Divine Plurality: The Invitation of the Trinitarian Dogma

The doctrine of the Trinity, indeed the dogma, is in serious need of attention, and not least because, instead of being our joyous confession of God-with-us, Emmanuel, and so of our identity before God, it has become a problem for most Christians.



The Invitation of the Trinitarian Dogma


by Paul M. van Buren

    It is an honor, a privilege, and a pleasure to be here to deliver the first of what I hope   will be a long list of lectures in theology at what I believe to be its utterly decisive   and ecclesiastically essential center, namely, how our theology is shaped by and   responsive to the God-given relationship between the church of Jesus Christ and the people   of Jesus Christ. The church"s theology arose out of that concrete, earthy relationship,   but it got dangerously side-tracked into the generalities of God and humankind, or into   the abstractions of divinity and humanity. The sad result was that theology came to be and   continues to be regarded by the rank and file of the church as an abstract, esoteric, and   even incomprehensible activity best left to professionals. It is fitting that these   lectures in concrete theology should be named for one of the pioneers of this return to   our senses, Dr. Lee Archer Belford, may his name be remembered.    

For this first Belford lecture, I have chosen to take a fresh look at that most   characteristic and defining teaching of the church, the doctrine of the Trinity. This   doctrine, indeed dogma, is in serious need of attention, and not least because, instead of   being our joyous confession of God-with-us, Emmanuel, and so of our identity before God, it   has become a problem for most Christians. The problem was nicely formulated by Dorothy   Sayers some years ago in her version of the typical lay understanding of the so-called   Athanasian Creed: "The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the Holy   Spirit incomprehensible – the whole damn thing incomprehensible." Many clergy,   instead of looking forward to preaching on Trinity Sunday, seek excuses to avoid it, because   for them too the glad tidings of this earthy doctrine have been muffled.


We can begin some fresh thinking about this doctrine by starting from where we are at   present. After some four decades of an ever deepening and widening conversation with Jews,   most branches of the church have made formal declarations affirming the covenant between God   and the Jewish people. Reversing much traditional Christian teaching, the churches are now   affirming that that covenant is eternal and that the Jewish people today are God"s people   Israel, as much the enduring form of ancient Israel as the church today is the enduring form   of the church of the apostles. That is the conclusion reached in a WCC study of   "Statements of the World Council of Churches and its Member Churches," titled   The Theology of the Churches and the Jewish People ( 1988). That is where we are now.


This growing Christian consensus is something new in the history of the church: it is a   confession of the faithfulness of God, not to us, but to another. It constitutes, therefore,   an addition, or it provides a new twist, to our understanding of God. If we remain true to   our biblical foundations and to the insight of the Greek fathers that God is what God has   done, is doing, and will do; and if we now confess (for the first time since the days of the   Apostle to the Gentiles) that God"s gift and call are irrevocable (Rom. 11:29), then we are   saying something new about God. We are saying that God has gone on being the loving God of   the Jewish people all these centuries and right up into our own day.


The question that thus confronts us is: How we are to think about and pray to God now   that we have come to renewed awareness of God"s continuing relationship with the Jewish   people? More specifically, how will this new apprehension of God"s faithfulness to the   Jewish people affect what we have said about God in our doctrine of the Trinity? Or to put   it another way, if dogmas stand as old and tested guidelines for the church"s life and   language, then what new directions are to be detected in the trinitarian dogma by a church   that has only recently discovered that it lives in the world alongside, not in place of, the   Israel of God?


Some of us have been thinking hard about this question over the past ten or fifteen years   and some of us think we have found at least the beginnings of an answer. Given the long   tradition of almost nineteen centuries of Christian anti-Judaism and the displacement   theology of the anti-Judaic church that we have been, it seems essential, for our own souls"   health, to begin our thinking whenever possible with the Sinai covenant that is so central   to the developed Jewish tradition. If we do this, then we shall begin our distinctively   Christian confession of faith by affirming that the God of Sinai can do and has done a new   thing: the God of Sinai and of Israel is also fully present in the Jew Jesus and so is also   God of and for Gentiles.


