God the Father

From the outset Christian believers have tried to explore faithfully the unity, diversity, and relationships between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. St Augustine of Hippo played a key role in this development. He has often been contrasted with the Cappadocians (St Basil, St Gregory of Nazianzus, and St Gregory of Nyssa) on the grounds that whereas they started their trinitarian theology with the three persons (and then moved to the one shared essence), he began with the unity of the divine being in one essence or substance and then moved to the three persons. This stereotype has frequently been expressed through the captions 'Eastern' and Western' trinitarian doctrine. The truth here is somewhat different, as we will see from two comparisons used by Augustine.

After dedicating the early books of his masterpiece, De Trinitate, to what the scriptures witness about the divine persons, Augustine takes up the interpersonal relationship of paternity and filiation to develop the model of trinitarian love (De Trinitate, 8. 8. 12). The Father is the Lover, the Son the Beloved, and the Holy Spirit the mutual Love that passes between Father and Son. Eastern Christians have at times criticized this analogy for depersonalizing the Holy Spirit or at least for not allowing the identity of a distinct person to come through clearly. After all, in the I—Thou relationship, the mutual gift of love that two persons bestow on each other is not a third person, or at least does not emerge as an activity that defines a person distinct from the I and the Thou. However, no matter what limits finite creatures may suffer from in their mutual love, the case is different with God, who is love (1 John 4: 8, 16). Within the divine life, the Holy Spirit is the Love (uppercase) that the Father and the Son bestow on each other.

In the De Trinitate Augustine went on to exploit the human soul and its highest faculties as the best available analogy for the Trinity. He was encouraged to do so by the biblical understanding that human beings are made in God's image and likeness (Gen. 1: 26—7). Augustine's trinitarian theology could also draw support from the way the NT hints that the generation of the Son (e.g. Matt. 11: 27—'no one knows the Son except the Father') and the procession of the Holy Spirit (e.g. Rom. 5: 5—'God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit') are sometimes mirrored in the two basic activities of the human spirit: knowing and loving. In any case, by interpreting the Son as the Word coming from the divine Mind, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Athanasius, and others prepared the way to expound the generation of the Son in terms of the Father's act of thought. Augustine himself contributed the theme of the Holy Spirit as the fruit and reality of mutual love. In the scheme of the mind's being, the mind's knowledge of itself, and the mind's love for itself Augustine found an image of the Trinity: the Father as Being, the Son as Consciousness, and the Spirit as Love (De Trinitate, 9. 2. 2). Augustine brought further refinements into this model of the Trinity with the scheme that he preferred: the human memory (with knowledge coming through memory), intelligence (or understanding), and willing (ibid. 9. 8; 10. 10, 14—16; 11. 11, 17-19). The psychological analogy attends to the way in which the interior word arises as a kind of 'brain child' and thus through an act that can be compared with generation. The eternal Word or Son of God is distinct from and yet identical with the generating Father. Similarly the divine act of love gives rise to its eternal fruit, the Holy Spirit.

Augustine's psychological analogy of self-presence, self-knowledge, and self-love has proved enduringly influential. It avoids any risk of tritheism or falling into the error of holding three gods. But does it encourage a modalist view of God—that is to say, one that understands the names of 'Father', 'Son', and 'Holy Spirit' to refer merely to three modes or manners in which a monopersonal God exists, acts, and is revealed? Does this analogy, taken from a human being's cognitive and affective powers, 'save' the divine unity but 'lose' the divine threeness? How can the divine knowing and willing illuminate the existence in God of three persons and not be taken to be merely the interior soliloquy of only one person?

It can be argued that the inner life of the Trinity is so mysterious that any analogy will almost certainly run the risk of some error. It is better to edge towards a modalism that preserves monotheism than fall into vulgar tritheism. Furthermore, in Book 15 of De Trinitate Augustine highlighted again the love analogy in an attempt to interpret the Trinity. The Holy Spirit is the Gift of mutual love between Father and Son—a theme already developed much earlier in De Trinitate (5. 11-12). Centuries later Richard of St Victor (d. 1173) was to argue that mutual love, to be perfect, must be love shared with a third person. In God, we find not just an I—Thou relationship or reciprocal love but also the Holy Spirit as the 'Co-beloved'. There is a movement from self-love (the Father) to mutual love (the Father and the Son) to shared love (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). This interpretation of God as absolute communion of love takes a little further Augustine's trinitarian theology of love.

