When Anatolios tells us that there are two fundamental principles that must undergird our explorations of the history around early church Trinitarian thinking, he’s giving us two archaeological ‘findings’. That is, as historians scour the documents of the first centuries of the church, they find two commonalities in all the talk about the Trinity, the nature of God, and the divinity of Christ.
Anatolios is telling us that there are, essentially, two ‘items’ in the layer of early church history that are normative, two theological artifacts that clearly delineate the culture we’re talking about, two principles that clearly prevailed in all the conversations—whether ‘orthodox’ or ‘heretical.’ All the voices agree on these two things. (We’ll see that they handle them in different ways, but there is no fundamental disagreement on these two pillars of the discourse.)
1) “First, the construction of a particular set of interpretations of the primacy of Christ—as applied to the entire Christian narrative but especially as informing the notion of divine transcendence—was central to the development of trinitarian doctrine.”
That is, in thinking and talking about the nature of God, these early church fathers started with Jesus Christ. They did not start with divine transcendence and work down; Christ was the starting point, and they seemed to agree that the gospel with all its facets demanded a “re-envisioning of divine transcendence.” When we look at God, we look at him through Jesus. He has become the lens, and no Trinitarian conversation can begin without putting him front and center.
2) “A second crucial element in the development of Trinitarian doctrine was the clarification of a theological epistemology.” Huh?
This one’s trickier, and I may get it wrong. (Feel free to get a copy of Anatolios’ book, if you wish…) But let me try. Epistemology is simply the study of knowledge—how do we know what we know? To talk about a ‘theological epistemology’ is to talk about the ways we know God, and the early church fathers were in agreement that whatever they believed, they knew and understood that it couldn’t encapsulate the totality of who God is.
We can’t pretend to know everything about God, but we can know enough to be in relationship with God. And this knowledge is, most importantly, relational. It means, according to Anatolios, that we learn “to think, live and pray so as to refer to God’s being as Trinity,” while recognizing that we cannot ‘manage’ God or keep him in our tidy limits of understanding. The early church was convinced that praying, thinking, and worshiping God as Trinity—all the while renouncing the temptation to think that that tells us everything about God—was the tension within which we must live and breathe and converse.
This kind of knowing Anatolios likens to “saturation” (and he’s citing yet another thinker here). I like this image. To me it’s a bit like a sponge in a deep vat of water. The sponge soaks up all the water it can, and the water immerses it and infuses it entirely, but the sponge doesn’t come close to soaking up all the water. This saturation-knowledge, Anatolios writes, “involves an excess of presencing that so overtakes and overwhelms the knower that she cannot objectify the source of this saturation and enclose it within her … grasp.”
Again, I stopped here in my reading to ponder this wonderful possibility: to know God as ‘an excess of presencing’ that ‘overtakes and overwhelms’ me . . .
Here’s a prayer for saturation: Give me, O Lord, what I am able to receive, and make me able to receive all that you wish to give me.
So, two principles for Trinitarian spirituality: 1) begin with Jesus; and 2) realize that revelation of the Triune one is sufficient for real relationship, but that God goes on and on. Our groundwork has been laid. We’ve looked at modern approaches to Trinitarian language, and we’ve looked briefly at the most common elements of early church approaches to Trinitarian language; now we can go on to set the scene for our 4th century story.
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.