God — The Triune Being "Letting Be"
By: Gregory S. Neal
For nearly two millennia countless millions have affirmed the Christian understanding of God as Creator. Indeed, the claim predates the Christian era, stretching back as far as the Davidic Kingdom and an age in which Yahweh was known as the God who had delivered the children of Israel out of captivity in Egypt. Throughout this long history of theological discourse almost as many conceptions of God, and of God’s nature, have been formulated as there have been theologians addressing the issue. To attempt a summery analysis of just this century’s thought on God would be a monumental task—one which will not be attempted here. Instead, I will be addressing the subject of God as Being—God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and God Creator of the Universe in and through a dialogue with the noted Anglican theologian, John Macquarrie. Using Macquarrie’s thoughts as a basis for discussion, as well as in and through agreement and disagreement with his arguments, I will attempt to come close to an understanding of God as Creator of all that is, the primordial, expressive, and unitive Being that "lets be" everything.
God – “Is” or “Lets Be?”
“Does God exist?” “What is the nature of God's existence?” Is it even possible to speculate about either of these questions, or are they matters of fundamental faith? John Macquarrie posits the existence of God from the standpoint of pure ontological being. He (rightly) understands God as not existing in any way knowable to, or comparable with, human existence. God’s existence is not like any being's but, rather, God’s existence is “Being.” This Being, by its very nature as “Being,” is that which establishes all else. In other words: “God (or being) is not but, rather, lets be" (Macquarrie p. 118).
For the sake of clarity, I would prefer to say that God exists ontologically. God’s Being is unique from all other forms of being because, unlike all created things, God can be said to exist in and of Godself and totally apart from any degree of contingency upon that which God has created. In agreement with Macquarrie, it is true that God’s existence predicates all else. This is to say that God's existence—God’s Being—is so fundamental that all other ways of being are derivative from, and contingent upon, God’s Being. All beings, or things, which have being find their source of existence in what Macquarrie calls God’s “letting be” (Macquarrie p. 118).
I am not, however, in agreement with Macquarrie on the point of limiting God’s existence to the concept of “letting [or allowing to] be.” While Macquarrie accepts that the statement: “God exists,” is superior to the statement: “God does not exist” (Macquarrie p. 118), he is adamant about maintaining a sharp distinction between existence, as beings understand it, and God’s (“Being’s”) existence. By saying that the only accurate way of speaking about God’s existence is through the mode of Being’s “letting be,” Macquarri predicates God’s existence upon the active relationship between God and all that God creates. This conclusion – that God “is” relative to that which God creates – would initially appear to be true: all that has being has received it from Divine Being. However, with this semantic construction comes the unacceptable conclusion that without “letting be,” without creation, God would not be. In this way, God’s existence is made contingent upon the act of creation and creation itself. Neither is an acceptable conclusion.
Therefore, while it is indeed true that God's existence is fundamental to all beings, this relationship is in no way fundamental to God's existence. Being “lets be”—God creates—but God also “is” in a way which is fundamental to all else, but not dependent upon the “letting be” of Being. If God were to never “let be,” – if God were to never create – God would still be. The mode of Being would, admittedly, be something other than what we now comprehend, but God would, nevertheless, be Being. This assertion does not break down the barrier between God’s existence and that of creation’s; rather, it establishes it beyond bridging. God is in such an ontological way that, regardless of nature or activity, God would still be. This point will have import when the question of creation is raised.
God – Triune Being
It should be of little surprise that the doctrine of the Trinity has not only served to split the Church into “heretical” and “orthodox” segments, but has also provided ample arguing ground for theologians throughout most of its history. Its relatedness to any kind of “reality” in God has given rise to no end of debate within my own thoughts, as well, and it is not without a great amount of joy that I found John Macquarrie voicing some my own thoughts on the nature of the Trinity. Specifically, I found that the revelation of Being, in and through “God the Second Time” (lecture notes 1/19/90), to be both acceptable and complimentary to the standard understanding of the divine Logos as the agency of creation—or, to borrow from Macquarrie, the agency of God’s “letting be.” As we will see, this ties the basic (and correct) notion from the prior section together with this one, and will provide direction for the following section.
According to Macquarrie, “Holy Being . . . has let itself be known in the Christian community of faith under the Trinitarian symbolism of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God” (Macquarrie, p.198). This act of revelation is accomplished by the second person of the trinity, which is itself set within the context and unity of Holy Being. Essentially, God the Father is identified as “primordial Being,” God the Son is called “expressive Being,” and God the Holy Spirit is understood as “unitive Being.” Each name is a description for either the nature or the function of each aspect of God. These tags are not to be interpreted modalistically—i.e., one God, three masks—but, rather, each as actual Being. These three “persons” ...
The Father, as “primordial Being,” was the topic of the preceding section; it is this “primordial Being” which “lets be” all else, both actual and potential. “Primordial Being” is of such a nature that our powers of conceptualization—so limited by our very nature as beings—are incapable of grasping it. Our dilemma is similar to that of a two-dimensional creature being confronted with a three dimensional one. The two-dimensional creature’s ability to point “up” at the one in three dimensions is restricted to the narrow limits of its two-dimensional frame of existence. To put it simply, a two-dimensional being is incapable of pointing “up” because “up” isn’t a direction for it. Macquarrie gives us an illustration which I like, and have modified, to carry his point further. He likens primordial Being to a pool of deep, clear, formless water … much like a pool of water to be found in a cave, deep underground. Its very existence would remain unknown until such time as a wave were to flutter across its surface, revealing both its presence and something about the nature of its contents. In this analogy, the wave would have to be “God the Second Time” – “expressive Being” (Macquarrie p. 198-199).
