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The "Two Hands of God": Imaging the Trinity

The "Two Hands of God": Imaging the Trinity

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The "Two Hands of God": Imaging the Trinity

286 pagine
4 ore
Sep 14, 2003


It comes as a surprise to many Christians that for many decades the dominant concern of the ancient church was the Trinity. Recent years have seen a revival of interest in this idea, but almost nobody has seen that in his approach to humanity, God has provided a pattern for his people to emulate. We should act in a way patterned on what he did in sending his Son and Spirit, "God's two hands". Then the Trinity also provides an ideal pattern for humanity to aim at.

The book discusses the theoretical background for this approach, and gives several examples of how this works out in practice, such as the marriage relationship and the problems of poverty and the environment.

An appendix outlines the reasons for belief in the Trinity, and sketches the development of the doctrine in Christian history.

Sep 14, 2003

Informazioni sull'autore

Originally from the UK, where he graduated as an engineer from Cambridge University, David went as a missionary to Southern Africa. There he has ministered in various churches, schools, hospitals and prisons. He is currently professor in systematic theology at the University of Fort Hare, one of Africa's oldest, where he has taught since 1983. He is married with four grown-up children.

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The "Two Hands of God" - David T. Williams

The ‘ ‘two hands of God"

imaging the Trinity

David T Williams

iUniverse, Inc.

New York Lincoln Shanghai

The two hands of God imaging the Trinity

All Rights Reserved © 2003 by David T Williams

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping, or by any information storage retrieval system, without the written permission of the publisher.

iUniverse, Inc.

For information address:

iUniverse, Inc. 2021

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ISBN: 0-595-29473-1

ISBN 978-1-4620-7700-7 (ebook)

Printed in the United States of America



Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11




The burden of this book is one that can be briefly stated, and is one that would surely meet with basic agreement by Christians, and indeed by those of other faiths, or those purportedly with none. It is that what is believed about God must determine both the goal of human activity and also the means by which that goal is worked towards. Even though God is spiritual, fundamentally different from this world and apart from it, belief cannot remain on the level of the intellectual but must result in action. The outworking of this premise is however much more complicated, and possibly more contentious; the principle is, however, clear. The present volume is then an attempt to take a traditional Christian doctrine, the Trinity, one that is often viewed as totally irrelevant to modern life, and to suggest that it is rather one that should have a profound effect on life. As such its message and implications should be more widely appreciated.

The reason for such a strong assertion, particularly by Christians, lies in part in the idea of the vestigia Trinitatis, that God has created the world in such a way that it reflects his Trinitarian nature. In particular, humanity was created in the image of God (Gen 1:26), and therefore, although that image was spoiled by the entrance of sin to some extent at least, there must remain a parallel between the nature of the creator and what he intended to make, and even what he intends to see restored.

This immediately brings in the doctrine of the Trinity, for Christian belief is that the fundamental nature of God is Trinitarian, the so-called immanent or ontological Trinity. At its most basic this is that God is one, while existing in three Persons. In this case, the ideal human society should reflect this, so that within society there is an essential unity, even while within that unity there is diversity.

However, the second part of the fundamental assertion is that the ideal way to achieve that goal is to reflect the action of God, who intervened in the world in salvation and restoration. This action is of course also Trinitarian, the so-called economic Trinity. Again, the ideal human action should reflect this. Here the Trinitarian activity of God has three distinguishable aspects, those of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The role of the Father is largely hidden, and he remains transcendent, preferring to act in the world through the other two

Persons, the Son and Spirit. It is these two that the early Church Father, Irenaeus of Lyons, in the third Christian century, described as the two hands of God, hence the name of this book.

Obviously the heart of the Christian gospel is the incarnation and its effect, the coming of the second Person as son of God. As Christians, we imitate him and reflect his activity, as indeed I have done elsewhere (Williams 1997), arguing that Christian activity should be patterned on the three-fold office of Christ as prophet, priest and king. This is a further example of the basic theological premise of this book. This action is therefore basically personal, since Jesus came as a fully human person.

