Reflection from Trinity Sunday

Almost a week late, but here’s the reflection I put together for my worshipping community, Thunder Bay’s Urban Abbey, last Sunday.

Once I mentioned to a friend that Evagrius Ponticus, the fourth-century monastic mystic of Egypt, said that contemplation of the Trinity was the goal of Christian contemplation. She said she could never understand the Trinity, how three people can be one. Many people express similar thoughts, expressing hesitation and weakness or awkwardness in the face of talking about this doctrine. On behalf of theological educators everywhere, I would like to apologise for this. Speaking about the Trinity is really easy to do without falling into heresy, actually.

And you’re never going to comprehend how three Persons can also be or share a single Essence.

There are two places old-school theologians liked to begin in talking about the Trinity: the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ or the incomprehensibility of God. Let’s begin with the second one today. Very briefly: One of the reasons why we cannot fully understand how three Persons are a single God is that God as God is ultimately incomprehensible. We cannot grasp or understand or comprehend Who God is according to God’s own nature.

God is not a being among beings. God simply is. God is being itself. God is not a thing or an object within the universe. God created all the things and objects—the universe itself. God is utterly, ultimately beyond anything and everything that we know through daily experience. This is actually a Good Thing—it means that God makes God’sselves (God’s self? Theirselves?) known to us when it is needful for us, for God is not limited by the material or even spiritual creation. Thus, the doctrine of transcendence (God is beyond everything) guarantees the lived experience of immanence (God is in everything). In God we live and move and have our being, as St Paul said in Athens.

Rest calmly, then, knowing that your inability to comprehend the Trinity is neither a fault in yourself nor in the doctrine but part of the reality that comes with knowing God. Embrace the mystery, joining with the twelfth-century Cistercian Willliam of St-Thierry:

when I fix my inward gaze full upon him to whom I turn for light, to whom I offer worship or entreaty: it is God as Trinity who comes to meet me, a truth which the Catholic faith, bred in my bones, instilled by practice, commended by yourself and by your teachers, presents to me. But my soul, which must always visualize, perceives this given truth in such a way that it foolishly fancies number to reside in the simple being of the Godhead, which is beyond all number, and which itself made all that is by number and measure and weight. In this way it allots to each Person of the Trinity as it were his individual place and, praying to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit, pictures itself as passing from the one to the other through the third. And thus the mind, baffled by the one, is diffracted among the three, as though there were three bodies that must be differentiated or united.

trans. P. Matarasso, The Cisercian World, p. 113

Can we say nothing, then? Are humans so inadequate that we can say nothing true about the one, true, and living God? How can we articulate any doctrine, let alone the Trinity, in light of the glorious beauty of the transcendent God? I assure you—monks and mystics throughout history have felt this. But they have also realised that God has made God’s Self known to us through creation, through acting in human history, and through the writings of sacred Scripture. God is transcendent, not aloof. God has communicated with us through these ways because God loves us more than we can ask or imagine.

Many passages in the New Testament demonstrate to us that Jesus, the God Word incarnate, is fully God. I’ll give just one example: John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And Jesus’ words testify to the fact that there is a Divine Person named the Father—and that Jesus and the Father are one. Not only that, but if you’ve seen Jesus, you’ve seen the Father. Finally, in numerous instances throughout St Paul’s letters as well as statements made by Jesus, such as the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, there is also a third Person Who is God, the Holy Spirit.

Nonetheless, throughout both Old and New Testaments it is clear that there is only one God who does not share His glory with another.

As the ancient church meditated on this, they found ways of expressing this threefold oneness that are faithful to Scripture, developing the language of the Trinity. There are three persons in one God. The Father is not the Son or the Holy Spirit; the Son is not the Father or the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit is not the Father or the Son. But there are not three Gods, only one God. The Father almighty, the Son almighty, the Holy Spirit almighty; but there are not three almighties, only one almighty.

Anything you can say about God—immortal, invisible, wise—you can say about any of the three Persons of the Trinity. They are united in complete, utter, and perfect love, being as they are a single substance or essence. How? I don’t know. But God is the truest, most perfect love there is. In fact, that is an important element of Trinitarian theology: God is love, and love implies a beloved. Therefore, God exists in all eternity as the Holy Three, filling each other with utterly perfect self-giving love.

God-as-Trinity is love. God-as-Trinity is Creator, as well. Of Their own free will, perfectly united in essence and love, God chose to create this world. And then God created us humans in God’s own Trinitarian image—not a true Trinity, but a likeness of it, similar in many respects. And then that image was damaged and marred by sin, death, and the devil. So the mighty God sent prophets, signs, and wonders, and then, out of the boundless love that is part of God’s very essence as Trinity, God Himself came down.

