Monthly Archives: May 2011

Part 1 of this series of posts can be found here.


The Many: Substantiality
The unity of all things in the Son should not be confused with the modern tendency towards homogeneity, a form of egalitarianism (where there is no truth or falsehood, no beauty or no ugliness) wherein the distinctive individuality of persons and things is endangered (16). For, as the Son is the basis for the unity of everything the Spirit is the basis for constituting and realizing the particularity of all things, for giving each person or thing it’s substance. The truth of this for reality comes from the fact that there is a form of particularity at the very heart of the being of God.

In light of the Trinity, we want to say that, ontologically, things are given a particular shape by virtue of their relation to their creator, enabling them to be what they are and no other thing. To say that all things hold together in Christ is not to say that the Creator and the Creation collapse into one indistinguishable mass. It is not to suppose that there is no difference at all between the human and the non-human creation. This is precisely part of the problem with the Modern emphasis on the rational mind which was inherited from the Greeks. Within Greek thought there is a tendency to see in human rationality something inherently divine. As Gunton notes, there “is a tendency to suppose ‘quantitative difference but qualitative identity” (17) between the human and Divine mind. In distinction from this a triune understanding of the imago allows space for God to be God and humans to be human. It also allows for a distinction between the human and non-human creation for the Spirit gives each particular person and thing substantiality allowing for a ‘distinction in relation’.

The work of the Spirit, we must say, includes the “crossing of boundaries, with opening out of people and things to one another,” (18). The Spirit then maintains and even strengthens particularity. We are related, yes, but the Spirit enables us to be related in our otherness, “a relation which does not subvert but establishes the other in its true reality,” (19). The Spirit is the distinct person by whom Jesus is related to his Father and his earthly community. Through the Spirit, at his birth and baptism, we see the particularity of Jesus established. He was thus a certain kind of messiah and initiated one way of being the people of God rather than another (20). As the Other who liberates each one to be itself the Spirit respects the otherness and particularity of those whom he gathers thus enabling us to relate to God and to one another precisely as particular human creatures. This is why Paul’s understanding of the gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 is so important for how we are to understand community in light of the Trinity, “for it implies richness and variety,” rather than homogeneity (21). Since the Spirit enables the crossing of boundaries while preserving particularity we are provided a way of talking about God’s agency towards and in the world, of human response to God and others, and of human openness to the world and the world’s openness to human creatures (22). It also allows for a view of the human person that does not exclude the bodily and material dimensions of our reality. It allows for a particular kind of Christian materialism, if you will, against a more Gnostic Christian spirituality.

The individuality, or particularity, that the Spirit brings is a fundamentally relational view of the person. Part of the problem with a more substantive view of the human person, that takes as its chief quality of personhood such features as rationality or will, is that it allows for an individualistic non-relational view of the person and the world. In light of the trinitarian understanding that has been argued here such views of the human person must be rejected. This is not to deny particular human features such as reason or will but is to place them in their proper subordinate place in our view of the person (23). That humans are given their substantiality by the Spirit is constitutive of their distinction from God and nature. For, on the one hand, while humans have spirit, God is spirit. Thus, there is a clear distinction, an otherness, between God and human creatures. On the other hand, humans are distinct from nature for insofar as we have spirit we are enabled to be open to God, each other, and the non-human world in a way that characterizes personal beings (24). The same cannot be said for the rest of creation. This is not to say that how we treat the non-human world does not matter. It is to say, however, that if humans are to treat the world rightly we must be aware of its own specific character and status (25). Much ecological disorder results from getting this wrong. It is to say that humans are particular not only by virtue of their relation to God but also by virtue of their relation to the world.

God is what he is only as a community of distinct persons. Therefore, the particularity of created beings is established by the particularity at the heart of God’s own being. It is the Spirit who enables a particularity-in-relation that challenges and subverts the modern tendency towards homogeneity by giving space to each person and thing to be itself and not another person or thing.

