Equipping God's People to Create Missional Culture

The Social Trinity, Ecclesiology and Church Leadership – Part 5

How a Social View of the Trinity Can Positively Inform Our Approach to Ecclesiology and Leadership in Today’s North American Church

Ontology, Roles, and Perichoresis
For Boff, the primacy of love and communion is established in the fact that the Father, Son, and Spirit are eternal persons in eternal communion.  Ontologically speaking, “No one comes first and no one later, no one is superior or inferior.”[1] Boff believes that the Father is the unoriginated origin, as well as the generator of the life of the Trinity.  Jesus is eternally begotten of the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son. These processions, according to Boff, demonstrate “both the distinction in God and the reciprocity of the Persons: one is not the others, but is bound in essence to the others.”[2]

Boff notes that all our words fall short when talking about the inner life of God, for they will always be figurative and analogous.  As a man who holds to creeds, he mentions how early councils stated that Jesus was “begotten, not created, consubstantial with the Father.”[3] Besides safeguarding the oneness of God, Boff explains that consubstantiality “stresses the interdependence of the Father and Son.”[4] In other words, the Father cannot exist without the Son and vice versa, and the Spirit reveals the gift of the Father and Son.  Central to Boff’s understanding of the relational nature of the Trinity is the Eastern Orthodox notion of perichoresis, which has no good translation into English. It can be roughly understood as “inter-penetration” where each divine person permeates and is permeated by the other without confusion.  Jesus speaks of this intimate union when he says, “The Father is in me, and I in the Father” (10:38).  This union is dynamic and reciprocal. As Boff says, “Each Person is for the others, with the others and in the others. The everlasting love that pervades them and forms them unites them in a current of life so infinite and complex as to constitute the unity between them.”[5] This mutual embodiment means that each shares in one another’s work, the Son and Spirit join the Father in creation, the Father and Spirit join the Son in saving, and the Father and Son join the Spirit in sanctification, which doesn’t preclude their being primary actions of each person.

So how does this understanding of the inner life of the Trinity speak to our ecclesiology and approach to church leadership? When the church models herself after the perichoresis of the Trinity, there will be an emphasis on interdependency, mutual care, intimate sharing, and mutual self-giving.  Boff reminds us that all in the church are born from a response of faith, and that the entire church must be students of Christ and the entire church is called to make disciples.  Learning and teaching (with power) are two functions, not divisions, in the church. “They are two adjectives that describe two practices of the whole community.  They are not two nouns that split the community.”[6] Boff allows hierarchy to develop within the community when it is good for the community, and when all remember that we are first brothers and sisters. For “before hierarchies and differences, Jesus sought to introduce fellowship, participation, [and] community.”[7]

Volf, like Boff, defines the Trinitarian persons as perichoretic subjects, and considers the constitution of the persons and relationship as something that happens simultaneously not sequentially “as two dimensions of the eternal life of the Triune God.”[8] The procession of the Son and Spirit are grounds for distinction rather than speaking to their inner relational life.  For as the Father sends the Son and Spirit, he also glorifies the Son and gives everything over to him, just as the Son gives all back to the Father.  Volf considers the Trinity to be a loving community of persons each fully sharing all the divine attributes. Therefore he finds it inconceivable for there to be hierarchy and subordination within the perfect community.[9]

His ontological and relational understanding of the Trinity leads him to conclude that the ecclesiastical structure that most corresponds to the social Trinity is not the dominance of the one, nor a hierarchical bipolarity between the one and the many, but a polycentric and symmetrical reciprocity of the many.[10]

This shapes his approach to ecclesiology and church leadership.  He considers the church a charismatic communion of interdependent people who are empowered and constituted by the Holy Spirit.  Salvation occurs through both officeholders and the faithful.  The life and structure of the church is to be a polycentric community.[11] He emphasizes the charismatic priesthood of all believers living in anticipation of the eschatological communion of the entire people of God.  When it comes to leadership, he doesn’t feel the New Testament gives a unified or prescriptive approach to church organization, but more of an account of how the early churches organized and regulated themselves.[12] While he considers “offices” a particular kind of spiritual gift, he does not divide the church between the general and particular priesthood, but holds to the equality of the priesthood of all believers.  He also believes that a polycentric approach to officers in the church best reflects scripture and a social Trinity.  Ordination is a matter of divine gifting, character, and reception by the entire congregation under the guidance of the Spirit.[13] While ordination shouldn’t necessarily be considered an appointment to a lifelong task, he considers gifted officers to be more lasting than other gifts, for they add to the stability, cohesion, and unity of the whole.

[1] Boff, Holy Trinity, Perfect Community, p. 53.

[2] Boff, Trinity and Society, p. 173.

[3] Ibid., p. 178.

[4] Ibid., p. 178.

[5] Ibid., Boff, Trinity and Society, p. 138.

[6] Ibid., p. 139.

[7] Boff, Leonardo, Ecclesiogenesis: The Base Communities Reinvent the Church (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1986), p. 46.

[8] Volf, After Our Likeness, p. 216- 217.

[9] Volf, After Our Likeness, p. 217.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., p. 224.

[12] Ibid., p. 245.

[13] Ibid., p. 249.

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