We rightly call God “person,” but what is meant by calling God “person”? In LeRon Shults, Reforming the Doctrine of God, the history of how theologians have understood “person” is sketched. Revealingly. Ponder this statement: “… the question is not whether our concepts grasp God, but whether our experience of being grasped by God is obscured by our concepts” (65).
Here’s the big idea: “The concept of person as an ‘individual substance of a rational nature’ with the powers of intellect and will” (56) is the overriding concern. Person has been narrowed in theology to a “single subject,” to a “material substance.”
The implication is significant: the Trinity is devalued almost to little more than “theism” or into “tri-theism.” If we project onto God what “person” means for humans to be persons, it is nearly inevitable that our understanding of God becomes something bordering on tri-theism or simple theism. Trinity falls into little more than confession.
Another idea: seeing God as a person as humans are persons leads to an emphasis on the Unity of God, and this leads to a de-emphasis on Trinity. Furthermore, the move from humans as persons to God as a person also leads to Modalism — God, the single subject, manifesting the God-self in different ways.
Shults contends that the turn toward relationality permits us both to avoid the problems that “single subject” (projection onto God what it means for humans to be “persons”) creates and to fashion a view of God much more in tune with what the Bible reveals of the Trinity.
Further, recent developments in science show the following:
1. Person is no longer defined only in terms of a rational nature.
2. Person is no longer understood primarily in terms that focus on an individual substance.
3. Person is no longer understood as the substantiation of an abstract nature, but as an ongoing dynamic process.
Shults in this chp (he will have more to say to clarify what he is indicating in the above) suggests that Trinity is not best understood in the following way: Father is God, Son is God, Spirit is God, therefore there is One God and God is Three; therefore, Trinity. Rather, Shults contends that the early Christians experienced redemption through participating in the relation of the Son to the Father through the Spirit and this led to an inherent interest in the relational life of God in Scripture (61).
We must begin by speaking of the trinitarian nature of the Christian experience of redemption.
Here is a concluding statement that left me pondering, and I quoted it at the top of this post:
“… the question is not whether our concepts grasp God, but whether our experience of being grasped by God is obscured by our concepts” (65).