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TRINITY: A Definition, Explanation and History

A commonplace of contemporary trinitarian theology is the priority it grants to the narrative and symbolic discourse of Christian worship and proclamation over the leaner, conceptual discourse of theological theory itself. Theology continues to employ conceptual forms of thought in probing the meaning of Trinity, but recently deepened appreciation of the more spontaneous discourse of lived Christian praxis—both biblical and ongoing in the life of the church—suggests a more conscious subordination of trinitarian theory to what might be called the “semantic aim” of Christian proclamation and worship.

Narratives and symbols express cognitive meanings and refer to reality just as more “literal” forms of discourse do. They perform this semantic function indirectly and in a more complex way, involving not only an interplay of multiple meanings but an interplay of cognition with human affection and aspiration. Symbols are often said to make the realities to which they refer present. This is so because they orchestrate the participant’s experience of the reality which they disclose, however ineffably. In religion such forms of discourse are so closely bound to the faith experience to which they give access that they are the primary and indispensable carriers of living religious tradition. Theological reflection which is truly “faith seeking understanding” participates in the rich semantic aim of the primary discourse, tentatively providing sharper focus and, as needed, critical discrimination. What is important, though, is that theology take the “surplus of meaning” of this primary discourse as its starting point and that it return again and again from the autonomous conceptual structures, which it rightly employs, to the primary discourse for its heuristic stimulation and its corroboration.

In between this primary Christian discourse and theology there is the genre of doctrine. As teaching is a function of proclamation, so doctrine overlaps and participates in the function of the primary discourse. Doctrine is an attempt to communicate clearly the cognitive and moral discernments of the Christian faith experience. As such, it diminishes the tensive interaction which constitutes the discourse of worship and proclamation and overlaps theology, mixing the conceptual thought forms of theology with the ordinary language of common sense. Through the centuries the word “doctrine” has commonly been associated with officially sanctioned church teaching entailing various levels of intended binding authority. Since the nineteenth century the word “dogma” has come to designate doctrinal definitions of the highest level of church teaching authority. Although the church’s dogmas commonly have used the conceptually refined language of theology, it is generally acknowledged that the intention of the dogmas is not to canonize theological systems of thought, which are historically relative. Karl Rahner has helpfully suggested that a dogma is “a linguistic ruling on terminology which must not be mistaken for the thing itself or respectively must not be confused with a statement which can be made only by starting from the thing itself” (Theological Investigations 5, p. 54). A dogmatic definition might well be viewed, then, as a kind of “grammatical rule” of Christian discourse the intent of which is to preserve from aberration the implicit “grammar” or semantic structure of the originary discourses of doctrine and theology.

The meanings of these terminological distinctions between primary discourse, doctrine, dogmas, and theology overlap even as they are defined here. They certainly were not sharply delineated from one another in the history of the church. However their discrimination is essential if we are to make sense of the history and meaning of Trinity in our current context.

In this article the term “Trinity” shall refer primarily to the divine Mystery Itself as the divine Mystery is experienced and expressed in the primary discourse of Christian worship and proclamation. The interweaving doctrinal, theological, and even dogmatic articulations of the Trinity will be surveyed and interpreted in light of their respective relations to the primary meaning.


A) The Old Testament

The basic Hebrew experience of God has been aptly and succinctly described in terms of a “proper name” and an “identifying description” (Robert Jenson, The Triune Identity). Israel experienced her God as the “one who” encountered her in the saving events of her history. The encounter was conceived according to the model of a personal self-introduction by means of a proper name, “Yahweh,” and an identifying description which was always a saving event of Israel’s history accomplished by Yahweh, e.g., “I am Yahweh, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Exod 20:2). The sequence of saving events which came to constitute Israel’s history (Heilsgeschichte) eventually extended from the first saving act of creation to the final Day of Yahweh.

This distinctively Israelite mode of experiencing God accentuates the personal aspect of the divine Mystery as the “one encountering” via the mediation of historical events. Similarly, as “Lord of all history,” God’s unity and transcendence of history are preserved. God’s active agency in history was evocatively expressed in such stabilized, yet dynamic, metaphors as “Spirit of God,” “Word of God,” “Wisdom of God,” etc., without jeopardizing God’s unity and transcendence. At times these metaphors were used to express poetically a radical sense of God’s immanence to creation; e.g., Psalm 51 suggests an identity between the divine Spirit and the human spirit renewed through repentance; some of the Wisdom songs suggest an identification of the Wisdom of God with the immanent ultimate meaning of creation (Job 28, Prov 8, Sir 24, Wis 7). By the time of Christ these Jewish symbols of divine immanence were often represented with a high degree of autonomy vis-à-vis God, but scholars are in increasing agreement that this does not imply that they had come to represent distinct realities. They represented the agency within creation of Yahweh the one transcendent Lord of all.

B) The New Testament

Father. The God to whom the whole NT witnesses is this same Yahweh, but now the identifying description is the historical event of Jesus culminating in the communal experience of Easter. For various reasons the sacred proper name of Yahweh had become reserved for special occasions and was replaced in ordinary usage by other appellatives and other more generic names of divinity. It is clear, nevertheless, that the God of NT witness is this same Yahweh whom Jesus called Father (Abba) and who is now decisively reidentified as “him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (Rom 4:24; see also Rom 8:11, 1 Pet 1:21, etc.). What is new for the understanding of God in this NT witness is the sometimes subtle but ever present identification of Jesus with the divinity of “the one” who raised him. The Spirit of God is the same Spirit of prophetic and later Judaism (see above), but now usually spoken of in reference to God’s saving event in Jesus.

