The church of the Holy Trinity

Sometimes we can live so close to a doctrine that we overlook the immense power of its truth. The cross can become an empty slogan; the resurrection a mere proof-text for Jesus’ divinity; the incarnation something we only think about at Christmas. In this light, an increasing number of theologians are ‘rediscovering’ the trinity as a foundational Christian doctrine

Among them are Colin Gunton of King’s College, University of London, and his former colleague and now Metropolitan of Pergamen, John. D. Zizioulas.1 They have shown how the Trinitarian nature of the Christian faith was fought for and established amidst great struggle, and how a proper understanding of the triune God has implications for every area of life.

Before going on to describe the struggle that has resulted in the doctrine of the trinity, I have to explain a technical word that sounds like it belongs more in the ivory tower of a university than in a television game show, if I may put it that way. That word is ‘ontology’.

’Ontology’ is the knowledge or study of ‘being’. ’Being’ is the very nature of a thing, the bottom line, if you like. It is the essence or ‘real life’ of something. To say, for example, that ‘Geelong is an Aussie Rules team’ is an ontological statement. It is a statement about what Geelong really is. You might also say, incidentally, that they wear black and white, and that their emblem is the cat, but those are not ontological statements; that is, they are not statements about the real essence or ‘being’ of the Geelong Aussie Rules team.

Until recent times most people believed that all reality was interconnected and that there was a basic substance, nature or idea which everything had in common. This common idea or ‘thing’ helped explain the cohesion of everything and, most especially, what real existence or true reality was all about. It helped you to talk about the ‘being’ of things (i.e. ontological statements). Today, we still carry the belief that there is a ’bottom line’, even if we restrict it to our existence as persons. You can see this in the slogans we live by. An example from the modern Australian education system: “Real life is being a well-rounded individual”. From advertising: “Real life is getting what you want”. In its unvarnished form: “Real life is selfishness”. All such ideas are statements about ‘being’, statements about ‘ontology’. Perhaps ontology is a game show word after all!

Sharing in being

Colin Gunton and John Zizioulas have shown that the early Church’s work on the doctrines of Christ and the trinity generated a grand new ontology which was distinct from those prevailing in the ancient world. That ontology is that there can be a sharing in being, because that is God’s nature. The triune God, who from all eternity exists in loving communion, creates a world, and a humanity, in which ‘sharing in being’ or ‘communion’ is the basis of what we really are.

We are to live like Christ did in his dependence on the Father. The teaching of Jesus in John chapter 15 (and 16 and 17) is a good example of this command. As Jesus is the true vine and his Father is the vinegrower, we should abide in him as he abides in the Father. In his high-priestly prayer of self-sanctification before dying on our behalf Jesus prays: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us … I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one” (Jn 17:21-23). That is, true being is not individualistic, but communal; it is sharing with others in being.

However, for the main part, the Church did not apply this insight to its view of itself. Two rival, pagan ontologies filled the vacuum—two models of thinking. These rival ontologies, which dominated the ancient world, acted to complement each other in Church life.2

1. Graded hierarchy

The first major ontology was from the world of Greek philosophy. Greek thought saw real being or reality as a graded hierarchy. In a way that we now find strange (except in Hinduism and certain New Age beliefs), they saw all of reality in terms of an hierarchical movement, from top to bottom. The ultimate reality at the top was an impersonal, single divine substance, and everything flowed ‘down’ from there until you reached the base matter at the bottom. The idea was that you try to make your way up through the hierarchy until your own little, individual drop (so to speak) returns to the impersonal singular ocean of divinity.

This notion of true being as a graded hierarchy can be seen in the way the medieval Church pictured God’s grace being mediated from the Father through Christ to the Blessed Virgin Mary and then on downward through saints, angels, the priest, the sacraments, until finally it reached the sinner. Prayer was often thought of as returning upwards along the same route.

Most especially, the ‘graded hierarchy’ ontology of pagan Greece dominated the medieval Church’s organizational life. If we ask for a justification from the New Testament for the hierarchical structure of sub-deacons, deacons, priests, bishops, cardinals and the like, where is it? None can be found, of course. However, we do see one of the greatest theologians of the period, Thomas Aquinas, drawing on the writings of the Greek, mystical theologian of about 500 AD, Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite. Not surprisingly, two of Dionysius’ four major works are entitled Celestial Hierarchy and Ecclesiastical Hierarchy. Thus, Thomas Aquinas advances the idea that there is in the Church an ontological grading of persons modelled on that of heaven:

The distinction of hierarchies and orders among the angels apparently does not derive from their natures. A hierarchy is a sacred rule and in its definition Dionysius states that it consists as much as possible in a likening to God … Further, the hierarchy in the Church is modelled on that in heaven.3

2. Legal-political

The second major ontology of the pagan world was the gift of Rome, and it is legal-political. Real being, as modelled in the self-understanding of the Roman state and its empire, is to be rightly related by law within a political institution. Colin Gunton sees this in the writings of Cyprian (c.258), whose high view of the Church and apostolic succession have been of lasting importance.

In speaking of the Church, Cyprian uses language and images taken from the Roman political system. Thus, the Church is said to be like a military camp, a quasi-political empire where constraint must be applied to maintain its unity above all else (Gunton, p. 62). When the Church gained official state recognition with Emperor Constantine in 312, and then gradual state support and validation for all its activities, including rooting out heretics, the real Church came not to have its true being from the congregating of the faithful, but from its relation to a hierarchical head. The notion of proper legal-political relations constituting true being was of course rampant in the medieval period, when the question of the authenticity of any Christian congregation depended on their answer to the question: “What is your legal relationship to Rome and the Pope?”

