Part 3: The Problem of Social Trinitarianism

This is part three of my series on “Trinity, Gender, and Subordination,” which is my contribution to Rachel Held Evans’s Week of Mutuality.

The Problem of Social Trinitarianism

Barth could never have affirmed the complementarian use of his trinitarian doctrine for the simple reason that the complementarian position is premised on certain claims that he firmly rejected. The most important such claim is what we might now call “social trinitarianism.” Social trinitarianism is the doctrine that Father, Son, and Spirit are three independent centers of consciousness with their own distinct intellects, wills, and energies of operation. The three persons of the trinity are united as a perichoretic communion of distinct persons, in contrast to the traditional unity in terms of the one divine nature or substance. The point of a social trinitarian theology is to argue that what is “social” within God can be applied to human society. Social trinitarianism is therefore intrinsically an ethical or political theology. The position was developed in its present form by Jürgen Moltmann in his influential book, The Trinity and the Kingdom, where he places social trinitarianism in opposition to the “abstract monotheism” that he claims has characterized most of Christian theology. While the complementarians share very little with Moltmann in terms of theological commitments, it is the Moltmannian doctrine of social trinitarianism that the complementarians presuppose in making their claims about the trinity and gender relations.

Like social trinitarianism, the complementarian position depends on the ability to map intra-trinitarian relations onto intra-human relations. The relation between Father and Son is supposed to tell us something about the relation between men and women. The logic of this move depends upon viewing each divine “person” as a distinct subject who then relates to the other divine persons the way we relate to other human beings. If the Father, Son, and Spirit constitute a single agent, then any relations between them would be entirely irrelevant for human relations; there would be no point of similarity between God and humanity. The trinitarian relations are thus only significant for human society if each “person” is an independent center of consciousness. Hence, the complementarian position depends upon the social trinitarian doctrine.

Social trinitarianism becomes possible only because of a conceptual fuzziness regarding the word “person.” Because Father and Son (and Spirit) are understood as divine persons, it is assumed that we can learn something from them about how to relate as human persons. This is only possible because, in both cases (divine and human), the word “person” has here been defined in terms of a center of consciousness, an “I,” with intellect and will. However, as Kathryn Tanner rightly points out, “this is to give the trinitarian term ‘person’ (a rather ill-defined placeholder for whatever there might be three of in the trinity) the modern sense of ‘human person’ and then insist on taking it quite literally.”1 In other words, the move from divine person to human person presupposes the prior move from human person to divine person. It is only because the divine person has been defined according to our notion of a human person that the divine relations are then able to inform human relations. Social trinitarianism—and thus also social-trinitarian complementarianism—depends upon projecting upon God what we think a person is, in order then to model ourselves upon this very projection. It is an entirely circular argument. It makes God in our own image in order then to find our image in God. Social trinitarianism, in short, is a form of natural theology.

The problem is that our modern psychological notion of “person” (understood as a “personality”) has nothing in common with what the tradition meant by persona (in Greek, translated initially as prosopon, but much more commonly as hypostasis) in the context of the trinity. The word persona as it was used by the Latin theologians referred to an individual essence (individual substantia), that is, a particular modality of a nature. The ancient Greek theologians recognized that the word hypostasis (often translated into English as “substance” or “essence”) captures the meaning far better than the usual word for “person,” prosopon, which refers to the mask worn by an actor to play a part on stage. Certainly such a meaning cannot be applied to the trinity. In any case, when the Latin persona became translated into the modern word “person” (in German, die Person; in French, personne), it began to be interpreted in light of our modern understanding of the term. The result has been conceptual confusion. Barth is very helpful here:
What is called ‘personality’ in the conceptual vocabulary of the 19th century is distinguished from the patristic and mediaeval persona by the addition of the attribute of self-consciousness. This really complicates the whole issue. One was and is obviously confronted by the choice of either trying to work out the doctrine of the Trinity on the presupposition of the concept of person as thus accentuated or of clinging to the older concept which since this accentuation in usage has become completely obsolete and is now unintelligible outside monastic and a few other studies.2
Barth decides to avoid both options—neither going with the modern meaning of “person” nor trying to rehabilitate the ancient meaning—by instead speaking of “modes of being” (Seinsweisen). The fear that this leads Barth to modalism is unfounded. Modalism is the “heresy” that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are only “modes” of one eternal being as this being appears to us in time and space. God is only trinitarian in the economy. Behind the economy, however, in the immanent nature of God, there is no trinitarian differentiation, only a single divine being. Modalism is thus a split in God’s being between the immanent and the economic, such that what we encounter in the economy is not truly revelatory of who God is in eternity. Barth has no such problem. For him, God is triune “all the way down”; there is no height or depth of God which is not constituted in terms of Father, Son, and Spirit. And that is because there is no height or depth in God that is not determined by God’s self-revelation. There is no God “behind” the trinitarian God we encounter in history. The Father, Son, and Spirit revealed to us simply is God in eternity. Barth, in fact, goes quite a bit further than the ancient Latin theologians, in that he discards the split between the abstract, impersonal divinitas and the concrete trinitarian persons. Barth seeks to overcome entirely the classical substance ontology that conceives of divinity as a general ontological concept that is logically prior to the particular instantiations it takes as Father, Son, and Spirit. There is no abstract divinity-as-such; there is only this eminently concrete and specific reality of the triune God. Barth replaces the language of substance with the more modern and helpful language of subject. God is a “single subject” rather than a “single substance.” His definition of the trinity is therefore a single subject in three modes of being. The trinity is the one God in threefold self-repetition.

