Review – The Trinity by Gilles Emery

The criteria for an introduction to the Trinity are several: reasonable length, clearly defined terms, biblical reasoning, historical sensitivity, logical progression, and doctrinal synthesis. By these standards, The Trinity: An Introduction to Catholic Doctrine on the Triune God by Gilles Emery, O.P. has earned its subtitle.

In the first chapter, the doctrine of the Trinity is located within the liturgical practice of the Church and within the movement of redemptive history. The New Testament allows us to follow both the path of the human Jesus leading to Easter or the path of Jesus’ pre-existent filial divinity. In either case, the Holy Spirit is the key to our knowledge of the Trinity, and the doctrine of the Trinity is manifested in the economy of salvation.

The second chapter contains a biblical examination of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, along with their relations and simplicity. The third examines “Confessions of Trinitarian Faith,” both in Scripture and in the later practice of the Church. It includes an overview of early heresies and a luminous close reading of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, relying heavily on patristic sources.

The fourth chapter clarifies the nature of the divine “persons” or “hypostases.” It moves deeper into the person/nature distinction, the ramifications of simplicity, analogical language. It also features reflections on the relationship between divine and human persons.

The fifth and longest chapter is a “Doctrinal Synthesis on the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” It explains in depth what is proper to each person, thus distinguishing generation from procession. The filioque is explained, defended, and asserted to be substantially agreeable to Eastern trinitarian theology. The Holy Spirit as personal Love and Gift receives special attention.

The final chapter reintegrates the economic and immanent aspects of the Trinity. It explains how modes of action may be “appropriated” to one person without compromising the indivisible action of the Trinity. The Father acts through the Son and in the Spirit, both in creation and in salvation. The missions of the Son and Spirit reveal God and save the just through “divinization,” a reception of the Trinity and communion with the Father. The book wraps up with a punchy conclusion and a glossary.

Emery’s specifically Catholic approach is visible in several ways. He remains at all times sensitive to the liturgical and sacramental dimensions of trinitarian theology. Thomas Aquinas is his primary influence. (Emery has written a 4oo+ page monograph on Thomas’ trinitarian theology). Most references to modern writings are to official documents of the Catholic Church or individual Catholic theologians. Probably also because of the introductory nature of the book, there is very little interaction with contemporary trends in trinitarian theology.

Trinitarian doctrine is not easy, but Emery (with has translator) has rendered it intelligible and attractive. The prose is straightforward, the subdivisions are logical, and the tasteful use of italics highlights key themes. Exegetes, theologians, historians, and liturgists alike will find the Trinity related to their discipline. Most importantly, The Trinity will prepare its readers to enter higher levels of discussion about the Trinity. That is ultimately what makes it a successful introduction. I highly recommend this book for your library, whether you are a beginner or not, Catholic or not.

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Published in: on September 14, 2011 at 9:43 am  Leave a Comment  
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Discovering the Trinity: Divine Simplicity

[This article is linked to Discovering the Trinity.]

In order to have a good controversy, you need at least two sides that both agree on some things and disagree on others. If the opponents share insufficient common ground, then there is no conversation. All the voices in the Trinitarian controversies agreed on one concept: God is simple. They disagreed on the ramifications of that statement and its application to theology.

Today, the word simple often means “easy to understand.” Divine simplicity, though, uses an older sense of the word, “uncompounded” or “without parts.” It is the opposite of complex, meaning “composed of many parts.” Although absolute simplicity is beyond our ability to grasp, we can reach an approximation by starting with something complex and subtracting complexity.

So, we begin with a car. A car has many components, each of which serves a distinct function. Some components are not necessary to the car. For example, most cars have air conditioning, but a car without air conditioning is still a car. A component of this type is “accidental.” On the other hand, without an engine, there is no car, only a chassis. A component of this type is “essential” or “substantial.” A car’s complexity, then, is very unlike God’s simplicity.

Next, we consider a brick. Unlike a car, the brick doesn’t have separate functioning units. Each part of it is identical to each other part. However, bricks are made by a process of composition: clay, silica, lime, and perhaps a few other ingredients are fired together to make brick. So, the brick is less complex than the car, but still not like God. In God, there are no layers or ingredients that bind together to make God.

