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Our Faith in the Triune God

Date: 
February 5, 2021

In my last note on the Nicene Creed (which I wrote back in December!), I considered the significance of our confession of monotheism: “We believe in one God.” This confession grounds the creed in biblical revelation and the confession of Israel: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). God reveals himself as one in his Word, but God’s Word also speaks of the Son and the Spirit in the same way it speaks of God (e.g. John 1:1; 2 Cor 3:18, etc.). We believe in one God, but we also believe the one God is Father, Son, and Spirit. The rest of the creed is a confession of faith in the Trinity – the Father, Son, and Spirit.

Gregory of Nazianzus, a pastor and theologian in the fourth century, can help us understand our faith in the Trinity. To begin, Gregory warns that we cannot not say more about the Trinity that Scripture reveals:

For me it is enough to hear that there is a Son, and that he is from the Father, and that the one is Father and the other is Son. I do not trouble myself beyond this, lest I become just like those voices that go completely hoarse from shouting too loudly, or the eye that strains towards the rays of the sun.” (Oration 20.10; trans. Brian Daley).

Looking to Scripture, Gregory notes that the names Father, Son, and Spirit are tied to their relationship with one another and the manner in which the Son and the Spirit have their being from the Father:

The very facts of not being begotten, of being begotten and of proceeding, give them whatever names are applied to them – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit respectively. The aim is to safeguard the distinctness of the three hypostases [persons] within the single nature and quality of the Godhead. The Son is not the Father; there is one Father, yet he is whatever the Father is. The Spirit is not Son because he is from God; there is one Only-begotten. Yet whatever the Son is, he is. The three are one in their Godhead and the one is three in properties. (Oration 31.9; trans. Lionel Wickham)

The Son and Spirit are what the Father is, because they are from the Father. The unity and oneness of the Godhead is anchored in the Father’s being, which he shares with the Son and the Spirit: “the three are one in their Godhead.” Scripture reveals that the Son is “begotten from the Father” (John 1:14, 18) and the Spirit “proceeds from the Father” (John 15:26). The Son is the Son because he is begotten from the Father. The Father is the Father because he has begotten the Son. The Spirit is the Spirit because he proceeds from the Father. The Father is “unbegotten,” the Son is “begotten,” and the Spirit “proceeds.” The terms “unbegotten,” “begotten,” and “procession” are not definitive of God’s divine being; rather, they signify three properties, which distinguish the three persons of the Father, Son, and Spirit and their relationships with one another.

To say that the Son and Spirit have their being from the Father does not mean they have their being after the Father. There is an order, but not a sequence in time. The Father has always been the Father; the Son has always been the Son; and the Spirit has always been the Spirit. Gregory uses three negative adverbs to qualify the Son’s generation and the Spirit’s procession: apathōs (without suffering or change), achronōs (timelessly), asōmatōs (incorporeally) (Oration 29.2). In other words, there is no comparison or analogy between human begetting and the Father’s begetting. Gregory warns against analogies for the Trinity in general: “There is one God, one supreme nature, where can I find analogy to show you? Are you looking for one from your environment here in this world?” (Oration 31.10; trans. Wickham)Analogies for the Trinity will only reduce and obscure our understanding. We cannot look to the world around us to understand the Son’s generation and the Spirit’s procession. The privative adverbs (apathōs, achronōs, asōmatōs) serve as a linguistic and conceptual boundary.

How then should we understand the Son’s generation and the Spirit’s procession? First, Gregory asks, “How, then, was [the Son] begotten?” His answer:

God’s begetting ought to have the tribute of our silence. The important point is for you to learn that he has been begotten. As to the way it happens, we shall not concede that even the angels, much less you, know that. Shall I tell you the way? It is a way known only to the begetting Father and the begotten Son. (Oration 29.9; trans. Wickham)

Second, he asks, “What, then, is ‘proceeding’?” His answer: “You explain the unbegottennes of the Father and I will give you a physiological account of the Son’s begetting and the Spirit’s proceeding – and let us go mad the pair of us for prying into God’s secrets (mystēria)” (Oration 31:8; trans. Wickham). Scripture reveals that the Son is begotten from the Father and the Spirit proceeds from the Father. Scripture does not explain how the Son is begotten and the Spirit proceeds. Such knowledge belongs to God and we dare not pry into such a divine mystery.

When we express our faith in the Trinity, we must avoid straying into heresy. Gregory shows us the straight path in one of his sermons:

So we adore the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, distinguishing their personal properties but uniting their Godhead; and we neither blend the three into one thing, lest we be sick with Sabellius’s disease, nor do we divide them into three alien and unrelated things, lest we share Arius’s madness. Why should we act like those who try to straighten a plant bent over completely in one direction by forcibly training it the opposite way, correcting one deviation by another? Rather, we should straighten it midway between the two, and so take our position within the bounds of reverence.” (Oration 20.5; trans. Daley)

Gregory here positions orthodoxy between the opposite errors of Sabellianism and Arianism. Sebellius was concerned that speaking of three persons implied polytheism and so denied that there are three persons in the Godhead. This meant blending or confusing the Father, Son, and Spirit. This heresy is also known as modalism and is taught in Oneness Pentecostalism. Arianism denied the divinity of Son and the Spirit, making the Father, Son, and Spirit three alien and unrelated things. This heresy is taught by Jehovah’s Witnesses. Orthodoxy is a straight plant, neither bent to one side or the other: “we adore the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, distinguishing their personal properties but uniting their Godhead . . . and so we take our position within the bounds of reverence.”

Gregory was concerned that we have right belief. To believe rightly is to be orthodox, but orthodoxy cannot be reduced to right doctrine. Orthodoxy is right worship. Right theology rightly orients and defines our worship by placing us “within the bounds of reverence.” And for Gregory, our worship of the Triune God directs and sustains our witness to the Triune God:

So, in the end . . . I resolved to keep close to the more truly religious view and rest content with some few words, taking the Spirit as my guide and, in his company and in partnership with him, safeguarding to the end the genuine illumination I had received from him, as I strike out a path through this world. To the best of my powers I will persuade all men to worship Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as the single Godhead and power, because to him belong all glory, honor, and might for ever and ever. Amen. (Oration 31.33; trans. Wickham)
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