Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Central Mystery of Faith

Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity

Today the Church celebrates the Holy Trinity. It is not as obviously dramatic and exciting as Christmas and Easter, but it is a sort of summary of the highlights of the Easter season, the revelation of the salvific mission of Christ and the Holy Spirit. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us. "The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in himself. It is therefore the source of all the other mysteries of faith, the light that enlightens them. It is the most fundamental and essential teaching in the 'hierarchy of the truths of faith'.” (CCC 234) St Athanasius, the great Father and Doctor of the Church, who fought vigorously to defend the orthodox faith in the Trinity against the Arian heresy of his time which denied the divinity of Christ, in referring to this mystery of faith, “And the whole faith is summed up, and secured in this.” If any doctrine makes Christianity Christian, then surely it is the doctrine of the Trinity.

Yet, when it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity, most Christians are poor in their understanding, poorer in their articulation, and poorest of all in seeing any way in which the doctrine matters in real life. One theologian said, tongue in cheek, “The trinity is a matter of five notions or properties, four relations, three persons, two processions, one substance or nature, and no understanding.” All the talk of essence and persons seem like theological jargon reserved for philosophers and scholars, but certainly not for ordinary folks.

How did we come upon this doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity? Was it something that the Church invented? The church did not come to embrace the doctrine of the Trinity because there is a sentence in Scripture that says: "there is one God existing as three persons equal in divine essence, but distinct in personhood." In fact, there is no sentence like that in the Bible. Rather the reason the church has embraced this doctrine is because scriptures unwaveringly speak of one true God, not three Gods, and yet reveals the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit as God, and as distinct persons. There are many verses that speak of God’s oneness. Then there are the myriad of passages which demonstrate that God is Father. Next, we have the scores of texts which prove the deity of Jesus Christ, the Son. Then we have similar texts which assume the deity of the Holy Spirit. The shape of Trinitarian orthodoxy is finally rounded off by texts that hint at the plurality of persons in the Godhead, dozens of texts that speak of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the same breath, equating the three in rank, while assuming distinction of personhood. The doctrine of the Trinity is not a philosophical concoction by some over-zealous and over-intelligent theologian, but the keystone to our faith which can be shown, explicitly or implicitly, from a multitude of biblical texts.

What does the doctrine of the Trinity mean? The Athanasian Creed, one of my favourite definitions, puts it this way: “Now this is the catholic faith: That we worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity, neither blending their persons, nor dividing their essence. For the person of the Father is a distinct person, the person of the Son is another, and that of the Holy Spirit, still another. But the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one, their glory equal, their majesty coeternal.” The two key words here are essence and persons. When you read “essence”, it speaks of divine nature or “God-ness.” All three Persons of the Trinity share the same “God-ness.” One is not more God than another. When you read “persons”, it refers to a particular individual distinct from the others. Theologians use these terms because they are trying to find a way to express the relationship of three beings that are equally and uniquely God, but not three Gods. That’s why we get the tricky (but learnable) language of essence and persons. Perhaps, the easiest way to explain this doctrine is to state what it is not:
  • The doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity rejects monarchianism which believes in only one person (mono), the Father, and maintains that the Son and the Spirit subsists in the divine essence as impersonal attributes not distinct and divine Persons.
  • The doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity rejects modalism which believes that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are different names for the same God acting in different roles or manifestations (like the well-intentioned but misguided “water, vapour, ice” analogy).
  • The doctrine rejects Arianism which denies the full deity of Christ, like the Jehovah Witnesses.
  • And finally, the doctrine rejects all forms of tri-theism, which teach that the three members of the Godhead are three separate Gods, like the Mormons.

But our consideration of the Most Holy Trinity, cannot just remain or be confined to the philosophical concepts of essence and personhood. "The Holy Trinity," according to Pope Francis, "is not the product of human reasoning. It is the face with which God revealed himself, not ex cathedra, but by walking with humanity, in the history of the people of Israel, and above all in Jesus of Nazareth. It is Jesus who has saved us. Jesus is the Son who made us know the merciful Father and brought to the world his 'fire', the Holy Spirit, who guides us, who gives us good ideas, inspirations."  This doctrine teaches us that we worship a God who is in constant and eternal relationship with himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Community is a buzz word in today’s culture, but it is only in a Christian framework that communion and interpersonal community are seen as expressions of the eternal nature of God.

Likewise, it is only with a Trinitarian God that love can be an eternal attribute of God. Without a plurality of persons in the Godhead, we would be forced to think that God created humans so that he might show love and know love, thereby making love a created thing (and God a needy deity). But with a biblical understanding of the Trinity we can say that God did not create in order to be loved, but rather, created out of the overflow of the perfect love that had always existed among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who ever live in perfect and mutual relationship and delight. The Orthodox Churches of the East have a beautiful way of describing this. They use an ancient Greek word, “perichoresis” which means ‘dancing in a circle’. This means that the persons or the modes of God weave in and out of each other in a blissful, dynamic circle, always inviting others into the eternal dance of communion.

Let us then rejoice in the richness held out by God the Holy Trinity. God is a triad of persons in eternal, self-giving love relationships. The Christian community is to reflect this divine community. We’re to love one another; share with one another; rejoice and mourn with one another; share our lives. As the world sees the Christian community it believes in the divine community. The ultimate apologetic for the Trinity is not some clever analogy or philosophical explanation. It’s the common life of the Christian community. In the second commandment God forbade the Israelites to create an image of him. We’re not to make any image of God, for God himself has made an image of himself in the world: humanity. God’s image in humanity has been marred by our rebellion. But now God’s redeemed people, the Church, in its life of communion, is his image in the world.

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