The Psychology of Christianity: Part 2, Does the Trinity Matter?

As noted in my first post, I used the Apostles' Creed to structure my psychological and theological review of the Christian faith for my chapter in the forthcoming APA handbook on psychology and spirituality.

Structurally, both the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds have a Trinitarian structure. Each has three sections devoted to one of the three persons of the Trinity:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty...

I believe in Jesus Christ...

I believe in the Holy Spirit...
Consequently, my chapter had a Trinitarian structure, with three separate sections devoted to the Christian experience related to God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.

But before I started into these sections I was curious to see if there was any psychological research regarding Trinitarian belief, experience, and practice. Concretely, I wanted to know if there was any social-psychological research which had examined the correlates of Trinitarian belief. In short, socially and psychologically, does believing in the Trinity make any difference?

The reason I was curious about this question is that the Trinity is a highly contested doctrine. Even those who strongly believe in the Trinity often disagree sharply on what the doctrine means. From a theological and doctrinal perspective these debates are understandable. However, as a psychologist I wanted to know if Trinitarian belief has any practical impact. Do Trinitarian beliefs affect the experience and life of individual believers? Do Trinitarian beliefs affect and shape the experience of Christian communities?

To be specific, imagine two Christian communities. One community is strongly Trinitarian. The other is not. Given this theological contrast, are there reliable differences in the lives of these communities? Is the Trinitarian community more peaceable? More Christ-like? Or not?

Again, I was curious about these questions because the Trinity is considered to be vital in the formation of Christian community. You can't get very far into contemporary theology without quickly running into the claim that loving and peaceable Christan community must be grounded in the self-giving love and community of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. My question, as a social scientist, was simply to see if anyone had ever attempted to empirically examine this claim. Is loving and peaceable Christian community correlated with strong Trinitarian belief?

Beyond research, this question also held some personal interest. My experience with the doctrine of the Trinity has been rapidly evolving over the lifetime of this blog. Back in 2006, when I started this blog, I had little use for the Trinity. The faith tradition I grew up with--the Churches of Christ--was only weakly Trinitarian. That is, while we recognized the preexistence and divinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit we rarely used the Trinity to structure or regulate our common life. More, many within my faith tradition believe that the Trinity is a false doctrine. This isn't the dominant view in the Churches of Christ, but you run into some vocal Unitarian members from time to time. In short, I didn't grow up with the Trinity and, if anything, I was skeptical about it.

To illustrate this phase of my life, here's a funny story I shared in 2007 that illustrates my earlier skepticism regarding the Trinity and general theological cluelessness:

ACU was hosting a conference on theology and the academy and two very good friends of mine, Paul Morris and Fred Aquino, were doing a talk on Paul Tillich and Albert Einstein. Paul is a theoretical physicist and Fred is a systematic theologian. Their talk concerned the conversation between faith and science through the lens of a correspondence about God and God's existence that took place between Tillich and Einstein.

Needless to say, if you know Tillich and Einstein, the two were able to find some common ground about their conceptions of God. Paul and Fred used this rapprochement as a talking point to note that science and religion can have fruitful exchanges between them.

However, during the Q&A right after the talk this older guy across the room raises his hand and says something like this:

"But Tillich was mistaken. Tillich didn't take into account the Trinity."

And I start thinking, "The Trinity? Who is this guy talking about the Trinity? We're trying to find common ground between faith and science and you want to insert highly speculative metaphysics into the discussion? You really want to talk to physicists starting with the claim that 3 = 1?"

So after the session I find Fred and ask, "Who was that crazy guy going on and on about the Trinity?"

Fred responds, "That was Stanley Hauerwas."

I say, "Who is Stanley Hauerwas?"
Needless to say, I now know who Stanley Hauerwas is (I also just finished his recent memoir Hannah's Child) and have come to understand his point about the Trinity being the starting point in Christian theology. Succinctly, I've come to be convinced that the Trinity is critical to understanding the notion that "God is love." Consequently, if this is true, Christian communities shaped by Trinitarian belief should be better poised to understand and live out Christian agape.

But is this the case? Are Trinitarian Christian communities more loving and peaceable? Having correctly understood the nature of God, has this realization had any tangible effects?

So in preparation for my chapter I searched and searched the literature looking for research on this subject. And what I found was...zilch. Nothing. As best I can tell, no empirical research has ever been conducted examining the correlates of Trintarian belief in Christian communities.

