“When we speak of God we do not clear up a puzzle; we draw attention to a mystery” (Herbert McCabe). How does the doctrine of the Trinity try to point to the mystery of God in this way?
The crux of McCabe’s writing in the book “God and Evil” is the transcendence of God and the difficulty in speaking of God in terms that do not beg yet another question.
The formulation and affirmation of the Doctrine of Trinity took over four centuries and arguments over the fine tuning of the description of the Trinity went on into the future. In this essay, I am going to look at that process and events that led to its formulation by the Church Fathers, and argue that the language used to describe the Trinity was the result of the defences against what the nature of God wasn’t rather than what God is. And the fine tuning of language used in the Nicene Creed which was affirmed at the First Council of Nicaea and the language affirmed at the First Council of Constantinople. I will then look briefly at what Augustine of Hippo wrote about the Trinity in the early 5thcentury.
The word “trinity” does not appear anywhere in the Bible but both the Old Testament and the New Testament contain scripture that points to a Trinitarian pattern. I will concentrate on the more obvious references to that pattern in the New Testament, highlighting how they allude to that pattern. The most obvious and well known references of this pattern are Matt. 28:19 and 2Cor. 13:13/14.Both these passages of scripture refer to God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The prologue of the Gospel of John speaks of the divinity of Jesus by referring to him as the Word and being there in the beginning (John 1:1-3 and 1:9-10). In Luke’s Gospel, Lk. 3:22 “and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” (Luke 3:22 NRSV) Jesus forgives sin in Lk. 5:20 and 7:48. Scripture also points to the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of God or Truth Jn. 14:7, Acts 8:29, 11:12, 13:2. The Apostle Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit in Rom. 8:11 and many other places in his letters. We can see the Trinitarian pattern in scripture but what we see does not necessarily show that the Doctrine of the Trinity as we know it today is found in scripture. Leonardo Boff puts it this way, “In fact the scriptures do not give us the terms used by the churches to express their faith, such as three Persons, one nature, proceeding, sending and so on. This does not mean the scriptures do not give us a revelation of the Trinity: they do, fully, but in a different way.”
As Christianity spread throughout the Greek speaking world of the Gentiles along with it came the influence of Greek Philosophy and the off shoots from the original Gospel message. Here I look at some examples of the competing messages in the early church. As early as the time of St. Pauls letters being written we saw false messages creeping into the teaching of the Gospel. In St. Pauls first letter to Timothy he warns Timothy about false teachings, he writes, “I urge you, as I did when I was on my way to Macedonia, to remain in Ephesus so that you may instruct certain people not to teach any different doctrine,”(1Tim. 1:3 NRSV) and he goes on in 1Tim. 1:3-20 to describe this in more detail.
The Roman theologian Tertullian (c. 160-c.220) warned about the inappropriate use of philosophy within Christian theology. Tertullian defences were aimed mainly at the different forms of Gnosticism and the denial of the resurrection.Irenaeus of Lyons (c.130-c.202) also defended traditional Christian theology against the teaching of Valentinus and his disciple Marcus the Heretic on Gnosticism.Irenaeus in his writings laid out the basic shape of the Trinity which he referred to as the Rule of Our Faith,God the Father uncreated, Word of God(Son), and the Holy Spiritand these became the foundation of the Doctrine of the Trinity.
By the fourth century CE there were many heresies that were plaguing the Church which led to the First Council of Nicaea in 325, to address these we now turn to the Church Fathers of the fourth century CE. Most of the Church Fathers had agreed on the divinity of Jesus Christ as the Son, although there were still some who did not, some argued against the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Athanasius of Alexandria (c.293-c.373) wrote on several issues including the defence of the divinity of the Holy Spirit which was aimed against the heresies of “binitarianism” and “arianism”. Athanasius of Alexandria argues that “the Holy Trinity is a unity of essence and equality in rank”with the Father and the Son. One of the resultant documents of the of the First Council of Nicaea was the Nicene Creed which had been ratified by more than 300 of the Bishops in attendance. By 350 CE a new group of Arian theologians emerged which were referred to as Neo-Arians and the arguments against the language of the Trinity specifically around the words homoousios (essence) and hypostasis (person) in relation to the nature of God. These were argued and affirmed at the Council of Constantinople in 381 CE and the Nicene Creed was expanded to clarify the language.
