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Amado L. Picardal, CSsR, STD


For over a decade, I have lived and worked with the poor in the mountains, barrios,slums and fishing villages of Mindanao, Southern Philippines. As a member of the Redemptorist Mission Team, I was involved in the formation and development of the "Gagmayng Kristohanong Katilingban" -- the grassroots Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs). Like the Communidades Ecclesiales de Base that have spread throughout Latin America, the BECs have also sprouted all over the Philippines especially in Mindanao. These communities, which usually have a membership of forty to a hundred families each, try to live out the Gospel values of love, sharing, fellowship and service. They are aware of themselves as the Church at the grassroots. The members try to develop a deeper and more intimate communion with one another and with other Base communities around them. They are aware of themselves as a community of friends and disciples, brothers and sisters actively participating in the prophetic, priestly and pastoral mission of the Church. These communities come together regularly to pray, to reflect on the Bible and their concrete situation, and to celebrate their faith and life. They meet to discuss their concrete problems and to plan the communities' course of action. In response to the needs of the BECs they have organized health programs, communal and organic farming, and cooperatives. They have also been involved in concrete issues such as human rights, land reform, justice and the environment.

This is the context from which I come from and the starting point of this research on the trinity. The basic question that confronts me is: how do we speak about the trinity in a more meaningful and relevant way in the context of our pastoral praxis of building basic ecclesial communities and in our participation in the struggle for liberation and our efforts to build a more just, free and more human society?

The abstract and metaphysical discourse on the trinity that I have learned in the seminary is inadequate. It may have been meaningful centuries ago in the Graeco-Roman setting. It may continue to interest professors and students in the universities and seminaries in the West. But to those who live in poverty and oppression in the Third World it does not mean anything at all.

There is therefore the need to interpret the trinitarian doctrine in the context of the situation, the concerns and praxis of the BECs. In particular, the discourse on the trinity has to be correlated with the experience of community- the experience of koinonia. The dominant ecclesiological model of the BECs is the Church as COMMUNION. Can the Trinity be also understood in terms of the community/ communion of the Three divine persons? Can we speak about a trinitarian koinonia? What are its implication for the self-understanding of the Church and the BECs.

This paper therefore seeks to examine the social analogy of the doctrine of the Trinity and its relevance for the BECs.

Ang Dios Makatilingbanon: the BEC Idea of God as Community

One of the popular understanding of God that has emerged in the BECs is: "Ang Dios Makatilingbanon". "Katilingban" which is a Cebuano word can be roughly translated as community or society. It is used in reference to the triune God and it is also used in reference to the BECs (Gagmayng Kristohanong Katilingban). To say that God is "makatilingbanon" means that God is communitarian ad intra and ad extra. There is communion within the Godhead just as God is in communion with creation and humanity. There is a Cebuano saying: "Ang Dios usa ra, apan wala mag-inusara" (God is one but not alone). This is the basis for saying that God is a community of the three divine persons. If God is "makatilingbanon" then we who are made in the image of God are "isigka-makatilingbanon". The we are by nature social or communitarian is based on God's "pagkamakatilingbanon". The trinitarian "katilingban" is therefore perceived as the "sumbanan" (model) of the "Gagmayng Kristohanong Katilingban" (BECs).

I learned this approach to the understanding of the Triune God not in the seminary but in the grassroots christian communities. This developed from the experience and growing self-understanding of the BECs as the communion of followers of Christ. The question is: Does the understanding of the Triune God in communitarian terms have any basis in the Christian Tradition? What are the reflections of contemporary theologians about this?

The Trinity as a Community of Love

St. Augustine preferred to approach the trinity in terms of the psychological analogy. But he also broached the social analogy of the trinity: the lover, the beloved and the love that unites them. This understanding of the trinity is grounded on the idea that God is love. Moltmann interprets Augustine's idea this way: "Because he not only loves but is himself love, he has to be be understood as the triune God. Love cannot be consumated by a solitary object. An individuality cannot communicate itself: individuality is ineffable, unutterable. If God is love he is at once the lover, the beloved and love itself".

