“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor 13:14).
The triadic benediction does not surprise us. We have heard it countless times from the pulpit. Though St Paul appears to have habitually preferred a christological benediction, I’m confident the original recipients of this letter were equally unsurprised. The Apostle was evidently comfortable with one-membered, two-membered, and three-membered formulas.
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. (1 Cor 16:23)
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. (Philemon 25)
Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love undying. (Eph 6:23)
The benedictional forms appear to be equally immediate. Why Paul chose one over another probably depended on mood and whimsy, more than anything else. What they share is the invocation of Jesus Christ. From there the benediction naturally and logically expands in both directions—such is the primary language of faith.
The most important triadic naming in the New Testament is expressed in the dominical institution of baptism: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19). We do not have examples of the initiation rites used in the apostolic Church; but in one way or another, in obedience to the command of the Lord, we may be confident that converts were baptized into the three titles. Even if some were baptized only into the name of Jesus, the Father and Spirit were implicitly invoked, for Jesus cannot be named without simultaneously thinking of the Father whose Son he is and the Spirit by whose power he bestows the new life of the Kingdom. “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” summarizes the apostolic apprehension of faith—a complex of three names that effectively serves as one name identifying the divinity into whom believers have been reborn by water and Spirit. “The function of naming God in initiation, in baptism as elsewhere,” Robert W. Jenson explains, “is to address the initiate to new reality, to grant new access to God. In the community of the baptized, therefore, the divine name spoken in baptism is established as that by which the community has its particular address to God” (The Triune Identity, p. 16).
Before there was a doctrine of the Holy Trinity, there simply was the Holy Trinity in whose reality Christians lived and prayed. The Trinitarian naming structured and formed the worship of the Church. From the beginning believers prayed to the Father, through and with the Son, in and by the Spirit. When confronted with the charge of polytheism, they no doubt insisted that they worshipped and served the one God of Israel, yet to this one God they now attached, by divine revelation and sacramental mandate, the names of Jesus and the Spirit, as exemplified in the earliest examples of credal faith. Jenson again:
The creeds are confessional and doxological utterances, and they follow precisely the prayer and praise structure of Scripture, where “God” is a term of address and where it is indeed to the Father that the address is made. But the decisive gospel-insight is that if we pray only to God, if our relation to God is reducible to the “to” and is not decisively determined also by “with” and “in,” then it is not the true God whom we identify in our address, but rather some distant and timelessly uninvolved divinity whom we have envisaged. We pray indeed to the Father, and so usually address the Father simply as “God.” But we address this Father in that and only in that we pray with Jesus in their Spirit. The particular God of Scripture does not just stand over against us; he envelops us. And only by the full structure of the envelopment do we have this God. (p. 51)
Hence we may speak of a foundational Trinitarianism embodied in the stories, hymns, and ritual practices of the apostolic Church. The narrative of how the catholic doctrine of the Trinity developed and became dogma begins here, with the primal language of faith.
Eventually Christians needed to reflect on their Trinitarian experience and explain the nature of the God in whom they lived and to whom they prayed. All sorts of interesting questions presented themselves:
What is the relationship between the Father believers confessed as the one God and the Jesus to whom they prayed and the Spirit in whose power they proclaimed the gospel?
Are the Son and Spirit to be regarded as divine, as somehow sharing in the divine work of creation and redemption?
If yes, are they equally divine as the Father?
If yes, how the heck do we logically explain that? Should we even try?
Not surprisingly, theologians quickly found themselves interpreting divinity within the subordinationist categories of Hellenism. This was the easy response, the path of least resistance, yet one that was ultimately unsustainable. A graded construal of triadic divinity may have temporarily worked in the second and third centuries (though it was always vulnerable to the charge of polytheism); but it became increasingly problematic once the Church assimilated the purport and implications of its own doctrine of divine creation, defined over against Hellenistic philosophy in the mid- to late-second century. I refer, of course, to the creatio ex nihilo.
