Sunday, January 17, 2016

Trinitarian Monotheism

I. Starting Point: The Beginning Search Among Bishops and Scholars on How to Formulate the Earliest and Continuing Statement of the Church's Trinitarian Dogma.

II. The First Inquiry and Debate Starts in the East: The Eastern Orthodox bishops first debated (actually they mostly argued) over how to reach a consensus of opinion over what the Church's dogma as to the meaning of the Trinity should be, both then and there in the early Church, and for the future of the Church ending at no less a date than Jesus' Second Coming. Regardless of dates they knew they were undertaking a solemn task, namely defining the central dogma of Christian theology. In formulating a consistent belief among themselves Eastern Orthodox Bishops engaged in much squabbling over their differing deliberations. Such deliberations were unfortunately accompanied with each other for the supremacy of their pet doctrinal statement versus other bishops' competing statement. The bishops were racked by the back-and-forth slipping and sliding of the constantly changing statements of what they thought the expression of Trinitarian theology should be.



     When weighed against the many revolving, competing and proposed doctrinal statements competing for the Eastern bishops' eventual acceptance, the majority Greek party at last reached a very tentative agreement on the one true and lasting expression of the dogma of the Trinity. Their belief translated Trinitarian dogma into a short formula that was based on what had been long periods of study, preaching and writing. The majority of Greek bishops said that the Trinity is God in one nature, or hypostasis, and consisting of three indivisible persons. However, this definition ran into a stone wall in Rome. The western bishops, plus a minority of Greek bishops, tranlated hypostasis to mean, not nature, but substance, and hypostases to mean personas, or "persons." The westerners and the minority party in the East thus argued that the majority of Greek bishops, by using hypostasis for nature actually were saying that God had three different natures. Hence the western bishops and the minority party in the East accepted the western interpretation of hypostases, in Latin, as personas. But the Greek majority party translated personas one step further by saying that the Latin personas was equivalent to the Greek word prosopon, meaning "face" or "mask." Thus the Greeks were split over translating the Latin persona. The majority of Greek bishops argued that when the westerners used persona they actually meant "mask," and thus in reality were saying that God wore the three masks of Father, Son and Spirit.

     The majority Greek bishops' party choosing which formula for the definition of the Trinity they adopted said they were guided principally on the belief that they had the guidance of the Holy Spirit as to which formula they would favor. But there were different factors as well. For example, younger bishops might be drawn toward the reputation of an older, definitely orthodox bishop and his writings and teachings. This in fact happened, as the leading figure in the Council of Nicaea, St. Athanasius (296-373), Bishop of Alexandria, was far and away the most prestigious, spiritually imposing figure in professing his reasons for the eventual choices he taught as God in one nature, and three persons. Also, poor Athanasius was exiled four different times by four different decisions of emperors. This too led bishops voting in council to accept Athanasius' teachings as similar to the suffering of Jesus as savior of mankind from their sins. Athanasius came to be thought of as subject to an "agony" similar to Jesus' "agony in the garden."

III: Toward an eventual definition:

     Unfortunately for the strong desire in both the West and East to put the war over words to rest, and despite Athanasius' position as the "father of the Creeds," disputes among the Eastern bishops continually resulted in a sad picture. Oral, sometimes in shouting matches, and fighting in denunciatory written manifestos with each other over various and different positions for the formula by which to define the Trinity, did not cool off, but heated up even more. Something of a knock-down, drag-out argumentation between certain Greek bishops who attended the Council of Nicaea led to hurt feelings all the way around. And there were a total of four more ecumenical councils and one synod of bishops at which the bishops could profess their choice for a formula. The four ecumenical councils plus the one synod were as follows: (1) the Council and Creed of Nicaea(325), (2) the Council and Creed of Constantinople(381), (3)the Council of Ephesus (431)(without issuance of a Creed), (4)the Council and Creed of Chalcedon (451), and (5) the Second Council of Constantinople (553)--which in actuality was merely an Eastern synod.

IV. First Constantinople, 381 A.D. The Council and Creed of "First Constantinople" occurred 56 years after Nicaea, in 381. Although the Council of Nicaea was regarded as the "father of all councils," the decision to convene five post-Nicene councils was based on an attempt to negate the Nicene Creed and to pass new ecumenical Creeds. The Nicene Council came under attack from a new generation of bishops, including many more western bishops, some 150 of them. The impetus for convening First Constantinople was called for by another emperor, just as Nicaea had been promoted and run by Emperor Constantine (d. 337).

