Note to Reader: This series on Trinitarian Spirituality explores the history and spirituality behind the shaping of the Nicene Creed using Khaled Anatolios' Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011) as guide and inspiration. It's best to begin at the beginning: An Introduction.
The classic terms in historical and theological studies in regard to the Trinity are in Greek: ousia and hypostases. Ousia means, roughly, substance; hypostases means, roughly, existence. We really can’t get around using these terms because when we play with English equivalents, we can get weird ideas in our heads. For example, sometimes hypostases is interpreted “persons,” and then it feels like we have three gods. So we leave them in Greek and say that God is One ousia in Three hypostases.
I give you that terminology up front so that we can go on with the conversation, but be aware that many have struggled with those terms, and lots of others as well. Which all seems about right to me. How could human language satisfactorily capture the truth about our great God? Anatolios calls this “bending the structures of linguistic coherence,” or, in my words, recognizing our smallness.
So, if these words, and all the other possible word choices, don’t really work, why do we wrestle with them? Why bother?
Because, Anatolios tells us, they “are statements that mark out, in the name of the community of Christian faith and worship, the limits of what represents biblical and ecclesial faith from what lies outside it.” They are “boundary statements” and “rules of religious grammar.”
I tell you that, and you get all excited about rules of religious grammar, right?
Okay, maybe not. Let’s put it this way. These “boundary statements” create a space, like a great green meadow encircled by a fence, within which we can explore these ideas, ask questions, wrestle with implications, all in a place of community, a place where the followers of Christ through the last two millennia have grown Trinitarian faith. Outside the fence, we abandon the community, the joined experience, and the conversation. But inside the fence, the horizon is limitless.
The point of all this is not to explain, to define, or to “pin down” the Trinity. Yet still, in the conversation we find that Trinitarian “content and meaning remain inexhaustibly rich and provocative.” Inexhaustibly rich. I love that. Sometimes I do feel, particularly within evangelical circles, that we have nibbled the grass down to the nubbins, and the mysteries have all been parsed out in Bible study workbooks with fill-in-the-blank answers. I have done a lot of those in my time.
But Anatolios tells me in his Preface that the contents of meaning of the Trinity “constitute the entirety of Christian faith.” The entirety of Christian faith!!
Let us camp in the great green field with our forefathers and foremothers in faith, confident that we will find mystery beyond mystery to delight and satisfy, and simultaneously kindle and provoke ever greater curiosity and wonder.
Next up, we’ll tackle some of the ways that contemporary thinkers have talked about the Trinity, and why Anatolios thinks they’re inadequate. My guess is that one or more of these approaches is going to sound very familiar … and comfortable. It might be uncomfortable to realize we might have to change...