An East-West Conversation about the Doctrine of the Trinity

(The following is a paper I wrote in seminary.)

1.  Basic Thesis of The Trinity in Asian Perspective

The basic thesis of Jung Young Lee’s book, The Trinity in Asian Perspective, is that “Christianity cannot be understood exclusively from a Western perspective: Our understanding of Christianity requires a world perspective.”[1]  To that end, Lee proposes “to undertake a new interpretation of the divine Trinity, the core of the Christian faith, from an Asian perspective.”[2]  While this comes off as radical at first, Lee softens the blow by adding that his intention is “not to replace the traditional interpretation of the Trinity but to complement it.”[3]  Thus, Lee’s work should not be seen primarily as a supplement to or even as a reformulation of the already existing doctrine of the Trinity as confessed by the church catholic throughout the generations; rather, he wants to present a version of the Trinity palatable to the East Asian context.

Lee states his central theological assumptions at the beginning of his work, the first one being what he calls the unknowability of God.  In his own words, “God transcends our knowing.  God cannot be categorized in our finite expressions.  Thus, in principle, the God who is told is not the real God.”[4]  The fundamental point of this assumption is that finite human language cannot capture the fullness of the infinite God.  But for Lee, it is not merely the case that finite human language fails to adequately describe God; he goes so far as to say that everything humans say about God eventually distorts the real nature of God.  This is not simply a shortcoming due to finitude.  Rather, humans cannot even speak of God because all human language with God as its referent functions as a misrepresentation of the very character and being of God.  “The more we say,” argues Lee, “the more we show our ignorance.”[5]

What this means for Lee is that humans “must not speak of the reality of God” but “of our own (limited) understanding of God, the symbolic expression of God, which belongs to the domain of our theological inquiry.”[6]  Since all human language inevitably fails to capture the essence of God or portray it correctly, theological inquiry is relegated to categories of human knowledge about God rather than categories of God proper.  All theology proper, for Lee, is essentially theological anthropology masquerading as theology proper.  He says, “when we speak of God, we therefore mean the God of our understanding, who is not identical with Godself.”[7]  Human thought about God, not God’s own self, is the final referent in all human theologizing.  Thus, when Lee seeks to present the Trinity in Asian perspective, what he actually does is present his own symbolic understanding of the Trinity rather than the Trinity itself, since the Trinity itself, for him, is beyond categories of human predication.

Lee notes the consequences of this as he offers his second assumption, namely the inevitability of absolute contextualization in theology.  He says, “contextualization is inevitable in theology, because the task of theology as a symbolic quest is to seek the meaning of divine reality rather than the divine reality itself.”[8]  Theologians cannot discuss God’s own self because God transcends human understanding.  They are therefore limited to a discussion of particular symbols which represent and give meaning to God.  Each of these symbols is relative to the culture in which they are produced.  This means that the meaning of the divine is itself culturally-relative.  Different symbols can be used of God in different cultures and generations, which leads to different understandings of God in different cultures and generations.  Lee says, “because the doctrine of the Trinity was relative to the [Hellenistic] context, its meaning changed as the context changed, although the Trinity itself transcends contexts because of its very nature as the divine mystery.”[9]  For Lee, the meaning of the doctrine of the Trinity is subject to categorical change which depends ultimately on context.

With this in mind, Lee makes known his third assumption, that of using the “worldview of East Asia as the basis for re-envisioning the concept of the divine Trinity.”[10]  Since, for Lee, all theology is contextual in an ultimate sense, it follows that he would seek to re-envision the Trinity according to his own context.  What this means primarily is that Lee assumes a yin-yang metaphysic in order to understand both the world and the doctrine of the Trinity.  Lee regards the yin-yang symbol as “the paradigm for East Asian thinking.”[11]  Thus, what Lee says about the doctrine of the Trinity will not merely be filtered through the yin-yang paradigm; rather, the paradigm itself functions as the primary foundation of Lee’s theologizing.  It not only provides a starting point for Lee’s theology but the very content of his thought as well.  This is the most important theme of Lee’s work and thus warrants further discussion.

