Crashing the Trinitarian “Wall”

This past week I took a course titled, “Trinitarian and Christological Controversies.” Yes, it was as fun as it sounds. I ended up really enjoying the class. We focused on Christianity from the 4th to 6th Centuries, and especially talked about the first few Ecumenical Creeds of the Church. I definitely got a sizable dose of the Eastern fathers, as our readings were only in primary source documents – and we read people like Cyril of Alexandria, Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, Origen, Arius, Apollinaris, Irenaeus, Tertullian, etc. These are the dudes who have greatly affected the way we talk about Christ and the Trinity. I’m ashamed to say my knowledge of the first few centuries of the Christian faith is sub-par at best. But this class has given me a great start in understanding the historical and terminological components behind two of the greatest doctrinal controversies of the patristic period.

We have these so-called creeds because in the first few centuries after Christ, there were some theologians asking some pretty important questions, and some of the answers that were given were seen by the church to be inadequate (termed “heretical” = a mistake which threatens the reality of Christian salvation). Therefore, they wrote creeds to verify what the church believes the Bible to actually say. It was a pretty big deal back then, because what the church fathers realized is that certain inadequate expressions of Christianity actually threatens the reality of Christian salvation. If we get God wrong, everything else goes out the window, including our salvation. So these dudes wanted to make sure our understanding was primarily, Biblical. In this post I’d like to give a brief “main idea” summary of each creed. Then, I’ll share my favorite part of the class, and lastly, why I’d love to crash the Trinitarian wall. If any of this strikes your fancy and gets you curious, let me know and I’ll be happy to elaborate.

Council Summaries: 

  1. Council of Nicaea – 325 – If Jesus Christ was not fully God, He could not save us. Jesus Christ was fully God.
  2. Council of Constantinople – 381 – If the Holy Spirit is not fully God, then the Holy Spirit could not unite us with God. The Holy Spirit is fully God.
  3. Council of Ephesus – 431 – God the Son was born on earth for our salvation, through Christ. (Also see the Formula of Reunion in 433).
  4. Council of Chalcedon – 451 – God the Son was born as a man for our salvation.
  5. Council of Constantinople II – 553 – If it was really God the Son who was born for our salvation, it was also God the Son who died for our salvation.
  6. Council of Constantinople III – 681 – Reaffirms the reality of God the Son’s life as a man on earth by focusing on the submission of His human will to His divine will.

Highlight of the Course: 

Realizing once again that doctrine, salvation, and the Christian life are always connected. Therefore, all of this matters! The church’s pronouncements don’t matter for their own sake, but at the end of the day it matters what the Bible says and how we articulate that. All of these councils build on each other and proceed logically from one another, building a case for how salvation is accomplished through God. There is a straight line of development. These councils help us to understand that “what is not assumed cannot be saved.” If Jesus was not fully God, He could not save us. If Jesus was not fully human, humans could not be saved. If the Holy Spirit were not fully God, we could not be united with God the Father and God the Son, who is one. All of the Creeds speak to the same underlying reality – if we are to be saved, God must come down to us. Christianity is not a moralistic system where people gradually get closer and closer to God by “being good.” It is a radically different process – God is the hero since we can’t save ourselves. This is what the Bible affirms, and thus the creeds echo.

Why I want to crash the Trinitarian “Wall”

My professor spoke about the “brick wall.” Because God is so different than us, us humans (even the ones who have Ph.D’s) eventually run into a wall when we talk about God. We run into unfathomable and incomprehensible truth, paradox, mystery. Some which even grate against my oh-so-loved human logic. So the question is, what do I do when I get to that point? Do I shy away from the mysteries, and instead speak about God in a way which is more comprehensible (and in the meantime misspeak about God)? Or do I just admit it?… As a finite human being, I cannot understand it fully. My professor insisted we must “adore the mystery in silence.” I don’t want to “adore” it, I want to smash it! I want to crash it. I want to figure it out. Because that would make me feel better about myself. But if I am so dedicated to logic – and thus reorient/diminish God to fit it – Then I risk losing touch with the real God who is so different than me. Mystery remains, and maybe there is nothing I can do about it? Perhaps it is a wall that will never be torn down this side of heaven.

In these next few weeks I’ll be writing a few research papers. One on some aspect of the Trinitarian Controversy, and another on an aspect of the Christological Controversy. So I may do a follow-up to this post as I do my research…



One thought on “Crashing the Trinitarian “Wall”

  1. Penza,

    You’re really onto something here, buddy. I agree with your prof about the wall, although I would say that we ought to keep pushing into God, always remembering that a God we can understand is really no god at all. Orthodox theologians would remind us that most heresies stem from theologians trying to explain too much and not being content with the revelation of Scripture. I’m sure this is why your prof is adamant about the “wall.”

    Here’s a question for you: do we as humans know God in the one-ness of His Nature, or do we know Him in the three-ness of His Persons? Does it make a difference? I would love to discuss these questions, if you ever feel the inclination.

    By the way, here’s a couple books to add when talking about Trinitarian controversies. There was a very important controversy concerning the Trinity in the 12th century surrounding Peter Abelard, who was condemned as a heretic not once, but twice! His treatise is entitled, “Christian Theology.” Read that book in conjunction with William of St. Thierry’s, “The Enigma of Faith.” [William was the primary theologian responsible for raising the alarm about Abelard’s trinitarian heresies.] I would love to hear your thoughts if you read these works.

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