The Egalitarian Trinity: A Descriptive Trinitarian Model that is Symmetrical, Integrative, and Dynamic

Ian Mobsby interviews Steve Dancause about his MA Thesis.
Steve is well known to people in the Emerging Church particularly in Church of the Apostles and Karen Ward in Seattle USA, and at Trinity Church in Greenwich near New York, which was founded on Emerging Church principles.

Stephen and his wife Meredith moved to Seattle to attend Mars Hill Graduate School. While earning his Master’s in Christian Studies, he worked as a barista at Zoka Coffee and Tea Co., where he spent three years making espresso drinks while talking about life and theology with his co-workers and customers. Stephen recently relocated to Fairfield County, CT, where his wife has joined the staff of Trinity Church in Greenwich as the Associate Pastor for Worship Arts and Spiritual Formation. Stephen has interest in many topics, including the intersections of science and faith, contemporary and liturgical worship, and ancient and future worship. He is also passionate about intentional community, and of course, understanding the Trinity in the context of the relational turn in philosophy and theology.

Title of the research
The Egalitarian Trinity: A Descriptive Trinitarian Model that is Symmetrical, Integrative, and Dynamic

Validating Institution
Mars Hill Graduate School, Seattle, WA, USA

Date of Completion
March 2008

So Steve, as someone who is equally passionate about the Trinity and its importance to the Emerging Church, why did you choose this title of your dissertation – what was you opening question? What is your interest in this area?

The divine community of the Trinity is often held up as the ideal human community. Some would even say that the Trinity is the revelation of perfect communion. This is why egalitarians and subordinationists both look to the Trinity for justification of their social worldviews. I was interested to learn for myself why various scripturally sound Trinitarian models that are used to legitimate human social systems (including church ecclesiologies) were incompatible. This led me to follow the idea that the Church may be looking at the Trinity in an incomplete way.

The question boiled down to the contradiction between the Egalitarian Trinity held to by some in the Emerging and some other forms of church and the Patriarchical/Subordinationist Trinity of the more traditionalist church. The former is a theological necessity in that it is the very definition of Trinity. To deny it is to undermine the entire Christian faith because Christianity relies on the fact that the Son and the Spirit are fully God. The cross has saving power only because the person on it was fully God. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is only profound because we are indwelled by the person of the Spirit who is fully God. To deny the egalitarian nature of the Trinity is to deny the saving power of the cross and everything that makes Christianity a religion in its own right.

Yet the latter view of the Trinity is scripturally grounded. The Son did indeed submit himself to the Father. The theological problem with the patriarchal Trinity is that the Father is ultimately God above the Son and Spirit – implying that the Trinity is not ultimately God. I see this view as undermining the Trinity at the most basic level. So the project then became one of seeing divine subordination not as a static or eternal state, but seeing it as part of the larger trinitarian life of mutual submission and egalitarianism. Essentially, my interest was to integrate the subordinationist Trinity into the egalitarian Trinity, and in doing so remove the contradiction and see that the Trinity is indeed egalitarian. This was done by imagining the absolute divinity of God not solely as the person of the Father but as all three divine persons of the Trinity. And this required the integration of the economic and immanent trinities within a dynamic system.

So what would you say were your main findings?

I became convinced of the egalitarian necessity in trinitarian theology. Here I am indebted to numerous theologians, particularly Miroslav Volf, Jürgen Moltmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and Robert Jenson. I also was convinced that trinitarian models needed to be symmetrical to avoid Subordinationism. Robert Jenson and Catherine Lowry LaCugna have brilliant trinitarian models that integrate the economic and the immanent trinities (God in and for Godself beyond time and space and God in and for us within human history), yet I found their models to be asymmetrical. LaCugna’s model in God For Us is a wonderful work but it maintains the patriarchal understanding of the Father as absolute God as over and above the Son and the Spirit. Jenson’s model attempts to correct this and he makes a bold move towards symmetry in The Triune Identity, but his reliance on the traditional understanding of the Father ultimately leaves his model asymmetrical as well and therefore not fully egalitarian. What makes my project compelling is that it removes the traditional notion of the Father as the anchor of absolute divinity and instead understands the Trinity as the anchor of absolute divinity. This unconventional move, however, is also what will make the work controversial, and rightfully so I think.

