Friday, July 19, 2013

The Holy Trinity and Human Relationships

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Gen 1:26, 27

            According to the great Reformer John Calvin, in order to know ourselves we must first know God.[i] Knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves are closely related. If we are to understand who we are as human beings created in the “image of God,”[ii] we must first understand who God is.
God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit
Like Judaism and Islam, the Christian faith declares that God is “one” (Deut 6:4).[iii] In the Old Testament, “blessing” was announced in the Name of the “Lord” (Num 6:22-27). Unlike the other great “monotheistic” religions, however, Christianity declares that God is not alone, isolated in solitary “one-ness.” Christians believe that God has revealed himself in salvation history as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.[iv] In the New Testament, “blessing” or “benediction” is spoken in reference to the love of the Father, the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (2Cor 13:14).[v] In view of the three-fold pattern of God’s self-revelation as recorded in the New Testament, the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity teaches that God eternally exists as “One Being” (i.e., “nature,” “essence”) in “Three equal divine Persons.”[vi] 
According to the New Testament, God is “love” (1John 4:8, 16). Love is not a characteristic or “attribute” that we ascribe to God. Rather, God is love; God’s very “being” or “nature” is love. Love is a term of relationship, for love requires another. According to theologian Daniel Migliore, “otherness” is the presupposition of love; it is the essential ingredient in love. [vii] In the Holy Trinity, the Father loves the Son from all eternity; the Son loves the Father from all eternity; the Holy Spirit is the “bond” of love between the Father and the Son.[viii] Because the Holy Trinity is a fellowship or communion of divine love, the “Persons” of the Holy Trinity are not separate, autonomous “selves” or “individuals”; rather, “otherness” is essential to the triune being of God. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit have their identities in relationship to one another, a relationship whose essential nature is love.[ix] According to Migliore: 

The trinitarian persons are precisely not self-enclosed subjects who define themselves in separation from and opposition to others. Rather, in God “persons” are relational realities and are defined by intersubjectivity, shared consciousness, faithful relationships, and the mutual giving and receiving of love.[x]
In contrast to Judaism and Islam, the Christian God has his “being” (“nature,” “essence”) in relationship.[xi] The Name of God as revealed in the New Testament explicitly denotes relationship (cf. Matt 28:19; 2Cor 13:14). There can be no Father without the Son; there can be no Son without the Father. In sending his “only begotten Son”[xii] into the world, God reveals himself as the God whose “being” is constituted by relationship.
In the Old Testament God reveals himself as the God who freely and sovereignly chooses to enter into relationship with human beings. In the Old Testament, God enters into a unilateral covenant with ancient Israel, proclaiming, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex 20:2, 3). God is the “covenantal” God. God’s desire to enter relationship, even partnership, with human beings is an expression of God’s own eternal, inner life―a life that is constituted by fellowship and communion among the three Persons of the Holy Trinity.[xiii]
In summary, the doctrine of the Trinity states that the One God of the Christian faith eternally exists as three divine Persons in a communion or relationship of love. According to Migliore, the communion of the Holy Trinity includes “differentiation” (i.e., “diversity”) and “relationship.” In the communion of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, there is “difference without division, self-giving without self-loss, and eternal life in ceaseless harmony and peace.”[xiv] According to African theologian, Charles Nyamiti, God is essentially “communicative”; God is a communion of “unbounded sharing … in perfect harmony and absolute oneness among the divine Persons.”[xv] The relationship among the Persons of the Trinity is marked by equality of personhood, interdependence (not independence), cooperation (not competition), unity of purpose, and mutual self-giving and receiving. Moreover, the relationship among the divine Persons is so close and intimate that they are said to “mutually indwell” one another.[xvi] The Father, Son and Spirit “encircle” one another in a divine “dance” of love. They “make room” for each other in mutual hospitality.[xvii] 

