Christian Social Theory: The Trinity as a Model for Human Social Life

Nancy Pearcey‘s Total Truth is to today as Francis Schaeffer’s books were to 20 years ago. Green-coloring is the blogger’s. Italics are the author’s.

Total Truth book cover

The Rosetta Stone of Christian social thought is the Trinity. The human race was created in the image of God, who is three Persons so intimately related as to constitute one Godhead in the classic theological formulations, one in being and three in person. God is not “really” one deity, who only appears in three modes: nor is God “really” three deities, which would be polytheism. Instead, both oneness and threeness are equally real, equally ultimate, equally basic and integral to God’s nature.

The balance of unity and diversity in the Trinity gives a model for human social life, because it implies that both individuality and relationship exist within the Godhead itself. God is being-in-communion. Humans are made in the image of God who is a tri-unity—whose very nature consists in reciprocal love and communication among the Persons of the Trinity. This model provides a solution to the age-old opposition between collectivism and individualism. Over against collectivism, the Trinity implies the dignity and uniqueness of individual persons. Over against radical individualism, the Trinity implies that relationships are not created by sheer choice but are built into the very essence of human nature. We are not atomistic individuals but are created for relationships.

As a result, there is harmony between being and individual and participating in the social relationships that God intended for our lives together. This may sound abstract, but think of it this way: Every married couple knows that a marriage is more than the sum of its parts—that the relationship itself is a reality that goes beyond the two individuals involved. The social institution of marriage is a moral entity in itself, with its own normative definition. This was traditionally spoken about in terms of the common good: There was a “good” for each of the individuals in the relationship (God’s moral purpose for each person), and then there was a “common good” for their lives together (God’s moral purpose for the marriage itself).

In a perfect marriage unaffected by sin, there would be no conflict between these two purposes: The common good would express and fulfill the individual natures of both wife and husband. In fact, certain virtues necessary for spiritual maturity—such as faithfulness and self-sacrificing love—can be practiced only within relationships. That means individuals cannot fully develop their true nature unless they participate in social relationships, such as marriage, family, and the church. *

The doctrine of the Trinity has repercussions not only for our concept of the family but also for virtually every other discipline. In philosophy, the triune nature of God provides a solution to the question of the One and the Many (sometimes called the problem of unity and diversity): Ever since the ancient Greeks, philosophers have asked, Does ultimate reality consist of a single being or substance (as in pantheism) or of disconnected particulars (as in atomism)? In politics, the opposing poles play out in the two extremes of totalitarianism versus anarchy. In economics, the extremes are socialism or communism versus laissez-faire individualism.

In practice, of course, most societies shuffle toward some middle ground between the two opposing poles—like America’s “mixed economy today. Yet merely hovering between tow extremes is not a theoretically coherent position. A consistent worldview must offer a way to reconcile them within a consistent system. By offering the Trinity as the foundation of human sociality, Christianity gives the only coherent basis for social theory.

Nor is the answer merely theoretical. In Redemption, believers are called to form an actual society—the church—that demonstrates to the world a balanced interplay of the One and the Many, of unity and individuality. In John 17:11 Jesus prays for the disciples He is about to leave behind, asking the Father “that they may be one, even as we are one.” Jesus is saying that the communion of Persons within the Trinity is the model for the communion of believers within the church. It teaches us how to foster richly diverse individuality within ontologically real relationships “The Church as a whole is an icon of God the Trinity, reproducing on earth the mystery of unity in diversity,” writes Orthodox bishop Timothy Ware. “Human beings are called to reproduce on earth the mystery of mutual love that the Trinity lives in heaven.” And as we learn to practice unity-in-diversity within the church, we can bring that same balance to all our social relationships—our families, schools, workshops, and neighborhoods.

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*People who are not married can and should participate in other forms of relationship, preeminently in the church, in order to experience the spiritually maturing effects of being morally committed to others.

From Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey, copyright ©2005, pages 132-134. Used by permission of Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187.

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