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”
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.
Hi Fr Kimel,
I am referring to the following councils,
-Second Creed of Sirmium 357
-Council of Sirmium 359
-Council of Nike 359
-Council of Constantinople 360
And you are right about the Gregories, I got mixed up there, my bad.
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