On Trinity and Politics: Part 1, The Trinity Is Our Social Program

A couple of months ago, my friend and colleague Brad East put the theologian Karen Kilby on my radar screen, and I've since been exploring her work. I wanted to devote a few posts to one of Kilby's more noteworthy papers, "Perichoresis and Projection: Problems with Social Doctrines of the Trinity."

In "Perichoresis and Projection" Kilby levels some critiques of social trinitarianism, especially how the Trinity is used as an ideal or model of social relationships. The political implications of the Trinity are captured in an oft repeated phrase "the Trinity is our social program," first uttered by Nicholas Fedorov, and popularized by the theologian Miroslav Volf. 

Kilby is a critic of this move, and I'd like to share her argument along with some reflections of my own in this series. But today, to start, a post about social trinitarianism, perichoresis, and what it might mean to say "the Trinity is our social program."

Trinitarian debates are complex, and a non-specialist like myself cannot do them justice. So I just want to sketch, in rough outline, the differences between classical and social trinitarianism. 

Classical trinitarianism is the Nicene consensus that God is one substance (ousia) and three persons (hypostases). Because of this, classical trinitarianism has always been a metaphysically complex, arcane, and abstract doctrine. 

(Well, to be clear, the doctrine of the immanent Trinity--what the Trinity actually is in itself--is a complex, arcane, and abstract doctrine. Most Christians throughout history haven't been able to speak with any sort of confidence about "three hypostases in one ousia." By contrast, what is called the economic Trinity--the activity of God in salvation history--is much more clear as we witness God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit act in the biblical drama of salvation.) 

Given the arcane, and frankly impractical, nature of classical trinitarianism, there's been a surge of interest in this last generation of theologians in what is called "social trinitarianism." 

Going back to the Cappadocian Fathers, social trinitarianism emphasizes the relationality of the Trinity. What binds the Trinity together is love. The word often used to describe this relationality and love is perichoresis. The Greek word perichoresis means "going around," like in a dance, and was used by the church fathers to describe the dynamic mutuality in the Trinitarian relations. The fathers also described perichoresis as "interpenetration," the mutual "indwelling" of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

It should come as no surprise why social trinitarianism has become all the rage. It's much more interesting to describe the Trinity as a "divine dance" of love than as "three hypostases in one ousia." 

But it's more than just more interesting, it's also more relevant and practical. Suddenly, with social trinitarianism, the Trinity can preach.

The move should be familiar. We describe the Trinity as loving relationality, a "divine dance" of mutuality and self-giving, an economy of gifts. With that love set before us we then call upon all social and political arrangements to reflect, embody and participate in this love. All relationships are called to join the divine dance. All marriages, all families, all friendships, all organizations, all social groups, all economies, all political arrangements. Every relationship should be characterized by love, mutuality and self-giving. Because the Trinity is our social program.

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