In attempting to understand the NT witness it is important that we not anachronistically read back later doctrinal and theological formulations and apply such adjectives as “adoptionistic,” “primitive,” “undeveloped,” “elemental,” “merely functional,” etc., to the NT teaching. The presumption here is that the rich originary discourse of the NT witness says
more and not less than the understandably more abstract language of later theology and even doctrine. The clarifications provided by these latter forms of discourse can be better appreciated when considered within the contexts of their later formulation.

The Son. The NT identifies “God” with the Father whose reign Jesus proclaimed and “who raised him from the dead.” Nevertheless, the ascription of divinity to Jesus is pervasive in the NT if we do not limit the evidence to texts which explicitly call Jesus “God” (theos). Raymond Brown (Jesus God and Man) identifies three clear such instances (Heb 1:8–9, John 1:1, John 20:28) and five probable instances (Rom 9:5, Tit 2:13, John 1:18, 1 John 5:20, 2 Pet 1:1) in which Jesus is called God. If we grant, that the language of metaphor, symbol, hymn, narrative, etc., is not “merely functional” and is capable of predicating meaning of reality, the force of the NT witness to Jesus’ divinity becomes more evident. This is especially so in the frequent application to Jesus of the OT metaphors of divine immanence. Jesus is identified in hymns (Col 1:15–20, Heb 1:1–4, John 1:1–14) and gospel logia (Matthew) with the very Wisdom of God which in the sapiential poetry of the OT was the divine presence immanently grounding the meaning of creation (see above). The divinity of Wisdom is most clearly affirmed in Wisdom 7 and 8 which like the other sapiential poems provides imagery which is echoed in the NT hymns.

Similarly, Paul’s metaphorical description (1 Cor 15:35–53) of the resurrection body, which he obviously associates with his experience of the risen Lord, as incorruptible (en aphtharsia), glorious (en doxē), and powerful (en dynamei) is a subtle yet sure ascription to the risen Jesus of characteristics associated with divinity in Hellenistic-Jewish religion at that time. This Pauline text reflects both the experiential and the eschatological nature of the earliest Christian discernment of Jesus’ divinity.

The image of sonship only gradually came to convey a firm sense of Jesus’ divine status in the NT. Indeed, there is broad consensus among exegetes that Jesus, during his earthly life, addressed God as Father (Abba) with a degree of intimacy not typical of Jewish tradition, and that this reflected a profoundly personal and unique experience of God by Jesus, undoubtedly underlying his urgent call to proclaim the inbreaking of the reign of God. Nevertheless, the title “Son of God” initially was confessed of Jesus in light of his Easter exaltation, celebrated as the fulfillment of the royal messianic psalms (e.g., Ps 2 and Ps 110). Its initial connotation was messianic and in a sense “adoptive” in that it was associated with the moment of royal enthronement (e.g., Rom 1:3f). The messianic character of this title is illustrated by its frequent coupling with the messianic christos (e.g., “the Christ, the Son of God”). On the other hand, the tendency of this title to take on subtle divine connotation within the Easter experience of the early church is already suggested by Rom 1:4: “appointed Son of God in power (en dynamei) through resurrection from the dead.” In the Gospel of John the “Son” imagery combines with the preexistent Wisdom imagery to provide the most explicit NT confession of Jesus’ divinity. That the Word (logos) of John 1 is Wisdom can be seen in the obvious resonances with the sapiential poetry and is corroborated by parallel usage of sophia and logos in the judaism of the time. This Johannine Word/Son which “was God” (John 1:1), “was with the Father in the beginning,” and “came down from heaven,” was to become the dominant model for construing the divinity of the Son in Christian theology.

The acclamation of Jesus as “Lord” (Kyrios) within the worship of Greek speaking communities which used the Septuagint version of the OT is another example of powerful yet subtle attribution to the risen Jesus of divine status. Kyrios was used widely in the Greek OT as a divine appellative. Its double appearance in Ps 110:1, “The Lord said to my Lord …,” in the context of liturgical celebration of Jesus Easter exaltation (seeabove) was a natural poetic suggestion of Jesus’ divine status. That this acclamation went beyond poetic suggestion to worshipful confession is evident in the early hymn in Philippians 2: “… God highly exalted him … So that at Jesus’ name every knee must bend … and every tongue proclaim to the glory of God the Father: Jesus Christ is Lord!”(9–11). Likewise, in such Pauline texts as 1 Cor 8:6 and 1 Cor 12:5–6 the Lordship of Jesus is placed in parallel with the divinity of the one God. While more ambiguous in its ascription of divinity to Jesus than the Word/Son imagery of John, the NT confession of Jesus’ Lordship does retain a stronger sense of the intrinsic role which Jesus’ concrete history and resurrection played in the NT experience of God. This is of no minor importance to a contemporary trinitarian theology concerned with a fuller retrieval of the NT witness.

Holy Spirit. The divine status of the “Spirit of God” can similarly be seen as pervasive in the scriptures if one appreciates the metaphorical structure and semantic aim of the OT and NT pneumatology in its original context. The OT Spirit of God (rûach YHWH) was the very reality of God in the creature empowering with life (e.g., Ps 104:29–30), prophecy (e.g., Mic 3:8), just discernment (e.g., Isa 28:5–6), holiness (e.g., Ps 51:12–13), and an eschatological kingdom of ineffable justice, peace and freedom (e.g., Isa 11) etc. The metaphorical identification of the divine Spirit with the immanent creaturely agency in these texts is striking; e.g., the converted human spirit is poetically identified with the Spirit of God.

