Ah, Trinity Sunday. Quite possibly, this is the hardest Sunday of the year on which to preach, because it gets at the inner nature of God, and God is, of course, an ineffable mystery. Remember what Saint Anselm said – God is that of which nothing greater can be conceived. If you can understand it fully, it’s not God. And yet here we are, trying to preach on the Trinity. They say that today more heresy is inadvertently preached throughout the world than on any other Sunday. (Does that presuppose that on some Sundays heresy is preached on purpose?)
The easy solution, of course, is to make the deacon preach. But I am merciful.
Bernard Lonergan, a Canadian Jesuit priest and longtime professor at the Gregorian University, said that
“in the Holy Trinity there are 5 notions, 4 relations, 3 persons, 2 processions, 1 nature, and 0 problems.”
Cute. It would take us days to unpack all the theology in that statement; and since he says there are 0 problems, I’m tempted to just walk away. We’re done, right?
Saint Augustine offers more hope. About halfway through his work on the Trinity, which is appropriately called De Trinitate, he encourages his readers with these words:
We are indeed seeking a Trinity, but not any trinity at all, but that Trinity which is God, and the true, the supreme, and the only God. Keep waiting, therefore, whoever you are, who hear these words. For we are still seeking, and no one rightly blames him for engaging in such a search, provided only that he remain firmly-rooted in the faith, while he seeks that which it is so difficult to know or to express.
In other words, Augustine is telling us that we can in fact speak in a meaningful way about the Trinity, but that our attempts to do so have to be motivated by faith. It was either Pope Francis or Pope Benedict XVI that said that theology is only fruitful if it’s done on one’s knees, that is, in prayer. It’s in prayer that we can learn the Trinity, and it’s in a prayer we all know. We say it every week. The Nicene Creed.
Properly called, it’s the Niceno-Constantinople Creed, because it was formulated at both those councils. The Nicene Creed ultimately explains the Church’s teachings about the Trinity, but it also affirms historical realities of Jesus’ life. Even though the creed does not directly quote Scripture, it is based on biblical concepts. I’m not going to break down the entire creed line-by-line, but I want to point out a few things. I hope you’re ready for a relatively intense, albeit brief, theological and philosophical lecture.
I Believe in One God
Christians, like Jews and Muslims, believe that only one God exists. The creed states the assumption of the ancient Shema: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord. The former English translation of the creed began with “we” believe, while the Greek, Latin, and current English translation begin with “I” believe. The latter is more accurate, because reciting the creed is ultimately an individual confession of belief, although the creed also expresses the collective beliefs of the Church.
The Father Almighty
Jesus frequently calls God “Father” in the Scriptures, and this usage tells us that God is a loving God active within His creation. God the Father is the first person (Greek hypostasis, “individual reality”), or distinction, within the Godhead. The Father is the “origin” or “source” of the Trinity. As such, God the Father is often called “God Unbegotten” in early Christian thought.
Maker of Heaven and Earth of All Things Visible and Invisible
Catholics believe that God created the visible world (created matter) and the invisible one (spiritual world of angels, etc). Thus, God created everything. Some early sects, the Gnostics and Marcionites, believed that God the Father created the spirit world, but that an “evil” god (called the demiurge) created the similarly evil material world. The creed dispels such a notion.
I Believe in One Lord Jesus Christ
Jesus Christ is the Lord of all. The title Lord means that Jesus is master of all, and has connotations of deity, since the Hebrew word adonai and Greek word kyrios (both meaning Lord) were applied to Yahweh in the Old Testament. However, unlike earthly rulers, Jesus is a friend to the oppressed and a servant.
The Only Begotten Son of God
Jesus is in a unique relationship with God the Father. While Hebrew kings were sons of God symbolically (see Psalm 2), Jesus is the only Son of God by nature
Born of the Father Before All Ages
Begotten has the meaning of born, fathered, generated, or produced. God the Son is born out of the essence of God the Father. Just as a child shares the same humanness as his or her parents, the Son shares the essential nature of God with the Father. Since God is eternal, the Son, being begotten of God, is also eternal. The Son is often called the “Only-Begotten God” in early Christian literature, including in John 1:18 in many manuscripts.
God from God, Light from Light
God the Son exists in relation to God the Father. The Son is not the Father, but they both are God. Just as a torch is lit one to another, the Father and Son are distinct, but both light. Some Christians, called Sabellians or Modalists, said that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were one God who changes roles. So when God creates, he is Father, while on earth, he is Son, and so forth. However, the Scriptures have all three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, interacting at the same time, as shown at Jesus’ baptism. The language of Scripture also suggests that the Father and Son are somehow two as well as one. In John’s gospel, the Father and Son testify as two witnesses, not one (John 8:17-18). Related to this, St. Athanasius, writing during the Nicene era, reportedly said that the Father and Son are one as “the sight of two eyes is one.” Another illustration is the musical chord. Think of a C-chord. The C, E, and G notes are all distinct notes, but joined together as one chord, the sound is richer and more dynamic than had the notes been played individually. The chords are all equally important in producing the full, dynamic, sound of the chord, but the sound is lacking and thin if one of the notes is left out.
True God from True God
God the Son is not a half-god or inferior to God the Father. God the Son is fully and utterly God, distinct from the Father, yet not divided from the Father. The ancient Arians believed that Jesus could be called “god” but not true God. In other words, they believed the Logos (the “Word,” a popular title for Jesus in early Christian literature) was the first creation of God, necessary to mediate between the unknowable distant God (a concept borrowed from Platonic thought) and creation. Because God knew that the Logos would be perfect, the title god could be bestowed upon the Son “by participation,” but “true God” was a title reserved only for the unknowable Father. This is the Ante-Nicene “Logos Theology” of St. Justin and Athenagoras taken to an unintended extreme.
Begotten, Not Made
Some Christians today (Jehovah’s Witnesses) and in the past (Arians) have suggested that Jesus was a creation of God. The creed tells us that just as when a woman gives birth she does not create a child out of nothing, being begotten of God, the Son is not created out of nothing. Since the Son’s birth from the Father occurred before time was created, begotten refers to a permanent relationship as opposed to an event within time.
Consubstantial (Greek: homoousia) with the Father
God the Father and God the Son are equally divine, united in substance and will. Father and Son share the same substance or essence of divinity. That is, the Father and Son both share the qualities and essential nature that make one in reality God. However, sharing the same substance does not mean they share identity of person. While certainly an inadequate example, think of three humans: they share a common nature, the essential qualities and essence of humanity, but are not the same person (although unlike the persons of the Trinity, humans do not share one will).
I Believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life
The Holy Spirit is also called “Lord.” The Holy Spirit sustains our lives as Christians, illuminating us after the new birth. The original Creed of Nicaea simply ended with “We believe in the Holy Spirit.” The other additions were approved at the Council of Constantinople in AD 381. However, most scholars believe that the text of the full creed dates prior to this council, and that the bishops simply gave their approval to a local creed already in use. The reason these additions were included in the Nicene Creed is that some Christians of the 4th century denied the full divinity of the Holy Spirit. The names given to these heretics were Macedonians (named after a heretical bishop) or pneumatomachi (“fighters against the Spirit”).
Who Proceeds from the Father and the Son
The Son is said to be begotten, while the Spirit is said to proceed. Both words convey that the Son and Spirit are in special relationships to the Father, yet also fully divine. The phrase “and the Son,” in Latin, filioque, was not in the original text of the creed, but was added in many Western Churches. The addition likely developed over time as a tool against Arians in the Gothic lands. There are theological and historical justifications for the addition or exclusion of the filioque. The Eastern Churches oppose the addition of the filioque, while many Western churches accept it. Actually, despite current division on the matter, the issue has been pretty much theologically resolved. The Catholic Church acknowledges that the Father is the sole source within the Trinity, and admits that “proceeds from the Father and the Son” means “proceeds from the Father through the Son.” Catholics also acknowledge that the procession through the Son is not metaphysical, but economic (i.e. describing the Spirit’s actions). Also, Eastern Catholics (those Eastern Churches in communion with Rome) do not say the filioque, and remain in full communion with the Catholic Church. The Eastern Orthodox Churches seem willing to allow the interpretation “through the Son,” because it does not destroy the monarchy of the Father within the Holy Trinity. However, the filioque remains a major division between Eastern and Western Christianity, mainly because the Western Church added the filioque to the Nicene Creed without Eastern input. It is hoped that this issue will be resolved in the future, as the current environment is far less political than in the past.
Who With the Father and Son Is Adored and Glorified
Since the Holy Spirit is fully God, like the Father and the Son, He is worthy of the same worship and adoration.
Who Has Spoken Through the Prophets
The Spirit inspired the prophets of old, and inspires the Church today.
Well. That’s quite a bit, isn’t it?
It all boils down to this. God is Love, and the Trinity is a relationship of Love. God has always loved His people, and loves us so much, that even when fail and sin, He continues to call us into relationship with Him. The reason I, and Father Tom before me, end the weekly email by reminding you that you are loved is because you really are – and because your life must be a reflection of that reality.