At the same time the 2nd-century Apologists were seeking to explain to their pagan audience the relationship between God and Jesus Christ, they were also clarifying a properly Christian understanding of divine creation. It was by no means obvious how such an understanding might differ from, say, the Platonic construal of the Demiurge, who creates the cosmos from out of pre-existing matter, or the emanationist cosmogonies of Gnosticism. St Justin Martyr, for example, happily drew on the Timaeus in his elaboration of the creation of the world. Yet by the end of the second century, Christian theologians had settled on a genuinely novel theory—creatio ex nihilo. By Greek philosophical lights, such a theory was pure nonsense. Centuries earlier Parmenides had taught the Greek world the basic metaphysical principle—nothing comes from nothing. Hence the cosmos must be everlasting, for if we were to posit its beginning from nothingness, then it cannot ever have been and therefore is not now. Creatio ex nihilo, we might say, was quite literally unthinkable. Cosmos and divinity must be and must always be in interdependent relationship. What cannot be imagined is the possibility that the cosmos might not have been. Philosopher Robert Sokolowski puts it this way:
The issue of creation has been discussed by theologians and philosophers for so long that the unusual character of the question has become forgotten. It seems to be obvious that men should observe the contingency of the world and ask themselves why there is something rather than nothing. But such issues do not arise automatically wherever there are men, even if the men are thoughtful. If we examine pagan thinking about the divine, we do not find the issue of creation raised in the way it is raised in Christianity, nor do we find the understanding of God that is maintained by Christian. In Greek and Roman religions, and in Greek and Roman philosophies, god or the gods are appreciated as the most powerful, most independent and self-sufficient, most unchanging beings in the world, but they are accepted within the context of being. Although god or the gods are conceived as the steadiest and most complete beings, the possibility that they could be even though everything that is not divine were not, is not a possibility that occurs to anyone. The being of pagan gods is to be a part, though the most important part, of what is: no matter how independent they are, the pagan gods must be with things that are not divine. (The God of Faith and Reason, p. 12; also see Kathryn Tanner, “Creation Ex Nihilo as Mixed Metaphor,” in Creation ‘Ex Nihilo’ and Modern Theology, pp. 138-155, and David B. Burrell, “The Act of Creation with its Theological Consequences,” in Creation and the God of Abraham, pp. 40-52)
Even when Plato, Aristotle, and others began to demythologize pagan religion, they did not deny the divine but rather assimilated it to the natural necessities of existence, that which is and must always be. Divinity was posited to explain the movement and mutability of the world. So Aristotle proposed an unmoved mover, self-thinking thought, oblivious to everything around him yet drawing everything to him by the teleological attraction of final causality. It is metaphysically necessary, Sokolowski observes, “that there be other things besides him, whether he is aware of them or not” (p. 16). And similarly for Plato:
In Plato the divine does not take the substantial form of a prime mover or a self-thinking mind; it reaches its highest state in something beyond substance. But even the One or the Good is taken as “part” of what is: it is the One by being a one over, for, and in many, never by being One only alone by itself. Plato’s notion of what is divine and ultimate is more elusive than the god of Aristotle; more elusive than the even more thing-like gods of the Epicureans, the eternal conglomeration of atoms, living their carefree lives in the spaces between the world; and more elusive than the Stoic divinity, the all-governing mind-stuff that pervades the world and guides it through the developments that are fated for it. But in all these cases, the divine, even in its most ultimate form, is never conceived as capable of being without the world. The One of Plato is on the margin of, and in touch with, the many; it lets the many and the variegated be what they are. Even the One written about by Plotinus, which is placed still further “beyond” being than it is in Plato’s writings, and which shows the influence of religious and speculative beliefs different from those of Greece, cannot “be” without there also being its reflections and its emanations in the other hypostases (the Mind and the Soul) and in the things of the world itself. The Plotinian One may not want or need anything else to be itself, so other things do not arise in order to make up any deficiency in the One; but such other things are still not understood as being there through a choice that might not have been made. (p. 18)
This pagan sensibility forms the backdrop against which the Christian formulation of the doctrine of creation must be understood and appreciated. Affirming the freedom and sovereignty of the one Creator, Christian theologians confessed the unthinkable: (1) God has created the world from out of nothing—it therefore enjoys its own creaturely integrity; and (2) the world need not have been, without any diminishment of the divine being and glory. Counterfactual though it might be, it is meaningful to conceive God as existing without the things he has made, conceivable that he might never have been Creator, even though the claim is meaningless for the pagan sense of the divine.
