Yesterday, I heard St. Augustine’s formulation of the Trinity. He gives it as a series of logical propositions as follows:
- The Father is God
- The Son is God
- The Holy Spirit is God
- The Father is not the Son
- The Son is not the Holy Spirit
- The Holy Spirit is not the Father
- There is only one God
A few thing stuck out at me about this.
First, the person presenting the propositions gave it because he wanted to give an explanation of the Trinity which was easier to undersand than the Nicene Creed. It’s clearer because it doesn’t delve into 3 in 1 or 1 in 3 mumbo jumbo. In fact, the word “three” is never used in Augustine’s formulation.
Second, this explanation of the Trinity is framed in terms of logical propositions, rather than in an ontological description. The Nicene Creed contains a lot of ontological statements about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. A lot of the terminology in Greek is actually highly technical, it speaks of essences and hypostasis. No one uses hypostasis in everyday conversation, and how we use the word “essence” is different than how it was used at the time. In fact, if you don’t have a good grasp of philosophical terminology which was in use at the time, you are going to misunderstand or fail to understand the Nicene Creed. The propositions of Augustine do not use technical language no longer in vogue. In fact, if you take an introduction to logic course at any college or university you will analyze a large number of arguments that consist of a series of logical propositions. Because of this I think Augustine’s explanation is much more easy for modern readers to grasp.
As an aside, I don’t fault the writers of the Nicene Creed for reaching into technical philosophical jargon of the time to explain God. Any culture has a limited cultural and linguistic context with which to describe reality. So when they reached for philosophy they were not polluting Christianity with philosophy, but rather explaining Christianity in ways they could understand. We do the same thing, but instead of using concepts and terms from ancient philosophy we tend to use concepts drawn from modern science and philosophy to explain God. You can’t say that we explain God simply and naturally; it’s only simple and natural to you because your cultural and linguistic context is what it is.
Finally, as a Mormon there wasn’t a single proposition with which I disagreed. Of course, I am open to being shown where I am incorrect. However, let’s assume that I am correct and that Mormons can subscribe to each of the seven propositions. If Mormons and orthodox Christians can agree on a logical formulation of God what does that mean? Pres. Hinckley said that Mormons don’t agree with the Nicene Creed, which means that we don’t agree with the ontological formulation of the nature of God. But then, what does it mean that orthodox Christians and Mormons agree on a logical formulation of the nature of God but not on an ontological formulation of the nature of God when both are valid formulations of the nature of God?