Trinity Sunday


I was about to visit one church last Sunday when a bit of internet research indicated that it was going to be one of the churches celebrating the day as Trinity Sunday. Some additional research allowed me to find a church that did not celebrate Trinity Sunday, and yes, amazingly, I went there and actually walked in the door. (Because I announced my presence at that church, it could blow my pretense of anonymity if I indicated which church it was.)

In avoiding Trinity Sunday, I managed to avoid a clash with Trinitarianism, a dogma that has frustrated me for a long time.

One of the things that has fascinated me about early Christianity was the way that its diversity and intellectual vibrancy was squashed and molded into a homogenous "catholic" faith. The Trinity is a doctrine that emerged out of that process--in a way, it was the culmination of that process. For those who consider Trinitarianism essential to the Christian religion, it is worth considering that there was no doctrine of Trinitarianism as such until the Cappadocians (Basil and the two Gregorys) formulated it late in the fourth century CE. That is to say, there was no Trinitarian Christianity for the first three and a half centuries or so of the faith. The Nicean creed, for example, was formulated before the existence of Trinitarianism.

The doctrine of the Trinity was a tool; it served a means of consolidating victory by Nicean forces in the Christian power struggles of that century. It lent a much needed theoretical foundation for the victorious side, one that various factions could coalesce around. The doctrine of the Trinity, as formulated by Gregory of Nyssa, actually made for an interesting and sophisticated theology. Unfortunately, whereas it should have served as a jumping off point for further free inquiry into the nature of God, the opposite is instead what happened; it became a tool with which to bludgeon dissidents. This is because the various factions that coalesced around it colluded with Roman state power to stamp out Arianism or any other free thinking doctrine.

Where I think Gregory of Nyssa was brilliant was in his suggestion that God had an ineffable essence, and that this essence could only be known through certain means (hypostases) by which God made himself available to us as onlookers. So far, so good. Of course, the devil (no pun intended) is in the details. Gregory described just three hypostases, which of course we know of as the Holy Trinity. Karen Armstrong, in her book A History of God, summarizes Gregory's views this way:

Thus the hypostases Father, Son and Spirit should not be identified with God himself, because, as Gregory of Nyssa explained, "the divine nature (ousia) is unnameable and unspeakable"; "Father," "Son" and "Spirit" are only "terms that we use" to speak of the energeiai by which he has made himself known. Yet these terms have symbolic value because they translate the ineffable reality into images that we can understand. Men have experienced God as transcendent (the Father, hidden in inaccessible light), as creative (the Logos) and as immanent (the Holy Spirit). But these three hypostases are only partial and incomplete glimpses of the Divine Nature itself, which lies far beyond such imagery and conceptualization. The Trinity, therefore, should not be seen as a literal fact but as a paradigm that corresponds to real facts in the hidden life of God.
This is more subtle and interesting than one might have imagined. I would argue that, if the Trinity is only a paradigm that does not really describe God's nature, and if it forms only a partial and incomplete glimpse into the Divine, then the Trinity cannot in and of itself be seen as the last word in describing the nature of God.

Do we only know God through transcendence, immanence, and creativity? What about love? What about justice? Are these not also ways that God reveals herself to us? Why restrict God to three hypostases (or persons, as the Latin West refers to it)? Why not 17? Why not 258? Why not an infinite number of hypostases that corresponds to the infinite diversity of the universe? And if God has an infinite number of ways of revealing herself, then are there not possibly other ways of describing the unity within diversity besides a strictly Trinitarian theology? Such as panentheism?

If the Trinity is just a paradigm, then surely we know from Thomas Kuhn that paradigms change. To elevate a religious and philosophical paradigm into an immutable dogma that must be accepted by all Christians is surely the wrong way to go. Unfortunately, that is just what Christianity did in the centuries that followed. Gregory of Nyssa offered interesting ideas about the nature of God and how we understand the Divine; but rather than using that as a starting point, Christianity took it as a kind of end point that no one could question (although some who followed, like Augustine, did their own riffs on Trinitarian theology.) The whys and the wherefores of Gregory's philosophy were ignored; all that seemed to matter was his conclusion.

But the Niceans who triumphed over the Arians in the fourth century managed so successfully to stamp out any diversity or freedom of inquiry that questioned Trinitarianism, that even during the Protestant Reformation, Trinitarianism remained off the table for reconsideration by the reformers. Thus the heroic martyr for religious freedom, Michael Servetus, was executed by Calvin for promoting a unitarian doctrine. The result today is that the mainline Protestant denominations continue to promote a Trinitarian doctrine to this day.