God Himself came down to save us.

Jesus the Christ is the God Word Who exists eternally in perfect, selfless love with the Father and the Holy Spirit. More than a carpenter. More than a good teacher. More than a prophet. And the sinless, pure, spotless, immortal God Who is love poured out His blood for us, rose again, and ascended.

So that you won’t be misled by what I’m about to say, remember this: God the Holy Trinity is perfect and infinite according to nature and essence. God doesn’t need us.

But God loves us.

Therefore, God invites us into a taste of that Trinitarian life, as we read about in John 14. We are baptised into that Trinitarian life, according to Matthew 28. And we are called to bring others into that life of boundless, endless, self-giving love, to participate, abide in the power, glory, and goodness of God Who Is Trinity. (But none of us can become a member of the Trinity; God does not need us, remember. God loves us and wants us to know Him.)

And in making disciples of Jesus the Christ, we begin also to reconcile ourselves to one another, for Jesus prays for us to be one as He and the Father are one. We are called to imperfectly mirror that Trinitarian reality as the church, where we live in selfless love for one another, acting together in God’s mission in the world, just as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were active together in creation.

This Trinity Sunday, let us pray for our unity as a community, for the unity of all Christian people, and, most importantly, fall down (literally or figuratively) in worship before a God Whom we can never fully understand but Who loves us so much He chose to die for us. Worship the Trinity. Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.

Reflections on John 15:9-17

Here are my reflections on yesterday’s Gospel reading, prepared for my worshipping community, Thunder Bay’s Urban Abbey.

This week, we have another encounter with that word abide – I translated it last week with the simple definition of remain. My old Greek prof from undergrad reviewed my reflection and the passage, and tossed out a few more of these simple translations, saying that this verb also has the sense of persisting and standing fast. Hold tight; don’t let go, that sort of thing. Allow me to break all the rules of defining words and translation practice and bundle all of these together. Here, then, is John 15:9:

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you;

abide in

persist in

stand fast in

remain in

hold tight to

don’t let go of

my love.

How are we to abide in Jesus’ love? He tells us in John 15:10 – keep his commandments. This doesn’t sound particularly … gushy? gooey? lovey? Indeed, it even sounds harsh to our ears, living in an age of democracy, of questioning everything, of failed authorities at every turn. Show our love to Jesus by keeping his commandments? The dictionary game won’t get us out this time – indeed, injunctions and orders sound almost worse. Let’s look at how Jesus considers our keeping of his commandments — If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.

In English (and Greek), that’s a very straightforward future more vivid construction. It’s not saying anything about how much he loves us or about earning his love or whatever, but simply cause and effect. “If x, then y.” – “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.” These two things are mutually feeding off each other. Christians are disciples of Jesus the Christ. We are his apprentices; he is our master. He has given us, through the apostles and apostolic writings, commands – “turn the other cheek”; “love your neighbour as yourself”; “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”; “give to everyone who asks”; “pray like this”.

If we consciously choose not to follow his commandments, not to do those things that please him or that we know he knows are best for us, to what extent can we be said to be abiding, persisting, standing fast, remaining in his love? When we are wilfully disobedient to the teachings of our master, are we really holding tight to his love? Or have we let it go?

Here, we can easily start lengthy moralising. I will save us from such (although all of us need to hear some moralising sometimes—and recall that Jesus’ commandments are not burdensome, as we read today in 1 John 5:3). I want to circle back to the love being discussed here, that love we are abiding in. Let’s put both verses 9 and 10 together:

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.

First of all, in verse 9, Jesus compares his love for us to the love the Father has for him. And then, in verse 10, he inverts it and speaks of his keeping of the Father’s commandments and abiding in the Father’s love. God is love; that was in last week’s reading from 1 John 4:8, in fact. I have spent a significant portion of 2021 teaching the Trinitarian theology of the ancient church—names like Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine (you’ve met them in these reflections!). Absolutely foundational for us to understand the Trinity is the fact that God is love. Love requires three elements, according to St Augustine:

  1. The lover.
  2. The beloved.
  3. The love that exists between the two.

If God is love, there has never been a time when he did not exist as Trinity—love requires a beloved. God the Father is eternally begetting the Son outside of time through the fullness of His love, and the love of the Father and the Son together is made perfect as the Holy Spirit in that timeless eternity proceeds from the Father. God, moreover, is perfect, spotless, sinless, stainless. He is unfailing in his love.

Jesus says that he loves us in the same way that God the Father loves him. A perfect, unfailing, spotless, unwavering, steadfast, superabundant, unfathomable love. And consider what he chose to do for us out of this love: he left his eternal throne in glorious perfection and endless beauty with the Father, took on flesh, was hungry, tired, sore, pooped, was spat upon, abandoned, slandered, beaten, stripped naked, hung upon a cross. And then God died. This is how much God the Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, love us!