In the Image of God
The Christian belief that God is a communion or fellowship of equal Persons who co-exist in a relationship of love bears directly upon the biblical teaching that human beings are created “in the image of God.” Because God has his “being-in-relationship,” he has created human beings to have their “being” in relationship. The primary relationship for which human beings are created is their “vertical” relationship with God. Out of the over-flow of trinitarian love, God created human beings to share in the divine “life” by participating in the mutual love, communion and fellowship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.[xviii]
The secondary relationship for which human beings are created is their relationship with neighbour.[xix] God did not create humans as solitary “individuals” but as “male and female,” in such a way that they need each other to be human. In the beginning God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (Gen 2:18). In the biblical tradition, it is not man (Adam) alone who reflects the image of God, but “man and woman” together who constitute the image of God. “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them (Gen 1:27 italics added). After God made a “helper” suitable for man, the Bible tells us: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen 2:24). As a “creaturely reflection” of the equality, unity and diversity of the Holy Trinity, man and woman united in the covenant of marriage reflect the “image of God.” The horizontal man-woman relation within the covenant of marriage, grounded in the vertical relation with God, is a reflection of God and represents a “created” correspondence to the “uncreated,” eternal relations within the Holy Trinity.[xx] Hence, man is constituted a “relational” being not only through his “vertical” relationship with his Creator, but also through his “horizontal” relation within his created existence as man and woman.
Wider Implications
Because we are created in the image of God, we can learn much about God’s design for human relations by reflecting upon the intradivine relations among the Persons of the Trinity. The equality, interdependence, cooperation, sharing and mutual self-giving and receiving among the Persons of the Trinity provide a model for human relationships, whether marriage and family, or community, clan, tribe or nation.[xxi] As Migliore notes, the “experiences of friendship, caring family relationships, and the inclusive community of free and equal persons [provide] hints or intimations of the eternal life of God and of the reign of God that Jesus proclaimed.”[xxii]
Because the God in whose image we are created is a fellowship or communion of love, Christians in particular are summoned to embody a new community in which there is a fair sharing of the earth’s resources, and where relationships of power and domination are replaced by relationships of honour and mutual respect among equals.[xxiii] Understanding the Holy Trinity as a community of love among equals “lays the foundation for a society of brothers and sisters, of equals, in which dialogue and consensus are the basic constituents of living together in both the world and the Church.”[xxiv] The doctrine of the Holy Trinity, in which God is understood to be a communion of interpersonal love constituted by relations of equality, cooperation, and mutual self-giving and receiving, provides the ground for a Christian view of life and social ethics.[xxv]
Because God’s life is in “community,” human life created in the image of God is intended to be lived in community.[xxvi] The Christian hope for peace, justice and freedom among peoples of diverse cultures, ethnicities and races is in keeping with the “logic” of the doctrine of the Trinity, with its assertion of community, equality, freedom and harmony among the Persons of the Godhead. The Christian confession of God as Holy Trinity supports the values of sharing, mutual giving and receiving, cooperation, unity, and peace in the midst of diversity and difference. Thus, the Christian confession of the Holy Trinity challenges the inequality of “totalitarianism,” where individual freedom and rights are suppressed, as well as “individualism,” where the self-interest of the individual undermines the interests of the wider community.[xxvii] To be sure, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity undermines all forms of social inequality, whether elitism, racism, sexism, classism or tribalism.[xxviii]
Unity and Diversity
The doctrine of the Trinity asserts that the God of the Christian faith is “One Being” in “Three Persons”―Father, Son and Holy Spirit―each equally and fully God. That is, the Persons of the Trinity share a common “Being” or “nature,” while, at the same time, they are distinct or “diverse” in Personhood. Thus, in the Holy Trinity there is both unity (one-ness) and diversity (three-ness).
The unity-in-diversity of the Holy Trinity has numerous implications for human relationships. As noted above, within the covenant of marriage, “man and woman” together embody a unity-in-diversity that reflects the image of God. Likewise, the Church embodies the unity-in-diversity of the Holy Trinity. The universal Church is a corporate “body” composed of many “parts” or members of diverse ethnicities, cultures, nationalities and races, united under a single head, Jesus Christ, and equipped for service through the diversity of spiritual gifts lavishly given by the Holy Spirit (1Cor 12:4-31; cf. Rom 12:3-8). This multi-ethnic, multi-cultural diversity is expressed in a variety of worship styles, musical forms and other liturgical practices. Therefore, ethnic, tribal and cultural differences in worship styles and practices should be encouraged and celebrated throughout the Church, not only as a participation in the freedom of the gospel, but also as an expression of the unity and diversity of the Holy Trinity.[xxix]
The implications for human relationships in light of humanity’s creation in the image of the Triune God have yet to be fully realised. This is the task of the contemporary and future Church. Nevertheless, the doctrine of the Trinity provides a theological ground to support a view of human beings as “persons-in-relation.” As beings created in the image of the God who eternally has his “Being-in-relationship,” to be fully and truly human is to live and move and have our being in relationships. When God is rightly understood to be a tri-Personal communion of love, the doctrine of the Trinity undermines both the radical individualism of Western culture and the loss of individuality that is the goal of eastern religions.[xxx] As disciples of Jesus Christ and diverse members of his Body, the Church is called upon to embody and enact the values that derive from a trinitarian view of God. These values include mutual sharing, giving and receiving, cooperation, equality, interdependence, mutual respect and honour, unity of purpose and the pursuit of peace and harmony among the diverse peoples of the world.


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[i] John Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion. I.1.1.

[ii] Latin: imago dei

[iii] NIV footnote: The Lord our God is one Lord; or The Lord is our God, the Lord is one; or The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.

[iv] The New Testament bears ample witness to the three-fold pattern of God’s self-revelation in human history as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

[v] Fiddes, P.S. 2000. Participating in God: A Pastoral Doctrine of the Trinity. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, p. 5).

[vi] In the Holy Trinity is both unity (“One-ness”) and diversity (‘Three-ness”). In regard to unity, we say that God is “one in Being.” In regard to diversity, we say that Father, Son and Spirit are distinct, unique persons, who together constitute the “Being” of God. Thus, God is “Three-in-One” or “One-in-three.”