The decisive error of social trinitarianism in all its forms is its adoption of the modern notion of person as definitive for what we mean by the “divine persons.” The result of such a move is tritheism. If there are three self-conscious I’s in God, then there are three deities. Social trinitarianism is a disguised form of polytheism. The attempt to make perichoresis do the work of uniting God into a single agent is an impossible use of the concept. It was classically used in a purely analytic sense: it described the unity that already characterized the persons of the trinity. Perichoresis cannot then be used to create a unity that is not already present. Even if such a theological move is attempted, however, the prior definition of Father, Son, and Spirit as three distinct self-conscious agents undermines the very notion of perichoresis from the start. The doctrine of perichoresis refers to the ineffable interpenetration of each divine person in the other two, such that no separation of agency is possible. In other words, it serves to support the Augustinian axiom discussed above—precisely the axiom that social trinitarianism rejects!

In a social trinitarian model, perichoresis is merely a uniting of wills or an intimate communion. Divine unity is reduced to relations of self-giving love. The result is that “the persons of the trinity seem more like separately constituted human persons acting harmoniously together in a jointly agreed upon common project.”3 But here again, the notion of perichoretic unity is being defined by what we understand to be unity among human beings. Our notion of a “common will of the people” has been applied to the will of the trinitarian persons. This is in stark contrast to what the doctrine of the trinity ought to say. The will of the Son corresponds to the will of the Father “because in a significant sense they have only one will. Instead of a fellowship of wills, one finds an identity of will.”4 Once each divine person has been modeled after a human person, however, it’s only natural that divine unity comes to mirror our vision of human unity. Social trinitarianism projects upon God the kind of utopian community—whether hierarchical or egalitarian in nature—that we envision for ourselves. Tanner states the problem well: “the danger of such a strategy is that the trinity fails to do any work; it does not tell one anything one did not already know.”5

What social trinitarianism can never achieve is the notion of God’s single subjectivity. It is irreconcilable with Augustine’s axiom that Father, Son, and Spirit act as a single agent in the economy. There are not three intellects, three wills, three self-consciences in God. There is one self-conscience, one “I,” that acts in a triune way—one God in threefold self-repetition. “Because all the other members of the trinity are in that person, when one person of the trinity acts the others are necessarily acting too.”6 A human person is never dependent for his or her own existence upon the existence of another, such that when one person acts, another person acts as well. And yet this is precisely what the doctrine of the trinity claims regarding God, but in a way that is far more mysterious and incomprehensible. There is no deliberation between Father, Son, and Spirit, as there is with human beings. There is no conflict of interest that Father and Son have to work out between them. Thinking about the trinity along these lines brings us deep into the waters of polytheistic mythology. More disturbing still, it results in an essentially Marcionite break between the Old and New Testaments. The starting-point for any doctrine of the trinity has to be Israel’s belief in YHWH as the Lord. As R. Kendall Soulen puts it, “YHWH is the triune God.”7 Any theology that requires the violation of this identification of Father, Son, and Spirit with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob cannot be considered a Christian doctrine.

