If you’re anything like me, when you hear the word “Trinity” you probably can’t help imagining the opening scene from the Matrix (1999) when actress Carrie-Ann Moss a.k.a. “Trinity” dodges agent Smith in a physics-defying scene, leaping between rooftops, flying through the air like a missile and then disappearing in a phone booth just as it’s being smashed by a dump truck. Of course, if you haven’t seen the movie, you might want to stick it in your Netflix queue this weekend, as it’s an interesting film with lots of action (warning: this film also contains a fair amount of violence) and many philosophical overtones. But despite the movie and the potential similarities with our topic, I’m wondering what else might come to your mind when you hear the word “Trinity?”
Apart from the scene above, the word “Trinity,” for me, evokes a sense of mystery, strange geometric configurations consisting of overlapping rings, places like Stonehenge, or just flat-out befuddlement. And while this may not be your particular experience, there are a good many people out there that find the Christian teaching on the “Trinity” or the “three-in-one-ness” of God difficult to grasp, if not downright non-sensical. But even if the idea of God the Father, the Holy Spirit and the Son Jesus existing in an eternal unity of three parts seems rather strange or even outdated, you might find it interesting that this concept was one of the most innovative ideas of the ancient Greek world, and even now continues to exert its effects on our society. In fact, just like some of the most market-disrupting apps and technologies today, the Trinity disrupted some very deeply held ideas about the nature of the world during its time. In the sense of disrupting commonly held ideas, you could think of the Trinity as the iPhone of the ancient Greek world. The iPhone forever changed the way the world looks at the particular idea of the “smartphone” and so as an analogy, the early Church’s explanation of the Trinity turned the ancient Greek world’s understanding of certain key concepts on their head. Okay, so a little backstory is necessary to lay the stage for what we’re talking about.
A Christian theologian named Stanley Grenz says that “of the various aspects of our Christian understanding of God, perhaps none is as difficult to grasp as the concept of God as triune. At the same time, no dimension of the Christian confession is closer to the heart of the mystery of the God we have come to know.” But if this concept is so central to the core of our Christianity, you’d think we could just pop open the Bible and learn what we need to know straight from the scriptures themselves, right? Of course, that’s the real catch here. The reason why the concept of “tri-unity”, or “three-in-one-ness” of God is rather slippery is that it’s not really found in the Bible anywhere in explicit form. Although there is one passage that appears to reference the triunity of God, 1 John 5:7 and part of 5:8 (“For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one.” NKJV), it’s been almost completely agreed upon by most biblical scholars that the earliest manuscripts did not contain this text and that it only showed up in later Latin versions. This is in fact noted in the margins in many bible versions, including the New King James Version, although as we shall see later, this isn’t the whole story.
So where does that leave us? Well, let’s take a little stroll down history lane and get a quick sweeping view of how the doctrine of the Trinity came about. This will help us work our way toward understanding why the Trinity was so innovative in its time, and why its still important now. You may be surprised to know that the term “Trinity” wasn’t even used until the third century AD, somewhere in the early 200s. It first showed up in a document called “Adversus Praxean,” written by the Latin theologian Tertullian. Actually, Tertullian was called the “Father of the Latin Church”, or basically the Romain Catholic side of the church, as there were two main branches, the “Eastern” and the “Western” church. The churches that made up the Western church generally wrote in Latin, and the Eastern churches wrote in Greek. They also had different ways of looking at basic theological issues. The Western side could be thought of as a little more analytical, while the Eastern leaned toward a more mystical, Platonic (meaning the philosophy of Plato) view of the world.
Stick with me here, what we need to do is look back and get a quick understanding of how and why trinitarian thought came about. This will help us move toward understanding why the concept of the Trinity was so innovative in its time.
The first Christians were mostly Jews, and therefore probably the main thought pattern they brought with them into Christianity was “monotheism,” or the belief in one God as opposed to many Gods—which is called “polytheism.” One of the foundational scriptures for the Jewish community was Deuteronomy 6:4, or what is called the Shema. This verse reads “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one!” (NKJV) The next verse is the famous verse used by Jesus when asked what was the greatest commandment of all. It says “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” The Jews were instructed in the following verses of Deuteronomy to teach this to their children, to meditate on these scriptures everywhere they went, and basically keep them in sight at all times. So, this particular scripture, and the idea that God is one God was central to the people that became the first Christians.
With this in mind, how did the first Christians view Jesus? In some ways Jesus presented a theological problem, because to give him divine status as God some of the early Jewish Christians believed was a threat to their monotheism. They basically thought that belief in Jesus as God made them “bi-theists”, and this was a major problem. But not only did they have to deal with the rather thorny problem of Jesus being on the same level with God, indeed being God himself, there was the issue of the Holy Spirit as well. The early Christians had experience with the Holy Spirit, especially after the “Pentecost” event that we read about in Acts chapter 2, where the disciples began speaking in various “tongues” as the Holy Spirit moved in them. This added another dimension to the problem of Jewish monotheism, as adding in a third figure on equal footing with God amounted to what some thought to be a “tri-theism”, or a belief in three distinct Gods. Now, at this point it would almost seem like the early Christians were breaking radically from their inherited Jewish monotheism and becoming rather polytheistic, as it would appear that they now had multiple Gods—something that was a major problem for Jews and was one of the main ways they distinguished themselves from the surrounding ethnic groups and their multiple gods.
In some ways Jesus presented a theological problem, because to give him divine status as God some of the early Jewish Christians believed was a threat to their monotheism.
During this early period there were a number of Christian thinkers that sought to more fully explain Christian belief in relation to the surrounding culture. A group of theologians referred to as the “apologists,” tried to use the resources of the prevailing Greek philosophical thought of the day. They used the idea of “logos” which was the Greek conception of order and reason in the universe. The apologists came and put forth what is commonly called “logos Christology”, or basically, what became the theological ideas behind the idea of Jesus as the “Word”, since in Greek logos loosely correlates with our English term “word.” The apologists taught that Jesus was the ordering principle of the universe and that he was preexistent (he existed before creation) with God and that through this “word” (ordering principle) God spoke the universe into existence. Of course they were following closely the Gospel of John 1:1 — “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God” (NKJV).
Still with me? It’s important that we work through just a few more ideas and we’ll get to the reason why the Trinity was so innovative for its time, and why its still very much important today. Okay, so there were some that didn’t agree with this theological view of Jesus as preexistent and on equal footing with God. They believed that, as stated before, this created a situation of “bi-theism” or a belief in two distinct Gods. So, some of these early Christians put forth a proposal that is now called “monarchianism”. Basically they thought that Jesus should be subordinated to God the father in at least some way, allowing God the Father’s status as the one and only true God to be preserved. And, as time went on, there were many different forms of monarchianism, such as “Sabellianism” which proposed that the Father, Son and Spirit were sequential revelations of God for different time periods—each of these ideas came forward as the answer to the same basic problem. All of these ideas were eventually rejected by the Church, but one that made a particularly large impact is called “Arianism”.
Arianism was a form of monarchianism (the idea that God the Father should have priority) that was proposed by a deacon from the church of Alexandria in Northern Africa. Arius agreed with a contemporary theologian named Origen (who is considered a “Father” of the church–due to the impact of his writings) that Jesus was “begotten” or “generated” by the Father, but disagreed that this generation was eternal as Origen proposed. And so Arius put forth the idea that Jesus was essentially “begotten” by God, or that he was truly a creation of God’s, in the same way that a real son is begotten by an earthly father. Now this was a major theological error in the eyes of the early Church (and rightly so) as this basically stripped Jesus of his divine and eternal status. Another theologian of the time named Athanasius argued that if Jesus wasn’t truly God, then the salvation he offers us isn’t really worth much. And it wasn’t long after this particular theological struggle that the Ecumenical Council of Nicea took place.
Previously it was thought that if you achieved some form of personhood it was simply something added to the underlying substance that was truly you. The same went for God according to the ancient world. The problem was how to understand the persons in the Trinity if personhood was simply added to the underlying “real” substance like a mask over the “real” face.
The Nicean Council happened in the year 325 AD, and they basically laid down the first official Church position on the nature of Jesus and his relationship to God. This is where we get our formula, speaking of the Son, that states he is “begotten of the Father, of the substance of the Father, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father.” And it was a few decades later that the Second Council of Constantinople declared the full divinity of the Spirit. So the Church was beginning to form it’s official position on the Trinity. But the debate didn’t stop there. This is where it gets really interesting.
It wasn’t until a little later that the Church had a group of three theologians, named the “Cappadocians” to thank for our classic understanding of the Trinity. No, these weren’t like the theological version of the Three Amigos, these guys were super innovative for their time, although I’m sure they looked as if they were doing a rendition of “My Little Buttercup” to the official philosophers of their day (search Three Amigos “My Little Buttercup” on Youtube). The classic formula they are responsible for is the statement that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are of one essence but three distinct realities. The Greek terms used in this statement were “ousia (essence) and hypostasis (‘center of consciousness’ or ‘independent reality’).” (Theology for the Community of God by Stanley Grenz, p. 60) The Cappadocians took the theological work of previous theologians and put the smack down on some of the main Greek philosophical ideas of the time. In fact, their work was responsible for changing the very idea of what it means to be a “person” in the ancient world. By expanding their ideas into a sophisticated philosophical statement on the Trinity, they basically laid down what became the de facto standard in Trinitarian theology as well as the de facto standard for what it meant to be a person right up into the modern era.
An Eastern Orthodox theologian named John Zizioulas explains it this way: “The concept of the person with its absolute and ontological content was born historically from the endeavor of the Church to give ontological expression to its faith in the Triune God (Being as Communion p. 36).” If that’s not totally clear, let me translate. Basically what he’s saying is that our very idea of being a “person” was defined by the work of the Church. In the ancient Greek world (and to a certain degree the Roman world), a human being was previously thought to be largely a prisoner of Fate. In fact, it was in the Greek theatre that we could see the actors working against forces outside of their control, the “gods” and “fate,” to achieve freedom and become a “person,” if only for a brief time. But they tragically sank back into the futility of accepting that they were nothing but a slave to these outside forces. Alas, they were simply wearing a theatrical mask that would eventually be taken off, signifying that they could only temporarily taste the freedom of becoming a real “person.”
Now stick with me here, you may start to feel like your head is spinning, but this is really cool if you can get your mind around it. What the Cappadocians did was take these ideas and turn them upside down. Previously it was thought that if you achieved some form of personhood it was simply something added to the underlying substance that was truly you. The same went for God according to the ancient world. The problem was how to understand the persons in the Trinity if personhood was simply added to the underlying “real” substance like a mask over the “real” face.
But the Cappadocians had a better description of the whole situation. They reckoned that it was the person that came first, and that the substance of the being was second. This meant that, stay with me here, the person of the Father in the Trinity for example, was not just a mask added to the “real” underlying being of God, but that the real being of God is the person of the Father (along with the Spirit and the Son). This was a radical idea! This meant that the concept of person wasn’t temporary and fleeting, something put on and then taken off, but that it came first, and was what sustained everything else—if there was an underlying “substance” of being, it was sustained by the persons of the Trinity, not the other way around. Make sense? You may have to read that over a few times until it sinks in, but when it does, I hope you’ll see that this was a revolutionary idea.
Here’s the real shocker—essentially this means that God can’t be understood as anything apart from the Trinity. You heard that right folks. According to Zizioulas and his reading of the innovative ideas of Cappadocians, God can’t be understood in any sense outside of the idea of the Trinity. What this means is that community is essential to the underlying structure of the universe. Stop and read that sentence again. It also means that we can’t truly be real “persons” unless we are in community. To be a person is to be related and in relationship. Existing outside of community essentially covers up our personhood and demotes us to nothing more than another individual in the masses, but not necessarily a true person with a personality. Note: the difference between human personhood and the persons of the Trinity can’t be explained here, but the difference boils down to the fact that humans are created, and God isn’t, so that changes things a bit. But we don’t have time to go that direction right now. Maybe another time.
Well, that was a lot to chew on! As we come to the close of this article, I wonder if you feel somewhat like the Trinity character in the Matrix—jumping from rooftop to rooftop, dodging a few bullets and then going into a protective tuck and roll from a superman dive off a building?
Or, perhaps you feel a little more or less like a real person, depending on your involvement in community. Hopefully you caught a sense of the innovative quality of the Cappadocian explanation of the Trinity. Who said that ancient stuff wasn’t progressive? In many ways we think we’ve got the idea of innovation cornered, but here we see that a trio of theologians from the fourth century were rocking some ideas that still impact our world today. We owe them some props for our belief that being a person is more than just accepting our fate, although in some ways it seems as if our idea of personhood is under attack as we are subsumed more and more into the collective hive that is social media and the Internet. That’s another article as well.
In the end, I hope you can grab your Netflix copy of the Matrix, some popcorn and perhaps your Bible and let yourself get lost for a bit in the complexity of the universe and God’s plan of salvation. You may just find yourself noticing the difference between those that are stuck in the Matrix and those that have escaped…and wonder about their status as persons.