Neo-Tribalism, Christology, and the Trinity

Mar 10th, 2009 | By | Category: Blog Posts

There is no doubt that modern society has been divided up into various interests groups and sub-cultures. Advertisers label this demographics. Each group is placed into a category and within this category advertisers and companies learn what each category of people “need” in order to “survive” in contemporary society. Thus, young people, middle-aged people, older people, etc are hermitically sealed off from each other, as though each had nothing to learn from and contribute to the other.


Within these categories based on age, we also have sub-categories based on nationality, sex, sexual orientation, income level, educational achievement, location of residence, and the like. We all know the language of the presidential elections, “red state versus blue state.” The reason behind our fascination and love affair with demographics has to do with our devotion to consumerism. It is much easier for advertisers to spend money selling commercials if they can have an idea in advance as to who is going to be watching those commercials. You would be hard-pressed to find a candy commercial running during a broadcast of the evening news, just as you are more than likely to find commercials selling home cleaning materials during day-time soap operas. Why? The “demographic” watching.

Another reason behind our embrace of a demographical world also has to do with our incessant clamor for “rights.” We all have “rights” and by hook or by crook I am going to get what I believe I have a right to have. Thus, women’s “rights” groups fight long and hard to keep intact the “right” to a safe and affordable abortion. Homosexual “rights” groups lobby legislatures and courts for the “right” to marry and adopt children. Men and Women oppose each other solely on the basis of their different sex. Does anyone think the “Battle of the Sexes” has been good for society as a whole and the family in particular? Divorce, infidelity, and abuse tear apart our nation’s families all under the guise of “asserting my rights.”

In Christian circles, the clamor for the right to private interpretation can unintentionally contribute to this continual disintegration of both the church and society. As then Cardinal Ratzinger pointed out just prior to assuming the Chair of Peter,

“How many winds of doctrine have we known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking? The small boat of the thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves – flung from one extreme to another: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism and so forth. Every day new sects spring up, and what St Paul says about human deception and the trickery that strives to entice people into error (cf. Eph. 4: 14) comes true. Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine”, seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”

As Pope, he pointed out last April during his Apostolic visit to New York that ecumenical dialogue must not embrace this relativistic approach: “My dear friends, the power of the kerygma has lost none of its internal dynamism. Yet we must ask ourselves whether its full force has not been attenuated by a relativistic approach to Christian doctrine similar to that found in secular ideologies, which, in alleging that science alone is “objective”, relegate religion entirely to the subjective sphere of individual feeling. Scientific discoveries, and their application through human ingenuity, undoubtedly offer new possibilities for the betterment of humankind. This does not mean, however, that the “knowable” is limited to the empirically verifiable, nor religion restricted to the shifting realm of “personal experience”. For Christians to accept this faulty line of reasoning would lead to the notion that there is little need to emphasize objective truth in the presentation of the Christian faith, for one need but follow his or her own conscience and choose a community that best suits his or her individual tastes. The result is seen in the continual proliferation of communities which often eschew institutional structures and minimize the importance of doctrinal content for Christian living. Even within the ecumenical movement, Christians may be reluctant to assert the role of doctrine for fear that it would only exacerbate rather than heal the wounds of division. Yet a clear, convincing testimony to the salvation wrought for us in Christ Jesus has to be based upon the notion of normative apostolic teaching: a teaching which indeed underlies the inspired word of God and sustains the sacramental life of Christians today.”

Now what does all this talk on demographics and “rights” have to do with Christology and the Trinity? On the surface, one may think, “none.” But that would be a mistake. In the world of the New Testament there existed a great divide. That great divide was between the Jewish people and Gentiles. The Jews thought of the Gentiles as “dogs” and the Gentiles returned the thought in kind. There was no love lost between these two groups of people. It is into that world that the Apostle Paul announced that in Jesus Christ God has made a new humanity (Eph 2:15). God made this new humanity by breaking down the dividing wall of enmity through the flesh of Jesus Christ. God accomplished this through the cross of Christ. Thus, the death that Christ dies brings with it the death of the old divides. The death that Christ dies destroys not only death but division. Those who have been baptized into Christ participate in this new humanity. Paul says that if any man be in Christ there is a new creation.

If we go back to the creation account there are two events that we need to call to our attention. The first event is the creation of man. In the creation of man, before there was a fall, God says that it is NOT good for man to be ALONE. This has profound implications for community. The other event is the fall of man and woman. What happened when Adam and Eve fell into disobedience? Their relationship with God was broken. God cast them out of the garden. But not only was their relationship with God broken, their relationship with each other was fractured. The fall not only had a relational divide vertically, but also horizontally. At the heart of the fall of man and woman was divided relationships.