Richard St. Victor was inspired by Augustine's trinitarian conception of love. From this he developed the idea of the trinity as the divine community of love. He emphasized that love involves mutuality and therefore implies a plurality of persons. O'Donnell sums St. Victor's contribution: "Richard's analysis stresses the inexhaustible creativity of love which offers the believer the best insight available in human experience to grasp the nature of the divine trinitarian life. According to this analogy, love is always creative, dynamic and ecstatic. The love of the Father and the son overflows into the third, the Holy Spirit...Richard thus offers us a model of God as community, a community, however, which is not static but full of the dynamic interplay of persons in relation."

In evaluating Richard St. Victor's social conception of the Trinity, Gelpi points out that: "He characterized the Father, Son and Breath as persons and he attempted to understand their relationship to one another as an analogy of human friendship. Richard, however, followed Augustine when it came to explaining the divine unity. The divine persons, he held, possessed identically the same substantial essence. His position remained, therefore, within the parameter of orthodoxy".

Many contemporary theologians in the West and in Latin America have recently picked up and developed Richard St. Victor's insight of the trinity as divine community. Moltmann for example echoes Richard:

God is love means in trinitarian terms: in eternity and out of the very necessity of his being the Father loves the only begotten Son. He loves him with the love that both engenders and brings forth . In eternity and out of the very necessity of his being the Son responds to the Father's love through his obedience and his surrender to the Father... The inner-trinitarian love is therefore the love of like for like, not the love for one who is essentially different. Juan Luis Segundo develops this theme from the perspective of liberation theology: "God, the Christian God, is love. But not simply or not so much a love that unites two people and separates then from the world and time; that would be a false love. Rather, the love that fashion human society in history ...Despite all our twisted and distorted images, the God that Jesus revealed to us is a God who is a society." Bracken sums up the contemporary thinking: "God is a community of persons who first love one another and then, out of the fullness of their love for one another, create rational creatures to share in that love."

The Danger of Tritheism

In his dissertation, Claude Welch already observed the emergence of the "social theories of the Godhead" which he considered as part of the new directions of British and American thought. He saw this development which began at the last quarter of the 19th century as influenced by Hegelian idealism which by then had its center in Great Britain: "An indirect consequence of British idealism was a truly novel and fairly widespread development of the interpretation of the doctrine of the Trinity: the deliberate equation of Father, Son and Spirit with selves or ego, i.e. persons in the modern sense, and the description of God as a divine society." Welch pointed out that the proponents of the social theory emphasized the divine distinction rather than the unity of the trinity as the faithful to the witness of the New Testament in which the threefoldness of God is given and the unity as matter of mystery. The main problem that Welch saw in this approach was: "how are we to conceive this unity which comprehends distinct persons, centers of consciousness and activity so as to keep this doctrine from being simply an ethicized tritheism?" Welch did not really exclude the possibility of using the social analogy to interpret the doctrine of the trinity but he saw the danger of tritheism especially with the use of the modern understanding of person. The question that he posed continue to confront contemporary theologians: "we have to ask in what sense, if any, this concept of an eternal communion or "communityness" or love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is the final, and in some ways the most difficult, question of trinitarian doctrine. This notion has, of course, obvious significance if the Trinity be understood as a society of persons, but the sort of communion there implied presuppose a near-tritheistic concept of the distinctness of Father, Son and Spirit." Finally, Welch suggested a possible solution by avoiding the modern understanding of term person and instead use divine modes of existence: " is clear that whatever is to be said about the communion or community of Father and son must be said in recognition of the fact that this is a communion of God in himself. It is a community, not between selves, but between the divine modes of existence, between God's ways of being God."