This is Good News!

And the moral exhortation part of this reflection is simply this: Go and do likewise. Keep Jesus’ commandments out of love for him, as a means of abiding in his love. And how do we keep his commandments? Let’s just consider John 15:12-13:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.

Let us love one another. To the death.

Anselm at the point of mystery

I realise I’m a week late for Trinity Sunday, but I read this in St Anselm’s Monologion last night, and I thought I’d share it here. It comes after Anselm goes as far as he can in using logic to prove and explain the Trinity (although I don’t think logic goes quite so far as he thinks). He writes:

This seems to me to be a sublime mystery, which stretches well beyond the horizon of human understanding. Therefore one ought, I think, to restrain the ambition to explain. When investigating the inexplicable, if it is possible to arrive at an account which is certainly correct, I think one must be content with that even if it is impossible to see how it may be so. There is no argument for disallowing P the certainty of faith where P is asserted as a necessitated and uncontradicted conclusion, but, because of its deep and incomprehensible nature, does not admit of explanation. And what, after all, is as incomprehensible, as ineffable, as that which is above everything else? So then, given that all our assertions so far on the subject of the supreme essence have been made on the basis of necessary reasoning, the fact that understanding cannot fathom so far as to explain them in words does nothing to undermine their certainty. (Ch. 64, trans. Simon Harrison in Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works)

What do you mean, “God is love”? (Part two, the Trinity and Jane Williams)

Trinity KnotOn Saturday, we established that historically and biblically, the word love in “God is love” from 1 John 4 translates agape/caritas/dilectio, which are terms used in the historical and philosophical tradition of Christianity — drawing much from 1 Corinthians 13, no doubt — to express the highest form of love. Formerly, this term was charity in English — as C S Lewis discusses it in The Four Loves, charity is that love that loves the unloveable; it is not provoked by anything outstanding or desireable in the beloved. It is truly selfless in its treatment of the recipient of love. To get a picture of what God’s love looks like, I direct you to Fr Aidan Kimel’s discussion of St Isaac the Syrian on the astonishing love of God.

This, however, does not fully plumb the depths of “God is love”. In fact, it doesn’t really skim the surface.

The failure of this semantic discussion to grasp at what it means for God to be charity was driven home to me a couple of weeks ago when participating in the Church of England’s ‘Pilgrim Course’. The current module of the course is on the Creeds. One of the soundbites played as part of the course — and helpfully transcribed in the course booklet — is from Jane Williams (wife of Rowan), discussing how the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus draw us into believing in the Trinity, and notes:

The very terms ‘Father’, ‘Son’ and ‘Holy Spirit’ are not proper names or descriptions of functions but terms that describe relationships. The persons of the Trinity are not interchangeable but nor do they ‘do’ different things …

This, of course, does not hit at the question of ‘What do you mean, “God is love”?’ That question is addressed in her final paragraph:

It is only because we know that God is Trinity that we can say that God is love. It would, otherwise, be possible to surmise that God is loving, or acts lovingly, but to say that God is love is only possible for this reason: because within the very being of God is the relationship between three persons and the self-giving that characterizes love. (Pilgrim Course, The Creeds, p. 25)

Love (or ‘luv’), as dc Talk once said, is a verb. It is actually both a noun and a verb in English, and in more highly inflected languages like Greek and Latin, we have both verbal and nominal forms of the words (I’ve grown too frustrated by my Greek polytonic keyboard to try using the alphabet; forgive me!). Greek: agapao, agapeeroserotaophileo, philia. Latin: diligo, dilectio; amo, amor. Caritas, however, comes from carus, not from any car- verb of which I know — which no doubt governed Augustine’s choice of dilectio to refer to this highest kind of love, thus enabling him to switch between nominal verbal uses of love.

The point of this little philological tangent is to say: Love the noun requires love the verb.

For God to literally be agape, the logic of language and the logic, indeed, of love, requires Him to have somebody to love.

According to Christian theology, God is self-existent and non-contingent. He is pure ousia/essence. Therefore, for agape/charity to be Who God is in His essence, God must, by definition, somehow be more than One (yet without transgressing the Unity).

The logic of Trinity in Unity, then, is the logic of self-giving, overflowing love. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit exist as a Communion of Persons (see Zizioulas, Being As Communion), being an integral Unity free from division (see Aquinas, saint of the week here). The love of the Father for the Begotten spills over to the Spirit. And He/They choose to express this superabundant agape in creation.

This is what it means that God is love. A love so deep, profound, and literally infinite, we can never plumb its depths nor come within hearing distance of the greatness of its superabundance. To close, then, some Thomas Merton:

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Trinity Sunday

Trinity Knot

Repost from elsewhere a few years back.