We take a vial of pure mercury for our next thought experiment. Now, mercury is an element, so it doesn’t come into being the way a brick does, by mixing different substances. Also, unlike the car, each drop is identical to each other drop, so there is no division of function. However, I can take that vial and pour the mercury into three separate beakers. If nothing else, I can still physically separate the mercury, and the mercury in the first beaker is not the same mercury that is in the second and third beakers. God cannot be separated like this. God is not a generic name that can be divided among several separable objects. The Father, Son, and Spirit are not each 1/3 God. With this last experiment, we realize that nothing physical can be truly simple, since it can always be divided.

What about the human mind? The mind is not physical, so it can’t be divided into parts like the mercury. Also, most ancient philosophers agreed that the mind performs various functions, but not with different parts. When the mind remembers, the whole mind does the remembering. When the mind thinks, the whole mind thinks. The functions are not parceled out to different regions. (Modern neuroscience tells us that the brain does in fact divide functions among separate regions of the brain, but is the brain the mind?)

However, the mind is capable of its own complexity. Of all the pro-Nicenes, Augustine is most insistent that the mind retains a moral complexity. It is drawn in various directions by its warring passions. We all know the experience of the divided mind, not by physical division, but by conflicting desires. So, we find that we are not at unity even within ourselves. Yet, even if our minds were to be united, perfectly purged from all conflict, we would still not be perfectly simple, because accidents would remain in the mind. Knowing is essential to mind, but knowing your birthday is accidental. Still, the unified mind is a remarkable window into divine simplicity, so much so that Augustine declares it to be the imago Dei (image of God).

Having approached a description of divine simplicity, later installments will show why ancient theologians asserted divine simplicity and how it both complicated and enabled the pro-Nicene doctrine of the Trinity.

Published in: on April 2, 2011 at 12:17 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Nicaea and Logos Theology

[Note: This article is linked conceptually to Discovering the Trinity.]

Many early Christians, when articulating the relationship of the Son to the Father, developed what we now call “Logos [Word] theology.” Justin Martyr, for example, calls the Logos God (or at least divine, the article is missing from θεος), but makes it clear that he is distinct from and subordinate to the Father. He disapproves of the light from light analogy, preferring instead the image of a torch lit from another. As unorthodox as this may sound at first glance, Justin affirms a common nature (the fire of the second torch is of the same nature as the fire on the first) and denies a materialist concept of God (the Father is not diminished by begetting the Son). The Logos’ role is to reveal God, to mediate his presence to this world.

Origen’s doctrine of the Logos is multi-faceted. Here, too, the Logos’ primary function is to reveal and mediate the Father to the created world. However, there is less subordination. Origen calls the Logos God and insists that the Logos is divine not by participation, but by essence (ComPs 135.2). However, subordinationism still exists. Origen is sure that the Logos participates in being, but speculates that the Father might be beyond being. There is still a gap, it seems, between God and “true God.”

Origen draws on Platonic, perhaps Middle Platonic, themes to explain the Logos. The Father is pure unity. The material world is plurality. The Logos exists as the unifying principle of plurality, or as Joseph O’Leary states, the idea of ideas, the virtue of virtues (ComJn 1.119; CCels 5.39). As the principle (ἀρχή) of creation, all creation holds together in him. He is analogous to the World Soul. Thus, while the Logos is God, there is always an ontological gap between him and the Father. He is able to reveal and mediate the Father only because he is not identical to the Father; he is not absolute unity.

Now, pro-Nicene theology insisted that the Son is not merely like the Father in nature (ὁμοιουσιος) but identical (ὁμοουσιος). This seems at first to contradict the central principle of Logos theology, and Richard Hanson asserts that Nicene theology abandoned the Logos doctrine. However, Lewis Ayres argues that pro-Nicenes transformed Logos theology while retaining its essential features. The Logos still reveals and mediates the Father, but how mediation and revelation occur is radically reconceived. Pro-Nicene theology turns the question on its head. How could the Logos reveal the Father unless he possesses an identical nature? If he is other than the Father, then he could not say, “Whoever has seen me, has seen the Father” (John 14:9)?

