Monday, May 10, 2010

From Christ experience to the Trinitarian experience

Saint Paul - From Kristanubhava To Traikyanubhava
- Fr Bryan Lobo S.J


The Christ experience on the road to Damascus, obscured the sight of Saul to reopen it in Paul. This experience was not a personal effort on the part of Paul trying to search for liberation, or self-illumination like Gautama who opened his eyes one day under the Bodhi tree in the full experience of self-actualization and became the Buddha, but quite the contrary. 
It was an experience that was given to the furious persecutor of the Christians by Jesus Christ, the risen Lord who brought about a deep transformation in him and changed his perception of God in a radical way. 

He no longer called on YHWH – Adonai  in fear but called Him ABBA – Father  in love (Rom 8:15). He also felt his whole being as the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19). It was as though the Christ experience of Paul gave him a Trinitarian experience of God that vibrated with self-giving love for the salvation of humankind; and this became the central message of his gospel.

In this short article of ours we shall try and reflect on this Trinitarian experience of Paul to challenge our own Trinitarian faith and its perceptions. We shall start from the Christ experience of Paul in particular to move slowly towards his Trinitarian experience. We shall not make any theological analysis of the Trinity in the epistles of Paul; this can be found in many recent theological writings. We could rather use such an analysis, when necessary, just to cull the treasures of Paul’s Trinitarian experience as sparked by his Christ experience. We could then use this discovery as a springboard to give meaning to our own experience of the Trinity in Jesus Christ for its better proclamation as a mystery of salvation.

In knowing Christ Paul knows the Trinity

As we very well know, Paul was not heir to the dogma of the Trinity as we are, because the dogma of the Trinity was finalised towards the end of the fourth century. Paul never used the word ‘Trinity’ nor did he preach the Father, Son and the Spirit as una substantia tres personae (one substance and three persons), as the dogma states, where the three persons are considered one in divine nature but distinct in relations. Nor was the word ‘person’ used for God by Paul. How then can we say that Paul had an experience of the Trinity? Does the experience of the Trinity presuppose the knowledge of the Trinitarian dogma? Just because Paul did not use the Greco-Roman philosophical language of the later centuries, does it mean that Paul never had a Trinitarian experience of God? Our basic response to these questions is simply that in knowing Christ, Paul necessarily comes to know the Trinity.   We shall elaborate this response in some detail for better clarification.

To know the Trinity one need not know the dogma. The dogma could be considered as an anti- heresy device, something similar to the anti-virus programme. It was formulated precisely to end the heretical versions due to philosophical problems about the divine nature of the Father, Son and the Spirit which were being circulated in the early Christian community and causing problems. Such a formulation did not give, of itself, a Trinitarian experience to the early Christians; rather, it simply stated their Trinitarian faith which was to be believed and accepted in submission to the revelation of the triune God.

Today we have no dearth of Christians who have not really experienced the Trinity and could still be considered as practical “monotheists” despite their Trinitarian confession, as  Rahner would say.  They pray to Jesus and are devoted to him without having any connection to the Father or the Spirit in practice. Although they would not deny the dogma of the Trinity, because they recite the creed which professes their belief in God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Such a profession of faith gives them a verbal knowledge of the Trinity; but at the depth level they lack the experience of the Trinity. In Paul’s case it was not so.

The whole conversion event of Paul (Saul) including his first preaching involves Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the Father. He is commanded by Jesus to go and enter the city where he would be told what to do (Acts 9: 6). Ananias goes to Paul and, laying his hands on Paul, says, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on your way here has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 9: 17). 

Later after being baptised, the first statement that Paul proclaims about Jesus is, “He is the Son of God” (Acts 9: 20). The title Son of God presupposes the Father. It would be interesting to note here that in a single encounter with the Risen Lord Jesus, Paul experiences the whole Trinity. Paul receives no catechetical instruction, no apostolic supervision either of his faith or doctrine (we are not told anything of this kind in scripture). 

Without such a formation, Paul could easily have mistakenly proclaimed Jesus not as the Son, but as a kind of majestic God in solemn isolation, something similar to the supreme Divinity taught in the schools of Vedantic Hinduism or to the doctrine on Allah in orthodox Islam. Rather Paul preaches a Jesus who is intrinsically related to the Father and the Spirit. Paul’s rigorously monotheistic Jewish God was all at once transformed into his experience of the triune Christian God. It was therefore the Christ experience that was foundational to Paul’s Trinitarian faith-experience. The Jewish tradition played a vital part in this perspective because the Messiah or the Son of God was expected by the Jews and Paul experienced its fulfilment through his Christ experience. On the other hand the person of Jesus Christ could not be divested from his background and Jewish history. 

