I’ve been reading through various literature and councils on the Trinity, especially those which were eventually defeated and I’ve starting to get a sense as to the two conflicting impulses at the heart of the conflict.

The two impulses are faithfulness to the Scriptures and the life of piety and faithfulness itself.

It can be said that all positions “left” of Nicene Orthodoxy, the Neo-Arians, the Homoians, the subordinationists, are more concerned with the immediate datum of the Scriptures rather than in systematisation. In the midst of a vast pluarity of verses of which it would be very difficult to harmonise into a single doctrine or formula, e.g. attempting to explain how can Christ declare the Father to be greater than him and yet be equal in divinity and many other  particular acts of Christ, those towards the “left” of Nicene Orthodoxy tend towards caution in making sweeping and all encompassing doctrinal formula employing grand metaphysical terms not found in Scripture rather than do violence to the primary Scriptural data by levelling theories.

This impulse can very clearly be seen in the language and the wording of the various “compromise” councils between the advent of the Nicene Creed in 325 until its triumph in 381. Again and again, the councils anathemised Arius himself and those who deny that Christ is eternal or maintain that he is a mere creature. But they also hesitated to accept the “of the same substance” formula because they maintain that it cannot be found in Scripture and that it was unhelpful and unedifying to define dogma in terms which cannot be found in Scripture. They eventually resorted to the compromise formula that Christ was “like” or the image of the Father because this expression can be explicitly found in the Scriptures. They also hesitated to declare the Holy Spirit to be God, content with the formula that he is the “Lord and Giver of Life” and not even the great Gregory of Nyssa succeeded in getting the council to declare the Holy Spirit of the same substance as the Father and the Son.

Those towards the “right” of Nicene Orthodoxy who reject any form of subordinationism and tend towards modalism and maximal divinisation of all the three persons to the dissolution of their particularity are concerned to preserve the life of piety and faith of the masses. It is intrinsic to the experience and life of piety that devotion be wholehearted and unqualified. Therefore to “limit” or qualify the glory of the Son or the Holy Spirit renders wholehearted and undivided devotion difficult, is not impossible. Unity and simplicity lies at the heart of humble piety, and it is simpler to the minds of the masses to simply declare that “Christ is God, worship and magnify him” without conditions, qualifications or ifs and buts, than to define and qualify in exactly what sense and in what way Christ is God and divine and in what manner and form is honour, glory and worship to the paid to Christ. Particularisation and the “messiness” of Scriptural facts divides the wholehearted worship and does violence towards the life of piety, systematisation towards all encompassing theories and simple formulas which “smoothes over” the rough edges of difficult Bible verses is key towards facilitating wholehearted piety. Thus, the instinct and impulse of those towards the “right” of Nicene Orthodoxy is towards the maximal identification of the Son with the Father, that devotion, worship and adoration towards the Son maybe wholehearted and undivided.

Eventually, I have to admit that my sympathies lie towards the “left” of Nicene Orthodoxy. But I guess this is simply due to my “fundyism” which privileges the Scriptural texts as the direct object of devotion and piety over the simple formulas of Nicene. The Christian faith is worship “in Spirit and in Truth” and “Your Word is truth”, not man-made formulas or dogmas. And as helpful and edifying as these formulas might be for facilitating piety, their very uniformity and simplicity are always in danger of doing violence to the particularity and plurality of the Scriptural words themselves and very often, become replacements for direct confidence and trust in the words of the Scriptures. Worship must be in accordance to the Scriptures, not according to innate religious impulses.

In this sense, I privilege trust in Christ the Son of God, the eternal Word of the Father as the direct object of faith, over theories and systems attempting to explain how Christ is related to God the Father, etc. Not that those are unhelpful or unnecessary, they are, but ultimately the life of piety does not depend upon a simple formula or system but upon a very particular and messy God who enters into history in all its sweet and glorious messiness.

3 thought on “The Heart of Trinitarian Conflicts: Faithfulness to the Scriptures versus the Life of Faithfulness Itself”
  1. Paragraph four (“This impulse can very clearly be seen …”) is confusing. Which council are you referring to? Nicaea? Constantinople? When you write that Gregory of Nyssa was unable to persuade the council (381 Constantinople, I presume) to say that the Spirit is God, I think you meant to write Gregory of Nazianzus.

    1. Hi Fr Kimel,

      I am referring to the following councils,

      But since many persons are disturbed by questions concerning what is called in Latin substantia, but in Greek ousia, that is, to make it understood more exactly, as to ‘coessential,’ or what is called, ‘like-in-essence,’ there ought to be no mention of any of these at all, nor exposition of them in the Church, for this reason and for this consideration, that in divine Scripture nothing is written about them, and that they are above men’s knowledge and above men’s understanding

      -Second Creed of Sirmium 357

      But whereas the term ‘essence,’ has been adopted by the Fathers in simplicity, and gives offence as being misconceived by the people, and is not contained in the Scriptures, it has seemed good to remove it, that it be never in any case used of God again, because the divine Scriptures nowhere use it of Father and Son. But we say that the Son is like the Father in all things, as also the Holy Scriptures say and teach.

      -Council of Sirmium 359

      But the word ‘substance,’ which was too simply inserted by the Fathers, and, not being understood by the people, was a cause of scandal through its not being found in the Scriptures, it has seemed good to us to remove, and that for the future no mention whatever be permitted of the ‘substance’ of the Father and the Son. Nor must one ‘essence’ be named in relation to the person of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. And we call the Son like the Father, as the Holy Scriptures call Him and teach; but all the heresies, both those already condemned, and any, if such there be, which have risen against the document thus put forth, let them be anathema.

      -Council of Nike 359

      But the name of ‘essence,’ which was set down by the Fathers in simplicity, and, being unknown by the people, caused offense, because the Scriptures do not contain it, it has seemed good to abolish, and for the future to make no mention of it at all; since the divine scriptures have made no mention of the essence of Father and Son. For neither ought ‘subsistence’ to be named concerning Father, Son and Holy Ghost. But we say that the Son is like the Father, as the divine Scriptures say and teach; and all the heresies, both those which have been already condemned, and whatever are of modern date, being contrary to this published statement, be they anathema.

      -Council of Constantinople 360

      And you are right about the Gregories, I got mixed up there, my bad.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *