Developing Ancient Creeds & The Trinity


monica-ben-wedding-rings-trinity-tattoo-arm

Yes, I graduated from seminary, and yet I still have a couple more classes I’m finishing up. One of them is going through the documents, Creeds, Confessions that define the theology of my denomination, the Reformed Church in America. I’m having to write a bunch of reflections on differents aspects of these writings, and I offer them here.

Every way of understanding the world involves creeds and confessions. “Creed” comes from the Latin word meaning “I believe”, and a Confession from the Latin for “acknowledge”. A Creed or Confession, then, is simply a distillation of what you acknowledge and believe. There’s nothing weird or particularly “Catholic” about it.

From Creeds to Trinity

If you are a Christian, no matter which part of the family you call home, your beliefs almost certainly fall in line with what have been called the “Ecumenical Creeds”, which are the oldest and simplest articulations of the Christian essentials. They include the Apostle’s, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds.

Now, if you were going to start writing out the core of what you believe, where would you begin? The interesting thing about these Ecumenical Creeds is that they are built entirely, both in foundation and structure, around the doctrine of the Trinity. Why?

If there is one way in which theology itself could act as an apologetic for Christian faith, one would surely turn to the doctrine of the Trinity. It is, perhaps more than any other belief in Christianity, the one that needed to be revealed to humans.

Or, to be more accurate, it needed to be a response to God in the world. No human could (or has ever) come up with a comparably confusing doctrine. And yet, it was not dictated to humanity, but rather embodied among us. The Christian Church had to put into words the truths that the apostles simply experienced as their reality.

The Trinity is a response to the work of God in the world in Christ.

From Jesus to Trinity

Historically speaking, Jesus is the starting point of this doctrine of the Trinity. One could start with affirmations of Jesus as rabbi, and then prophet, all the way to Jesus as Lord, and move these seemingly innocuous statements into the depths of the Trinity: if Jesus is Lord, and yet prays to His Father and sends God’s Spirit as his own, what on earth (and heaven!) does that mean about the nature and essence of God?

This is why the Trinity becomes the core of Christian doctrine. If the earliest Scriptural and traditional proclamations of Jesus’ identity are true, then these truths work retroactively in our logic to have implications on God’s own nature.

In the writing of Creedal affirmations, the early Christians started with Jesus, and built on increasing implications for the Divine and their responses to errant theological ideas, thus giving us Ecumenical Creeds structured around the Trinitarian nature of God.

From Trinity to Jesus

Speaking theologically, Trinity becomes the core doctrine because it is the starting point for all God is and does in the world. All that God works in Christ is the telos of the overflowing love of the Trinity that led to Creation. Therefore, all we know of God in Christ is the result of God’s Trinitarian Nature.

How is this so? God exists in community and love. It is a pulsing, all-consuming dance from eternity past. It is out of the overflow of this love that God creates, with the intention of bringing all things in communion with himself. Through sin, death, time, and history, the Trinity works in and for the world to bring it and its creatures into oneness itself.

Therefore, every aspect of Christian belief and life anchors itself back into the Trinity as its starting place. Because of the Trinity, God is active in the world through the Church, Scriptures, Sacraments, and Spirit. Because of the Trinity, we can have confidence that what God began in us and the world will come to completion as the end for which God made all things is tied to the very nature and character of a loving and communing God. Because of the Trinity, we can hold fast to a community of believers—even through pain and trial—because it is imbued with the life of a God who himself exists in Community.

The Trinity roots us in a God who is both Sovereign and Providential over all things, while also being with us in our humanity and our very hearts.

Understanding the Trinity

Too often, we can talk about this in such a way that it seems like there are four entities at play: each Person of the Trinity and then some fourth essence that represents the unified Godhead. To me, this is a bigger version of the historical heresy called Modalism that thinks God is one but just appears in three different “modes”. Orthodox Christians disagree with this, and yet sometimes they talked about the Trinity as if God jumps between two “modes” of either being Trinitarian or Unitarian.

We need to remember that God has revealed himself as Trinity. We must always think of him as the one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Many different analogies have been used to describe the Trinity, and each has its strength and weaknesses. Personally, I really like a sociological analogy I recently heard: we can experience the common, singular human “essence” in a room full of many different humans, while each individual being is still their own person. There is no substance called “humanity” that exists apart from humans. “Humanity” is simply a term to describe the one-ness that exists amongst different human persons.

There is no Humanity apart from Humans, just as there is no God apart from the Trinitarian Persons.

This has been the case from Eternity past. We talk of the Father “begetting” the Son and the Spirit “proceeding” from the Father and Son, but this dance has been eternal. There was no “start” to this begetting and proceeding, and I even wonder if there may not be some interdependence that the Father has on the other two Persons.