Putting Sinai first is a therapeutic move. Nineteen centuries of addiction are not easy   to break, so we need to be firm with ourselves. We have drunk from the anti-Judaic jug so   long that we have to keep that bottle out of reach. We should do well to take a tip from   Alcoholics Anonymous. In our case, the AA stands for Anti-Judaics Anonymous. In order to   stay away from that bottle, we need to start with Sinai, not Genesis 1. Genesis 12 is where   the Israel story really gets started, and that is where it would be healthy for us to start.   Perhaps in some distant future we shall be cured enough to go back and start from Genesis 1,   as does the first article of the creed of the anti-Judaic church. But until we can be sure   we won"t once more hit the bottle that has Auschwitz written on its bottom, we should do   well to start with Sinai and so make Genesis 12 and following, and then Exodus, Leviticus,   Numbers. and Deuteronomy, our central texts for guiding how we speak of God. Those were   probably the basic texts for the Jew who has become our Lord, and they certainly were and   are for the developed tradition of the Jewish people.


This shift of emphasis means for us that we may not indulge in trapeze leaps from Genesis   1 to Matthew 1. Such a leap is evident in the creeds. I am not recommending that the creeds   be either abandoned or edited, but I am certainly suggesting that these are insufficient   guides for the church today, because the creeds skip over just those parts of the story that   could save us from misunderstanding the whole. The reason why we ought not to leap from   Genesis 1 to Matthew 1 is because Matthew 1 and all the rest of the New Testament following   it present us a Jesus "according to the Scriptures," certainly including the five   books of Moses. The Jesus they present to us, and the only Jesus the church has ever had or   needed, is the Jesus wrapped in all the Scriptures of the Jewish tradition.


This connection between Jesus and the whole of Israel"s story is vital for us. The   crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus left the disciples speechless, as their own testimony   makes plain. They found their way out of speechlessness by way of the Scriptures. They found   in those Scriptures words with which to speak of Jesus"s death and resurrection. So it came   about that he always died for us and was raised "according to the Scriptures" ( 1   Cor. 15:3-4), and often word for word. Was he in fact born in Bethlehem? Did Judas in fact   receive thirty pieces of silver to betray him? Was Jesus actually crucified between two   thieves? Did Roman soldiers really cast lots for his garments? I doubt whether we shall ever   know. What we can know is that all this was told of him in words taken from the Scriptures.   The result is that Jesus– the only Jesus we have ever known– meets us and comes to us   clothed in and inseparable from the traditions of his people. We simply cannot have one   without the other.


Unless we are prepared to accept a gnostic, a-historical Jesus, we have no choice but to   take him in the context of his people. Therefore we need to take the whole continuing   history of the Jewish people into account in order to have Jesus at all. When we understand   this, then we begin to realize that to start with Sinai means that our doctrine of the   triune God will be, as it always was for the Greek fathers, concerned with the economic   Trinity. In other words, our doctrine of God will be, and ought to be, inescapably   historical and functional. God, so far as we dare speak of God at all, is for us what God   does for us, and God is known by us through God"s actions. God is creator; God is elector;   God is the maker and keeper of covenants. And God is the One who through the Spirit meets us   in Jesus Christ.


God is that and all that, not someone or something that lies behind all that. In   this, our knowledge of God is logically on a par with our knowledge of each other. You   yourself are all the actual relationship in which you live and all the activities in which   you have, are, and will be engaged. That is the real you and that is the real me. Of course,   I can say with reference to some particular situation, "But that wasn"t the real   me," and the truth in that will be that none of us is only who we are in a single   action. Nevertheless, when we put all of it together, and especially when we do that in a   story, we have the fullest and most accurate account possible of who we are. So it is with   Israel"s story of God, which comes to the church as the essential context of the story of   Jesus Christ. So the essential unity of God appears as a unity of narrative: the one subject   of Israel"s long story is what Israel, and so the church, means by "God."