By the time of Richard of St Victor, two changes in the doctrine of God were beginning to break in: representations of the first person of the Trinity and a trend towards 'rationalism'.

For a thousand years Christians had reverently avoided representing the Father and so respected the mystery of One who, both within the godhead and beyond, is the sublime Source of all life and did not 'come on mission' for the salvation of the world, as did the Son and the Spirit. During the first millennium something similar had also happened in the case of the Son. Christian artists pictured him as largely bypassing pain, unconquered by death, and already reigning from the cross. But then, as we saw early in Ch. 2, eleventh-century developments in devotion and art furthered a deep sense of Jesus in his loving, suffering, human existence. Christian artists finally found the courage to represent more directly the crucifixion and Jesus' agonizing death. Parallel to this fresh sense of the human, suffering Christ, one also finds a fresh sensibility to his divinity and place in the Trinity. The strong Christ of trinitarian life belongs to a renewed appreciation of the tripersonal God that began in the tenth century, led to the institution of the Feast of the Holy Trinity in 1334, and was reflected in art—not least in the new willingness to portray God the Father.

The greatest of all medieval poets, Dante Alighieri (d. 1321), lent his weight to this popular appreciation of faith in the tripersonal God but did so with an image that remains discreet. At the end of his Paradiso,, Dante envisioned God as utterly active, with 'spinning' or 'circling' symbolizing the completely actualized divine perfection; in the divine spinnings, the Holy Spirit 'proceeds from' or is 'breathed by' both Father and Son: 'In the profound and clear ground of the lofty light there appeared to me three spinnings (circlings) of three colours and of the same extent. The One seemed reflected by the Other as rainbow by rainbow, and the Third seemed fire breathed forth equally from the One and the Other' (Canto 33. 115—20). As elsewhere in the Paradiso., spinning symbolizes completely actualized thought and perfection.

A century later, around 1411, St Andrew Roublev painted the most popular contemporary image of the Trinity, which is now found in the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow. It presents the three 'angels' who visited Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 18: 1—15). A divine unity and harmony pervades the composition, in which the three figures sit around the one table and are entirely referred to each other in a continuous dialogue of love. The Roublev icon (like the tradition that led up to it) is one of the few representations of the Trinity in which the Holy Spirit has a human face, albeit in angelic style. But it is not the only one in which God the Father has a human face.

At least from the early twelfth century, Western iconography was developing the 'Throne of Grace', undoubtedly the most important representation of the Trinity in the West. Turning up for centuries in a painted or carved form, it shows the Father holding the cross with the Son dead on it (or the Father simply holding the body of the Son) with the Holy Spirit as a dove hovering over them. One cross links the three figures; their unity is also expressed by their being turned towards each other. Frequently, as in the sublime version by El Greco exhibited in the Prado (Madrid), the dead body of the Son already hints at the luminosity of his coming resurrection. Many visitors to Santa Maria Novella in Florence have seen and marvelled at the Throne of Grace painted shortly before Masaccio died in 1428; in this version the Father exists mysteriously outside the space (and time) of our human world.

Some Western paintings of the Trinity that show the Father in a human form have chosen other moments in the whole story of God's work for our salvation: for instance, the childhood of Jesus, his baptism, or his final glory. Thus Bartolomé Murillo (1617—82) in the Heavenly and Earthly Trinities shows the Child Jesus standing on a higher level than Mary and Joseph and receiving their adoration. God the Father looks down and the Spirit as a radiant dove hovers above Jesus' head. Going beyond the voice from heaven ('You are my beloved Son') reported by the Gospels, the Baptism of Christ by Giovanni Bellini (d. 1516) adds the figure of the Father riding on some clouds right above the Holy Spirit, a glorious dove descending on Jesus. Titian (d. 1576) in his Trinity in Glory depicts all humanity drawn heavenward towards the Father and the Son, who are seated facing one another with the radiant Spirit hovering as a dove between them.84

On these and other works see D. Brown, 'The Trinity in Art', in Davis, Kendall, and O'Collins (eds.), The Trinity , 329—56.