A Christian ontology

However, the great wonder of the ancient world was, and remains, that a third specifically Christian ontology emerged and unmasked the others as false. This specifically Christian ontology came into prominence through debates about the true nature of the person of Christ and the Trinity, and worked at various levels to overthrow the old false gods.

The early Church saw that the God of the Bible was not impersonal but personal. They affirmed that from all eternity his being consisted of three persons, who relate to one another in love. Thus true being was ‘being in relation’.

But how could these three ‘persons’ make up the being of one God? Their answer was ‘perichoresis’—the mutual indwelling of the three Persons of the Trinity. Our understanding of God, and especially of how it is that the three divine Persons can be one God, comes from Jesus’ description of his relationship to the Father: “… as you, Father, are in me and I am in you …” (Jn 17:21). God exists as the one true God of Israel because each member of the Trinity finds his centre of existence in the other. They mutually indwell each other. God in himself is other-person-centred, and it is this which makes him God. That is who God is. Further, the early Church saw that this needed to be stressed, that this mutual indwelling is not a static situation like three links in a steel-mesh fence, but is a living and active fellowship. Each Person loves and serves the others, that is, they are in an eternal living communion or fellowship with each other. This was the new ontology that invaded the ancient world-that true ‘being’ was about communion or relationship.

Now, as even a quick reading of John 14-17 shows, we must apply this Christian ontology to all of life, and above all, to life together in the Church. True being is not selfishness (the 20th century ontology); nor is true being hierarchical or legal-political (the ontologies of the ancient world). No, true being is fellowship together in Christ.

Trinitarian living in the Church

What then may we say, in practical terms, about Trinitarian living in the Church?

T. F. Torrance’s observations on the doctrine of the Church aptly summarize the situation. There was no significant book on the subject of the Church for the 1100 years between Cyprian’s On Unity (251) and Wycliffe’s On the Church (1377).

But with the Reformation the whole picture was altered and the doctrine of the Church as the community of believers vitally united to Christ as his Body through the Spirit received its first great formulation since patristic times.4

The Anglican Reformers got it absolutely right in Article 19 of the 39 Articles:

The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered …

In the brevity of this definition the Reformers saw that nothing more should, or could, be said. The Church is truly the Church when it is a fellowship of faithful men and women gathered around the Word of God. Moreover, these same Reformers were adamant that where such fellowships existed, they had to be treated as Christian brothers and sisters who already constituted a proper Church and should not have legal or hierarchical arrangements imposed on them as a condition of their legitimacy before God.

In applying this more specifically, let me speak of the situation with which I am most familiar, and leave you to draw the application for your circumstance.


It is to the credit of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney that, against contemporary pressure, its doctrine commission rejected the idea that the threefold order of bishops-priests-deacons is of the true being of the Church. Instead, the doctrine commission re-affirmed the position of the 16th century Reformers and their leading theologians that such a hierarchy is merely pragmatic.5

However, it is a matter of great sadness that in the same period the Synod (the Anglican Church’s legislative body), under the direction of its president, legislated that the usual congregational practice in terms of dress be set aside when a bishop is present (that is, that full formal robes be worn, even if that is not the normal practice).

This, and the manner in which the wearing of collars and robes in the presence of senior ecclesiastics has sometimes been enforced, is another reversion to the pre-Reformation doctrine of the Church as essentially constituted by its hierarchy.

But as Gunton points out, when the theology of the Church is seriously and consistently rooted in a conception of God as triune, a far different picture may emerge. As seen in Jesus Christ whose body is the Church (1 Cor 12:12), the very being of God is the perichoretic fellowship of the three Persons of the Trinity. The true being of the Church reflects this. The true being of the Church is the congregating, fellowshipping activity of the faithful. Each such fellowship is thus true Church. Hierarchy and legal arrangements are also part of life, but they must serve fellowship, and we ought resist the temptation to make an already existing fellowship serve them.

The conception of the Church as a community of freely relating persons around the Word is one which echoes God’s eternal being in relation. This Christian ontology which underlies the New Testament presentation of the nature of the Church stands against the view of the pagan Greece and Rome which saw the Church as only properly constituted in terms of an ontological hierarchy and as a legal-political entity.

The challenge which now faces the Sydney Diocese and beyond is this: how will the legal-political understanding-with its notions of restricted jurisdiction-be evaluated and handled as Sydney seeks to serve evangelical congregations on their own terms, not only in Sydney, but in the rest of Australia, and elsewhere?

Broughton Knox, former Principal of Moore College, spoke and wrote frequently about the Trinitarian structure of reality, and especially of humanity as it has been recreated in Christ for that fellowship which is the true being of the Church. In arriving at these insights, he responded intuitively, as in all good theology, to the impress of the gospel on his mind. This intuition has not been his alone. With its roots in the Christian tradition in the early Fathers and the Reformers, it has continued to be clarified in the modern era by P. T. Forsyth, Karl Barth and Thomas and James Torrance to name a few, and continues within the Research Institute in Systematic Theology at King’s College, prominently in Colin Gunton and John Zizioulas.

Given that the Bible does really reveal the true God, then understanding the nature of Trinitarian existence in the Church is but the first, and major step, to evaluating all of life in God’s creation.


1 Colin E. Gunton, ‘The Community, the Trinity and the Being of the Church’, in his The Promise of Trinitarian Theology (Edinburgh: T&T Clarke, 1991) pp. 58-85; and John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion. Studies in Personhood and the Church (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1985).

2 Gunton, Promise of Trinitarian Theology, p. 62.

3 Summa Theologiae 1a.108, 4; cf 1a.108, 2.

4 ‘A New Reformation?’ in his Theology in Reconstruction (Eerdmans, 1975) p. 266.

5 ‘Towards a Theology of Ordination’, Year Book of the Diocese of Sydney, 1985, pp. 452-59.

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