Because of this close connection between Jesus and Israel, reflected in the connection   between Israel"s story and the story of Jesus, and because his story is told as of one who   was of and for his people, the two testaments are really all one story. The church has only   one single, undivided Bible, from Genesis to the Revelation of John. Put in the language of   the story, what the God of Sinai has done and is doing in Christ is fully faithful to God"s   self. The creedal formulation of this claim is to assert that we believe in Jesus Christ, theon   ek theou, phos ek photos, God from God, light from light. The story of Jesus continues   to be the story of God, for God is shown to be true to God"s own self in the story of Jesus.   But since God"s own self is all that God has done and is doing, then not only is the creator   present in Jesus but also the maker and keeper of covenants and promises to God"s people   Israel. No wonder then that the results, the facts on the ground, we might say, were both   creative and covenantal. I refer to the creation of the Christian community as a covenantal   community of response and of responsibility. And as Paul saw so clearly, this took place in   such a way as to confirm God"s continuing covenantal faithfulness to the Jewish people:   "Christ became a servant to the Jewish people to show God"s truthfulness," Paul   wrote, "in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs" (Rom.   15:8). This continuity of God"s story in the story of Jesus is the crucial truth which the   trinitarian doctrine is meant to preserve.


That last quotation from Paul, however, brings out something lacking in our traditional   doctrine of the Trinity, something that a church that wished to move beyond its anti-Judaic   past would find it absolutely essential to add. Jesus became a servant to his people,   not just obedient to his people"s God, and God was not only faithful to his son Jesus, but   was faithful to him in such a way as to confirm God"s covenant with the Jewish   people. How different might have been the interacting histories of the church of God and the   Jewish people of God had this Pauline theme been preserved in the church"s doctrine of the   Trinity.


In our review of where we have come thus far, I have been concentrating on the covenantal   continuity within which alone the novelty of Christ makes sense. I now want to see if we can   move further, by rethinking the novelty of Christ that can only appear as such within that   continuity. I turn again for help to the Jewish Apostle to the Gentiles. "In   Christ," Paul claimed, "God was reconciling the world to himself" (2   Cor.5:19). We could rephrase that by saying: Emmanuel, God-with-us, was and is drawing all   people to God"s self, God"s own people Israel first of all, but then also the Gentiles. That   is what Jesus did, does, and who he therefore is: God"s way of drawing all creation to God"s   self.


I want to begin by asking two questions about this claim: What did it mean to its Jewish   author in the first century, and what are we to make of it today? We know that the author   was a Pharisee, surely the best attested Pharisee of whom we know, but not yet, of course, a   Mishnaic rabbi, so he would not yet have learned, as we have learned from later Jewish   thought, to focus so centrally on Sinai. He was more inclined to think of God as God of the   fathers as well as the giver of Torah. This God, through the profound faithfulness of Jesus   (a faithfulness so profound as to lead Paul to think that God had bestowed on Jesus, just as   he had on Israel [Deut. 28:10], the name of the one to whom he was so faithful) was bringing   the Gentiles into God"s story with Israel. The great line of demarcation remained, but the   conflict associated with it was fading away: no longer was it to be God and Israel versus   the world; now God and all creation were together, groaning for the promised redemption of   all. Paul was obviously aware of the Jew/Gentile distinction, of the separateness or   holiness of the Jewish people, and of the enmity between Jew and Gentile, and he had a   suspicion, but not of course the knowledge that we have, of how badly Gentile Christians   were going to treat his people. For a Jew and so for Paul, the Jew/Gentile distinction was   fundamental, grounded as it was in God"s electing will, but now in Christ, God was working   with it in a new way.


If that is a reasonably fair picture of what lay behind Paul"s first-century claim, what   are we to make of it today? At the least, we are obliged to qualify it to some extent by our   awareness of the history that lies between then and now. What has become increasingly clear   to us is that we Christians do not exhaust the world of Gentiles. Those who are aware that   God has reconciled them to himself specifically in Christ consist only of a fraction of the   Gentiles. We must add parenthetically that perhaps that fraction was all that Paul had in   mind when referring in Romans 11 to the full number of the Gentiles.


