Many Christians do not know how to express the doctrine of the Trinity, and those who can often do not know how it is relevant to the work, worship and witness of the Church. But, rightly understanding the historical confession of the Trinity can radically alter our sense of identity and our purpose and mission to the least among us as the Church.Most Christians would confess that their faith is rooted in God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but most Christians could not articulate why the doctrine of the Trinity matters to the life of the Church. Moreover, when this doctrine is challenged, some Christians are quick to argue that the doctrine should be held gently. After all, it is argued, the essence of God is a mystery. Insisting upon precise adherence to this ancient creed, it is said, feels like a doctrinal prescription that exhausts mystery and erodes life. These arguments are a lamentable misunderstanding of the Trinitarian confession, and this misunderstanding leads directly to a culture within American Christianity that simply does not know how to live within the fullness of the divine, Trinitarian life. And, here is where the Church’s ancient resources can help us.
By way of background, Arius was a presbyter (pastor) in the influential, ancient city of Alexandria in the early half of the 4th century. By this time, in Church history a critical question began to percolate to the surface. How is the practice of worshiping both Father and Son consistent with the Hebrew scripture’s confession that the LORD God is one?
Arius proposed a way through this conundrum. For reasons that stem from Greek metaphysics – that need not detain us here- he suggested that we understand Jesus as a creation of the Father. Jesus, he opined, was created as a being higher than humans, yet he was the first of creation. The Father then gave him authority to create this world. This interpretation of scripture became widely popular, but a number of prominent bishops remained unconvinced.
The Bishop of Alexandria, Alexandar, opposed this Arian teaching, and the controversy lead to a gathering of significant Church leaders in the city of Nicaea in 325 AD. There it was decided that Arius’ interpretation of scripture was in error, but the confession of the Trinity would undergo further clarification several decades later at a council held in the city of Constantinople.
At the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. it was decided that the Church should interpret scripture to meaning that God is in fact one being without division, yet we should continue to worship Father and Son (the Spirit was added for clarity at the Council of Constantinople). Recent attempts to simplify the Greek metaphysics behind the decision of Nicaea/Constantinople have said that we worship one What (God) and three Whos (Father, Son and Spirit). This simplification is somewhat problematic in today’s culture where the concept of personhood is radically individualized.
The discussions of the Church concerning the doctrine of the Trinity was not some elitist, egg-head debate about metaphysics and being, but this doctrine was rooted in the soil of the Church’s worship, prayer, preaching, and praxis (right living). The question of the Father’s relation to the Son, and visa versa, was not merely an academic attempt to exhaust the mystery of the divine life, but it was the concern of the Church to put a boundary around our language (apophatic) and imagination used in our worship, prayer and preaching. It was a concern to understand that God’s instruction to pray in Jesus’ name was not limiting, but it was an invitation to broaden our prayer life because Israel was already praying in the name of the Father. The question of the Trinity was rooted in the quest to understand how we could invite people to Jesus in a hope that they could know the Father. Lastly, at the heart of understanding Nicaea was the quest to know ourselves as a humanity created in the image and for the enjoyment of the Trinitarian God, and this gets to the heart of the gospel.
Often when Christians acknowledge the confession of Nicaea they are checking one box on a list of things that require intellectual assent and nothing more. In doing so, Christians miss the point of Nicaea and later Church reflections upon this doctrine, and one example from the 4th century that will help us here, the reflections of the Cappadocian Fathers. But, to rightly understand the Church’s confession of the Trinity is to better understand and articulate the gospel itself.
Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus are collectively known as the Cappadocians, the region from which they hailed. Their letters back and forth to one another were the 4th century Church’s attempt to work out the meaning and implications of Nicaea. One central idea they pulled from Greek philosophy that deeply influenced the Church’s final confession of the Trinity was that of perichoresis. This word means co-indwelling, co-inhering, and mutual interpenetration, and it was used to describe the relationship between the Father, Son and Spirit. It is a relational word, a life-giving word and a word of mystery. Eugene Peterson in Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places puts it eloquently when he describes perichoresis as the divine dance. He states,
Imagine a folk dance, a round dance, with three partners in each set. The music starts up and the partners holding hands begin moving in a circle. On signal from the caller, they release hands, change partners and weave in and out, swinging first one and then another. The tempo increases, the partners move more swiftly with and between and among one another, swinging and twirling, embracing and releasing, holding on and letting go. But there is no confusion, every movement is cleanly coordinated in precise rhythms as each person maintains his identity. To the onlooker, the movements are so swift it is impossible at times to distinguish one person from another.
This exquisite picture of joy, fullness, laughter, beauty, unity, diversity and life is the heart behind the Cappadocians’ use of this term to understand the divine Trinitarian life. We are created in this God’s image. This is the source of our collective life and joy. This is the God that we collectively encounter in the Word. This is the God to whom we all pray, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is the God that shares the dance with a new partner, the new humanity, the truly human, those that are in the Messiah Jesus, those that are baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The confession of Nicaea is not merely information to believed, but it is the relational logic for the life of the Church, which itself is nothing other than our collective participation in the divine dance. Therefore, our Modern, Western way of thinking must change. No longer can we think of ourselves as a substance(human) that has relationships, but, just as God IS a set of relations, so we ARE our relations. We are to whom we are related. Our relations to Father, Son and Spirit are primary. Our relations to one another in the Church are non-negotiable. Our relations to the poor, weak, marginalized are essential. These relations are who we are. Our identity flows not out of our jobs, our luxuries, our incomes, our cars, our vacations or anything else our American mythology attempts to form us by.
Our preaching of the gospel is not merely a sharing of information, but it is sharing a personal story of a Father that sent, a Son that came, and a Spirit that remained to train the once lost dance partner, the Church. Our prayer is not an exchange of information between two people, but it is our attempt to join in the divine dance. Our worship is not cognition put to music, but it is the reorienting of our imagination and images of reality so we can see the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in their glorious joy and their connection to and filling of this world with that joy. Our gathering together as a body is not an event the “I” attends, but it is the dance rehearsal that prepares us to become a single, well-practiced dance partner now and forevermore. Our service and presence with the poor and marginalized (praxis) is not some “good deed” the I performs, but it is the inhabiting of our community, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, with those in need of a new identity and set of relations. The Trinitarian confession must relate to all that the Church does, thinks and imagines. To do otherwise is to become a functional Arian and a heretic.