D.M. Baillie – Personality, Modes or Social Trinity?

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Recently, I found Baillie’s monumental book on Christology and have only really flipped through it, but what I’ve found touches both biblical studies and theology.

On pages 138-140, Baillie is discussing the development of Anglican Trinitarian thought, and the more so by ignoring the historical divide between Person and persona (Latin), or personality, etc… In quoting a theologian before him (Webb), he writes of the thought which says that God is made up of Person(alitie)s which, as Baillie rightly insists, is more along the lines of the Cappadocians. This is not surprising from the Anglicans who are more East in some aspects rather than West. Further, our learned theologian is fair enough to note that Barth and others, historically speaking, did not see God as ‘three distinct individual men alongside each other’ (p139) as the Anglicans and the East do but as such things as ‘the root, the tree and the fruit’, or the sun, the ray and the light, or the source, the stream and the estuary.’ Here, I read Tertullian most of all.

It is interesting that he notes the (then) current development of the idea of a Social Trinity in which those along the lines of Webb and the Cappadocians saw love existing only within the Social Trinity as opposed to the ‘stark and lonely monotheism of Judaism.’ These who see the Godhead as such believe that they make God more social and more persona. Baillie, for himself, doesn’t seem to see one as less orthodox than the other. It is the ‘other’ interpretation of the Godhead (in Trinitarian thought) which interests me, for he writes,

In any case the contrast between this (i.e., the Social Trinity) and Barth’s interpretation is plain. The one prefers to speak of one Person in three modes of being: the other school prefers to speak quite frankly of three Persons in the highest kind of personal and social unity.

Earlier in this chapter, Baillie quotes Barth as saying,

The God who reveals Himself according to Scripture is One in three of His own modes of existence, which consist in their mutual relationships, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (]]) (p135)

Are these two understandings of the Christian revelation of the Godhead mutually exclusive? Does one tend to present a better understanding of the love of God than the other? Does one, then, show love (specifically, the love shown through Christ), more than the other? In other words is the Social Trinity, that of three distinct persons, the proper way to explain the love of God or is Barth’s and others, that God exists in three modes of beings?

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8 Replies to “D.M. Baillie – Personality, Modes or Social Trinity?”

  1. In all honesty, Barth’s Trinitarian thought is the weakest link in his massive theological enterprise. I think in part because he came out of a liberal school of thought where it was an appendix to Church doctrine, when he decided to reverse the order for polemical reasons, he may have had good intentions; he really didn’t know what he was talking about.

    Am reading II,1 of CD at the moment, and I find it more than ironic that he is spending a couple hundred pages talking about revelation and the possibility and knowability of of God, having just spent close to a thousand pages talking about the same subject.

  2. Modalistic unverstandings of the Trinity have been considered “heretical” in the past:


    As for any particular view of God being “lonelier” than another, I don’t understand how any infinite Being can be “lonely,” in fact I don’t even claim to understand “infinite Being-ness” at all.

    Neither do I understand how or why God must be recognized as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, whatever those things are. Sounds like two men and a third thing that resembles a dove or the wind.

    Hinduism views “God” as capable of an infinite number of manifestations, not just a “Trinity.” So I guess Hinduism is the least lonely of all religions?

    Hinduism even has multiple means of advancing spiritually, from personal loving devotion to a single divine incarnation, to yoga, to meditation, to right behavior (practice).

  3. Barth was not a modalist. He simply lacked a base in the language of the Trinity so he kept referring to “mode of revelation” when he wasn’t, in fact, a modalist.

    I think, in fact, Bonhoeffer’s claim of revelatory positivism is far more accurate, even when speaking of his Trinitarian theology.

  4. Thanks Geoffrey, But whether or not Barth was a modalist, or only used some modalistic illustrations, does it matter?

    And do you see yourself as speaking to anyone else except fellow Christians when you write about “modes of revelation” and “revelatory positivism” and the “Trinity?” Can you make the Trinity understandable at all? Or even appealing in a necessary sense to anyone but fellow Christians?