More than a decade after the publication of Welch's book, Karl Rahner raised the same issue about the use of the modern concept of person in the trinitarian discourse and the risk of tritheism. The problem that he saw was that "the concept of `person' has continued to have a further history after its introduction into theology and the dogma of the Church. Thus the word has acquired shades of meaning to which our concept may not be tied within this dogmatic formula. Thus, as we said above, when nowadays we hear of `three persons' we connect, almost necessarily, with this expression the idea of three centers of consciousness and activity, which leads to a heretical misunderstanding of the dogma." Rahner saw the impossibility of using the word without falling into the danger of tritheism.

The Perichoretic Communion of Person

The problem posed by Welch and Rahner about how to conceive the unity of the Divine Persons (person understood in the modern sense) while avoiding the danger of tritheism continues to challenge contemporary theologians. Moltmann argues that tritheism can only be a problem if "person" is understood in an individualistic sense. He points out that "what Rahner calls our secular use of the word person has nothing in common with modern thinking about the concept of person. What he does describes is actually extreme individualism: everyone is a self-possessing, self-disposing centre of action which sets itself apart from other person.But the philosophical personalism of Holderlin, Feuerbach, Buber, Ebner, Rosenstock, and others was designed precisely to overcome this possessive individualism: the `I' can only be understood in the light of the `Thou' -- that is to say, it is a concept of relation -- without social relation there can be no personality."For Moltmann the key to the understanding of the unity within the Godhead is neither the concept of the one substance nor the identical subject but rather concept of perichoresis:

The concept of person must therefore in itself contain the concept of unitedness or at-oneness, just as, conversely, the concept of God's at-oneness must itself contain the concept of the three persons. This means that the concept of God's unity cannot in the trinitarian sense be fitted into the homogeneity of the one divine substance, or into the identity of the absolute subject either; and least of all into one of the three Persons of the Trinity. It must be perceived in the perichoresis of the divine Persons. Like Moltmann, Leonardo Boff also makes use of perichoresis in explaining the divine unity and avoiding the danger of tritheism: If we understand the divine nature ... as the eternal perichoresis of the Persons of the Trinity, as the love and communion intrinsic to the divine beings, then it will become easier to understand the unity which this nature guarantees: it will always be a trinitarian concept, the union of Persons bound up one with the others in eternal communion. God is one and is never alone: God is always the living-together and co-existence of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, all three existing from the beginning, revealing each other, knowing one another and communicating themselves from the beginning."Perichoresis is a Greek term which was first used in the trinitarian language in the sixth century. It conveys the idea that "each Person contains the other two, each one penetrates the other as is penetrated by them. Robert Kress notes that the original Greek understanding of perichoresis was "to dance together": "Apart from all the technical modification by the theologians, the greater value of this term is in its simple and basic meaning, that the divine being is dancing together-- that is, the very nature of the Father, son and Holy Spirit is to dance together."

Thus, the concept of communion is essential in Boff's understanding of the Trinity. For him the starting point of trinitarian reflection should be the encounter with the three divine Persons in history. Their unity can be found in their interpersonal communion . He regards the Trinity as the community/communion of the Three Divine Persons: "There can be unity only between persons, because only persons are intrinsically open to others, exist with others and are one for one another. Father, Son and Holy Spirit live in community because of the communion between them. Communion is the expression of love and life."

Donald Gelpi considers the Triune God as the "perfection of that loving, interpersonal communion to which we are called as a Christian Community." He holds that what explains the divine unity is the "mutual self-donation of the divine persons". In response to the objection of Barth and Rahner against the use of the modern understanding of "divine persons" he writes:

