An icon of the Three Hierarchs — Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom. A part of an iconostasis dated 1766. Adam Ján Figel’/AdobeStock

The Fathers and Trinity Sunday, Monday, Tuesday …

How the Fathers of the Church, as priests, perceived divine reality

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Whenever a Christian makes the Sign of the Cross, invoking the Trinitarian formula, he or she exercises a habit of patristic thought that helps solve the puzzle faced each Trinity Sunday: how to voice the ineffable. That humblest, most repeated gesture of daily prayer captures a double truth: the uniquely Christian understanding of God and that it is unknowable apart from his unique self-revelation in Jesus Christ. It is all at once God in Se and ad extra, God in the reality of divine transcendence and God made known through the divine economy. Neither comes without the other; nor does the Christian hope of salvation stand without both together. The Fathers of the Church might say this simplest of actions shows that the mystery of the Trinity must be encountered fully and not become unduly lost in the un-simple terminology they discerned.

The fourth-century Fathers, between the First Council of Nicaea (325) and the First Council of Constantinople (381), formulated the Church’s basic nonnegotiable language for thinking about the Godhead. These Fathers included giants like Sts. Athanasius, Hilary of Poitiers, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa, who then passed the torch at the century’s end to Sts. Augustine and John Chrysostom. None were academics. All were priests, pastors and ministers of Jesus Christ who understood that all their efforts served one end: to facilitate the journey of Christ’s people to heaven and their union with God.

With this fact in mind we can see some ways the mystery of the Trinity stamped the Fathers as priests and permeated their pastoral ministry in terms of how they fundamentally perceived divine reality, saw heresy’s real danger, experienced awe-filled wonder in this endeavor, rethought the very meaning of monotheism and humanity, and perceived liturgy and spirituality as Trinitarian encounters. These earlier priests might spark the orthodox creativity of their successors to the pastoral office.

Challenges of Language Used

The terminological challenges regarding the Trinity begin, of course, not from a lack of precise language but with the chosen words themselves. The priests who settled on this language — and thus had to preach on it — well understood explaining God as a single divine ousia / substantia existing in three equal hypostaseis / personae who are mutually homoousios / consubstantialis to each other ruled out a great many false ideas about God, indeed, but also ruled out easy preaching material.

Augustine expressed qualms about having complete satisfaction with a word like “person” (cf. De Trinitate, No. 7.7-9), while Basil of Caesarea was not sold on absolutely rejecting a problematic term like homoiousios provided one conditioned its definition properly (cf. Letters, No. 9). They embraced the Church’s language because it removed dangerous ambiguities and, equally important, allowed the discussion to continue. This approach yielded several benefits.

St. Augustine
The painting of St. Augustine (c. 1330-40) by Jacobello di Bonomo. Adam Ján Figel’/AdobeStock

First, there is the awareness of human speech’s inability to contain the mystery of God. None of the Fathers imagined that the careful vocabulary exhausted the reality under discussion. Instead, what the Church had discerned and sanctioned safeguarded ongoing reflection and exploration; it did not terminate them. Nothing is ever designated a “dogma” except at the end of very long, intense and sophisticated thinking, including debate and criticism in order to point a sure way forward, all of which is not meant to halt advancement. The Fathers recognized that dogmas kept the pilgrim on the path, avoiding the pitfalls at the roadside (cf. Gregory Nazianzus, “Oration,” Nos. 20.6 and 10, and John Chrysostom, “The Priesthood,” No. 4.4). We might call them guardrails.

Another analogy might be to think of dogmas as being to theology what vows are to the married, religious or priestly life. Vows set the parameters that make such a life possible, which otherwise could dissipate in too many bad directions. In this vein, we come closer to the Fathers’ mindset. If the mystery under discussion ultimately eludes language’s grasp, why bother trying? But this is like asking: Why try to love at all if I know I will not perfectly, unfailingly give myself totally selflessly to another? Such a “safe” route would surely be life’s most dangerous path. Is it not better to embark on a life of love, even imperfectly followed, than the alternative? Similarly, the lover’s piecemeal progress suggests how the Church grows in the knowledge of the one she loves by her measured steps at theological understanding.

