January 16, 2021

Another Look: Our Relational God

Trinity Icon, Rublev

In the Western Church, yesterday was Trinity Sunday, the day that bridges the two main divisions of the Church Year. We have been walking through the life of Jesus from Advent to Pentecost since last November. Now, we begin the days of “Ordinary Time,” when we live out the faith daily as Christ’s church, embraced by the Good News of salvation and filled with his Spirit.

About Today’s Art
“Many scholars consider Rublev’s Trinity the most perfect of all Russian icons and perhaps the most perfect of all the icons ever painted. The work was created for the abbot of the Trinity Monastery, Nikon of Radonezh, a disciple of the famous Sergius, one of the leaders of the monastic revival in the 14th-century Russia. Asking Rublev to paint the icon of the Holy Trinity, Nikon wanted to commemorate Sergius as a man whose life and deeds embodied the most progressive processes in the late 14th-century Russia.

“…From the earliest times, the idea of the Trinity was controversial and difficult to understand, especially for the uneducated masses. Even though Christianity replaced the pagan polytheism, it gave the believers a monotheistic religion with a difficult concept of one God in three hypostases — God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Not only the uneducated population but many theologians had difficulties with the concept of the triune God; from time to time, a heretical movement, like Arianism, questioned the doctrine, causing long debates, violent persecutions, and even greater general confusion. Trying to portray the Trinity, but always aware of the Biblical prohibition against depicting God, icon painters turned to the story of the hospitality of Abraham who was visited by three wanderers. In their compositions, icon painters included many details — the figures of Abraham and Sarah, a servant killing a calf in preparation for the feast, the rock, the tree of Mamre, and the house (tent) — trying to render as faithfully as possible the events described in the text. (Genesis, 18:1-8)”

• Alexander Boguslawski


The Holy Trinity
The Church’s belief in the triune God — we believe in one God who is three persons in one essence — is foundational for Christian faith. This teaching is fully spelled out in the Athanasian Creed. Of course, this doctrine is a mystery, transcending human mathematical logic. However, it is perhaps the most practically important fundamental teaching of the faith, for it clarifies who the true and living God is, and what he is like. In particular, it reveals that he is a personal, relational God.

This God who acts is not only a God of energies, but a personal God. When humans participate in the divine energies, they are not overwhelmed by some vague and nameless power, but they are brought face to face with a person. Nor is this all: God is not simply a single person confined within His own being, but a Trinity of three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each of whom ‘dwells’ in the other two by virtue of a perpetual movement of love. God is not only a unity but a union.

• Timothy Ware (Bishop Kallistos of Dioklesia), The Orthodox Church, p. 209

This mutual indwelling of the Persons of the Trinity has been known as “Perichoresis.” We use a word that comes from this: “choreography,” to describe the art of dance. The image brought out in the term perichoresis is that of dynamic movement and loving interaction, as in joyful dancing. As Peter Leithart describes it:

The unity of the Tri-unity should not be understood as “sitting together,” as if the Persons were merely in close proximity. Nor should perichoresis be understood as a static containment, as if the Son were in the Father in the way that water is in a bucket.

Rather, perichoresis describes the Persons as eternally giving themselves over into one another. It is not that the Father has (at some “moment” in eternity past) poured Himself out into the Son, but that He is continually pouring Himself into the Son, and the Son into the Spirit, and the Spirit into the Father, and so on. To talk about God’s “perichoretic” unity is to talk about a dynamic unity, and to talk about a God who is always at work, always in motion, pure act. It is to say that the life of God is peri-choreographed.

• “The Dance of God, the Dance of Life,” Leithart.com

Furthermore, through this knowledge of God, we come to know who we are as human beings. For we are created in the image of the triune God. As Genesis 1:26-28 (NRSV) affirms:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” 

So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. 

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

Our social programme, said the Russian thinker Feodorov, is the dogma of the Trinity. Orthodoxy believes most passionately that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not a piece of ‘high theology’ reserved for the professional scholar, but something that has a living, practical importance for every Christian. The human person, so the Bible teaches, is made in the image of God, and to Christians God means the Trinity: thus it is only the light of the dogma of the Trinity that we can understand who we are and what God intends us to be. Our private lives, our personal relations, and all our plans of forming a Christian society depend upon a right theology of the Trinity.”

• Ware, p. 208

As human beings, we relate to one another in the “dance of life” on this planet. The relationships between the three Persons of the Trinity, dynamic, interactive, loving, serving, form the model for our human dance steps. Unfortunately, through sinfulness we corrupt the dance into a choreography of conflict.