The Holy Spirit of the NT is this same Spirit of God now identified as the Spirit of Christ in the light of the Easter experience. Rom 8:9 illustrates this connection clearly: “You are not in the flesh but in the spirit since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ, does not belong to him.” The first use of “spirit” in this text—spirit (pneuma) as opposed to flesh (sarx)—is common in the Pauline and Johannine NT writings. In this case spirit refers to the condition of divine empowerment as opposed to the creature living on its own by its own creaturely resources (flesh). The derivation of such pneumatic empowerment from the Easter experience is evidenced in 1 Cor 15:35–53 where Paul metaphorically identifies the risen Lord as “life-giving spirit” and sums up his description of the resurrection body with the expression “spiritual body” (sōma pneumatikon). In this context “spiritual” carries the connotation of divine status as did the preceding adjectives “incorruptible,” “glorious,” “powerful” (see above). As the text of Rom 8:9 indicates, this spiritual empowerment is due to the Spirit of God (=Spirit of Christ) dwelling in us. Paul attributes to the indwelling Spirit the empowerment: to love (Rom 5:5), to call God “Father” (Rom 8:15), to pray (Rom 8:26), to be free (2 Cor 3:17), to prophesy (1 Cor 12:10), etc., Paul’s metaphorical identification-in-difference of the Spirit with the risen Lord ought not be judged in the light of
later trinitarian dogma as an unfortunate confusion due to its early stage of development. Rather it is a vital link to be retrieved in modern trinitarian reflection, with due respect to the later dogma’s emphasis on differentiation.

John likewise uses the spirit/flesh antithesis (John 3:1–10; 6:63). The dominant form of divine empowerment which John attributes to the indwelling Spirit is “new life.” This new life is not simply ascribed to the Spirit but actually identified with the Spirit (4:10; 7:39; 20:22).

A distinctive aspect of the Johannine pneumatology is the use of the term Paraclete (paraklētos) to denote the Spirit in certain functions which, as it were, compensate for the absence within the Christian community of the physical, earthly presence of Jesus who was by implication the first paraclete; e.g., the Paraclete abides with the disciples of Jesus teaching and guiding them, reminding them of the teachings of Jesus, and witnessing to and for them. The Paraclete imagery, which for the most part is restricted to John 14–16, is the high point of the biblical personification of the Spirit. The Paraclete is clearly differentiated from the Father and the Son and is spoken of as “proceeding” from the Father (15:26) and as being “sent” either by the Father (14:26) or by the Son from the Father (15:26; 16:7). This language will heavily influence the later formulation of trinitarian doctrine. It should be noted that the word “proceeds” (ekporeuesthai), which the later Greek theology and doctrine would apply to the eternal inner life of God, is judged by current biblical scholarship to refer in its original Johannine context to the temporal gift of the Paraclete associated with the Son’s return to the Father. Although the Paraclete is differentiated from the Son as “another paraclete” (14:16), a similar metaphorically tensive identification exists between the Johannine Paraclete and the risen Jesus as in the Pauline pneumatology between the risen Lord and the Spirit. This subtle identification-in-difference is captured by Raymond Brown’s succinct summation: “It is our contention that John presents the Paraclete as the Holy Spirit in a special role, namely, as the personal presence of Jesus in the Christian while Jesus is with the Father” (The Gospel according to John XIII–XXI, p. 1139).

C) The Trinitarian Structure of NT Experience

The very passages which express the powerful NT testimony to the divinity of the Father, Son, and Spirit likewise reveal the emergence, especially in early worship and proclamation, of a threefold pattern in the Christian experience of God. As Jesus taught them, the early christians prayed to God as Father. This prayer was made in solidarity with Jesus who was most properly the Son and whose special relationship with God was shared by his followers. At times Jesus the Son was the object of worship in the context of recognition of his divine exalted status (e.g., 2 Pet 3:18; Rev 1:5–6). The Spirit of God is never the specific object of worship in the NT. This was not due to vagueness or doubt about the divinity of the Spirit but to the spontaneous experiential realization that the Spirit was the very divine presence immanently empowering them to pray, to prophesy, to love, to live. Numerous NT triadic formulae of diverse literary genre and formulation suggest the gradual linguistic stereotyping of this experiential pattern in the direction of the classic Christian doxological and confessional forms: “To the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit” and “From the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit.” The variety of greeting and benediction formulae in the Pauline epistles reveal this pattern even when they are not explicitly triadic. The great commissioning text of Matt 28:19 (“… baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”) along with the overtly triadic pattern of the accounts of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, demonstrate the intimate connection already in NT times between the triadic pattern of experience and Christian baptism. This liturgical connection will be the primary carrier of trinitarian faith into the post-NT period.

It is important to recognize the essential continuity between this triadic NT experience of God and the OT experience of Yahweh. God the Father is Yahweh, “the one who has done things.” Jesus is the new, distinctive event which God has wrought as an act of final and decisive identification—i.e., Jesus in his concrete life, death, and destiny as discerned in Easter faith. The eschatological identification of Jesus’ Easter destiny with the decisive reign of God, which Jesus proclaimed, and hence ineffably with the very reality of God is the very heart of the distinctive NT experience of God. The more protologically oriented imagery of Wisdom/Word, which, as we have seen, affirms Jesus’ divinity and universal significance, must always presuppose and never fully replace the eschatological. The eschatological imagery emphasizes the temporality of the NT experience of God and preserves the important tension between the “already” and the “not yet” of the final saving event. Protological imagery alone would tend toward the a-temporality of myth and the denigration of Jesus’ concrete humanity. 1 John reacts to such misreadings of the Johannine Christology—already in NT times—by more sharply focusing the “high” Johannine Christological imagery on the concrete humanity of Jesus. Finally, in the NT experience the Spirit is the very divine immanent presence realizing now in anticipation the eschatological event realized in Jesus. As such, the Spirit is never the explicit object of NT worship, nor is the Spirit ever represented in NT discourse as interacting in an interpersonal way with the Father and the Son, except as the immanent ground of human prayer to God; e.g., Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6.