Some Christians prefer that the Father never be represented in images, and that we content ourselves with the heavenly voice reported by the Gospels at Jesus' baptism and transfiguration. Others, in fact many others, find their life of prayer encouraged by the icon of Roublev (from the East) and/or the best versions of the Throne of Grace (from the West). In both cases they see not only the Son but also the Father and the Spirit revealed in the work of human redemption. The Throne of Grace shows this clearly. Roublev's painting finds its centre in the chalice on a table. The table brings to mind the Last Supper celebrated just before Christ's death and resurrection, while the chalice hints at the cup of the passion (Mark 10: 38—9). Thus both the Throne of Grace and Roublev's icon point to the dying and rising of Christ as the climactic moment when the Trinity is revealed. Even with such a preference for the Throne of Grace and Roublev, we must recognize how Murillo, Bellini, Titian, and other artists also tie the presentations of the tripersonal God into events in the history of human salvation: the childhood of Jesus, his baptism, his post-resurrection glory, and so forth. Christian art85 did much better than academic theology, which emerged from the twelfth century (see Ch. 2) and eventually allowed the question of God to be raised speculatively and in isolation from the historical revelation of the tripersonal God.

Debates with Francois-Marie Arouet (better known as Voltaire) (1694-1778), Denis Diderot (1713-84), and other figures of the Enlightenment (see Ch. 2) unfortunately pushed many apologists for mainstream Christian faith into arguing about God on 'merely' rational grounds, bracketing off the special history of the people of God, marginalizing the person of Jesus Christ, and developing what they called 'natural theology'. They turned God into a hypothesis for justifying the existence of the world—a procedure that eventually led to atheism as the hypothesis seemed to become less necessary. The apologists should have listened more to Blaise Pascal (1623-62), who deeply experienced and championed the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of Jesus Christ. Great mathematician and physicist that he was, Pascal rightly refused to raise the question of God except in terms of that history which climaxed with Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, with the coming of the Spirit.86 Pascal's

See V. N. Lazarev, The Russian Icon: From its Origins to the Sixteenth Century (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1997); J. Pelikan, The Illustrated Jesus Through the Centuries (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997).

See M. J. Buckley, At the Origins of Modern Atheism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987).

conviction here followed what we saw (in Ch. 2) about those popular devotions developed by medieval Dominicans and Franciscans: the rosary, the Christmas crib, and the Stations of the Cross. Such devotions implied that we know God through the history of Jesus, taken in its totality—in what went before his death and resurrection and in what has came after.

Sometimes Thomas Aquinas is accused of encouraging the separation of speculative reason and historical revelation. Beyond question, he examined what it means to call God the absolutely perfect, timeless, spaceless, and unchanging Being. He presented God as the ultimate, ungrounded Ground of all reality, One who sustains and moves everything. Far from talking of one reality alongside other realities, Aquinas insisted on God as the Reality that comprehends, grounds, and determines all other realities. The humbling consequence of such doctrine is that we cannot possess or dispose of God with our minds or in any other fashion. As regards Aquinas's arguments for the existence of God, the 'five ways' that he developed in the Summa Theologiae (I q. 2 a.3), they do not purport to be independent proofs of God's existence, still less to replace belief. Rather they emerge from a prior faith in and experience of God, and aim at illustrating the reasonableness of that faith and at introducing a theological inquiry grounded in revelation. Aquinas highlighted the mutual clarification that faith and reason can bring to each other.

Admittedly Aquinas divided his treatment of God into two parts: God as one ('De Deo Uno', ST I qq. 1-26) and God as three ('De Deo Trino', ST I qq. 27-43). He introduced this distinction for pedagogical reasons. Unfortunately many later Catholic scholars treated the oneness of God in the mode of philosophical reason, and introduced revelation and theology only when they had to speak of the Trinity. They forgot the constant need to lead God-talk back to the scriptures and the inspired account of the divine self-communication in the history of revelation and salvation. They often attempted to define the divine attributes independently of the tripersonal God made known in and through the biblical story. But any Christian and Catholic account of God should depend primarily on the tripersonal God, fully revealed in the history of Jesus.