However, now through the Gospel, Christians have been brought into a special relationship with the triune God. Through Christ’s incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension, and by the regenerating action of the Spirit, we prodigals have been brought home and embraced by our Father. Gathered into the household of faith, we now enjoy the feast of the fatted calf, and participate in the dance party that is taking place in the Father’s house. In this way we exemplify the reality and nature of God and bring his Good News to a world that has forgotten how to dance.

The four texts for this Sunday are: Genesis 1:1-2:4aPsalm 82Corinthians 13:11-13, and Matthew 28:16-20. From these four passages, the following truths emerge.

  • The true and living God is a personal, relational God who created us to be like him (Gen. 1)
  • The most important aspect of life is holy and healthy relationships (Gen 1, 2Cor 13)
  • As humans, we are created to live in relationships that are fruitful, exemplifying the goodness of creation and pointing to the new creation. (Gen 1, Ps 8, 2Cor 13, Matt 28)
  • God’s family, the church, is to be the ultimate exemplar of such relationships, living out the grace, love, and fellowship of the Holy Trinity in the world. (Matt 28, 2Cor 13)

I encourage you to take a few moments today to meditate on these Scriptures and contemplate the significance of the triune nature of God. Go further into these questions: What does it tell us about who God is and what he is like? What implications does it have for we humans, created in his image? What does it say to the church, God’s ambassadors here in this world?


  1. Rick Ro. says

    Excellent post, Chaplain! Love the use of art to complement some of the nuances of a Triune being. And your closing questions are good ones, ones I’ll meditate upon through the week.

    • +1 on the questions.

      These seem like far more primary, substantial and meaty questions than most of the religious stuff that I waste my time thinking about.

  2. David Cornwell says

    “This mutual indwelling of the Persons of the Trinity has been known as ‘Perichoresis’.”

    I wish I had more time to comment on this. I’ve been reading Jurgen Moltmann’s “Sun of Righteousness, Arise!; God’s Future for Humanity and the Earth.” He talks extensively about perichoresis, devoting an entire section of the book to this fascinating term. He’s opened my eyes and my thinking about this subject more than anyone else in my lifetime.

    I’d like to take the study of this concept to a retreat where I could think, meditate, and pray about what all it means. Thanks for this piece as it confirms much of what I’ve been reading in Moltmann. If I have time later today I may comment further.

    • Rick Ro. says

      I’ll have to look into that book.

      “Rather, perichoresis describes the Persons as eternally giving themselves over into one another. It is not that the Father has (at some “moment” in eternity past) poured Himself out into the Son, but that He is continually pouring Himself into the Son, and the Son into the Spirit, and the Spirit into the Father, and so on.”

      My mind conjures a visual of three massive, rushing rivers circling together like an Escher painting/paradox, churning into one-another, circling back around, and churning in again. Just reading this article today has helped my imagery and concept of the Trinity.

  3. Perichoresis…

    If this is so, I need to learn how to dance, once and for all. Far be it from me to deny reflecting the image of the Triune God.

    No joke.

  4. I just know that people used to excommunicate, imprison, and kill one another over such things, and for what? Who cares exactly what the nature of Christ was, and, by the way, why is the Holy Ghost always listed last and not given a name? He is represented merely as the gofer for Jesus and Jehovah, a being with no choice and no thoughts but to do their bidding. And while I’m at it, if all three are eternal, why is one called the Son and another the Father? I don’t think it’s for nothing that the Moslems say that Christians are polytheistic, believing as they do in a Triune God that makes no sense to anyone, whether educated or not, and is referred to as a Mystery as if that’s a higher kind of ignorance.

    • I recently listened to a debate between a Christian and a Muslim about this very thing, and the Muslim made a few of the points you make here. I sympathize with how obtuse it seems for Christians to be so devoted to a doctrine that even they admit no one can understand. I also have to point out, though, that the way people usually object to the doctrine ignores the way in which it came about. The usual thinking seems to be that a bunch of over-educated theologians and philosophers got together and tried to think up an something really obscure and incomprehensible, simply because they wanted the church to have some extra special adornments as the institution grew. Make it a ‘real religion’ and all. Hard to understand, mysterious. A new way to keep people out if they didn’t step into line with mainstream thinking.

      But it didn’t arise in a vacuum, and it wasn’t just a way of playing politics with people the mainstream didn’t agree with. It arose as the church was being confronted with teachings that ultimately undermined the Gospel. If there are 3 gods then they could be at odds with one another and reduce the faith to a fancier type of paganism, with the gods competing or demanding different things of people and ultimately dividing their allegiance. The ancient Jewish confession of the Shema, which all the early Christians took to be Scripture, would be untrue. But if, for instance, modalism is true and God is simply one of three different “states” at various times, then either the Holy Spirit is not in us continually, or Christ does not continue to be embodied. Yet both of these are necessary articles of faith for the Gospel to do its work.

