Relations, Uncreated and Created

The category of “relation” has long been central to Trinitarian theology,[1] but in recent theology it has become a transcendental, as many theologians have argued that relationality is the leading feature not only of divine life but of created life.[2] Human beings made in the image of the Triune God are analogically “relational” beings and relationality characterizes the non-human world as well.

Among the critics of this approach, Kathryn Tanner and Lewis Ayres stand out for their clarity. Since God and humans are ontologically different, the move from talk of God’s relationality to human relationships is not, Tanner points out, straightforward. Because of the gap between God and human beings, ordinary language does not apply to God in the same way it does to humans. What does “equal” mean in the statement “divine persons are equal”? What do “person” or “relation” mean when applied to God? Divine persons are their relations, but human beings exist, Tanner says, before the relations they have among themselves, and divine persons have a fixed identity that is not characteristic of human beings: the Father is no one’s Son, and the Son will never be Himself a Father.[3]

Ayres likewise objects that attempts at Trinitarian ontology are unclear about their concept of analogy. A proper concept of analogy must both honor the Creator-creature distinction and recognize the presence of God within His creation. Because of the differences between God and humans, terms like “relation” cannot be used univocally when applied to one or the other. Ayres is also concerned that relational ontologies bypass the classical emphasis on contemplative purification, involving both meditation on Scripture, with attention to the unfolding revelation of Scripture, as well as participation in the life of the church. Relational ontologies too often treat Trinitarian patterns of life as if they were blueprints that could be grasped by just anyone and applied to some human grouping.[4]

It is worth noting that both Tanner and Ayres believe that Trinitarian theology, properly understood and qualified, does provide resources for understanding creation and human relationality. Tanner emphasizes God’s initiative in restoring human relations. Human do not imitate but participate in the divine communion. Thus she highlights the mission of the Son and Spirit and the way the relations of the Persons in the economy of redemption affect human relations: “A life empowered by the Spirit in service to the mission of the Father for the world means that Jesus is with and for us, and that we, in turn, are to be with and for one another.” Thus the mission brings in a “new community” whose “way of being is what the Trinitarian relations as they show themselves in the economy . . . amount to in human relational terms.”[5] Ayres too concludes that “the divine relationships certainly should provide material that should be of immense help in shaping our vision of the world” and can “serve as a guide for our engagement of ontological thought.” Created things do reflect God, but we see that reflection rightly when “the grasping is part of our move towards the Creator.”[6]

So the problem is not with the effort to discover analogies between divine and human relationality per se. In fact, the objections that Tanner and Ayres offer are not objections from the doctrine of the Trinity as such. Rather, they are “meta-Trinitarian” objections, methodological objections, objections rooted less in Trinitarian theology than in the theology of creation and notions of theological language.

Let me begin at the end. Scripture uses a variety of words and names for God. Many of the descriptions of God are applications of created terms to God: God is Rock, Light, Sun, Shield, etc. He stands in relation to humanity and Israel in ways describable in terms of human relations: He is King, Father, Lord, Husband, etc. Everywhere, the Bible speaks anthropomorphically and cosmo-morphically about God.

Though it is apparent that the words must be taken in an analogical or figurative sense, Scripture exhibits no anxiety about using such terms. Nowhere in Scripture does anyone hint that such words are incapable of telling the truth about God, nor do we find any sign of the gymnastics that often characterize theologians’ efforts to explain theological language. Scripture claims that many of these terms are God’s own self-descriptions (e.g., Genesis 15:1), and naively supposes that human language can bear God’s revelation. The import of these descriptions seems straightforward: God is Rock-like and Shield-like, King-like and Father-like in some unspecified but meaningful way. How He is such is left to context and narrative. The analogies are often bewildering: “You neglected the Rock who begot you, and forgot the God who gave you birth” (Deuteronomy 32:18). Some, though, are straightforward: “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him” (Psalm 103:13).

That is simply a description of the phenomenon of Scripture. But it is a noteworthy phenomenon, and we should pause to ask how it is that Scripture is so very unconcerned about the problems that have preoccupied theologians for many centuries.