Today is Trinity Sunday, so here are some quotations on this Subject of subjects (since I’m a quote collector):

What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.
-AW Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy

Eternal Trinity, you are a deep sea, into which the more I enter, the more I find, and the more I find the more I seek.
-Catherine of Siena

If Jesus was the idealistic founder of a religion, I can be elevated by his work and stimulated to follow his example. But my sins are not forgiven, God still remains angry and I remain in the power of death. . . . But if Jesus is the Christ, the Word of God, then I am not primarily called to emulate him; I am encountered in his work as one who could not possibly do this work myself. Through his work I recognize the gracious God. My sins are forgiven, I am no longer in death but in life.
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christology

You should point to the whole man Jesus and say, “That is God.”
-Martin Luther

But the divine substance is form without matter, and, therefore, is one and is what it is. (or is its own essence.)
-Boethius, De Trinitate

God — if I may use my own jargon — is what happens between Jesus and the one he called Father, as they are freed for each other by their Spirit.
-Robert W. Jenson

What we can say is that, given our knowledge of the Trinity, personhood is tied up intimately with community, and with complementarity of Persons: the Trinity, a communion of irreducible Persons in complementarity and love, is our bedrock understanding of what it is to be alive. This leads us back to our understanding of Christian spirituality: authentic spirituality is the characteristic of a person in Christ who has enough wisdom and insight regarding self and others, and enough love and strength through the Spirit, that he or she can dare to be “ek-static” and so to enter into true intimacy with “the other,” an intimacy that will include both word and silence.
-Edith M. Humphrey, Ecstasy and Intimacy

Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee;
Holy, Holy, Holy! Merciful and Mighty,
God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity!

Holy, Holy, Holy! all the saints adore thee,
casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
Cherubim and seraphim falling down before thee,
Which wert, and art, and evermore shalt be

Holy, Holy, Holy! though the darkness hide thee,
Though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see,
Only thou art holy; there is none beside thee
Perfect in power, in love, and purity.

Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!
All thy works shall praise thy name, in earth and sky and sea;
Holy, Holy, Holy! Merciful and Mighty!
God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity!
-Bishop R. Heber

WHOSOEVER would be saved / needeth before all things to hold fast the Catholic Faith. 2 Which Faith except a man keep whole and undefiled, / without doubt he will perish eternally. 3 Now the Catholic Faith is this, / that we worship one God in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity; 4 Neither confusing the Persons, / nor dividing the Substance. 5 For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, / another of the Holy Ghost; 6 But the Godhead of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is all one, / the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal.

7 Such as the Father is, such is the Son, / and such is the Holy Ghost; 8 The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, the Holy Ghost uncreated; 9 The Father infinite, the Son infinite, the Holy Ghost infinite; 10 The Father eternal, the Son eternal, the Holy Ghost eternal; 11 And yet there are not three eternals, but one eternal; 12 As also there are not three uncreated, nor three infinites, / but one infinite, and one uncreated.

13 So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, / the Holy Ghost almighty; 14 And yet there are not three almighties, but one almighty. 15 So the Father is God, the Son God, the Holy Ghost God; 16 And yet there are not three Gods, / but one God. 17 So the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, / the Holy Ghost Lord; 18 And yet there are not three Lords, / but one Lord.

19 For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity / to confess each Person by himself to be both God and Lord; 20 So are we forbidden by the Catholic Religion / to speak of three Gods or three Lords. 21 The Father is made of none, / nor created, nor begotten. 22 The Son is of the Father alone; / not made, nor created, but begotten. 23 The Holy Ghost is of the Father and the Son; / not made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding. 24 There is therefore one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; / one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts.

25 And in this Trinity there is no before or after, / no greater or less; 26 But all three Persons are co-eternal together, / and co-equal. 27 So that in all ways, as is aforesaid, / both the Trinity is to be worshipped in Unity, and the Unity in Trinity. 28 He therefore that would be saved, / let him thus think of the Trinity.
-from the so-called Athanasian Creed

What, one asks St Basil, does the Holy Spirit do?

The Chancel of this church, a lovely image from Sacred Scotland

This morning I worshipped at a local Anglo-Catholic church; like many high Anglican churches, this particular parish tends to be broadly orthodox with a bit of a liberal bend. This Sunday was the first Sunday for their new curate to preach. Before preaching, she decorously mounted the pulpit (oddly on the right-hand side of the sanctuary) and proclaimed:

In the name of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sanctifier. Amen.

