Belief in the Triune God

In Jesus Christ one meets a man who at the same time knows and professes himself to be the Son of God. One finds God in the shape of the ambassador who is completely God and not some kind of intermediary being, yet with us says to God "Father". The result is a curious paradox: on the one hand this man calls God his Father as speaks to him as someone facing him; if this is not to be a piece of empty theatricality but truth, which alone befits God, then Christ must be someone other than the Father to whom he speaks and to whom we speak. But on the other hand he is the real proximity of God coming to meet us, God's mediation to us, and that precisely because he himself is God as man, in human form and nature, God-with-us ("Emmanuel").

Christ's mediation would indeed basically cancel itself out and become a separation instead of a mediation, if he were someone other than God, if he were an intermediate being. He would then be guiding us not towards God but away from him.

As mediator Christ is God himself and "man himself" - both with equal reality and totality. But this means that God meets me here not as Father but as Son and as my brother, whereby - both incomprehensibly and quite comprehensibly - a duality appears in God: God as "I" and God as "You" in one.

This new experience of God is followed finally by a third, the experience of the Spirit, the presence of God in us, in our innermost being. And again it turns out that this "Spirit" is not simply identical with the Father or the Son, nor yet a third thing erected between God and us; it is the mode in which God gives himself to us, so that he is in man, yet in the midst of this "indwelling" is infinitely above him.

Is the triplicity of this form in which God is experienced perhaps only his historical mask, in which he approaches man in different roles yet always as the One? Does this triplicity only tell us something about man and the various modes of his relationship with God, or does it shed light on what God is in himself?

The point at issue here is whether man in his relations with God is only dealing with the reflections of his own consciousness or whether it is given to him to reach out beyond himself and encounter God himself. If the first hypothesis is true, then prayer too is only an occupation of man with himself; there is no more grounds for worship proper than there are for prayers of petition - and this inference is in fact drawn to an increasing degree. If the other answer is the correct one worship and prayer are not only possible, they are enjoined, that is, they are a postulate of the being "man" who is open to God.

Anyone who sees the profundity of the question will at the same time understand the passionate nature of the struggle that was fought out round it in the ancient Church; he will understand that anything but hair-splitting and formula-worship was involved, as a superficial view might easily suggest. Indeed, he will realise that the strife of those days is flaring up afresh today in just the same form - the one constant struggle of man for God and for himself - and that we cannot endure as Christians if we think it permissible to make it easier for ourselves today than it was then.

Let us anticipate the answer found in those days to the parting between the path of faith and a path bound to lead to the mere appearance of faith: God is as he shows himself; God does not show himself in a way which he is not. On this assertion rests the Christian relation with God; in it is grounded the doctrine of the Trinity; indeed it is this doctrine.

Although it is true that we only know God as he is reflected in human thought, the Christian faith holds firmly to the view that in this reflection it is him that we know. Even if we are not capable of breaking out of the narrow bonds of our consciousness, God can nevertheless break into this consciousness and show himself in it.

If the painful history of the human and Christian striving for God proves anything, it surely proves this: that any attempt to reduce God to the scope of our own comprehension leads to the absurd. We can only speak rightly about him if we renounce the attempt to comprehend and leave him as the uncomprehended.

Any doctrine of the Trinity cannot therefore aim at being a perfect comprehension of God. It is a frontier notice, a discouraging gesture pointing over to unchartable territory. It is not a definition that confines a thing to the pigeonholes of human knowledge, nor is it a concept which would put the thing within the grasp of the human mind.

All the attempted solutions in the history of the dogmas of the Trinity which were finally thrown out as dead-ends and hence heresies are not just mere gravestones to the vanity of human endeavour, monuments which confirm how often thinking has come to grief. On the contrary, every heresy is at the same time a cipher for an abiding truth, a cipher which we must now preserve with other simultaneously valid statements, separated from which it produces a false impression. In other words, all these statements are not so much gravestones as the bricks of a cathedral. which are of course only useful when they do not remain alone but are inserted in something bigger, just as even the positively accepted formulas are only valid if they are at the same time aware of their own inadequacy.