This NT experiential trinitarian pattern continued on into the liturgical life of the second century Christian communities and is reflected without marked change in the earliest post-NT extant literature. A major shift of context, however, took place in the mid-second century as the Christian proclamation encountered the Greek interpretation of deity.

A) The Interface with Greek Thought

Christians (the “apologists” conversant with the then dominant philosophy of middle-Platonism seized the opportunity to proclaim and elucidate the Christian message in a thought form which was meaningful to the educated classes of the widespread Hellenistic society. This movement, which Catholic theology has generally evaluated positively, will have an enormous impact on the development of Christian theology. God in middle-Platonic thought was monotheistic and transcended the world, and like the Judeo-Christian God was the absolute ground of all that is. Unlike the God of Christian proclamation, this God of Greek philosophy was not experienced via historical encounter but was inferred as the ultimate and absolute ground or principle (archē) of the perishable world. The experience of the perishability of the temporal-material world was deep within the Hellenic psyche. The God whose existence they inferred was radically different from this world: imperishable, a-temporal, immaterial, unchangeable, impassible, etc. The radical otherness, transcendence, and ineffability of this absolute principle was so extreme by the mid-second century, that they had to postulate intermediary principles between the absolute principle and the finite world.

Confident that the God they preached was the Father of Jesus Christ and the salvation they proclaime
d was that of Jesus, the apologists adapted much of the Hellenic world-view for their purpose. The Father was the (archē,) a personal rather than abstract absolute origin of all things. To the Father were attributed, on the one hand, the personal characteristics of the biblical God and, on the other hand the negative attributes of the absolute archē: unoriginated, unchangeable, immovable, impassible, etc. The Son was the divine logos which bridged the abyss between God and the world. This logos doctrine, while intended to be in continuity with the Johannine doctrine, was decidedly more Hellenic in character. The stoic distinction between the immanent word (logos endiathetos) and the expressed word (logos prophorikos) was employed either implicitly or explicitly by the various apologists. Originally the immanent Word was present in the mind of God as an idea is present in a human mind. In preparation for creation the Word was uttered forth and begotten as Son. This Son/Word was God’s agent in creation and was present from the beginning to reveal truth universally. In Jesus the Word became human. Whereas the Johannine Word/Wisdom imagery focused on expressing the universal significance of the Jesus-event, making Jesus the referent of the discourse, the logos doctrine of the apologists shifts the emphasis to the Son “in the beginning,” and at times gives scant attention to Jesus, the incarnate logos. This new emphasis on the preexistent Word apparently occasioned some confusion for the understanding of the Spirit. References to the Spirit became notoriously sparse in the writings of the apologists, and the references, when explicit, are often vaguely related to the Word. Theophilus, the first writer to use the term “triad” of God, identified the triad as God, Word, and Wisdom, reflecting the shift that had taken place from the NT Johannine logos theology.

This creative adaptation of the Hellenic philosophical context for the defense and proclamation of the Christian message expresses well the universality inherent in the Christian understanding of God and the capacity of the gospel to speak effectively to the soteriological concerns of a distinctive cultural context. However, it raises important questions for our assessment today of its impact upon the development of the Christian doctrine of God. Protestant scholars to this day are disturbed by the troubled juxtaposition of two ultimately conflicting notions of God: the concrete living God disclosed in revelation, and the timeless absolute of middle-Platonism. Traditionally, catholic theology has more positively evaluated the philosophical notion of God, tempering its negations with a more positive ontology, yet recognizing both religiously and philosophically the limits and indirectness of all reference to God. Today both protestant and catholic theologians, remaining consistent with their traditions but in light of our contemporary historical consciousness, are assessing more carefully the historical impact of the Hellenic view of deity on Christian thought and life. To what extent did the Hellenic concern for the timelessness, immateriality, and radical otherness of the divine inform the context in which the church formulated its understanding of the God experienced in the triadic discourse of its worship, proclamation and biblical texts?

B) The Emergence of Theological Terminology

Until the third century, the “three” of the divine Triad in church life and theology were referred to concretely, i.e., as “the Father,” “the Son,” “the Holy Spirit.” There existed as yet no generic term for the three. This changed in the third century with Tertullian and Hippolytus in the west and Origen in the east.

The West. The reinforcement of Hebraic monotheism with the strong monotheism of the Hellenic archē had a profound impact upon western Christianity. By the third century the temptation was extreme “monarchianism” (i.e., stress on the unity of God) in the various forms of “modalism” i.e., the tendency to diminish the distinction between the “three” of the divine triad by considering them merely as temporary modes or aspects of, or even mere names for the one archē. Both Hippolytus and Tertullian reacted to this extreme monarchianism by stressing the “economy” of the divine life. Irenaeus had already used the word “economy” (oeconomia = organization, distribution) in reference to the unfolding of God’s plan in the history of salvation. Tertullian uses it to refer to God’s own self-distribution in connection with the saving history. It becomes here a trinitarian term expressing the unity between God’s inner life and salvation history. It is this “economy … which distributes the unity into trinity (trinitas)” (Praxeas 2.4). This is the first known use of the term “trinity.” Tertullian uses the term “person” (persona) as a generic term for the three of the divine economy. Persona, like the Greek term prosōpon used by Hippolytus, was an everyday word for the human individual connoting specifically the aspect of distinctive individuality established by one’s social role.

Tertullian emphasized equally the unity of the three persons by stating that they are of “one substance.” Scholars debate as to how literally Tertullian intended the subtle stoic materialistic connotation associated with his use of the word “substance.” What is generally agreed upon is the enormous impact of Tertullian on the terminology of subsequent Latin trinitarian theology—e.g., person, “of one substance,” economy, trinity. Another subtle but important Tertullian usage, that will differentiate the style of western from eastern theology, is his tendency to identify the name “God” with the divine substance: “God is the name for the substance, that is, the divinity” (Hermogenem 3). In the east as in the NT “God” is always equated with the Father.