This is shocking for two reasons. First, exploratory research in this area shouldn't be too hard to conduct. For example, you could assess how strongly Trinitarian a particular faith community is and then assess, let's say, how many pacifists were in that faith community. Pacifism isn't the only criterion/outcome of Trinitarian belief, but many Christian pacifists ground their beliefs in Trinitarian notions (see one Stanley Hauerwas). Plus, self-reported pacifism is easily assessed. In short, studies like this (picking concrete variables believed to covary with Trinitarian belief) could slowly map out the correlates of Trinitarian belief. For example, it might be shown that Trinitarian communities produce more pacifists. In this, Trinitarian belief would matter. It would be making a difference in the faith community. (And there are clear alternative hypotheses available. For example, pacifism might simply be produced by a strong reading of the Sermon on the Mount. For example, Quakers seems to be agnostic on the Trinity but they take the Sermon on the Mount seriously. In this, one's reading of the Sermon on the Mount is more predictive of peace than Trinitarian metaphysics. No doubt, the metaphysics can support the practice of peace, but Trinitarian doctrine might not be a necessary or sufficient predictor of peace.)

And this brings me to my second reason for shock regarding how social science has ignored the Trinity. Given how critical the Trinity is in theology, it is strange that the social sciences have failed to examine what many consider to be the most critical belief in the Christian faith. Further, this is a doctrine that is supposed to make a difference. For many, the Trinity is not an idle exercise in metaphysical speculation (like I used to think). Trinity matters. And if it matters, social scientists should be able to see some things. But, to date, we've failed to look.

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16 thoughts on “The Psychology of Christianity: Part 2, Does the Trinity Matter?”

  1. Fascinating, Richard. It could be also that the theoretical formulation of Trinity is important for your questions. E.g. your note "That is, while we recognized the preexistence and divinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit" has two red herrings in it. Pre-existence and divinity are both unmeasurable. More suitable frames - like "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself" or "if you by the Spirit do put to death the deeds of the body, you will live" seem to me to be Trinitarian but they have to do with present behaviour in present time based on the past event of the work of the Son that the Father gave him to do. When you also extend the question to the ambiguous nature of the service of the Son - i.e. Christ as servant to the circumcision and "I called my s(S)on out of Egypt" then your questions could also discover what aspects of 'Trinitarian' belief could impact even those who do not know how to make 3 into 1.

  2. Interesting post thank you. I have seen a number of esssays 9although the bibliographic details escape me) on perichoresis and counselling, etc. So there is a bit of work out there that looks at the practical differences belief in the Trinity makes. I also think you may find a number of Masters and PhDs completed on it? It does make a huge difference though, as a systematic theologial who teaches this material and sees the practical impact on students and in churches. Ie how one prays is changed from a rather static contemplation to a dynamic and relaitonal interchange. Faith changes from a thing completed in the past - mental assent to a dogma - to a personal relationship with the triune God of grace in which there is real trust, real love, real growth and personal development. Faith comes alive in this sense. I could go on - how we worship, what we do with the sacraments (if we can put it so crudely), the nature of good works, etc etc. There is no end. So yeah - social scientists - get to it and prove this, illustrate it, and popularise the trinitarian effects of worship!

  3. I don't think the whole concept of the Trinity makes any sense at all unless you view God as Father and Mother. God the Father, Jesus the Son, Holy Spirit the Mother.

    Maybe that makes a little more sense.

  4. Leonard Allen, in an article for Wineskins magazine about his book "Things Unseen", critiques the functional "binitarianism" that characterises our heritage and describes how that the last 25 years have seen recovery of the doctrine of Trinity and its development as manifesting an example of relationality. "The Trinity provides our pattern or exemplar for unity and fellowship. God leads a relational life as Father, Son, and Spirit. That life is characterized by submissive love, as each member of the Trinity pours his life into the other." According to him this re-evaluation has been made possible by the decline of the modern worldview (dependent as it is on the Enlightenment). In this instance, at least for now, I'm still with my heritage on this. If one performs a common sense reading of the NT, the concept of the Trinity does not jump off the pages. It seems contrived. But early on a relational model is evident. As when the Gospel of Philip chides those who conceive of the Holy Spirit as male instead of female. I think it is too early yet for your study as this re-emphasis on and reinterpretation of the Trinity has not had time to take effect.

  5. I have no context for your beginning premise that "loving and peaceable" is the measure of something. Biblical faith does not start with that premise, rather, that Jesus Christ is the measure of all things for us. (1John 2:5,6) Therefore, you have no connection from your claims to the significance of the Trinity to biblical faith. I would challenge you to clean up your logic here. The truth of the Trinity is not a theology to be argued, but a truth to be lived - if you be in Christ, you are one with the Trinity. (John 17)

  6. Richard, I will be happy to know what you find. I'm even more curious how you would isolate something like Trinitarian belief. For instance, I'm working to discover the actual soteriology of congregations. This turns out to be more than just what they say they believe. The relationship between a "doctrine" and social practice is very hard to correlate through some kind of direct cause and effect.