First, mediation occurs through creation. The Logos who created the cosmos is in perfect union with the Father. Thus, the imprints of the Father truly exist in creation. All creation shouts testimonies to the Father’s power and goodness. Such testimony would be impossible if it were the work of an intermediary not in full union with the Father. Second, mediation occurs through redemption. As Athanasius argued, redemption could not be procured by a being existing in a middle state, slightly lower than God and higher than human. Only by the mediator grasping both extremes simultaneously can they be united. When believers are united to Christ by faith, they are united with the entire Trinity, for Christ is united to the Trinity. In no other way could the Scripture be true, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18).

So, we might say that pro-Nicenes challenged the Logos theology to come to grips with the true prerequisites for revelation and mediation. Only the co-eternal Logos, equal to the Father in wisdom, power, and glory, can assume true humanity and be the mediator our salvation requires.

Published in: on March 12, 2011 at 10:28 am  Leave a Comment  
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Review – Nicaea and its Legacy by Lewis Ayres

Over the last few decades,  revisionary accounts of fourth-century trinitarian theology have been forming gradually. According to new readings, the “Arian” controversy was not a well-defined struggle between Nicene defenders of inherited orthodoxy and a cabal of insurgents grouped around Arius. Rather, Arius’ and Alexander’s conflict ignited a battle between existing theological trajectories. The standard packaging of this period as “Arian” was a clever rhetorical move by Athanasius. “We should avoid thinking of these controversies as focusing on the status of Christ as ‘divine’ or ‘not divine’. They focus, first, on debates about the generation of the Word or Son from the Father. Second, the controversies involve debates about the ‘grammar’ of human speech about the divine” (3).

Furthermore, the revisionists insist that the defenders of Nicaea were not uniform in their theology, nor did those present at Nicaea hold the developed theology that would characterize pro-Nicene faith half a century later. Trinitarian theology cannot be divided into Eastern and Western, nor can the “pluralist” Cappadocians be set against against an Augustinian preference for “unity.” Another area of revision calls for an understanding of the Fathers as scriptural exegetes whose concerns about the status of the Word intertwine with their articulation of redemption. They were not captured by Hellenistic philosophy, nor do their differences stem primarily from adopting different philosophical starting points. Rather, almost all the participants employed philosophical ideas piecemeal in the service of a larger Christian consciousness.

Nicaea and its Legacy by Lewis Ayres is the first work to gather these revisionary accounts and advance them in a holistic narrative. Here we have the single-volume revisionary text for fourth-century trinitarian theology. Ayres does not claim to be exhaustive in this book. He refers to the existing comprehensive studies by Richard Hanson and Manlio Simonetti. Using those as a substratum, he constructs a leaner account that emphasizes the novel features of his approach. Nicaea and its Legacy serves well enough as a stand-alone text, but readers familiar with Hanson and Simonetti will appreciate its distinctiveness the most.

Ayres identifies four theological trajectories around the time of Nicaea, whose permutations formed the shifting alliances of the fourth century:

1) Alexander, Athanasius, and Friends: Theologians of true wisdom

2) The “Eusebians”: Theologians of the “One Unbegotten”

3) “Marcellan Theology”: Theologians of the undivided monad

4) Western Anti-Adoptionism: A Son born without division

Regarding Nicaea and its aftermath, Ayres argues that Nicaea was not at first intended to be “a precise marker of Christian faith” (85). In fact, the creed was capable of several interpretations, since the terminology it employed had not yet come to technical definition. Homoousios was not nearly as important as it would be later. The trinitarian controversies did not end at Nicaea, or even at Constantinople in 381. They continue into the fifth century, although pro-Nicene theology (Ayres’ term for the theology of those who defended Nicaea) by then gained the upper hand.

In explicating pro-Nicene theology, Ayres calls on Athanasius, Hilary, Basil of Caesarea, Ephrem the Syrian, Gregory Nazianzen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine. Though pro-Nicenes vary in their articulations of theology, they share a common “culture.” Each understands the Trinity as a mystery. God, as perfectly simple, is incomprehensible to our finite minds. Meditation on the inseparability of operations as evidenced in the Incarnation draws us into the paradox of the one divine power and three irreducible persons. Further, all creation participates in the mystery inasmuch as it exists “in” the Word, whom it reflects in a finite way. The Word as a purifying fire cleanses the mind and affections of Christians, so that they can gaze ever more perceptively into the divine mystery. Close readings of Nyssa and Augustine illustrate his arguments.