But Jesus ascended to heaven, and sent the Spirit, who continues to act through Christians and the Church as a body. This is not to say that the two Persons are to be viewed sequentially; the Spirit even empowered Jesus, and Jesus continues to work while ascended. Both have always acted, both in the times of the Old and New Testaments, and in the continuing life of the Church. However, the emphasis has changed. What has also changed is that the action of the Spirit is basically impersonal. Again it must be quickly stressed that this is in no sense a denial of his personality, but just as any person can act impersonally as well as personally, this is specially the case for the Spirit. After all, as we all do, even Jesus acted impersonally as well!

This means that Trinitarian action has three aspects, the transcendent, the personal and the impersonal. Christian action should then reflect this.

The bulk of this book then deals with areas of life in which these fundamental principles can, or should be applied. Of course the examples cannot be seen as exhaustive, but are hopefully enough to indicate how this is done. More could be added. In fact this has been done, for this book is actually a revision of my earlier one, Christianity is Trinitarian (Williams 1999). The material has been revised and reorganised to some extent in the interests of developing the basic argument more clearly, and the chapter on mission has been added.

It is not intended here to argue for the basic understanding of the Trinity, but to concentrate on applying it. I have however retained the chapters that dealt with the doctrine as such, but as an appendix. Those interested in the doctrine as such might also be interested in my New Century Trinity (Williams 2001), in which I attempt to discuss the doctrine in the light of the particular interests of the modern world.

I wish to express thanks for permission to reproduce material that has been previously published, albeit in a slightly different form.

Material in chapter 3 first appeared in South African Baptist Journal of Theology

Material in chapter 5 first appeared in Journal of Contextual Theology

Material in chapters 6 and 9 first appeared in Evangel

Material in chapter 7 first appeared in Theologia Viatorum

Material in chapter 10 first appeared in Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology

My thanks are also due to the University of Fort Hare for the time spent in the research that led to this volume, and for financial assistance given to this project. The author has certainly been enriched in the study of the Trinity, and it is hoped that the University, and society as a whole will also benefit from this study.

Chapter 1


The relevance of the doctrine of the Trinity.

A look at the Trinity? You cannot be serious! What most modern Christians want to think about is something that they can experience, or something that will help in their day to day battles. For most people, what they should believe comes very low on the list of priorities. In any case, there is a prevalent feeling that it does not really matter what people believe, as long as they are sincere about it. Belief is a matter of private opinion, according to the post-modernism that is, even if subconsciously, the usual modern philosophy. After all, with so many beliefs in the world, it is surely arrogant to insist that any particular one is correct. Tolerance is what we should have!

Such thinking is all too common, and could be applied to many facets of Christian belief, which so often seem to be dry, academic, and far apart from real life. And in particular, why on earth should Christians bother about the Trinity? Is it, should it be, a valid part of Christian teaching? Is the Trinity really necessary to us? Would it perhaps be better to relegate it to the theologians, or even better to the rubbish bin? It comes as a surprise to most Christians to learn that centuries ago it was the consuming passion in the Church, that it generated decades of controversy, and that many suffered and were even martyred for the sake of their particular view of the Trinity. Erickson (2000:13) observes that it was the first doctrine that the Church felt it had to elaborate definitively.

But all of that was centuries ago, in a different world. The twenty-first century has little time for what would appear to be a set of ideas for which even Christians often see as having little relevance whatsoever for their lives and for their churches. A recent writer on the Trinity laments the fact that many of the more radical theologians are prepared to reject the doctrine as self-contradictory or incoherent, while more conservative writers, even while feeling that it has to be accepted, can often only treat it as a mystery (Brown 1985:ix). It is even embarrassing; a doctrine which causes division between otherwise orthodox churches, and which has caused some otherwise religious people, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, to establish their own structures, and which continues to be a bone of contention between Christianity and its closest neighbours, Judaism and Islam. Should not the Trinity be rejected as causing unnecessary problems?

