The Trinity is Our Identity: Preaching Gregory Thaumaturgus

Nevertheless, as we ourselves know all too well, the commandment "thou shalt not covet" is hardly enough to ward off envy and greed. This is why we need Jesus. "We are not in real possession of any virtue whatsoever," Gregory wrote, "nor have we ever made any near approach to it...

These are very great and lofty virtues, and none of them may be assumed by any common person, but only by one whom God inspires with the power. We are by no means so favorably constituted for them by nature, neither do we yet profess ourselves to be worthy of reaching them [because of our] listlessness and feebleness....But this admirable one, this friend and advocate of the virtues, has long ago done for us all that it lay in his power to do for us, in making us lovers of virtue, who should love it with the most ardent affection. And by his own virtue [Christ] created in us a love for the beauty of righteousness, the golden face of truth shown to us by him.

Gregory acknowledged a total reliance on Christ for the virtuous life—both to live it and to want to live it—a reliance that comes as grace rather than as something achieved through superior knowledge, special insight or even hard work. Scripture exposes all humanity as morally and spiritually bankrupt, thus preventing anyone from relying on anything for virtuousness and righteousness outside of faith.

Though primarily concerned with the ethical applications of faith in his day, Gregory also found himself drawn into defending the content of faith, especially the disputed doctrine of the Trinity.

Gregory's lasting contribution to orthodoxy was his third-century defense of the Trinity, which influenced all doctrines and creeds that followed:

There is one God, the Father of the living Word, who is His subsistent Wisdom and Power and Eternal Image: perfect Begetter of the perfect Begotten, Father of the only-begotten Son. There is one Lord, Only of the Only, God of God, Image and Likeness of Deity, Efficient Word, Wisdom comprehensive of the constitution of all things, and Power formative of the whole creation, true Son of true Father, Invisible of Invisible, Incorruptible of Incorruptible, Immortal of Immortal and Eternal of Eternal. There is One Holy Spirit, having His subsistence from God, and being made manifest by the Son, to be known by people as Image of the Son, Perfect Image of the Perfect; Life, the Cause of living; Holy Fount; Sanctity, the Supplier and Leader of Sanctification; in whom is manifested God the Father, who is above all and in all, and God the Son, who is through all. There is a perfect Trinity, in glory and eternity and sovereignty, neither divided nor estranged. There is nothing either created or in servitude in the Trinity; nor anything super-induced, as if at some former period it was non-existent and at some later period it was introduced. And thus neither was the Son ever wanting to the Father, nor the Spirit to the Son; but without variation and without change, the same Trinity abides ever.

Contained herein are all the Trinity's non-negotiables: singularity as to essence, plurality as to existence; eternity, invariability and non-hierarchy. Though mostly implied rather than explicit in Scripture, hard to comprehend and a pain to teach in children's church, the Trinity nevertheless remains Christianity's chief calling card. Our God is a personal God, but personality entails relationality because personality can only exist in relation to other persons. To say "God is love" is to say "God is Trinity" because love always occurs in relationship. The Trinity is an eternal relationship of persons, a three-in-one community of love so bound together yet so abounding that the love happily spills over into a creation that God can't help but love too. Created by God, we bear God's identifying mark. As creatures, we are endued with personality and wired for relationship, not only with each other but with God Himself who invites us to participate in Trinitarian community. The relational God creates relational people for ceaseless relationship with Him.

The threat to Trinitarian doctrine in Gregory's day mostly had to do with undermining the deity of Christ and with the place of the Holy Spirit. If God is God, how can Jesus be God too? And if the Holy Spirit is God who dwells in us, why are we still such screw-ups? These are questions we still struggle to understand. However our struggles to understand only underscore the ongoing necessity of faith when it comes to God as well as the fact that God is forever impervious to our attempts to define Him. Note that Gregory's defense of the Trinity never tries to explain the Trinity. You can't. God who is Trinity defies explanation and therefore defies control and manipulation. All we can do when we encounter God is choose whether to believe and worship. Understanding will follow, but it will always be an understanding informed by faith. Any understanding of the mysteries of God requires faith in God first. Try telling somebody who is not a Christian how your God conforms to the equation 1+1+1=1 and watch their reaction. No wonder mothers call pastors on the phone.

7/17/2011 4:00:00 AM
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    About Daniel Harrell
    Daniel M. Harrell is Senior Minister of The Colonial Church, Edina, MN and author of How To Be Perfect: One Church's Audacious Experiment in Living the Old Testament Book of Leviticus (FaithWords, 2011). Follow him via Twitter, Facebook, or at his blog and website.