“Whatever your heart clings to and trusts in, that is really your god,” said Luther in his exposition of the first commandment in the large catechism. Unfortunately, the human heart and mind is, as Calvin recognized, a “perpetual factory of idols” ( Institutes 1.11.8). Phenomenologically speaking, there are therefore “many gods and many lords” (1 Cor. 8:5). But for Christians, the apostle Paul continues, “there is one God, the Father… and one Lord, Jesus Christ” (v.6). To come to the Christian faith is to turn “from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming” (1 Thess. 1:9-10). Or in Johannine terms: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

The Christian doctrine of God is Trinitarian (see Trinity ). “When I say God”, declared Gregory Nazianzus (d.389), “I mean Father, Son and Holy Spirit” ( Oration 38.8; 45.4). Jesus Christ,* the Son, is “God from God,… eternally begotten of the Father”, while the Holy Spirit* “proceeds from the Father” and “with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified” (see Nicene Creed ). This Trinitarian pattern is profoundly stamped on all Eastern Orthodox liturgy and theology. The classic Western churches are also Trinitarian in creed; but in their theological reflection they have tended, at least from Augustine (d.430) onwards, to start with the “one simple substance of God” in such a way as to make distinctions among the three persons difficult. From Aquinas (d.1274) onwards, it was for centuries customary for Western dogmaticians to treat “the one God” (de Deo uno) before treating “the Triune God” (de Deo trino) . Modern Protestantism has stood under the aegis of Friedrich Schleiermacher, who devoted only the last ten pages of his “doctrine of the faith” ( Der christliche Glaube , 2nd ed., 1830), and then with “unitarian” sympathies, to the doctrine of the Trinity.

The Western situation changed in the 20th century with Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics (1932-67), which begins its doctrine of revelation* in a Trinitarian way that is then maintained throughout the work. And on the Roman Catholic side, Karl Rahner’s lengthy article on the Trinity in the encyclopedic Mysterium Salutis (Johannes Feiner and Magnus Löhrer eds, 1965-76) has been very influential, especially in its celebrated axiom that “the ‘economic’ Trinity is the ‘immanent’ Trinity and vice versa” (vol. 2, 1967, 317-401, in particular 328): God is in very being (“immanent Trinity”) as God is self-revealed (“economic Trinity”), namely, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The ecumenical movement played a vital role in this “rediscovery” of the Trinity. In particular, the Orthodox churches contributed strongly: liturgically, they insisted on the invocation of the Holy Spirit to energize and complete the sacramental action (epiclesis); dogmatically, they brought to the fore the long controversial question of the procession of the Holy Spirit within the Godhead (see filioque ); and in both cases, the pneumatology was part of a full-orbed Trinitarianism. Ecclesiologically and missiologically, the Trinitarianly conceived and structured writings of Lesslie Newbigin proved seminal, namely T he Household of God (1953) and Trinitarian Faith and Today’s Mission (1964). Highly significant was the insertion into the membership basis of the WCC, in 1961, of the phrase “to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit” (see WCC, basis of ). The work in Faith and Order that led to the Lima text of 1982 emphasized the Trinitarian pattern of baptism and the Lord’s supper (see Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry ); and the “apostolic faith study” followed the Trinitarian outline of the Nicene Creed.

In recent years there has been a flurry of books on the doctrine of the Trinity, with varied approaches and different emphases, from across the entire ecumenical board, including Jürgen Moltmann (Reformed), Trinität und Reich Gottes (1980, ET The Trinity and the Kingdom of God , 1981); Robert Jenson (Lutheran), The Triune Identity (1982); Walter Kasper (Roman Catholic), Der Gott Jesu Christi (1982); John Zizioulas (Orthodox), Being as Communion (1985); Boris Bobrinskoy (Orthodox), Le mystère de la Trinité (1986, ET The Mystery of the Trinity , 1999); Bruno Forte (Roman Catholic), Trinità come storia (1985, ET The Trinity as History 1989); Catherine LaCugna (Roman Catholic), God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (1991); and Thomas Torrance (Reformed), The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being, Three Persons (1996). The dominant insight has been that God is in very nature the loving communion of three persons. Such Trinitarianism, in its “positive” or “kataphatic” statements, does not impugn but rather recognizes the insights of “negative” or “apophatic” theology concerning the inexhaustibility of God, which must always transcend the knowledge even of redeemed, sanctified and perfected creatures.

