Ask Dr. Cobb

September 2009 Question

How can process theologians best think of the Trinity?

Dr. Cobb's Response

I need to begin by saying that I believe that the fixation on the Trinity as the distinctively Christian way of thinking of God has done a great deal more harm than good. I stand in the tradition of John Wesley. While he was content with orthodoxy for himself, he did not require acceptance of creedal Trinitarianism by his followers. I appreciate this freedom.

To treat Trinitarian doctrine as optional does not mean that any Christian should belittle the importance of the Father, or of Jesus, or of the Holy Spirit as these are represented in the New Testament. Jesus was a human being who inspired faith and even awe and, most important, discipleship. Although he taught that all of us are children of God, he is regarded by his followers as the especially chosen and announced Son. Jesus worshipped and prayed to “Abba,” his heavenly Papa, and he taught his disciples to pray to “our Father in Heaven.” He showed them us it meant for the Father’s purposes to be fulfilled in the world. He promised that his disciples would experience the divine presence working powerfully in their lives. If affirming the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in this sense makes one a Trinitarian, then Wesley certainly wanted his followers to be Trinitarians, and I enthusiastically agree.

But to believe all this does not modify the unity of God that has rightly been so important to Jews and Muslims. Jesus was in this respect a perfectly good and standard Jew, and he had no thought of turning God into a triune deity. For him “God” was the Father. One might pray to God in Jesus’ name, but the idea that one should pray to Jesus certainly did not occur to him. That his followers would pray to God for the Spirit to come made sense in New Testament terms, but the Spirit would not be a distinct form of deity. If to be Trinitarian is to treat Jesus as a God or as co-equally God with the one to whom he prayed, or to hypostasize the Spirit as something other than God’s presence in the world, then Jesus was not a Trinitarian and there is little tendency in this direction in the New Testament. In this sense, I am not a Trinitarian.

Of course, the New Testament formulations left many questions unanswered, and it was in the process of answering these questions that the church’s doctrine of Trinity emerged. The questions were reasonable, and some of them were important. They could be dealt with only at a metaphysical level, and the metaphysics available to the church was substantialist. Given the options allowed by the available conceptuality, we can appreciate the formulations to which the church came. Although recognition of Jesus full humanity was seriously threatened, it was preserved. But as a process theologian, I do not like the resultant doctrine.
I am asked to affirm that God is one “substance” in three “persons.” To me this makes no sense. To pretend to affirm it turns the deeply meaningful life of participating in Jesus’ faithfulness to God into something profoundly inauthentic. It is treating Christianity as inherently authoritarian, believing something because one is told to do so, and only for that reason. I am unwilling to participate in that distortion of New Testament faith.

The official language has been experienced as largely meaningless by many who nevertheless affirm it to express their orthodoxy. This has resulted in highly diverse interpretations. In general, in the West until recently, the unity of substance was emphasized and the three were treated as aspects or features of that one substance. Augustine’s work on the Trinity is of this sort. In this way, the strong biblical emphasis on the unity of God was preserved. But this Trinitarianism has little to do with the intention of the baptismal formula. In the East, the connection to the New Testament has been closer, but the explanation has tended to a tri-theism alien to the Jewish authors of the New Testament.

As more Western theologians are turning to Eastern Trinitarianism, some seem quite simply to identify the human Jesus as one of the persons of the Trinity. This is not possible for a process theologian. For us, there are metaphysical differences between human persons and God. The currently influential forms of Western Trinitarianism that ignore this, such as Juergen Moltmann’s, reflect the loss of belief in God as a metaphysical reality.

The new Western Trinitarianism is touted as a gain over monotheism because it grounds relationality and community in the nature of God. This may, indeed, be a gain over traditional forms of Western theism that treat God as wholly self-contained and unaffected by events in the world. But process theology proposes a radical relationality as constitutive of God and locates God in community with all creatures. This does not require us to break so drastically from our biblical roots. Instead it can make quite literal sense of the idea of God’s incarnation in Jesus and presence to us in the Holy Spirit.

There are those who feel that, however confusing the history of Trinitarian thought has been, the idea of a three-fold distinction in God is too central to the Christian community to be abandoned. Those who feel this way can be well-served by Whitehead himself. Whitehead was in no way bound by the traditional doctrine of the divine simplicity; so he could freely discuss the complexity of God. He taught that the one God has three “natures.” These are the Primordial Nature, the Consequent Nature, and the Superjective Nature. If one wishes, one can pair them off with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The warrant for doing so would not be less than many such moves by other Trinitarians. But to me it seems artificial.

I prefer to use the conceptuality of process thought to understand what is said and meant in the New Testament. In the New Testament, the word “Father” is used to refer to God as God, not to one of three persons who jointly constitute the divine substance. This biblical rhetoric remains common in the church.

The early disciples, and Christians through the ages, felt that in Jesus God was present to them. This did not mean that Jesus was something other a human being, or was a human being in whom some element was replaced by God. He was a human being in whom God was present in an extraordinary way. Process thought explains that God is actually present in every event, so that there is no difficulty at all in asserting God’s fully real presence in Jesus. What needs to be explained is what makes God’s presence in Jesus extraordinary.

On that question process theologians divide. Some think that God’s presence played a larger role in Jesus than in others or that Jesus was more consistently receptive to the initial aim than others. I have proposed a more radical difference in terms of the various structures of human existence. Process thought is open to such differences.

What of God is constitutive of Jesus? In my Christology, I proposed that it is the Primordial Nature of God that participates in the constitution of every creature and that played a unique role in Jesus. I found that the meaning of Logos in the prologue to John’s gospel is remarkably similar to what Whitehead means by the Primordial Nature. Accordingly, I developed a Logos Christology.
Subsequently I became concerned that my Logos Christology implied that the Consequent Nature of God played no role in the constitution of Jesus. I also was troubled that “Logos” has a strongly masculine ring. I learned that the original form of the prologue may have featured “Sophia” rather than “Logos.” In the New Testament as a whole, “Sophia” is the more prominent concept. In English also, “wisdom” is a richer concept than “reason” or “word.” Accordingly I would now say that that of God that was incarnate in Jesus was God’s Wisdom. That includes both the Primordial and the Consequent Natures of God.

I contributed a chapter to a book on Trinity edited by Joseph Bracken and Marjorie Suchocki. There, once again, I considered options. My doctrine of the Trinity, if I have one, is still fluid. What I believe much more firmly is that it is important to understand the message of the New Testament, including what it has to say about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, but including also what it says about Logos and Word and Wisdom and many other things. Whether what results is recognizable as a doctrine of Trinity is not so important. For me there is nothing sacrosanct about three-ness. But there is nothing wrong with it either.

If you found this article helpful, please consider contributing to Process & Faith by making a donation or becoming a member.