The historical Jesus who necessarily belonged to a culture, which was divinely chosen to be Jewish, was called the Christ after his resurrection. So any experience of this Christ in the early Christian community was necessarily linked to his Jewish historical background. Therefore Paul, due to his Jewish background, and without any training from the apostles was able to have a Trinitarian outlook through his Christ experience. It was as though the Trinitarian experience was deeply embedded in the very Christ experience that he had within the Jewish mileu. Jesus experienced as Son of God, and sender of the Spirit, for Paul, necessarily entailed a Trinitarian experience.

There is a basic controversy in theological circles about Paul’s Trinitarian grasp, which is considered as pre-dogmatic, meaning to say, that the dogmatic understanding of the Trinity (as we have mentioned earlier), did not form part of Paul’s understanding of the Trinity.  This need not deter us from affirming the Trinitarian experience of Paul because Paul is not trying to solve the philosophical problems connected with the One God in three persons; he is, rather, proclaiming the three spiritual subjects that he has experienced in the one human-divine subject, Jesus Christ. It is this proclamation of his experience  that is here called “Trinitarian”.
After the formulation of the Dogma, Trinitarian theology slowly got so abstract and philosophical that the Trinity appeared to be more of a puzzle to be solved than a mystery of salvation. Such talk about the Trinity, more than leading to a Trinitarian experience and proclamation, led to the relegation of the Trinity to the background. So it is that today the Trinity, which in Catholic faith is one of the most important mysteries of salvation, does not, in most cases, touch the lives of the common Christian.  If we need to know how to experience and proclaim the Trinity, in its character as a mystery of salvation, then we must look at Paul.

Experiencing and proclaiming the Trinity as the mystery of salvation

For Paul the salvific significance of the Trinity was evident in his experience of Christ in and through whom the Father saves humankind and sends the Spirit to continue this experience.  If salvation is primarily the consequence of justifying grace, which is the gift of God himself and not some kind of invisible material,  then that salvation is rendered true with the Christ event. The presence of Jesus Christ contains ipso facto the presence of the Father and the Spirit. It is the presence of the triune God with us that is salvific. 

No wonder then that the Pauline blessing strongly bears witness to this fact when it is given as, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”(2 Cor 13: 13). This blessing, as Fee rightly observes, “while making a fundamental distinction between God, Christ and the Spirit, also expresses in shorthand form what is found everywhere throughout his letters, namely that ‘salvation in Christ’ is the cooperative work of God, Christ, and the Spirit”.  This salvific intent is vigorously expressed in a triadic form by Paul when he says, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry , “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ…” (Rom 8: 14-17).

The Christ experience (anubhava) brings about a transformation within us that effects the presence of the triune God. It is in this that the transformation is given a salvific orientation. We are liberated and set free, just as Paul was liberated after the Christ experience of Damascus. In this spirit of liberation (holy Spirit) we can go ahead, talking of the wonder that God (the Father) has wrought in us and in human history through his loving Son Jesus Christ. It is this experience of freedom, and of salvation, that serves as the valid foundation of the Trinitarian proclamation.

Proclamation of the Trinity, after all the Trinitarian heresies, was done with great caution not to go against the logic and philosophical presuppositions of the people encountered in various regions. Could one God and three persons be possible? Does it not amount to three Gods? Was it just a fiction of the imagination of the early community? If the Son is generated from the Father, then the Son has a beginning, so then the Father and the Son cannot be one God (Arian heretics). Such kind of questions and responses made the proclamation of the Trinity lose its kerygmatic flavour. From all the answers given by theologians down the centuries about the Tri-unity and the Tri-personality of God one thing becomes evident, that each one gives his own perspective on the matter. No one can really say how it is possible that there can be three in one God. Examples and analogies are given, but no one can truly fathom or comprehend the Trinitarian mystery. 

We therefore need to ask ourselves why we should ever try to find answers to this mystery when, in the final analysis, a comprehensive answer is not possible? 

Why should the Trinitarian mystery be looked at as a problem to be solved, so that human beings can in their pride say that they have understood and grasped the Trinity?