The Christian doctrine of God has to be situated in reference to three developments or ranges of thinking in particular: the revelation embodied in Jesus Christ and the reflection of faith* upon that; philosophical theism and atheism;* and other religions, particularly those which profess faith in “one God”.

Revelation and reflection

In the course of its history, Israel came to recognize the absolute uniqueness of the one who bore the revealed name of yhwh, the Lord, the Redeemer of the people and the Creator of all that is: “There is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Saviour; there is no one besides me. Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other” (Isa. 45:21-22).

Jesus affirmed the “Shema Israel” (Deut. 6:4-5) as the first and great commandment and the way to eternal life: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (cf. Matt. 22:37; Mark 12:29-30; Luke 10:27). Jesus also regularly addressed this God by the intimate term of “Abba, Father” and himself appears correspondingly as “the Son” (Mark 1:11 and par.; Matt. 11:25-27; John 1:18, 3:16, 14:9; Rom. 8:32; Col. 1:13). The Father and the Son are “one” (John 10:30, 17:11); while remaining distinct, they dwell “in” each other (John 17:21). Jesus Christ is given the name of Lord (Phil. 2:9-10, echoing Isa. 45:23), though only and always “to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:11), who “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17; cf. vv.24-25).

The New Testament also links the Spirit – “who comes from the Father” (John 15:26) – with the Son. The Spirit “remains” on the Son (John 1:32-34); and at the prayer of the exalted Christ (John 14:16,26, 15:26; Acts 2:33), the Father sends the Holy Spirit into the world, “the other Paraclete” (John 14:16), the Spirit who “gives life” (John 6:63; Rom. 8:11; 2 Cor. 3:6) and guides into all the truth (John 16:13). The triad of Father, Son and Holy Spirit figures together, sometimes explicitly as a threefold name, in many layers of the NT writings, with Matt. 28:19, 1 Cor. 12:4-6, 2 Cor. 13:14, and Eph. 2:18-22 and 4:4-6 among the more notable passages not already cited.

It took at least four centuries for the church,* particularly in the intellectual and religious context of the Graeco-Roman world, to work out the implications of the Christ-event for belief in “the one God”. Against Marcion and the Gnostics it needed to be shown that the Creator and the Redeemer were the same God. Against temptations to a polytheism that would have jeopardized human salvation* by reducing Christ to a demi-god, it needed to be shown that the agent of revelation and redemption was not a “second god” (deuteros theos) or a “god by courtesy” (katachr-estik-os) but himself “consubstantial with the Father” (homoousios t-o patri) . Against accusations of tritheism, it needed to be shown that there are “not three gods” (the title of Gregory of Nyssa’s refutation of the charge). The decisive dogmatic decisions were taken by the ecumenical councils* of Nicea* 325 and Constantinople* 381.

Among the questions that have remained open for recurrent theological discussion within the church are the implications for God’s life and being of the liturgical confession that “one of the Trinity suffered” (recent examples are J.A. Baker’s The Foolishness of God, 1970, and Jürgen Moltmann’s Der gekreuzigte Gott, 1972, ET The Crucified God , 1974), and the precise ways in which the Trinitarian “relations” (scheseis) of Father, Son and Holy Spirit are to be described (for a recent discussion see T.F. Torrance’s The Trinitarian Faith, 1988). Yet since the 4th century councils it has been the almost unanimous practice among those claiming to be Christians to profess belief in the one God and to confess the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Such Trinitarian faith is required of churches for membership in the WCC (see WCC, basis of ).