Unquestionably the order and beauty of nature manifest God and the divine creative activity. The psalmist sings a long hymn to God, the creator of the earth and provider for all its inhabitants (Ps. 104: 1-35). Another psalm sees God's glory in the phenomena of the universe: 'the heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork'

(Ps. 19: 1). But the psalms, far from leaving history behind, constantly locate themselves within the story of God's saving and revealing activity. Psalm 19, for instance, presses on to praise the revelation of the divine will in the law that was communicated through Moses (Ps. 19: 7—14). The Book of Wisdom recognizes that God can be known, apart from revelation, through the good and beautiful things we see (Wis. 13: 1—9). But the same book gives this passage a full setting in God's historical dealings with Israel: for instance, by a long section on King Solomon's quest for wisdom (Wis. 7: 1-8: 21), by meditating on figures in the biblical story who led up to Abraham and Sarah (Wis. 10: 1—11: 4), and by a long comparison between the Israelites and the Egyptians (Wis. 11: 5—19: 22). St Paul echoes the Book of Wisdom when declaring that nature shows forth God's eternal power and divine nature (Rom. 1: 19—20), but the apostle never loses sight of the divine self-communication in biblical history and the 'trinitarian' face of the history of Jesus.

As the second millennium slipped into the third, a wealth of publications on the Trinity has witnessed to a widespread desire to rehabilitate belief in the tripersonal God as the deep truth at the very heart of Catholic and all Christian faith. A healthy reaction has set in against the modern, Western situation in which trinitarian faith seemed to have been reduced to little more than a logical puzzle for experts. In a slim volume, The Trinity., which originally appeared in 1967, Karl Rahner (1904—84) who was arguably the outstanding Catholic theologian of the twentieth century, complained that faith in the Trinity was marginal in the lives of Christians. However, when nine years later he himself published a 450-page introduction to Christian faith, he had hardly anything to say about the Trinity!87 Such examples of neglect of the Trinity could be easily multiplied. In such a situation it was understandable, if highly regrettable, that finding the trinitarian mystery irretrievable and even intolerable, some writers have opted for 'one God' and jettisoned 'three persons'.

Public worship, however, has always maintained the centrality of the Trinity. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed that churches across the world use at the Eucharist constantly reminds Christians of their trinitarian faith and does so by recalling the history of salvation—from creation to the end of the world. The celebration of baptism, along with the now

Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity (New York: Crossroad, 1978; German original 1976).

more frequent renewal of baptismal vows, also recalls to the attention of believers the trinitarian faith at the heart of their lives. The Eucharist opens 'in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit', and closes (as do normal Christian blessings) with a blessing in the name of the Trinity. The content of the eucharistic prayers, both in the East and in the West, is repeatedly trinitarian. The short doxology, 'Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit', and the 'long' doxology, 'Glory to God in the Highest', address the tripersonal God. The collects, or variable prayers, in the divine office and in other liturgical ceremonies, above all in the Eucharist, end by invoking the Trinity. In short, where many theological writers have failed to be trinitarian in focus, liturgical texts have clearly maintained that the Trinity is the message of salvation. For Catholics and other Christians the 'law' of public worship has never ceased to indicate the central 'law' of belief, faith in the tripersonal God.

When encouraging Catholics to prepare well for the Holy Year of 2000 and the coming third millennium, John Paul II swept aside suggestions about seven years of preparation, one for each of the seven sacraments. In his 1994 apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente ('The Third Millennium Approaching'), he went to the trinitarian heart of the matter by inviting all Christians to dedicate in a special way 1997 to Jesus Christ, 1998 to the Holy Spirit, and 1999 to God the Father.

Those who wish to know what Catholics believe about the Trinity in general, and God the Father in particular, could well be advised to attend some church services, preferably in both the Eastern and Western rites. By listening carefully to the prayers and hymns and by contemplating the icons and other images, they will have a closer chance of appreciating what their faith in the tripersonal God means in the great scheme of things to rank-and-file believers.

Chapter 9 will reflect on the moral consequences of faith in the Trinity. We devote the rest of this chapter to the Holy Spirit and to some questions about Christ 'in himself' and 'for us'.

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  • fabiana
    Is God the Father feast day aproved by the catholic church?
    3 months ago

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