More than this, not only is the doctrine an embarrassment and effectively incomprehensible to most Christians, even to many of those who have sought to improve their theological understanding, but it is seemingly redundant. At best it is often seen as a speculation for theological specialists, with apparently nothing to do with real life (Moltmann 1981:1). A fairly generous opinion is that of Brunner, who feels that it belongs to theology, to the understanding of faith, and not to the message in itself (Fortman 1982:263). This is not just a modern view; Kant’s opinion is well-known: from the doctrine of the Trinity, taken literally, it is absolutely impossible to draw anything practical, even if one should pretend to understand it, much less then if we realize that it goes beyond our every concept (in Forte 1989:3). Likewise Schleiermacher relegated the doctrine of the Trinity to a short section at the end of his Christian faith; he said that it is redundant as it is derived from more basic elements, and is of little practical value, so has little to do with the essence of the faith (Johnson 1993:192). It is then hardly surprising that in common with many others, J A T Robinson disliked having to preach on Trinity Sunday (Gunton 1991:2)! Gerald Bray, in a recent book, comments, Even many preachers scarcely know what to say about the Trinity, and feel embarrassed when the subject is raised. To them it is an aridly intellectual doctrine without practical application for the life of the church and so they ignore it, probably claiming some justification for their attitude on the rather specious ground that the word does not appear in the Bible (Bray


Of all the Christian teachings, the Trinity is perhaps most prone to be sidelined. Even if orthodox in their belief, most tend to feel, with the young Reformer Melanchthon, that the mysteries of the Godhead are to be adored, but not to be investigated (Moltmann 1981:1). (He did however later give the doctrine a full treatment in his Loci of 1535.) Likewise Bernard of Clairvaux had said that he believed the Trinity, but did not comprehend it: to scrutinize it is madness; to believe it is piety; to know it is life (Fortman 1982:187). Although someone in the fifth century, probably from an Augustinian group in Gaul (Con-gar 1983:c:52), could assert, in the words of the so-called Athanasian creed, which is still part of the worship of some churches:

Whoever wishes to be saved must, above all, keep the Catholic faith This is

what the Catholic faith teaches. We worship one God in the Trinity…(fully cited in Boff 1988:69, Fortman 1982:159, or Thurmer 1984:85), most would not agree. Indeed if the Athanasian creed is correct, heaven is going to be remarkably empty!

Most Christians are in practice either simply monistic in their belief, worshipping God with no further refinement in what that means (Forte 1989:3), or they are tritheistic, worshipping a group of three Gods, without really relating them together. In the latter case, most Christians then tend to emphasize the worship of one of the Persons and effectively neglect the other two (eg Boff 1988:13f, also Forgotten 1989b:21-3). They are quite happy with this; for them, the idea of the Trinity is totally unnecessary. A recent writer on the Trinity, the Catholic Rahner, admits that if the doctrine of the Trinity were dropped as false, the major part of religious literature could well remain unchanged (Rahner 1970:11).

But would it then be Christian? If the Christian faith is indeed true, it is the doctrine of the Trinity, with the related doctrine of Christ, and in fact very little else, that distinguishes it from other claims to faith that press upon us.

But far from being irrelevant to Christian life, the Trinity should be at the heart of it, for it attempts to explain the ways in which God relates to humanity. Contrary to post-modernist assumption,

the doctrine did not arise as a nice idea, but as an attempt to explain Christian experience (O’Donnell 1988:128)

The Christian belief in the Trinity is not something that just emerged because some people in the past wanted to believe in that way, or had their intellects stimulated by the intricacies of doctrine that have been suggested. Because Christians had a belief in the oneness of God, and because they also appreciated the divinity of Jesus in relation to his Father, and because, a very relevant point for today, they also experienced the working and power of a third Person, they sought to understand and to explain rationally what they experienced. The Trinity was vital to them; why else would the controversy over it become so heated in the fourth century (LaCugna 1993:111)? Forte (1989:59) stresses that the Trinity was not developed as a logical exercise (a mysterium logicum) but as fundamental to salvation (a mysterium salutis), which he says is demonstrated by its importance in doxology, Christian praise and worship. This presupposes right belief; Torrance (1996:136) points out that doxologia refers to both belief and worship. Calvin pointed out that unless we think of God as Trinitarian, we in fact have no true knowledge of him (Hodgson 1943:15). Such an assertion is breath-taking; it means that we do not then have a proper understanding of who we are and what the world is (Gunton 1991:vii).