      And on through the heresies- each article of trinitarian doctrine is there to protect the hope that the early Christians found in the Gospel of the Messiah against various aberrant teachings that tried to draw the church into something dehumanizing. The Trinity wasn’t a random add-on by capricious theologians, it was necessary to keep the church’s faith pure.

      Obviously that doesn’t prove some kind of pure motive for the Trinity’s defenders, but it doesn’t need to. The claim isn’t that those who believed in the Trinity were good and did all the right things with those who disagreed with them, just that the Trinitarian formulation is true.

      But I don’t think Christians should put it as the first foot forward, or insist too sharply on its immediate acceptance by those shoe are questioning. It’s not something to imprison and kill over, as you noted. It’s not after all the Gospel, though the Gospel needs it in order to stay pure.

    • Same, by the way, for the two natures of Christ. If he’s man but not God, or God but not man, the Gospel itself dries up and blows away.

    • Rick Ro. says

      Why stop at those questions? How about, how can he be Alpha and Omega? Did Jesus exist during the time God created everything? The list could go on forever.

      “I don’t think it’s for nothing that the Moslems say that Christians are polytheistic…”

      They can call me whatever they want.

      “…believing as they do in a Triune God that makes no sense to anyone, whether educated or not, and is referred to as a Mystery as if that’s a higher kind of ignorance.”

      But what if God IS bigger, broader, deeper, higher, more eternal, more gracious, forgiving, holy, etc. etc. than any box our human minds can put Him in? I’m good with calling it a Mystery!

      • Nature itself is full of such mysteries and dichotomies…for instance just look at the dual nature of light or matter (that they exhibit both wave-like and particle-like behavior, which are seemingly contradictory entities). Or as a more straightforward example, look at how at the triple point (or critical point) for water, it simultaneously exists as both a solid, liquid, AND gas (not OR).

      • A “mystery” that we can understand is no longer divine, but a human artifact. If we can figure out God then we really do not need Him because He is not ineffable.

  5. The final paragraphs from “The General Dance”, which is the last chapter of New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton:

    “For the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness. The silence of the spheres is the music of a wedding feast. The more we persist in misunderstanding the phenomena of life, the more we analyze them out into strange finalities and complex purposes of our own, the more we involve ourselves in sadness, absurdity and despair. But it does not matter much, because no despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not.

    Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.

  6. Patrick Kyle says

    It only makes sense that the God of the Universe is incomprehensible, even to a certain extent in what He has revealed to us about Himself. What He has revealed to us is like a small window into His being and Work. It’s not a shock that there are things we just don’t understand..

  7. “The Church’s belief in the triune God — we believe in one God who is three persons in one essence — is foundational for Christian faith.”

    Is that true? That if I’m not a Trinitarian then it follows that I cannot be a Christian? Shouldn’t we note that the word “Trinity” is not found in the New Testament? That the doctrine is not present but for a few verses of doubtful authenticity? What if I believe that Jesus was a righteous human being exalted by God, that the Holy Spirit is a metaphor for the action of God in the world, and that God is absolute and transcendent? Shouldn’t we also note that according to many New Testament critical historians this view most nearly resembles the views of the earliest strand of the tradition?

    • Rick Ro. says

      I agree with ya, Stephen. Jesus never says that you need to believe in the Three-in-One. At least, I don’t believe he does… 😉

      • Rick Ro. says

        I should’ve followed that with, “I personally view the Trinity as a way we try to wrap our heads around God/Jesus/Spirit somehow existing together, not that a belief in that concept is a requirement.”

        But as is pointed out elsewhere, some might view that as heresy. Oh, well…I’ll let God judge me on that one. And I’ll let Jesus cover me.

        • “Some might point that out as heresy”? Really? Jesus as exalted man actually denies his share in the Godhead and makes his death on the cross meaningless for our salvation. THAT is why it has been considered as heresy!

    • As to your first question: my take is that it’s not necessary to be able to say something definitive about the authenticity of every person’s faith based on the Trinity. But if you take the phrase “foundational for Christian faith” to be a big picture view – that we’re talking about “the single faith” that consists of many many individuals, and anchors them to Jesus, then yes, it’s absolutely true. Without the Trinity, the effectiveness of the Gospel gives way, and the faith itself crumbles. In reality, this might take time, but it would surely happen eventually.

    • The Finn says

      > “The Church’s belief in the triune God — we believe in one God who is three persons in one
      > essence — is foundational for Christian faith.”
      > Is that true?