    Take for instance, the coincidence of a monarchial view of the Trinity and a legacy of imperial practices of mission. I'm convinced that this is more than a coincidence. Yet, you could find Western trinitarians who would articulate an "imperialist" Trinity and still disagree with an imperialist view of mission. Still, there is this very strong historical correlation. I think this is indicative of what Taylor, Ricouer, et al, refer to as a social imaginary. The relationships are multiple, complex, and reflexive. That's hard to isolate. Point being its all tough to measure in a cause and effect kind of analysis, or from idea to practice. (Not to mention when we say Trinity, we're talking about a living God).

    But I guess that's why a social scientist isolates one of those relationships and then follows the leaks. If anyone can do it...

  7. Richard,

    You have your work cut out for you, but the Trinity is far too heady and theoretical for me. I am aware of how Christian theology has generally developed over the centuries. But I'll have to agree with Mlove. Based on the evidence of early texts, I have my doubts that the Twelve Jews had a clue about imperial imagery and neo-Platonic categories that contributed to the third and fourth century trintarian formulations about the nature of God. In the Pauline writings there are hints, but only hints. Fourth century political and social dynamics were as much at play as theology. For many, the creeds functioned as a loyalty oath. Present-day Christians may recite the creeds but asking them to explain their theological or even their pastoral import generally produces the mego ("my eyes glaze over") effect. Asking them to tease out why the Trinity causes them to behave the way they do likely has the same effect. My experience is that most Christians consider spirituality from an ethical point of view and from the "felt" understanding that some being/thing greater than they supplies and "explains" (and also cope with) whatever need they have. God as King, maybe creator, is understandable. God in three persons probably not. More likely subliminal and not subject to measurement--which may be the theological point but not the social scientific.

    Go for it anyway, but know that where you are going even social scientific angels fear to tread.


  8. Patronage is a useful term to "pouring one's life" into another, when it comes to the practical issues, in regards to the political. It is the image of slavery. And slavery is a term used in scripture to show love for God. At the same time, God 'pours his life" into humans for equipping them for his service. And that "life" is the holy spirit....believing one can accomplish a given task is half the problem. Those that believe these "image bearing and meaning making" terms will respond accordingly.

    Modern men find these responses superstitous and find it more important to concentrate on the real issues of politics, in general.

  9. I find this post interesting. The main reason for my interest is the correlation I have noticed between charismatic congregations and activity. This is not to say that charismatic churches are better. The focus seems to be more on love and outreach. What seems more interesting to me is to observe which part of the Trinity is seen as the most active in our lives and the effect such beliefs have on the attitude and actions of that group.

  10. Dr. Beck,

    Here is an interesting blog series I just read that suggests that the “orthodox” doctrine of the divinity of Jesus is not what the NT actually teaches:

    I admit it is long, but I think you will at least find his concluding post interesting considering your inquiry into whether or not Trinitarian thought makes a difference. In his concluding post Stark states, “No doctrine, in fact, has been more disastrous for Christian ethics than the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity. What it frequently leads to is this: ‘Well, of course Jesus was perfect. He was God! We can’t do what he did, but that’s why he died for our sins.’ Of course, this is very bad theology, and I’m not claiming that it’s representative, but there’s a real truth to this. The idea that Jesus is God detracts from the ethical implications of the gospel. The whole point of the gospel is that Jesus’ representative righteousness has been used by God to redeem all those who follow the path he trailblazed. That means, to paraphrase John Howard Yoder, you have to go through the cross to get to the resurrection. Jesus’ full humanity is the message of the New Testament. It was his complete and utter humanity that God was able to use to redeem us broken humans.”

    I am interested in your thoughts. Do you think belief in the Trinity, specifically in the Divinity of Christ, is a detriment to moral decision-making? Could his claim even be tested? If so, how might that look?

  11. I also can't point at any research into the consequences of particular beliefs, unfortunately.

    However, you should probably clarify what kind of Trinity you mean. Obviously there's a socio/psychological significance to "three" of anything; does it make a difference if you adopt an approach that regards God as "Ground of Being, source of Light and Love"? That's perhaps not credal orthodoxy, but it might still be useful. Or what about simply "God that loves us, and loves us, and loves us"?

  12. Richard, it seems to me that 'Trinity' as a term is in some ways a misnomer. Its like insisting that something which is infinite has 'x' number of components. Giving the Godhead a number, i think, just reveals the human obsession with nailing stuff down in order to feel as if we have mastery over it. Personally i think its largely a vain practice as humans are called to faith, not certainty, but it's one we keep pursuing.
    HOWEVER the reality of the Holy Spirit as God is another thing entirely. My understanding is the Spirit is God active in the world right now. It's God permeating the creation, speaking to, empowering and assisting the creation in it's relationship to God. If we deny the existence or the power of the Holy Spirit we are, more or less, saying that the Father sits up in Heaven isolated and incapable of touching us, that after the Resurrection there was no more communion with us in the here and now.

    In that sense then ok, I'm a Trinitarian but like Barth I dont like putting a restriction of any kind on God. 

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