In this conclusion to his series on Trinitarian Theology Dr Anthony Lowes does more than simply "defend" an idea. He provides a rich but one of the most succinct summaries I have ever read of how Trinitarian Theology slowly emerged over the course of more than three centuries and came to be embedded as a core concept in Catholic thinking in both the East and the West. As he points out though, and if you keep reasonably current with developments in theological thinking, you might appreciate the debate is still not completely over a further seventeen centuries later. You'll find this an essay that is both sympathetic to the traditions of Catholicism that gave us the concept of a Trinitarian God but which is also sympathetic to the revisiting of how we Catholics express and think about our dogmas in the light of what was discerned at the Second Vatican Council. This series of commentaries is a "keeper" and worthy of quiet reflection over an extended period. Thank you to Tony Lowes for sharing it with us.
Three phases of trinitarian consciousness...
What arose in Christian consciousness from the text and patent subtext of the Christian scriptures is best dealt with in the three phases or stages nominated by Anthony Kelly. There is first the apologetic phase; second, the dogmatic phase and, finally, theological development.
Primitive attempts to image the Trinity took the form of Semitic imaging in which the Son and the Spirit were conceived as angels after the manner of the visitation to Abraham [Gen 18: 1-16] and of the vision of the seraphim [Isaiah 6:1-3]. Such envisioning developed via the apocalyptic and rabbinic notion of the angelic witnesses or paracletes standing to the right and left of the divine throne. This led very quickly to a subordinationist position, which solidified in the thought of the Ebionites.
Partly as an antidote to such Judaeo-Christian thought forms, the notion of the Logos was invoked to name the second within the mystery of God. But even here, the Logos (Son) tended to be thought of as God of the second order and the Spirit as a servant of the latter. Two writers using Logos theology were Justin Martyr [d. 165] and Irenaeus of Lyons [d. 202]. To Justin's credit, he drew the term from John and wedded it with understandings arising from Platonic and Stoic philosophy, and Jewish speculation as found in Philo. In this sense, his theology could aptly be called dialogical.
What Irenaeus was faced with was a virulent Gnosticism in which the inhabitants of the late classical world had lost a sense of the order and beauty of the universe and were conscious of the great gulf between themselves, within the dark and corrupt cosmos, and God infinitely transcendent and unknowable. The only route to intimate encounter with God was ascension through various grades of gnosis (an intimate and privileged form of knowing) afforded by the several emanations of God, emanations which were intermediary between God and creation.
Irenaeus brilliantly pointed up the flaw in Gnostic thought, which conceived God as in some way materially constituted and divisible, and subject to degrees of attenuation. Irenaeus promulgated a notion of God as pure mind, pure spirit and that which emanated from God, therefore, as being inescapably of the substance it emanated from. His vision depended upon this sense of unity in God as the ground of the unity of the plan of salvation, which brought all creation to a head in Christ. In this rather vague fashion, Irenaeus laid the foundation for further trinitarian reflection.
But how was this emanation to be further understood? Did it mean, as Sabellius suggested, that there was the one divine essence and three energies, like the different kinds of influence which the sun's rays exert? Tertullian [d. 223] in the West and Origen [d. 254] in the East confronted this issue. Tertullian asserted that God was not divisible as the Gnostics suggested, nor simply One, only appearing in the economy as Three, as the Modalists were claiming.
God was unum [one being], but not unus [one person]; instead, one substance, but three persons. In this, Tertullian displayed sound insight, failing only because of the underlying framework of his thought, which worked at the level of Stoic metaphor rather than conceptual metaphysics. According to his view, the reality of God is like one great organism, vital and undivided. What rendered his thought ultimately deficient was its lack of precision.
Confronting Arius, the glittering syllogism and the crucial dilemma...
This was a deficiency which Origen's thought did not suffer from. Origen used the framework of Middle Platonism. What was inherently problematic in this structure was that personal emanation was considered to entail some form of subordinationism: some form of gradation was admitted into the divine substance. It was with these tools of thought that Origen had to confront Arius. According to G. L. Prestige:
Behind all expression of Arian thought, lay the hard and glittering syllogism that God is impassible [incapable of suffering]; Christ, being gennetos [begotten] was passible; therefore Christ was not God.
