Sunset - Larnaca

Sunset - Larnaca

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Social Trinitarianism

Social Trinitarianism is the application of the Trinitarian doctrine to the practice of human relationships. The Triune doctrine of God, ‘encourages us to discover our roles as we participate in God.’ These roles, or relationships, within a loving communion (the Christian community) are a reflection of Trinitarian communion. In this essay I will show that it is necessary for us to base social trinitarianism on patristic teaching, elaborated upon, and explained by writers such as Zizioulas, Florensky and Staniloae. These Orthodox theologians, (even though their writings differ to an extent) share the important principle of divine-human communion as their ‘fundamental axiom’ for their application of the Trinitarian doctrine to human relationships. This essay will highlight that it is only through a loving relationship and communion with the Triune God, (this communion being the spiritual life within the Church as a eucharistic body) that we can then see and reflect upon our relationships as human beings in light of the consubstantial and undivided Trinity. I will briefly discuss, and refute, the rationalistic approach - emphasising that we cannot base our understanding of the Trinity and its social implications on human reason and logic, but rather on our personal communion with God. For this reason, I will use Florensky’s letter ‘On Triunity’, followed by the writings of Zizioulas and Staniloae.

For Florensky, the word ὁμοούσιος (homoousios), meaning consubstantiality, is at the very centre of Christian life. The Baptismal formula..’in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit’ is ‘unquestionably the unfolding of the word homoousios.’ Christian life-understanding grows from consubstantiality, as it is an expression of this antinomic seed of faith, in the Triune God. We say ‘in the name’, rather than ‘in the names’ - highlighting that there is indeed One consubstantial and undivided God. The formula of one essence and three hypostases (which is proclaimed by St Basil the Great in his 38th Epistle, as well as St Gregory of Nyssa in his ‘Great Cathechism’) is important in that it identifies and distinguishes the two terms. However Florensky argues we cannot describe with words or with reason, the ‘ineffable depth of mystery : how one and the same thing is both countable and evades counting..’  

When discussing the Trinitarian theology of Saint Athanasius of Alexandria and St Gregory of Nazianzus Florensky writes that reason could never have arrived at this possibility of unity in Trinity, and Trinity in unity. It is through their faith, and relationship with the Trinity, that they were guided to the knowledge of Truth. Rational constructions do not bring any Trinitarian understanding - so our knowledge must be divinely inspired, and transcend mathematical reason. We need ‘something new, something unheard-of and higher.’ Knowledge of the Trinity and our understanding of our human relations in reflection of the Triune God, is found not in human reason, but is obtained from a ‘higher step.’This is reaching the highest form of understanding; which Florensky names ‘Christian-life understanding’. However, reason, understood as the processes of thought and the laws of logic, is the foundation of Western philosophy, with its roots in both Aristotle and Aquinas,as well as Descartes - and it upon this modern philosophy of reason that much of western social trinitarianism is based: 

In the modern, German theological tradition, knowledge of God is seen as a problem, that has to be solved within the limits of human reason and comprehensibility - as opposed to a mystery that should be revered above and beyond human thought. This position reflects a way of thinking that is specific to modernity. The issue here is, that the human being (along with his limitations) is at the very centre of the problem solving, rather than the spiritual communal mode of existence, which is transcendent - because a communion with the very Triune God is obtained. It is important to remember that theology is indeed a mystery, and its function is to bring to light this mystery of the Truth - God. We cannot solve it as if it were a mystery in the contemporary sense.

Florensky urges us to go beyond rationality, and reach this step of faith which is ‘the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’ ( Heb 11:1 ) For Florensky, faith in the Triune God is truth itself. We do not possess the truth. God is The Truth. When a person puts all their trust in, and places their heart in God, then they become one with Truth. This is when we are true images of God, and as a Christian community reflect the relational love within the Trinity. The main definition of social Trinitarianism is the application of the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity, to personal and human relationships; this is the purest and clearest form of relationship - a full communion with God, (which leads to communion and love within humanity) the Way, the Truth and the Life. (John 14:6) ‘Human beings are called to rise above all mechanisms of egoism and live their vocation of communion.’