It should be no surprise then that for the Apostle Paul the work of Christ impinges upon relationships. Not only has our relationship with God been repaired through the cross of Christ, but human relationships as well. Indeed, this is why Paul takes the division between Jews and Gentiles in the Church so seriously. Failure to get this right results in a failure to be grasped by the Gospel. For Jews to insist that Gentiles need to become Jews in order to be Christians is to deny the impact of the Gospel. For Gentiles to gloat and look down on the Jews is to deny the reality of the Gospel. Baptism and not ethnicity is the identity marker for the Church. Baptism brings about a new humanity in Christ, a humanity that becomes a partaker of the divine nature. The phrase “In Christ” is the controlling identity for the people of God. This is why the Church cannot talk about God apart from Christ. To do so is to deny the One through whom God has reconciled the world, not only to Himself, but toward each other. As we have stated, the fall of man and woman resulted in a relational rupture both vertically and horizontally. In Christ, God has put to death the divide between us and Him and between Jews and Gentiles. The work of Christ defines not only our relationship with God but with one another.

This brings us to the Trinitarian reality of God. God is a relational God. He is a relational God because He is a community of persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. If one were asked to give one practical implication of the doctrine of the Trinity, that person may be hard-pressed to answer. The doctrine of the Trinity is primarily, for most of us, an abstract doctrine, a strange doctrine, that says God is One in a way that He is not Three, and He is Three in a way that He is not One. The doctrine of the Trinity, however, far from being impractical, is very practical and as such has profound implications for our lives.

First the Trinitarian nature of the Godhead means that God is a relational God. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are in relationship. There is a distinction of persons, yet unity. As Orthodox Bishop John Zizioulas of Pergamon has written, “By connecting the Son’s being with the very substance of God, Athanasius also transformed the very idea of substance. . . .To say that the Son belongs to God’s substance implies that substance possesses almost by definition a relational character. ‘Has God ever existed without His own (Son)?’….If God’s being is by nature relational and if can be signified by the word “substance,” can we not then conclude almost inevitably that given the ultimate character of God’s being for all ontology, substance, inasmuch as it signifies the ultimate character of being, can be conceived only as communion?”

Being is communion, as the Bishop contends, provides profound implications for our understanding of Biblical anthropology. Think back once again to the Genesis account concerning the creation of man. God, before the fall, says, “It is not good for man to be alone.” Man’s state of aloneness, prior to the fall, is declared by God as not good. God’s creation of man in aloneness suggests that God’s intention in creating man in original solitude is to teach man that he is made for communion, not only with God but with each other. No human being can truly live apart from communion. It is impossible to do so. From the very moment of conception a human being is in communion. In the case of the womb, the child is in communion with the mother. The child’s conception was not the “product” of random chance. The child conceived is created through the intimate and communal act between man and woman. Thus, the child is always in communion and is created through communion.

We tend to think, “you first are and then relate.” This conception of being is utterly and hopelessly individualistic. A communion (the man and the woman) preceded my “I”, therefore, we are beings from communion and we are beings called to communion. Compare this with Sartre’s “Hell is other people.” For Sartre the “other” outside of me is an obstacle to my “I”. There can be no communion in this world. All there can be in this world is brokenness. In this world, everything begins and ends with me. In this wordview, my freedom is the highest good. This is the essence of the fall. Man and woman in their disobedience declare their independence from God. Man and woman seek to replace God with themselves as the ultimate point of reference. Foolishly thinking that if they disobey God they can become gods themselves, they not only rupture their relationship with God but with each other. The yearning for freedom and independence of the man and the woman causes their relationship to be fractured, for each now will seek their own way and not the way of God or the “other.” Strife, rupture, and discord are manifestations of the original fall played out in history. The fall causes a fracture in communion. In fact, it can be said that the greatest tragedy of the fall is that the horror and devastation of strife, discord, and rupture in relationships is so accepted as natural. It has a banality about it.

We are told that we have to just accept this as the way things are. This tragedy may be accepted as natural by the world, but for those in the Church to think and live this way in reference to relationships is nothing short of a contradiction. St. John writes, “If anyone says ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1st John 4:20). John states that our love for God is made known by the love we have for the “other.” If we do not have love for the “other” we do not have love for God. Our relationships, whether they be marital or otherwise, are to foster and assist us in our love for and communion with God. And, as we are assisted by the “other” in our communion with God, strangely enough, we will find our relationship with the “other” to be strengthened and solidified. This is why marriage cannot but be a Sacrament. Sure, marriage is rooted in the creation under the Old law, but under the New law it is governed and sanctioned by the Church and, as such, is given the supernatural grace of God. Man and woman, joined in marriage, are to exhibit the reality of the Gospel. Paul centers the marital relationship in Christ and His love for the Church. So too, says Paul, is a husband to love his wife. A high calling, to be sure. A demanding calling, no doubt, but for the Apostle there can be and is no other way.