     However, the new emperor, Theodosius I, who served in the East as emperor from 379 to 392, was far different than Constantine, who had belligerently run the whole show at Nicaea, at times terrifying the bishops with commands to accept his personal views on theology. Theodosius had already converted to Christianity and had a deep personal devotion to the Lord Jesus. He obviously was peacefully open to letting the bishops run their own council. He, more than any other emperor can be said to have been the one who eventually established and safeguarded the Christian Church in the degenerating Roman Empire.

     Further, he led the Roman Empire and the Byzantine state toward a peaceful and conciliatory discussion for settling the formula to define the Trinity that everybody had been fighting over ever since the Council of Nicaea had ended. Theodosius, passed out to the bishops in advance, conciliatory written agendas in both Latin and Greek, stressing his pre-Council personal belief in the Trinity(i.e. whom he believed to have a single nature in three divine persons. In other words, the agenda for the Council was to read and accept Theodosius' pronouncement that eventually became the major decision at the Council formula by which the Church was to define the dogma of the eternal, Trinitarian--monotheistic God. That is, the Council overwhelmingly defined the Trinity according to the emperor's position as one supreme God in His nature (hypostasis) (and, with a nod toward the Roman bishops, likewise in His (substance)), but comprised of three divine persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It could be said that God had finally persuaded the bishops to allow Himself to be divine in two of the world's greatest languages.

     And contrary to Nicaea's limp statement on the Holy Spirit, which was not even a sentence, but a five-word phrase, "And in the Holy Spirit," Theodosius persuaded the bishops to correct the weak-kneed pronouncement on the Holy Spirit left over from Nicaea. The bishops at First Constantinople had purposely convened to eliminate the phrase and make a more definitive statement on the Holy Spirit: Just as Nicaea had corrected the Arian belief that Christ was a "lesser God" than the Father, so too the bishops at First Constantinople corrected and elaborated on the Nicene definition of the Holy Spirit, as follows:
[We define] the Holy Spirit as the Lord and life- giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son is together worshiped and together glorified, Who spoke through the prophets...]. (Creed of the First Constantinopalian Council, 381 A.D.)
     Gone was the Nicene Creed's lonely, five-word phrase, "And the Holy Spirit," which was not actually understood as a firm definition of the Holy Spirit, or persuasive as establishing the Holy Spirit as one of the Three Persons in the Trinity. The bishops therefore greatly expanded and revised the Nicene Creed, as shown by the above quoted language, particularly to bring the Nicene Creed up to date with the recent developments in the theology of the Holy Spirit. However, Christians erroneously labeled the creed of 381 as the "Nicene Creed.," and still do so to this day. The Creed which serves as the "Profession of Faith" in Catholic liturgies today is actually the Creed of First Constantinople, and not the Nicene Creed. With the bishops' formal, official statement of the Trinity as the one-nature, three-person God of the universe, and now having accepted the Holy Spirit into the Trinity, the bishops trudged onto different concerns that are not related to the Trinity -- most importantly the Christological definition of Christ in his deity and his humaninty. Such matters are beyond the scope of this article.

     However, it is interesting to note that the bishops at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, 124 years after Nicaea, had evidently used First Constantinople's definitional success over the formula for the Trinity, to define the Christological Creed concerning the unified definition of Jesus' human and divine nature:
[We] all with one voice teach that it should be confessed that our Lord Jesus Christ is one and the same God, the Same perfect in Godhead, the Same perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man...begotten of the Father before ages as to his Godhead, and in the last days, the Same, for us and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, Theotokos as to his manhood. (Creed of Council of Chalcedon, 451 A.D.)
     Thus, finally, the Creed-making bishops had brought into the fullness of their formulations, Mary, the mother of Jesus. The bishops at Chalcedon were faced with the problem of Bishop Nestorius of Constantinople, condemning his flock for speaking of Mary as "Mother of God," (in Greek,"Theotokos," which literally means "God-Bearer.") However the Christians in Nestorius'diocese had been speaking of Mary for years as the Mother of God and rebelled at Nestorius' personal whim and threw him out of his office and position. He became something of a festering sore for bishops involved in thorny debates in councils over the Trinity, and they wanted nothing to do with Nestorius.