Why should ‘one’ be considered in a uniform way and not in a unified way? Why cannot threeness be constitutive of oneness? 

Why should the Trinity be placed within the parameters of our mathematical logic? 

Could it not be the other way around, that we be placed within the parameters of the Trinitarian logic to go against our very individualism, isolation and alienation? 

If my own life partner who lives with me for years can still remain a mystery for me, why cannot God still remain a mystery in his ever abiding presence before and within me? 
The only way to enter into this mystery is to surrender to it in self-giving love and worship just as Paul did. Paul never bothered to search for convincing philosophical arguments to proclaim the Trinity even to an Athenian audience that was steeped in Greek philosophy. For Paul the Trinity was more an experience to be surrendered to, and a mystery of salvation to be proclaimed to the world. The liturgy becomes the ‘source and summit’ of such a surrender and proclamation, where the Trinity comes alive effecting salvation. Today we need more “Pauls” to preach the Trinity than great experts and theologians to unravel the mystery of the Trinity.


Paul’s experience of Christ is intrinsically linked to his experience of the Trinity. It is an experience that is foundationally salvific because the Trinity is primarily the mystery of salvation where grace is effected by the presence of God among us. Paul’s immediate response to this experience was his total surrender to it in mind and heart, just to rise up and proclaim the mystery fearlessly.


This phrase is translated as ‘From Christ experience to Trinitarian experience’.  In the title of this article I have on purpose used the word ‘anubhava’ for experience to maintain the profound richness of meaning that this word carries with it. I do so as well to inject an Indian flavour into the whole article. Gispert Sauch says that anubhava is “an experience that ‘gets through’ (anu-bhu) and transforms one’s whole being, a new form of consciousness that reveals itself as true, self-validated, and therefore in no need of proof,” in Gems from India (Delhi: ISPCK/VIEWS, 2006), p. 97. In the article proper we shall use the word ‘experience’ for greater facility in reading, but its connotation would carry the depth meaning of anubhava.

While talking about the triadic experience of God as saviour, Gordon Fee says, “At the heart of Paul’s theology is his gospel, and his gospel is essentially about salvation – God’s saving a people for his name through the redeeming work of Christ and the appropriation work of the Spirit.” In “Paul and Trinity”, The Trinity, eds., Davis, Kendall & O’Collins (Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 52.

Here we need to distinguish between experiential knowledge and verbal knowledge. To give an example, I can have all the verbal knowledge through my parents of what happened on Independence day in 1947 in their place, but I have never been in that situation myself. My knowledge of that day is verbal. My parents on the other hand who were alive during that time also know what happened during that day in their place. Their knowledge is experiential. Note that I am not using intellectual knowledge for verbal knowledge, as is commonly done because the intellect plays an important role both in experience and verbal knowledge. The Trinitarian dogma does not, of itself, guarantee an experiential knowledge of the Trinity but a verbal knowledge. Only if one starts and continues to contemplate the Trinitarian mystery which the dogma refers to, can an experiential knowledge begin and be deepened.

Karl Rahner, Trinity (London: Burns & Oates, 1975), p. 10. Rahner says, “…despite their orthodox confession of the Trinity, Christians are, in their practical life, almost mere “monotheists”.”

 There are theologians who would not accept a Trinitarian substructure in Paul’s theology. See Fee, “Paul and the Trinity…”, p. 49, ft.nt. 3.

Today Trinitarian theology is seen as intrinsically connected to the theology of incarnation and grace. This was not the case in the medieval ages.

Rahner says, that the foundation of grace is the free and forgiving self-communication of God to us. For this idea see Rahner’s, Foundations of Christian Faith, trans. William Dych. (London: Darton Longman & Todd, 1978), pp. 116-137. Here Rahner categorically states, 
“What is communicated is really God in his own being, …”, p. 117.

Fee, “Paul and the Trinity…”, p. 54. To read more on “the triadic experience of God as Saviour” see pp. 52-57.

1 comment:

JI said...

Paul experienced the gift of the Holy Spirit despite being a cruel persecutor of Christians, after which he came to believe in the resurrected Christ. Only God could have done this.

Jesus says in the bible that only the work of the Holy Spirit can draw someone to Him. As the door to heaven is narrow, does this mean the Holy Spirit only draws a select few people to God? Or is the Holy Spirit working on all people, but only a few truly respond?

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