The East. Origen appropriated the philosophy of middle-Platonism more systematically than the apologists and Tertullian had. The Father is the absolute, unoriginated origin (arch̄). The Son is his Word (logos) mediating between the Father’s absolute unity and the multiplicity of creation. However, the Son’s generation from the Father is eternal: “There never was a time when the Son was not.” This concept of “eternal generation” was an adaptation of the middle-Platonic doctrine that the whole world of spiritual beings was eternal. The Son is eternally derived (or generated) from the very being of God and hence is of the Father’s essence, but second to the Father. Origen was vague about the status of the Spirit, although he does say that the Spirit “is ever with the Father and the Son; like the Father and the Son it always was, is, and will be.” Likewise, the Spirit is “associated in honor and dignity with the Father and the Son.” Origen, like Tertullian coined a generic term for the “three” of the divine triad. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are “three hypostaseis” (=individuals). This term does not as such connote personhood in the modern sense of the term but distinct individuality.

Origen’s major contribution to the formulation of the trinitarian doctrine is the notion of eternal generation. His generic term for the “three” (hypostasis) will be adopted and refined in the fourth century. The troublesome legacy of Origen’s trinitarian thought is the implied inferiority or subordination of the Spirit to the Son and of the Son to the Father (subordinationism). This will be corrected in the fourth century.

D) The Trinitarian “Problem” and the Dogmatic Settlement

The problem inherent in the Christian adaptation and appropriation of the Hellenic notion of deity and the related tendency of logos Christology to prescind from Jesus in the direction of the preexistent Son all come to a head with Arius at the turn of the fourth century. The church will wrestle with these issues theologically and dogmatically, first as they relate to the divinity of the Son and then to the divinity of the Spirit.

Arius. Arius took the implications of the Hellenic idea of God quite seriously. If to be divine is to be the absolute arch̄—i.e., to be unoriginated, utterly underived in any sense—then only the Father is God. The Son as originating from the Father before time is indeed our Savior, but precisely as originating from, or being begotten of, the Father, the Son does not possess the essence of divinity, i.e., absolute unoriginatedness. The Son is the first of creation, produced from nothing by an act of the Father’s will. Recent scholarship has shown a strong soteriological concern in Arius’ theology (R. Gregg & D. Groh, Early Arianism). To be our Savior and the model of our growth in virtue and holiness the Son must have been capable of change and moral choice, and hence not divine. This soteriological concern, if indeed important for Arius, would simply demonstrate the concern for salvation underlying the whole fourth century trinitarian struggle. A major argument against Arius will be that a created redeemer could not have redeemed us. The trinitarian debates, while heavily political and often involving abstruse speculation about the ineffable reality of God, were at root concerned with salvation.

Nicaea. The Council of Nicaea (325) directly condemned the position of Arius. The creed of Nicaea states that the Son is “begotten, not created, one-in-being (homoousion) with the Father.” Further, the council condemns those who say, “ ‘There was a time when he did not exist’ and … ‘He was made from nothing,’ … alleging that the Son of God is mutable or subject to change …”

Clearly the intention of the council was to affirm apodictically the full divinity of the Son. It is difficult to sort out contextual factors from the essential intention of the definition. The Hellenic stress on divine immutability and concern about the Son as pre-existent were certainly contextual factors shred by the Arians and the council. The council did significantly qualify the excessively abstract Hellenic identification of the deity with “unoriginatedness” by affirming that the Son is both fully divine and “begotten.” However ineffably, then, the divinity is both unoriginate and begotten.

Athanasius and the Cappadocians. Initially the acceptance of the Nicaean settlement was fragile. The following fifty years were filled with confusion and often bitter dispute over the implications of homoousios. In what sense is God one? How is God yet three?

Athanasius led the response to the first question. At the time the word homoousios could have meant “of like essence” or “of the same essence.” Athanasius argued that the Son was of the same essence as the Father—not simply sharing the same generic essence as human beings share the same essential humanity but rather the same identical essence. He then argued that as the Son was of the same essence as the Father, so the Spirit was of the same essence (homoousion) as the Son. By this time the status of the Spirit had become theologically vague and was being challenged by the semi-Arian “Tropici.”

The Cappadocians, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa, followed up on Athanasius’ insistence on the identity of essence of the “three,” but their primary concern was to respond to the second question above: “How is God yet three?”

Basil never did explicitly apply homoousion to the Spirit. Whether for reasons of tactful irenicism or of theological subtlety, he affirmed the divinity of the Spirit in a way that would have a lasting impact. Basil fostered a shift in the doxological formula within his church of Caesarea. In place of the traditional doxology, “to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit,” he encouraged that praise be directed “to the Father, with the Son and the Holy Spirit.” His own response to criticism that he was innovating tends to confirm the rather limited pre-history of the practice that he was encouraging. His brother, Gregory of Nyssa, was probably the person responsible for having the “innovation” inserted into the revised creed of I Constantinople (381) in the form “the Holy Spirit … who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified.” Positively, this change powerfully affirms the divinity of the Spirit. A negative result—certainly unintended by Basil—is that by making the Spirit the object of worship it lessens the experiential sense of the Spirit as immanent source of worship. It tends to place the divine Mystery entirely over-against the worshipper, diminishing the sense of envelopment implied in the NT experiential pattern.