2.  Yin-Yang Symbolic Thinking and the Trinity

Yin-yang symbolism pervades Eastern philosophy, and therefore it is no surprise that Jung Young Lee utilizes yin-yang philosophy in his conception of the doctrine of the Trinity.  The most fundamental aspect of yin-yang philosophy is that “change is the foundation of all existence.”[12]  In the traditional Western metaphysic, being precedes change, but this is exactly reverse in the East.  For them, change is the foundation of all reality.  Change precedes being.  Lee calls change “the Great Ultimate.”[13]  The symbols of yin and yang function as complementary opposites which unify and harmonize the Great Ultimate.  This means that “yin and yang are not entities in themselves but only symbols that point to actual entities.”[14]  Since the Great Ultimate is fundamentally unknowable, it is impossible for humans to speak of it.  This means that all yin-yang thinking is symbolic thinking.

Perhaps the most interesting thing Lee argues is that yin and yang are “essentially nonsubstantive.”[15]  For Lee, “yin and yang are symbols appearing in various images that we visualize and identify as entities and beings.”[16]  This means that yin and yang are not actual entities, but rather are symbols of human conceptions of entities.  To say that something is essentially nonsubstantive is to say that in its essence it has no substance.  Since essence is that which makes something what it is, and since substance corresponds to ousia or being, to say that something is essentially nonsubstantive is to say that what makes something what it is is non-being.  In effect, to say that yin and yang are essentially nonsubstantive is to say that yin and yang do not have being, or that they do not exist.

To the Western mind, this is an obvious problem.  The most fundamental reality of Eastern philosophy is the unity and harmony of yin and yang, but yin and yang do not exist, at least if Lee’s statement is to be taken at face-value.  This means that the most fundamental reality of Eastern philosophy does not exist.  But this is not a problem for Lee for two reasons.  First, he says that change precedes being in Eastern philosophy.  The “Great Ultimate” is none other than change itself.  All that exists is derived from the Great Ultimate, and yin and yang function as symbols which order and harmonize all that exists.  Yin and yang themselves do not exist, but humans can predicate symbolically of yin and yang as we observe the bipolarity of nature.  As Lee says, yin and yang are “change that produces the entity of being.”[17]  In a related turn, Lee argues that “yin and yang are essentially active forces of change.”[18]  One wonders how yin and yang can be both essentially nonsubstantive and essentially active forces of change, but this brings us to the next reason why Lee has no problem stating his case in this way.

Lee says that “the yin-yang way [of thinking] includes both contradictions and opposites.”[19]  This move allows for him specifically, and for all of Eastern philosophy generally, to argue such contradictions as yin and yang are both essentially nonsubstantive and essentially active forces of change.  Lee continues, “it is perhaps best to characterize it in terms of both/and.  The yin-yang way is a both/and way of thinking, because it is not only inclusive but also relational.”[20]  Contradictions are not a problem at all for the yin-yang way of thinking because it is both/and, not either/or.  Lee says that the yin-yang way of thinking “cannot be categorized in terms of an either/or, an exclusive and absolutistic way of thinking.”[21]  Rather, “in the symbolic nature of yin and yang, an absolute is always relatively defined.”[22]  This self-refuting statement might be a problem for Western philosophy, but it fits in an Eastern philosophical system which allows for such contradictions.

This lays the groundwork for an accurate presentation of Lee’s doctrine of the Trinity.  Yin-yang thinking and symbolism functions not only as the lenses through which Lee views his understanding of ultimate reality; it provides him with the very content of his understanding of reality.  Thus, it makes sense when Lee argues that the yin-yang way of thinking simply is trinitarian thinking.  For him, both change, the “foundation of all existence,”[23] and God, who transcends human existence and predication, are completely unknowable.  Lee says that change is known through “yin and yang symbolic activities,”[24] but change in itself is fundamentally unknowable.  He also says that God “can be known to us only in terms of symbols or images, which we create from our limited experience.”[25]  Thus, the yin-yang way of thinking and the trinitarian way of thinking are identical for Lee since both posit the unknowability of reality and God and, therefore, the need for symbolic predication.  Reality and God can be known only through symbols of human thought.

