Friday, July 20, 2007

Thoughts on the Trinity


I am preparing for my next Sunday school doctrinal class and the next lesson is the doctrine of God, theology. Of course under theology is the study of the doctrine of the Trinity and that is a challenging doctrine to tackle.

The number one problem of the doctrine of the Trinity is that it’s too complicated to explain and to understand. I was reading the historical models of the Trinity and history shows that the problem of the Trinity has hounded Christianity since the church’s existence. Sabellus expounded and espoused the modalisitic model of the Trinity where in the Father became the Son and then became the Holy Spirit successively. Then, there’s the adoptionist view that states that Jesus became the Christ only after his baptism, and there’s the Arianist view that Christ was a created, minor god. The orthodox formula is one God in three persons which is theologically more correct than the other models but it is, unfortunately, the most logically incomprehensible of all the Trinitarian models.

The Athanasian creed gives a summary of the early Church's teaching on the Trinity :
We worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons nor dividing the substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost; but the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one, the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal. The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten; the Son is of the Father alone, not made, nor created, but begotten; the Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son, neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.

(Something in my head shouts: What?)

The church’s visual representation of the Trinity does not help either. Like the Triangle with the eye in the middle, or the three overlapping angels, or the three heads of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit etc. This confounds the problem of the Trinity because it attempts to visualize what should not have been and could not be visualized in the first place. These representations turned the Trinity into creatures, into logos and emblems or signage.

I have been thinking and reading, and I think the problem with the explanation of the Trinity is when it is explained ontologically (I don’t know if that’s the right word). The Trinity is explained in terms like ousia, personae, substance etc. These terms does not convey any meaning at all. Even scholars today are having difficulties because the way these words meant and used during the days of the council of Nicea may not mean as it does today! Our ontological explanation of the Trinity today may not be what the church fathers meant during the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Here, Hippolytus and Tertullian’s economic view of the Trinity may be the best way to explain the Trinity. (A bit vague, one theologian says, but the orthodox formulation on the other hand is, if not vague, is impossible to understand.) Hippolytus and Tertullian viewed the Trinity according to the triune God’s functions and work in the salvation of man. There was little attempt to explore the eternal relations among the three; rather there was concentration on the ways in which the Triad were manifested in creation and redemption. (Erickson). This is easier to understand and this is also Paul’s formula: 2Co 13:14 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all. Amen.

The difficulty of the doctrine of the Trinity is that it’s explained and taught in a way that is too abstract, although this exploration of the Trinity is important but, unfortunately, for ordinary Christians this is too heavy. The doctrine of the Trinity musty be understood experientially and this is the advantage of focusing on the Trinity’s activity rather than on their ontology.
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How many God fearing and loyal orthodox Christians have died without knowing that their view of the Trinity was “heretical”?

One of my friends, a good Christian, understood the trinity using the analogy of water: ice, water and vapor—Sabellian modalistic model.

I tried explaining the orthodox view and all he can say is: What?

But most Christians will always think of the Trinity this way:

2Co 13:14 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all. Amen.

I think this knowledge of the Trinity is a sufficient knowledge of the Trinity that saves.

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