We legitimately distinguish the three divine persons as facets of the divine experience. But they do not enjoy three distinct personalities because unlike human persons they enjoy not a mere similarity but an identity of divine life. Human personalities differ because human persons are separated by their bodies and by their histories. But the divine persons experience no physical separation and subsists eternally. And the perfection of their mutual inexistence ensures that in all things they act with identically the same mind and will. Nor does the fact that the divine persons possess autonomy necessarily lead to tritheism. For the divine persons use their autonomy to give themselves to one another so totally that they are perfectly one, equally divine, and enjoy an identity of divine life. What has developed is a shift of emphasis from the substantialist categories to interpersonal and relational categories in the understanding of the divine unity. Aristotelian metaphysics conceives the essence of things in terms of substance and considers relation as merely accidental. By contrast, modern thought emphasizes the category of relation and subordinates the concept of substance to the idea of relation. Nature is thus viewed as a totality of pure relations. The idea of intra-trinitarian perichoresis and communion would be an anomaly under Aristotelian categories. It can only make sense if relation is understood to constitute the essence of being. O'Donnell observes that "for modern philosophy, the key to the understanding of person is relational." He further notes that the social model of the Trinity is based on the idea of community constituted by free and intelligent persons in relation. He believes that conceiving the Trinity as the community the three divine persons is theologically legitimate and pastorally helpful "on the condition that contemporary theologians preserve the truth that God is infinite plenitude and the persons of the Trinity are subsistent relations." The traditional Scholastic understanding of the divine persons as subsistent relations is therefore vital in positing the nature of God as the activity of interrelating.

The Divine Community as Paradigm for the Christian Community

The idea of the triune God as a divine community is very meaningful and relevant to those who are actively involved in building up the BECs and constructing a truly just and human society. It can serve as a model or paradigm for the Christian community and even human society. The kind of BECs and human society that will be realized will be the incarnation of the values of communion, sharing, equality, self-giving love, and unity in diversity that is inherent in the Triune community. To make the Trinity the model of community and society is to reject patterns and structures based on inequality , domination and selfishness.

Our concept of God can influence the pattern of relationship in the community and society. An absolute monotheistic and monarchical image of God has often been used in the past as an ideological support for authoritarian and pyramidal structures in Society and even the Church. Unity has often been conceived in terms of uniformity and subordination. As Moltmann points out:

