Wesleyan Trinitarianism

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail the incarnate Deity!

‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ is one of my favourite Christmas carols, and I’m not alone. It’s one of the few carols that manage to combine a rousing tune with grown-up theology, all the while avoiding historical and meteorological blunders. (See amid the winter’s snow?) It’s nice to be able to sing carols that don’t require me to cross my fingers at certain points. But as I sang the lines quoted above at our Christmas Day service, I wondered whether a Social Trinitarian ought to do precisely that.

Among those who actually think about such matters, the two most popular understandings of the doctrine of the Trinity are Latin Trinitarianism (LT) and Social Trinitarianism (ST). According to LT, God is essentially one being who subsists in three distinct persons. Each person of the Trinity is numerically identical to God, but numerically distinct from the other two persons. As I’ve argued elsewhere (and so have others) this conception of the Trinity is mysterious to the point of paradox, but arguably it enjoys the best support from the biblical data and the strict monotheism of the early trinitarian creeds.

According to ST, on the other hand, God is three distinct personal beings who share precisely the same divine attributes and who are necessarily united in mutual love and benevolent purpose. On this conception, God is essentially a society of divine persons. God is, in effect, a group. The main objection to ST is that it’s closer to tritheism than monotheism. (Some theologians, most notably Jürgen Moltmann, have courageously tried to spin this apparent vice as a virtue.)

Both LT and ST reject the heretical position of modalism, according to which the persons of the Trinity are not ultimately distinct. (The modalist’s God is more like one divine person who plays three different roles.) But the two views differ on whether God is ultimately Three rather than One, ontologically speaking. LT insists that God is neither ultimately One nor ultimately Three; rather, God is ultimately Three-in-One and One-in-Three. In contrast, ST comes down squarely on the side of plurality: God is ultimately Three.

So what does any of this have to do with ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’? Consider the first of the two quoted lines. According to standard dictionary definitions, the word ‘Godhead’ refers here either to God qua God (i.e., the Deity, the Creator, the one God of monotheism) or to the divine nature (i.e., the essence of deity which is possessed fully by each of the three persons, according to trinitarian theology).

Take the first interpretation, where ‘Godhead’ refers simply to God, the Deity. I suggest that this is the most natural reading, since the first definition of ‘Godhead’ is usually in view when used with the definite article. (We would say “Jesus is the second person of the Godhead” rather than “Jesus is the second person of Godhead”,  but we would say “Jesus fully possessed Godhead” rather than “Jesus fully possessed the Godhead”.) The echo in the line that follows (“Hail the Incarnate Deity”) tends to confirm that this reading is the correct one.

Now, this first interpretation causes no problem for LT, which holds that the Son of God is one and the same being as God (the Godhead). Jesus is God Incarnate, not merely one-part-of-God Incarnate or one-member-of-God Incarnate. However, the same reading couldn’t be endorsed by an advocate of ST, since ST denies that the Son of God is one and the same being as God. Rather, the Son is only one third of God (the Godhead). Jesus Christ is not the Godhead “veiled in flesh” on this view.

Consider now the second interpretation, where ‘Godhead’ refers to the divine nature. Would this reading be more acceptable to the advocate of ST? According to both LT and ST, the divine nature is possessed fully by all three persons of the Trinity. So both agree that Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, fully possessed ‘Godhead’ in this second sense. Nevertheless, this second (and less common) meaning of ‘Godhead’ leads to a theologically awkward reading of Wesley’s lyric. On a ST view, the divine nature is an abstract set of divine attributes shared by the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. It’s hard to see how the divine nature in that sense could be “veiled in flesh”. Indeed, to be theologically precise, we ought to say that the Incarnation involved a divine person taking on a human nature, not a divine nature taking on a human nature. So it seems we have both grammatical and theological reasons to prefer the first reading of Wesley’s verse over the second. But if this is correct, a Social Trinitarian ought to take issue with the idea that in Christ we see the Godhead “veiled in flesh”.

So what’s the lesson here? Some will conclude that Christians should give more thought to the theology of Christmas carols. Others, no doubt, will conclude the very opposite! Either way, sustained reflection on the mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation can only increase our awe at the God who created us and then condescended not only to live among us but also to suffer and die that we might have eternal life.

Hail the heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris’n with healing in His wings.
Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die.
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.