[vii] Cf. Migliore, D.L. 2004. Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology. 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, p. 77). “Otherness” is the presupposition of love; it is the essential ingredient in love. Because love requires another, God cannot eternally exist in isolation and aloneness; thus, God cannot be one Person. In order to be eternally love, God must eternally exist in fellowship or communion of divine Persons. God does not “become” love when he creates human beings; God is “love” from all eternity.

[viii] The description of the Holy Spirit as the “bond of love” is useful so long as it is not allowed to de-personalize the Spirit. The Spirit is not an impersonal “force” or “power”; rather, the Holy Spirit is a fully divine Person, equal with the Father and Son. The Holy Spirit is fully God, the third Person of the Trinity.

[ix] Note that “Father” and “Son” are terms of relationship.

[x]  Migliore, p. 77.

[xi] The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in relationship to one another constitute the “being” of God without remainder.

[xii] Cf. John 3:16 (KJV)

[xiii] Cf. Migliore, 79.

[xiv] Ibid, p. 87.

[xv] Nyamiti, C. 1978. African Tradition and the Christian God. (Eldoret, Kenya: Gaba Publications, p. 64). In Kärkkäinen, V. 2007. The Trinity: Global Perspectives. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, p.363.)

[xvi] The theological term for the “mutual indwelling” of the Persons of the Trinity is perichoresis (Greek) or coinherence (Latin). The doctrine of the “mutual indwelling” of the Persons of the Holy Trinity guards against the heresy of “tri-theism,” that is, a doctrine of three “gods.” The Holy Trinity is not three “gods”; rather, the Holy Trinity is “one God” in “three Persons,” who mutually “indwell” one another in loving communion.

[xvii] Migliore, 79.

[xviii] Jesus said: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).

[xix] This view is supported by Christ’s great commandment to love God and neighbour (Matt 22:37-40).

[xx] Torrance, T.F. 1988. The Goodness and Dignity of Man in the Christian Tradition. Modern Theology, 4(4):311-2. As Torrance notes, because man and woman together constitute the image of God, it is understandable that an essential place should be given to marriage and the becoming “one flesh” in the structure of humanity.

[xxi] For a few scriptural examples of the mutual sharing of knowledge, power, authority and judgment, as well as the mutual giving and receiving of the Triune God: cf. Matt 11:27; John 5:20, 22; 10:29; 12:49; 13:3; 14:26; 15:10; 16:15

[xxii] Migliore, p. 79.

[xxiii] Ibid, p. 80. We must add that a trinitarian view of community implies both equality of benefit and equality of responsibility. Community means not only the equal and fair distribution of benefits, but also the equal and fair distribution of the duties and responsibilities that support and maintain the community. Community in the image of God requires mutual giving and receiving.

[xxiv] Boff, L. 1988. Trinity and Society. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, pp. 118-20). In Migliore, p. 80.

[xxv]        It would be naïve, however, to think that the doctrine of the Trinity can be applied indiscriminately to all human relationships. For example, we cannot dogmatically assert that Marxism is superior to capitalism (or vice versa) solely by an appeal to the doctrine of the Trinity. Marxism supports equality, uniformity and sameness among the masses at the cost of individuality, while capitalism may support individual (private) gain at the expense of the greater community. Neither system adequately reflects the mutual giving and receiving, reciprocity, cooperation, interdependence and unity of purpose of the Holy Trinity. Moreover, even the “values” that derive from a trinitarian framework cannot be applied indiscriminately. For example, when confronted by evil, cooperation must give way to resistance.
            In contrast to worldly political systems and governments, Christian community is realised and enabled by the Holy Spirit. Apart from the communion-creating power of the Spirit differences within a social group, including the Church, easily give way to fragmentation rather than diversity in unity.

[xxvi] Cf. Migliore, p. 80. The importance of community, clan and tribe in African and Asian cultures clearly reflects the “communal” aspect of humanity’s creation in the “image of God.”

[xxvii] In human political systems, a balance between the needs of the “one” and the needs of the “many” is hard to maintain. Cf. Fiddes, p. 19.

[xxviii] Migliore, p. 80.

[xxix] Any attempt to impose a particular liturgical style or form of worship upon the diversity of congregations and parishes of the worldwide Church reduces the trinitarian principle of unity-in-diversity to bland conformity.

[xxx] For example, in Zen Buddhism the religious practitioner seeks “nirvana,” a word which means “blown-out.” The state of nirvana is that of a candle flame that has just been “blown out.” In contrast to this total loss of individual identity, the God of the Christian faith remembers his people by name. He declares: “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (Ex 3:6).


  1. This is a great article, Dr. MD! The implications of the doctrine of the Trinity cannot be overstated - they impact every area of life. Thanks! I'll be sure to share this.

  2. I don’t waste my free time that’s why I read the informative things when I got this blog I really enjoyed reading this.

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