Friday, June 5, 2009

Order in the Trinity (2)

A previous post offered some thoughts about 'order'. Here are some about 'Trinity'! ... which reminds me of the appositeness of doing so, this Sunday being Trinity ...

Trinity is the great doctrine of the church and mission for it is our doctrine of God and thus our self-understanding of distinctiveness in respect of all claims concerning 'God', including denials of the existence of God. Being doctrine, it has both human history and divine disclosure in its origins.

Its human history is that the church once did not have such a doctrine and then one day did have this doctrine. If its conception is through divine disclosure, then its birth certainly involved labour pains. The great contractions leading to the birth began as questions arose about the relationship between Jesus Christ and God and disputed answers were offered. The dispute in summary was over the question whether Jesus Christ was less than God in being (Arian led the affirmative for this) or completely God in being (Athanasius led the defence of this). Scriptural evidence could be gathered in support for each answer; though the matter did not turn solely on exegesis for the experience of the church counted for something: it had been worshipping Jesus as God from the beginning, was this wrong? Reason too played a part: if Jesus was not completely God in being, could he save us completely?

Some of the evidence of Scripture pointing to Jesus being less than God were texts which spoke of the subordination of Jesus to God: the language of sending, of obedience, of exaltation, of filling with the Spirit of God spoke volumes to Arian and his supporters. The order, God, Christ, angels, humanity, animals, plants, was an order of subordination: Christ subordinate to God, angels to Christ, etc, with an ontological dividing line - a line between uncreated being and created being - drawn between God and Christ, angels, humanity, animals, plants. For an Arian hermeneutic, the being and function of Christ are unambiguously subordinate to God.

But there was more to Scripture than this reading of the evidence. Other texts, both singly, but more powerfully, cumulatively, spoke of the oneness of God and Christ, as a unity of being of Father and Son (and Holy Spirit). This reading of the evidence, of the divine disclosure through Scripture of the essence of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, gathered strength from its upholding of doctrines of salvation, creation, and revelation. Though some specific moves in the commitment of the church through councils making creeds involved imperial power, the establishment of the doctrine of the Trinity is not an expression of power rather than truth. In post-imperial ages the Arian challenge has recurred and the church has always confirmed its Athanasian rejoinder.

What then of order in the Trinity? First, all the texts Arian read remain in Scripture. In some measure Jesus Christ is subordinate to God the Father, the question we are teasing out is the extent of that 'measure'. Secondly, the Trinity which necessarily involves language of 'equality' includes a direct challenge to simple notions of subordination: in some sense Father Son and Holy Spirit are coordinate. Thirdly, the doctrine of the Trinity as formulated in the finite language of humanity is always an attempt to penetrate through language to the inner character of the being of God. In itself it cannot convey exhaustively the truth of God for then our words would be greater than God. This is of particular relevance when we reflect on the relationship of Father to Son and Holy Spirit and of Father and Son to Holy Spirit.

If, for example, we ask the question has the Father given birth to the Son, the answer has always been an unequivocal negative but the word we have come up with to describe the "origin" of the Son has been 'begotten', a somewhat equivocal word as it cannot dislodge a hint of 'birthing'. Ditto for the "origin" of the Spirit in the Father or in the Father and the Son: we have come up with the word 'proceed', a somewhat equivocal word also as it cannot dislodge a hint of production. (Indeed, so difficult is the question of understanding 'proceed' that the church split in 1054 between West and East over the question whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone or from Father and Son). In short, we stumble with our language seeking to penetrate the mystery of God the eternal being of Father Son and Holy Spirit, none created of the other(s), none superior or inferior to the other(s), when we attempt to articulate the meaning of 'Father' in relation to 'Son' and 'Father' and 'Son' in relation to 'Holy Spirit' who is revealed in Scripture as the 'Spirit of God', the 'Spirit of Jesus' and so forth.

It is this stumbling, I suggest, which creates the opportunity to describe the subordination of God the Son to God the Father as an 'eternal subordination'. Our question then is whether this is a true speaking of God the Trinity. There are alternative possibilities to consider, the obvious one being that there is a temporal subordination rather than an eternal subordination.