Such an emphasis would incidentally bring it into line with the Eastern church, for which it is central to worship and theology (Forgotten 1989b:1); it is hardly satisfactory for two major traditions to have such different approaches. Indeed, because the theology of the Trinity has so much to teach about the nature of the world and life within it, it is, or could be, the centre of Christianity’s appeal to the unbeliever (Gunton 1991:7). On the other hand, as Jenson (1982:ix) cautions, the Western church must now either renew its trinitarian consciousness or experience increasing impotence and confusion. Let us reexamine the Trinity, seek to apply it, and enrich our Christian beliefs, lives and experience. Forte (1989:11) cites Baget-Buzzo: «the greatest ecclesial problem, and the greatest task for theology is that of making the Trinity a spiritually vital thought for the believer and for theology so that faith’s whole doctrine and the believer’s whole existence may be thought of and lived from the viewpoint of their Trinitarian profession».

There is a further reason why, even in the twenty-first century, we should still be concerned to understand and to apply the idea of the Trinity.

If it is true, then its very truth provides a reason for our interest in it. That is of course part of the problem, for in a day when empiricism is valued, when people are only ready to accept what they can, at least in theory, prove to be true, they do not want anything to do with an idea that is by its very nature untestable.

This is a particularly modern difficulty. In the past, people had no problem with the truth of the doctrine. For many centuries people were prepared to accept the doctrine because the Church taught it, and the Church itself accepted it because it believed that it was clearly taught in the Bible, viewed as the infallible word of God. With a diminishing respect for the Bible, and even positive rejection of its authority, it is not surprising that the doctrine has fallen into disrepute. Modern theology therefore struggles with both Christology and the Trinity, which are of course intimately connected doctrines (Gunton 1991:2). This is a particular problem in the West, which has long insisted that the doctrine of the Trinity is known only by revelation and not by reason (Fortman 1982:212).

But there is still one further problem that troubles many Christians. Even if the authority of the Bible is accepted, there lurks a suspicion that the doctrine of the Trinity does not in fact derive from it, but is somehow rather a result of the Greek philosophy of the early centuries (Wainwright 1962:vii). Perhaps it is not really Christian at all. Phrases such as the eternal generation of the Son and consubstantiality are decidedly non-Biblical (Knight 1953:9). They are indisputably the result of the confrontation of the Biblical proclamation with Hellenism (Jenson 1982:57). Can we affirm that the Trinity is indeed Biblical? Can we affirm, with Beisner (1984:7), another recent writer, that the Nicene creed accurately represents the teaching of the New Testament?

But even so, which is important, the original question remains:

What does it have to do with us? There are, after all, many things in the universe which are undoubtedly true, but remain irrelevant. I own a dog, but it is doubtful this is of any relevance to any of the readers of this book unless they choose to come and visit me. But the Trinity is not a dog! If the doctrine is true, then it must be highly relevant, touching some of the most pressing problems of the start of the third millennium of Christian belief. The nature of God, which includes the Trinity, should be central to every facet of human life. In this case, a Christian approach to life should, and indeed can, be based on the Trinity. A Trinitarian ontology provides a firmer footing for personal relations in society and holds together the unity and diversity in humanity (Speidell 1994:283). Thus it can be affirmed with the 1983 Italian Theological Association (cited in Forte 1989:ix), "speaking of the Trinity, ‘res nostra agitur’ [we deal with our own concerns].