... are not just three stages in the community’s experience, or three temporal phases in God’s self-manifestation, but belong together in the “substance” of the Godhead, that is to say, in Being.... (Macquarrie p. 198)
The Son, as expressive Being, is the “expression,” or manifestation of Being. The Son is the agent for the action of primordial Being in creation:
We find this related in the first verses of the Gospel of John, where it is affirmed that through the Word—through expressive Being—everything was made (John 1:3). It is expressive Being which reveals the intractable primordial Being. Primordial Being has never been without expressive Being; they are “co-eternal” (Macquarrie p. 200). And, ontologically speaking, it is expressive Being which is active in primordial Being's “letting be.”
“The energy of primordial Being is poured out through expressive Being and gives rise to the world of particular beings. . ." (Macquarrie p.199)
The Holy Spirit, as “unitive Being,” provides the glue which unites Being and beings. Unitive Being brings God the Father and God the Son together with the creation in order that the greatest expression of the freedom found in “letting be” may be made manifest. This freedom is in continued creation, the continued “letting be,” which can be found in worship and in everyday living (Macquarrie p. 201-202).
The Godhead, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are all active in creation—not just the Father (i.e., primordial being). But what does it mean to say that God has created? What is it to “let be?” Macquarrie’s use of the terminology leaves one thinking that it’s nearly a passive function of expressive Being, and while this may be Macquarrie’s thinking it is most certainly not mine.
God – Letting Be
For John Macquarrie, in keeping with his “existential-ontological” method, the nature of creation is not one which addresses the traditional questions to which the Scriptural stories refer. The question of creation (“letting be”)is not one linked to time or space, nor even to events, but, rather, to the nature of creator and creature. In other words:
This is the question Macquarrie is interested in asking through the creation event. Thoughts regarding the manner, place, and time of creation are considered to be more the realm of science, and subjects about which theology has nothing to relate. Beginnings are not important, nor is time, primarily because Being is time, creation and beginning are God (Macquarrie p. 214-215). “Creaturliness” is the key to the whole question of creation. The very nature of creatureliness is dependence upon Being for existence. Macquarrie rightly recognizes that the nature of being a creature is that of being caught “between nothing and Being” (Macquarrie p. 219). God is the one who makes the creature be; without God, the creature would cease to be. The same is true for all creation. It is the continual letting be of the primordial Being that establishes creation. This action is manifested through expressive Being, who is the ultimate One in letting be. Expressive Being is the agent through which creation is achieved. It is also that which enters creation, joining the transcendent primordial Being with the dependent being of creation to become one. In and through this union, human beings are placed into a special relationship with God; they are the beings which have the ability to cooperate with Being in the creative process, through the presence of the Holy Spirit—unitive Being. In this way, human beings are placed within a matrix of creatureliness—part of creation, yes, but also sharing in the Being which lets all things be (Macquarrie pp. 220-221).
What does it mean to be a creature? or, How does it affect our understanding of ourselves and our world to believe that we and it are creations of God? (Macquarrie p. 212)
The problem with this understanding of creation is not in what it says as in what it leaves out. It is correct in recognizing that the Scriptural accounts of creation were initially meant to explain many things, and not just the question of origins. Questions of why and purpose can be properly addressed through these stories without the addition of literalism. The problem with this understanding of creation surrounds, yet again, the understanding of Being as that which is creation, beginning, and time. Macquarrie says:
Creation need not be understood as having a beginning, and he is wise to make this observation; if time did have a beginning, if there was a “first moment,” then it can be postulated that there was a time when God was not. The problem with his reasoning is that science does, indeed, point to a time before creation. The question as to what came before the Big Bang is “appropriately” left to cosmology—a field as esoteric as the wildest metaphysical philosophy—and within this field there is a growing consensus among many “experts” that the prime moment had no antecedent (or, so say Stephen W. Hawking, Heinz R. Pagels, William K. Hartmann, and Carl Sagan … just to name a few). In other words, according to these eminent Physicists, there was nothing before the beginning: no steady state universe, no oscillating universe … nothing. Theology is, in this way, sorely impacted by science, despite Macquarrie's statement to the contrary.
The true “beginning” of creation is not some moment of past time but simply God or Being. He is always the or principium that lets be whatever is, but he is this at any time and at all times. (Macquarrie p. 217)
Is creation real or figurative? What is the action of “letting be?” Is it an orientation to Being that is “created,” with all the talk about existence being merely figurative, or is there something more concrete in the language of “letting be” … something which points to a reality in creation, and not just meaning and orientation. I think this may be close to the truth. It seems to me that God is not dependent on the action of creation, nor on those beings within it, for existence. The situation is not just that Being “lets be,” and it is through this that Being is. Rather, Being is, regardless of creative action. God’s existence is fundamental to all else, and is in no way a part of, or dependent upon, creation. Indeed, it is beyond, before, and fundamental to all of creation. Through expressive Being, primordial Being not only creates, but participates in creation. Through unitive Being, creation participates in letting be with primordial and expressive Being. And, through creation, Being expresses its nature to “let be” all that is.
Macquarrie, John. Principles of Christian Theology. New York: SCM Press, (1987)
© 1990 Gregory S. Neal*
All Rights Reserved
*This paper was written in 1990 for a Course in Systematic Theology which Rev. Neal took while in the Masters Degree program at Duke University.
As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.