I’d heard rumours of this economic Trinity being used to replace the traditional (Biblical) appellations for the Three Persons of the Glorious Trinity — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Besides the fact that neither Scripture nor Tradition recommends this naming of the All-holy Trinity, it obscures the bases of Trinitarian thought, such as the relationship between the First and Second Persons — Father and Son. It also reduces the ThreePersons to their economic activity in our salvation.

Given that All Three Persons is involved in creating, redeeming, and sanctifying it, we also get a bit blurry on how the doctrine of the Trinity — our understanding of the Godhead based upon meditative readings of Scripture and Tradition — is actually formulated.

As luck (Providence?) would have it, today I was reading St Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, today in preparation for a Byzantine theology reading group I’m part of tomorrow night. I’ve blogged about this work of his before here. St Basil, too, began with a discourse on the use of the doxology.

St Basil’s primary goal in this treatise is to prove the fully Godhead of the Person of the Holy Spirit. He begins by approaching the Person of the Son’s Divinity using philological and scriptural proofs, then does the same for the Spirit before discussing various potential protestations using arguments from Scripture, Tradition, and the brute force of logic.

St Basil the Great

Along the way, a few words about the action of the Spirit are said — and we see that the Person of the Spirit is more than our Sanctifier (yet another problem with the politically correct doxology above). I quote the translation by David Anderson in the 1980 SVS Press Popular Patristics edition (Fr John Behr has a new 2011 edition out for said series):

All things thirsting for holiness turn to Him;* everything living in virtue never turns away from Him. He waters them with His life-giving breath and helps them reach their proper fulfillment. He perfects all other things, and Himself lacks nothing; He gives life to all things, and is never depleted. … He is the source of sanctification, spiritual light, who gives illumination to everyone using His powers to search for the truth — and the illumination He gives is Himself. His nature is unapproachable; only through His goodness are we able to draw near it. He fills all things with His power, but only those who are worthy may share it. He distributes His energy in proportion to the faith of the recipient, not confining it to a single share. … the Spirit is given to each one who receives Him as if He were the possession of that person alone … (section 22, p. 43)

This passage is largely about the sanctifying and sustaining power of the Spirit, but it is beautiful and lyrical. Basil here also points to the important role of the Holy Spirit in drawing us into communion with the Trinitarian Life. Elsewhere, he says:

One cannot see the Father without the Spirit! It would be like living in a house at night when the lamps are extinguished; one’s eyes would be darkened and could not exercise their function. Unable to distinguish the value of objects, one might very well treat gold as if it were iron. It is the same in the spiritual world, it is impossible to maintain a life of holiness without the Spirit. (section 38, p. 64)

And:

Is it not indisputably clear that the Church is set in order by the Holy Spirit? (section 39, p. 65)

And how does the Holy Spirit sanctify us? As with Moses on the Mountain — Contemplation:

Objects placed near something brilliantly-colored themselves become tinted through reflected light; likewise he who fixes his gaze on the Spirit is transfigured to greater brightness, his heart illumined by the light of the Spirit’s truth. Then the glory of the Spirit is changed into such a person’s own glory, not stingily, or dimly, but with the abundance we would expect to find within someone who had been enlightened by the Spirit. (section 52, p. 83)

Basil’s ascetic and mystical vision for the Christian life is more fully set out in his ascetical works, the so-called Longer Rule and Shorter Rule. Throughout this treatise, Basil refers to the work of the Spirit in prophecy, in the giving of knowledge, and so forth. Finally, I give you this passage from section 49 (p. 77):

The Spirit enables the heavenly powers to avoid evil, and persevere in goodness. Christ comes, and the Spirit prepares His way. He comes in the flesh, but the Spirit is never separated from Him. Working of miracles and gifts of healing come from the Holy Spirit. Demons are driven out by the Spirit of God. The presence of the Spirit despoils the devil. Remission of sins is given through the gift of the Spirit. … Through the Spirit we become intimate with God … He gives us risen life, refashioning our souls in the spiritual life.

Charismatics will be pleased with my last chosen passage — here we see the Holy Spirit performing miracles and healing and driving out demons! Indeed, the ancient Church never imagined the cessation of such manifestational gifts of the Spirit, although the theologians tend to be quiet about them. Most theological works tend to focus on either the interpretation of Scripture, the solving of a particular problem, or the refutation of a divergent opinion.

The Spirit certainly sanctifies us — but it is clear that He does much more than that!

*Here, Anderson gives the note that in Greek pneuma is neuter, so neuter pronouns are used for the Person of the Spirit throughout. However, in English this would nullify the Spirit’s personhood. In Syriac, the word used where Greek says pneuma is feminine, and in Latin, spiritus is masculine. The Spirit transcends gender, using one of a few choices, depending on language!

