From Jerusalem to Nicaea

Michael S. Horton
Friday, October 31st 2014
Nov/Dec 2014

In its earliest years, the Christian church was a Jewish sect, preoccupied with the challenge of bringing the gospel to Jerusalem and Judea. Soon, however, it entered the Gentile world’first through the Diaspora (that is, Jews scattered throughout the Roman Empire). In the process, the gospel encountered different objections and challenges. On the popular level, Greeks and Romans were not offended by the addition of another foreign deity to the pantheon of gods. Early Christians repeated traditional Jewish objections to polytheism. Yet as Christianity gained converts and critics among cultural elites, it had more philosophical challenges to face.

How do you explain and defend the Christian faith to those with a fundamentally different worldview’without accommodating that faith to the presuppositions of unbelief? That perennial question of Christian mission pressed itself on the consciousness of the ancient church. The dogma of the Trinity would never have emerged out of a synthesis of Christian and pagan thought. On the contrary, the early pioneers of Trinitarian theology were remarkably adept at exploiting their inherited vocabulary and philosophical concepts in service to revelation.

Early Trinitarian Debates

For centuries, the Greek mind had been preoccupied with the so-called problem of "the one-and-the many." In simplest terms, this is a question of how to think about and explain both the unity and plurality of all things. Is reality ultimately made of one thing or "essence," or of many diverse things? In the ancient world, most Greek philosophers (famous thinkers such as Parmenides, the Stoics, even Plato) assumed that reality was made up of one pure thing’essence, or being’but that we nonetheless experience the world a little differently. Instead of seeing this oneness, we experience a world of multiple copies and shadows that have fallen away from the one pure, original thing. This explained unity and plurality. All reality is in truth, in its purity, oneness. But we experience instead plurality and diversity. The priority of oneness is maintained and preferred, while plurality is acknowledged and tolerated.

Early Christian theologians emerged in this intellectual world and began to reflect on the Bible's revelation of the nature of God. One early thinker, Origen (AD 185-254), founded a school in Alexandria where he not only translated but transformed biblical teaching into the categories of Platonism (i.e., the Greek worldview described above). Origen tried to merge the Bible with Plato. Since "oneness" was the favored term and cannot be divided, Origen began to describe Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as a creature who was subordinate to the Father. The Father and the Son cannot both be God in the same way, he reasoned, because that would imply a plurality in the Godhead. To many Christian ears, the effect of Origen's reasoning was to suggest that the Son was less divine than the one, singular Father. A third-century presbyter named Arius, who also served in Alexandria, went a step further, arguing that the Son is the first created being. "There exists a trinity [trias]," he said, "in unequal glories." The Father alone is God, properly speaking, while there was a time when the Son did not exist. (1) Seeking a middle way, Semi-Arians argued that the Son is of a similar, though not exactly the same, essence as the Father. At this moment, orthodoxy hung on a vowel: homoousios ("of the same essence") versus homoiousios ("of a similar essence").

A somewhat different way of preserving the unity of God and the divinity of the Son and the Spirit was struck by Sabellius. He argued that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are "masks" or personae worn by the one divine person. God is one indeed, without any real plurality; but like an actor on the stage, God could appear sometimes as the Father, other times as the Son, and other times as the Spirit. However, these are not actually three different actors. Though the third-century Roman presbyter was excommunicated by the bishop of Rome in AD 220, Sabellianism’more commonly known as modalism‘has remained a recurring challenge throughout church history.

Summing up, all of these early challenges were the result of the inability of the Greek mind to comprehend a plurality that is not in some sense a division or falling away from the pure unity of being. Part of the problem was that there just weren't enough conceptual tools in the toolbox to make the point that the threeness (plurality) did not pertain to God's essence.

Finding the Words

The real breakthrough at this point came with the Cappadocian theologians in the fourth century: Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Basil of Caesarea. Instead of confusing Greek terms for "essence" and "individual," they used words such as hypostasis (an individual substance with its own characteristics) to describe the persons of the Trinity, while also affirming the unity of God's one, divine essence. They affirmed, in other words, that God is at the same time one indivisible "essence" and three individual persons or subsistences with special characteristics. Unity and plurality’God is one in essence and three in persons. It is not God's essence that is plural but the persons.

These theologians of the East argued that while each person of the Trinity shares equally in the one divine essence (avoiding the ontological subordinationism of Origen and Arius), the Son and the Spirit receive their personal existence from the Father. Thus unity and plurality receive equal appreciation: "No sooner do I conceive of the One," said Gregory of Nazianzus, "than I am illumined by the Splendor of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish Them than I am carried back to the One." (2)

This interrelationship between persons is further underscored by the term perichoresis, which refers to the mutual indwelling of the persons in each other. This relationship is underscored in John's Gospel, where the Son is in the bosom or at the side of his Father (1:18). No one comes to the Father except through the Son; in fact, to know the Son is to know the Father also (14:6-7). "Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?" (v. 10). Jesus declares that the Holy Spirit "will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you" (16:14-15). And in his prayer he says, "And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed" (17:5). He asks that all of those who will believe in him "may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me….I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one" (vv. 21, 23).

Up to this point, Christians objected to the charge of logical contradiction, but they did not yet have the precise vocabulary for articulating it. Even though it's more complex philosophically, the terms employed by the Cappadocians enriched the church's theology immeasurably.