As the opening section of Nostra Aetate can remind us, however, our situation   today has become more complicated. On the other hand, we are aware of a biblical perspective   which we Gentile Christians share to some extent with the Jewish people, but which we do not   share with the great majority of Gentiles or non-Jews who have their own perspectives. On   the other hand, we are also aware of what some might call a religious outlook or   orientation, whatever that might be, which we share more with Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus   than with most Jews, and which may be contrasted with the secular orientation of much of   humanity. I think we can say that most Christians today, but by no means all, and many Jews,   but probably not the majority, find themselves drawn together both by a biblical perspective   and a religious orientation. The paradoxical result is that we are thereby distinguished   under the biblical heading from peoples of the Eastern traditions but allied to them under   the religious heading. Ours is a situation considerably more complicated than the one of   which Paul was aware.


How then are we to read the claim of 2 Corinthians 5:19? In the light of history, we can   begin by saying that in Christ, God was reconciling some of us Gentiles to God"s self and so   to God"s covenant partners. But then, if we accept Paul"s claim at all, we must say more.   Yes, God was indeed reconciling some of us to God"s self, but in Christ God was surely   forgiving all those others out there. Surely we must see Christ as the sign and seal of   God"s being God also for all the others, not just for Christians. So if we are to be, with   Paul, ambassadors for Christ, as the Corinthian passage continues, then our ambassadorial   message to all the others would have to be: "Be what God has made you, reconciled to   God, and live the righteousness of God already granted to your account." Read those   verses in Paul"s letter with care and you may note with surprise that, in stark contrast to   the slogans of this so-called "Decade of Evangelism," nothing is said there about   people becoming Christians (that wasn"t even a word in Paul"s vocabulary) or about joining   the church, not to speak of anything about the superiority of Christianity. We might be   excused for remembering, in this context, Ghandi"s deep respect for Christ, but not for   Christians.


From such a reading of Paul"s claim, it appears to follow that God is already reconciled   to the world, to all those others "out there," having reconciled them already to   God in Christ. I am speaking of our God, God in Christ, the triune God. God is also for   them, not just for us, but not necessarily as God is for us. Just as God, our God, is at the   same time the God of Israel, of Sinai, and the covenant for Israel but not quite that for   us, so God is God for us in Christ, the triune God, but not quite that for Israel. Might not   God be God"s true self in yet other ways for other people? If God has shown God"s true Torah   face to the Jewish people and God"s true Christ face to us, could God have shown God"s true   emptiness face to the Buddha and God"s true Qur"anic face to Muhammed? The Spirit, we are   told, blows where it wills, so we have no grounds for excluding the possibility in   principle. But it is also true that we do not know.


To be able to say that we knew that God had shown God"s face to those of other traditions   would be to grant revelatory status for us to the Qur"an, for example, or to the   sacred texts of Hindus. But that would be to confess that the founding event and texts of   these other traditions had made us into a community, and that is obviously false. It   appears, then, that we need a new, intermediate category with which to speak of events,   texts. and stories that have formed and shaped communities, other than our own, which we   might nevertheless dare to recognize coming in some way from God.


How are we to do thus, and what criterion or criteria will make this possible? The clue   for fresh thinking in this new area can come, I am convinced, from what we have discovered   already from our newly-discovered God-given relationship to the Jewish people. The case of   Israel, the Jewish people, is special for the church. Sinai was not our founding event, and   Torah, although important, is not central for us. Yet because Sinai was the founding event   of the people of Jesus, and because he simply has never existed for the church as other than   the Jew he is, we can and must confess the revelatory character of Sinai, Torah, and the   Jewish Scriptures, which from our beginnings gave us the words to speak of God"s   self-revelation in Christ. Thus in discovering the Jewish people, we discover the starting   point of the context in which Jesus has been given to us: namely, Sinai. If we thus find our   way to the affirmation at least of this one other tradition, perhaps this may help us as we   face the other traditions of this world.