After researching integrative models like those put forward by Jenson and LaCugna, I realized that any model I might imagine also needed to be integrative if it was to understand the Trinity holistically. Basically the egalitarian perichoresis of the three divine persons needed to be integrated with the submission of the Son and the Spirit to the Father within human history. I felt that we essentially needed a model that integrated the immanent and the economic trinities.

I was unable to find any convincing models that were both integrative and symmetrical. Nor was I able to imagine any static trinitarian model that met both criteria. This is where my advisor, Rev. Dr. Dwight J. Friesen, aided me in imagining the trinitarian life as dynamic rather than static. We might think this to be common sense, but I discovered that traditional theology, largely because of it’s close to ties to Hellenistic philosophy, demands static rather than dynamic views of God. In these models the Father is always the fixed and absolute point. We became persuaded that any Trinitarian model needs to be dynamic rather than static in order to achieve a heresy free model that doesn’t create the false notion of two distinct trinities. And this is how I arrived at the title – The Egalitarian Trinity: A Descriptive Trinitarian Model that is Symmetrical, Integrative, and Dynamic. While I offer my own model in the last section of the paper, I mean it to be descriptive, and not prescriptive of the divine community. I hope that anyone who reads it becomes convinced that we must view God as dynamic rather than static, holistic rather than dualistic, and egalitarian rather than subordinationist.

What are the implications of these findings from your perspective for the emerging church?

Being someone who is sympathetic towards egalitarian ecclesiologies, I was surprised to discover that my findings actually legitimate rank and hierarchies within both divine and human community. The key distinction, however, is that rank and hierarchy are entirely contextual and in a dynamic system of mutual submission. No one can look to the Trinity to legitimate any subordination as a static representation of how things are. This simply is not what the Trinity reveals to us. No one can claim that hierarchy in the church is scripturally or ontologically how things are supposed to be. To do so undermines our understanding of the Trinity at a fundamental level. And since it is the Trinity that makes Christianity a faith in its own right, patriarchal and subordinationist systems stand against the foundation of the Christian faith.

A further implication involves the emerging church at a fundamental level. Here I am indebted to my wife, herself a minister familiar with the emerging church, for this observation: The emerging church can idolise the completely organic and egalitarian congregation and it has a tendency to deconstruct anything that is other. At its best this is a holy longing for divine community. At its worst it can be a reveling in chaos that can be unhelpful. The dynamic and egalitarian Trinity certainly removes legitimation for hierarchy and structure, but it certainly does not remove its necessitation. Relationality cannot be used to justify chaos. As the egalitarian Trinity shows us, all relationships have structure, but relational structure is dynamic, reciprocal, mutual, and appropriate to its context. This is trinitarian relationality and the core of what my thesis is about. Similarly, I have seen emerging church leaders use relationality and/or egalitarianism to deny the power, privilege, and position that their context gives them. This is a gross error in my judgment. Abdicating responsibility while enjoying privilege is not what the egalitarian Trinity shows us. Service, leadership, and taking responsibility as appropriate to the context is what the egalitarian Trinity embodies.

Finally, while the project may be in line with emergent sensibilities, there is no way that I could have arrived at the finished product without dialogue with other Christian traditions. Emerging churches usually understand contextuality, yet they need to remember that they stand within a larger context of the greater Church. Just as my work would not be nearly as strong without engagement with the saints who have gone before, emerging churches are at their best when they hold in high esteem ancient as well as divergent contemporary traditions.

What are the main challenges of your findings for church – particularly those coming from a more sacramental perspective?

Churches with a healthy sacramental perspective tend to have traditional ecclesial structures. These churches, however, face a difficult proposition. Contemporary society continues to find the episcopacy (church government by bishops) less and less relevant. Such churches tend to feel that they cannot flex their ecclesiology because their theologians tend to legitimate it based upon the divine community of the Trinity. My findings suggest that such legitimation based on a misguided notion of a patriarchal and monist Trinity is false. Yet I believe that those who argue that the episcopacy is inherently wrong are also false. It is not the ecclesiology that is false, (this is always contextual), it is the justification.