The Jansenist Saint-Cyran once made the thought-provoking remark that faith consists of a series of contradictions held together by grace. He thereby expressed in the realm of theology a discovery which today in physics, as the law of complementarity, belongs to the realm of scientific thought. The physicist is becoming increasingly aware today that we cannot embrace given realities - the structure of light, for example, or matter as a whole - in one form of experiment and so in one form of statement; that on the contrary from different sides we glimpse different aspects, which cannot be traced back to each other.

We have to take the different aspects together - say the structure of the corpuscle and wave - without being able to find any all-embracing aspect - as a provisional assessment of the whole, which is not accessible to us as a unified whole because of the limitations implicit in our point of view.

What is true here in the physical realm as a result of the deficiencies in our vision is true in an incomparably greater degree of the spiritual realities and of God. Here too we can always look from one side and so grasp only one particular aspect, which seems to contradict the other, yet only when combined with it is a pointer to the whole which we are incapable of stating or grasping. Only by circling round, by looking and describing from different, apparently contrary angles can we succeed in alluding to the truth, which is never visible to us in its totality.

We know today that in a physical experiment the observer himself enters into the experiment and only by doing so can arrive at a physical experience. This means that there is no such thing as pure objectivity even in physics, that even the result of the experiment, nature's answer, depends on the question put to it. In the answer there is always a bit of the question and of the questioner himself; it reflects not only nature-in-itself, in its pure objectivity, but also gives back something of man, of our individuality, a bit of the human subject. This too, mutatis mutandis, is true of the question of God. There is no such thing as a mere observer. There is no such thing as pure objectivity.

One can even say that the higher an object stands in human terms, the more it penetrates the centre of the individuality, and the more it engages the beholder's individuality, then the smaller the possibility of the mere distancing involved in pure objectivity. Thus, whenever an answer is presented as unemotionally objective, as a statement that finally goes beyond the prejudices of the pious and provides purely factual, scientific information, then it has to be said that the speaker has here fallen a victim to self-deception. This kind of objectivity is simply denied to man. He cannot ask and exist as a mere observer. Even the reality "God" can only impinge on the vision of him who enters into the experiment with God - the experiment that we call faith. Only by entering does one experience; only by co-operating in the experiment does one ask at all, and only he who asks receives an answer.

The Christian confession of faith in God as the Three-in-One, as him who is simultaneously the "monas" and the "trias", absolute unity and fulness, signifies the conviction that divinity lies beyond our categories of unity and plurality. Although to us, the non-divine, it is one and single, the one and only divine as opposed to all that is not divine, nevertheless in itself it is truly fulness and plurality, so that creaturely unity and plurality are both in the same degree copy and share of the divine.

Not only unity is divine; plurality is not just primordial and has its inner ground in God. Plurality is not just disintegration which sets in outside the divinity; it does not arise simply through the intervention of the "dyas", of disintegration; it is not the result of the dualism of two opposing powers; it corresponds to the creative fulness of God, who himself stands above plurality and unity, encompassing both.

At bottom the belief in the Trinity, which recognises the plural in the unity of God, is the only way to the final elimination of dualism as a means of explaining plurality alongside unity; only through this belief is the positive validation of plurality given a definitive base. God stands above singular and plural. He bursts both categories.

To him who believes in God as tri-une, the highest unity is not that of inflexible monotony. The model of unity or oneness towards which one should strive is consequently not the indivisibility of the atom, the smallest unity, too small to be divided up; the authentic acme of unity is the unity created by love. The multi-unity which grows in love is a more radical, truer unity than the unity of the "atom".

Inasmuch as Christian faith acknowledges God, the creative meaning, as person it acknowledges him as knowledge, word and love. But the confession of faith in God as a person necessarily includes the acknowledgement of God as relatedness, as communicability, as fruitfulness. The unrelated, unrelatable, absolutely one could not be person. There is no such thing as person in the categorical singular.

