Trinity and Catholicity: A Survey of Global Trinitarianism for Western Readers

Christians in the West are becoming more familiar with the rapid growth of Christianity around the globe, whether this is through depictions of the persecuted church in China, through exposure on mission trips or online, or through the impact African Christians have played in recent years in debates within the United Methodist Church or as leaders of the Anglican Church of North America. Such contexts, however, may provide limited opportunity for Western Christians to understand the deeper beliefs, practices, and convictions of their brothers and sisters in Christ around the world. As a result, some Western Christians may feel they lack any theological understanding of Christian groups that may have seemed quite different to them after brief exposure. Others might just assume majority world theology is identical to the typical American or British approach to theology. Either approach might lead one to conclude that there is little need to read theology from around the world.

The fact is, however, that Western theologians can benefit greatly from reading global theology, and particularly so in the doctrine of the Trinity.[1] Yet it must be acknowledged that Western Christians seeking to read majority world theology often face considerable obstacles in their efforts to expand their trinitarian reading lists. Besides obvious language barriers, those trained in a Western theological context often have limited exposure to global theology and so have limited knowledge of how to practically engage such texts. With this in mind, this essay will offer a limited introduction to global trinitarianism, a guide by one Western theologian for other Western theologians, clergy, and laity who hope to benefit from the spiritual gifts that majority world Christians have to offer Western readers for the common good. Even a brief introduction such as this will show that if Western readers of global trinitarianism can overcome certain obstacles to our understanding, we can become aware of blind spots in our own theological discussions of the Trinity.

Challenges Facing Western Readers of
Global Trinitarianism

Western readers of global trinitarianism will find many obstacles to their ability to read majority world texts. It must be granted that many texts are not translated into English, and those that are translated have often been selected not because of their appeal within the culture from which they originate, but rather because they will sell to Western audiences.[2] Western readers are often exposed to global theology through texts written by immigrants from the majority world to the United States or Europe, especially if such immigrants are professional scholars. Scholarly and written theological texts are also always imperfect (and sometimes inaccurate) reflections of the spirituality and theology of average Christians on the ground. The first challenge to Western readers of global trinitarianism is simply that our representative samples of global theology may not always be very representative of the global Church itself.

Within those texts which are accessible, one strand of global trinitarianism which English-language readers should be aware of is the inculturation strand, which attempts to articulate a theology of the Trinity within the philosophical and cultural categories of various majority world peoples. Often, the stated goal is to draw on indigenous philosophies in much the same way that Christians from the patristic period adopted and adapted various Greek philosophical paradigms. Thus, the late Ghanaian theologian Kwame Bediako (1945–2008) considers the modern African context a parallel to the time when Christianity was “transposed from its original Jewish matrix” into a Hellenistic context.[3] In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Brahmabandhab Upadhyay (1861–1907), an important Indian Bengali Roman Catholic theologian, worked to develop a Thomistic account of the Trinity by drawing on Shankara, an eighth-century Indian philosopher, rather than on Aristotle. Upadhyay compared his effort to use Shankara with patristic efforts at using Greek philosophy.[4]

“Our representative samples of global theology may not always be very representative of the global Church itself.”

While some may find the idea of a trinitarian theology divorced from Platonic, Stoic, and Aristotelian categories concerning, practitioners of such inculturation efforts around the world have made a compelling case that these efforts are methodologically appropriate. Most famously, Gambian Lamin Sanneh (1942–2019) has argued that the translation of Christian ideas and texts from one language, culture, and worldview into another is a fundamental feature of Christianity that can be traced to its earliest origins, when the writers of the New Testament wrote in Greek and cited the Septuagint rather than writing in Hebrew or Aramaic and relying on a predecessor for the Masoretic Text. Sanneh capably reads much of Christian history as shaped by the tensions between a vernacularizing tendency (represented, for example, in the Byzantine Cyrillic liturgy) and a centralizing tendency (evident, for example, in Rome’s historic reliance on three languages—Hebrew, Latin, and Greek).[5] Sanneh argues that the fact that Christianity does not have a single revealed language, as Islam does with Arabic, implies that it is a religion automatically open to translation. He notes, “Bible translation is not just cultural leverage; it is divine witness.”[6] Human languages are all imperfect, and hence incompletely able to represent God—a fact that lies behind a plethora of traditional Western doctrinal categories such as analogy, accommodation, and anthropomorphism. The Western scholastic tradition therefore speaks of theological knowledge as ectypal, which is the image of and gracious participation in God’s own archetypal self-knowledge.[7] The fact that God is known in different languages is testimony to the scope of the missio Dei.

