Two Analogies of the Immanent Trinity

For those of you who are practicing or aspiring theologians, this post is for you (of course, we are all theologians to one degree or another).  I just finished a paper on Jonathan Edwards’s doctrine of the Trinity.  The history of the doctrine of the Trinity in general is quite fascinating.  Over the years, because of its mysteriousness, there has been hesitation about making human analogy to describe the Immanent Trinity (referring to God’s eternal existence and the internal relationships between the Three).  On one level Christians believe that the finite world of material objects cannot possibly begin to capture the depth of mystery of the infinite and transcendent Triune God.  However, the Bible also teaches that God made the heavens and the earth to proclaim his glory (Ps. 19:1-2) and man in his own image and therefore something of God may be seen and understood through what he has been made (Rom. 1:19-20).  Moreover, the incarnation, proved that God can reveal himself clearly through the finite material world.   So all of creation is stamped with the mark of its creator (and the creator stamped with the marks of his creation!).  Theologians have wrestled with these tensions over the centuries.  Two human analogies have emerged above others to describe the Immanent Trinity, though some would say that the dichotomy that has been drawn between the two is somewhat artificial.  I have pasted an excerpt from my recent paper that briefly touches on these two analogies:

The council of Nicea (325) was the first official formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity.  This council affirmed, without much elaboration or discussion about the technical meaning of the terms they employed, that Jesus Christ was “of the same substance” with the Father; that he was God himself.  And later, a council atConstantinople(381) further added that the Holy Spirit too was of the same substance as God.  They wrote that God is “one in substance, distinguished in three persons.”  Both the Greek Eastern and the Latin Western churches embraced both of these brief explications on God’s unity and threeness, while differing on which part to emphasize.

Much scholarship has in recent years suggested that the Eastern church likes to stress the distinctions among the three more than the unity while the Latin West, most notably exemplified by Augustine, has preferred to emphasize the divine unity.[1]  However, other scholars have suggested that these divisions are artificial.  Lewis Ayres suggests that instead of ascribing “clear and fundamental differences between Augustine and the Cappadocians en bloc” we should perhaps, until more extensive study is done, view the theologies “of the three Cappadocians…and that of Augustine as differing and yet overlapping options within the overall matrix of Pro-Nicene theology.”[2] The debate continues, but for better or worse, the two hemispheres are generally seen as have different emphases and as such have acquired different referents.  The Eastern vein was branded “Social” and the Western “Psychological.”  The former vein, beginning with the idea of “threeness” saw a family or “society” of persons in relationship with one another as a helpful analogy of the Godhead.  Though the social vein, as articulated by some such as Gregory of Nazianzus, maintains the idea of “begottenness” and “procession,” it strictly rejects the notion of the Son as the “idea” of God and the Spirit as the “act” or “love” of God as articulated by Augustine and later by Edwards himself.  There is a unity among the three as expressed by Gregory of Nyssa, and no direct intention of tri-theism or modalism of which the Cappadocian Fathers have been accused, especially Basil of Caesarea.[3]  The main point to note here however is that the social vein does not assume that the three persons of the Trinity are “distinct substances or subjects,” though they are still considered “distinct centers of consciousness that are related in their mutual recognition and love of one another.”[4]

The latter vein, following Augustine (354-430), in many respects still holds much in common with the Cappadocian, Eastern tradition.  Two major differences are, (1) the concept of filioque (“through the Son”),[5] which refers to the means of the Spirit’s procession, and (2), the paradigmatic analogy used to speak of the Trinity: the mind or soul of man.  Some critics, pointing to Augustine’s favorite Trinitarian illustration, say that he is guilty of integrating Neoplatonic concepts of divine unity into his thought.[6]  Augustine, studying the creation account in Genesis, formed his “soul” analogy.” Harrison writes: “Since it is man’s capacity for self-awareness, reason and love which sets him apart from the rest of creation, and places him closest to his creator, it is here that Augustine locates the image of God in man.”[7]  Augustine believed that without self-examination we would never arrive at an informed understanding of the Trinity.[8]  These essential properties of the mind (self-awareness, reason, and love) revealed the “processions” of the three within the one God.

Some have suggested the that the social explication of the doctrine was in effort to give expression to some practical aspects of the Christian gospel, namely, the complete divinity, person, and work of Jesus Christ.  While, on the other hand, the psychological model was in effort to give expression to theoretical interests of the Christian message pertaining to the logos in John 1 and God’s relationship to the world.[9] However, it is the opinion of the author that this kind of dichotomy is artificial and not necessary because there need be no separation between the “theoretical” trinity and the “practical” trinity.  That Edwards was acquainted with both traditions and that he saw no necessary dichotomy between them becomes manifest in his discussion on the inseparable connections of the ontological Trinity and the economic Trinity.[10]



[1] Sang Hyun Lee, “The Doctrine of the Trinity,” in Vol. 21 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven: Yale, 2003), 3-4.

[2] Lewis Ayers, “The Cappadocians,” in Augustine Through the Ages: An Encyclopedia, ed. Allan D. Fitzgerald (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1999), 123.

[3] See J. H. Srawley, “Cappadocian Theology,” in Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. James Hastings (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1911), 3:214.

[4] Stephen H. Daniel, “Postmodern Concepts of God and Edwards’s Trinitarian Ontology,” in Edwards in Our Time: Jonathan Edwards and the Shaping of American Religion, eds. Sang Hyun Lee and Allen C. Guelzo (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1999), 54.

[5] See Ayers, “The Cappadocians,” 123.

[6] Pauw sees this clearly in the whole of the Reformed tradition.  See The Supreme Harmony of All: The Trinitarian Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 59-69.  Also see O. Kirn, “Doctrine of the Trinity,” in The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, ed. Samuel Macauley Jackson  (New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1912), 20.  Kim writes: “Augustine’s interest in reducing the prominence of personality in favor of simplicity or unity was his Neoplatonism… [His] view diverges from [others] in that it rests not upon a theory of succession but of eternal coexistence and of mutual immanence, as shown by his choice of illustrations.”

[7] Carol Harrison, Augustine: Christian Truth and Fractured Humanity (Oxford:OxfordUniversity Press, 2000), 44.

[8] Rowan Williams, “De Trinitate,” in Augustine Through the Ages: An Encyclopedia, ed. Allan D. Fitzgerald (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1999), 846.

[9]  See W. Fulton, “Trinity,” in Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1922), 12:460.

[10] Lee writes: “Edwards was well versed in the Western church’s teachings on the Trinity through the writings of Reformed scholastics such as Francis Turretin and Peter Van Mastricht and Puritan writes like William Ames.  But Edwards was also acquainted with the Eastern tradition through the writings of the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth and, indirectly, Gregory of Nyssa himself” (Discourse, Works, 21.4).

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