this monotheistic monarchianism was, and is an uncommonly seductive religious-political ideology. It is the fundamental notion behind the universal and uniform religion: One God- one Logos- one humanity; and in the Roman empire it was bound to seem a persuasive solution for many problems of a multi-national and multi-religious society. The universal ruler in Rome had only to be the image and correspondence of the universal ruler in heaven. Boff makes the same point: "Strict monotheism can justify totalitarianism and concentration of power in one person's hands, in politics and in religion...just as there is one Lord in heaven, so there should be one Lord on earth; just as there is only one God, so one royal house and one monarchy should rule on earth." The pyramidal and hierarchical model of the Church is a product of this: A-trinitarian monotheism can also pave the way to an inflexible concept of church unity and a monopolistic view of sacred power. Just as there is only one head in heaven (God), so there should be only one head on earth to represent God, the pope. St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. 104) argued for the unity of the church community as follows: one God, one Christ, one bishop, one local community... Unity conceived and structured in this way is not conducive to the emergence of a community of brothers and sisters in any real sense, or to a wholly ministerial church. A truly trinitian outlook based on the understanding of God as communion of the three divine persons can subvert the patterns and structures in community and society based on a strictly monotheistic and monarchical outlook. As Boff argues: This complete communion of three persons, the full perichoresis of one in the others, for the others, by the others and with the others, destroy the figure of the one and only universal Monarch, the ideological underpinning of totalitarian power. Only a human community of brothers and sisters, built on relationships of communion and participation, can be a living symbol of the eternal Trinity. The trinity provides a model of unity in diversity. The trinitarian model shows that unity within the BECs, among the BECs and in the whole Church can be achieved not in uniformity and subservience but in diversity and communion. Boff emphatically notes: unity and diversity shade into communion in God, springing from God's association with what is not-God but what comes through communion and perichoresis to share in the mystery of the Trinity. Such a vision prevents any totalitarianism ostensibly based on divine monotheism and any patenalism based on the monarchy of the Father to whom all must submit and on whom all depend. The domination model is replaced by communion model: production by invitation, conquest by participation. The Trinity understood in human terms as communion of Persons lays the foundation for a society of brothers and sisters, of equals, in which dialogue and consensus are the basic constituents of living together in both the world and the church. Moltmann stresses the necessity for "trinitarian thinking" and "trinitarian hermeneutics" which means thinking in terms of relationships and communities:"Here thinking in relationships and communities is developed out of the doctrine of the Trinity, and is brought to bear on the relation of men and women to God, to other people and to mankind as a whole, as well as on their fellowship with the whole of creation...we shall try to think ecologically about God, man and the world in their relationships and indwellings." The communion of the Triune God within the Godhead, and the communion of the Triune God with humanity and with the entire creation can therefore be the model for the BECs trying to achieve communion within (among the members), with other Christian Communities, with nature ultimately with the Triune God. The trinitarian outlook which is inter-relational can replace the hierarchical outlook on reality, God, the world, society, community and the Church. This is a broader application of the communion model. This is indeed very meaningful and relevant to the BECs as they try to create a new way of being Church based on the communion model, as they struggle to build a more egalitarian and just society, and as they become more involved in ecological issues. Thus, Boff considers the Trinity as model of community and liberation: For those who have faith, the trinitarian communion between the divine Three, the union between them in love and vital interpenetration, can serve as a source of inspiration, as a utopian goal that generates models of successively diminishing difference. This is one of the reasons why I am taking the concept of perichoresis as the structural axis of these thoughts. It speaks to the oppressed in their quest and struggle for integral liberation. The community of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit becomes the prototype of the human community dreamed of by those who wish to improve society and build it in such as way as to make it into the image and likeness of the Trinity. Thus, the Church's self-understanding as Communion can be grounded on the understanding of the Trinity as Divine Communion. "Just as there is a trinitarian koinonia, so there is ecclesial koinonoia. The main definition of the Church is this: the community of the faithful in communion with the Father, through the incarnate Son, in the Holy Spirit, and in communion with each other and with their leaders." Boff argues further that the trinitarian vision produces a vision of a Church that is more communion than hierarchy, more service than power, more circular than pyramidal, more loving embrace than bending the knee before authority. Such a perichoretic model of the Church would submit all ecclesial functions (episcopate, presbyterate, lay ministries, and so on) to the imperative of communion and participation by all in everything that concerns the good of all. Then the Church would in fact be `a people made one with the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit'(LG4). When the Christian Community truly lives in loving communion modeled on the Trinitarian communion then it truly becomes the sacrament of the Trinity. "As a network of communities living in communion with their brothers and sister and all participate in its benefits, the Church can be built on the model of the Trinity and become its sacrament in history." When perichoretic communion of the Trinity is truly reflected in the life of the Christian Community then the Church can authentically be called the "icon of the Blessed Trinity".

The trinity is therefore not just an external and distant model for the BECs. The trinitarian communion is really experienced in the Christian Community. The more the community truly lives in communion the more it participates in the mystery of the Trinity. As Moltmann asserts: "The perichoretic at-oneness of the triune God corresponds to the experience of the community of Christ, the community which the Spirit unites through respect, affection and love. The more open mindedly people live with one another, for one another and in one another in the fellowship of the Spirit, the more they will become one with the Son and the Father, and one in the Son and the Father (Jn 17.21)." It is the presence and experience of the Trinity in the community that empowers it to struggle for integral liberation. As Boff emphasizes, the Father is the origin and goal of integral liberation, the Son is the mediator of liberation and the Holy Spirit is the driving force of integral liberation. The doctrine of the Trinity is therefore a central truth of the Christian faith which has something to do with the salvation and integral liberation of humanity especially the poor and the oppressed.


Based on the findings of this research there is indeed theological grounds for the belief in the BECs that God is "makatilingbanon" --God is the community of the Three divine persons. The concept of eternal perichoresis and communion of the three divine persons safeguards this view from falling into tritheism. There is also a basis for making the Trinitarian community as the model for the Christian community and the human society that the BECs are trying to build. The more the BECs reflect the Trinitarian communion, the more the Church becomes the sacrament and icon of the Trinity.


Theological Reflections