I introduce all of this at this point of my review of Dale Tuggy’s What is the Trinity? because the mysteries of Incarnation and Trinity cannot be understood apart from this unique confession of absolute creation. Creatio ex nihilo made possible an articulation of otherness, immanental presence, and union that had previously been unstatable. In the natural order each thing is what it is and cannot be what it is not without ceasing to be what it is. A tree is not a lion. A chair is not a caterpillar. A human being is not a rock. And a god is not a human being
And since the divine as part of the world is one of the natures in the world, in the natural order of things a god, as understood by pagan thinking, cannot be human. A god could become human only by becoming less than a god, or not fully human, or by being only apparently human or only apparently divine, or by becoming some kind of thing different from both the divine and human. One being could not be fully human and fully divine. Zeus might appear as a swan, but he could not have become a swan. (Sokolowski, “Creation and Christian Understanding,” Christian Faith and Understanding, p. 44)
And the same reasoning applies to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The sense of divine transcendence made possible by the creatio ex nihilo opens up the possibility of thinking the mystery of three equally divine hypostases united in perichoretic union:
In worldly being, it would again be incoherent to speak of three persons in one substance. Each agent or person we experience is one being. But when we conceive of God as so different from the necessities of the world that he could exist, with no loss of excellence, even if the world were not, then we cannot say that the Triune God is not possible. The limitations and definitions we are familiar with from our experience of the world and of agency within the world no longer apply without qualification. (p. 44)
The articulation of the mysteries of Incarnation and Trinity requires us to employ the language of paradox and antinomy, but that is what one should expect, if God is radically transcendent in the way the catholic tradition affirms. God is not a being within the world; he does not exist within the continuum of existence; he is not finally comprehended by way of contrast with creaturely entities, for he exists beyond such contrasts. In the Latin theological tradition, he came to be understood as Being itself (ipsum esse subsistens); in the Byzantine tradition, as Beyond Being or super-essential essence (hyperousios). Both traditions are seeking to express the apprehension divine transcendence which underlies the mysteries of the Trinitarian faith.
A historical and theological narrative of how the Church moved from trinity to Trinity must include the creatio ex nihilo and the search for the “Christian distinction.” If it does not, then patristic and medieval reflection on the Trinity will seem speculative, irrelevant, incoherent, as just so much “mystery-mongering.” But perhaps “search” is the wrong word. The Christian distinction was lived before it was explicitly articulated:
Christian theology is differentiated from pagan religious and philosophical reflection primarily by the introduction of a new distinction, the distinction between the world understood as possibly not having existed and God understood as possibly being all that there is, with no diminution of goodness or greatness. It is not the case that God and the world are each separately understood in this new way, and only subsequently related to each other; they are determined in the distinction, not each apart from the other. The Christian distinction between the world and God may receive its precise verbal formulation in a theoretical context, since it is described especially by theologians and philosophers, but the distinction does not emerge for the first time in this theoretical setting. It receives its formulation in reflective thought because it has already been achieved in the life that goes on before reflective thinking occurs. The distinction is lived in Christian life, and most originally it was lived and expressed in the life of Jesus after having been anticipated, and hence to some extent possessed, in the Old Testament history which Jesus completed. The Christian distinction between God and the world is there for us now, as something for us to live and as an issue for reflection, because it was brought forward in the life and teaching of Christ, and because that life and teaching continue to be available in the life and teaching of the church. (The God of Faith and Reason, pp. 23-24)
Is it possible for the analytic philosophical tradition to think beyond its logic and apprehend the radical distinction between Deity and cosmos? If it does not, it will never grasp the holy mysteries of the Christian faith.