What this means is that everything Lee says about the Trinity should not be seen as a statement about the Trinity en se; rather, all of Lee’s theologizing about the Trinity is merely Lee’s thinking about his own thoughts regarding the Trinity.  He says, “God is known as the Trinity because God is perceived to be so.”[26]  Therefore, when Lee essentially misrepresents the classical doctrine of the Trinity by saying that the doctrine teaches that “one is in three or three is in one,”[27] he is not being intentionally subversive but is speaking of his perception of one particular cultural understanding of the Trinity.  This understanding, for Lee, need not be right or wrong since it is absolutely culturally-relative.  When one culture applies a set of symbols to God, a different culture may just as rightly apply a completely different set of symbols in order to represent their own understanding of God.  Thus, Lee is not necessarily rejecting the classical articulation of the Trinity throughout church history; he is merely applying a different set of categories from within his own worldview which enables East Asian cultures to conceive of God in their own terms.

3.  East-West Perspectives on Yin-Yang Symbolic Thinking and the Trinity

Having presented Jung Young Lee’s basic thesis and most important theme in The Trinity in Asian Perspective, I now move to assess this thesis and theme.  In short, yin-yang symbolic thinking is alien not only to the Western mind, but also to the biblical revelation.  It is neither faithful to Scripture nor theologically coherent, and therefore should be rejected as a legitimate hermeneutic and theological method.  What follows is an assessment of yin-yang symbolic thinking from a confessionally Reformed perspective.

The first thing that should be said of yin-yang symbolic thinking’s weaknesses is its assertion of the human inability to predicate of God.  In Eastern thought, God transcends humanity such that human language literally cannot apply to him.  In the yin-yang way of thinking, humans must attribute their own culturally-relative symbols to God in order to know God.  But it is self-refuting to say that God is unknowable if by “unknowable” one means that God is actually beyond human thought.  The claim that “God is unknowable” presupposes at least that God is knowable enough for humans to say that He is unknowable.  And though Eastern thought might allow for such contradictions, this philosophy will inevitably result in futility.  For example, if contradictions are allowed in a worldview, one could reasonably argue that God is at the same time and in the same way completely unknowable and completely known.  Thus, when Lee says that “God is an unknown mystery and is unknowable to us directly,”[28] he might just as well have said that God is a known entity and is knowable to us directly.  A worldview which allows for contradictions like this is inherently self-refuting, ultimately futile, and therefore utterly incapable of describing the human experience specifically and reality generally.

Confessional Reformed theology, on the other hand, argues not that God is unknowable but that He is “incomprehensible” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 2.1).  Since humans are finite creatures, it is impossible to comprehend the infinite God.  But the inability to comprehend does not translate as the inability to know.  Humans can know God rightly and truly, even if not infinitely.  In his high priestly prayer, Jesus says, “this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).  The obvious assumption of Jesus in this passage is that humans can truly know God.  In fact, this knowledge of God is equated with eternal life.  Therefore, to say that one cannot know God in any sense is at least to imply that one cannot have eternal life.

The second failure of the yin-yang way of thinking is its insistence that change is the foundation of all reality.  This is philosophically untenable since a fundamental tenet of all human thought is the principle ex nihilo nihil fit, “out of nothing, nothing comes.”  If there was ever a time when there was absolute nothingness, nothing would exist now.  But Eastern philosophy posits the idea that the Great Ultimate, change, produced the forms of yin and yang, and then “the yin and yang between them produced all things.”[29]  But how could change have produced the yin and yang if change is not, in fact, being?  That is to say, if change is more fundamental than being, how could change, which itself is not being, have brought anything into being?  How could change give something that which it does not have in itself?  To even predicate that change precedes being is to presuppose that being precedes change, for the act of predication itself assumes that the one who predicates exists as a being before he or she argues anything at all.

Classical Christian theism, by way of contrast, holds that God is “most absolute” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 2.2).  When God draws near to Moses he declares that his name is “I AM” (Exodus 3:14).  The absolute God is the one who will bring his people out of Egypt in the Exodus.  Elsewhere, God says, “I the LORD do not change” (Malachi 3:6).  For classical Christian theism, this text demonstrates the fact of God’s immutability, or His not being subject to change in any sense.  Thus, God is both absolute and immutable.  God Himself is the foundation of all reality.  This means that the foundation of all reality is the absolute and unchangeable being of God.  The fact is, Eastern philosophy and Christian theology could not be farther apart on this philosophical point.  Where the East says change precedes being, the Christian says the absolute and immutable being of God precedes change.

