Why are we so wary of discussing the Trinity? Stephen Bullivant offers a number of potential explanations. Perhaps we think it wise to remain silent about a topic of such complexity and leave it to the theological experts. Perhaps we are afraid of saying something that might be regarded as heretical – or, worse yet, lead someone else down our erroneous path.
Bullivant does not suggest that the Trinity is easy to conceptualise but the goal of this brave book is to make the Trinity the talking point it ought to be. He provides three fundamental statements concerning the Trinity which have been normative since the fourth century: “There is only one God”, “The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is each God” and “The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are not the same”. Few Christians, past or present, would take exception to any of these notions and, considered one by one, they are easy to grasp. Combining them in a satisfactory way has sometimes been regarded as less straightforward. How to be one and three at the same time?
As Bullivant explains, a common strategy in the early Church was to remove one of the pillars. The so-called Modalists took aim at the third proposition – that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not the same. They argued that terms like Father, Son and Holy Spirit did not refer to different persons but simply to the different ways in which God interacted with his creation. God was wearing different masks or operating in different modes as circumstances dictated. The problem, as Bullivant puts it, is that this utterly “collapsed the real distinctions within the Godhead”.
The subordinationists, of whom Arius was the most famous example, took a different tack. They were perfectly content with the idea that Father, Son and Holy Spirit were not the same, but they were less convinced that they were all God. Why not relegate the Son to a secondary position? Jesus thus became a creature: the most astonishing creature imaginable, a source of veneration and far above all other created beings, but not God in the same sense as the Father.
The implications of this stance were, of course, potentially catastrophic. In order for the whole Christian narrative to work, for the sacrifice on the Cross to carry full meaning, Jesus had to be God.
Both of these approaches were heretical, though Bullivant reminds us that neither Arius nor the Modalists were wild-haired troublemakers. He concedes that they were attempting to solve a difficult dilemma. They were wrong, but the ensuing rebuttals and controversies were crucial in the process of refining and defining the orthodox Trinitarian ideas that were enshrined at famous Church Councils during the 4th century.
Against all of the heretical alternatives, we settled on the concept of three hypostases in one ousia, three personae in one substantia, three persons in one nature. It was possible to distinguish between Father, Son and Holy Spirit without dividing them, possible to have a Trinity within the constraints of a robustly monotheistic religion.
It is sometimes suggested that this was an act of theological legerdemain: a very clever invention imposed on the faithful. Bullivant flatly rejects this supposition. He accepts that the term “Trinity” does not appear in Scripture, and that some of the more technical jargon that accompanied early Christological debates was innovative, but he argues that the concepts involved were faithful to the Gospel message and, looking further back, were also “built out of bricks found in the Hebrew Scriptures”.
We did not arrive at the Trinity through intellectual playfulness or a need to keep the peace: it stemmed directly from early Christian experience of God. The Trinity was always there: we simply took a while to pin it down.
Bullivant does not pretend that our articulation of the idea is perfect. How could it be when, as Aquinas put it, “God is above whatsoever we may say or think of Him”? We only have feeble human words and concepts at our disposal, but some are less imperfect than others and we have to keep trying. Bullivant has sympathy for the “genuine desire not to say the wrong thing” about the Trinity, and this is an ever-present risk: make one false step or jumble up your phraseology and you can end up sounding heterodox, albeit accidentally.
I imagine, however, that most of us would easily forgive such blunders if the net result were an engaged discussion about the most fundamental of Christian doctrines. “The deeper we explore the Trinity,” Bullivant writes, “the darker and harder our way becomes”, but it is a journey shared by almost every Christian and Bullivant is a wonderful guide.
Books about the Trinity don’t usually mention Pinocchio or Heston Blumenthal. This one does, but only because Bullivant wants to engage his readers and locate useful, if highly unexpected points of reference. Do not imagine, however, that this is anything less than a serious, deeply learned book.
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (21/8/15).
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