The Creation and Evolution of the Concept of "The Holy Trinity"

On November 1 of the year 451, hundreds of Christian leaders filed out the doors of the church of St. Euphemia in the parish of Chalcedon, confident they had insured the continued unity of their faith. At the close of this, the Fourth Ecumenical Christian Council, it was felt that the major questions regarding the nature of Christ and His relationship to God had finally been settled. Yet soon after the Council of Chalcedon, the first major schism in Christianity would begin, followed by an even greater rupture six centuries later. In examining this early period of Christian history, it becomes apparent that as Christian leaders attempted to unite the Church through an official declaration and explanation of Trinitarianism, they were also laying the groundwork for the disagreements that would ultimately tear the Church apart.

Such attempts to address issues plaguing the Church could not have been undertaken had the Roman Empire not adopted Christianity as its state religion. Prior to this, Roman persecution of Christians prevented gatherings, and hindered the exchange of ideas. But, with the conversion of Rome’s Emperor Constantine early in the 4th century, ecumenical dialogue became politically unencumbered, and even encouraged (it was Constantine who called for and convened the first Council, in Nicaea, in 325).

There was certainly much to discuss. The earliest questions specifically regarded the nature of Jesus Christ: was He a man, or a god? How did His death secure man’s salvation? Such inquiries defined a branch of theology termed “Christology” that in turn led to yet more profound questions, about Christ’s relationship to God and the Holy Spirit. Without official positions in place, the security of Christianity’s future was threatened by confusion, dissension, and growing animosity, and Church leaders felt passionately driven to save the faith by providing answers.

The concept of the Holy Trinity had existed in one form or another from the beginning of Christianity. Though the works which comprise the New Testament never use the term “Trinity,” they do contain numerous references to this idea, as in Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:19 for his disciples to baptize followers “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” In the 2nd century, bishop Irenaeus of Lyon displayed a basic understanding of the triune God in a writing delineating three articles of faith enumerated as “God the Father uncreated,” “The Word of God, the Son of God,” and “The Holy Spirit.” But it was the ecclesiastical writer Tertullian who first coined the Latin word “Trinitas” (“Trinity”), along with many other terms necessary for the examination and discussion of this concept. Key among these are “persona” (“person”) and “substantia” (“substance”). In various writings, Tertullian also insisted that these three “persons” of the Trinity have never been independent of each other – as heirs to Jewish monotheism, it was essential even to the earliest Christian theologians that the triune understanding of God never veer off into polytheism.

Protecting this concept would prove very difficult over the ensuing centuries, as bishops across the Christian realm engaged in vociferous debate on the questions raised by the Trinity. Aside from the major controversies examined below, other divisive theories arose, many of which can loosely be placed into two categories of thought: modalist and tritheistic. Modalism implies the idea of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three “aspects” of the one God, which may become manifest over time (chronological modalism), or in utility (functional modalism). Tritheism splits the Godhead into three entities that function independently of each other. Though each conceptualization attempted to explain the Trinity in logical and approachable terms, both were ultimately rejected because they were seen to limit the Godhead in some way.

The controversy that took center stage at Constantine’s first council at Nicea had been prompted by an Alexandrian bishop named Arius. Having read biblical references to Jesus as “God’s begotten son,” Arius developed an image of Christ as God’s creation, akin to a human son, from which all other creations emanated. This notion of Christ as a created being alarmed many of Arius’s fellow bishops, even in his own Church. Athanasius, another Alexandrian bishop, would later argue Arius’s mistake in trying to divide God and Christ, “so that one class may be ascribed to the body, apart from the divinity, and the other to the divinity, apart from the body.” Like Athanasius, many theologians felt that the doctrine of salvation would be compromised if Christ were not understood as eternal, and equal to God in every way.

The Council of Nicaea fully intended to put this matter to rest. Through the adoption of the term “homoousios” (“of one substance”), and the issuance of an official statement on the issue called “The Nicene Creed”, the council declared that the Father and Son were both of a single substance (though this neglected to address the nature of the Holy Spirit). Arianism was condemned, the conflict believed to be resolved. Yet soon after this council adjourned, Eastern clerics rejected the term “homoousios,” in favor of “homoiousios” (“similar in substance”), which revived Arianism, and indicated a growing division in thought between the East and West.

Soon the Church found itself threatened again, by the renewed Arian controversy, as well as intensifying questions regarding the Holy Spirit. The Council of Constantinople, convened in 381, attempted to simultaneously resolve both problems by formulating a supplement to the Nicene Creed. In it, the council reaffirmed the concept of Father and Son being co-eternal, which conclusively ended the Arian debate. Had the council stopped there, all might have been well, but they proceeded to make new theological and administrative decisions that would contribute to later schisms.

