It’s Trinity Sunday. Again. Seems like just twelve months ago that I was last trying to find something to preach about the Trinity. Trinity Sunday is the only feast day of the church that’s devoted to a doctrine, rather than a holy person or story. I know there are preachers who really enjoy preaching about doctrine. I find it a little dry and chewy, myself. Like an overly-healthy energy bar.
As I stared at a blank document on my laptop earlier this week, it dawned on me that part of the challenge is that I’m just not very interested in the Trinity. Don’t get me wrong: I love God! I love knowing God as Source, Redeemer, and Spirit!But I don’t for a moment believe that our theological formulations, even at their most elaborate and nuanced, are actually describing the nature of the Divine. The mystery is too big, and our language far too small.
But it’s clear that the Trinity – this teaching, this doctrine, this way of mapping the interior of God – has been tremendously important to our ancestors in faith. I learned last year that the annual observance of a Sunday devoted to the Trinity may go back to Dunstan’s time – might even have been part of his effort to get the English people thinking rightly about God. And the doctrine of the Trinity mattered a whole heck of a lot to many people, during the first thousand years of our faith. So I spent some time with some of those ancient voices this week. And, you know, I got interested.
Let’s go back to the early 4th century. The big heresies of the previous couple of centuries had largely focused on Jesus: Was he really God, or just a human granted special divine wisdom and power by God? Was he really human, or just sort of a human suit that God put on in order to get our attention? And so on.
As the Church settled on understanding Jesus as both fully human and fully divine, the next problem emerged: If Jesus is God, alongside God the Father, Creator and Source, then what do we do with that, as a faith committed to monotheism, belief in one God? Because that sure sounds like two gods. And that’s even before we get to this weird undefined Holy Spirit business.
One solution to this quandary is called Arianism. Arius was born in North Africa, around the year 250. We don’t have many of Arius’ own writings – because they were purged after his teachings were declared heretical. But his ideas weren’t that crazy – nor were they unique to him. For example, Arius was influenced by the writings of Origen, an important early theologian of the previous generation. Both were interested in how Jesus Christ, as the Word or Logos of God, related to God the Creator. Many of Origen’s ideas are at odds with the official theology of Christianity that took form through the great church councils of the fourth century. But Origen was early enough to be looked back on fondly as an Early Church Father who was still figuring it all out, while Arius became the Great Heretic of the 4th century.
The core of Arianism is simply this: Jesus is the Son of God. Wait – doesn’t that sound familiar? Sure! We teach that too. For Arians, that meant that there was a time when there was no Jesus yet. Arius remarked in a letter to an ally, “We are persecuted because we say that the Son has a beginning but that God is without beginning.” Jesus – as the Word, the Logos of God – was God’s first and best creation. Arius wrote, “[Jesus] has subsisted before time and before ages as perfect as God, only begotten and unchangeable.” (Quoted in Wikipedia, “Arianism”). Everything else was created through the Son – that should sound familiar; it’s in the Nicene Creed: “By whom all things were made.” It followed, for Arians, that Jesus – though infinitely perfect and holy – was also in some sense secondary, subordinate to God the Father, Creator of Heaven and Earth.
Now, listen: The Bible does not offer a coherent, complete theology of the Trinity. That’s why there was room for these great debates. And it is not hard to assemble texts from both the Old and New Testaments that sound like they support Arius’ view – starting with Genesis 1. What’s more, Arius’ ideas made intuitive sense to a lot of people – including a lot of leaders. We’re talking about a great, powerful Monarch who has a Son who acts as his agent and emissary. Sure, that sounds right! It’s a lot more logical than the weird philosophical abstractions of Basil and Gregory and Athanasius. (More on them in a moment.)
By the early third century, Arian Christianity was spreading. I read a little about Wulfila – which means, Little Wolf – who was a missionary to the Goths, a group of Germanic tribes. As part of his missionary work, he even developed a Gothic alphabet so that he could translate the Bible into their language – although he skipped the book of Kings, as he feared all those battles and intrigues would only encourage their worst habits.