Saint of the Week: St. Gregory of Nazianzus

We’ve just missed the feast day of St. Gregory of Nazianzus (or “the Theologian”, a title he shares only with St. John the Evangelist — although a case may also be made for St. Symeon the New Theologian), but he is a saint worth looking at.

St. Gregory (329-390) is one of the famous Cappadocian Fathers, a trio of theologians from Cappadocia in modern Turkey who were an important influence upon the development of Trinitarian theology in the last stages of the Arian Controversy. The other members of this trio are the brothers St. Basil of Caesarea (Saint of the Week here) — a good friend of St. Gregory’s — and St. Gregory of Nyssa (Saint of the Week here).

St. Gregory’s father, a convert from paganism, was bishop of Nazianzus. He and Gregory’s mother had an impact upon the young Gregory, some of which psychoanalysts would probably love to get their hands on. Following the path of the Late Antique man of letters, Gregory went to school in Caesarea, Palestine (not the Caesarea of Basil which is Cappadocia), with Basil, for education. He and Basil met up again in Alexandria.

Gregory was headed on his “worldly” career path when he went from Egypt to Athens. When his ship was struck by a storm on the way, he chose to devote his life to the Gospel and the work of the Church. In Gregory’s case, this meant a life of quiet retirement and ascetic rigour back home in Cappadocia.

However, back in Cappadocia, he found himself being lassoed into a more active role in Church service by Basil. He rose to challenge, finding himself unwillingly bishop of what amounted to no more than a service station on the highway.

Yet from there his fortunes were truly to rise, as he was translated to the see of Constantinople, where he presided over the Second “Ecumenical” Council in 381 which produced this creed, commonly called “Nicene” and recited in churches around the world today.

Most Nicenes consider Constantinople I a great victory for the orthodox position. Gregory did not. He resigned partway through the event and went home to Cappadocia in disgust at Church politics, for that famous creed does not explicitly affirm the full deity of the Holy Spirit, one of the important dogmas that he and his fellow Cappadocians had fought for in the last stages of the Nicene controversy.

Not that his time in Constantinople was a total bust. It produced a good number of excellent sermons, including the Five Theological Orations that, besides simple statements like the Athanasian Creed, were my introduction to Trinitarian Theology and which Christopher A. Hall used as the basis for his discussion of the Trinity in Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (reviewed here, with a discussion of Greg Naz here).

He spent his last years in quiet retirement writing poetry and refining his Orations. His poetry, when read in conjunction with his dogmatic theology, escorts us into the world of the mystical theology of the Eastern Church (to borrow the title from Vladimir Lossky).

In St. Gregory, we Western Christians have the opportunity to see the happy union of the apophatic — we can only speak of God by uttering what He is not — and the cataphatic — through revelation we are able to speak truths about God. We see that theology is a task that is not to be taken up lightly but soberly, that it is the ascent of the soul to the living God, into Whose hands it is a fearful thing to fall.

With Gregory, we see clearly the divinity of all three Persons of the Trinity, we see some of their attributes, then we ascend the Mount and enter into the Cloud of Unknowing where we fall down to worship the Triune God in the beauty of holiness.

And it is worship that binds all Christians together, for worship is our purpose. As John Piper says, mission exists because worship does not. So take some time to worship God with thrice-holy cry like the Seraphim; spend some time thinking on things heavenly; spend some time with the Fathers.

And then write about it in dactylic hexameter — or whatever your creative outlet is. Just like St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. Gregory the Theologian.

What makes a Protestant?

One evening, as a friend and I walked to Vespers at the local Orthodox Church, he remarked that he had invited some of our other friends who had responded by looking at him as though he had three heads. Another time, these same friends had chuckled in a, “Yeah, right,” sort of way when he said that he was as much a Protestant as they were.

The question has been raised here as to why I am not Eastern Orthodox, given that I seem to embrace so many Eastern Orthodox beliefs. The question is related to the response of more evangelical, Reformed Protestants who don’t see my Methodist/Episcopalian friend who appreciates Aquinas, incense, and Kallistos Ware as being “as Protestant” as they are.

What makes a Protestant?

GK Chesterton, in The Thing: Why I Am Catholic, takes issue with some of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century responses to this question, when people such as Dean Inge argued that basically being a Protestant was rising in protest whenever things were going wrong. He also has trouble with the fact that those things that make a Milton or a Bunyan delightful to the modern Protestant are things that Milton and Bunyan share with Catholics — not things that make them Protestant.

This question has needed answering for a good while, then.

According to Bruce McCormack at the University of Edinburgh’s Croall Lectures for this year, Protestants — the theologians, at least — should be working from within the framework of their confessional statements to produce a comprehensive worldview. He was not fond of those Protestants who produce either Catholicism light or a Patristic synthesis to theological issues. We should be identifiable through our adherence to the confessional statements of our tradition, according to McCormack. At least, that’s what I think he was saying.

