November 24, 2020

Our Relational God

Trinity Icon, Rublev

By Chaplain Mike

This Sunday upcoming is 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,”

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 1:1-2:4a, Psalm 8, 2Corinthians 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 and throughout this weekend 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. In the post evangelical wilderness, I discovered the concept of the Trinity anew. I feel like I am only beginning to comprehend the importance and significance of community with the Trinity.

  2. It’s very interesting you post, as John Armstrong posted on the Trinity on his blog today as well. He believes that future church unity is dependent on each branch of the church (re)turning to a right understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity…which makes sense, as it is the basis for all human relationships!

    Good stuff!

  3. Gazing on His Son with the Love
    the One and the Other eternally breathe forth,
    the inexpressible and primal Power

    made with such order all things that revolve
    that he who studies it, in mind and in space,
    cannot but taste of Him.

    – Canto X, “Paradiso”

    In the deep, transparent essence of the lofty Light
    there appeared to me three circles
    having three colors but the same extent,

    and each one seemed reflected by the other
    as rainbow is by rainbow, while the third one seemed fire,
    equally breathed forth by one and by the other.

    O how scant is speech, too weak to frame my thoughts.
    Compared to what I still recall my words are faint —
    to call them little is to praise them much.

    O eternal Light, abiding in yourself alone,
    knowing yourself alone, and, known to yourself
    and knowing, loving and smiling on yourself!

    – Canto XXXIII, “Paradiso”, “Divine Comedy”, Dante

  4. At the risk of being stoned for being a plebian, I am re-reading “The Shack”, and seeing a picture of the Trinity in ways that make my mind and heart run ’round in circles.

    I read Augustine and A Kempis, too…so please don’t hurt me. I have already been beaten up too much lately.

  5. David Cornwell says

    “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.”

    Finding ways to teach about the Trinity always have the danger of reducing the truths to some sort of human logic or model that always fail, at least for me. Most of the one’s I’ve seen in the past bring little satisfaction. It must somehow be taught as mystery. Story is one way to do this. I think this is why “The Shack” has been helpful to many people. Yet even this fails to do it justice and there always seems to be something lacking. I think this is because it is relational and thus in many aspects escapes logic.

    Have you ever noticed that most formulas for a good marriage or child rearing don’t really work? They do not necessarily work in these relationships. I remember in the early 80’s Dobson telling everyone how to bring up their children and do parenting. All of it wasn’t bad. But many people who swore by him were later disappointed because the ways to handle a “strong willed child” didn’t pan out in the end. Or mothers didn’t like how it felt to be reduced to a codified role.

    Maybe this doesn’t make sense to anyone else, but I think learning about the Trinity is something like being in the loving relationships of marriage and raising children. And there is mystery in loving and living with a spouse and children. Being married almost 50 years there is much that I now understand, but it seems that there is just as much that escapes me. It’s a mystery.

    By the way– I just remembered this. I met Marge at college in Marriage & Family Class. Our professor was Harry Hitch. Later he performed the ceremony in the Methodist Church we then attended. He “hitched” us up.

  6. Thanks, David. I always appreciate your insights. You speak with the wisdom of experience, something so many voices in the church are lacking these days. The “more experienced” I get (i.e. older), the more I realize that everything important in life has more mystery in it than I ever realized. There is a richness and profundity to the simplest matters of life that escapes those who want easy answers or “principles for living.” This is why we tell stories, this is why we have discussions, this is why we sit silently and take time to daydream.

  7. I’m not against the trinity, as in matter in fact, I completely affirm it. However, I do think the Islamic and Jewish critique of the trinity has some validity. Isn’t describing God as “relational” really just us anthropomorphizing him? True, God does relate and to the Son, yet at the same time, to compare such a relationship to the kind we have as humans is erroneous and distorts how the Holy Father-Son relationship truly is.

    The Trinity is the Trinity, stop trying to confine it to human terms and contexts.

    • Mmmm – considering the Islamic critique is “Far be it from him to have a son”, and that the image of the monotheistic God they have is one of complete ineffability, an unknowable God whose arbitrary decrees are unfathomable by human effort (so human reason has no place, not alone in theology, but in philosophy, and as for the sciences, they are vain: Mike Flynn likes to quote “Al-Ghazali, who wrote in The Incoherence of Philosophy that fire did not burn cloth. All we can really see is that the one event is followed by the other. God causes the fire and God causes the cloth to blacken and distintegrate, and it was only the “habit of God” that one followed the other.”)

      And yet at the same time, the titles of Allah include the All-Merciful, the Compassionate, and so forth. Are these not human attributes and human relationships?

    • “Isn’t describing God as “relational” really just us anthropomorphizing him?” Or maybe describing people as relational is really just us theologizing us. Our relational qualities are reflections of God’s, which came first.

    • We cannot talk of God without anthropomorphizing or using metaphor.

  8. Our God is a God of relationships not formulas! Great post!
    If only we can get this thru our heads 🙂

  9. My son, a theology student, was taking an evening service at our church on the Trinity when he used 3 interlocking circles to say what isn’t the Trinity. In the Trinity the circles don’t overlap but fit perfectly within each other. He then pointed out that at the cruxifixion this perfect union was broken for us. The tension in the air at that moment was so strong that he decided to finish his talk at that point. We never get a true view of Christ’s work on teh cross unless we see it in the context of the Trinity.