To the extent that I’d thought about Arians at all, I’d only ever really imagined them assembled in a big hall, arguing theology with Trinitarian Christians. It had never occurred to me to think about Arian Christians out there making disciples of all nations, with conviction and joy. We have Wulfila’s statement of faith – listen: “I, Ulfila, bishop and confessor, have always so believed, and in this, the one true faith, I make the journey to my Lord: I believe in one God the Father, the only unbegotten and invisible; and in his only-begotten son, our Lord and God, the designer and maker of all creation, having none other like him; and in one Holy Spirit, the illuminating and sanctifying power.” (Wikipedia, “Ulfilas.”)
It doesn’t sound that strange, does it? But the ways in which it’s different from the theological core of Christianity as we have inherited it are fundamental, if subtle. And that was very obvious to church leaders at the time. They were concerned that Arian teachings might endanger people’s salvation, since they would not understand Jesus’ divinity correctly. Facing pressure and unrest, the Emperor Constantine called together all the bishops of the ancient world to hash it all out, so he can have both more stability in his empire – and fewer bishops NAGGING him.
The First Ecumenical Council gathered at Nicaea, a city in present-day Turkey, in the year 325. While other matters were on the docket, like the date of Easter, the question of how Jesus is part of God was the big issue. Arius argued for his position, using Scripture, reason, and rhetoric. And he lost. He was declared a heretic, and his works were consigned to fire.
The Nicene Creed, the ancient statement of the church’s faith that we recite together every Sunday, came out of this gathering. It contains the early Church’s official, universal theology about the Holy Trinity – which does not leave room for Arianism. The Creed affirms that Jesus did not have a beginning: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father…” That odd phrase “eternally begotten” is key here. It means that Jesus is in some mysterious sense God’s son, “begotten, not made”. BUT unlike a human son, Jesus has also always existed. So, eternally begotten. The Creed also makes it plain that Jesus, though a Son, is not subordinate to God the Father and Creator. “God from God, light from light, true god from true god, … of one Being with the Father.”
“Being” is capitalized in our Creed because it’s an important word and concept -the English translation of the Greek word ousia, part of the theological vocabulary that emerged at this time. Ousia referred to the essential God-ness of God, the divine Being, shared by all three Persons of the Trinity – in contrast to hypostasis, meaning that which makes each Person distinct – Father, Son, Spirit; Source, Word, and Breath.
The fourth-century theologian Gregory of Nyssa wrote that though each of these Persons have their particular attributes, their hypostases, they are at the same time so united in their shared divinity, their ousia, that there’s no space between them. In fact, he says, you can’t actually contemplate one them without bringing the others along, because they’re so interconnected. He writes, “Anyone who mentions only the Spirit also embraces… the one of whom he is the Spirit. And since the Spirit is of Christ (Rom 8.9) and from God (1 Cor 2.12)…, then just as anyone who catches hold of one end of a chain pulls also on the other end, so one who draws the Spirit (Ps 118.131) as the prophet says, also draws through him the Son and the Father…. In no way is it possible to conceive of a severance or division, such that the Son should be thought of apart from the Father or the Spirit be disjoined from the Son.” He concludes that the distinctions, the hypostases, among the Persons of the Trinity can never sunder the ousia, the continuity of their shared divinity; while at the same time that fundamental commonality will never dissolve or subsume the distinguishing notes of the hypostases. (Epistle to Peter)
Gregory’s brother Basil wrestled with Trinitarian theology as well, and he says something I think is really interesting: If you’re talking about the Trinity and you count to three, you’re doing it wrong. Listen – Basil writes, “The Unapproachable One is beyond numbers, wisest sirs … Count if you must, but do not malign the truth. Either honor Him Who cannot be described with your silence, or number holy things in accord with true religion. There is one God and Father, one Only-Begotten Son, and one Holy Spirit. We declare each Person to be unique, and if we must use numbers, we will not let a stupid arithmetic lead us astray to the idea of many gods…” If we count, we do not add, increasing from one to many. We do not say, “one, two, three,” or “first, second, and third.”… [In the case of the Father and Son,] as unique Persons, they are one and one; as sharing a common nature, both are one.” (On the Holy Spirit)
To put Basil’s point another way: When we are talking about the different Persons of the Trinity, we are speaking of distinctiveness and, more, of uniqueness – such uniqueness that each is its own category unto itself. So the proper way to count the Trinity is not, one, two, three, but One, One, One… makes One.