If the “three,” then, possess one identical essence, how are they three? The Cappadocians cumulatively formulated the answer to this question in terms of origin and mutual relations. They took the ambiguous word hypostasis, which could be used either as a synonym for “essence” (ousia) or as connoting a distinct individual reality. They employed it in this latter sense and applied it as a generic term for the “three.” In what sense are they distinct? The biblical evidence provides a distinguishing characteristic (idiotētes) for each of the “three.” The Father is distinguished as “ungenerated” (This is consonant with the early Christian equation of the Father with God, and further with the Greek appreciation of God as “unoriginated origin” or archē). The Son is distinguished as “generated,” and the Spirit as “proceeding.” These distinguishing characteristics connote mutual relatedness or more specifically mutually interrelated “modes of coming to be” (tropoi hyparxeos). In every other respect the “three” are identical. The Son is eternally begotten of the Father and is really distinct from the Father only in that the Son is generated and the Father is the generator. Likewise, the Spirit proceeds “out of the Father and receives from the Son,” differing from each of the others only as the one proceeding. The Trinity, then, is one absolutely simple, concrete, individual, infinite essence (ousia) subsisting without multiplication in three really distinct modes, characterized respectively as ungenerated, generated, and proceeding, in the order just delineated.

The Cappadocians were acutely aware of the inadequacy of these formal terms to express the ineffable divine Mystery, but they were convinced that the biblical language followed this logic. Nyssa’s argument from the identity of the divine activity to the identity of the divine essence illustrates this. According to the NT, every divine action in creation is done by all three together: the divine action “has its origin in the Father, proceeds through the Son, and reaches completion in the Holy Spirit.” Thus none of the hypostases possesses a separate operation of its own, but one identical power is exercised by them all. (N.B.: For the Cappadocians the prepositional pattern “from, through, in” is still operative here!) Another point illustrated by this example is that whenever the Cappadocians attempted to speak of the divine Mystery Itself (theology), they always spoke in terms of salvation history (economy).

The Trinitarian Dogma. In effect the Council of Constantinople (381) canonized the basic logic of trinitarian predication provided by the Cappadocians. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed, reflecting Basil’s doxological innovation, is essentially a reaffirmation of the doctrine of Nicaea with further elaboration on the status and role of the Holy Spirit. The creed itself does not explicitly apply the word homoousion to the Spirit and the actual documents of the council have been lost. However, conveniently for us, two synods were held the following year, one in Constantinople and the other in Rome, and confirmed the teaching of the council, providing us with Greek and Latin formulations respectively. According to the respective formulations God is one power and substance (ousia, substantia), in three distinct persons (hypostaseis, personae), and both the Son and the Spirit are of one identical substance (homoousion, unius substantiae) with the Father. While the terms in the two languages have different nuances, their intention here is basically the same. The dogma of Constantinople (381) has subsequently been received as binding on all churches of east and west, e.g., at Chalcedon (451).

Later councils and synods will make additions to this dogma of 381 but these additions are usually viewed as refinements or explicitations of the original dogma. For example the definition by the Council of Florence (1442) of the co-inherence (perichorēsis, circuminsessio) or mutual indwelling of the divine persons is an explicitation of the true identity of substance. The so-called Florentine principle, “In God all is one where there is no opposition of relation” (1442), was already operative in the logic of Athanasius and the Cappadocians assumed by Constantinople (381), before it was explicitated by Anselm.

E) Subsequent Theology—East and West

The subsequent theological history of the Trinity is long and detailed. Since it follows two separate trajectories—east and west—we shall briefly focus on a dominant figure in each tradition as we generally characterize the history.

The West. Augustine’s pervasive influence on western trinitarian theology is generally recognized. Unfortunately Augustine’s access to the nuanced reflections of the Cappadocians was limited, but it is quite clear that he completely accepted the trinitarian dogma and took as a major task to reflect upon and teach this “rule of faith” that the Trinity is God, one identical substance, subsisting in three persons. This formulation reflects the distinctive style of Augustine’s theology: God is identified with the divine substance, and the one substance is considered before the three persons. In itself the linguistic alteration of identifying “God” with the divine substance rather than with the Father was not problematic. It was in accord with the logic of the dogma and was occasionally done even by the Cappadocians. The problem is that this attenuates the sense of modal differentiation which is implied when the one identical essence is identified in order with each of the three distinct modes of being (without being multiplied). For the Cappadocians the divine substance is “modified” with each modal differentiation. In other words, the hypostasis characterized by “generation” is not simply a relation within the divine essence, rather it is the divine essence in an eternally distinct mode. Overlooking this modal differentiation leads to more abstract results when one applies the principle that “In God all is one where there is no opposition of relation.” This is nowhere clearer in Augustine than in his frequent use of what later will be called “appropriation.”

Augustine always insists—as the Cappadocians did—that when God acts in creation he acts as one principle and that we appropriate the activity to one or other of the persons as it is symbolically fitting. The reasons for this are that the Bible seems to do it this way and further that opposition of relation is not involved, hence the activity should be predicated to the Trinity as one. An important difference here from the Cappadocians is that for them the modal pattern was preserved. God’s creation, for example, was one divine action but it was accomplished from the Father, through the Son, and in the Holy Spirit. The difference in effect is more than verbal, for with mere “appropriation” there is a weakening of the linkage to the trinitarian experiential pattern. In Augustine’s hands this was offset by constant appeal to biblical language and the experiential pattern of his own interiority.

Augustine’s emphasis on the Spirit’s proceeding from the Father and the Son (filioque), acting as one principle, is similarly based jointly upon biblical citations and the application in an abstract way of the principle demanding unity where relation is not applicable. Once again Augustine beautifully elaborates this abstractly derived notion into his doctrine of the Spirit as the “bond of love” in the Trinity.