We are, after all, required to love God with all our heart and mind (cf. Mt 22:37), which requires understanding, reasoning and speech. These unique gifts of God to the human creature allow a singular return to the Creator. When they work properly together, the heart and mind acquire the fullest extent of understanding, which stimulates delight, wonder and love. Dogmas improved the quality of that return to the Creator; they did not conclude it. Instead, they laid the foundations for that delight, wonder and love which lead to salvation (cf. Augustine, Sermon 341.7). How the Fathers applied those doctrinal definitions reflects this.

Into the Fray

Basil of Caesarea once famously observed that the baptismal formula speaks only of being baptized “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19), nowhere “into a first, a second, and third” (cf. “On the Holy Spirit,” No. 18.45). Immediately, the Christian needs a correct, comprehensive reading of sacred Scripture, not a selective focus on favorite or easiest-understood passages. Thus began the Church’s move toward a Trinitarian understanding of God, because the only conclusions to be drawn from the full Gospel’s depiction of Jesus Christ is that here was someone who was born, hungered, tired, bled, sweated and died like any other human, but who also forgave sins, declared lordship over the Sabbath, exercised judgment over the Law, performed every variety of miracle, and founded a covenant which are only divine prerogatives, all the while affirming a strict monotheism. At the core of this revelation was the vision of salvation as union with God through Christ (cf. Jn 17:3, 20-26), becoming “as he is” (cf. 1 Jn 3:2), with the barrier between God and humanity removed by the one mediator, Christ Jesus (cf. 1 Tm 2:5).

Heresy broke all this, because in one way or another it diminished Christ as the mediator who effects this union. Heresy was deadly, not merely a faulty idea. There could be no greater urgency for a pastor, and so it becomes almost impossible to tabulate how often the Fathers insert the Trinitarian doctrine into their preaching. They did not need isolated occasions, because God does not encounter his people on isolated occasions, and God is never encountered as not the Trinity. Wise pastoral sense meant the Mystery required frequent articulation and contemplation. Thus Augustine could seamlessly elide into an exposition of this doctrine whether he was preaching at Christmas (cf. Sermon 186) or the Ascension (cf. Sermons 264, 265A), or conferring the Creed to catechumens in Lent (cf. Sermons 214, 215), the Easter Vigil (cf. Sermon 223A) or on the annual feasts of martyrs (cf. Sermons 277, 308A). This was not by accident but from a sense of pastoral obligation to Christ’s people.

Voicing Wonder

One might suspect such focused watchfulness left a shrill tone. Certainly, the Fathers could have sharp words for heresies, as when Augustine describes Arianism having “all the movement of a putrefying corpse” (Tractate on the Gospel of John, No 40.7). However, what predominates are the voices of believers themselves enraptured and in awe of the Mystery they proclaim. Hilary of Poitiers cannot help but stop and marvel at the supreme reality before his mind (cf. The Trinity 6.19-24, 12.56-57). It is both exceedingly wonderful and beautiful (ibid, 1.7-9). There is nothing coldly intellectual here; to contemplate the mystery of the Trinity is to be captured by it personally and converted to it.

Gregory of Nazianzus, called “the theologian,” characterizes this marvelously — he who did his theologizing through sermons and poems. The noble beauty of the subject demanded a correspondingly noble and beautiful medium. Nothing casual or inattentive was admissible. The sermon itself becomes a Trinitarian encounter, not simply a Christian exercise in classical oratory. Here the preacher gives voice to the Word who himself took flesh; the preacher’s best efforts amount to a return to the Creator Word of the gifts he first imparted. There is a kind of sacramental reciprocity at work in the pulpit. For this reason, Augustine says the preacher must be one “who prays before he is someone who speaks” (“Christian Doctrine,” No. 4.87).