      No, emphatically, no. This doctrine is intellectual mush; the kerfluffel it has resulting in is sad, it is a doctrine which should remain a footnote.

    • This. There is a long tradition of non-Trinitarianism within the Disciples of Christ and other churches, who point out that the Trinity is unbiblical. Too many Protestants are content simply to perpetuate manmade traditions and creeds inherited from Catholicism rather than examine what scripture really says.

      Really, who decided on the doctrine of the Trinity? Some council?! And who gets to call a council–the emperor? The pope? Well I didn’t vote for either of them, and neither did Jesus. If you feel more of an affinity with the Catholics (either Roman or Greek) than with your fellow Protestants, then I guess everybody’s entitled to his own opinion, but I don’t go around calling you a heretic for it.

      The truth is, there is no “the Western Church,” there are only churches (with a small c), and people. You can’t lump all these different theologies together so that they come out saying whatever you want, and then assume that to represent the fundamentals of Christianity.

      • By “too many protestants” I guess you mean “all protestants except a group of fringe extremists.” I used to be possessed of a desire to return the church to is “original” Biblical roots, and uproot anything that was part of the later “man-made” tradition….but then I started believing in the Holy Spirit. If the Holy Spirit continues to guide and work in the church, even after the apostolic age, then it must be that something of its later traditions are holy. Yet not all of them are strictly “in the Bible.” Where does that leave us?

        It’s not like we’re required to say nothing that is not in the Bible. Turns out pretty much everyone knows that the trinitarian doctrine is not in the Bible per se, but that doesn’t stop people in every tradition from affirming it. Is that simply because they want something “old” to grab onto? Some high-flown theology so they can feel superior to those with lesser minds? Is it to protect the institution so that its power won’t be threatened?

        Or have brilliant, holy, and Biblically aware people from all over the Christian family affirmed that in order to protect the faith of the Gospel, we need the Trinity? Having looked closely at the matter, and against the paranoid conspiracy theorists, I’ll go with the latter.

        Personally, I feel an affinity with the Great Tradition wherever it’s found. I don’t identify as “protestant” per se, even though that’s where my current expression of worship would put me. And since the vast majority of protestants affirm the Trinity, they are not expressing an affinity for a uniquely Catholic or Orthodox teaching, like the veneration of Mary or something, I think it’s unfair to set protestants agains RC and EO in this way, as if we’re required to reject everything one another says out some tradition of being contentious. No, protestants are simply affirming Historic Christianity in this way, because they believe that “the Lord and Giver of Life” is loose within the church wherever it is found. To this end, there are not simply small-c “churches” and individuals. There is also the capital-C “Church” that is One in Christ beyond the boundaries of time and space.

        • I think most Christians just go along with what they’ve been told, and repress any doubts they may have in order to stay in the group. People like you can be counted to come along and spit on them (or worse) when they fail to conform to groupthink.

          You don’t get to be “Historic Christianity” and your beliefs are not “Great”-er than mine, or any more blessed by the Holy Spirit. Sure, you’ve got numbers on your side, but as you’ve indirectly admitted and all but the most doctrinaire scholars would agree, Jesus agrees with us and not you.

      • The vast majority of Protestants do believe in the holy trinity. Not sure why you would think otherwise, Derrick.

  8. Rublev’s Trinity Icon reminds me of Botticelli’s The Three Graces.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that the doctrine of Trinity is a pretty simple, organic one, and not a forced, made-up doctrine.

    Consider this: The Hebrew scriptures insist on one god, and one god only, and the Christian bible concurs. But, if that one god came here in person, then automatically we have two ways of experiencing that one god. And, if that one god filled us with understanding and comfort upon discovery of him, that makes three ways of experiencing that one god, and we are still able to insist on one and only one.

    Other experiences, such as God is light, God is love, God is truth, etc, could add more “persons” beyond the Trinity if we wished, but they are already included in the three (or rather, one).

    I’m not convinced that the Trinity is communing up there in heaven as three distinct “beings” keeping each other company. I think the doctrine of Trinity is more for our understanding of the nature of God and of Jesus—who is eternally God. And I reject the notion (lately gaining popularity) that a community of Trinity in heaven is necessary in order for God to love—as if God needed an object for that.

    And I don’t think the plural in the Genesis account “Let us make man in our image…” refers to the Trinity. I think it’s merely the royal “we.”

    Some of this makes me a heretic.

    • I like what Clint Schnekloth said recently on Facebook. The Trinity is not so much a doctrine to be believed or understood as it is an essential reality in which to rest. It is a way, supported by how God has revealed himself (good points, Ted), for us to think about the complexity and relationality of the one true and living God.