What Arius did was to force Christian thinkers to 'out' themselves and not hide behind the ambiguities of the philosophical systems of their day. They opted for the hard realism of faith and of the scriptures, which was contained in the second branch of the following dilemma: 'Was a culturally presupposed notion of God to prevent Jesus from being adored as divine, or was Jesus Christ to define the true character of God?'
Origen maintained the consubstantiality of Father and Son (despite some ambiguously subordinationist statements which seemingly arose from too close an identification between the notions of the immanent Trinity [as it is in itself] and the economic Trinity [as it reveals itself in Salvation History]). He also developed a primitive form of the notion of emergence-and-return. God the Father acts throughChrist and in the Spirit and we return to the Father viaChrist and in the Spirit.
But it was left to Athanasius to see most clearly that there was absolutely no subordination of Son to Father and, for that matter, of Spirit to Father. It was this strong conviction that was enshrined in the Council of Nicea in 325. A risk was taken by the council Fathers and an old Gnostic term was employed. The Father and the Son were taken to be homoousios [of one being or substance]. Such a coinage was not without its pitfalls, but it proved serviceable and was later utilised by Gregory of Nazianzus to apply to the Spirit as well.
What was still at issue was agreement about the language used to distinguish the Three in One. Their consubstantiality had been asserted, but Tertullian's formula had not been universally accepted: una substantia, tres personae [one substance, three persons]. In the East, at the Council of Alexandria in 362, the distinction between the one being and the three hypostaseis [the Greek term in Eastern theology for the three distinct relational realities in God] was allowed.
The equivalence between persona in the West and hypostasis in the East was agreed upon and the First Council of Constantinople in 381 could come to its famous resolution. The final formula devised by the Second Council of Constantinople (553) is notable for its exhaustiveness:
If anyone does not confess that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one nature (physis; natura) or essence (ousia; substantia), one might and power, a Trinity one in being (homoousios), one Godhead to be worshipped in three hypostaseis (hypostaseis; subsistentiae) or persons (prosopa; personae), anathema sit.
The importance of getting it right and saying it right...
While religious dogma has attracted to itself a bad press, especially of late, the etymology of the word dogma is not so off-putting. It does, in fact, derive from a Greek verb which means to think, suppose, imagine. Perhaps its negative connotation comes from the combative nature by which dogmas were defined within Christian councils. Formulas invariably ended with an anathema, damning any who held a contrary viewpoint.
Dogmas, it should be remembered were generally devised in councils called after painful periods of debate and division when passions ran high—some councils in early Christian history resorting to fisticuffs and beard-pulling. Not unlike the verballing we have become inured to in our own Australian parliament and more overt violence marring the fabric of parliaments in some other countries throughout the world.
Vatican II was at pains to promulgate its teachings in a more benign fashion, offering its members and those outside its immediate community (but who might harbour an interest in its world view and values) due respect as intelligent adult human beings. So it seems that, at least in conciliar terms, dogmatic utterance will be delivered less offensively, less dogmatically. In fact, in a manner that mimics the forthright yet gentle authority of Jesus' own teaching style. Unfortunately, we have yet to see this manner of communicating truth, or what is held to be truth, percolating down consistently to papal and curial pronouncements and decisions.
To return specifically to the doctrine of the Trinity: it grew from seminal insight in scripture to fully defined dogma in the councils of Nicea and Constantinople, then lapsed into theological repetition for many centuries and experienced a recent reprisal and flowering in the latter half of the twentieth century.
If the Christian church were to err in regard to this central doctrine, then I feel like Denis Edwards who wrote in a footnote in his book on the Holy Spirit, Breath of Life:
To put the matter negatively, if the church were to be radically mistaken about its fundamental understanding of God, it would seem difficult to assert a presence or action of the Spirit anywhere in the life and history of the Christian community—including its origins.
However merely approximate the analogical and symbolic language used by the Christian church to sketch its central belief in the nature of God as triune, its whole authenticity as teacher of the nature and meaning of human existence rides, therefore, on getting this belief fundamentally right.
©2012Dr Anthony Lowes