Word of God eternally begotten of the Father, and the Spirit of God, eternally and ineffably proceeding from the Father. This Trinity of Persons involves the essential Unity-of-Being of Father, Eternal Word, and Spirit from all eternity. This contrasts with the “Economic Trinity,” of God the Creator, the Incarnate Jesus the Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit, the Sanctifier of the economy of salvation.

In the interests of avoiding thinking both of the Persons of the Trinity as individuals and the inescapable Tri-theism of this, and also the modalistic association of talk of one individual acting in three modes as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, reflection on the “Economic Trinity” has therefore to be grounded in an initial consideration of the internal relations of the “Essential Trinity” in exactly the way the Cappadocian Fathers have taught us and which the Church accepts as its orthodoxy. This will rule out the possibility both of Tri-theism and Modalism that can so easily be developed from reflection only on the economy of salvation. Indeed, without a grounding in the Essential Trinity, known by revelation in hints and glimpses in the “economy of salvation” it is very hard, if not impossible, to avoid the sub-Trinitarian outcomes of Tri-theism and Modalism.

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The problematic methodological strategy of starting from talking of the identities of the Trinity as individuals who are functionally united, in close association with talk of the work of the Son in terms of “propitiatory atonement” in the context of the economy of salvation, becomes particularly perilous when the alleged Biblical warrant for doing so (in 1 John 2:2, 4:10, and Romans 3:5) is so meagre and insecure, and, indeed, exegetically questionable.

The notion of propitiation, which was coined in English only in 1536, and which then conditioned the Comfortable Words of the English Prayer Books from 1549 onwards, and the texts of 1 John 2:2, 4:10, and Romans 3:5 of the King James Version of the Bible, is a problematic translation of the Greek words hilasmos, (1 John 2:2; 4:10) and hilasterion, (Romans 3:25). This Romans text is in fact a Pauline hapax, with no parallels elsewhere in Paul to help our understanding. The same word also occurs in Hebrews 9:5, where it is regularly translated as “mercy seat” rather than “propitiation”. This translational inconsistency signals the interpretative difficulty we have to face in dealing with these words. But the textual context suggests that these words clearly relate to the expiation or expunging of sin, as effectively the covering or “blotting out” of sin, and the achievement of reconciliation or atonement with God.

The Hebrew equivalent of the Greek hilasterion (of Romans 3:25) is Ha-Kapporeth, which is usually translated “mercy seat” – the place between the cherubim on the gold plate on top of the ark of the Covenant where Yahweh “appeared.” Indeed, the “place of atonement” (or “mercy seat” which is the usual translation in Hebrews 9:5) could be the intended meaning of hilasterion (following Ezekiel 43: 14, 17, 20) also in Romans. The Hebrew root Kaphar from which we get the Kapporeth which is translated “mercy seat” or “place of atonement,” which becomes hilasterion in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), and then propitiatorum in the Latin Vulgate, and finally “propitiatory atonement” in English, actually originally meant simply “to cover sins” It might well therefore be translated to mean the “expiation” of sins. However, as soon as this word is placed in the conceptual context of transactional relations between individuals, the sense of expiation gives way to propitiation, and hence unavoidably to thoroughly noxious trinitarian notions of the appeasement of one individual by the action of the other This is the abiding danger of talk of “propitiatory atonement” from the point of view of Christian orthodoxy.

In other words, while these terms (hilasmos and hilasterion) themselves do not necessarily bring the sense of “appeasement” with them, as soon as they are conceptually (and arbitrarily) brought within the context of a transaction between individuals they immediately acquire a sense of one individual appeasing another. This can be camouflaged by pointing to the fact that, of course, it is all out of love but it is hard to shake “propitiation” from of its negative overtones without abandoning it altogether (which may be the best option).