Philosophical theism and atheism

Since its beginnings in ancient Greece, Western philosophy has included a strand of thinking that arrives at “God” (the word is often used as a proper noun) by two main routes: from the contingency of the world (it need not be or have been) is drawn the conclusion of a necessary being, a first cause beyond the internal series of causes; and for the multiplicity of things, a single coherent ground is sought in the One. Despite counter-arguments that are often claimed or considered to be conclusive, “theism” keeps recurring in variant forms throughout the history of Western thought. It hovers around the contemporary search for “meaning” and “purpose”. Though preferring to speak of “panentheism”, Whiteheadian process theology is a close cousin to “classical theism”, as John Macquarrie’s preferred term of “dialectical theism” also indicates.

While great difficulties attend the notion of a “proof” of “God”, some modern Christian theologians (e.g. Walter Kasper, Macquarrie, Wolfhart Pannenberg) judge the metaphysical quest worth pursuing, even though none would claim that unaided reason could reach the personal knowledge of God granted by the self-revelation of God in Christ. Most would claim that at best the theistic arguments may serve, after the event, to show that belief in the self-revealed God is not irrational, or that the self-revealed God has in fact “answered” the “questions” which serious efforts to reach truth address.

Some Christian theologians, however, are suspicious of the whole theistic route, whether taken a priori or a posteriori . Thus Eberhard Jüngel argues that theism always makes God “necessary”, to ground the world or human self-consciousness (Descartes is a chief culprit). Atheism can then appear as the proper rejection of a “God” in which Christians do not really believe either. Jüngel finds in the God of Christian faith an utterly gracious one who is “more than necessary”. Christian faith begins, and must never deviate, from the cross of Christ and the concomitant confession that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Moltmann dislikes the term “monotheism” on the grounds that, in the history of Christian thought and society, belief in Eis Theos (in the eponymous title of Erik Peterson’s book of 1926) has too easily gone hand in hand with political oppression and totalitarianism (“monarchism”), whereas a truly Trinitarian doctrine (some would find Moltmann himself to verge on tritheism) is more favourable to a complex and differentiated pattern of human community. None of this, of course, touches the problem of unbelief, whether militant or indifferentist, in face of a Christian message adequately presented.

Other religions

Throughout Christian history there has been a marked tension in attitudes towards the religions of the world. On the one hand, all worship outside of the church may be considered idolatry, directed towards “false gods”. On the other hand, elements of truth may be detected in other religions that make them a “preparation for the gospel” (preparatio evangelica) .

More along the latter line, monotheism has often been seen as a common factor, especially shared with Jews and Muslims, in so far as they, like Christians, claim a descent from Abraham and intend to worship “the God of Abraham”. However, the matter is complex and disputed. For their part, sympathetic Jews have regarded Christians as monotheists, minimizing the significance of the Christian worship of the “mere man” Jesus, which is more strictly idolatry; only rarely have Muslims exempted Christians from the charge of polytheism on account of their belief in “the Father and the Son”. (The Qur’an, 112:1-4, is seen as excluding the Trinity and incarnation; cf. 4:171, 5:72-73.) From the Christian angle again, what constitutes the “children of Abraham” is a matter of contention (see Matt. 3:9; Luke 3:8; John 8:33-59; Acts 7:1-60, 13:26-52; Rom. 4:1-25, 9:6-13; 2 Cor. 11:22; Gal. 3:6-18, 4:21-31); in the Christian era it must seem that Jews and Muslims have either refused or altered the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

Interfaith dialogues are exploring these issues (see dialogue, interfaith ). It is unlikely that Jews or Muslims can accept the kind of “ranking”, however well intentioned, implied in the model of concentric circles found in the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate) and in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Ecclesiam Suam: the outer edge is no less than the limits of a universal humanity; then come all persons of good will; closer in, we find all who believe in “the one God”, people of “the great African and Asian religions”, but more particularly Muslims and more particularly yet Jews; finally come Christians and, at the very centre, the Catholic church.