[image credit: photo from the wedding pictures of some of my dearest friends]


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5 thoughts on “Developing Ancient Creeds & The Trinity

  1. the trinity is a response to an empiric need to unify jewish and greek cultures; which is why the trinity entails the contradiction of sabelianism and tritheism.

    one has to consider that beliefs are not creeds. you’ve equivocated. too, beliefs entail action. belief is habit, as the saying goes. beliefs are ineligible.

    when discussing the trinity, one either talks about it modally or tritheistcally. doublethink is perfectly fine. however, the trinity is not doublethink. both are true at the same time. the ultimate explanation is merely “it’s a mystery”.

    that means though, trinitarians have at the heart of there thinking, a word that cannot be explained and as a result, an idea incapable of explaining anything else.

    as for creeds, no creedal statement entails to action, so they can not be called beliefs proper; perhaps semiotic glue? one believes “there’s a snake just over there” and action ensures. but jesus born of a virgin, raising from the dead, being a god and so forth? what action can at all be taken should one be disposed to thinking jesus is god’s son? there are none.

    what must be considered is the immediacy of action, what one’s focus is on, and the determinability of theology. we get nothing in the way of specific theology from christ in the gospels. we get the clear message that christ is one in solidarity with those in need, very much OT judaism. given that unitarianism is as exactly as classic as trinitarian, we can only debate the theology. god’s ontology plays no critical role in christianity, else that would have had priority in christ’s life.

    solidarity with humanity is suffering is christianity, and as it concerns some mystery, as it’s called, 2,000 years of mentally masturbating over what it is send to me to have been a monumental waste of time, detracting from the very immediate and practical experience of christ in helping those in need.

    just a thought.

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    • First off, you are so right about beliefs vs. creeds. I should have made that clear. It’s not so simple as “Creed = Belief”. The human person is incredibly complex, especially the nature of “belief”. I absolutely agree that people’s actions flow from the truest, deepest beliefs of their hearts. If it does not lead to changed action, how much can it really be believed? And yet, I’m sure you know that there are beliefs of aspiration, conviction, or opinion. Things that have not been pressed deeply enough in our lives to effect actions, but they are–intellectually–the convictions to which we ascribe and will spend the rest of our lives trying to “believe” all the more. And so, Creeds are helpful to lay out the aspirational shape of God’s people in a particular tradition so they have a guide.

      And in you comment, you actually help make this point! I do think that beliefs lead to changed lives and changed actions, and I think particular beliefs lead to particular types of lives and actions. And so, if we see the type of life that is most truly human and meaningful, we should contemplate those possible beliefs that could lead to lives shaped in those ways. In essence, I think this is what a Creed is. You’re right it should never be divorced from action, but actions hang on beliefs, making beliefs all the more important!

      The Trinity precisely IS the theological basis for self-giving love. Believing that love among person is inherent to the nature of God himself really does give more of a backbone to similar actions by humans. Further, I agree that Jesus made very few, if any dogmatic or systematic-theological statements. his is why the doctrine of the Trinity developed as people mused not on Jesus’ teachings, but on his life and the response he both demanded and evoked from others. It was SEEING Jesus that led to others working the logic backwards into the nature of God, not simply LISTENING to him. Does that make sense?

      Sorry for the long response. I hope you read it all. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, and I lok forward to hearing from you some more!

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      • i merely take a different route. there aren’t possible beliefs, only things to consider may be true or not. dispositions about whatever the case may be with some state of affairs are developmental. beliefs, particularly those articulated, are always after the fact of experiences that have so disposed us.

        personally, i see no import in the doctrine of the trinity, but that’s not anything important as i see it, to bring christian or christian life.

        i really wonder the functional purpose of the trinity.

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  2. Interesting piece, and interesting follow up discussion. Mr. Hoyt’s comments bring to mind one of Robin Williams statements about Episcopalians: “1. No matter what you believe, there’s bound to be at least one other Episcopalian who agrees with you.” I have found that to be true. However, I have found it necessary to study the origins of the church in order to get a better understanding of Christ. Some of it comes from the canon, of course, but only the foundations. Comprehending the rest of the structure requires reading the other authors of the late Apostolic Age as well as those at least through Eusebius. The earliest knew the apostles personally or knew those who did, and they passed on much that wasn’t written in the books that became our canon. I did not go to seminary and such readings and musings are simply part of my religious education and training on my own. Most Christians don’t seem to care about such things. I prefer to know how the food I eat was made, and by whom. I have my own thoughts on the Trinity here at WordPress at https://malletteblog.wordpress.com/2015/05/25/homoousian-the-word-that-made-christians-one-church-that-few-have-ever-heard-of/.

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