Augustine’s trinitarian theology is best known for its numerous trinitarian analogies. A point often overlooked is the intensely experiential pattern reflected in some of these analogies. Many of the analogies are rather tenuous examples of how three things may in a sense also be one. However, when Augustine reflects on his personal appropriation of his own being (esse), his knowing (nosse) of this being, and his freedom (velle) in this being, it is evident that the analogy—which is still an analogy—is closest to the ineffable Trinity.

It is only in the Middle Ages that some of these analogies are systematically developed into theories—still analogical—of the Trinity, e.g., Richard of St. Victor (lover, beloved, love), and Thomas Aquinas (mind, self-knowledge, self-love). In the hands of these great medieval theologians, the distinction between immanent and economic Trinity—already present in Augustine and the eastern Fathers—is becoming stronger, but a vital connection is always retained between the two. The later western tradition will tend more to separate the consideration of God’s inner life from the economy of salvation by using as the starting point of its reflection the formal statements of the dogma rather than the narratives of salvation history.

The East. Trinitarian theology in the east was spared the extreme formalization, which gradually occurred in the west, by reason of the fact that eastern trinitarianism remained in closer contact with liturgical and monastic spirituality. Nevertheless, it inherited the same “transcendentalizing” tendency of the Hellenic view of deity as a-temporal and immutable.

Gregory Palamas (1296–1359) represents this tradition well. As a hesychast monk (Hesychasm was a mystical monastic spirituality which strongly emphasized the experiential presence of God in prayer.), he reacted to the extreme intellectualism of western trinitarian theology. Palamas’ primary concern was to affirm the reality of communion with God. He rejects as inadequate the western notion of “created grace” in favor of the richer “divinization” (theōsis) of the early Greek Fathers. In a real sense the Christian “becomes divine.” To account for this, Palamas distinguishes between the divine “essence” (which is absolutely transcendent and unchangeable), the three “hypostases,” and the “uncreated energies.” The uncreated energies constitute God’s radically immanent activity and presence in the creature. This attempt to do justice to God’s immanence as “divinization” is receiving attention in contemporary theology. It is noteworthy though, that, for Palamas, the second and third hypostases were so identified with God’s transcendent, incommuni
cable essence that they could not have been conceived as the immanent divine energies which they were in the NT.

F) Current Trinitarian Theology

There are several points of wide consensus in contemporary trinitarian theology. First, the separation of the immanent from the economic Trinity is unacceptable. What we know of the divine Mystery in Itself, we know through its unfolding in the history of salvation, hence the return to biblical discourse as a starting point. Second, the trinitarian term “person,” if retained, should be used with care to avoid suggesting a multiplicity of operations (e.g., intellect, will) within God contrary to the dogma. Third, the trinitarian biblical discourse and our own “historical consciousness” demand a more careful consideration of the implications of this doctrine for divine immanence in creation and the “difference” that this makes for God.

Karl Rahner

The trinitarian theology of Karl Rahner, though not heavily biblical in its provenance, has contributed significantly to the addressing of these concerns. The primary focus of Rahner’s theology is the immanence of grace as a true “divinization.” He speaks of a real “self-communication” of God in which the divine reality becomes “the innermost constitutive element” of the creature. This self-communication of God, or this “becoming” of God in history, takes place in the incarnation and in grace. It entails a threefold modal differentiation in God, in that it is a real becoming of God in the otherness of created history. Rahner prefers modal language reminiscent of the Cappadocians to the “person” language of the west for the reason expressed above. The one infinite divine essence initially identified with the unoriginated “mode of subsistence” which we call Father is fully expressed in the humanity and person of Jesus in a second “mode of subsistence” which we call logos or Son, and is given in grace as the “mode of subsistence” which we call Holy Spirit. Having thus so strongly affirmed the immanence of the Trinity to history, Rahner then seems conversely to affirm the immanence of the historical divine self-enactment to the Trinity when he proclaims repeatedly: “The economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity and the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity.” The first part of the slogan he affirms and corroborates explicitly with the argument that God’s self-communication was not a true self-communication unless the divine Mystery presented Itself as it is eternally. It is not clear how strictly Rahner intends the converse to be taken. On the one hand, on the rare occasions when he speaks of the Trinity in abstraction from the economy to deal with a question like the pre-existence of the logos, he says such things as, “… the second (mode of subsistence) is exactly identical with God’s ability to express himself in history,” suggesting that God actually becomes triune only in history. On the other hand, he insists repeatedly on the absolute immutability of God in himself, at times speaking as if the processions within God were distinct from the missions in history.

The Agenda for Trinitarian Theology

We might formulate the essential task facing trinitarian theology as the catalytical unlocking of the meaning inherent in the primary discourse of the tradition in the context of our historically conscious modern world. “Historical consciousness” involves more than a sense of the past. It takes seriously the history in which we live and our responsibility for it. We value freedom as the capacity creatively to imagine finer possibilities and to be drawn into a new future. We cherish this temporal structure of the “becoming of our being,” although with people of every age we experience its fragility and perpetual perishing. Our historically conscious culture is in sharp contrast to the classical culture within which the doctrine of God was formulated. Catholic theology in the past several decades has become well aware of this cultural shift and is only beginning to appropriate its implications for the doctrine of God. This involves profoundly difficult philosophical problems.

Is God absolutely immutable? Scholars generally agree that the “steadfastness” of will which the Bible ascribes to God is different from the unchangeability of God which is universally predicated of God since the interface with Hellenic culture. For Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and Aquinas it is clear that unchangeability is virtually identifiable with God’s nature as infinite plenitude of being (“I am”). How can the infinite plenitude of being become? Assuming with these great theologians that “infinity of being” is a valid limit-concept referring to a reality beyond our comprehension, might not an ineffable “becoming” be possible for the Infinite without entailing an increase of its perfection or a multiplicity of infinity, and hence contradiction? Is not such ineffable capacity to become already suggested in the modal terminology of the Cappadocians where the “three” are characterized as “modes of coming to be” (tropoi hyparxeos), although the Cappadocians themselves would predicate unchangeability even of these modes?