All good relationships we have must assist us in our communion with God and in turn with each other. With marriage, it is all the more so, and Paul’s rooting of marriage in Christ and His love for the Church demonstrates this. Indeed, to combat the neo-tribalism that has been unleashed upon the world and our lives, we need nothing less than a robust Christology, and a healthy dose of Trinitarian doctrine. The rampant individualism of our day can only be challenged by a message and a way of life that says, “No, there is a different way of being human, there is a different way of living. It is found in the Person of Jesus Christ, through whom God has brought down the divide by creating a new humanity.” Theology is by definition practical and if it isn’t, then it isn’t theology. Indeed, theology is so practical that it impinges upon the very things closest to us: our relationships, with God and with each other. For we are called to communion.

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  1. Tom,

    For me, this is timely. I was meditating (trying to meditate, anyway) on the Trinity yesterday, and was thinking too about the Reformed notions concerning the eternal covenant made before the foundation of the world between the Son and the Father. And while I realize that not everyone who holds to this theory sees the covenant as being “cut” or “made” at some particular time (assuming, as many Reformed do, that God is not temporal), still, I was struck by the fact that I couldn’t really make sense of a covenant “being made” between Persons who exist eternally “in covenant.” In other words, the Triune God’s mode of existence is covenant. (I’ve heard S. Hahn say things like this: “covenant is what God does because covenant is who God is.” And I guess I sort of “get” that now.)

    Thanks for this, and thanks for tracing out its implications for human nature.

    By the way, I think Leithart has done some work on this — relational views of personal identity. We ought to look into this together, I’d be very interested in pursuing this point of contact.


  2. Neal,

    Thanks for that. I did not know Leithart did some work on this. Have you read “Being Is Communion” by Ziouzoulis (I did not spell that right!!!)? It really stimulated my thoughts some years ago as did JP II Theology of the Body.

  3. No, I haven’t read the Ziouzouliszioulsuoisdfjkljsdfiouiosuzzz book. If you’re interested you can find a review of his thoughts, by Leithart, right here: I think some of what Leithart writes in The Baptized Body touches on this relational view of personal identity as well, and there is a smattering of other works we could hunt down.


  4. Neal,

    Thanks for the link.

  5. Gentlemen,

    I am always weary when comparisons are made between the relationships within the Trinitarian Godhead and human relationships. Anglican scholar Kevin Giles has an excellent chronicle of how modern (mostly Protestant) thinkers have pressed the analogy to extremes, Jesus and the Father: How Evangelicals have Reinvented the Doctrine of the Trinity, which usually leads to eternal subordinationism of the Son to the Father. Giles convincingly demonstrates that not a single Catholic (orthodox) theologian both ancient or modern has held this view and in fact write against this very notion. It is a fascinating read, highly recommended.


    R. E. Aguirre

  6. Dear R.E. Aguirre,

    But are not human relationships given to us as models of the Divine relationship(s), both within the Godhead and between God and his bride? It seems that we have fathers and wives precisely to learn about these mysteries. I mean, it seems that the “comparison” between “relationships” was invited by God’s very ordering of creation.

    Peace in Christ,

  7. Hi, Mr. Aguirre.

    I think it’s good to be weary, good to be cautious about these matters. Of especial importance is seeing to it that the starting points are right and that the implications or analogical inferences are going in the right direction. Thus the Catechism warns us that, though God is indeed Father, we can’t begin with our own experiences of our parents, etc., and then take those experiences to determine the content of ‘Father’ as it is applied to God. The Catechism’s clear that this would be idolatrous. On the other hand, if we’re beginning with a proper dogmatic understanding of the Trinity and considering the nature of humans created in the imago dei, there are bound to be important insights concerning who we are and what God ultimately made us for. If I’m reading Tom R. right, I think that’s what he’s got in mind. (That right, Tom?)

  8. Amen, Neal!

  9. Tom,

    It is one thing to say that we can contemplate on the relationships within the Blessed Trinity, relationships which are clearly seen in Scripture as well as Trinitarian ideas such as Tertullian’s so-called economic manifestation of the Trinity in redemptive history. It is quite another thing to codify doctrinal positions among human beings based on the analogy within the Godhead. This is what I believe the Catholic Catechism and the entire thesis of Giles work is getting at. At best we can draw important insights to be sure, at worst we formulate entire doctrines based on these inferences.

