[Note: Today, we have another post by my good friend Austin Ricketts. I asked for him to write some of his thoughts on the current Lent series I'm doing and this is what he came up with. He's written other things for my blogs before, and each time, I end up with my mind blown. This post certainly follows in that tradition. This piece is a bit longer (even after breaking it up into two posts), but I encourage you to read it in its entirety. Really, you will not be disappointed.]
Update: Part 2 of this post is up.
Update II: In an interesting twist, Austin has since recanted these comments, though I still entirely agree with these original ones. So….I’m going to keep them up, but with this comment.
When delving into the mystery of the Trinity, it is inevitable that one approaches Light too bright to see through, a mountain too high to climb, a cave too deep to spelunk. That this is the case does not mean that one shouldn’t move into any light, climb as highly as she can, spelunk as deeply as he may. That would be an unbiblical quietism, and unhealthy for the soul. The soul needs exercise.
Here I attempt to exercise my soul by exorcizing the ancient demons called simplicity and impassiblity. I pray that I do this while abiding in love. But I do it nonetheless.
the simplicity of God: some problems
Often in theological speech, God is called simple. This basically means that God is not composed of body parts. Sometimes the concept of simplicity was stressed to mean something beyond that. Neo-platonists held to a notion of God’s oneness that would not allow any distinction in the divine being at all; there could certainly not be a distinction between persons on their account.
And most western, medieval theologians, preeminently Thomas Aquinas, did little to change this notion, because they started with an abstract notion of deity in order then to acquire an understanding of the persons in God.
For these western theologians, these defenders of simplicity, God’s attributes all started in an abstract divinity conceived as simply One. If something like Wisdom or Goodness were attributed to God, these theologians would argue that these attributes can be considered distinct from one another only as they relate to creation. In God, however, goodness and wisdom are one and the same thing; or so they would say.
These theologians are correct in that they understand the attributes to arise from relation. They falter, though, when they don’t see relation as the very being of God. Simplicity is a false start.
God is spirit (John 4:24). Spirit is non-material, non-physical (Luke 24:39). In agreement with simplicity (at this point), spirit doesn’t have physical parts. Moving slightly away from simplicity, though, spirit is oftentimes described as an “intentionality” or “disposition” toward something.
There can be evil spirits disposed to do evil things, fervent spirits inclined toward action (Acts 18:25; Rom. 12:11); a spirit of slavery leading to fear or a spirit of adoption leading one to cry out to God as Father (Rom. 8:15); and there is the Holy Spirit, inclined toward making things holy, bringing people to the Father (Rom. 15:16). There are various intentions of spirit.
Quickly moving away from a conception of spirit that could be construed as abstract, “divine spirit” is described as “knowing” in a similar fashion as people “know” (1 Cor. 2:11). It has a mind, which is why it can have intentions; why it can will to act. And this mind is self-conscious.
Love: the disposition of God
So if spirit is best described as “intention” or “disposition”, what then can we say of God? God, as spirit, intends to love; God is disposed to loving.
God is Love (1 John 4:8, 16). Love is not, properly speaking, an attribute in God; it’s who God is. Whatever God intends, it is always intended in Love. If what God intends is wise or good (or whatever else), it was loving first. And none of this “intending” has anything to do with creation–not yet. Love is first directed toward God’s own Self.
The relationship between God the Father and God the Son has been classically constructed on the relationship of “begotten-ness“. The Father eternally begets the Son; the Son is eternally begotten. The qualifier “eternal” is usually added, signifying that there was never a time when the Son was not; this against Arianism).
I would like to suggest that there is another relational construction that exists between the Father and the Son. It has precedence over begotten-ness, even while entailing it. That is, Love.
Love & Death in the Trinity
In classical theology, God cannot suffer or die. The notion that God cannot suffer or die is called impassibility, from the Latin passio, which means “to suffer or endure”. It’s where the English word passion comes from.
Nowadays, passion is understood simply as any kind of strong emotion, especially love. I think that the connection to love is correct, but we can’t forget the classical use that includes death.
Love is a formal concept. This type of concept (set forth by Blessed John Duns Scotus) exists as a reality of the mind, and as a reality of actualization. Love, as a formal concept, includes a giving up of something, a death; and an acknowledgment of something, a begetting.
In other words, Love moves away from the lover toward the loved. Both aspects are incredibly important for understanding this single concept. And more will be said of it later. First, an historical aside:
In Eastern Orthodox Trinitarian theology, the Father is understood as the “cause” of the Triune being. But, this doesn’t envision the Father as the “cause” of the Son and Spirit, where the Father is the greater god and the Son and Spirit are lesser gods (which is subordinationism). And my adding death to the equation does not mean the death of one god yielding the birth of another (which is paganism). I’m not advocating the creation of multiple gods by whatever means—whether birth or death—leading to a “tritheism”.
Rather, the Father gives of Himself in order to beget the Son. It is not right to see this as a lessening of the Father’s being without seeing it also as a gain. It is an act of Love. It is a transition from person to person.
The reason why death is an appropriate notion by which to understand this relation, then, is that death entails separation or distinction between two or more things that otherwise belong together.
This post continues tomorrow, where Austin will lead us even further into the depths of who God is, and give us some very practical implications that this essence of God holds for us weary seekers and wanderers. Really, you don’t want to miss it.