Another related philosophical problem revolves around necessity and freedom. Necessity to be is implied in the absolute plenitude of God’s being. God could not not be, since the divine essence is “to be.” On the other hand, Christian theology has always viewed God as free, but this freedom extends only to possible creation and not to God’s own being, as if the divine being were completely determined by necessity. God certainly could not choose not to be, but if freedom is as primordial to God’s being as the Christian claim “God is love” suggests, might it not be that the “modes” of God’s being are rooted in God’s eternal freedom?

Then there is the relationship between the infinite and the finite. Rahner often paraphrases Hegel to the effect that the truly infinite cannot be thought of only as the opposite of the finite; it must also transcend this opposition, and be the unity of itself and the other to which it gives rise. For the finite to exist “outside” the infinite would deny the infinity of the infinite. Rahner, of course, holds that God creates freely, but if God does create, a radical participatory immanence of some degree must be involved.

Finally there is time and eternity. In Greek thought eternity was timeless. Augustine, whose description of time is classic, views time primarily in terms of its perishability and contrasts it sharply to God’s eternity, which is God’s very substance and hence simply is. However, in view of our historical consciousness of time as “becoming” and as “possibility to be,” and further, of God’s immanence to this becoming, might we not conceive of eternity as the ineffable fullness of time in God’s everlasting future? This is described in various ways by theologians. White-headian process theologians speak of God “prehending” time. Rahner even says “it is in time, as its own mature fruit, that ‘eternity’ comes about.” Wolfhart Pannenberg views God’s eternity as future vis-à-vis time. For him biblical eschatology entailed precisely this shift to the futurity of God’s absolute future. The reign of God which Jesus proclaimed was this divine future and hence God’s very being. In the Christian experience of Easter Jesus was discerned as identified with this reign.

These preliminary reflections on the relative as well as absolute, or immanent as well as transcendent aspects of God’s essence, are intended to free the originary trinitarian discourse of proclamation and worship to bespeak for our time the divine relati
vity as well as absoluteness in accordance with its full biblical intention.

Three possibilities open up, corresponding to each of the divine “three”: first, we can retrieve the biblical identification of the Son, the Word, with the concrete life and person of Jesus. Rahner speaks of Jesus’ history as “the history of God,” as the “divine drama of God-in-process,” and says that God “has done himself” in Jesus. The incarnation is not the extension of a procession which took place in the primal past of God’s eternity but an event of divine free self-determination, unfolding historically in the mode of full divine self-expression in the life and person of Jesus, climaxing in the resurrectional identification of Jesus with God’s reign. Jesus did not “become” divine; his life and destiny were a “becoming” of God in time for eternity.

Second, the biblical identification of our life in grace with the very Spirit of God, which was grasped in the early eastern theology of divinization, can again take on its original vivid sense of divine immanence. The Spirit does not simply cause our holiness or love but constitutes it within us. The Spirit is God’s full infinity of being in the “mode of coming to be” in the creature.

Third, a proper sense of divine temporality might enable us to grasp how the deepest intention of the philosophical notion of God relates to the biblical God. As the apologists realized, the biblical God was the archē, the “unoriginated origin,” from whom are all things. What biblical eschatology, culminating in the life and destiny of Jesus, adds is that the same archē is also the eschaton to whom are all things. The Cappadocians in different formulations associated two distinct distinguishing characteristics (idiotētes) with the first divine “mode”: unoriginateness and paternity. Later theologians debated as to which of these was truly constitutive of the first hypostasis. If we allow freedom to be equiprimordial with God’s necessity, we might say that God is necessarily unoriginate (the philosophical notion of God), but eternally has chosen to be “for us” as Father, and to have a future including our history through Jesus, his Son, in his Holy Spirit (the NT God).

Recent concern within feminist theology with the patriarchal structure of the trinitarian symbolism is sometimes addressed by noting the feminine gender and imagery associated with Spirit (rûach) in the OT and in early Syrian Christianity. Retrieval of this feminine dimension would be noteworthy, especially if it is true that religious experience which stresses transcendence tends toward symbolization in the form of archetypal fatherhood, and that which stresses immanence toward symbolization in terms of archetypal motherhood. Whatever form linguistic sensitization may take to open us to the “feminine” in God and diminish the possibility that our very experience of the divine reinforce the evils of sexism, its purpose would be greatly enhanced by the liberation of the inner divine symbols of immanence from captivity within a divine nature conceived as exclusively absolute.


Rahner has been criticized for preferring the abstract term “mode of subsistence” to “person” in his trinitarian theology. It is said we do not relate to abstractions as we do to persons. This criticism misses the point as to the purpose of theology and its relation to the primary trinitarian discourse which informs our Christian experience. Trinitarian “person” itself is an abstract theological term introduced, as we have seen, in the third century to connote distinct individuation. Neither of these terms is at home in worship or proclamation. These abstract terms, as theological, serve to guide our understanding and preserve the integrity of our experience of the one God, “in whom we live move and have our being,” and whom we address as Father when we pray with Jesus in their Spirit.


Bibliography: Jean Ladriére, “Le discours théologique et le symbol, ” Revue des sciences religieuses 49, 1–2, Strasbourg, 1975, pp. 116–41. J.D.G. Dunn, Christology in the Making, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980. Michael Fahey & John Meyendorff, Trinitarian Theology East and West, Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1977. Walter Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, New York: Crossroad, London: S.C.M., 1984. Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith, New York: Seabury Press, London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1978.

NT New Testament

OT Old Testament

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