Insofar as the words chosen in the translation process to convey a particular idea have established uses with particular cultural, religious, and/or philosophical connotations and denotations, translation is also always inculturation. Explaining old truths in a new language will result in different associations and assumptions behind these expressions. This point is made powerfully in Shusaku Endo’s (1923–96) renowned Japanese-Christian novel Silence when Ferreira, the old missionary priest, argues that the Japanese use of Dainichi (Japanese for “the Great Sun”) for Deus (Latin for “God”) resulted in a Christianity that had been like a butterfly caught by a spider, where soon only a skeleton remained.[8] Ferreira represents the ongoing fear that translation leads to a loss of theological meaning. Yet, against this fear, modern scholars of inculturation have shown that the imperfection of human language and the incompleteness of human knowledge does not entail that God is not truly known. We do know God, even as we know in part (1 Cor. 13:9).

Western Readers and the Critique of Global Trinitarianism

Returning, then, to the specifics of trinitarian theology, it is important to avoid both relativizing theological truth and absolutizing any cultural expression of theological truth. Many majority world theologians have been quick to point out where the important figures of Western theology have been shaped by their own cultural location. For example, Karl Barth (1886–1968) is clearly shaped by Western philosophical predecessors such as Hegel and Kierkegaard and by the needs of the Church in his own historical context, in which secularism was growing and Protestant liberalism was allying itself to dangerous nationalist movements, often through the use of natural theology.[9] In this context, Barth’s link between trinitarianism and special revelation, the dialectical features of his early theology, and his sharp critiques of natural revelation make sense. Recognizing the cultural situatedness of Barth’s theology does not falsify his claims, which must be assessed for their truthfulness against Scripture as read with the help of reason and tradition.[10] However, the cultural location in which Barth wrote does suggest that the driving questions behind his theology and the philosophical idioms in which those questions were answered may not be appropriate for all contexts.

 “Upadhyay worked to develop a Thomistic account of the Trinity by drawing on Shankara, an eighth-century Indian philosopher, rather than on Aristotle.”

For Western, English-language readers of majority world trinitarianism, the balancing act required to avoid both relativizing theology and absolutizing our own cultural understandings can be quite difficult. To evaluate Brahmabandhab Upadhyay’s theology fairly, for instance, would require a firm grasp of the philosophy of Shankara, something few Western readers are likely to possess. For example, suppose that an American reader found one of Upadhyay’s teachings a poor fit with Scripture. How might they respond?

From the start, let us note we are only considering a hypothetical problem, since a full evaluation of Upadhyay’s thought will take us too far afield of the subject at hand, and so a hypothetical disagreement must suffice. Let us also set aside for now the complex relationship between culture and biblical exegesis, and assume that this hypothetical exegetical critique would find a wide range of consensus not only with other American readers, but across numerous other cultures.[11] Even given such consensus, one could still not fairly evaluate Upadhyay’s deployment of Scripture without a grasp of the philosophy of Shankara, because at least two possible interpretations of Upadhyay’s hypothetically mistaken theology are possible.

First, he may have taken important steps in an incomplete transformation and deployment of Shankara toward biblical ends, in which case we might judge Upadhyay along the lines of Athanasius of Alexandria (c.296–373), who made clear contributions toward the development of Hellenistic Christian theology, but whose Word-flesh Christology, for example, would seem to fall short of both Scripture and the later standards of Chalcedon. If this were the case, Upadhyay would represent an important step in a trajectory toward orthodox inculturation, but an incomplete one.

