by F. Gerald Downing
from Signs of the Times No. 70 - Jul 2018

Although to my mind Adrian Thatcher had the better of the argument with John Goodchild (on God as Trinity, Signs of the Times April 2018), I suggest both would gain from a wider reading of the agreed sources, rather than relying on the theologians’ common focus of abstract metaphysics.

A much more promising and perhaps more engaging field would be ancient talk of ‘friendship’, both in the New Testament scriptures and in the ‘Fathers’ - the Cappadocians in particular.

There was ancient agreement that true friends were equal, spontaneously of one mind in everything, able to be frank with one another, open to each other. They had a shared ethos, a shared sense of the good and the just. And all their possessions were held in common. Friendship talk is in fact where the ancients come closest to our talk of ‘persons in relationships’. The most obvious early Christian example is Luke’s portrayal of the early Jesus movement in Jerusalem (Acts 2:43-47); but the elements of friendship talk occur much more widely in the New Testament canon. It is there in stated ideals for Christian community, but also of the relationship with followers that Jesus and God offer (e.g. John 15:13; Rom 5:6-11, and much more).

Significantly, in our New Testament, friendship talk is also part of God-talk as such (e.g. John 5:30, 8:28, 16:15, 17:10; 1 Cor 12:4-6). And much of this is clearly taken up by the Cappadocians, for instance, by Basil in On the Holy Spirit. ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord?’ expects the answer, the Word, in the light of Hebrews’ and John’s assurance that the Father has shown the Son everything and that the Son is in tune with the will of the Father. There is no hint, insists Basil, in the language used, of any servility (which would preclude friendship), not any other inequality. And within this perfect amity, friendship by nature, the Holy Spirit must be taken to be included, the Spirit who is able to make us of one mind with God. The ‘inner relations’ of Father, Son and Spirit are best seen as friendship. In my essay ‘Friends in God’, Anglican Theological Review 97.3 (2015), pp. 485-496, I spelled this out in some detail.

I guess that when the Fathers talk metaphysics, and deploy abstractions such as ‘prosȏpon’, or the ‘relationality’ of words in abstract, they leave us cold. Friendship talk is much livelier, more assimilable; more ‘personal’, in something like our sense.