In the last chapter, Ayres undertakes a bold task. Having given an account of pro-Nicene theology, he asks what it means for contemporary theologians to appropriate or seek continuity with this creedal faith. He highlights the inconsistency of receiving creedal formulations while rejecting the exegetical and theological methods used to reach them. Modern trinitarian theology, with its post-Enlightenment and Hegelian assumptions, with its disdain for theological and mystical readings of Scripture, receives quite the tongue-lashing. Whether Ayres has found a legitimate way forward, though, is unclear.

Nicaea and its Legacy is a scholarly masterpiece, the best book I’ve read on the Trinity, the best book I’ve read so far this year. Ayres writes with an energy that radiates even in the densest portions. The narrative moments provide just enough air to dive back into the dense documents. He employs prodigious secondary literature to clarify, not obscure. His close readings of primary sources are indispensable. He is interdisciplinary in the best way. For those intimidated by the complexity of the subject matter, the epilogue summarizes the narrative in six pages. No church historian or theologian has any excuse not to read this book.

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Published in: on March 8, 2011 at 9:23 am  Comments (5)  
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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.]

Published in: on March 4, 2011 at 5:12 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Two Forms of Christ

In the first book of On the Trinity (De Trinitate), Augustine faces a difficult exegetical problem. Orthodox Christianity teaches the Trinity, the equality of the three divine persons. On the other hand, many statements in Scripture speak of Christ as being inferior to or less than the Father. The solution is distinguishing between Christ’s two forms.

To accomplish the redemption of mankind, the Son became the incarnate mediator between God and man. Augustine appeals to Philippians 2:6-7  — “Who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” Augustine comments, “For he did not so take the form of a servant that he lost the form of God in which he was equal to the Father. So if the form of a servant was taken on in such a way that the form of God was not lost … who can fail to see that in the form of God he too is greater than himself and in the form of a servant he is less than himself? And so it is not without reason that scripture says both; that the Son is equal to the Father and that the Father is greater than the Son. The one is to be understood in virtue of the form of God, the other in virtue of the form of a servant, without any confusion.” (1.14)

“Provided that we know this rule for understanding the scriptures about God’s Son and can thus distinguish the two resonances in them, one tuned to the form of God in which he is, and is equal to the Father, the other tuned to the form of a servant which he took and is less than the Father, we will not be upset by statements in the holy books that appear to be in flat contradiction with each other.” (1.22)

“In the form of God, all things were made by him (Jn 1:3); in the form of a servant, he himself was made of woman, made under the law (Gal 4:4). In the form of God, he and the Father are one (Jn 10:30); in the form of a servant, he did not come to do his own will, but the will of him who sent him (Jn 6:38). In the form of God, as the Father has life in himself, so he gave the Son also to have life in himself (Jn 5:26); in the form of a servant, his soul is sorrowful to the point of death, and Father, he said, if it can be, let this cup pass by (Mt 26:38). In the form of God, he is true God and life eternal (1 Jn 5:20); in the form of a servant he became obedient to the point of death, the death even of the cross (Phil 2:8). In the form of God, everything that the Father has is his (Jn 16:15), and all yours is mine, he says, and mine yours (Jn 17:10); in the form of a servant, his doctrine is not his own, but his who sent him (Jn 7:16)” (1.22).

Augustine’s approach shows that the Trinitarian and Christological controversies worked to resolve two concerns: 1) rendering a satisfactory account of how the incarnation grounds human salvation and 2) harmonize the seemingly contradictory exegetical material. As even these paragraphs show, John’s writings were the most fiercely contested. If Athanasius found the antidote to Arianism in John’s works, R. P. C. Hanson is right to point out that there would have been no Arianism if not for the same writings.

The non-Nicenes too understood the importance of a mediator, but their mediator was slightly less than true God and something more than normal man. The Nicene victory consisted not in providing more texts than the opposing side, but in producing a theology robust enough to give full rein to “both” sets of scriptural data. The mediator is True God and true man according to his two forms, which are never separated but never confused.

Published in: on February 14, 2011 at 6:57 pm  Comments (1)  
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