      • Robert F says

        In that case, I wish the Athanasian Creed didn’t include such dire warnings of loss of salvation for those who do not subscribe to its definition of the Trinity, as if it was a series of connected logical propositions that one must either accept in total or reject at one’s eternal peril. Such a heavy-handed tone is not in keeping with the view you describe, CM, though I prefer the view you present myself. On the basis of the Athanasian Creed, what Ted says would be considered damnable heresy, modalism specifically, since the Creed insists on the reality of three-foldness in the inner nature of God himself, not just as we know him. I find the threat of loss of salvation for those who deviate from its definition unpalatable and coercive, and it leads me to believe that those who wrote it did not subscribe to the view you describe but demanded assent to it as a condition of salvation.

        • Robert F says

          Yes, I’m aware of C.S. Lewis’ essay in which he attempts to soften this aspect of the Creed by saying that it only applies to those who have come into the fulness of the faith, and who must “keep” the definition in order to be saved, but that it does not apply to those who have never held the faith to begin with. But I notice that most modern translations do not use the word “keep” but “hold”, and if they are right, then Lewis’ interpretation is totally incorrect; but even if his word choice and interpretation is right, it still makes the Creed demand intellectual assent to a series of connected propositions as a condition of remaining “saved”.

          The Creed has poetry, but it also has very fundamentalist-sounding prosaic demands attached to this poetry. The thing is, it’s impossible to require notional assent to a poem. But the Church Fathers did just that in this Creed; and it mars the beauty that would otherwise be central to the document.

        • Not a big fan of the Athanasian Creed either, and I’m apparently in good company. I don’t know of any churches who use it today.

          • Robert F says

            Yes, I sort of was aware of its disuse by the Church today. It amazes me that an authoritative, Ecumenical Creed/Definition formulated by the “undivided” Church of the first five centuries has essentially been set aside by every major communion of the Western Church in late modern times. Of all things, this should indicate just how much doctrine changes in the Church, and how the interpretations and understandings of the later Church may and do sometimes set aside the teachings and formulations and interpretation of the early Church, even when those teachings, etc., were defined by a gathered Ecumenical Council, as in this case..

          • Burro [Mule] says

            The Athanasian Creed was never used in the East. It is very Eastern in its Triadology, but its fearful anathemas seem to be a punishment inflicted by a wrothful God for wrong belief and confession. Maybe that’s the key to its falling out of favor, even in the West.

            The Athanasian Creed is quite simply, a statement of the Way Things Are at the very Marrow of existence. Arguments and metaphors about the Trinity remind me of dictionary entries for the most basic words, the words that all children learn first whatever their language, as a matter of course, To say that a dog is a quadripedal mammal with an acute sense of smell and an affinity for human company does nothing to explain dogs to a child, or even to a man. We use the basic words to explain the more complicated and abstract ones,

            Also, the difficulty of building an instrument to detect cosmic rays, as I am told, is that these instruments are composed of matter containing protons and electrons. In the same way, I would not expect a created photometer to have been able to measure the Uncreated Light on Tabor. The doctrine of the Trinity is woven into the structure of language, with its delicate dance of contrasts and similarities. If language, then thought, as logos.

            In such a way, all of Creation reflects a cosmos where neither the differences nor the similarities are ultimate, or perhaps better, are equally ultimate.

            I swear, of the boards I frequent, this board is easily the Charlie Browniest..

          • Brianthedad says

            We use it. But only once a year, on Trinity Sunday, if you call that using it. It contains language that actually makes the concept of the trinity more difficult to grasp, for me at least. Its tone is so much more harsh and divisive than the other two creeds. ApC and NC state what we believe and that unifies us. AC has a different tone altogether.

          • We used to use it once a year in my church growing up. LCMS. I privately knew it as “that long and boring creed that I couldn’t understand.”

          • brianthedad says

            LCMS here too. and yes to your definition.

    • Rick Ro. says

      I hear and agree with some of what you’re saying. I’m sure many would call me a heretic, too.

    • And I don’t think the plural in the Genesis account “Let us make man in our image…” refers to the Trinity. I think it’s merely the royal “we.”

      A great, non literal way of understanding that. And probably what the educated author had in mind.

  9. I ate some eggs yesterday. Just trying to have a Biblical breakfast.

  10. Robert F says

    Well, I’ve never really learned to dance, and with the bad shape my legs are in, I think it’s too late now.

    But it’s okay, because

    “Except for the point, the still point,
    There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”
    T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton

    • OldProphet says

      Well. “and it’s all because your momma don’t dance and your daddy don’t rock and roll”.

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