     Eventually, Emperor Theodosius banished Nestorius, and the bishops convened a synod at Ephesus in 431 A.D. simply to condemn Nestorius and send him to Egypt in exile. With Nestorius out of their hair, and passing no creed, the Council of Ephesus made it an orthodox doctrine to use "Mother of God" for all references to the Virgin mary in the Church. Here was a case of sensus fidei, or an understanding of the faith based entirely on the day-to-day beliefs of the "little people" in the pews. Vatican II reaffirmed sensus fidei as the basis for arriving at doctrines in special cases.

V. Summing Up St. Augustine's Input to the Era Under Review

     If you have found that "Trinitarian Monotheism" has a somewhat difficult and contradictory name, don't feel so bad. St. Augustine (354-430), the first Doctor of the Catholic Church par excellence, set in motion the Church's formal and most accurate theology of the Trinity as God, with a single nature but with three persons -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Augustine was not so easy to understand when he wrote about Trinitarian Monotheism. Further, the Eastern Orthodox Church shunned Augustine's Trinitarian teaching on Catholic theology because he wrote too late, i.e., namely after the First Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.). The doctrine giving rise to the two-Church Christian argument after Nicaea caused a deplorable conflict between Roman Catholic theologians and Eastern Orthodox theologians.

     We'll see why, long after St. Augustine's authentic teaching on the Trinity, the Church Councils became the battlefield for the Christian dispute over the Trinity. Augustine had said in the early 400's that the Trinity was not meant to be understood with the mind, but was something only capable of being believed as a mystery, and then only with one's surrender to God's grace for belief. Augustine's imprimatur became subordinated to the Creeds produced by a number of Church councils either contradicting Nicaean teaching on the Trinity or buttressing it. The Conciliar movement gave the two Churches more fodder for disagreement, with vitriolic bishops from each side of a resulting "Christian" Council metaphorically "slapping their opponents'faces" -- but with the turning of the opposite cheek to their foe engaged in only by a few saintly bishops.

     Yet, fundamentally, a doctrine did not became orthodox because a council said it was. Rather, a council was orthodox, and therefore binding, because the pre-existing doctrine it confessed was orthodox. St. Augustine's reputation as the fountain of orthodoxy thus trumped the doctrines of councils degrading him, although the unfortunate Augustine had the fault of being born and then converted ill-timed to the holding of councils. This was to lead to more confusing and bellicose "council-making." There were seven ecumenical councils first tackling the issue of the Holy Spirt as God, and second the concept of christology, which took up in great discussion the nature and personhood of Jesus.

VI. The Church's Memories of Its 500-year Growth Toward Maturity Much praise of and belief in the result at the first council of Nicaea in 325 lingered for centuries. Yet, the Creed of Nicaea had focused almost entirely on the consubstantiality between God the Father and God the Son. The Holy Spirit was left by the wayside at Nicaea. After confirming in their Creed the death of the Arian position holding that the Son was a "lesser God," finally settling that issue and prohibiting any further proclamation of Jesus as of less divinity than the Father, the bishops at the council, eager to get out of the place where such argumentation had taken place under the eyes of Emperor Constantine, proclaimed lamely on the Holy Spirit in the Nicene Creed simply the short non-sentence, "And in the Holy Spirit." Who knew what that meant? No one.

     Therefore, a second ecumenical council was convened to profess another creed, settling the problem caused by the bishops at Nicaea by virtually ignoring the Holy Spirit as a person of the Trinity. While at Catholic liturgies to this day it is thought that the recited creed during Mass emanates from Nicaea and is called the "Nicene Creed." Nothing could be further from the truth. The Nicene Creed dealt almost entirely with the relationship between the Son and Father, and, perhaps while they were sprinting out the door of the auditorium, the bishops shouted back, "And in the Holy Spirit." But at the Second Ecumenical Council, held in Constantinople in 381, under the promotion of a new Emperor, Theodosius (379-392), the bishops this time said they believed in the "Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son is together worshiped and together glorified, Who spoke through the prophets." The Holy Spirit had finally found a place in the Trinity and the Church.

--Tony Gilles