“The Trinity: God’s Love Overflowing,” a report received by the 217th General Assembly, has sparked considerable discussion. I find this encouraging. When a church is eager to engage in vigorous conversation about a core Christian doctrine, it signals to all its members: theology really does matter.
The primary aim of this report is to help our church renew its faith in the triune God by “reclaiming the doctrine of the Trinity in theology, worship, and life” (66-67). Trinitarian doctrine contains good and joyful news. It identifies the God of the gospel as “the triune God who in loving freedom seeks and saves us, reconciles and renews us, and draw us into loving relationships that reflect the eternal oneness of God” (79-80). Far from offering either a novel or an exhaustive exposition of Trinitarian doctrine, the report focuses on the good news that this doctrine enshrines and, most decidedly, on its practical significance.
This is evident in both the report’s theme and structure. The central theme is the inexhaustibly rich love of God shared among the persons of the Trinity in all eternity and communicated to the world in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. “We meet God’s threefold love in the astonishing faithfulness of the Holy One of Israel, in the costly grace given to us in Jesus Christ our Savior, and in the new life in communion with God and others that has come to us in the gift of the Holy Spirit” (246-239; see also 168-170; 259-260).
The structure of the report moves from confession to worship to practice. Part One, “Confessing God’s Overflowing Love,” emphasizes that Christians believe not in some divinity-in-general or in love-in-general but in the triune God who lives in communion and whose love freely overflows to us. Part Two, “Participating in God’s Overflowing Love,” shows how faith in the triune reality of God is nurtured by our Reformed worship, every aspect of which aims to draw us into communion with God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In our calls to worship, our prayers, our sermons, our hymns, our practices of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and our benedictions, it is the triune God who is acknowledged, praised, and adored. Part Three, “Embodying God’s Overflowing Love,” calls us to the practical embodiment of Trinitarian faith in everyday life. Only as we live out our faith, embodying it in concrete actions, do we reflect and participate in God’s overflowing love, albeit always imperfectly. Embodying God’s overflowing love means communicating the gospel of reconciliation in Jesus Christ in word and deed, forgiving enemies, welcoming strangers, promoting greater justice and peace in the world. This report speaks of Trinitarian faith with an unmistakable missional orientation.
On the contentious issue of faithful ways of speaking of the triune God, the report strongly and repeatedly affirms the traditional Trinitarian names of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. “The language of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, rooted in Scripture and creed, remains an indispensable anchor for our efforts to speak faithfully of God” (330-331). 6-338). Cut loose from this anchor, “the historic faith of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church risks being set adrift” (333-334). When we venture to point to the reality and activity of the triune God in other ways, “we must always be guided by the words of Scripture and creed that speak of God as Father, Son, and Spirit” (355-356). In particular, the report affirms the ecumenical practice of baptism in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (802).
While privileged and irreplaceable, speaking of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit does not preclude use of supplementary images that seek to bring out some particular aspect of the infinite riches of the triune life and activity toward us. With the “anchor” of the traditional Trinitarian names as our constant reference point, we are free “to speak faithfully and amply” of the triune God. We are free, for example, to speak of “God, the Word of God, and the Spirit of God,” of “God our Sun, Light, and Burning Ray” (John of Damascus), of “God the Lover, God the Beloved, and God the Love shared between Lover and Beloved” (Augustine), of God “from whom and through whom and to whom are all things” (Rom.11:36). These and other ways of speaking of the triune reality and activity of God cannot replace the traditional designations. Nor are they to be chosen arbitrarily. They are mined from Scripture and theological tradition. They should have an internal coherence and at least in some respects reflect the relationships of Father, Son, and Spirit attested by Scripture. In their own way they should work as witnesses to the God of the gospel, thus expanding and enriching the language of praise of the triune God. Obviously, the list of images contained in the report is not intended to be exhaustive; nor is it beyond correction.
Two of the triads in particular have elicited the strongest reactions. The triad “rainbow of promise, ark of salvation, dove of peace” (398-399) has raised many an eyebrow. Is God a rainbow? The answer, of course, is no, but the question arises from an excessive literalism. This triad is best understood as an exercise in Trinitarian imagination of the kind frequently employed in patristic interpretations of Scripture. The images of rainbow of promise, ark of salvation, and dove of peace are prompted by a Trinitarian reading of the story of the great flood (Gen. 6-9). Read through the eyes of faith in the triune God, the story describes the identity of God as the Holy One of Israel who promises and remains faithful to his promise (of which the rainbow is a reminder), the Savior who rescues his people from destruction (provided by the ark), and the future-opening Lord who brings new life to creation (symbolized by the coming of the dove bearing evidence of a new beginning for humanity). This is not new Trinitarian doctrine; it is a poetic Trinitarian reading of Scripture. The suggestion can be mocked, of course, by offering all sorts of outlandish proposals, but then again, it just might be rewarding to meditate on the flood story with the help of these images of God.
Equally puzzling, and to some offensive, is the triad “compassionate mother, beloved child, life-giving womb” (408-409). Some Scripture texts and the recent Brief Statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) clearly authorize the image of God as “compassionate mother.” The image of “beloved child” is based on the accounts of the baptism of Jesus. As for the image of the Spirit as “life-giving womb,” it is admittedly less familiar and less well attested. But as the report notes, Calvin speaks of the people of God as “fruit of the womb, “ surely a beautiful way of characterizing the work of the Spirit of God by whom we must be born anew, as our Lord has instructed us (Jn.3:3-7). Consider also one of the prayers for the service of baptism in the Book of Common Worship: “Pour out your Spirit upon us and upon this water, that this font may be your womb of new birth.” If it is objected that womb is an impersonal image, one might simply reply: so are wind and dove. God is clearly personal, but Scripture sometimes employs impersonal images and metaphors to express some aspect of the mystery of God. It is in fact that the womb is a living and life-nurturing environment. It is, so to speak, the bond between mother and child, and to this extent parallels reference to the Spirit as the bond of love between Father and Son (a favorite image of Augustine).
Some have asked: Why the title: “God’s Overflowing Love?” Doesn’t this conjure up the picture of an impersonal force, a blind movement of nature, like the flow of water over a waterfall? What the word “overflowing” is actually intended to convey is not some impersonal movement but simply the superabundance and inexhaustibility of God’s love freely given to us. The overflowing love of God is not in the least diminished in the giving, nor is it just barely adequate to renew and transform our lives. The grace of the triune God fills our lives not just half-full or up to the brim, but as the Psalmist says, My cup overflows (Psalm 23:5).
While no more than a work in progress, this report is like every exposition of the doctrine of the Trinity — it may serve a useful purpose as a study resource in local congregations. It does not unseat or replace the primacy of the names Father, Son, and Spirit in the church’s faith and worship of the triune God. It does remind us, however, that we are not to think that God can be brought under our control or captured once for all by any of our words and concepts. In that spirit, the report resists all absolutizing of our language of God, whether classified as names, images, or metaphors, not because we lack trustworthy knowledge of the costly love and faithful purposes of the triune God, but because God’s reality is always greater than we can fully comprehend or express (97-99).
However judged, the effort of the report to address the question of biblically faithful and arrestingly imaginative speech of the triune God has its place only as a part of the larger practical purpose of the report: to retrieve the doctrine of the Trinity as good and joyful news and to call the church to participate in the mission of the triune God. The God of the gospel is the triune God who has come to us in costly love in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit and wills to draw us and all people into the loving communion that is the life of God in all eternity. This is the one and only God whom we confess, worship, and serve in Christian faith and life.
Daniel Migliore is Charles Hodge Professor of Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, N.J.