First, to resolve questions regarding the nature of the Holy Spirit, the council adopted a position advanced by the great theologians of Cappadocia, that the Holy Spirit was a fully divine component of the Godhead. To secure this status, the council modified the Nicene Creed to affirm that the Spirit “proceeded from the Father.” This affirmation served to officially endorse the doctrine of the Holy Trinity as we know it today, but it inadvertently fomented explosive disagreements over the Son’s role in the issuance of the Holy Spirit. Churches in the East would incorporate the council’s assertion into their liturgy, while the West would slowly introduce the additional Latin word “filioque” (“and from the Son”). Eastern theologians, seeing this inclusion as a tampering with sacred creeds, began to suspect the West of heresy.

The Council of Constantinople further inflamed political sensitivities by elevating the church of Constantinople to a position of honor second only to that of Rome – a decision which effectively demoted the churches of Alexandria and Antioch. Despite the council’s unifying intentions, they had exposed fissures in the universal Church, and drawn geopolitical battle lines along which future debates would be argued.

These debates would be spurred by another Christological argument, this time posed by Nestorius, the archbishop of Constantinople. In the first part of the 5th century, Nestorius began to proclaim that the person of Jesus was comprised of two “natures,” one divine, the other human, and the two had at some point merged into one. The archbishop was attracted to this concept because it ostensibly distanced God from the suffering and death experienced by Jesus on the cross. For Nestorius, it also meant that the Virgin Mary could not have been the “mother of God,” a view the Church tended to espouse. While Nestorius professed his beliefs, a presbyter in his own church, Eutyches, began to offer a different view, wherein Christ’s human nature was dissolved into a single, divine nature.

Theologians across Christendom were alarmed by both perspectives, believing that the doctrine of salvation would be rendered untenable unless Christ was proven both fully human and fully divine. Two councils were convened in Ephesus (one in 431, and another in 449) in an attempt to deal with these heterodoxies, but neither succeeded in extinguishing the growing flames of heresy. It became apparent that the question of Christ’s human and divine natures must be resolved once and for all, and, to this end, the council of Chalcedon was inaugurated at the church of St. Euphemia on October 8, 451. This council anathematized both Nestorius and Eutyches, and released “The Chalcedonian Definition of the Christian Faith,” expressing an understanding of Christ in terms that became known as dyophysite (“two natures”). In the Definition, Christ is:

“perfect in divinity and humanity, truly God and truly human, consisting of a rational soul and a body, being of one substance with the Father in relation to his divinity, and being of one substance with us in relation to his humanity.”

Though the dyophysite position is the one currently held by Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and most Protestant churches, the churches of Alexandria, Ethiopia, and Armenia could not agree to the concept, fearing that its presentation of Christ as “two persons” came dangerously close to Nestorianism. Their numbers would be strengthened when the Syrian (and Indian) churches split over the issue, creating Melkite (pro-dyophisite) and Jakobite (anti-dyophisite) factions. The churches that rejected the “two nature” position were soon estranged from the remainder of the universal Church, effecting the first major schism in Christianity, which is still in evidence today.

Collectively, these churches are now sometimes referred to as “non-Chalcedonian” or “Oriental Orthodox” churches, though the name most commonly associated with them is “monophysite” (Latin for “one nature”), a label they vehemently deny, believing it misrepresents their view. Instead, they prefer the term “miaphysite” (or “one nature, alone”), which they see as representing their perspective most accurately. For these churches, Christ’s nature had always been a single one that was simultaneously wholly human and fully divine. Today, both sides contend that the entire disagreement was the result of a 5th-century misunderstanding of terminology, and that both groups actually hold the same beliefs. However, the dyophysite and miaphysite churches are still not in communion with one another.

What’s more, six hundred years after Chalcedon, lingering frustrations over the “filioque” issue would finally help bring about the “Great Schism” of 1054, separating the Russian and Greek Orthodox churches (descendents of Constantinople) from the Catholics (descendents of Rome). Though it could be said that the ecumenical councils which preceded these two schisms bear a large degree of responsibility for what happened, it should be pointed out that the members of the assemblies never sought to “invent” doctrine, but simply to explain and reveal what was already at the heart of their faith: that the miracle of Jesus Christ had saved mankind. From their perspective, the only acceptable explanation of the Holy Trinity was the one that supported this doctrine of salvation. All others had to be rejected. Sadly, the divisions that occurred were the result of this genuine desire to unite the faithful around a solid understanding of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

i. The Acts of the Council of Chalcedon: Volume 1, trans. Richard Price and Michael Gaddis, (Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2005).

ii. Holy Bible: New International Version, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984) 552.

iii. Irenaeus, “Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching,” The Christian Theology Reader, ed. Alister E. McGrath (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008) 180.

iv. Athanasius, “Athanasius on the Two Natures of Christ,” The Christian Theology Reader, ed. Alister E. McGrath (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008) 267.

v. McGrath, Alister E., Christian Theology: An Introduction, McGrath (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007) 268.

vi. “The Chalcedonian Definition of the Christian Faith (451),” The Christian Theology Reader, ed. Alister E. McGrath (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008) 281-282.

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