The Trinitarian DNA of Christian Worship:
Perennial Themes in Recent Theological Literature
JOHN D. WITVLIET
One of the remarkable features of christian theology in recent years is the resurgence of interest in the doctrine of the Trinity. One of the persistent features of this literature is the observation that Trinitarian theology has considerable implications for Christian worshipan observation that is often made, but less often developed.1 On the assumption that doctrine and liturgy are inextricably intertwined, my interest is to isolate and clarify the links between the doctrine of the Trinity and the theology and practice of worship, and thereby to explore the basic "grammar" or "DNA" of Trinitarian worship.
Because my purposes are not primarily historical, but constructive, I will approach the recent body of Trinitarian theology thematically. This literature features what Robert Jenson describes as "several kinds of Trinitarian discourse."2 It puts the doctrine of the Trinity to different uses, each of which arises out of a different motivation, aims at a different target, and speaks to a different antagonist. My procedure will be to identify briefly five unique though inter-related themes, five "kinds of Trinitarian discourse," and to explore the resonances or corollaries of those themes in work on the theology and practice of liturgy. By choosing to offer an overview, my goal is to present this material at a level of specificity that can best inform the work of musicians, artists, poets, preachers, and liturgists.3
1. Imago Trinitatis: Divine and Human Relationality
Arguably the most pervasive theme in recent Trinitarian literature is an emphasis on relationality as essential for understanding divine being and human personhood. The doctrine of the Trinity, the argument runs, depicts divine life as supremely relational, where "love-for-another" is seen to be the essential aspect of divine life and, consequently, the source and goal of human existence. Typical works feature rhapsodic descriptions of the "agapic other-regard, that divine reciprocity, the supreme mutuality that lies at the heart of the universe."4 Many of the works in the field argue, with John Zizioulas, that Being itself is communion. This is a vision that accentuates koinonia as a primary attribute of divine life, and contends that human communal life should model, embody, mirror, or be analogous to that deep communion. This vision nearly always draws on the metaphor of perichoresis or "indwelling"an "in-ness" relationship among divine persons intimated in the Gospel according to John and developed by John of Damascus5that envisions divine life as a dynamic dance, where God's unity is a function of active relations. When seen as a vision for human life, this vision protests any form of either ecclesiastical or societal individualism. Here the term "Trinitarian" is used as an antonym to the terms "individualistic" and "isolated."
Broadly speaking, there are two basic ways of conceptualizing and highlighting relationality in Trinitarian terms. One way follows Augustine and Barth, drawing on psychological analogies of the Trinity to conceptualize the divine being as unipersonal, but nevertheless self-giving. God is relational toward us: Christ is a perfect sign of God's essential self-giving posture. This Trinitarian vision is deeply relational, in contrast with deist views of a pristine and remote God, but it shies away from speaking of an interpersonal exchange within divine life.
A second way of conceptualizing divine relationality, much discussed in recent literature, draws on the Cappadocian fathers (or at least the traditional understanding of them), and thinks tripersonally of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as a communion, or even a community, of divine persons. This theme has seen sounded most aggressively by proponents of the so-called social doctrine of the Trinity, influenced by the work of Jürgen Moltmann. A tripersonal or social view of God posits that God is best conceived as a community of divine persons, where "God is three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who exist in perichoretic union as one God."6 The accent falls on the threeness over against the oneness of God, in ways that favor not unipersonal, but tripersonal descriptions, metaphors, and images of divine life. This is a vision that corresponds visually with the famous Rublev icon of the Trinity. Musically, it is a vision perhaps best expressed in Messiaen's "Meditations on the Holy Trinity," with three unique musical motifs that weave together in profound polyphony.
Underneath these two approaches are complex discussions about the nature of personhood, and terminological nuances of the meaning of key Greek, Latin, German, and English terms for divine unity and personhood. Both ways, however, work up a robust enthusiasm for a view of God that protests any intimation of isolation.
And both find complementary allies in anthropological concepts developed in nontheological contexts, including philosophical anthropology and social psychology, which favor ecstatic and relational accounts of human personhood.7 This relational vision of divine life is transmuted to human, communal life through one out of several of what Christoph Schw÷bel calls "bridging concepts" that span the doctrine of God and a socio-ethical vision. Two bridging concepts are especially prominent.8 The first is a notion that the doctrine of God describes something that human beings are challenged to mirror, model, imitate, or image. This set of metaphors emphasizes the perfection of divine life and the distinction between God and humanity. The second is the notion that the doctrine of God describes a reality that humans are called to embody or in which they are called to participate. This metaphor emphasizes the closeness, even the intimacy, of divine and human life. Either way, Trinitarian relationality is taken to provide a foundation for ethics, ecclesiology, political theology, and social theorythat is, for any area of discourse concerned with the ordering of human communal life, including its common worship.
This relational vision touches most closely on liturgy through work in ecclesiology. The church, to use a phrase of Jürgen Moltmann, is an "icon of the Trinity."9 Among recent theorists, one of the first to draw the connection between the doctrine of God and the doctrine of the church was the missiologist, bishop, and teacher Lesslie Newbigin: "The Church is called to be a union of [those] with Christ in the love of the Father whereby their separate beings are made one with that perfect mutual interpenetration in love, that perfect community which is the glory of God."10 Likewise, Letty Russell grounds her notion of "The Church in the Round" in the doctrine of the Trinity: "the partnership of God in the persons of the Trinity also provides an image of mutuality, reciprocity, and a totally shared life. The characteristics of partnership, or koinonia, may be discovered in their perfection in the Trinity, where there is a focus of relationship in mutual love between the persons and toward creation."11
To see the implications here for Christian worship is not hard. Christian worship is one arena where a Trinitarian ecclesiology is most tangibly expressed. As Jean-Jacques von Allmen argued, worship is "pre-eminently the moment of true community. . . . Christian worship is the most emphatic contradiction of human solitude and abandonment."12 At its best, Christian liturgy embodies the mutuality and koinonia of a Trinitarian ecclesiology and thus prefigures the coming kingdom. In a public, concrete way, Christian worship is an icon of our union with Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit. In a public, concrete way, Christian worship is an icon of the web of relationships that make up the Christian church, particularly in the sacraments, which are supreme moments for enacting gospel-shaped relationships.
In all of these discussions several temptations are to be avoided: the temptation to rethink the Trinity in light of prior social or political commitments; the temptation to apply our vision for relationality selectively to those liturgical practices we happen to like or that are politically expedient; andperhaps most significantlythe temptation to think of divine life as only a model, and not also the source, for rightly ordered human relationships.
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