The triune Lord: Relationality
We are here concerned with a being and relation that are ontologically inseparable. The point is, in the words of John Zizioulas, that the being of God is not a blank unity, but a being in communion (26). Communion of persons is the central reality here. In the New Testament the Father gives the Son whose being and will are inseparable from the Father, yet the Son is distinct from the Father in that he is sent to do the Father’s will on earth. After the glorification of the Son the Father, likewise, sends the Spirit into the world to perform similar yet distinct functions. God appears to be conceived neither as a collectivity nor as an individual, but as a communion, a unity of persons in relation (27). In the Old Testament the world is what it is by virtue of its createdness, it’s being called “into otherness to and relation with its creator,” (28). The human creation is what it is as a being in relationship while the world is what it is by virtue of its relation to those who bear the image of God so that, “the shape that the world takes is in large part determined by what we, the human creation, make of it,” (29).

Human community becomes concrete in the church “whose calling is to be the medium and realization of communion,” (30). Relations in the church must in some way be analogous to those between the persons of the Father and Son. For Paul, being “in Christ” constitutes the breaking down of barriers to community (1 Cor. 11). In light of the Trinity, relationality as gift and reception, reveals that far from being a competitor the other is central for our being. In receiving from and giving to the other our, and their, particularity is constituted. Both God and humans are social beings, they have their being in their personal relatedness. This relationality, as Gunton says, “allows us to learn something of what it is to say that all created people and things are marked by their coming from and returning to the God who is himself, in his essential and inmost being, a being in relation,” (31).



(16) Gunton, 101.

(17) Gunton, 108.

(18) Gunton, 182.

(19) Gunton, 182.

(20) Gunton, 183.

(21) Gunton, 184.

(22) Gunton, 187.

(23) Gunton, 187.

(24) Gunton, 188.

(25) Gunton, 189.

(26) John Zizioulas, Being As Communion (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press: Crestwood, 1985).

(27) Gunton, 215.

(28) Guntron, 215.

(29) Gunton, 216.

(30) Gunton, 217.

(31) Gunton, 229.

In the beginning…
“What is man that you care for him?” asks the psalmist (1). The first three words of the question frame what is perhaps one of the most pondered questions of human history. Men, women, and children of all shapes and sizes have asked this question. It is not a question limited to a particular time or place. There is nowhere to hide in order that one may avoid asking or attempting to search for an answer to this question: “What is man?” What does it mean to be a human creature? This will be the metaquestion with which this essay will seek to wrestle.

To be sure, with regard to the sort of being a human being is, not everyone arrives at the same conclusion for not everyone looks for answers in the same places. I will not hesitate at the forefront of this effort to reveal my hand, to betray to you the ground upon which I stand. From within the Christian tradition and in discussion with Colin Gunton and his articulation of the problem in light of the ‘one and the many’ I will seek to argue that it is only in light of a trinitarian understanding of God that we can begin to find a satisfactory answer to the question of human being.

Within the Christian tradition there is a spirited and rich history of discussion on this matter. In fact, the theology of the imago Dei (“image of God”) seeks to ask precisely this question. What better place to turn when trying to understand what it means for human creatures to be made in God’s image than the creation narrative itself. Here, in the opening lines of the Bible we find the scriptural basis for our discussion:
“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26-27, emphasis mine).
John Calvin in reference to the plurality in v26 says, “Christians, therefore, properly contend, from this testimony, that there exists a plurality of Persons in the Godhead…we infer that he finds within himself something distinct,” (2). Person, in the Christian tradition, is a relational concept. It goes without saying that a proper understanding of the concept of the imago Dei is crucial for human relationships with God, with others, and with creation (3). There is, in light of the Trinity, a plurality written into the being of all things.

Creation as a Trinitarian Act
Gunton among others argues for a Trinitarian understanding of the imago. While it is indeed true that the author of Genesis would not have had the Trinity in mind when referring to God in the plural (us/our), in light of the scriptural canon (4) we may understand this plurality trinitarianly. Additionally, in light of the New Testament revelation of the Trinity we are prohibited from excluding either the Son or the Spirit from particular Divine acts. To do so would be to err in the way of Modalism. Truly then, the act of Creation is a triune act. Further, if the triune God is the source of everything that is then it is fair to suppose that all being will in some way reflect the being of the one who made it and holds it together.

The One: Perichoresis
If everything which exists that is not God is the work of his hand then in him all things are grounded. More specifically, however, we shall see that the Son in particular secures the universality of all things, thus enabling us to speak of the nature of created reality, of the relatedness of persons and things.

