Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Trinity

In my Christian Heritage class today we discussed the first four ecumenical councils.  The discussion of these councils inevitably leads to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

Every year, before I launch into the lecture, I try to get the class to explain the Trinity from their conception.  What always becomes clear is that any positive attempt to describe the Trinity always leads to some heresy or another.  Take all of the modern examples and analogies and they fall into one of a number of forms of heresy.

For example, the analogy of H2O in three forms: Water, Ice, and Steam.  This is the heresy of modalism, one substance in three modes.  The same goes for the analogy of a person, say myself, as professor, husband, son.  One person in three modes. 

The egg is an interesting analogy: one egg, but divided into three parts, shell, yolk, white.  Yet, these substances can be separated whereas the Trinity cannot.  Once I separate the parts, I am not seeing the entire egg, only a part.  In the orthodox formulation of the trinity, when one views one person of the trinity, they view the entire godhead.  Hence, the egg analogy does not hold up. 

Thus, when one speaks of the Trinity, formulations must be negative, saying what it is not, not what it is.  Hence, when talking about the nature of Christ, Chalcedon could only construct its formula in negative terms, i.e., the Son is two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation (ἀσυγχύτως, ἀτρέπτως, ἀδιαιρέτως, ἀχωρίστως). 

The Trinity, and the dual nature of Christ are mysteries.  They are mysteries not to be solved, but to be wondered at.  Not to be figured out, or brought under our control, but rather to be marveled at.  It is in the mysteries of Christianity, in the places where we cannot conform the reality of God to the finiteness of our mind, where we truly have the opportunity to worship, to stand in awe at a God who is so profoundly beyond our understanding, to rest in the fact that we are not in control.


  1. When we were asked to come up with our own explanation of the Trinity in class, I went straight for the water argument. I thought that God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit were all one in the same, just in different form, as water can be found as steam, ice, or liquid. This argument has always served well for my purposes.

    That's why when it was shot down as modalism, I was shocked. I knew no other way that the Trinity could be described. But, it seems, there doesn't have to be a better way to describe the Trinity, just a process of eliminating what it is not. By going through and listing what the Trinity is NOT, there is a possibility of eventually getting down to the true evidence of what it actually is and how it functions, but that is very unlikely.

    Faith is a mystery, believing in the absence of evidence and fact. The Trinity is something to experience more than understand. The complexity of the Trinity illustrates the intricacy and power of God; He IS beyond our understanding.

  2. I completely agree with your view that an idea as complex, mysterious and controversial as the Trinity should, at the end of the day, be seen as a wonder to be marveled at. That being said, I also believe that God gave us a mind and intelligence for this very reason - to ponder and inquire and debate about His nature and Creation.

    When you mentioned the first four ecumenical councils and their discussion over the doctrine of the Trinity, I remembered the Council of Nicea. Their declaration that God the Father and God the Son are homoousios, or of the same substance, really challenged my precepts of how I viewed the Trinity. Growing up I subscribed to the concept of the Trinity as it related to the metaphor of water. In this way, the three parts to the Godhead were all composed of two-parts Hydrogen and one-part Oxygen, however, each had a different character or nature (at least in my understanding of them). This mindset, however, was more akin to the homoiousios, of similar essence, concept. After thinking this over, I began posing serious questions about a doctrine I had so easily absorbed and interpreted based on how I thought it should be or how everyone else understood it. But how can the Trinity be of similar essence if God is omnipotent? If the Son is like the Father, who is greater? A sense of like-ness implies a standard of quality. But does divinity not transcend all measure of quality or greatness?

    A few weeks later in my Great Texts class we were introduced to the idea of divine simplicity while discussing Augustine’s Confessions. Divine simplicity, as I’m sure you are aware, is the doctrine basically stating that God is not made up of any parts. He is simple in nature. There is no ontological composition of God in any matter or sort, He simply is. Although this doctrine can seem immediately contradictory to the idea of the Trinity, I believe it is actually useful in uncovering more truth about it and the two need not be divorced from one another.

    When viewing divine simplicity in a Platonic lens through his famed Theory of Forms, God can be seen as the highest form of Being. In this way God does not possess goodness, or justice, or truth, rather, He is each of those things. He is omnipotent, encompasses all forms, and is paradoxically both imminent and transcendent.

    This somewhat cliché revelation had been right before me all along. Any good Sunday school student knows that God knows everything and is always watching you (so be careful little eyes what you see…) However, I had never taken the time to truly think about it. To understand God’s supreme oneness aided my understanding of the Trinity in it’s Nicean homoousios context. God the Father and God the Son are of the same substance precisely because God is one substance. It is as simple and as complex as that!

    In short, God is just one big paradox.

  3. It kind of makes me really curious about how conceited mankind is when they attempt to explain things that are not necessarily explainable. Why is it that we think that we can define something so divine (I think that is the word I want to use) that no one else has? Or even explain and define something that is so important and such a strong belief for people and expect the definition to satisfy everyone?

    I understand that it would be great to be able to come to a consensus or to even be able to explain this mystery of faith, but the thing is that it IS a mystery of faith. I often see people get too frustrated with their faith that they lose faith and need fact and reason. This might be a stretch but maybe this has to do a little with Rudolf Bultmann’s belief of the Scientific Worldview. We are no longer satisfied with just faith and trusting in what we believe as true. The Trinity is something that just is, not something to be defined and explained. Maybe that’s the thing, it is not meant to be explained- its meant to be seen, believed in, and will only be understood through faith.

  4. What a great mystery the trinity. God became a man, this man became the Spirit, not for our understanding, but for our entering into the trinity. Having entered into the trinity through being born of God we experience the trinity and enjoy in us the Father, Son and Spirit. How wonderful, it is not for our understanding but for our experiencing all that God is. I do not understand it, but oh how wonderful to be filled with the trinity living in me.