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Volume 15, Issue 4: Tohu

Trinitarian Self

Jared Miller

The distinction between person and substance (or hypostasis/essence) introduced by the Cappadocian fathers was an ingenious one, and as it happened, necessary for a logical defense against the Arians. However, history has shown some limitations in the ancient formulation. It has been plagued with charges of irrationality, and attempts to make it more reasonable have tended to slip off into heresy. For example, the analogy that three men are different in personality but are united by the essence of their shared human nature is clearly inadequate to describe the Godhead, yet it follows too easily from the Cappadocian distinction. Second, those who do remain orthodox run into theological problems with the formulation. Is God ultimately personal? What is this impersonal layer of "essence" which each Person shares? Is it real or conceptual? If merely conceptual, we have tritheism. Or is God a "society" as some theologians have suggested, which seems to suggest the primacy of the individual? On the other hand, if the unifying "essence" of the Trinity is real, can it still be said that God is a person? Does He have one will? Finally, some assumptions behind the distinction cannot be taken for granted. The reality and usefulness of "essences" have long been in question.

Perhaps some of these long-standing tensions can be solved by simply changing certain hidden assumptions that have become attached to the key terms involved. I want to focus on two here: person and relation. It is evident from Scripture that there are three distinct, divine Persons. It is also evident that they are indissolubly united in such a way that we can speak of one God. The fundamental concept is therefore that of three persons united in a relation that makes them one God. If we might be allowed some equivocation on the term person: one God, thus one person; one person and three persons. This is the heart of Trinity doctrine: trying to discern the separate senses in which God is one and three.
By ridding ourselves of the deeply-held atomic individualism (which simply amounts to pride) concerning the strong nature of personhood and the weak nature of relations, some problems solve themselves. We should question not only the primacy of the person over the relations in which he participates, but even the strict dichotomy between person and relation.
We generally like to ascribe independent metaphysical existence to the "self." Consciousness (or at least the modern consciousness) naturally produces this opinion. There is something to be named I, an independent will, a force from outside nature which observes and controls it, aloof, spiritual, and somehow, in some way, untouched by the body and its history. I once heard a friend say of someone that her personality in group social interaction was not the "real" she. This betrays a deep Romantic assumption that the true self is the isolated, individual, essential self—alone with its own thoughts.
In fact, we are not so independent; our persons arise from many sources beyond our control. We are born with a fallen nature, as Romans teaches, which taints our whole personality apart from grace. Our surroundings and experiences shape us profoundly. But perhaps most important to the development of our persons are our relationships as we grow up: the persons of our friends, our parents, grandparents, and ancestors—we are shaped by this in ways we rarely fully recognize. We know that our relationships affect us, but what if our relationships, in a very real sense, were us? What we call the "self" is heavily dependent on other selves, and without them, unrecognizable. The dependence is mutual, and this other side is the one most obvious to us: relations are heavily dependent on the persons involved in them. What is less obvious is that relations are not merely derivative from more foundational persons. The closer the relationship, the more that it begins to take on a personality of its own. Could not the closest relationship, beyond our imagining, truly have a personality, consciousness, and will of its own, without overshadowing the individuals within it? Neither is wholly independent—the two interpenetrate one another.
All of this has a great impact on how we think about the Trinity. As long as we exalt the individual, our concept of God will emphasize either the Many or (much more likely) the One. But if we rethink our human selves and relationships with more humility, realizing persons arise from relations, and how a relation of persons could achieve personhood, perhaps we would not only have a solid theory of society and the individual, but also a sound and orthodox analogy for our trinitarian theology. We could, then, legitimately think of God as "social"—provided we define our terms carefully.
Of course, human relations can never approach the closeness that obtains within the holy Godhead. The closest human relation, marriage, falls short. Nevertheless, trinitarian tangles arise partly from worldly assumptions about ourselves, since we are, after all, made in the image of God.
There is a marriage in which we are called to participate, which draws us into the closeness of the Trinity. We are "in Christ," united to Christ and one another in the Church. In her is to be found true society, both human and divine. It is no surprise that as God draws us into relation with Himself, we finally find ourselves. "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it."

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