More anon.


Anonymous said...

Peter, you might be interested in the above lectures by Michael Williams generously made available by Covenant Theological Seminary, MI, on 'God and His Word' - you can download mp3s as well as pdf transcripts.
Lecture 18 looks into the development of the doctrine of the Trinity and subordinationist (and sometimes adoptionist) themes in Origen, Arius and Athanasius.

I wish you a blessed Trinity Sunday as you expound perichoresis and anhypostasia to your congregants. I will be sticking to the simple Gospel myself, probably fulminating against patripassianism, and maybe some incipient Eutychian tendencies I've spotted recently. :)

Peter Carrell said...

Thank you for that!

Janice said...

I read portions from some of the old writers on the Trinity (e.g., Hillary of Poitiers) a year or so ago and the impression I got was that when they used the word 'order' they weren't implying anything about rank or heirarchy. Rather, they seemed to be talking about something very, very loosely analogous to the order that exists within, say, a crystal of quartz, or a diamond. All the crystal's components are necessary to make up the whole and no one component has more influence in determining the crystal's final form than any other. They are equally necessary to each other. Together they are one.

One of the problems with words is that, over time, their meaning can change. One of the things that interests me most about the story of the Fall is that the serpent used ambiguous language to confuse and, eventually, deceive the woman. To use old words in an argument but reason on the basis of a new meaning of those words is to cause confusion. God is not the author of confusion (1 Cor 14:32). Therefore the author must be someone else.

'Science' is another word that is used to cause confusion. But I won't go into that.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Janice
I like your point!
Today I heard a good sermon on the Trinity which used the analogy of breadth, height, and length which define a space: take one away and you do not have a space.

I guess breadth, height and length are in an ordered relationship ... but there is no hierarchy!

Anonymous said...

"I guess breadth, height and length are in an ordered relationship ... but there is no hierarchy!"

But they are interchangeable dimensions (they simply mean extension in space up/down; left/right; forward/back), while Father, Son and Spirit are not interchangeable persons. As Williams' lecture notes, the Greek Origenist tradition *is hierarchical (the Father is autotheos, the fons divinitatis; which is why the Orthodox reject the filioque). All thinking about the Trinity has to steer between the heresies of tritheism and modalism, even if Williams says we should steer nearer 'the tritheist ditch' - which is certainly how it is presented in the economy of salvation: the Son does the Father's will (not vice versa), the Son suffers (not the Father); and the Spirit glorifies the Son.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Anonymous
I must follow that lecture up!
Yes, 'length, breadth, height' are limited and can be taken in a modalist direction.
But does heading (or, ditching) in a tritheistic direction necessarily involve hierarchy?
One hesitates to take Origen on, but he had one or two other theological ideas which have not been universally applauded so may be one could have a go!?
In particular I think it worth asking whether any sense of 'hierarchy' is appropriate to describe the relation between Father and Son given that, though (so to speak) the Son suffers on the cross, not the Father, nevertheless the witness of Scripture is that 'God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself' ...

Rosemary Behan said...

Please allow me a LOT of latitude, because I've never thought about this in depth, or at all perhaps, not seriously.

But how can it be temporal? Do you mean by that .. just for Jesus' time on earth? While He's 'inside' time, whereas they are both now 'outside' time? If that is the case, how come it was decided 'outside' of time? How come Jesus 'humbled' Himself to become man in order to save us. Doesn't that mean in some sense that I don't understand, that He's now not 'pure' God, but a mixture? Otherwise what does it mean to say "He humbled Himself." Isn't any submission [I've said before I don't like the word subordination] voluntary? Otherwise it IS subordination surely?


Peter Carrell said...

Hi Rosemary
I won't respond to your questions in this comment because they are precisely the kinds of questions I am trying to say something about through this particular series of posts on the Trinity and Order ... that is, I will attempt some kind of a response in succeeding posts
With all good wishes