During the early part of the 5thcentury CE Augustine of Hippo enriched the language of Trinity further. In c.400 – 416 CE he wrote his treatise On the Trinity. Augustine argued that the Trinity was a relationship of three persons based on love. His argument was that God is love and if God is love there must be a lover, a loved, and the love itself. The three parts are not the same but make up the whole so the Father is not the Son and Father is not Spirit and the Son is not Spirit but the three are the one God each equal. He goes on to say that we humans created in the image of God must also contain that Trinitarian nature, the body, the mind, and the spirit. I believe what Augustine is saying here is as humans we also can experience that perfect love when the mind loves and knows the body and mind loves and knows the spirit then the soul which is the combination of the three knows and loves itself and God.When we can know, and love ourselves then we can know and love others as Jesus teaches us in the Gospels.
In conclusion, the problems facing the early church fathers and the continual battle with those groups that saw the Son and Holy Spirit as somehow less than God, we can see how difficult it is to try and describe the mystery of God as Trinity. To paraphrase McCabe the more we talk about God the more we draw attention to the mystery.By looking at the scripture and the moves toward heresy through the early centuries CE we can see how the arguments over the words used led to the formulation of the precise language used in the Doctrine of the Trinity and the creeds. The arguments over the nature of God did not end in 419 CE with Augustine but continue today. Augustine gave us through his writing On the Trinity language which we use to help us understand the Trinitarian nature of God and creation.
Boff, Leonardo. Trinity and Society. Liberation and Theology Series. Kent: Burns & Oates, 1998.
McCabe, Herbert, and Brian Davies. God and Evil : In the Theology of St Thomas Aquinas / Herbert Mccabe ; Edited and Introduced by Brain Davies ; [Foreword by Terry Eagleton]. London: London : Continuum, 2010.
McGrath, Alister E. Editor. “The Christian Theology Reader: 25th Anniversary 5th Edition, 1.3 Tertullian on the Relationship between Philisophy and Heresy .”. Chap. 1, 7-8, 2016.
———. “The Christian Theology Reader: 25th Anniversary 5th Edition, 3.3 Irenaeus of Lyons on the Trinity (157).” (2016).
———. “The Christian Theology Reader: 25th Anniversary 5th Edition, 3.10 Athanasius of Alexandria on the Holy Spirit and the Trinity (166).” 2016.
———. “The Christian Theology Reader: 25th Anniversary 5th Edition, 3.15 Augustine of Hippo on the Trinity. (168).” 2016.
Mirecki, Paul Allan. “Valentinus.” In The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. Accordance Electronic Edition., edited by David Noel Freedman New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.Rohr, Richard. The Divine Dance. Kindle Edition. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2016.
Herbert McCabe and Brian Davies, God and Evil : In the Theology of St Thomas Aquinas / Herbert Mccabe ; Edited and Introduced by Brain Davies ; [Foreword by Terry Eagleton](London: London : Continuum, 2010), 128.
In the NSRV this chapter ends with verse 13 in other translations like the NIV and ESV it ends with verse 14.
Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society, Liberation and Theology Series (Kent: Burns & Oates, 1998).
Alister E. Editor McGrath, “The Christian Theology Reader: 25th Anniversary 5th Edition, 1.3 Tertullian on the Relationship between Philisophy and Heresy .” (2016), 7.
Paul Allan Mirecki, “Valentinus,” ed. David Noel Freedman, 3.9 vols., The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. Accordance Electronic Edition.(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).(782ibid.)
Alister E. Editor McGrath, “The Christian Theology Reader: 25th Anniversary 5th Edition, 3.3 Irenaeus of Lyons on the Trinity (157),” (2016).
“The Christian Theology Reader: 25th Anniversary 5th Edition, 3.10 Athanasius of Alexandria on the Holy Spirit and the Trinity (166),” (2016; reprint, 5).
“The Christian Theology Reader: 25th Anniversary 5th Edition, 3.15 Augustine of Hippo on the Trinity. (168),” (2016; reprint, 5).
McCabe, God and Evil. 157