A second option, however, could be that this hypothetical mistake of Upadhyay would be developing and enhancing aspects of Shankara that are fundamentally unbiblical, much like ancient gnostics took an anti-material stance that was fundamentally at odds with the canonical creation narrative and the eschatological hope of a bodily resurrection and new creation. The problem, however, is that fairly extensive knowledge of Shankara is required to understand which situation is the case, putting many Western readers in a difficult position.

In light of the challenges of reading inculturated trinitarian theologies, I would propose two guidelines for the Western reader of English-translated texts. First, the reader would benefit from distinguishing between metaphorical and literal theological statements. The former are often found in analogies used to explain the Trinity, which are notoriously limited even without the complications of cross-cultural analysis. At times these metaphors will seem unorthodox, but given the limited nature of metaphors in the first place, combined with the fact that few metaphors are designed for readers or hearers at a cultural distance, it may be best to restrain judgment. For example, contemporary Nigerian Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator compares the Trinity to the Yoruba concept of the Obirin Meta, a compound derived from “obirin” (woman) and “meta” (three). “When you put the two together, the name designates a woman who combines the strength, character, personality, and beauty of three women,” Orobator explains. “Obirin meta is a woman with many sides, a many-sided character. She is a multifunctional woman of unmatched density and unbounded substance.”[12] Though he acknowledges the limits of the metaphor, he considers this a helpful inculturated analogy of the Trinity.[13] When I read this metaphor, it seems quite modalistic, as if God were a single divine person and hypostasis merely fulfilling different roles in the economy. However, in humility, I have to recognize that I don’t fully understand the usual deployment of the Obirin Meta concept in Yoruba society—if the term means one woman who seems as if she is always simultaneously three, the metaphor may be more viable. I therefore avoid using this metaphor to explain the Trinity in an American context, yet I recognize it was not written for me, and I cannot fully understand or evaluate it without learning more about the Yoruba.

On the other hand, when Westerners read literal theological statements, it is easier to evaluate them for their orthodoxy. For example, when Indian theologian Keshub Chunder Sen (1838–84) argues that Jesus is pre-existent only “as an Idea, as a plan of life, as a predetermined dispensation yet to be realized…a light not yet manifested,” it is clear that this teaching, no matter its philosophical origin and cultural impact, cannot be accepted.[14] Yet, here is where a second principle for Western readers may be helpful: if a claim from a majority world theologian is heretical, it is prudent to condemn the statement rather than the system or the individual, at least in early stages of analysis. Sen’s denial of the real pre-existence of Christ obviously undermines the Trinity, but what is less obvious is whether his theological project of inculturation is, despite its obvious flaws, a step toward a fully inculturated trinitarian orthodoxy, much like Irenaeus of Lyons’s theology was despite a tendency to treat the Son and Spirit primarily in terms of the economy, or if Sen’s theology results in a complete dead end like the ancient adoptionists. To fully evaluate Sen’s system would likely require a grasp of Indian thought beyond my and many of my readers’ abilities. Yet, if Sen’s ideas were introduced somehow to my church community, a clear defense of real pre-existence would be in order. Similarly, were I to have the opportunity to speak with someone who held to Sen’s position (Sen himself died in 1884), it would be appropriate to critique this statement as part of the catholic Church’s mutual accountability and discernment processes.

Global Trinitarianism and the Critique of
Western Theology

So far, I have discussed inculturation and trinitarian theology as if majority world theology stands under the judgment of Western theology, but it is crucial to recognize that Western theology is subject to the critique and judgment of theologians in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. In fact, since the Western reader’s tendency is to position him or herself as the critic of the text being read, it can be even more important to be open to critique from the majority world. Theological accountability and discernment belong to Christians around the world in order to be used for the common good. One of the benefits global theology presents to Western readers is that it can open our eyes to places where our theology has been captive to our culture and history without our full awareness. In such instances, the theology of the majority world can correct certain problems within Western theological discourse. I will focus on three areas where such correction might be welcomed: personhood, divine naming, and the Trinity in relation to ethics.


