A couple of weeks ago when I wrote about Gregory of Nazianzus I noted that his approach to the Trinity was radically different from most of what is said on the topic today. “I could say more — just ask me!” I quipped. My dear friend Jack Craft said he’d like to hear more. Here we go.
It may take me a couple posts to get there, but that’s okay with me.
Most Protestants don’t give it much attention but the Trinity is a really big deal. This is not just words about God, a matter of opinion and speculation. We are talking about who God actually is.
- If Christianity is a relationship with God, then we had better get this one right.
- Miss the boat on the Trinity and we are in relationship with the wrong deity.
Today I’m going to give a little background; a vocabulary lesson for those learning Christianity as a second language. In my next post I’ll talk more about Gregory’s helpful approach.
In the church people know the word “Trinity” from the cradle. We just assume it is straightforward biblical teaching.
It wasn’t always so. The whole Church had to learn this word, just like those new to the faith do today. Actually Christians had to invent the word, since it doesn’t occur in Scripture.
There have always been those who say “If it isn’t in the Bible we shouldn’t use it about God!” So let me say that the word Trinity is actually very biblical. It is the word that best expresses what the Bible teaches about God.
Old Testament and New teach that God is One — there is but one living and true God, no matter how many different deities are offered in the culture around us.
But Christians also had to make sense of biblical passages where the Word is said to be with God and to be God; where Jesus says that he is one with the Father; and all kinds of references to the Holy Spirit.
We believe and teach that there is One God, and that this One God is eternally three distinct Persons.
Christians use the word Trinity for this and always, to some degree, say it is a mystery beyond human understanding. How do you make sense of one God when the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God?
Clarity came in the fourth century when Christianity was legalized and emperors could settle nasty divisive arguments by gathering bishops from around the world. Seven such conferences have special place and lasting authority in Christianity. These were
meetings of bishops from around the Christian world, called Ecumenical Councils starting with Nicaea I in 325 and ending with Nicaea II in 787. They dealt with crucial issues including the Trinity and our understanding of Jesus Christ.
The first such council, Nicaea I, took on one big piece of the Trinity puzzle: the Christian world was in an uproar over the question of how “the Father” is to be understood in relation to “the Son” whom we know as Jesus Christ. Conclusion: the Father and the Son are “of one substance,” and each of them is just as much God as the other.
But what about the Holy Spirit? That question was dealt with at the second Council, Constantinople I, in 381, with the help of the writings of St. Basil of Caesarea and the leadership of St. Gregory of Nazianzus. Conclusion: the same affirmation was made about the Spirit as had been made about the Son.
That’s the short version of how we came to talk and sing about “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”
More on the approach Gregory and other early theologians took to the question soon. And maybe also some thoughts on why it is so very important.
How do you think about the Trinity?
What kinds of issues do you wish we could call a Council to settle for global Christianity today?
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Deborah Wise says
Gary, thank you for your definitions – I think it is very important – because even cradle Christians often don’t understand the whole Trinity thing….I did not realize that Jesus was God until my mid-20s! Do you think the loss of ‘Father’ language plays into the loss of the fullness of the Trinity?
Phyllis Tickle says that unless we get a clearer understanding of the Trinity we will have a hard time moving forward as the Church universal. (She also says we need to get a better understanding/definition of personhood and the atonement…many younger folks have issues with penal substitution/bloody cross – perhaps a future topic?)
Gary Neal Hansen says
Yes, I think people’s hesitation about “Father” language is very much involved — both cause and result actually. More on this in the next post.
I think Phyllis Tickle is right on all of the above! Yes, lots of good future post topics.
Myra Scouten says
Working with the Trinity on the reservation it was difficult to get the concept across until one of our members read the Shack. I have had “white people” tell me that the trinity depicted in the Shack wasn’t their kind of God and they didn’t like the book. My friend on the rez had a son in prison and The Shack was being passed around there with great reviews. She read it also as she wanted to know what was exciting her son and she got it. I think that she had a good understanding of the 3 in 1 from that experience. Most people refer to God or Jesus as though that is the only way.
I would like to see a council today that talked about the major idea of what it means to be a Christian so that all those who call themselves Christian could agree on the basic thought of scripture. If they could see that we all come together with that basis then we could truly be the church universal. Christians need to come together and be in unity the way Christ taught or we will continue to fail. While I believe the Church is the Bride of Christ that will help usher in the kingdom I don’t believe that the church was called by various names to indicate difference of believe.