    In Giles work (coming from an Anglican perspectives) he exposes just this fallacy in the writings of many modern theologians such as; George Knight III, Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, Norman Geisler, John Frame and Robert Letham (are just a few examples). The rational is, “Because the Son is eternally subordinated to the Father in like manner a woman is to be subordinated to her husband.” Not so argues Giles and he marshals in support a host of patristic fathers (some Protestant voices such as Calvin and Barth) as well as insights on this issue from Edmund Fortman, Karl Rahner and Yves Conger to show that not only is the Son not eternally / ontologically subordinate to the Father but that doctrines surrounding human-socio-relationships should not be based on inferences from the Trinitarian Godhead.

    Quite poignant is Giles admission, “I have not found a Roman Catholic theologian who gives any support to the idea that the Son is eternally subordinate in any way.” (p. 169). This is after he pulls the rug under Anglican / Reformed / Evangelical, erroneous readings.


    R. E. Aguirre


    R. E. Aguirre

  10. Mr. Aguirre, I’m not familiar with that work so I can’t comment on it. But the Son is eternally the Son – He doesn’t become not-Son at some point. It’s not just that eternal-subordinationism is an error, subordinationism period is an error.

    A woman is to be subject to her husband based on the clear command from Scripture, not from fancy inference from Trinitarian relationships.

  11. Mr. Aguirre,

    I did not base anything I wrote on the subordination of the Eternal Son. I confess that was not even in my thinking. I based what I wrote on reflections about God and the call to communion, most particularly, the call of God that we share in the divine life of the Trinity. In reference to what you said,”human-socio-relationships should not be based on inferences from the Trinitarian Godhead”; St. Paul seems to make inferences on the Church and its unity and diversity by appealing to the Trinity (1st Cor 12).

  12. That’s right. The incarnational and Trinitarian “mindset,” if you like, was certainly at the back of St Cyprian’s and others’ thoughts about the nature of the Church too. We (the Body) are to exemplify, physically realize, the eternal diversity-in-unity-in-love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The incarnation means we can’t think of this as if we were docetists, but we have conceive it incarnationally/sacramentally. And Trinity means we have to take it very seriously, inasmuch as we’re charged with being God’s collective image-bearers on earth.

    However, Mr. Aguirre’s right that these sorts of inferences need to find independent support, or at least dependent patterns of support, throughout the rest of Scripture and through salvation history. That’s just a good hermeneutical requirement. But inasmuch as “God wills the Church because He wills unity,” as JPII said, and since He wills unity for us because it isn’t good for us to live “in isolation” but rather “in communion” — just as God Himself has eternally subsisted — it seems we have warrant to pursue these connections, just as St Paul pursues the analogy between marriage (“one flesh” covenantally) to teach us something about the Church’s relation to Christ (and marriage).

  13. Tom,

    No you did not base anything in what you have written so far on eternal subordinationism (or anything close). Nor am I charging you with anything of the like friend. I’m simply saying we cannot push viewing relationships between humans and the Godhead too far (or we might fall dangerously close to mistakes such as the ones Giles and many others points out).

  14. Mr. Aguirre,

    I definitely concur. We must always remember that “like” implies “unlike”.

  15. I’m surprised that no one has made reference to the words in our Lord’s prayer in John 17:21

    Just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me. (ISV)

    Some of the Church’s I’ve been apart of were possible open to the accusation of acting like a religious service industry; the equivalent to a spiritual Wal-Mart in which people are conceived of as religious consumers? A worldly lure for success mixed with a heavy dose of the sort of Neo-Tribalism spoken of here can easily enough find its way into a strategic ministry plan. This is perhaps true when niche programming is used in ways which do not merely recognize our differences but reinforces our separateness.

    A corollary to such Neo-Tribalism can be seen when we tell “the teens” to do their thing over there while telling “the college students” to do their thing somewhere else and the “young families” have their programs while the “Senior Citizens” have their own activities. Can it be anything other than sheer irony when local congregations profess that there is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” and have an everyday reality fragmented into various interest groups?

    For us there is one God, the Father . . .

  16. You’re speaking to my heart, Jimmy. There’s a reason Ignatius insisted on one bishop, one altar. The Gospel breaks down the sorts of barriers we’re naturally inclined to build up and maintain, and this is reflected in churches build ground-up “in our own image,” too. If the Church is Eucharistic, then you’ve got to come to that one Table together, together with people you wouldn’t ordinarily seek fellowship with. Ratzinger sees in St Paul’s words to the Ephesians a reference to this Eucharistic theme: in the Blood of His Cross (offered to us you-know-where) He breaks down the walls of separation.

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