One perennial struggle in much contemporary Western trinitarian theology is the effort to understand the persons of the Godhead in adequately relational ways. Consider the narrative put forward by the English theologian Colin Gunton (1941–2003), who begins his narrative of the individualization of personhood, fairly, by placing blame on Descartes’s individualist conception of the person as a res cogitans, a “thinking thing,” before moving, somewhat fairly, to critique Boethius for linking persons with individual substances and, unfairly (in my estimation), to critiquing Augustine for how he deploys the concepts of relation and mind in trinitarian theology.[15] Leaving contestable details of the trinitarian fall narrative aside, Gunton is one of many contemporary Western thinkers convinced that our Western tendency, due to our Cartesian view of human personhood, is to develop a theology of divine personhood that is too individualistic and too linked with discrete minds. Our trinitarian theology is thus inadequately relational, and ultimately amounts to merely a partially failed attempt at inculturation, rather than the last word on the dogma for all people, times, and places.

“At times some metaphors will seem unorthodox, but given the limited nature of metaphors and the fact that few metaphors are designed for readers at a cultural distance, it may be best to restrain judgment.”

Many global trinitarian theologies unfold in contexts in which personhood is understood in more relational terms, setting the stage for a more adequately relational understanding of the divine hypostases. For example, contemporary Filipino theologian George Capaque works to develop his understanding of the trinitarian processions through an analysis of the Filipino word for family, mag-anak from the prefix mag (which verbalizes a noun) and anak (child). In Filipino, mag-anak is “literally, ‘to bear children,’” such that family has no meaning apart from generation in much the same way that Trinity has no meaning if not understood to reference the processions of spiration and generation.[16] Nozomu Miyahira, a contemporary Japanese theologian, makes a similar point from a Japanese perspective. He argues that “in contrast to the Western understanding of humanity, in Japan the relationship precedes the subject, not the other way around.”[17] This is evident, for example, in the Japanese cultural tendency to tailor behavior to the needs of others rather than individualistically pursuing truthfulness to oneself.[18] In this context, the Japanese term aida, a word to name persons that literally means “betweenness,” clearly conveys the relational nature of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.[19] In the Trinity there are three “betweennesses.” Western readers may not grasp the linguistic or cultural subtleties of Miyahira’s or Capaque’s points, but in their texts they do provide a challenge to habitual Western individualism.

Diving Naming

Another oft-discussed theme in modern Western trinitarianism is the naming of the divine persons with masculine titles like Father and Son. Arguing that such terminology contributes to the oppression and exclusion of women, some Western theologians have drawn on feminine scriptural images of God in labor or giving birth (e.g., Deut. 32:18, Is. 42:14) to depict God as Mother. Consider the example of American theologian Elizabeth Johnson (b. 1941), who combines such themes with the feminine image of wisdom (sophia in Greek) in the Old Testament to describe God as Mother-Sophia, Jesus-Sophia, and Spirit-Sophia.[20] Other Western theologians prefer to name God by appeal to genderless appropriations, such that God may be Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. For example, contemporary American theologian David Cunningham prefers to speak of the Trinity in terms of “the Three,” or else to speak of the relations in non-gendered terms like initiation, fruition, issuance, and emergence.[21] Of course, the tendency is not uniform, but the discussion is prevalent in many Western trinitarian works.

Some of the most compelling critiques of such Western innovations, in my opinion, have been found in trinitarian works written by majority-world theologians. For example, evangelical Puertorriquena theologian Zaida Maldonado Pérez argues that the use of terms like “Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier” does not resolve any concerns over sexism in the Trinity because the terms are all gendered in many languages like Spanish.[22] Also, well-intentioned as they might be, such terms simply remain unfamiliar to the prayer life of many Latinas, and so come across as just another Western cultural imposition. As such, they are not a viable catholic response to any sexism found in the Church.[23] Kwok Pui-lan, a Hong Kong-born postcolonial theologian, argues that “a simple change of gender” may not resolve the issues at hand. For example, if the name “Mother” is taken to refer primarily to nurturing roles, then calling God “Mother” may simply reinscribe the gender roles that require women to be childbearers and caregivers, restrictions that progressive theologians critique. Further, a name change does not deal with underlying issues behind imperialistic versions of Christianity, which are often a deeper concern for post-colonial majority world theologians.[24]