Central to this line of thought for Christian theology is the notion of perichoresis which as Gunton says is “a way of showing the ontological interdependence and reciprocity of the three persons of the Trinity,” (5). In other words, this concept helps us to avoid reducing God to some sort of basic simplicity by revealing that God is a “unity deriving from a dynamic plurality of persons”. The three persons of the Trinity are what they are only in relation to each other (i.e. the Father is no father without a son etc). Yet the particularity of each of the three persons means that their distinction from one another remains intact so that there really are three persons as opposed to a simple monad that reveals itself to us in three different ways. The persons of the Trinity exist in an eternally reciprocal relation of giving and receiving to each other what they essentially are (6).

If this is true of God then it must shine some light into the nature of created reality and it’s relation with him. In speaking about the physicality of creation Hans Urs von Balthasar said that Irenaeus’ view of recapitulation “gives time [and space] itself validity before eternity,” (7) In the economy of God’s creating, sustaining, redeeming and perfecting activity “time and space are given their distinctive dynamic of interrelatedness,” (8). Against the Gnostic divorce of creation from redemption (where redemption involves a fleeing from creation) Irenaeus argued that “the different aspects of God’s agency formed a unity through time and space,” (9). So then, in light of God’s action there is a unity in creation, a distinctiveness yes, but a distinction in relation not separation.

In contrast to Irenaeus’ view some theologies are in danger of either emphasizing creation over redemption or redemption over creation. The way in which Western theology (taking its cue’s from Augustine whose discussion of creation is “virtually abstracted from christology”(10) has typically developed tends to stress salvation to the neglect of creation. This manifests itself in many ways, not least of which is to make Christology a subset of Soteriology as opposed to the reverse. In other words, Western theology tends to see the extent of Christ’s work as pertaining to salvation rather than seeing salvation as a part of Christ’s broader work. This is important because how we understand the divine economy (God’s action in the world) will influence how we understand God’s relatedness to the created order which in turn influences our understanding of what it is to live in the world. For our purposes here the central point of perichoresis is that it enables theology to preserve both the one and the many in dynamic interrelations (11). Truly, there is unity in God. God is one but the “oneness” of God is not a countable “one”. He is not a simple monad. Rather, God’s oneness is a relational oneness. God is one in that the three persons exist eternally in a reciprocal relation of giving and receiving which makes them what they are. There is a “richness and space” in the divine life (12).

The question then is what does this tell us about created reality, that which is not God? A trinitarian understanding of creation, and human creatures in particular, allows us to confront and challenge the individualism that is so prevalent in modern Western society. In contrast to individualism we are free to understand the entire world in which we live relationally. We can thus understand people and things as temporal and spatial yes, but also as being fundamentally held together in such a way that individualism does not allow. We are free to see the world as composed of persons and things which are dynamically related to each other. In other words, the world “is perichoretic in that everything in it contributes to the being of everything else, enabling everything to be what it distinctively is,” (13). So then, as human beings made in the image of God we are closely bound up with other human beings. Further, we are also bound up with the non-human creation by virtue of our createdness. It is not simply that we enter into relation with each other and the non-human world as individuals but, rather, that our individuality or distinctiveness is bestowed upon us by virtue of our relation and connectedness with God and other persons and things. Persons “mutually constitute each other, make each other what they are,” (14). To be sure, this is an affront to our modern sensibilities and our “do it yourself” approach to life. Yet, as offensive as this may be we must confess that we are what we are only in relation. In fact, truly, everything in the universe is what it is by virtue of its relatedness to everything else. It is here, with Paul and other New Testament writers, where we confess that it is not something which holds everything together but someone, namely, Christ Jesus. God comes into relation with that which is not himself through his Son (15).

This post is my contribution to the Rally To Restore Unity hosted by Rachel Held Evans.


When we say that God is ‘one’, what do we mean? Do we mean that God is ‘one’ in the same sense that I have one wife? Is God’s oneness a countable oneness? In light of the New Testament revelation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, when we come to speak of God’s oneness we must do so trinitarianly. To be sure, God is one, but this oneness is not a countable oneness. There is unity in God, yes, but this unity does not result from the fact that God is a simple monad. Rather, God’s oneness, His unity, is the sort of unity that results from a “being in communion” (to borrow a phrase from John Zizioulas).

