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The Trinity: Knowing the Loving God, an Essay for Trinity Sunday

by B. T. Scalise

Immutability is one of those technical theological words or attributes of God that some believe was contrived by theologians. Put simply, immutability means unchangeable or unalterable, and it is a classical attribute of God. This attribute, however, is not generated by theologians but directly derived from Scripture. Hebrews 6:17-18 states, “In the same way, God, wishing even more greatly to show to the heirs of promise the immutability of His intention, mediated it by an oath in order that through two immutability things — for God to lie is impossible by these immutable things — we refugees might have strong comfort in order to attain the hope which is set before us” (trans. mine, italicized words represent words implied by translation). Similarly, Malachi 3:6 records, “For I, Yahweh, do not change, and you, sons of Jacob, are not exterminated” (trans. mine from MT).

Perhaps more important is the belief that we can truly relate to God, which is the magnificent truth of the greatest commandment: “You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5). When God’s unchangeableness is paired with the mutual love shared between God and humanity (John 3:16), a tension presents itself. To love is to relate, but in all relating — it seems — is some measure of change.

If we were to relate to a rock, or a tree, we would be sorely disappointed since there is no mutual relating, and why is this so? We could change our attitude towards the rock, but the rock will never adjust itself — how could it? — to relate to us. This relationship is a one-way gig; we adjust to relate to the rock, but it never adjusts itself to relate to us. Love for a rock is bound to go unrequited. Few of us, I suppose, would believe this to be a good relationship; indeed, if my father were to relate to me in such a way — always expecting me to change, but never himself changing — I suspect that I would find the relationship malformed. At the least, we might not find him personable or relatable. Thus, the theory of Aristotle that the Divine (God) is the Unmoved Mover leaves us with a rather mechanical and non-relatable God.

Both God’s immutability and His relationality are equally important and non-negotiables, so we must find a way to uphold them together. To do this, we will employ the nature of the Trinity using Maximus the Confessor as our foundational thinker while deploying John Zizioulas’ commentary on Maximus. The key to success in this endeavor will be to discuss how God can be unchangeable while also showing how God adjusts (and in this sense is changeable) so as to relate to us.

God is One in nature, Three in persons; this is the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. When Scripture says that God does not change, the question we must ask is whether this should be taken as absolute immutability (Unmoved Mover) or qualified immutability. It also should not be missed that, if we look closely at the contexts of the Scriptures cited earlier, it is God’s intention for Israel (Malachi 3:6) or for the future of the church (Hebrews 6:17-18) and God’s complementing oath that are described as immutable, not God directly. These texts are cited frequently as metaphysical statements about God’s total being, but the contexts look less supportive of using them that way. Although this contextual fact is important, we will nevertheless assume that God is immutable (unchangeable) in some respect. For Maximus the Confessor, God is both changeable and unchangeable, which, prima facie, looks inherently contradictory. However, Maximus explains that God is unchangeable in regards to nature (what God is), but changeable with respect to the Persons (Father, Son, Spirit). John Zizioulas clarifies Maximus’ thought:

Maximus uses . . . a distinction between logos [what/nature] and tropos [how/Persons]: in every being there is a permanent and unchangeable aspect and an adjustable one. In the Incarnation, the logos physeos [nature] remains fixed [unchanging], but the tropos [Persons] adjusts being to an intention or purpose or manner of communion [changing]. In other words, the love of God bridges the gulf of otherness by affecting the changeable and adjustable aspect of being, and this applies equally to God and to the world: God bridges the gulf by adjusting his own tropos, that is, the how he is . . . . This amounts to a ‘tropic identity’, that is, to an ontology of tropos, of the ‘how’ things are. This is a matter of ontology, because the tropos of being is an inseparable aspect of being, as primary ontologically as substance or nature.[1]

This may be difficult to follow, but the point we want to draw from Zizioulas is that God must adjust or be changeable if we desire to speak meaningfully of God relating to us. If God does not adjust to have communion with us, that is, to relate to us, then all our talk of God desiring to have relationship with us is meaningless. What type of insight can we gather by returning to Hebrews 6:17-18 and Micah 3:6 with these points in view?

Hebrews 6:17-18 tells us that God gives us confidence based on two immutable (unchangeable) truths: 1) that God’s faithful intention is unchangeable, and 2) that oaths are unbreakable, especially ones taken by God. If we had to pick only one attribute that explains why this is the case, we might choose God’s goodness (or maybe veracity). It is God’s nature that is good, but it is the Persons (Father, Son, Spirit) that make this goodness communal with us. God’s nature is good, and that goodness becomes faithfulness to us by the Son’s (and Spirit’s) relating and sharing it with us. The Trinity’s communal faithfulness, that is, the love the Father, Son, and Spirit share, is adjusted outward when They create the world. The goodness/faithfulness remains the same; with whom the communion includes is extended. Namely, it is extended to us creatures; it is adjusted to embrace us. Persons are capable of adjusting themselves to embrace others; nature, like the rock example above, is not.