Social Ethics

Though Kwok does not center the Trinity in her postcolonial theology, other majority world theologians do deploy the doctrine as a model for social critique. Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff (b. 1938) is perhaps the most well-known advocate of this approach. Boff’s Trinity and Society critiques capitalism for its individualism and socialism for its collectivizing at the expense of individuals, advocating instead a balanced economy attentive to the needs of the poor.[25] Though Boff is the most familiar trinitarian liberationist to Western readers, similar perspectives are found in theologians like Ghanaian Mercy Oduyoye (b. 1934), who sees the Trinity as a means of balancing the individual and the community in political contexts,[26] or in the thought of Uruguayan Juan Luis Segundo (1925–96), who saw the sociality of the Trinity as a means of pushing back against a privatized religiosity separated from the social life of Christians with its ethical concerns.[27] 

“If Western trinitarian theologians would also attend to social ethics with vigor and conviction, perhaps Christians around the world would find less reason to deploy the Trinity in service of social reform.”

The broad ethical emphasis of much majority world liberationist trinitarian theology serves as a third challenge to Western trinitarianism. Here, though, significant caution is in order. There are strong reasons to believe that a “social trinitarianism” which uses the immanent Trinity as a pattern for social ethics is a problematic and futile endeavor.[28] After all, the dissimilarity between God and creation is so great that such an approach can be used to defend almost any social program—there never seems to be a time when the cart doesn’t end up before the horse. Far better to derive our social ethic from parts of Scripture and loci of systematic theology with more direct connections to society and history than to seek a supposedly immovable foundation for it in the Trinity.

Yet, the impulse toward social application, which has featured prominently in much majority world trinitarianism—some of which has influenced a similar trajectory in recent Western political theology—does reveal a weakness in much Western systematic theology as a whole. Much of our trinitarian thought has been done in an abstract manner often detached from the day-to-day experiences of Christians and from their struggles in social ethics, dimensions of theology which many Latino and Latina figures describe as producing theology en lo cotidiano (“in the quotidian”)and en la lucha (“in the struggle”), respectively.[29] While I am not convinced by Boff and others that the obscurities of the Trinity ad intra will resolve modern debates in social ethics, I am deeply troubled at the possibility that my academic work in trinitarianism may prove a distraction that keeps me from engaging in combating injustices in my own community. This third critique I find most personally convicting as I spend so much time alone in my office writing and reading. If Western trinitarian theologians like myself would also attend to social ethics with vigor and conviction, perhaps Christians around the world would find less reason to deploy the Trinity in service of social reform. The social deployment of the Trinity in theologians like Leonardo Boff therefore serves as a challenge to me and to some readers of this essay to improve our own work in social ethics. 

Much more could be said, and this article only provides a brief and introductory survey of global trinitarianism. Yet, even this short analysis orienting the reader to basic challenges and potential benefits may result in more fruitful reading. The best way to benefit from global trinitarianism is to read it.

Glenn Butner is Assistant Professor of Theology and Christian Ministry at Sterling College, where he also directs the honors program. He is the author of Trinitarian Dogmatics: Exploring the Grammar of the Christian Doctrine of God (Baker Academic, 2022); The Son Who Learned Obedience: A Theological Case against the Eternal Submission of the Son (Pickwick, 2018); and Jesus the Refugee: Ancient Injustice and Modern Solidarity (Fortress Press, 2023).

[1] I define Western theology as theology written from the perspective of the dominant cultures of Europe, the United States, and Canada. Some minority and indigenous groups that are Western in geography will fall outside of the label as I use it in important respects, while other representative members of such groups might still be Western in my definition. I will largely focus on English-language readers within the Western theological tradition, though much of what I say will apply more broadly.