The most liberal modern Christian theologians, whether Catholic or Protestant, have moved towards regarding religions as “equivalent” or simply (in a benign agnosticism) “incommensurable”; but this position is hard to square with scriptural and traditional faith in the unique and universal significance of Christ and hence in the God revealed by him and the events surrounding him (see uniqueness of Christ, universalism ).

A more characteristically Christian approach to dialogue, let alone evangelism, can find resources in a Trinitarian doctrine of God. This is hinted at in the WCC Guidelines for Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies (1979): “It is Christian faith in the Triune God – Creator of all humankind, Redeemer in Jesus Christ, revealing and renewing Spirit – which calls us Christians to human relationship with our many neighbours. It is Christian faith which sets us free to be open to the faith of others, to risk, to trust and to be vulnerable. In dialogue, conviction and openness are held in balance.” In more academic terms, Karl Rahner’s vision provided a valuable Trinitarian framework for many: God is the mystery at the ultimate horizon of human self-transcendence and is constantly pressing upon the human creature in self-communication by word and grace. A more forthrightly biblical account is provided by Lesslie Newbigin in his thoroughly Trinitarian books The Open Secret (1978) and The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (1989).

If, in conclusion, it were to be asked what picture of God emerges in current ecumenical reflection by those committed to the Christian faith, the WCC Faith and Order* study “Towards the Common Expression of the Apostolic Faith Today” suggests that the following traits at least would be noticeable. The picture will be thoroughly Trinitarian (though with perhaps a blurring at the edges, among those who, under feminist criticism, are attempting the difficult, if not impossible, task of finding alternatives to the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit). “The Father” and “the Almighty” will be seen as mutually qualifying, with a recognition of the tender qualities of God which may even be designated motherly or feminine. “The Father” will never be without “the Son”, or “the Son” without “the Father”. It will be stressed, in a recovery of Athanasianism, that the work of Christ in revelation and redemption depends on the Son’s being “consubstantial with the Father”. Soteriological motifs will be strongly present, with a stress on God’s favour towards the poor* and the oppressed. In face of all the difficulties concerning “interventionism” raised by a scientific world-view, God will still be confessed as “acting” in the world. There will be discussion of the work of the Holy Spirit beyond the bounds of the church, throughout humankind and creation.* The Holy Spirit will be seen in the church not only as a bond of unity* but also as a principle of diversity. Communion and perichoresis will be major categories for expressing the inner-Trinitarian relations. The continuing work of God towards the eschatological consummation will figure prominently.


n D.B. Burrell, Knowing the Unknowable God: Ibn-Sina, Maimonides, Aquinas , Notre Dame IN, Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1986 n Confessing the One Faith , WCC, 1999 n R.P.C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy 318-381 , Edinburgh, Clark, 1988 n W. Jeanrond & C. Theobald eds, God: Experience and Mystery, London, SCM Press, 2001 n E. Jüngel, Gott als Geheimnis der Welt (ET God as the Mystery of the World , Grand Rapids MI, Eerdmans, 1983) n W. Kasper, Der Gott Jesu Christi (ET The God of Jesus Christ , New York, Crossroad, 1984) n V. Lossky, La théologie mystique de l’Eglise d’Orient (ET The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church , London, James Clarke, 1957) n J. Macquarrie, In Search of Deity , London, SCM Press, 1984 n A. Manaranche, Le monothéisme chrétien , Paris, Cerf, 1985 n W. Pannenberg, Metaphysik und Gottesgedanke (ET Metaphysics and the Idea of God , Grand Rapids MI, Eerdmans, 1990) n K. Rahner, “Theos im Neuen Testament” (ET in his Theological Investigations , 1, London, Darton, Longman & Todd, 1961) n D. Turner, The Darkness of God , Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 1995.

The text above is extracted from “ Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement ” 2 nd Edition , published by World Council of Churches (courtesy of World Council of Churches)

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