For many contemporary Protestants, this is probably a bit of a problem, especially if we consider the very large number of Anglicans who are Arminians and thus cannot throw themselves wholeheartedly into Article of Religion 17, “On Predestination.” For me, saying that I must pledge my allegiance to a particular confession and produce theological thinking in accord with it is a definite problem, if we recall this post.

Nonetheless, I would still like to say that I am a Protestant. And being Protestant requires more than a rejection of papal claims. There are, I believe, certain doctrinal positions Protestants emphasise as well as certain approaches to doctrine and worship.

First of all, justification by faith. As a Protestant, I believe that nothing we do can make us justified before God. No amount of condign merit will justify me. It is the faith within the heart and life of the believer that justifies. God will justify those who have chosen to follow Him and put their trust in Him. From true faith will flow a life of good works, yes; but the good works are not what justify us but the fruit of the justified.

Second, the primacy (supremacy?) of Scripture for faith, life, and doctrine. A lot of Anglicans like pointing to Hooker’s three-legged stool of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, from which the removal of a single leg means utter disaster, saying that people like Mark Driscoll are troubling because of how much they overemphasise Scripture.

Well, the fact of the matter is, Scripture contains everything necessary for salvation. Other things might be okay, but they aren’t necessary. If it’s not in Scripture, it is not binding. Now, tradition and reason are important for the interpretation of Scripture. We can never escape them. That is the point of this whole website. But Scripture still stands supreme. If tradition, through the years, has come up with something counter to Scripture, the Church — the same Church who handed down the tradition — can jettison it after a long, painful process of prayer and searching the Scriptures together.

Third, I do not believe that a true Protestant will have a Roman understanding of the sacrifice of the Mass. That is to say, the idea that Christ himself is offered upon the altar as an immolation for our sins by the Priest who stands in Christ’s stead each Sunday. Now, the idea that there is a twofold sacrifice of ourselves, our souls and bodies, along with the gifts of bread and wine at the Holy Table — this is acceptable. It is also acceptable to say that the Eucharist recapitulates Christ’s atoning work and brings its benefits to the assembled Body through the Sacramental act (see Robert E. Webber, Worship Old and New).

As regards other aspects of the Sacrament, Protestants are divided. I, myself, follow Luther in The Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, as explained here. I affirm with my Anglican heritage that the Holy Eucharist and Holy Baptism are outward, visible signs of an inward, invisible grace.

If to be Protestant one must sign on to a confessional statement, most Protestants would have to believe in penal substitutionary atonement. And most of us do. And some of us believe in Christus Victor. Some of us, rascals that we are, believe in both. But this issue is more of an East vs. West question than a Protestants vs. the World question.

In fact, most of the major questions of Christology and Triadology (the study of the All-holy Trinity) do not have a particular spin from the Protestants, outside of heretics like Oneness Pentecostals. We tend to follow St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas on these issues. Some, like Reformed theologian T.F. Torrance, turn to Sts. Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria for their Christology. I, myself, follow a sort of Neo-Chalcedonian, Conciliar Christology with something of an Augustinian-Thomist Triadology for good measure. There’s nothing un-Protestant about that!

I’m getting tired. But I think that the issue of justification, the place of the Bible in the Christian life, and the question of the sacrifice of the Mass (tied into how you answer the first two) are among three of the defining points of Protestants.

I am a Protestant, and maybe even an Anglican.

Pain & Anguish Greater Than We Could Ever Know

What use is Patristic theology? I mean, why read the Fathers? How does this stuff, this all-too-frequently high-flying, maximalist, cerebral theology help any of us in our daily lives?

Well. Today I was reading The Orthodox Way by Met. Kallistos Ware. The chapter at hand was his chapter all about Christ, the theanthropos — the God-man. And while I was reading, some thoughts took hold of me. They follow, inspired by the Fathers and Met. Kallistos.

First, let us consider the Person Who died on the Cross that Friday long ago. That Person, that God-man, that one-of-a-kind being was fully God and fully man. As my friend Pope St. Leo I says, he is complete in what is his own and complete in what is ours. Everything that could be predicated about God can be predicated about the incarnate Christ. So also everything about man — save sin.

And, as Holy Scripture tells us, Jesus suffered everything we suffered except sin. He is, by the Scriptural record, fully human. He grew tired, thirsted, hungered — died. God the Word was eight days old and held in the arms of his mother (as per St. Cyril of Alexandria).

Second, let us consider who God is. God, as we learn from the careful, prayerful reflection of the Fathers upon their deep reading of Scripture, is three persons. These three persons are co-equal and co-eternal and other suchlike things. They also are one, sharing a single essence. God, the one, true God of Christian monotheism, is also three. His existence is one of endless, boundless love, self-giving love at a level of intimacy we creations shall never know.