Perhaps the biblical writers were theologically naïve. They believed that ordinary human language could tell the truth about God, and that ordinary things in the world were suitable analogies to God. In particular, it may be that they were incapable of conceiving God’s majesty and transcendence in the way that later theology would. That is an implausible explanation. One suspects a counsel of despair whenever an explanation depends on the primitivism of the Bible. Besides, the biblical writers were well aware of the Creator’s transcendent majesty, yet also wrote without hesitation about God’s similarity to creation. The same Isaiah who trembles in awe before Yahweh’s majesty describes Him without embarrassment as a “Lord” (adonai) who sits on a throne wearing a robe (Isaiah 6:1).

I suggest that the Bible is unselfconscious about its language is because of the assumed view of creation, human nature, and therefore of human language.

All created things were made by God, designed after His Wisdom and Logos. As such, it is communication from God about God (Psalm 19).[8] God made rocks, and in making them (we may surmise) intended them to be useful to display some of His glory. God created human beings in His image, and in so doing designed them to be suitable icons of His character. God oversaw the formation of human families and polities, and as He did so, He directed them so that a “father” and a “king” depict in various ways how Yahweh relates to His creation, to human beings, and to His people in particular. God created everything to communicate of Himself. That is the nature and purpose of everything created. If that is what created things are, and if God is the Creator who knows and governs His universe, then created things are designed to speak of Him.

Scripture also assumes that God speaks human. Because God designed creation and humanity to communicate something of Himself, He can speak in ordinary human language about Himself. God has revealed Himself in human language, that human language has been preserved in the Bible, and it is ordinary human language. Therefore, ordinary human language is adequate for communicating the reality of God to us. Of course, there is mystery at every point, but why should we expect anything else? We want to talk about an infinite, incomprehensible God and creatures made in His image.

Many theologians do not take this biblical “data” at face value. Tanner begins her essay with questions about whether “ordinary language” is capable of describing God adequately.[9] If we give a negative answer to that question, it seems that we face two options: Either we must have access to some extraordinary language that can describe God adequately, or we are left in silence. Or, in practice, we let certain descriptions of God slip through, but catch others with our apophatic net. What determines what gets through and what does not is a question that charity prevents me from speculating about.

When we begin from the Bible’s own assumptions about creation, and the implicit view of language that follows from creation, we expect to discover analogies between uncreated and created relations. Of course, they are not the same, and we need to specify the disanalogies along the way. But if we follow the lead of a Bible that speaks of God anthropomorphically, we should should not let the disanalogies frighten us into silence. Because human relations – king and people, father and child, husband and wife, brother and brother, friend and friend – do not reveal the Trinity exhaustively. But they are designed to reveal the communion of the Triune Persons, and to reveal them truthfully.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Trinity House.

[1] Augustine’s refutation of Arian arguments turns on the introduction of the term “relation” alongside “substance” and “accident” (On the Trinity, Book 5), and Thomas describes the persons with the metaphysical novelty, “subsistent relations.”

[2] This is stated most forthrightly in the title of John Zizioulas’s Being as Communion.

[3] Tanner. “Social Trinitarianism and Its Critics,” in Robert J. Wozniak and Giulio Maspero, Rethinking Trinitatarian Theology: Disputed Questions and Contemporary Issues in Trinitarian Theology (London: T&T Clark, 2012) 378-82.

[4] Ayres, “(Mis)Adventures in Trinitarian Ontology,” in John Polkinghorne, ed., The Trinity and an Entangled World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010) 130-45.

[5] Tanner, “Social Trinitarianism,” 382-85.

[6] Ayres, “(Mis)Adventures,” 143-45.

[7] Tanner, “Social Trinitarianism,” 384.

[8] J.G. Hamann put it well: God speaks through the creature to the creature.

[9] Tanner’s opening questions assume that “ordinary language” fails only when applied to God. Apparently, it easily captures and describes created things. That is questionable. Do we know what we mean when we say “human person” or “human relation”? It is far preferable to acknowledge that creation too is a mystery.