The theological term for this is perichoresis. Now, while this is a somewhat difficult term to understand I would suggest that it is an important one for our discussion here among folks seeking to “restore unity”. The term is used to describe the sort of relation that we find in God (in light of the Trinity). To use technical language for a moment, it’s a way of showing the ontological interdependence and reciprocity of the three persons of the Trinity (a phrase borrowed from Colin Gunton). This is simply a fancy way of saying that God’s ontology, that which makes God what He is and no other thing, his “being” if you will, is fundamentally a being that consists of an interdependent and reciprocal relationship between three distinct persons.

Phew! OK, now that we got that out of the way perhaps you’re left wondering what all of this has to do with a desire to restore unity. Well, I would argue that if this really is what God is like, if God is a fundamentally relational being, and if it’s also true that God made all things that are not Himself, then it’s no stretch of the imagination to suppose that the created order, human creatures specifically (we are made in His image after all), are some sort of perichoretic beings also. This is important for a few reasons.

1) Unity is not the same thing as homogeneity. This is important to note because in our modern Western culture the two are often confused. We live in a society which values egalitarianism. Everyone is equal! Now, while there is certainly a lot of truth to this it can become problematic for the Christian who wants to maintain that creation bears a resemblance to the triune God. The problem, at least one of the problems, of homogeneity is that the distinctive individuality of persons and things is endangered. There is a sense within this sort of egalitarianism in which each person loses it’s substance, that which makes it what it is and no other thing. I, Jonathan Turtle, am who I am by virtue of a particular substantiality which has been bestowed upon me. This means that I can be myself and no one else. Another way of saying this is that I am a particular person. You are a particular person. Therefore, any sort of regime or “coalition” which seeks unity at the price of particularity is oppressive and offensive.

2) However, while we want to talk of a unity that allows for the particularity of persons (against a homogeneity in which particularity is lost) we want to talk about this particularity in such a way as to avoid another modern pitfall, namely, individualism. I am a particular person, yes, but I am not a particular person alone. There are three distinct persons within the Trinity, but it is vital to understand that these distinct persons receive their particularity in relation. Each of the persons is what they are by virtue of, not in conflict with, their relation with the other persons. The Father is what He is by virtue of the reciprocal giving and receiving which He participates in with the Son etc. Each of the Divine persons constitutes the particularity of the other. So then, in the same way, the particularity of human creatures is bestowed upon them by virtue of their relation with others. I am what I am by virtue of my relationship, not only with God, but with other human persons. We make one another what we are as we participate in a life of giving and receiving. In relation we constitute one another’s particularity.

3) This is important for our discussion regarding unity because true unity not only respects the other but actually helps to constitute the others “otherness” by virtue of being in relation. This is why Paul’s understanding of the gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 is so important for how we are to understand community in light of the Trinity, for it implies a richness and variety rather than homogeneity.

God is what He is only as a community of distinct persons. Therefore, the particularity of created beings is established by the particularity at the heart of God’s own being. This particularity-in-relation challenges and subverts the modern tendency towards homogeneity by giving space to each person and thing to be itself and not another person or thing. The problem with a Christian “unity” that seeks to make us all alike by believing exactly the same things in exactly the same fashion is that it fails to respect the particularity of persons. It’s not a real unity, it is coercive and divisive. So, when we form “coalitions” with friends of ours who all believe the same things in the same way, while this may appear as “unity” it is anything but because the particularity of persons is collapsed into a boring homogenous monad. This is why prematurely bidding brothers and sisters “farewell” is not just an affront to unity, it is an affront to the very God in whose image we are made.

I may disagree with you but I will refuse to coercively force you to agree with me. And, if in the end we disagree, then that’s OK, there is space for that. There must be space for that for unity is not homogeneity but is distinction in relation. The “distinction” bit is important. This must be the path we chose. We must chose to give space to persons to be what they distinctively are and not another person (Lord knows we don’t want a million Jonathan Turtles roaming the earth). We are what we are in distinction from other persons and things by virtue of the relation that we have with our creator and with each other. So then, truly, unity requires distinction.