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Exploring Two Views on the Doctrine of the Trinity: Classical and Relational

Categories Theology


It is the doctrine of the Trinity which fundamentally distinguishes the Christian doctrine of God as Christian... (CD, I/1, 346)

So wrote Karl Barth on the centrality of the Trinity to the Christian faith. A recent book agrees with Barth's assessment. In Two Views of the Doctrine of the Trinity, editor Jason S. Sexton says, “The doctrine of the Trinity stands front and center of the Christian faith and its articulation.” (13)

A recent trinitarian revival is seeking to re-prioritize this crucial doctrine, and this book chronicles this revival by presenting two of its dominate views: the classical and the relational views. We'll look at these below.

The new book introduces readers to the views by assembling a cast of leading theologians:

  • Stephen M. Holmes, a Baptist theologian
  • Paul D. Molnar, a Roman Catholic theologian
  • Thomas H. McCall, a Wesleyan evangelical
  • Paul S. Fides, a mainline Baptist.

Each essay addresses three important facets of the discussion: Trinitarian methodology, Trinitarian doctrine, and Trinitarian implications.

Today we present four of these most widely regarded thinkers to represent the two broadly rendered views. I think you will find the discussion theologically illuminating and, hopefully, spiritually enlightening.

CLASSICAL TRINITY: Evangelical and Catholic Perspectives

Stephen R. Holmes begins by considering words and their meaning. He believes “most of…the misunderstandings of the doctrine of the Trinity in recent decades…come from a failure to follow this rather obvious rule,” (28) that words have their meaning in their original author, rather than us; we cannot read our own meaning into the text.

Holmes insists trinitarian words have been redefined from their original meaning, in particular, “person” and “relation.” He argues, “claims that the doctrine of the Trinity as it was established in the fourth century establishes a personalist or relational ontology are simply false, being based entirely on a reading of new meanings into old words.” (28)

Instead, “the doctrine of the Trinity is not primarily an ontology, nor does it depend on a particular ontology…” Holmes insists, “classical trinitarianism consistently refused to answer the ontological question concerning the divine. In a standard slogan, we can know ‘that God is, but not what God is.’” Therefore the Trinity is a “conceptual framework” for reading the Bible in regards to God’s life. (35)

Paul D. Molnar extends the discourse concerning classical Trinity by emphasizing that it is “impossible to believe in the unity of God ‘apart from the Trinity’ as it is impossible to believe in the divine Trinity without the unity.” (70) His thinking reflects the careful trinitarian work of T.F. Torrance, whom Molnar engages at length.

Molnar denies the so-called “life-in-relationship” analogy of relational trinitarianism is the best clue to understanding the triune life of God. (71) “Once one assumes that ‘life-in-relationship’ is indeed ‘the best clue’ for understanding God’s triune life, one of the prime ingredients of classical trinitarianism is disrupted.”

Those ingredients include:

  • the full divinity of the three divine persons
  • God is perfectly one and three
  • the relations of the trinitarian persons are inherent to God’s eternal being
  • God cannot be rightly conceived of as existing solely for creation
  • God is in no way or at any time constituted by what he does for us within the economy. (72)

Molnar’s position is that “The classical doctrine of the Trinity upholds thinking from a center in God while social and relational doctrines clearly tend to begin by thinking from a center in us.” (77)

RELATIONAL TRINITY: Creedal and Radical Perspectives

Thomas H. McCall is convinced “we should affirm that the divine persons are really and relationally distinct while also affirming numerical sameness.” (113) He calls this a “relational” understanding of the Trinity, in which “there is exactly one God who exists necessarily and who exists necessarily as triune; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three fully divine persons who live in a perichoretic communion of holy love.” (116) The doctrine of divine simplicity plays heavily in this understanding. (132)

McCall underscores the distinctness of the Trinity; they are “persons” in the full richness and robustness of the term:

The divine persons are fully personal in the sense that they exist together as what may be called distinct speech-agents in what are sometimes referred to as ‘I-Thou relationships,’ and they exist only within their mutual relationships…there are genuine interpersonal, 'I-Thou' relationships within the triune life. (117)

He argues the broad tradition of historic orthodoxy posits the actions of the divine persons in both the economic and immanent Trinity as distinct, (123) which he carries forward by arguing “there is an irreducible distinction in divine action” among the divine persons, as well. (121)

The kind of approach to the doctrine of the Trinity which Paul S. Fiddes takes is a so-called “radical relational account.” It is radical in that he is trying to get to the radix of our experience of God, which he suggest is not fundamentally “an experience of one or more superior beings or even agents without bodies.” Instead such an experience is one of “participating in movements of life, an experience that is like participating in relationships.” (161)

He proposes “the most adequate and appropriate language we have available to speak about the 'persons' of the Holy Trinity is that they are relations.” (159) Furthermore, “they are movements of life and love that have some resemblance to the relationships that we recognize between finite persons.” (159-160)

Fiddes insists his view has several points of historical origin: hypostasis was not the modern notion of “person”; hypostasis was defined relationally; and it is embedded within the tradition of “subsistent relations.”

And yet his proposal differs from pure social trinitarianism. He suggests divine persons aren’t “completely constituted by their relations with each other.” He does not conceive of God as a divine “society” or fellowship of individual persons. Rather, “God is the name for an event or happening of relationships in which we are engaged.” (160)

Within these pages is a robust, differentiating dialogue, one Sexton and the contributors hope will move the church one step closer to better understanding the doctrine of the Trinity in order to love the triune God more and reflect what Augustine prayed:

So when we do attain to you, there will be an end to these many things which we say and do not attain, and you will remain one, yet all in all, and we shall say one thing praising you in unison, even ourselves being also made one in you.


jeremy-boumaJeremy Bouma (Th.M.) has pastored on Capitol Hill & with the Evangelical Covenant Church in MI. He founded THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century Church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and makes the vintage faith relevant at

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