I consider myself a unitarian. To me, God is the single Ultimate reality, certainly ineffable as Gregory of Nyssa suggested, but embodying the entire diversity of the universe in all its multitudes. This multitude within the unity represents quite simply the fact that God's immanence embodies the universe, which is infinitely diverse. My take on God is certainly a paradigm, just as Gregory's Trinity was a paradigm. My concept of God could easily be wrong, and in fact probably is--because we can never know God's nature directly, but only through paradigms. What bothers me about Trinitarianism is not just that it seems so arbitrary and limiting, that it has become a kind of idol in how it expresses the Divinity; but also that it limits our ability to conceive of God in novel ways. It freezes the world of faith into the fourth century. Maybe we need to unfreeze the Christian faith.


Heather said...

I have Karen Armstrong's 'A History of God.' It provided a fascinating insight into the differences of the Jewish and Greek perception of God, and why the Greeks would've interpreted Jesus as God in the way that they did.

On a completely random note -- what were Trinitarians called before there was the concept of the Trinity? Almost all of the early Christian writings I've seen focusing on a duality of Jesus and God. I often wonder if early Christians would even recognize our terms and services.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

I'm a bit confused by the post -- and haven't read Armstrong, I don't know what she says on the subject -- but I'm assuming you're not saying that the doctrine of the Trinity didn't emerge until the late 4th century. Yes, the Cappadocians were central to understanding this doctrine and it wasn't until late in the 4th century that much attention was given to the Holy Spirit, but long before Nicea theologians such as Tertullian (early third century) were talking in this way. The formula -- Father, Son, and Spirit goes to Matthew, which dates to about 80 AD. But I would disagree that Nicea didn't deal with the Trinity -- as it was focused on reconciling a confession of faith in Jesus as fully divine with the confession that there is one God. What we know as the Nicene Creed does really stem from Constantinople in 381, but the foundations were laid in 325. At Chalcedon in the 5th century the issue of Christ's two natures was taken up, but that was a different debate and didn't involve Arians, but Nestorians.

If Armstrong claims that a Trinitarian doctrine waits till that late a date, I think she's wrong.

But if the issue is one of the process by which a full fledged Trinitarianism develops that's a whole different question.

Mystical Seeker said...

It seems to me that until the Cappadocians came along, there was no understanding within Nicean/proto-orthodox Christianity of what the nature of the relationship was between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, or how to reconcile the divinity of Jesus with monotheism. There simply wasn't a theology out there to explain it. First came the divinity of Christ--which Athanasius and his allies were busy promoting, for reasons that had less to do with ideas about God and more to do with ideas about the perfectibility of human nature; only later did a theology exist to explain how the Divine Logos could could work within a monotheistic context.

That is to say that the time that Athanasius was involved in attacking Arianism, he believed that the Son was of the same ousion as the Father, but no one had formulated a theology that explained it. Until the Cappadocians came along, no one could figure out how a monotheistic God could nevertheless have a Father and a Son who were both divine unless there were actually two Gods. The original creed that Athanasius supported, by the way, barely made a passing reference to the Holy Spirit. It was the Cappadocians who came up with the theory that we know as the Trinity, that explained how you could have a divine Jesus and yet only one God.

I am not saying that the Trinity was conceived out of whole cloth. Obviously, it drew from elements that were already in place. But as a theology, I am not aware of it having existed before Basil, Gregory, and Gregory.

I do think one should be careful to retroject fourth century theology onto the book of Matthew. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit formulation in Matthew is not inherently Trinitarian. It says absolutely nothing about the nature or the relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; it doesn't say that the Son is divine, or that God consists of three persons in one divine being, or that the Son is the eternal pre-existing divine Logos.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

I would disagree -- I don't have my histories with me as I'm in Lompoc and not SB, but the reason why Athanasius must come argue for homoousia is that he must try to reconcile monotheism and the divinity of Jesus. That goes back well before the 4th century. As I said, Tertullian was working on this language -- in Latin -- around 200 AD. He is the first to use the term Trinity in Against Praxeas --

The Cappadocians did broaden that out and spend more time on the Spirit, which was admittedly an add on until that time. But, to say that Trinity wasn't around prior to their time simply is a misreading.

As for Matthew, indeed you're right we don't have full blown Trinitarianism there, but you have the seeds and as we see by 200 or so Tertullian and others were working on the language that Athanasius and others would use later.

Mystical Seeker said...