The final point which will be made here in the assessment of the yin-yang way of thinking is its presupposition of absolute cultural relativism.  Lee says, “the meaning of the Trinity is always relative to its context, and each context is unique to its own time and space.  Thus, the old meaning of the Trinity (or the meaning of the Trinity in the old context) cannot be replaced by the new meaning of it.”[30]  Leaving aside the fact that to say something is “always relative” is to engage in self-refutation, there are at least two problems with Lee’s argument.

First, he frequently makes statements which are not, in fact, meant to be culturally-relative.  In one place, Lee says, “it is the basic assumption here that the divine Trinity is a Christian concept of God implicit in scripture.”[31]  Obviously Lee thinks that the Trinity is applicable to all Christians everywhere, though the specific symbols which are employed in a particular understanding of the Trinity might differ from one culture to the next.  The problem with this comes in when one considers the possibility of someone claiming to be a Christian yet rejecting the Trinity and fashioning for his- or herself entirely different symbols for God than the ones which Lee sets forth in his book.  If Christian doctrine is culturally-relative in an absolute sense, as Lee argues it is, then one has no way of arguing that a different culture is objectively wrong in its articulation of the doctrine of God.  Perhaps Lee would not even seek to argue that particular cultures can be wrong in their symbolic understanding of God.  But when Scripture sees fit to exhort people to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3), it assumes that there is such a thing as “the faith once for all delivered” which is universally-binding.  Paul’s words are particularly relevant here: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30).

Second, and with all due respect to Lee, why, given his understanding of the absolutely culturally-relative doctrine of the Trinity, should I, a 21st century Reformed Christian in the United States, read a book whose argument cannot, by definition, apply to me since I do not share its context?  If the claims the book makes do not intend to communicate universal truth, why, then, did Lee write the book?  To even argue his position, he had to assume that language, doctrine, and the Christian faith are not merely culturally-relative.  Yet in his writing Lee claims that these things are entirely culturally-relative.  But if this is true, everything he writes in the book is utterly meaningless to me, by definition, since I am not Asian.

4.  Implications for Western Christians

One insight Western Christians can glean from Lee’s book is the importance of metaphysics in the work of theology, especially in the arena of theology proper.  Lee argues his theological points from a cosmo-anthropological perspective of metaphysics, meaning he views the cosmos as the center of reality and humanity as derivative of the cosmos.  He charges Western philosophy and theology of being anthropo-cosmological, viewing humanity as the center of reality and the cosmos as derivative.  Thus, what Lee says in this work has a distinctively metaphysical flavor.  This should be commended, even if one might disagree with Lee’s specific metaphysic.

As far as pitfalls go, Christians should be wary of allowing culture to absolutely dictate and control the content of the Christian faith.  It is true that Christianity was birthed in a particular culture at a particular time and in a particular place, but this does not mean that Christianity is absolutely culturally-relative.  When Jesus claimed to be “the truth,” (John 14:6), he obviously did not mean that he was only the truth for one group of people but not for another.  The claims of the Christian faith, following Jesus’ own claims, are universally-binding, not culturally-relative.  Thus, when Christians commend the faith to unbelievers, we should be wary of communicating in such a way as to imply that what we are saying is merely a Western creation or that it does not apply to all people everywhere.

5.  Conclusion

Jung Young Lee’s The Trinity in Asian Perspective seeks to reconceive the doctrine of the Trinity for use in Asian contexts by employing the yin-yang way of symbolic thinking.  To that end, Lee argues that Eastern philosophy helps the East Asian people to understand the symbol of the Trinity, since the Trinity itself is unknowable.  There are a variety of problems with this approach, some of which have been noted.  But the work overall is an interesting read which provided much food for thought.  Lee’s writing style is conscientiously repetitive, but the content of his writing is nevertheless quite provocative.


[1] Jung Young Lee, The Trinity in Asian Perspective (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), 11.

[2] Ibid., 12.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 12-13.

[5] Ibid., 13.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 14.

[9] Ibid., 16.

[10] Ibid., 18.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 53.

[13] Ibid., 26.

[14] Ibid., 52.

[15] Ibid., 32.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 30.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 32.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 53.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., 55.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., 12.

[29] Ibid., 24.

[30] Ibid., 14.

[31] Ibid., 15.

Thanks for reading.  Have any additional thoughts?  Leave a comment below.

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