A Review of Trinity and Society by Leonardo Boff
Leonardo Boff in Trinity and Society makes that case that there are three primary developments of Trinitarian thought, each of which arose to address particular errors predominate in a given culture and time. First, in the Roman culture where polytheism was prevalent, the Latin fathers emphasized the oneness of God. When the Greek fathers were battling Arianism or modalism, they focused more on the diversity in God, and came to unity through diversity. Finally, in our context, where individualism often reigns, there is a need to have a growing focus on the social trinity, looking at the rich, mutually encouraging and mutual dependent relationship between the Father, Son and Spirit.
Boff starts by reminding us that “an encounter with the Divine Mystery lies at the root of all religious doctrine” (1), and that while the early church had faith in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, there was a need to articulate this faith so that what people believed in their heart, made sense in their mind. He then takes a detailed look at the developmental history of the doctrine of the Trinity, looking at the biblical basis, the historical creeds, particular wordings as well as theological imagery. As he does this, he consistently reminds us that while faith in the Father, Son and Spirit is biblical, the explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity is second order speech, and our words can sometimes hide more than they reveal. He then gets to the heart of his focus, how the social Trinity – “the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in eternal perichoresis… intertwined in love and communion” (146) provide a basis to critique and inspire our understanding of personhood, community, society (male/female, oppressor/oppressed) and the church.
Boff is a thoughtful theologian who appreciates the development of the doctrine of the Trinity and understands the delicacy in which he must approach the topic, knowing the filioque controversy contributed to the great schism. He does an excellent job in all his explanations of the “Social Trinity” to stay within historical orthodoxy – between Tritheism and Modalism, and not falling to subordinationism – while emphasizing both the distinct roles of the Father, Son and Spirit – as well as their unity, recognizing that by “virtue of perichoresis, everything in the Trinity is Trinitarian – shared by each of the divine Persons” (236). He recognizes that the imminent Trinity is derived from the economic trinity (Rahner’s rule), while understanding there is still much mystery about the immanent Trinity. He touches on the concerns of feminist by helping us to see the maleness and femaleness of each person of the Trinity in a creative way by examining the “maternal God-Father and the “paternal God-Mother” (170). He critiques Barth because he was very close to modalism, and affirms and follows after Moltmann by starting with the threeness of God in the co-existence, co-relatedness and then moving to God is one. Panennberg does this as well (150). Finally, while Grenz starts with “God is one, God is three” (66), he has an emphasis on the relational trinity, understanding that love is the essence of God. The primary critique is that while Boff titles his work Trinity and Society and eludes to how the trinity can inform our approach to being fully human in society and in the church, he gives very little room in developing this theme practically. I’m glad he teases this out much more in some other books, namely Church: Charism and Power, for he has an amazingly rich understanding.