‘The communal life of the Church, reflecting the Triune God, is the way in which we gain the ability to ‘hear, accept, and know the Truth in its inherent shining, not in the natural light of human reason.’ ( Vladimir Lossky)
Liturgical and spiritual life of the Church is the heart of human activity for Florensky, Zizioulas and the fathers, ( ‘homo liturgus' as Florensky writes). Without this spiritual mode of existence or ‘ecclesial’   way of life (which transcends human reason and restrictiveness) we do not fulfil our very purpose and potential, as images of God. It is through our life in communion with God that we attain the Truth - and we encounter the ‘other world’, or rather the True and eternal ‘world’, of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Social Trinitarianism is based upon core Trinitarian theology: God as one divine being, as Three Persons. These personal properties are relational, and there is περιχώρησις ( mutual indwelling of  the Three Persons ), and coinherence. (John 17:20-21)  Zizioulas elaborates on the theology of the Cappadocian Fathers, telling us that the Divine persons are three individualities in One being - and the Eucharistic body of the Church is analogous to this. We are all unique individuals, as one body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27), just as the Holy Trinity is one in essence, yet undivided. Zizioulas emphasises that there is no true being without communion; nothing exists as an individual in itself - and so being a person means to be in relation, communion and in community. As a reflection of the divine Persons of the Trinity, we should open up to the other, or as Zizioulas puts it - ‘ekstasis’ (going out of one’s self). ‘The idea of ekstasis signifies that God is love’ and is directly connected to both the Trinity and our goal as images of God ( apparent in the writings of St Maximus the confessor and St Dionysius).
Within the Christian community itself, our relationships should be analogous to the divine relations of the Trinity. Like Zizioulas, Staniloae’s view of the Triune God and His reflection within our daily lives and community, is fully communal as ‘God is Love.’ (1 John 4:8) The Trinity is the very origin of Love. Staniloae highlights that Love finds its explanation in the fact that as relational, communal human beings, we are created in the image and likeness of the Holy Trinity. He indicates the ‘inner coherence of dogmatic truth’ (Kallistos Ware, from the foreword) and the significance of the Trinitarian dogma for the personal life of Christians. By elaborating on St Dionysios the Areopagite’s view, he tells us that only a God Who is relational, and personal, can explain the reality of human relations - and Staniloae’s writings show us that relationships such as fatherhood and sonship, are brought to perfection through the work of the divine Spirit. In other words, our relationships receive a spiritual quality through the consubstantial and undivided Trinity. It is within this eternal and infinite loving communion of the Godhead, that we are assured of communion with God and with one another. This is the very foundation of our spiritual growth.  ‘The revelation of the Trinity, occasioned by the incarnation and earthly activity of the Son, has no other purpose than to draw us after grace, to draw us through the Holy Spirit into the filial relationship the Son has with the Father.’ Consequently, through these acts of revelation which save and deify, we are raised ‘up into the communion with the persons of the Holy Trinity.’ Saint Basil the Great says that in the persons of the Holy Trinity ‘a continuous and infinite community’ is visible - and of course the Church, Christ’s body, is analogous to this.

Yannaras also highlights how our human relations reflect the Trinitarian doctrine : ’Our participation and communion in the energies of God acquaints us with the otherness of the Three personal hypostases.’  Just as every human being has common energies, such as the capacity to love and to create, it is through these energies that we understand what it means to be human beings as a whole. Yet, at the same time, all human beings express themselves in unique ways, or modes. Hence we characterise mode of existence as personal; and we can relate to this as human beings, made in the image and likeness of God. He imparts being and life to the whole world, calling us in loving relationship and erotic communion.

In the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, before the recital of the Creed, we sing ‘Let us love one another that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Trinity consubstantial and undivided.’ As a communion of people, as the one body of Christ, we are ‘called to acquire the relationship of love and unity we find in the Trinity.’ ‘We may all be one, as He and the Father are One.’ (John 17:21)

To conclude, the Orthodox theologians cited in this essay, arrive at a similar conclusion (although from different approaches, depending on context). In keeping with the overall argument of this essay, they agree that our relationships within the Christian community (as a spiritual and ecclesial way of life) are indeed a reflection of the persons of the Holy Trinity - one Godhead. ‘The perspectives offered..route to the same conclusion…it is only through an identification with communion that truth can be reconciled with ontology,’ and only through this can we truly compare, and make an analogous link from the Triune God, to our human relations within the Church.


Florensky, P 1997, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, New Jersey : Princeton Press, p. 41-47.
Zizioulas, D 1985, Being as Communion, London : DLT , p. 53,91-92.
Papavasilliou V 2012, Journey to the Kingdom, Brewster : Paraclete Press, p. 99.
Yannaras, C 2005, On the absence and unknowability of God, London : T&T Clark, p.84-85.
Staniloae, D 1998, The Experience of God, Brookline : HC, p.245-249.
Papanikolaou, A - in The Cambridge Companion to The Trinity, 2011, Cambridge:CUP, p.253.
Boff, L 1988, Trinity and Society, New York :Orbis, p.236.
Dempsey, M 2011, Trinity and Election in Contemporary Theology, Cambridge:Eerdmans, p.23, 242-243.

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