Discovering the Trinity, Part 1

Developed Trinitarian doctrine, as we recognize it in Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, or the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed, was discovered. It was not invented, for it is not the product of its creators. On the other hand, it was not immediately recognized by the first-century Christians and handed down pristinely despite heretical attacks. It was discovered, implying both that it existed before it was found and that its discovery was the result of a search. Trinitarian doctrine was the result of centuries of questing after God.

In much contemporary theology, Trinitarian doctrine is a subset of the doctrine of God. In ancient Christianity, the Trinity comprehended all doctrine. The Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Athanasian Creed all deliver the Christian faith as the faith of the Trinity. Thus the opening lines of the Athanasian Creed:

Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith. Whoever does not keep it whole and undefiled will without doubt perish eternally. And the Catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance.

Trinitarian doctrine derived from multiple sources. The principle source, of course, was Scripture. All the theologians of the early Church, no matter how much they might interweave their treatises with Greek philosophical or Roman juridical terms, took the explication of Scripture as both ground and goal. Perhaps above all, the book of John stimulated controversy. Its opening statements about the Logos and its resounding report that “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30) provided resources for imagining Deity incarnate, the boundary lines of creator and creation. Yet, many other statements seemed to distinguish between the one true God and the Word. So, John’s writings proffered the bulk of exegetical data for the Trinitarian controversies.

Many of the Fathers were well-educated elites, so the Greek and Roman intellectual milieu shaped their vocabulary, methods, and general outlook. Sophisticated reasoning about the nature of God existed outside Christian circles, and educated Christians naturally joined that conversation. From the beginning, though, Christian theologians operated with a near-arrogant confidence in the superiority of Christianity over philosophy. Inattentive scholars have gloated about the Neoplatonist takeover of Christianity, evident in Augustine and the Cappadocians. Rather, the Fathers show us how much Christianity can enter into a culture and transform it (incarnationally?), reshaping it to meet Christian needs and accomplish Christian goals. Perhaps the Fathers can inspire contemporary Protestants to a new path, neither the Liberal captivity to modern philosophy nor the Fundamentalist refusal to interact.

Another source of Trinitarian doctrine was the liturgical practice of the Church. Early Christians sang psalms to Christ. They prayed in Trinitarian formulas. They baptized in the three-fold name. They confessed Jesus as Lord and Savior. Given this context, reflection on the meaning of worship was inevitable. The relationship between theory and praxis was reciprocal, passionate worship enabling deeper theological perception, and vice versa.

Scripture, worship, and intellectual culture combined to create a fertile soil for theological discovery. Yet, the actual articulation of the Trinity was anything but an easy task. Fecund as the soil may be, significant obstacles to full flowering remained. Some of the obstacles concerned the incomprehensibility of God, others the inadequacy of human language, others perplexing passages of Scripture. I hope to explore some of these challenges in future installments.

[Note: This was written under the influence of the flu and medication. If it doesn’t make sense, let me know.]

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Published in: on March 4, 2011 at 5:12 pm  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. I have to admit, I had to look “fecund” up.

    On a more related note, doctrinal development is something I’ve become very interested in, having had almost no exposure to the idea in my Fundamentalist upbringing. Looking forward to the rest.


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