The Unknowability of the Trinity in Ps-Dionysius

Following on from yesterday’s post about the dangers of overreliance on logic and Aristotelian philosophy as we do theology, here is a quotation I’ve found in Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, in his chapter about Pseudo-Dionysius (or ‘Denys’ as Louth calls him, flourished c. 500). ‘Cataphatic’ theology is when we make positive statements about God, the kind of theology we tend to do in academia, and ‘apophatic’ theology is the pathway of negation, where we assert that we can only explain God by negative comparison. That is to say, God is infinite, timelessimmortal, whereas we are finite, timebound, and mortal. In apophatic theology, you make the cataphatic assertions of Trinitarian dogma, and then realise that you are already entering into the cloud of unknowing, for who can truly express the homoousion of three persons?

The quotation is from Vladimir Lossky, and the internal quotation is Ps-D’s On the Divine Names:

This is why the revelation of the Holy Trinity, which is the summit of cataphatic theology, belongs also to apophatic theology, for ‘if we learn from the Scriptures that the Father is the source of divinity, and Jesus and the Holy Spirit are the divine progeny, the divine seeds, so to say, and flowers and lights that transcend being, we can neither say nor understand what that is.’ (DN II. 7)

The passage is from Lossky’s article, ‘La notion des “analogies” chez le Pseudo‐Denys l’Aréopagite’, Archives d’histoire doctrinale et littéraire du Moyen Âge, 5 (1930), 279–309, at p. 283. Cited by Louth on page 161.


My Seminar on ‘Trinity and Mission’ & the Cappadocians

Trinity KnotLast Thursday, I gave a seminar on ‘Trinity and Mission’ at the Greek Evangelical Church. It began with a run-through of the history of Christology — this is something I blog about often, so I’m not going to repeat everything here; just follow the links around my blog. I started with Irenaeus’ Rule of Faith and recapitulation, moved on to Athanasius, then the Kappadokians, before sliding into Cyril and Chalcedon. I closed with the Trinitarian exegesis of Matthew 28, as found in the blog post Trinity and Mission.

Not really discussed here before, however, is the following that flows from the Cappadocians — this is consciously following Zizioulas’ reading of them in Being As Communion, which I have heard has some problems; I’ll have to read all of what they say as well as the criticisms some day. Until then, here we go.

The result of this Trinitarian theology, whether expressed by Greek theologians such as the Kappadokians or Latin theologians such as Ambrosios and Augustinos, or even the Syriac theologians Aphrahat and Ephraim, has important implications. As expressed classically by the Kappadokians, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct prosopa or hypostaseis who are all homoousios — they share an ousia. And, following the logic of causation in classical philosophy, God is the principle at work behind all things and the Creator of all things, the unmoved mover — as in the magnificent image of Gregorios’, that Jesus is ‘the founder of the universe who steers its course’.

Therefore, this give-and-take of ousia in fullness of koinonia between the Persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit lies at the heart of the created order. The universe is run by a koinonia. And here I mention our first ethical implication of classical Trinitarian doctrine — we are all made in the image of God (Gen 1:26). God is a Trinity of Persons in complete harmony, homonoia.

When we look at our fractured churches in Protestantism, churches that splinter every time you turn around, when we look at our families who sometimes never talk at all or are never willing to discuss things of substance, when we look at our broken relationships all around us, when we observe a fracturing world at our doorstep — Turks in the North, Israel vs. Palestine, internal unrest in Syria — we realise that we are not living as God, the Trinity who exists as self-giving love in perfect communion, intends us to.

If we are to live in accordance with the theology of ancient Christianity, we should be peacemakers, in our homes, our workplaces, our churches — even our nations if the possibility presents itself. All humans are made in God’s image, and all of us were meant to live in loving communion with one another. I imagine that this union of selfless love is what instilled God to inspire our Lord to pray for unity, St Paul to exhort the Corinthians to unity, and for the early Christian writers of the late first and early second centuries, such as Clement of Rome and Ignatios of Antioch, to strive for unity so forcefully in their letters.

Time and again, Ignatios, who was martyred by the Romans around 117, calls his readers to homonoia, to harmony, to a cessation of dissensions and loving accord. Koinonia is a divine attribute; let us live in it. As the Psalm says, ‘How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity.’ (Ps 133:1)

As far as mission goes, the koinonia of the Trinity should encourage us to work together; Christians of different sorts who work together provide a united face for the Gospel to an unbelieving world. I have seen this in Lefkosia in the Nicosia Community Church using your building, in the Nicosia International Church using the Anglican church — and I understand that Rick at NIC works together with the pastor at NCC in preparing their sermons.