As with Israel, so with other traditions, we must begin with Sinai, not as Nostra   Aetate did in its first three sections. In those first three sections, grounds for the   church"s relations with people of other traditions are based on the universality of the   search for answers to the riddle of human existence, a common awareness of a hidden power   beyond nature and history, or in the case of Islam an agreement in belief in the one creator   God. None of these so-called grounds has ever been that on which we have based our own   identity in saying who we were as the church of Jesus Christ. Only in the fourth and last   section did the bishops of Vatican II become theologically responsible. There, finally, they   began with the mystery of the church and, in doing so, found that they could not avoid   seeing the Jewish people. That, however, is only one side of the matter.


What needs also to be explored, even if the Council"s bishops lacked the imagination to   do it themselves, is what we find out about ourselves when we take seriously the identity of   the others in their own terms. The bishops, one could say, failed to see that there is a   double twist in the way Paul, in Romans 10:6-8, interpreted Deuteronomy 30:12-14.   ("This commandment ... is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in   heaven, that you should say, "Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us" . . . But   the word is very near you, it is in your mouth, and in your heart, so that you can do   it.") At first sight, Paul appears to have perverted the Torah text, but in doing so,   he has invited a reverse twist, for what Paul was doing was interpreting Christ in the light   of Sinai, learning from the Torah how to speak of him. So it is not simply the case, as the   authors of Nostra Aetate believed, that when we look into our own mystery we come   face to face with the mystery of Israel. That is surely true. But so also is its opposite,   as any who have been in the Jewish-Christian conversation can testify: it is by looking   deeply into the mystery of the other that we come to a new understanding of who we are. The   better one knows and understands what it is to be a Jew, the more deeply one discovers what   it is to be a Christian.


Suppose we attempt to do the work that Nostra Aetate missed and try to understand   not only ourselves on the basis of the Sinai covenant between God and Israel, bodied forth   for us in the Jew Jesus, as some of us have been seeking to do over the past decade or two,   but also the other great traditions of the world. We can begin by proposing some criteria   for judging whether any tradition is even to be entertained as a sign of the work of the   triune God, criteria which might help us to see why, for example, we might take Islam   seriously as a possible fruit of the work of God, but not German National Socialism, the   Nazi movement of the 1920s to 1940s. Such criteria will be expressed better, I suggest, in   the terms of community and story in which Sinai is known to us, rather than as conceptual   principles.


The first criterion with which to approach any tradition is whether it is decisive for it   that it makes for and values community. We begin here because this is so central a feature   of both Israel and the church. But because it is so for these two in quite different ways,   we shall have to be open to other ways in which this emphasis might occur. For Jews,   community is basically ethnic; for the church it is inter-ethnic. Jews prefer their form; we   prefer ours. Both have advantages and disadvantages, and I see no grounds on which to count   one superior to the other; they are just different. Both traditions make for and value   community, which is why our preferred self-designations are communal: the church, and   Israel, or the Jewish people.


It follows as a corollary of this first criterion that any tradition that meets it will   have serious concerns for morals. It will be concerned about political, social, and ethical   matters. However, just how these may be manifest could be through such diverse forms as we   find in monasticism, contemplation, Kabbalah, and Hasidism. In one way or another, the   ethical will be a matter of serious concern.


The second criterion which Sinai leads us to see is the covenantal aspect. God, or Allah,   or the gods, or nothingness, will be so construed as to make place for human responsibility   for the future course of the good. For a tradition to be a candidate for possible positive   evaluation as the work of the one we know as the triune God, it must have within it some   correction to the dangers of determinism, passivity, and quietism. Lacking this aspect, how   could we hope to see it as a response to the covenantal one who is the only God we know?


Finally, I suggest a third criterion: room would have to be made, in any tradition being   reviewed, for the other, the outsider, and for God being God for others, perhaps in ways   strange to us who are doing this reviewing. Leaving or making room for the other and for God   being God of the other need not require a systematic account of how this might be the case,   only that it remain a possibility. As the Psalms make clear, the God of Sinai wills to be   praised by all the nations, not just by Israel.