[2] Edmond Tang gives the example of Japan, where much Japanese theology has been written in Japanese for the Japanese, while some translated works (for example, Kosuke Koyama’s Water Buffalo Theology) are not particularly impactful within Japan itself. See Edmond Tang, “East Asia,” in An Introduction to Third World Theologies,ed. John Parratt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 90–91.

[3] Kwame Bediako, Jesus and the Gospel in Africa: History and Experience (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2004), 63.

[4] For a helpful summary, see P. V. Joseph, An Indian Trinitarian Theology of Missio Dei: Insights from St. Augustine and Brahmabandhab Uadhyay (Eugene: Pickwick, 2019), 94–97.

[5] See Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture,rev. ed. (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2007).

[6] Sanneh, Translating the Message, 108.

[7] See, for example, Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology,trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr. (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1992), I.2.6.

[8] Shusaku Endo, Silence,trans. William Johnston (New York: Taplinger, 1969), 148–49.

[9] For example, see the analysis in James Henry Owino Kombo, The Doctrine of God in African Christian Thought: The Holy Trinity, Theological Hermeneutics and the African Intellectual Culture (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 106–14, 119; and Nozomu Miyahira, Towards a Theology of the Concord of God: A Japanese Perspective on the Trinity (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 2000), ch. 3.

[10] I do have certain objections to Barth’s theology on other grounds.

[11] For introductory discussions of the impact of culture on exegesis, see Elizabeth Mburu, African Hermeneutics (Carlisle: Hippo, 2019); and E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012).

[12] Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator, Theology Brewed in an African Pot (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2008), 31.

[13] Orobator, Theology Brewed in an African Pot, 31–33.

[14] M. M. Thomas, The Acknowledged Christ of the Indian Renaissance (London: SCM, 1969), 60.

[15] Colin E. Gunton, The Promise of Trinitarian Theology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991), 89–90, 94, 96–97.

[16] George N. Capaque, “The Trinity in Asian Contexts,” in Asian Christian Theology: Evangelical Perspectives, ed. Timoteo D. Gener and Stephen T. Pardue (Carlisle: Langham, 2019), 77.

[17] Miyahira, Towards a Theology of the Concord of God,, 117.

[18] Miyahira, Towards a Theology of the Concord of God, 118.

[19] Miyahira, Towards a Theology of the Concord of God, 118, 143.

[20] Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad, 1992).

[21] David S. Cunningham, These Three Are One: The Practice of Trinitarian Theology (Malden: Blackwell, 1998), 50, 67–69.

[22] Though Puerto Ricans have U.S. citizenship, I still treat Maldonado Pérez as a representative of majority world theology insofar as (1) Puerto Rico’s connection to the United States remains partial and the byproduct of colonialism, and (2) her argument would apply to the many Spanish-speaking theologians outside of American territories.

[23] Zaida Maldonado Pérez, “The Trinity Es and Son Familia,” in Latina Evangélicas: A Theological Survey from the Margins,ed. Loida I. Martell-Otero, Zaida Maldonado Pérez, and Elizabeth Conde-Frazier (Eugene: Cascade, 2013), 54–55.

[24] Kwok Pui-lan, Postcolonial Imagination and Feminist Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 131.

[25] Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society,trans. Paul Burns (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1988).

[26] Mercy Amba Oduyoye, Hearing and Knowing: Theological Reflections on Christianity in Africa (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1986), 139–41.

[27] Juan Luis Segundo, Our Idea of God,trans. John Drury (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1974), 66–69.

[28] This is, in short, not usually how the Bible appeals to the Trinity (John 17’s discussion of church unity being a noted exception), and the doctrine of analogy suggests that there will always be a greater dissimilarity between the Trinity and our social institutions than similarity.

[29] In an American context, such concepts are most clearly linked with Cuban-born theologian and ethicist Ada María Isasi-Díaz. See Ada María Isasi-Díaz, En la Lucha: Elaborating a Mujerista Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993).

*Image Credit: Unsplash


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