To reiterate: the complementarian appropriation of trinitarian theology presupposes that the relation between Father and Son is a relation that can inform the relation between men and women. There are many problems with this move—the others I will touch on in the following sections—but the root issue is the assumption that a personal relation within God is similar to a personal relation among human beings. But in order for this analogy between God and humanity to work, one has to univocally (i.e., literally or directly) apply a definition of human personhood to God. By defining God according to humanity, social trinitarian arguments necessarily end up rejecting the radical ontological differentiation between God and humanity. A relation that ought to be indirect and analogous becomes direct and univocal. This brings us to the problem of the divine-human analogy more broadly.


1 Kathryn Tanner, Christ the Key (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 220.

2 Barth, CD I/1, 357.

3 Tanner, Christ the Key, 231.

4 Ibid. Emphasis mine.

5 Ibid., 230.

6 Ibid., 224.

7 R. Kendall Soulen, “YHWH the Triune God,” Modern Theology 15, no. 1 (1999): 25–54.


Al said…
I am not sure whether I understand how your points here fit in with Barth's understanding of the relationship between the human I and Thou and the divine I and Thou in relation to the imago dei (e.g. CD III/1, pp.182ff., CD III/2, pp.323-324). While it seems to me that Barth would have rejected mapping intra-trinitarian relationships onto intra-human relationships, my impression is that his reasons seem to be rather different from your own.

I would also be interested to hear any thoughts or reading recommendations that you might have on Barth's teaching on gender relations, and particularly on their relationship to the analogia relationis (for instance, in Barth's treatments of 1 Corinthians 11:3). Thanks!
Nick Norelli said…
Fantastic post. I jotted down some of my problems with Social Trinitarianism last month and we seem to have overlapping concerns.

Would you be willing to make your entire series available to me as a single PDF that I could post on my Trinitarian Resources page? I think it would benefit a great many people. Thanks.
Ian Paul said…
My own critique of this matter is more functional, in that it is worth asking 'What does subordination mean in practice?' For individual subjects, it must mean that where the will of the two persons comes into conflict, then the will of one triumphs over the will of the other, who sets his or her own will aside in preference to the other.

But this cannot happen within the Trinity unless God is three distinct persons, each with an independent centre of will--in which case, as you say, you have tritheism not Trinity.

I also find this discussion odd in relation to the texts. In 1 Cor 11, women are like Christ and men are like 'God' ie the Father. But in Eph 5 women are like the church and men are like Christ. So who is supposed to be taking the role of Christ--men or women?!
John Rownby said…
Great post, and sorry for taking this up so late in the day, but I wonder if you'd be so kind as to give me a clearer insight into what your doctrine of the trinity actually consists of? That is, you've done a great and mostly convincing job of pinpointing the problems with social trinitarianism, but I feel the thesis suffers given the lack of any concrete alternative.

So basically: what does it mean to say that there is only one subject in God, given the data that Jesus Christ seems to be such a subject in a conventional sense, and yet is still able to talk to the Father without (presumably) really be talking to himself? Jesus is of course a finite form of the eternal God.... but what's this exchange like from God's point of view? i.e. there is a stream of consciousness in the God-man Jesus. I guess there's also a stream of consciousness somewhere above his head in heaven, watching the events on earth. Is this stream of consciousness the Father? If so, then doesn't the Holy Spirit have such a stream of consciousness as well? If so, isn't this pretty close to social trinitarianism after all? If not, then why call the Spirit a Person, given Father and Son both have their own concrete consciousness and 'He' doesn't? (i.e. it seems a pretty humungous ontological difference!) Alternatively, if you'd say that the divine consciousness is just the consciousness of the Father, Son and Spirit... well, I'm not sure what that would mean. Again, what is going on when Jesus is talking to the Father? If the eternal consciousness of God is in some sense all three, then why say Jesus is talking to the Father, and not rather talking to the Son, Father and Holy Spirit?

Sorry for the schoolboy questions, but I tend to find people very hard to pin down on these kinds of basic questions sometimes!
John Rownby said…
Or as another big of a follow up: how many streams of subjective experiences were there in God in 5000BC; how many were there circa 4BC-30AD; how many are there right now?

What do you think of Brian Leftow's doctrine of the trinity?