It should be evident that these three criteria raise questions about Israel and the   church as well as about every other tradition. In applying them to other traditions, we   cannot escape asking whether our own traditions have always met the standards which Sinai   holds up in judgment before us. In applying them to others, we cannot escape continually   reviewing our own tradition and our traditional understanding of God. But as we attempt to   appreciate different ways in which God may have been and may be God for other traditions, we   shall inevitably be testing and perhaps stretching the limits of our own understanding of   how God has been and is God for us. The truth of the matter is that, whether we think   outward from Sinai or from Christ, we have never had a fixed idea of God that we then   brought to bear upon each new situation in life. Rather, new events and each new situation,   as we interpret them, shape afresh our conception of God – and keep on reshaping it.


So it is that our dogma of the Trinity is not a fixed point, other than as a signpost   pointing in a certain direction and hinting at ever-new possibilities. I see in it four such   hints:


One. The first hint is that God has been and is God in more ways than one, and in   each way that God is God, God is utterly faithful to God"s self and to those on whom God has   laid claim. God, it is hinted, may be God in more than two ways, and perhaps in more than   three ways. There is nothing numerical in the dogma. He who begins to count, said Augustine,   begins to err. Even in the church"s developing doctrine, the movement from Binitarianism to   Trinitarianism took some time and was quite uneven.


Two. Every confession of God, in whatever way it was founded and shapes one"s own   community, is always a communal act. That means, it is always also a confession of the   community"s self-understanding. In that way, it is, appropriately, always also a covenantal   act, one in which the community, along with God, co-founds itself.


Three. The third hint is that the story of God is not over. Paul brought this out   with striking force in suggesting that in the end, "the Son himself will also be   subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be all in all," or   everything to everyone (1 Cor. 15:28, in the context of verses 24-28). If we are to be   changed, and Christ is to be changed, then so is God. If the story is not over for God"s   covenantal partners, it is not over for God. God"s being too is a becoming.


Four. Finally, the dogma of the Trinity is a sign that points to God"s plurality.   It is right doctrine not as a last word but in the sense of inviting us onto the right   track. It is an opening into God"s truth that refuses to be more than an opening. What it   points to has therefore always rightly been called the mystery of the Trinity, and   liturgically, that is, doxologically, it has always been best rehearsed as a song.


Interpreted as an invitation to see well beyond the limits traditionally associated with   it and on into a richness in God far exceeding our imagination, how would the doctrine of   the Trinity look? We may review this in following its threefold structure or articles,   rehearsing these as the church"s song of praise and thanksgiving:


We begin, in communal song, our praise of a God who would not and will not be God alone,   but who, by becoming creator, has forever committed God"s self to being for and bound to   another. A community schooled in Israel"s Scriptures will read between the lines and so be   praising God in full awareness that Israel"s story of creation is absolutely dependent on   and determined by Israel"s story of God"s commitment to Israel at Sinai.


We move then to praise this God of Israel, already bound to God"s people Israel, for   having chosen one of them to be for us Gentiles the place and person before whom we find   ourselves standing in the presence of God. Jesus"s story, told always according to Israel"s   Scriptures, is no less than the miraculous story of how we Gentiles are privileged along   with Israel to be falling on our knees before the God of Israel.


Finally, we praise God for being the life-giver to all those others as well as to us, to   Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Animists, and Atheists, to those who are not in the church and   to those who are not of Israel. God gives life first of all to his people Israel – God   "has spoken through Israel"s prophets," of whom the greatest was Moses – and he   has spoken also to us Gentiles. God the Spirit has done so (to side with the Eastern fathers   against the West on the filioque clause) out of God"s own initial becoming as the   self-binding covenantal creator, not essentially through or from God"s especially enlivening   action toward us Christians. God nourishes and sustains all creatures, just as God nourishes   and sustains those who belong to God through Jesus Christ. Such might be our reading of the   trinitarian confession of the church.


How then might we understand a typical preoccupation of the Western church with the   so-called essential Trinity, manifesting itself in the assertion of the pre-existence of the   son. I think this Western preoccupation can be read to say: the God of the church and the   God of all the others was implicitly there already in that initial and decisive move of   becoming creator, by which God willed not to be alone but the God of another. God"s   other-orientation, God"s self-determination to be God for others, is who and what God was   and is in God"s eternal decision to be the creator and so to be Emmanuel. That is the heart   of the affirmation of the pre-existence of God as outgoing, or of God as eternal son.