Rethinking God and Man

Inevitably, the reflection upon God’s revelation ad extra leads to reconsideration of God in Se. Hilary of Poitiers drew the fascinating conclusion that the Bible’s God is a single being who cannot exist in isolation. There must be a dynamic, “shared” dimension to God’s life consisting of “infinity in the Eternal, form in the Image, and use in the Gift” (“The Trinity,” 2.1). This correspondingly requires a new insight into what it means to be patterned on the image of this God (cf. “The Trinity,” 4.17-20, 9.4-10).

Augustine, enlarging Hilary’s insights, argued “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8, 16), which makes better sense through Trinitarian monotheism; true love requires a giver and a receiver of a love, with all three distinct yet equal in substance (cf. De Trinitate, Nos. 6.7, 15.27-39). Similarly, he maintains that, as the image of the Triune God, one ought to find the same “imprint” within oneself. This gives rise to his famous “psychological models” — for example, memory, understanding and will — of “triads” of inseparable but distinct elements within each person (cf. De Trinitate, 11.11-12, 12.4, 15.43). The dogma of the Trinity forced a rediscovery of the wonder of being human.

Lex Orandi

This brings us back to that Sign of the Cross which began this article. Christian prayer — whether private or communal — is a Trinitarian reality. Gregory of Nyssa brings this sensibility to Christianity’s most basic prayer, the Our Father, when he reads “thy kingdom come” as invoking the Holy Spirit (cf. Sermon 3 on the Lord’s Prayer). He supports this not just on a rare variant version of the prayer’s wording, but on its inherent logic. The Lord’s Prayer, prayed rightly, leads to the transformation of the believer into a kind of alter Christus, who himself had the Holy Spirit descend upon him (cf. Lk 3:22; Jn 1:32). But none of this is conceivable without the Trinitarian dogma.

How much more is this true of the liturgy, the prayer of the Son to the Father in the Holy Spirit (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1073)? The texts of the Western Mass and Eastern Divine Liturgy are profoundly patristic in inspiration, particularly the Cappadocian Fathers. The whole action is Trinitarian. It would be impossible to list here all that indicate this, but does not full and active participation require familiarity by all the faithful with the liturgy’s simultaneously transcendent and immanent Trinitarian majesty?

Lex Credendi

Ultimately, the Sign of the Cross with the Trinitarian formula reminds us we know this mystery through God’s greatest act of love — the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus the Trinity must be sought through conversion of our whole selves, not just on Sunday but every day of the week, and of our lives. This is why the Fathers tirelessly sought ways of appropriating it, and why every source of real encounter is essential. No less an authority than Gregory Nazianzus would caution us not to let the specialized vocabulary of Greek philosophy obstruct that: “If you trust me, who am no rash theologian, comprehend what you can and pray to comprehend the rest. Love what already abides within you; the rest abides in the treasury on high. Approach it through your way of life, and acquire what is pure through purification” (“Oration,” 20.12).

FATHER DOUGLAS J. MILEWSKI is a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, and holds a doctorate in patristic theology and sciences. He teaches theology at the archdiocese’s Seton Hall University.


The Dogma of the Holy Trinity

The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides an instruction to the dogma of the Holy Trinity. The Catechism teaches: “The Trinity is One. We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons, the ‘consubstantial Trinity.’ The divine persons do not share the one divinity among themselves but each of them is God whole and entire: ‘The Father is that which the Son is, the Son that which the Father is, the Father and the Son that which the Holy Spirit is, i.e. by nature one God.’ In the words of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), ‘Each of the persons is that supreme reality, viz., the divine substance, essence or nature.’

“The divine persons are really distinct from one another. ‘God is one but not solitary.’ ‘Father,’ ‘Son,’ ‘Holy Spirit’ are not simply names designating modalities of the divine being, for they are really distinct from one another: ‘He is not the Father who is the Son, nor is the Son he who is the Father, nor is the Holy Spirit he who is the Father or the Son.’ They are distinct from one another in their relations of origin: ‘It is the Father who generates, the Son who is begotten, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds.’ The divine Unity is Triune” (Nos. 253-254).


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