However, the trinitarian understanding I put forward is a strongly linked to a sacramental perspective. Baptism and the Eucharist are signs of the Trinity’s profound involvement in human community. The very reason why it is essential that we integrate the immanent and the economic trinities is because it is the task of understanding how God invites and incorporates our life into the divine life. This is why I am exited about the trinitarian awakening in contemporary theology. I think that the more we look at the sacraments, at the life of Jesus Christ, creation, the incarnation, the cross, redemption, sanctification, etc., etc., as trinitarian, the more we will be amazed at God’s grace and the divine community that we are invited into.

What do you think you have learnt from this event?

I write that the Trinity is what makes us Christian. This is a bold claim, and it is not one that I went into this project thinking at all. Yes, Christianity is about who Jesus Christ is, but the Christian identity lies in that the Redeemer is fully human and fully God, one of three divine persons. That the Redeemer is sent by the Creator and empowered by the Holy Spirit – and that through this trinitarian act we are invited into the divine communion. I believe that the Trinity (as revealed in Jesus Christ) is what makes Christianity a faith in its own right. The Trinity is also fundamentally a divine mystery. This is appealing. The Trinity is so significant, so important to our faith and understanding of who we are as Christians, yet also a complete mystery. This honors our understanding of who God is and simultaneously prevents us from putting God in a box. The Trinity invites us to know and experience something of divine mystery, while not allowing us to grab hold of that mystery.

What are the implications of your research when considering the development of contextual forms of Worship, Mission and Community?

My wife likes to remind me that all theology arises out of questions that society is asking. Knowing that all theology and all worship are contextual, should we ask ourselves what question society is now asking we might be better equipped to imagine contextual forms of worship, mission, and community. I think that we are witnessing a fundamental shift in what society values as ‘real’, with a heavy emphasis on relationality as the answer. The philosophers used to say that ‘the real is rational’. Now they say that ‘the real is relational’. In fact, Deleuze has pointed out that ‘even the rational is relational’. Modern science has shown us that particles exist not as absolute entities but as entities defined solely by their relationships to other particles. People deeply want genuine connection and relationship to ground them and to give them life. The shift to relational ontologies and epistemologies is interesting because the Church already has such a relational paradigm in the Trinity. It is ultimately the Trinity that grounds us and gives us life, and the biblical narrative is a narrative that invites us into the divine community of the Trinity. Ministers and worship leaders who both understand this and can make it relevant in worship settings have the potential for profound impact.

I understand you want to take these issues into further study and exploration. For you what are the unanswered issues?

I would love to build on this work and expand its scope for a PhD dissertation. Topics that I could delve into regarding the egalitarian Trinity include sex and gender, class, and power issues, as well as more refined work regarding ecclesiology and trinitarian models. My thesis advisor, Rev. Dr. Dwight J. Friesen, has encouraged me to consider applying the idea of a dynamic Trinity towards dynamic systems in general, though he could do a better job of it than me. Another issue pointed out to me by Biblical Studies professor Dr. Jo-Ann Badley involves the problem of strong trinitarian perspectives in light of the witness of Israel in the Hebrew Bible. My work is very recent and I look forward to dialogue as well as receiving constructive criticism that will make me aware of issues within it.

A critique I have already received involves the begotten-ness of the Son. The egalitarian model suggests that the three divine persons are all co-eternal and one is not the source of the other two, but that they are all the source of each other. The model imagines how all three persons are derived from each other, but the scripture does suggest an imbalance in that the Father is not begotten of the Son. Admittedly, my model does not adequately address how the Son is begotten yet fully co-equal and co-eternal without giving ontological priority to the Father. I am hoping to find some conversation partners that will help to shed light on this. Though I may be attempting to tap into the mystery of the divine further than one ought to.

Read a chapter of Steve’s Theseis