East-West Tensions

Differences between the churches of the East and the West have been often exaggerated. Despite initial debate in the West over certain Greek vocabulary, both the Eastern and Western church fathers agreed on the Trinitarian formula, "One in essence, three in persons." In fact, it was the Latin father Tertullian who coined the expression. (3) The ecumenical consensus reached at the Council of Nicaea in 325 (subsequently codified as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed) was remarkable and remains the church's confession to this day. Nevertheless, differences (both political and theological) eventually precipitated a formal schism in 1054, when the Western church unilaterally amended the Nicene Creed. According to the original Latin wording, the Spirit proceeds "from the Father," but Rome added the clause, "and [from] the Son" (et filio). Hence, it is called the Filioque controversy. This confirmed some of the East's suspicions about lingering Western emphasis on God's oneness over against his triunity. But the West had taken such steps for good reason in order to guard against a revival of Arianism in Spain. In spite of a promising beginning, the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) failed to heal the East-West schism.

Reformed Contributions to Catholic Consensus

Some in our own day have mistakenly suggested that the Reformers added little to Trinitarian theology beyond affirming the ecumenical creeds and catholic consensus. However, John Calvin did contribute his own insights to this age-old debate between the East and the West. In the sixteenth century, because many of the ancient heresies returned (for example, neo-Arianism and Socinianism, later called unitarianism), Calvin took direct action in his ministry. He insisted that the Trinity is central. Without it, "only the bare and empty name of God flits about in our brains, to the exclusion of the true God." (4)

Calvin affirmed the equality and unity of the Godhead, while keeping a sharp lookout to avoid the error of subordinationism on one side and modalism on the other. In doing so, he emphasized with the West generally that each person is God in exactly the same sense, but also emphasized with the East that each person is different from the others and that this personhood is not merely a concept or relation but identifies real "subsistences"’that is, a distinct entity with his own personal characteristics. "For in each hypostasis the whole divine nature is understood," he says, "with this qualification’that to each belongs his own peculiar quality." (5) In other words, when it comes to the attributes of God, there is no qualitative or even quantitative difference between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. Yet this unity of essence is not itself a person’a fourth member of the Trinity, as it were. We never encounter the divine essence, but the Father, the Son, and the Spirit’and even then, according to their works.

Furthermore, besides the one essence that each person shares in exactly the same way and degree, each person has attributes that distinguish him from the others. This is the point that seems to be lacking in traditional Western treatments since Augustine. By giving equal weight to the essential attributes that are shared equally by the three persons as well as the personal attributes that distinguish each from the others, Calvin believed, "In this sense the opinions of the ancients are to be harmonized, which otherwise would seem somewhat to clash." (6) The Son and the Spirit do not receive their divine nature from the Father, but they do receive their personal existence from the Father. The Son is eternally begotten and the Spirit is eternally spirated (breathed forth) by the Father. In any case, essences are not the sort of thing begotten or spirated in the first place; only persons are. "It is not a mere relation which is called the Son, but a real someone subsisting in the divine nature." (7) This is evident in the external works of the Godhead:

It is not fitting to suppress the distinction that we observe to be expressed in Scripture. It is this: to the Father is attributed the beginning of activity, and the fountain and wellspring of all things; to the Son, wisdom, counsel, and the ordered disposition of all things; but to the Spirit is assigned the power and efficacy of all that activity. (8)

In talking this way, Calvin is simply following the formulation of the Cappadocian fathers: for example, in Gregory of Nyssa's statement that all of God's external activity has its origin from the Father, and proceeds through the Son, and is perfected in the Holy Spirit.

Conclusion: Practical Benefits of the Doctrine of the Trinity

Other essays in this issue of Modern Reformation will defend the claim that the doctrine of the Trinity is pregnant with practical implications. But given the technical sophistication of the preceding history, a few concluding thoughts are in order. The most important question in any age is whether our own faith and practice as Christians are thoroughly defined by and immersed in this Trinitarian faith. The Trinity is not just an orthodox dogma to which we yield our assent. The Father, the Son, and the Spirit stride across the chapters of redemptive history toward the goal whose origins lies in an eternal pact between them. We worship, pray, confess, and sing our laments and praises to the Father, in the Son, by the Spirit. We are baptized and blessed in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. From the word of the Father concerning his Son in the power of the Spirit, a desert wasteland blooms into a lush garden in ever-widening patches throughout the world.

We are adopted as children, not of a uni-personal God, but of the Father, as coheirs with his Son as mediator, united to the Son and his ecclesial body by the Spirit. Paul's doxology in Romans 11:36’"From him and through him and to him are all things"’now takes on new significance; it means that all good gifts come from the Father, through the Spirit, and to the Son. No less than the Father, the Son and the Spirit are also our creator and preserver. No less than the Son, the Father and the Spirit are our savior and lord. No less than the Father and the Son is the Spirit "worshiped and glorified."

1 [ Back ] Quoted from Arius's poem "Thalia," in Rowan Williams, Arius: Heresy and Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 102.
2 [ Back ] Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 40: The Oration on Holy Baptism, ch. 41 in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Second Series, The Early Church Fathers, Second Series, So14, edited by Alexander Roberts et al. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996), 7:375.
3 [ Back ] This formula first appears in chapter 2 of Tertullian's' Against Praxeas, NPNF2, 3:598.
4 [ Back ] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, edited by John T. McNeill, translated by Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, KY: The Westminster Press, 1967), I.13.2.
5 [ Back ] Calvin, I.13.19.
6 [ Back ] Calvin, I.13.18-22.
7 [ Back ] Calvin, I.13.6.
8 [ Back ] Calvin, I.13.18.
Photo of Michael S. Horton
Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Friday, October 31st 2014

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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