We’ll never know this kind of love because each of us has only one essence per person. God, on the other hand, has one essence and three persons. It is not the sort of thing we can really even properly conceive. Jesus, then, was a participant in this divine life of self-giving love and shared essence. He took on flesh and became human without ceasing to engage in the life of the Trinity.

Third, let us consider what this Person went through on the Cross that Friday long ago. Before he died, he went through enormous amounts of physical pain, torture, and suffering. Such is the stuff of many Good Friday sermons. Yet what else do we see him suffering before death? According to 2 Cor, God made him who knew no sin to become sin for us.

That is intense. Jesus was the perfect human, not only in terms of being entirely human complete with body, soul, and spirit, but also in terms of sinlessness. And now, this sinless soul, this one and only human being ever to not sin takes upon himself the sin of the entire world.

Think about how it feels to sin, knowing you shouldn’t. There is a definite feeling of sorrow, sadness. A feeling of separation. Separation from who you know you should and could be, from whomever you may have wronged in sinning, from God himself.

This separation is what causes the cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” One of the Trinity was crucified and died for us. He was cut off from the divine life that gave Him life. He was cut off from everything he had ever known.

I don’t know how to express how powerful that anguish must have been because I can’t even express how glorious the love of the divine life is.

What I do know is this — He suffered this separation and pain out of love for His creation. He suffered this separation, this death both physical and spiritual (for spiritual death is the separation of the human soul from God) so that we might have true life through him. This is victory, friends.

This Good Friday, let us bless the Lord who loved us so much that He suffered the unthinkable.

Why the Holy Trinity Matters

Considering the two facts that a: God is the source of all that was, is, and evermore shall be, He is very important, and b: He is Trinity, then the Holy Trinity is of utmost importance.

Believing in the Holy Trinity is, therefore, a big deal.  And I mean actually believing — belief not merely as the assent of the mind or the conceptualisation in the brain, but the actual trust and reliance upon something, trusting on something so much that it changes your worldview and lifestyle.  While it’s true that some people who claim to be Trinitarian believers are boors, jerks, and swear-word worthy, their boorishness is not related to the doctrine of the Trinity one whit.  Indeed, it runs entirely counter to it.

As Trinity, as three persons “with” one substance, God is an ultimately (ontologically, even?) relational being.  His being is one of communion, and I think there is an importance difference between communion and community, for we are all part of various types of community from clubs to professional organisations to neighbourhoods, but communion is a much deeper connection, a stronger union and interaction of persons than community.  And God, being Trinity, is communion.*

If the root of the universe is a being who is communion, and if we start taking this fact seriously (as well we should, since we were made in the very image of this Holy Trinity), then how we live changes.  We will discover our own ultimate personhood through communion with God and with one another.

Fellow human beings will not be entities for exploitation, but fellow-sojourners to be embraced.  Relationships will be taken seriously.  Mere community, while acceptable at some times and places, will not be enough for some relationships and communities — some form of communion will become necessary for the community to be remade in the image of God.

And if the root of the universe is a being who is a monad or a simple One or not even actually a personal being, the communion is deprived of potency.  Who cares?  I mean, we’re all for community.  But deeper connections are not necessarily where our personhood will play itself out fully.  The concept of surrendering myself to another so that I may be free is not present at the root of a universe wherein the Ultimate Cause is not Trinity, is not a Being of self-giving love.  I think the ramifications are many.

A second matter, besides the whole issue of communion and personhood, is the matter of worship.  The Holy Trinity is ineffably sublime.  When I read the Fathers about the Trinity, I am taken to greater heights of awe, wonder, and worship.  This is a God to whom I would give glory.  If God is a modalist God, or a monad, or a unitarian God, or the spirit of a dead man from another planet, he is less than the revelation of God found in Scripture.  Far less worshippable, this much is certain.

And it is from worship of the most Holy Trinity, He Who Is three, the three-in-one, the Unity in Trinity, three co-equal and co-eternal Persons, that my desire to live according to this God’s Way stems.  Why follow a lesser God?  Commitment to other views of God may be deep and even total, but the question of priority is thrown into stark contrast.  I can’t express it properly, but I cannot see an abandonment of the Trinity without grave implications for the life of holiness in all its matters of morality, ethics, and discipline.

This is a plea.  Take the doctrine of the Trinity seriously.  Read up on how truly amazing He is.  Stand in awe of Him.  Worship Him.  And model your life upon the life He has shown unto us in His revelation.

*For a better and unmangled (and very long) explication of this, see the Eastern Orthodox theologian John D. Zizioulas, Being As Communion.