It is worth noting that recent translations of hilasmos and hilasterion fall back on the very neutral “sacrifice of atonement” rather than “propitiation” so as thus to avoid its unwelcome connotations of appeasement and payment-making. Indeed, if “place of atonement” (or “mercy seat” which is the usual translation in Hebrews 9:5) could be the intended meaning of hilasterion (following Ezekiel 43: 14, 17, 20) it may not be possible to read any explicit reference even to “sacrifice” into this Romans text, let alone mention of alleged overtones of retributive justice and appeasement which have to be somewhat arbitrarily imported into it. The same applies to hilasmos in 1 John 2:2 and 4:10 which the NRSV wisely prefers to translate as “atoning sacrifice” so as to avoid the unfortunate implications of the concept of “propitiation.” It may well be that these words actually originally meant simply “to cover sins”. It refers to the covering or blotting out of sins and atonement with God achieved by the sacrificial death of Christ on the Cross, but without any necessary sense of appeasement, or payment-making.

Moreover, even if resort to the concept of “sacrifice” is had in the translation of hilasterion and hilasmos (as “sacrifice of atonement” rather than “mercy seat” or place of atonement) in relation to the self-offering of Christ on the Cross, we have to note as Cranmer pointed out, that there are different kinds of “sacrifice.” On one hand the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross is single and unique, but on the other hand, every prayer is a sacrifice in the sense of an “offering to God.” We rightly speak of “a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.” In our understanding of the unique sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, there is presumptive Biblical pressure for Christ’s offering of himself to be understood in the Pauline sense of the self-sacrificial love expressed in the servant humanity of Jesus (of which Paul speaks, for example in Philippians 2, and which I John actually also mentions in 1 John 2:2 and 4:10), and which we see empirically placarded before us in the self-offering of Christ on the Cross. In this case, even the concept of sacrifice may have nothing to do with propitiation in the sense of the appeasement of one individual by the actions of another, nor with payment-making of any kind, not least something inferred in a mythical “behind the scenes” transaction to do with the satisfaction of the demands of a kind of justice. This is particularly so when the particular kind of justice somewhat arbitrarily assigned to God is represented as a kind of retributory justice which is hard to distance from the “eye for an eye/tooth for a tooth” variety which can only very awkwardly and problematically be ascribed to God.

Also, these days, account has to be taken of the reception of historical theories of Atonement in our current social context. Given that in the context of the present world, a text telling of the alleged divine requirement of the payment of a penalty, involving the death of the Son to satisfy his own demands, even if the Son is said to be a willing victim, is likely to be heard in a way that raises concern about what sounds like a kind of “cosmic child abuse.” This is an added reason why talk of propitiation in a way that inevitably suggests the Tri-theistic separate and distinct identity of the divine Persons as though they were three distinct individuals, one of whom is appeased by the other, is today so troublesome. It is understandable that, the Church has never dared to define the precise way in which this “blotting out” of sin and Atonement with God is achieved.

This allows us to think of our salvation, not as the abstract outcome of the acceptance in faith of a theory of Atonement, but as a concretely experienced reality, grounded in faith and baptism, whereby in Christ we are incorporated into the Communion of God, and admitted to a share in the Trinitarian life of God. Faith, repentance and baptism concretely and experientially gives us access to this divine reality and this is our salvation. This is not a theory but something divinely achieved on our behalf into which we are incorporated. Recourse to behind-the-scenes transactional theories of salvation becomes superfluous.

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Thus, talk of “propitiatory atonement” might well be something we are today naturally inclined to avoid, not only because it is only very insecurely rooted in the relevant New Testament texts, but also because theories of a kind of payment-making transaction cannot be comfortably ascribed to a God of grace and forgiveness, whose covenant of faithfulness to his covenant people is not conditional on the alleged need to pay the penalty for a broken contract, and also because in the context of the consideration of the ontology of Trinitarian relations it inevitably suggests the separate and distinct identity of the divine Persons as though they were three distinct individuals, with one making a kind of retributive payment to another, and the third allegedly helping us understand this. The mystery of three Persons in one Unity of Being is something altogether different from three divine individuals all singing from the same song sheet (ie Tri-theism).

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