Without correct belief, Christians will hear imperatives without indicatives, moral mandates devoid of ontological grounding in God’s grace (Speidell 1994:283). It may even be suggested, with Boff (1988:169), that Christianity is often rejected because it is portrayed wrongly; a proper Trinitarian presentation could in fact, as in the early Church, lead to a wider acceptance. It is paradoxical when in the interests of pragmatism, the Trinity is effectively reduced to monotheism, so devaluing faith (Moltmann 1981:8). The fact is that the loss of a trinitarian dimension has gravely impoverished the Christian tradition (Gunton 1991:vii). More positively, one can only love what is known, which was Augustine’s motive for seeking to understand the Trinity, and so inspired his de Trini-tate.

It is then very gratifying to witness a very revival of interest in the Trinity (Thompson 1994:3), with a steady stream of books and articles appearing in recent years (Erickson 1995:13). Could it be that just as the doctrine of the Spirit has become almost an obsession from being very neglected, so the obviously related doctrine of the Trinity is likewise experiencing a resurgence in interest? Some significant modern theologians, such as Pannenberg, even consider it the most important doctrine for the present time (Erickson 1995:14).

It is perhaps at least partly the influence of the Charismatic movement that has produced modern interest, and not only among theologians; it is a good thing to hear that a recent survey indicates that worshippers do feel that the doctrine is important (Forgotten 1989a:4). So although Gunton (1997:325) can call the revival of Trinitarian theology remarkable and unpredicted, he can also note the recent interest in Eastern theology, and Pentecostalism. More than this, he also observes that it has social application, significant due to some modern breakdown in civilized values.

Marsh (1994:60) then bemoans the fact that so many who seek to explain the Trinity then neglect to inquire into its social and experiential implications. The application of the doctrine of the Trinity is however vital in the modern pluralistic world, where any religion must show both its distinctiveness and its value. The end of the second millennium witnessed an awareness of the diversity of religions unprecedented in the history of the world. Most people are confronted not just with the claims of the religion of their forebears, but also of those of at least one, and probably of several others. This is certainly true for traditionally Christianised societies, where secularism, Islam, eastern religions and their derivatives such as the New Age movement make claims to truth, and imply that Christianity is untrue, or at best inadequate for human needs. An appreciation of the relevance of the Trinity, as distinctively Christian, to many human problems, can go far to meet such accusations.

It was interesting that the codename for the research that led to the development of the atomic bomb was Trinity (Grey 1990:364). The doctrine similarly has the potential for destruction, as in fact it has so often done in the past, but also, as in some of the other results of that research programme, for great good, both for Christianity and for humanity.

Of course, it is only as we understand anything better that it becomes more useful to us. The more we understand of the workings of a motor car, the better drivers we are likely to be, and even more so, the more likely we are to be able to maintain the car in good running order. In fact, if we know nothing at all about the workings of a car, we will drive it with the constant fear that something will go wrong. Understanding leads to a measure of peace, and to some extent the same is true about our belief in the Trinity. A measure of understanding will give peace and assurance, and will help us to apply our Christian faith in a more effective way. This is for all Christians; indeed doctrines only understandable by experts are not really worth much (Thurmer 1984:7). Not that we can really be fully successful; the Fathers constantly caution in phrases such as if you understand, it has not been God (Carmody 1995:9).

So let us re-examine the Trinity, and in particular seek to apply it, and enrich our Christian beliefs, lives and experience. Not that this is easy. Augustine cautions, but encouragingly, for nowhere else is the error more dangerous, the search more labourious, and the results more rewarding (LaCugna 1993:323). We must also be cautioned by Thomas a Kempis: What will it avail thee to argue profoundly of the Trinity, if thou be devoid of humility and art thereby displeasing to the Trinity? (Franks 1953:1).

Incidentally, this study is being undertaken in Africa, and this is also perhaps very appropriate. On the one hand, in contrast to the extreme individualism of the modern West, which reflected its extreme monism and neglect of the Trinity, Africa is community centred. African individuals understand themselves in the context of the community; as John Mbiti (1989:106) has said, I am because we are. Such is close to Trinitarianism in that each Person is only understood in relation to the others. On the other hand, if current trends continue, Africa will have the highest proportion of Christians of all the continents within the very near future.

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