When I worked for IFES here, we ran the Place at the Anglican church hall jointly with the Anglicans, NIC, and New Life International Church, reaching out to the Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims who come to study in this beautiful city. This sort of gospel partnership should be the lifeblood of mission in post-Christian Europe.

The Trinity and Mission

These are musings brought upon me by my friend Rick (who blogs over here) in an e-mail today as I plan some seminars on the Fathers. One of the hard sells these days can be the deep theology of the Church Fathers. What does homoousios have to do with me? I already know why Jehovah’s Witnesses are wrong; why discuss the patristic discussions of Christology? Isn’t it more important just to accept Jesus in your heart? This is all so impractical.

But Rick just sent me an e-mail challenging all of that. Where do we evangelicals tend to get our vision of mission? The Great Commission. What do we see happening there?

Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus has appointed them. And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted. And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen. (Mt. 28:16-20, KJV)

This should be one of our foundational texts for Christology and Trinitarian theology (as Rick said to me in his e-mail). I have usually seen it quoted only in part, ‘Go ye therefore … and of the Holy Ghost.’ But the beginning of the passage is of the utmost importance because we need to ask ourselves, ‘What is the therefore there for?’ Jesus says first, ‘All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.’

If you know the Christological debates of the fourth century, you will know that those words alone pose no problems for an Arian. This is an important point, if we want to encourage people to read Sts. Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa and of Nazianzus (‘the Theologian’), Ambrose, and Augustine for their Christology. For us, in a post-Nicene, post-Reformation, post-Christendom world, it is ‘obvious’ to many a believer that when ‘all power is given unto [Christ] in heaven and in earth’ he is, therefore, fully God.

But an Arian would tell us that the authority was given to Him by the Father.

So we need to go farther up in the passage.

What did the Eleven do when the meet Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ? ‘When they saw him, they worshipped him.’ True, ‘some doubted’. But the Evangelist here seems to me to be commending the worshipful action of the Eleven. When they worship Jesus, the word is proskunésan, from the verb proskuneo. It is a word for worship used throughout Christian literature to refer to that kind of reverence and honour given to God alone. When people in the Bible give proskunésis to someone other than God, it is condemned.

This is an argument normally used on Jehovah’s Witnesses; no doubt it can work with the sly neo-Arians in your midst.

If Jesus is God and — working from the logical context of the day — there is only one God, when Jesus comes to the discussion of baptism, how can it be that people baptise in the name of the Father and of the Son (let alone the Holy Spirit?).

Now we enter into the mystery of the Trinity. Here’s the usefulness of the Fathers.

When the fourth-century Fathers were confronted by the Arian complaint that Jesus cannot be entirely God because that makes us at least dyotheists if not polytheists, new ways of thinking about Jesus’ divinity and his relation to God the Father needed to be found. The earlier Fathers had all asserted Jesus to be divine (so did the Arians). They had said things such as the Son and the Spirit being the Father’s hands (so did the Arians). They had even used the word Trinitas (first attested in Tertullian). Some had said that the Father and Son were homoousios or consubstantialis (the Arians did not).

These last terms were taken by the Fathers of the fourth century and they built on the preceding tradition, using this theological framework as well as the internal arguments above to combat the Arian argument for the Son’s createdness. And when we decide that Father and Son are co-equal and co-eternal, why neglect the Holy Spirit? Is he not also one of those in whose name the disciples are called to baptise?

This brings us full circle to mission. Embedded in a passage used on a regular basis to assert the importance of mission and the call to preach to the nations is Trinitarian theology. It is explicated as being Three Persons who share a single Essence or Substance, and eternal communion of being.

Jesus tells His disciples to go forth and make more disciples. They are able to do this because Jesus is God. And they are to baptise people in the threefold Divine Name(s). Because of His Divine authority, we can feel confident telling people Jesus’ teachings, even the hard ones, knowing that He is with always, to the very end of the age.

And, having made disciples, they are to be baptised, to be washed clean of their old life through the symbol and sacrament of water, in the Name of these three Persons who are One God. They enter into the Divine Life, then. They enter as participants by grace (not nature, and not ontologically) into the everlasting communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And as we go forth, we are ourselves living as part of that communion, an everlasting love and joy that lies as the basis for all creation.

As a member of this Divine Communion, how will you live your life today? As a person called to teach all nations by God Himself, how will you relate to the world around you? These are the questions the Trinity poses us as we look at mission.

Don’t forget, I have a page (probably outdated by now) of Resources on the Holy Trinity.