The Trinity’s communal faithfulness, that is, the love the Father, Son, and Spirit share, is adjusted outward when They create the world.

Micah 3:6 is discussing God’s continued faithfulness to Israel despite their failings (vv. 1-6): “I, Yahweh, do not change, and you, sons of Jacob, are not exterminated.” The implication is that God’s faithfulness to Jacob and God’s promises to him and his posterity is keeping the sons of Jacob from being exterminated. God’s nature is one of inherent goodness or faithfulness. God, through the promises made to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, extends that faithfulness to Israel. Again, only persons are capable of adjusting themselves to have communion with others. It is the Persons, therefore, the Father, Son, and Spirit, who embrace others, and, in so doing, intimately relate to us.

A practical takeaway from this is that the more personal someone (even an animal) is or becomes, the more she or he will make room for deep, intimate relationships. God the Trinity is the Communion of the relationships mutually shared among the Father, Son, and Spirit. The Trinity makes room for relating to humans so that those who trust the Lord Jesus will have fellowship with the Father, Son, and Spirit (2 Cor. 13:14; 1 John 1:3). To be like God, then, we should make room for intimate relationships both with God and with others, but what more is this than fulfilling the two greatest commands: “ . . . love Yahweh your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind . . . [and] the second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matt. 22:37-39). The Trinity makes room for relating to humans so that those who trust the Lord Jesus will have fellowship with the Father, Son, and Spirit (2 Cor. 13:14; 1 John 1:3). To be like God, then, we should make room for intimate relationships both with God and with others, but what more is this than fulfilling the two greatest commands: “ . . . love Yahweh your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind . . . [and] the second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matt. 22:37-39).

It is correct to say God is immutable, but when we place this statement together with God loving and relating to us as Trinity, we need to consider this a qualified immutability. Again, the Trinity is immutable in His essentially loving nature and changeable regarding the Persons “making room” for others. Who and what God is does not change, but He does change to relate to new creatures who respond to His overtures of love and come into communion with Him.

Notes:

[1] John Zizioulas, Communion & Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church, ed. Paul McPartlan, rep. (2006; London: T & T Clark, 2009), 24 – 25; Maximus the Confessor, Ambigua 1, 5, and 67. Maximus uses the Greek phrasing of τροπος ὑπαξεως (tropos hypaxeōs: mode of existence) and πως εἰναι (pōs einai: how being exists) to explain. Grammatical brackets mine.

Image: By PJParkinson (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Podcast: Brian Scalise on the Nature of Love in Islam and Christianity

On this week’s podcast, we hear from Dr. Brian Scalise. Dr. Scalise is an adjunct professor at Liberty University. He teaches New Testament Greek and recently taught an intensive to graduate students on Islam.  A few weeks ago on the podcast,  Dr. Scalise explained the difference a Christian versus Islamic understanding of God makes for our understanding of love. This week, we’re going to be returning to that topic. (If you haven’t listened to the first podcast with Brian, it may help to do that first. You can find it here.) In this lecture, Dr. Scalise carefully explains why the Christian Trinity provides an account of love that is richer and fuller than what is possible from an Islamic perspective.

 

Photo: “Pompeo Batoni 003” by Pompeo Batoni – [1]. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – 

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Podcast: Dr. Brian Scalise on the Doctrine of God and the Ethics of Love in Islam and Christianity

This week on the podcast, we are continuing a discussion with Dr. Brian Scalise. Dr. Scalise has written his dissertation on the different views of God in Christianity and Islam. Important differences for our view of love and ethics follow from the different views of God in each religion. When we build a worldview from the notion that God is absolutely one with no distinction, as in Islam, we get a deficient ethic and view of love. The Christian trinity, on the other hand, provides a robust foundation for a substantive morality and understanding of love. Since God is one nature with three persons, it turns out that God essentially loves others. And it is this key difference that we will be exploring this week. Dr. Scalise will help us see the implications of this difference by pointing out that the highest command in Christianity is to love the Lord while, in Islam, the highest command is to submit to Allah. We’ll also touch briefly on Islam and the Euthyphro Dilemma.


Photo: “Islam” by E. Musiak. CC License.