This is strange, abstract stuff – like I said, you can see why Arianism was a little more intuitive! But I find I’m attracted to it. The Creed and the Church’s formal doctrinal language about the Trinity can make it feel rigid and dry. But Gregory and Basil and other contemporary theologians were very, very aware that they were fumbling to put words to profound mystery. Gregory writes, “Both the communion [the ousia] and the distinction [the hypostases]… are beyond a certain point ineffable and inconceivable…”
So spending some time with the history of the Church’s understanding of the Trinity helped me get interested. But I still can’t take it as seriously as they did –
Because I simply don’t believe that God would consign people to eternal flame for not thinking about God’s complexity in the exact right way. That said: Being in community, belonging to something larger than ourselves, sometimes calls us to take something seriously that we otherwise might shrug off as unimportant.
Today we are beginning an experiment in taking Trinitarian theology seriously. And it’s going to be uncomfortable. But only a little bit. To explain, I have to hop back to history for a moment – and it may help if you open your worship booklets to the Nicene Creed, on page 4.
The third section of the Nicene Creed begins, We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. At least, that’s how we all learned it. That last phrase, “And the Son,” is called the Filioque clause. (Filioque is, And the Son, in Latin.) This section of the Creed was added at a second great Council in the year 381 – but this phrase, the Filioque, was added later still, and only in the Western church – the Orthodox churches of the East kept the earlier wording and theology, and keep it still. This became a big dispute in the 7th century. I’m hoping Leonora, our resident Byzantine theologian, will tell us all about it sometime. The dispute had lots of layers – about the Filioque itself, which seems to make the Holy Spirit the “lowest-ranking” part of the Trinity; and also about the authority of the Pope and the legitimacy of the Church altering the fundamental doctrinal formulations of earlier councils.
Fast-Forward to the late 20th and early 21st century. Driven by a desire to return to the earlier form of the Church’s theological teaching and to strengthen ties between Orthodox and Western Christians, the Episcopal Church joins other Western churches in saying, You know, we don’t need the Filioque. It’s not important to us, doctrinally; the earlier Creeds were foundational; we should drop this phrase. We haven’t updated our prayer book since our Church made that decision, so most everybody is still using the Filioque. But our Church authorized a Filioque-free version of the Creed in 2000. And this season we’re going to try it out.
I’ve been saying the Filioque for 43 years, give or take. Some of you have been saying it for much longer. It’s going to take us a while just to get used to the different rhythm of the text – before we can even begin to ask ourselves what the new/old wording might mean to us. I suggest that when we say it together, we observe a rest, a pause, where the Filioque used to be – to help us notice its absence as we get used to the change, and so that those of us who inevitably forget or haven’t noticed the change aren’t left behind as the rest of us march onwards into the next line.
Let’s just read that much together, from “We believe” through “… the Prophets”:
We’ll trip over it, friends. I’m absolutely certain that I will. But … these aren’t just words. They are a statement of the Church’s faith, passed down through the centuries, and shared with churches around the world. This version… is more so. More faithful to our ancestors and our kin. And it elevates and honors the Holy Spirit. So I’m inviting you to join me in the minor discomfort of taking our theology seriously enough to change our words.
Let’s stand and proclaim the Nicene Creed together, this statement of the faith in which we make our journey to our God.
Basil and bad Trinity math:
Gregory of Nyssa:
Aelfric’s homily on the Trinity at Rogationtide, used as a reading today, was found here: