Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Why Patristic Trinitarian Doctrine still matters

A minister friend of mine simply asked on Facebook: Is it a Trinitarian heresy to say: "God died"? which started a list of responses that is still going.

As I added a few thoughts, it started me thinking on a slight tangent. Which is this:

You can't disagree with the Patristic formulations of Trinitarian and Christological doctrine as expressed in 325, 381, 351 and the surrounding literature. At least, you can't if you want to continue to identify yourself with historic mainstream Christian orthodoxy.

Excluding for a moment (actually, it's a big discussion for another time), the Nestorian and other groups that split and flourished in the East and Africa, the bulk of identifiable Christian tradition has always confessed the creeds. In doing so, it has expressed the belief that the creeds articulate a Trinitarian orthodoxy that reflects the Scriptures.

So, appealing to the Scriptures to overturn the Creeds sounds like an attractive Protestant sola scriptura move, but it leaves one outside almost all Christian tradition and fellowship.

And yet, what is at stake in those formulations is that the Fathers argued, scripturally, to a way of understanding, so far as it went, the Trinity and the natures and persons of Christ, in a way that was faithful to scripture, while remaining coherent and logical, if at times paradoxical.

This is what so many do not grasp. It is also why the principle of partitive exegesis is both so prominent, and so enduringly important. Confronted with passages about the Son's inferiority and his equality, pro-Nicene exegetes began to distinguish the sense in which verses applied, whether they referred to the Economy of salvation, the humanity of Christ, and so forth, or to the eternal Son in his Divinity. If you don't deploy some form of partitive exegesis, which is what the non-Nicenes tended to do, you end up reading all those verses simpliciter, which is why they were forced to the conclusion that the Son is inferior in being to the Father.

But many Christians, including seminary graduates, don't realise this. Not realising it is not so much the problem, as trying to overturn it without a critical engagement. Abandoning Nicaea and the Nicene tradition is likely to land you in some half-thought-through form of Arianism (historically not a helpful label, but theologically so).

To return to the prompting question, it's not enough to say yes or no. The 4-5th solution gave us the tools to speak of the Person of the Son dying a human death in the economy of salvation, which his Divine Nature fully participated in without itself being subject to death. The death of the immortal God would be a contradiction: the death of the incarnate human-divine Son is a paradox that betrays the mysteries of redemption to us.


mark said...


Yes, that thread got me thinking aswell. What a great can of worms to open on Facebook!

Part of the problem, as I see it, is a misunderstanding of what 'Person' and 'Nature' mean according to the fathers. One comment on the thread brought this to light: it seemed to claim that Chalcedon brought in the terminology of Person to be read as 'persons-in-relation'. To my mind, Person was used as Subject or Mode of being, rather than personality or persons-in-relation!

Anyway, here's an interesting Cyril quote (2nd letter to Nestorius) which throws some more light on the issue:

"It is not that the Logos of God suffered in his own nature, being overcome by stripes or nail-piercing or any of the other injuries; for the divine, since it is incorporeal, is impassible. Since, however, the body that had become his own underwent suffering, he is - once again - said to have suffered these things for our sakes, for the impassible One was within the suffering body."

Seumas Macdonald said...

Persons continues to be a troubling word. It's far less than the English sense of 'person as personal subjective agent'. Certainly persons-in-relation goes a little to far, except to say that the 3 hypostaseis make sense only in relation to each other; personality is definitely out.

I would not speak of Mode of being: I think this Barth-Torrance-Doyle line is unhelpful, and begins to sound like modalism. It also doesn't seem to express anything: when you say "mode of being" to people, what do they understand.

Person as Subject works, because that's how the Fathers use hypostasis as opposed to ousia: you can predicate something of a hypostasis, and yet the only things you can predicate of a hypostasis are precisely those points at which they are distinct:ie, the Son is not the Father, but is the Son of the Father.

That's why the Cyril quote is right on target:the Logos, the Son, suffers in his assumed human nature. The personhood of the Son is his eternal divine personhood, which has taken a human nature, so there is a sense in which as Cyril says, he suffered, though impassible, within the suffering body.