Karen Armstrong puts it this way:

Athanasius's creed begged many important questions. It stated that Jesus was divine but did not explain how the Logos could be "of the same stuff" as the Father without being a second God. In 339, Marcellus, Bishop of Ancyra--a loyal friend and colleague of Athanasius, who had even gone into exile with him on one occasion--argued that the Logos could not possibly be an eternal divine being. He was only a quality or potential inherent within God: as it stood, the Nicene formula could be accused of tritheism, the belief that there were three gods: Father, Son and Spirit. Instead of the controversial homoousion, Marcellus proposed the compromise term homoiousion, of like or similar nature....Marcellus seems to have believed that the Logos was only a passing phase: it had emerged from God at creation, had become incarnate in Jesus and, when the redemption was complete, would melt back into the divine nature, so that the One God would be all in all.

Eventually, Athanasius was able to convince Marcellus and his disciples that they should join forces, because they had more in common with one another than with the Arians. Those who said that the Logos was of the same nature as the Father and those who believed that he was similar in nature to the Father were "brethren, who mean what we mean and are disputing only about terminology." The priority must be to oppose Arius, who declared that the Son was entirely distinct from God and of a fundamentally different nature.

Armstrong points out,

But Christians were still confused: if there was only one God, how could the Logos also be divine?

The answer came from the Cappadocians, who formulated the doctrine of the Trinity.

I am not saying that they invented this doctrine out of thin air or that there were not already elements of it in place. But believing in a divine Christ does not make one a subscriber to the formal doctrine of the Trinity as put forward by the Cappadocians. I would contend that the formal doctrine of the Trinity as we now know it didn't exist before the Cappadocians. It was invented to solve a problem of how Jesus could be divine if there were only one God. The problem wasn't solved until the Arians were suppressed and hounded out of existence and the need for a consolidation by the victors was in order. It was a two-step process: first, stamp out those who didn't think like the anti-Arians; and second, formulate a doctrine to explain it all.

Interestingly, the word homoousios was added to the Nicene creed of 325 at the suggestion of none other than Constantine. As Rubenstein puts it, "Before anyone else could respond, the emperor not only pronounced it [the proposed creed] acceptable, but stated that it reflected his own beliefs. There was only one amendment that he would suggest. Eusebius should add that the the Son was homoousios with the Father: that is, that Jesus and God shared the same essence."

He adds, "Constantine may not have understood, however, that many bishops would consider the word a provocation. Homoousios had been kicking around Easter theological circles for some time, but most churchmen did not like it, since it was a Greek philosophical term not found anywhere in Scripture. More important, it had been assocciated with the heresy of Sabellius: the idea that Jesus Christ was an aspect of activity of God lacking any real existence of his own."

Mystical Seeker said...

By the way, Bob, I think you do raise a good point about Tertullian. My understanding about him, though, is that his conception of the Trinity was subordinationist and temporary in character.

Mystical Seeker said...

Here is another quote from Rubenstein, this time concerning the Cappadocians:

Clearly, there was some tension between this idea of a God "distributed" over three equal Persons and the notion...that God as the Father is in some sense "greater" than God as the Son and Holy Spirit. The tension, according to some commentators, was never resolved.

"Was the Lord's prayer addressed only to the hypostasis of the Father as "our Father" and the Father of the Son, or to the entire ousia of the Godhead? Basil's answer...was to declare that what was common to the Three and what was distinctive among them lay beyond speech and therefore beyond either analysis or conceptualization."[Pelikan, "Emergence"]

This vagueness may have helped bring the conservative Arians into the fold, since they could still affirm that God's Fathership was more powerful or causative than His Sonship. Even today, many Christians who consider themselves orthodox conceive of God "primarily" as Father. But the real thrust of the Cappadocian doctrine was to differentiate the Christian "Godhead," which now incorporated Jesus and the Holy Spirit, from the monolithic God worshiped by Jews, radical Arians, and later on, by Muslims, Unitarians, Bahais, and others. Restating the relationship between Father and Son, in other words, redefined both parties, not just the Son.
(emphasis added)

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

You are correct that Tertullian did have a subordinationist Christology, but the relationships weren't temporary. His own work was directed against modalists who believed that Father, Son, and Spirit were three modes of existence -- This is also known as Sabellianism.

I th ink we can find common ground here be saying that Trinitarian thought was developing as early as the 2nd century, if not earlier (I think earlier) but that the definitions were in flux, so that it wasn't until the Cappadocians that a full fledged doctrine was forged.

As for Constantine's input, I'll have to check that out when I get home.

Mystical Seeker said...

Fair enough, Bob.

Samuel Maynes said...

If you are interested in some new ideas on religious pluralism, the Trinity, and panentheism, please check out my website at It previews my book, which has not been published yet and is still a “work-in-progress.” Your constructive criticism would be very much appreciated.

My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or "Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the "body of Christ" (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

* The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

For more details, please see:

Samuel Stuart Maynes