Anglican Essentials: Going Deeper–Articulating the faith

5. God as a Trinity of Persons

Christianity began as a Trinitarian religion (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the liturgy and Apostolic writings from the beginning), but the Jewish and Greco-Roman worlds understood God (the “high” God of the latter) as one.  As we have seen from the Church Fathers, there is no believing without thinking about what one believes, and it took time for the Church to think through this.  How did the Church come to articulate clearly what it believed about God as One and God as a Trinity of Persons.

What is received is not just personal but is known through the Church, in the use in the liturgy of the words Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the confession not just of God, but of God as Father, and not just of Christ, but of Christ as Son, and of the Holy Spirit sent by the Father at the request of the Son.

Knowledge of the Trinity is grounded in God’s economy, in actual evangelical history, in Christ’s coming in the flesh, in God’s self-disclosure going back to Creation and culminating in Christ.  In the economy, God is known as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Tertullian of Carthage (), who introduced the term “Trinity” into the discussion, said “Although He is the one only God, He must yet be believed in with His own economy.” ( Against Praxeas, 3).

God reveals to us who He is:

God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”  ( Ex. 3:14)

God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers — the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob — has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation.” (Ex. 3:15) 

In the “Economy” God is both mystery–“I am who I am”–and known in concrete events–“I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”  The Church Fathers knew it was essential to hold on to both mystery and history: “apophatic” knowledge (the via negativa) to be held alongside and in tension with “kataphatic” knowledge (the via positiva).  Language about God requires a delicate balance, where positive assertions about God must be qualified by what they are not, due to the intrinsic limitations of our human minds. The limited capacity of our minds in relation to God are captured in Scripture with passages like the following:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Is. 55:8-9)

now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (1 Cor. 13:12 King James Version)

O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!  For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor?” (Rom 11:33-34 KJV).

Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. (1 Cor. 2:9 KJV)

Hilary of Poitiers considers the resurrection to be a key to seeing Jesus as fully God. Paul writes to us in Rom. 1:1-4: “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Hilary unveils his thinking in his book On the Trinity:

He is the best student who does not read his thoughts into the book, but lets it reveal its own; who draws from it its sense, and does not import his own into it, nor force upon its words a meaning which he had determined was the right one before he opened its pages. Since then we are to discourse of the things of God, let us assume that God has full knowledge of Himself, and bow with humble reverence to His words. For He Whom we can only know through His own utterances is the fitting witness concerning Himself. (2.35)

And now let us see whether the confession of Thomas the Apostle, when he cried, “My Lord and My God,” corresponds with this assertion of the Evangelist [that “the Word is God”]. We see that he speaks of Him, Whom he confesses to be God, as” My God.” Now Thomas was undoubtedly familiar with those words of the Lord, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is One.” How then could the faith of an Apostle become so oblivious of that primary command as to confess Christ as God, when life is conditional upon the confession of the Divine unity? It was because, in the light of the Resurrection, the whole mystery of the faith had become visible to the Apostle. He had often heard such words as, “I and the Father are One,” and, “All things that the Father has are Mine,” and,” I in the Father and the Father in Me”; and now he can confess that the name of God expresses the nature of Christ, without peril to the faith. Without breach of loyalty to the One God, the Father, his devotion could now regard the Sonof God as God, since he believed that everything contained in the nature of the Son was truly of the same nature with the Father. No longer need he fear that such a confession as his was the proclamation of a second God, a treason against the unity of the Divine nature; for it was not a second God Whom that perfect birth of the Godhead had brought into being. Thus it was with full knowledge of the mystery of the Gospel that Thomas confessed his Lord and his God. It was not a title of honor; it was a confession of nature. He believed that Christ was God in substance and in power. And the Lord, in turn, shows that this act of worship was the expression not of mere reverence, but of faith, when He says, “Because you have seen, you have believed; blessed are they which have not seen, and have believed.” (7.12)

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