I have been looking at what the Patristics have thought about the Trinity, and some curious questions have been emanating from this young twenty-first century mind. How odd is it that the Trinity has been studied by numerous eminent minds and men of God, yet even so the greatest of them have ended their discourses with the word, “Mystery”. Why was the Triune nature of the Godhead a doctrine that St. Athanasius was willing to be exiled three times for? Why has the Church labeled many as heretics because of their definition of the Trinity? What is at stake? Let us rummage through the minds of the Patristics to begin to answer some of our inquiries.
Orthodox Christology was the first battle that our Fathers fought for in the Trinitarian debate. Evans says, “Apart from the divine identity of Jesus as the Son there could not be a Trinity.” Though this may seem evident to us today, it is a primary reason for the Patristic’s tight grasp on orthodox Trinitarian belief. If Christ is not the second Person of the Godhead as truly as He was a walking, breathing human being then there is no Trinity to be spoken of, or really a Christian faith for it too is dependent upon the divinity of Christ. Because of this our Fathers pushed that Jesus was “of the same substance (homoousios)” as God rather than just of “similar stubstance (homoiousios).
Orthodox Soteriology was also in the balance. Gordon Fee said, “[all these soteriological verses] in some form or another reflect the threefold activity of Father, Christ, and Spirit in effecting salvation”. In describing his “economy of salvation” St. Irenaeus highlights the specific purpose of each of the Godhead in salvation saying, “God the Father uncreated, invisible one God, creator of the universe…and the Word of God, the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who…in the fullness of time, to gather all things to himself, became a human among humans to…destroy death, bring life, and achieve fellowship between God and humanity…And the Holy Spirit…was poured out in a new way on our humanity to make us new throughout the world in the sight of God.”
Basil of Caesarea was known for his emphasis on the equality of the Spirit in the Trinity. The “filioque controversy” came up because it was important to our Cappadocean Fathers that the Holy Spirit proceed from both the Father and the Son together. They defined the Trinity as one Substance in three Persons so it was necessary that the Holy Spirit be equal, proceeding from both and having in Himself the Substance of the Father and Son together.
The Patristics have used many analogies of the Trinity, two of which particularly lead away from thinking of the Trinity in a neo-Platonic manner. St. Augustine couples the Trinity with charity saying, “charity certainly loves itself, but unless it loves itself loving something it does not love itself as charity.” And further he says, “Now love means someone loving and something loved with love. There you are with three, the lover, what is being loved, and love.” The second I want to mention is one used by Cyril of Alexandria in the fifth century who said, “already the fragrance of the Holy Spirit has breathed upon you…That may you enjoy the Christ-hearing waters in their fragrance”. In this way the fragrance proceeds from the Throne of God (i.e. the Spirit) while Christ is enjoyed in that same fragrance and the fragrance is God the Father.
The Athanasian Creed seems to typify what the Patristics saw as the elemental beliefs that are necessary to maintaining an orthodox view of the Trinity. It says, “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary to hold the Catholic faith…But this is the Catholic faith: That we worship one God in trinity, and trinity in unity; Neither confounding the persons; nor dividing the substance. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son; another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is all one: the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal.” The Creed continues with each aspect of God, attributing it to each Person and then unifying them as One, not Three. It concludes saying, “So that in all things, as aforesaid, the unity in trinity, and the trinity in unity is to be worshipped. He, therefore, that will be saved, must thus think of the trinity.”
A final aspect of the Patristic’s teaching on the Trinity (which Athanasius mentions) is seen in our salvation, when we come to the font of living water which proceeds from the Throne of God, the wound of Christ, and the presence of the Holy Spirit. Herein we bind unto ourselves the strong name of the Trinity, the Three in One and One in Three. This is why we may all walk from henceforth to study, meditate upon, and worship the Holy Trinity for the whole of our lives and still be continually awed into a greater understanding of the holy Mystery.
Comments and thoughts are welcome.