Are Christians In Their Practical Life Monotheists?

brorito's picture

I was laying in bed tonight wanting to get some sleep and I kept thinking about a trinitarian theology of justice (I realize that's strange but its perfectly normal for me). So rather than lay there fretting over it I decided to get up and look at one of the locus communis on this topic The Trinity by Karl Rahner. One caveat before I go any further. If you are new to the Christian faith or still learning about the faith I don't recommend Rahner as a source for you. As I was reading away I came across something interesting he said and it got my attention viola! a blog post was born.

So here is what Rahner had to say.

“Despite their orthodox confession of the Trinity, Christians are, in their practical life, almost mere ‘monotheists’. We must be willing to admit that, should the doctrine of the Trinity have to be dropped as false, the major part of religious literature could well remain virtually unchanged”.

“We may hope that any material could be pressed into service in the attempt to destroy once and for all the false conception that a ‘speculative’ doctrine of the immanent Trinity may perhaps be conceivable today, that it is a completely idle and irrelevant undertaking, possessing neither spiritual nor religious interest to the modern Christian and theologian”

Now I am curious, does anyone believe this might be true? I will even settle for a feeling. Does anyone feel that there is a possible hint of truth here? And the reason I ask is quite legitimate. From my perspective, as I look around at Churches today especially contemporary evangelical types, I do see Rahner's thesis being demonstrated practically. Now I am not saying that contemporary evangelicals are self consciously Modern in their theology. But, I do get the impression they view the trinity as "something we we believe" but not to be central to or inculcated in the life of the church.

Am I being too harsh? It's not intentional. I raise this question out of genuine concern. Moreover, I believe many of the ecclesial problems evangelicals experience today can be answered with a return to a healthy understanding of the ontological trinity. What says you?

tomgroeneman's picture

More thoughts on the Trinity

Chapter 4.—What the Doctrine of the Catholic Faith is Concerning the Trinity.

7. All those Catholic expounders of the divine Scriptures, both Old and New, whom I have been able to read, who have written before me concerning the Trinity, Who is God, have purposed to teach, according to the Scriptures, this doctrine, that the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit intimate a divine unity of one and the same substance in an indivisible equality;25 and therefore that they are not three Gods, but one God: although the Father hath begotten the Son, and so He who is the Father is not the Son; and the Son is begotten by the Father, and so He who is the Son is not the Father; and the Holy Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son, but only the Spirit of the Father and of the Son, Himself also co-equal with the Father and the Son, and pertaining to the unity of the Trinity. Yet not that this Trinity was born of the Virgin Mary, and crucified under Pontius Pilate, and buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven, but only the Son. Nor, again, that this Trinity descended in the form of a dove upon Jesus when He was baptized;26 nor that, on the day of Pentecost, after the ascension of the Lord, when “there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind,”27 the same Trinity “sat upon each of them with cloven tongues like as of fire,” but only the Holy Spirit. Nor yet that this Trinity said from heaven, “Thou art my Son,”28 whether when He was baptized by John, or when the three disciples were with Him in the mount,29 or when the voice sounded, saying, “I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again;”30 but that it was a word of the Father only, spoken to the Son; although the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as they are indivisible, so work indivisibly.31 This is also my faith, since it is the Catholic faith.

I quote here St. Augustine because his definition is more understandable than Rahner's, it is consistent with the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church as well as many other denominations, it shows from the event of Jesus' baptism that the teaching of the Trinity is Scriptural, and lastly because his work is available here at CCEL for the benefit of the Church.

Historically, I believe there are a couple of things we should be aware of when discussing the mystery of the Trinity. In the development of the doctrine in the Early Church the person of the Holy Spirit was not as specific as that of the Father and Son. This why in the creeds the Spirit is said to have proceeded from the Father and the Son. This is the filioque clause that caused such a dust up later in Church history between the East and West and many scholars and historians attribute this controversy for the first major schism.

Second, the various permutations of thought involved in formulating the concept of the Trinity mainly had to do with modalism. This idea posits that because there are three persons so there would be logically three gods. Also, this may be the partial answer to the question asked in starting this discussion thread because as Rahner sees it the problem is solved by many with denying or being indifferent to the three persons in what amounts to the practical monotheism of modern Christians. But what he does not explain in the quote cited is that the Early Church Fathers resolved the issue of modalism by explaining that the three persons of the Godhead are one in nature. To understand this better try to think about what qualities constitute personhood and differentiate those from the concept of nature.

Third, I believe the most important phenomenon we must know when talking about the Trinity and its impact on our theology and lives is the idea that the Trinity is above all an illustration of the relationship of love that all three persons of the Godhead share with each other and us. Thus, the Trinity teaches true and healthy relationship between rational beings who organize themselves fundamentally around the locus of the one God who is love.

Fourth, the various roles and functions of each person of the Godhead that Dan expressed so well in his post are helpful to us as we explore the revelation of the Bible and see in each separate encounter that man has with the transcendent one God there is an aspect and quality to the way God reveals Himself clearly defining which person of the Trinity is active at that particular time. One formula that may serve well is: Father=Creator, Son=Redeemer and Spirit=Sanctifier.

Lastly, people over the ages have used several analogies or metaphors to portray the Trinity. The three forms of water, solid, gas and liquid; the three leaves of a clover, St. Patrick; the three sides of a triangle, from geometry; and perhaps some others. The one I like to use as a patriotic American is the hot dog; bun, weiner and condiments all contribute and lend each other to a delicious meal...yummy, I think I am getting hungry again :-) Kidding aside, we know that all analogies break down at some point and we are left with a mystery that many monotheists and sincere people have tremendous doubts about and struggle with. This is why it is so important to be aware of some of these things because in sharing Christ with the world and our neighbors, family, friends and even enemies, we need to be equipped to be faithful witnesses to the truths of the historic Christian faith.

Tom Groeneman