Have we done justice to the tradition"s care for God"s unity ? I would say we have for   the best expression of that care is the maxim, Opera trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa: the   external works of the triune God (as distinct from inner relationships (such as   "begetting" and "proceeding") are indivisible. I believe I have tried to   be faithful to that maxim by stressing that in every work of God, as Father, Son and Holy   Spirit, God"s work has always been that of the one creative and covenantal God of Sinai who   confronts us in the Jew Jesus and reaches out in life-giving and covenantal love through all   creation


In reflecting on the unity of God and its relation to what I have called God"s plurality,   William James can help us. In discussing the ancient question of the one and the many in his   lectures on pragmatism, James made the interesting move of applying both terms to the same   subject. Far more interesting to James than the relations between the one over here and the   many over there, or the one including the many, or the many making up the one, was the   thought that anything and everything is both one and many at the same time. The universe is   one in certain respects, but then not one in other respects. And this can be said of   everything in our experience. I only need one chair to sit down. But that chair is also   many, as its builder will know in making and assembling its different parts. And we can also   say this of ourselves. From the perspective of my own identity, who I think I am and as the   subject of all my experiences, I am one. But I am also one entity for my wife, a rather   different one for my son, and something yet again for my employer, not to speak of the   Internal Revenue Service. If then it is true that all that we know, including ourselves, are   both one and many, in different respects, could it be that God is both one and many?


From ancient times until only recently, it was blasphemous even to raise the question   because it was understood that to be one, as to be changeless, was incomparably better than   to be many and able to change. On grounds of Greek philosophy, reinforced in the Middle   Ages, as Jewish philosophers learned Aristotle"s metaphysics from the Muslims and Christians   learned it from the Jews, God was absolutely simple. having no parts and, being perfect,   incapable of change. Biblical texts which spoke of God changing his mind were interpreted as   figures of speech adapted to our creaturely limitations: God only appeared to us to change   his mind, but of course God could not change, and now we had Aristotle to prove it. Only   Kabbalists and mystics were able to play with texts that suggested a plurality in God.


If, however, we no longer feel obligated to Greek philosophy and are more skeptical of   the sovereignty of any single metaphysical system, then we can at least reflect on what we   are learning from the Jewish-Christian relationship: that whatever else we can say about   God, one thing seems unavoidable to those of us who feel compelled to affirm both the Jewish   and the Christian story, namely that God is able to be God for the Jewish people and relate   to them through Torah and the Jewish tradition, and the same God is able to be God for a   Gentile church and relate to it through Jesus Christ and the tradition of the church. We   have learned in the dialogue to see the same God in both traditions, but we have also   learned that those traditions are inexorably different.


What is of the deepest importance for our growing awareness of the plurality of religious   traditions, however, is that we have been slowly brought to delight in and celebrate our   differences. We are slowly coming to give thanks to God that the Jewish people are who they   are and that the church is what it is. We are coming to the point where we can thank God for   being able to be God in these different ways for different peoples. God"s possibilities are   larger than either of us knew before. God"s love really does surpass human knowing.


If that is so, then on what possible grounds can we assume that God is limited to being   what Jews on the one hand and Christians on the other have discovered? If God can turn a   Torah face to Israel and a Christlike face to the church, may God not also have a Qur"anic   face to turn toward Muslims and perhaps even an emptiness face for certain Buddhists? I am   not claiming that this is the case, only that we cannot know in advance that it is not the   case. The Jewish-Christian dialogue, because of what it has taught us, invites us to explore   what may be new apprehensions, not of how God is God for us, but of how God has been and is   God for others. The discovery of a divine plurality, that God can be many as well as one,   could be a cause for joy and wonder. To the joy and wonder of divine plurality, I suggest,   we are invited by the doctrine of the Trinity.

  This Inaugural Belford Lecture was delivered by Paul M. van Buren on March 5, 1991 at   The School of Theology, The University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee.
  First published in Sewanee Theological Review 35:3 (1992). With kind permission of   the author.