    Maybe you love “the Trinity” and can’t do without it, since you’ve got so many theological terms and ideas built up round that idea floating round your head, and you’ve connected it with every philosophical term and with every prayer you pray to your Tripartite Godhead.

    But you do realize that others might not be in love with the same ideas and terms. Those others might even admit that all attempts at making a “Trinity” appear rational by dressing it up philosophical verbiage, are failures. You have faith in three distinct persons who are also one person, and one of those distinct persons has a fully human soul & will and also is fully divine with a fully divine will. So you have a whole lot of persons and wills that you claim are one God. Go figure.

    None of this makes sense to me anymore. Though I admit it might make perfect sense to others who are love with the creeds and with the Bible, and who feel comfort in such beliefs, and who belief both the Bible and the creeds were inspired as no other books on earth ever were. Of course you can also tell that to the Jews who continue to deny the existence of any such Trinity. Or to the deists, who denied the Bible’s special inspiration. Or to Unitarian Christians.

  5. There’s also a branch of Pentecostal Christianity today that has a few million members that denies the Trinitarian creeds.

    And James McGrath (of exploring our Matrix), along with the theologian, James D. G. Dunn, and others like Thom Stark, have been discussing the meaning of the earliest Christology statements in the Bible and questioning the “orthodox” interpretations of some verses, and noting different stages in the development of the idea of the Trinity. Stark may be coming out with a book on the topic. Though his recent work is quite good, The Human Faces of God, in which he discusses how and why ancient Near Eastern progressed from henotheism—>monolatry, before Hebrew monotheism arose.

    See also these online pieces:


      1. Dunn does not buy into a high Christology in the synoptics, nor the historicity of Jesus’ self-referential sayings in the fourth Gospel.

        Dunn’s “robust” review of Simon Gathercole’s, The Pre-existent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006):


        Earlier, in Jesus Remembered, Dunn argued that The Gospel of John’s narrative was not reliable, nor the claims it made for Jesus’ quasi-divine status. (In his earlier work, Evidence for Jesus, Dunn didn’t imagine that Jesus spoke even one word reported in John.)

        Dunn admits there is little to support the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke, and little evidence that Jesus supported a mission to the gentiles, and no evidence that Jesus saw himself as any kind of messiah. (The term does not even appear in Q.) Nor is there much left of the “Son of Man,” except for a few uncertain eschatological allusions.

        Dunn argues that Jesus did not claim any title for himself. Jesus may have believed that he was going to die, but he did not believe he was dying to redeem the sins of the world. “If Jesus hoped for resurrection it was presumably to share in the general and final resurrection of the dead.” There is astonishingly little support for what Jesus’ last words were.

        Dunn admits that Jesus believed in an imminent eschatological climax that, of course, did not happen. “Putting it bluntly, Jesus was proved wrong by the course of events.”

        Dunn’s account of the resurrection notes all of the weaknesses of the tradition: The link of Jesus’ resurrection to a falsely imminent general resurrection, confusion as to what sort of Jesus the witnesses were seeing, a persistent theme of failure of the witnesses to recognize Jesus (in Matthew 28:17 the disciples are seeing him in Galilee yet “some doubted,” not just Thomas), confusion as to where they were seeing Jesus (in Jerusalem and Galilee? On earth or in heaven?).

  6. So, Ed, because the Trinity is a difficult concept we need to set it aside? You sound like some of the folks at Nicaea! This is an old argument and last time I checked, Athanasius won it not because non-Trinitarianism is wrong, but because the Trinity, for all its complexity and mystery, captures the entirety of the being of God, including God’s love and prodigal grace, salvation history, and the whole panoply of God’s interaction with creation within an understanding of it.

    So, if a non-believer asks about “the whole Trinity thing”, I would start by talking about Jesus, the entry point for Christian thinking about God, about who God is, and move on from there. You want bumper stickers, check out cars on the road. I’ll stick with the reality even if it is difficult rather than compromise because you think people who aren’t Christian will find it just too hard to get.

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