Monday, April 2, 2012

Basic Trinitarian Theology, Part 1 of 3

Disclaimer: This topic, being difficult, ought to be discussed only with fear and trembling.  It is one about which I can claim no special knowledge, let alone expertise. Therefore, wherever I may state the mind of the Church incorrectly or clumsily, I beg my brothers and sisters in Christ to correct me.

Why this Subject is Important

WHO CARES, and why, about all the theoretical ins and outs of the Trinity, and how the Church may have formulated them? Isn’t it all rather abstruse, obscure, and remote from my life?

Actually, Trinitarian dogma has everything to do with our lives. It is only abstruse and obscure and abstract when it is, well, abstracted from our real life and considered academically instead of expressing something we have experienced. That's to say, when it is misunderstood.

The first reason this theology is important is that the Holy Trinity IS the Christian God, the God we worship. Hence, we cannot properly preach or teach without having some basic knowledge of what we're talking about when we say, "Holy Trinity".

The precious dogma of the Holy Trinity also reflects the deepest truths about us, and so has very concrete and personal application. This is because mankind was created in the image of the Holy Trinity.  (Genesis 1:26-27) Thus, a second reason the dogma of the Holy Trinity is so important to us is that it and it alone reveals to mankind the true meaning of personhood, and of how to be an authentic person.

A third reason is that our human destiny, if we will accept it, is actually to participate, actively, in the divine Life of the Holy Trinity.

Fourthly, a correct understanding of basic Trinitarian theology will avoid many controversies. The infamous Filioque controversy, for example, could have been avoided altogether, had these foundational dogmas of the Church been properly understood (and applied) all around.

God is Three, Yet One
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all (Ephesians 4:4-6)
As with everything in Christianity, Trinitarian theology begins and ends with Jesus Christ. We do not speak philosophy (per se); we do not invent fables, but we set forth what we have experienced.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life - Life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us - that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have communion with us; and truly our communion is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1-3)

Christian experience of God, then, is threefold. The divine Son, Jesus of Nazareth, appeared among us and healed all our diseases and forgave all our sins and after we had crucified Him, showed Himself alive again in our midst, and to summarize, revealed Himself as Divine. He also preached and demonstrated the invisible Father, saying, "Whoever has seen Me has seen the Father." (John 10:30) And afterwards He sent to the Church the Holy Spirit.

Yet the Church has also inherited the clear understanding that God is One. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One!” (Deuteronomy 6:4) Indeed, the Church, mysteriously enough, also experiences these Three as one and the same God. Jesus taught us, "I and the Father are one." (John 14:9) and the Holy Spirit in the Church testifies to the same oneness.

In the early Church, although the concrete experience was already clear, the way to state it was not. After all, we are dealing with deep mysteries here. Often, the best we can do is say what the mystery we experience is not, rather than what it is.

Various attempts were made and deemed inadequate to the experience or even contrary to it and to the biblical testimony, and therefore heretical. At length, in the face of raging controversy, the Church in her councils set forth the great Trinitarian dogmas.

The rest of this post will try to look at God's threeness.

Three "Hypostases"

The Godhead, said the Church, has three hypostases . “Hypostasis” is one of those Greek words almost impossible to render in another language. It means “existence,” but not in the sense of pure being, which would be formless and therefore unknowable. It means existence of a particular kind, or having a certain character. For example, in Hebrews 11:1 we read the famous dictum, “Faith is the hypostasis of things hoped for, the obviousness of things unseen.” It means that when the things hoped for materialize, they will have an existence; but here and now, they already have another existence, and we call their present existence, “faith.” Faith is the things hoped for already present to us; we already possess them. Thus, the things hoped for have two hypostases, a future one in paradise, but also one here and now.

In Christian experience, the same God, one Being, has three existences or three ways of existing or three facets to His existence, which Three we call “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

By “Father” we indicate the beginningless source or eternal cause of both the Son and the Holy Spirit. Unoriginate Himself, He is the eternal (timeless) Origin of both the other two Hypostases; for "Father” does not designate a relationship He has only with the Son. He is also called the “Monarch,” which literally means "Sole Ruler" but also, just as literally, "Only Source". The Father is the fountain from which the Son and Holy Spirit eternally spring.  The Father, and He alone, is also the principle of unity among the three.

The “Son” is the “Word,” or Articulation, of the Father. As Muslims believe Allah articulates himself in the Koran, so Christians believe God eternally articulates Himself in, or rather as, His Son. For this reason, the Son is called the Logos, which means, roughly, God's thinking, His "logic", His Knowledge and Wisdom.The Son differs from the Father only and precisely by being the Son; that is, by having His timeless origin in the Father. It was He who, for our sakes, took flesh and became Man, but (in a way we cannot begin to comprehend, because we are not God) without compromise to His Divinity (or His Humanity) and without mingling His Divinity with anything else.

The Holy Spirit is the One we call, "Heavenly King, Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, present in all places and filling all things, Treasury of Goodness..."  The Holy Spirit, too, is distinguished from the Father only in that He has an Origin, and His eternal origin is the Father. He is distinguished from the Son only in the manner in which He comes from the Father. Whereas the Son is “begotten”, the Holy Spirit “proceeds” from the Father. So what is the difference?  Nobody knows!  Nobody even pretends to know what the difference is between “begotten” and “proceeds” in this context. These words only intend to indicate that there is some difference; the Son and the Holy Spirit come from the Father each in His own, unique, and mysterious way.

It is important to emphasize that the way in which any one Hypostasis is distinguishable from the Others is only and precisely by His relationships to the other Two. These are specifically relationships of origin. (This is important because many heresies assign to the Holy Trinity different sorts of relationships.)  The Father is distinguished only by being the Origin; the Son, only by being eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Spirit, only by proceeding eternally from the Father. Without these distinctions, we cannot speak of Trinity; with any distinctions more than these, we have polytheism. To tamper with the proper distinctions will fail to express, and end up destroying, the Church’s experience of God in Christ, ultimately producing, in people’s minds, a god different from the one we have known.

Nevertheless, we must be very careful to observe that “Father”, “Son”, and “Holy Spirit” are not names we give to mere relationships. That would be gross reductionism. Although their relationships of origin alone distinguish the three, they do not define them. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are Persons, not relationships -much less abstractions, or things. They are not, for example, Lover, Beloved, and Love or Mother, Child, and Womb. They are God, God, and God.

In the next (shorter) post, we will try to say a few things about God's Oneness.