We can say from the history of ideas that the concept and idea of "person" dawned on the human mind in no other way than in the struggle over the Christian image of God and the interpretation of the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. First it was clear that, seen absolutely, God is only One, that there is not a plurality of divine principles. Once this has been established it is also clear that the oneness lies on the plane of substance; consequently the three-ness, which must also be mentioned is not to be sought here. It must therefore exist on a different level, on that of relation, of the "relative".

In the Bible one met the fact that God seems to converse with himself: "Let us make man" ... The discovery of the dialogue within God led to the assumption of the presence in God of an "I" and a "You", an element of relationship, of co-existent diversity and affinity, for which the concept "persona" absolutely dictated itself. The experience of the God who conducts a dialogue, of the God who is not only logos but also dia-logos, not only idea and meaning but speech and word in the reciprocal exchanges of conversation - this exploded the ancient division of reality into substance, the real thing, and accidents, the purely circumstantial. It now became clear that the dialogue, the relation, stands beside the substance as an equally primordial form of being.

The "three persons" who exist in God are the reality of word and love in their attachment to each other. They are not substances, personalities in the modern sense, but the relatedness whose pure actuality does not impair the unity of the highest being but fills it out. St Augustine once enshrined this idea in the following formula: "He is not called Father with reference to himself but only in relation to the Son; seen by himself he is simply God." Here the decisive point comes beautifully to light. "Father" is purely a concept of relationship. Only in being-for the other is he Father; in his own being-in-himself he is simply God. Person is the pure relation of being related, nothing else. Relationship is not something extra added to the person, as it is with us; it only exists at all as relatedness.

The Son as Son, and in so far as he is Son, does not proceed in any way from himself and so is completely one with the Father; since he is nothing beside him, claims no special position as his own, confronts the Father with nothing belonging only to him, retains no ground for his own individuality, therefore he is completely equal to the Father. The logic is compelling: if there is nothing in which he is just he, no kind of fenced-off private ground, then he coincides with the Father, is "one" with him. It is precisely this totality of interplay that the word "Son" aims at expressing.

To John "Son" means being-from-another; thus with the word he defines the being of this man as being from another and for others, as a being that is completely open on both sides, knows no reserved area of the mere "I". When it thus becomes clear that the being of Jesus Christ is a completely open being, a being "from" and "towards", that nowhere clings to itself and nowhere stands on its own, then it is also clear at the same time that this being is pure relation (not substantiality) and, as pure relation, pure unity. This fundamental statement about Christ becomes, as we have seen, at the same time the explanation of Christian existence.

To John, being a Christian means being like the Son, becoming a son; that is, not standing on one's own and in oneself, but living completely open in the 'from" and "towards". In so far as the Christian is a Christian this is true of him. And certainly such utterances will make him aware to how small an extent he is a Christian.

When John characterises the Lord as logos he is employing a term widely current in both Greek and Jewish thought and taking over with it a series of ideas implicit in it which are to that extent transferred to Christ. But perhaps one can say that the new element that John has added to the logos-concept lies not least in the fact that to him "logos" does not mean simply the idea of the eternal rationality of being, as it did essentially in Greek thought. By its application to Jesus of Nazareth the concept "logos" acquires a new dimension. It no longer denotes simply the permeation of all being by meaning; it characterises this man: He who is here is "Word". The concept "logos", which to the Greeks meant "meaning" (ratio), changes here really into "word" (verbum). He who is here is Word; he is consequently "spoken" and hence the pure relation between the speaker and the spoken to.

Thus "logos"-Christology, as "word"-theology, is once again the opening up of being to the idea of relationship. For again it is true that "word" comes essentially "from someone else" and "to someone else"; word is an existence that is entirely way and openness.

"My teaching is not my teaching but that of the Father who sent me" (John 7.16). St Augustine asks what really is the teaching of Jesus which is simultaneously his and not his? Jesus is "word", and thus it becomes clear that his teaching is he himself. If one reads the sentence again from this angle it then says: I am by no means just I; I am not mine at all; my I is that of another. With this we have moved out of Christology and arrived at ourselves: "What is so much yours as yourself and what is so little yours as yourself?" (St Augustine)