The interpretation of the biblical titles of Wisdom, Word and Son took place in conjunction with the account of Christ's life as recorded in the Gospels. The New Testament presents Christ as a human being born of a woman, who lived the life of a child, grew to maturity, taught and worked miracles in the villages and towns of Galilee, was crucified in Jerusalem, executed on a cross, and three days after the his death rose to new life. This portrait was indelibly part of Christian thought and experience. Hence when Christians used phrases such the 'wisdom of God' or 'word of God', or said that in Christ 'the fullness of God dwelled bodily', they had reference to a concrete historical person as well as a divine being who existed in intimate fellowship with God. What they knew of God's Wisdom or Word was disclosed to them not only through the Scriptures but also by the life of Christ, i.e. by what had happened in history. The several titles were complementary and had to be interpreted in relation to one another. God's Wisdom may have been known through reading the Septuagint, but the Son could not be clearly discerned in the Septuagint without first knowing the Son who lived on this earth. As St Irenaeus put it at the end of the second century: 'according to the economy of our redemption there is a father and a son'.
Irenaeus uses the term 'economy', an expression that is puzzling to modern readers, but essential for understanding the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. In Christian theology the term 'economy' designates God's ordered self-disclosure in creation, in the history of Israel and pre-eminently in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Hence the term was used as a shorthand way of referring to the Incarnation and the events that had followed from God's descent into human affairs, i.e. to the evangelical history. More than any other term it captured what was unique to Christianity, and that in the words of Ignatius of Antioch (early second century) was the suffering and death of Christ: 'Now the Gospel has something distinctive; the coming of the Saviour, our Lord Jesus Christ, his suffering and resurrection.'
Tertullian's chief argument against the 'monarchians' is that in claiming to safeguard belief in the one God, they ignore the economy, i.e. the evangelical history. They do not understand that 'while they must believe in one God only, yet they must believe in him along with his economy'. In his view, and in the view of all early Christian thinkers, thinking about God has to begin with history, specifically the appearance of God in the person of Christ. Reasoning about God had to proceed differently now than it had before the coming of Christ. The rank and file, whom Tertullian condescendingly calls the 'simple folk' (simpliciores), fail to see this and 'take fright at the economy'.
The difficulty with the 'monarchians' is that they steadfastly hold to conceptions of God that were formed before the coming of Christ. Of course, it should be acknowledged that the critics of monarchianism also suffered from a kind of theological inertia. On certain points, e.g. notions of divine impassibility and immutability, they too clung to older conceptions of the divine. Origen, for example, said that as a result of 'God's descent to human affairs', i.e. the economy, we 'have been able to perceive clearly the true conception of God's nature'. Yet when he states what has been learned, he uses conventional Greek categories: God is 'incorruptible, simple, uncompounded, and indivisible'. Tertullian was one thinker who realized that the 'economy' required a more radical critique of earlier philosophical notions of God than that provided by his contemporaries. But all agreed that thinking about God had to begin with the economy, God's ordered self-disclosure in history. 'The human mind', writes Gregory of Nyssa, 'can only speak about God as it is instructed by God's works', i.e. what is disclosed in the economy. The economy is the engine that drives Trinitarian thinking.
How important the 'economy' was in forcing Christians to revise their ideas of God can be seen in a passage from the fourth-century Latin theologian, Hilary of Poitiers, sometimes called the Athanasius of the West because, like the latter, his contemporary, he spent most of his life, which spanned the fourth century (he was born about 300 CE and died in 367), defending the decrees of the Council of Nicaea (325 CE). He was also a biblical interpreter from whom we have a commentary on the Gospel of Matthew and a Commentary on the Psalms (covering about fifty psalms). But his greatest achievement was a large work, On the Trinity, written at the height of the Arian controversy. In this work Hilary not only shows he has mastered the arguments of earlier writers but that he was able to rework them with great originality. Hilary writes: 'We cannot as true believers assert that God is one, if we mean by it that he is alone...'. If God were solitary and alone, that would give no place for his Word. If, on the other hand, we simply assert that the Son is a second God alongside of the supreme God, we deny that God is one. We must, says Hilary, confess: 'though he is one he is not solitary'.
That Hilary would frame the issue in this way is significant. The Arians had argued that the Son was not wholly divine. The Scriptures, for example, called him the 'first born of all creation' (Col. 1:15) and other passages (e.g. Prov. 8:22) suggested that he should be ranked as the highest of created beings. In their response, the defenders of the Nicene formula ('of one substance with the Father'), Athanasius and others, tried to show, by an exegesis of disputed texts from the Scriptures, that Christ was fully God. The question raised by the Arians concerned the status of the Son, not the nature of God. Hilary, of course, joined other Nicene thinkers in defending the full divinity of the Son; but in the passage I have just cited he moves the debate into new territory by making it a discussion of the nature of God.
His argument runs as follows. The first Christians were Jews and as Jews they recited each day the ancient prayer of the Jews, the Shema, 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one.' Since this is so, asks Hilary, what are we to make of Thomas' confession, 'My Lord and my God'? How could Thomas have confessed Jesus, a human being, as 'my God' and at the same time pray the Shema? How could a faithful Jew and apostle forget the divine command to recite the Shema and make a new confession, that Christ is God, when he knew that his very life depended on the confession that God is one? Thomas had often heard Jesus say things such as 'I and the Father are one', and 'all things that the Father has are mine', as we know from the Gospel of John.
What is striking about Hilary's argument is that it is so consciously historical. He explains that the facts of history, i.e. the 'economy', forced a rethinking of the traditional way of conceiving God. Hilary envisions a time at the very beginning of Christianity when all Christians were Jews and continued to observe Jewish traditions. His comments indicate that he had asked himself a question that I am sure many have asked, especially when reading St Paul. How could a faithful Jew, formed by Jewish tradition and accustomed to Jewish rites and prayers, for whom the most fundamental article of faith was that God is one, how could Paul use such exalted language about Christ and employ on occasion formulas of greeting that link Christ with God, e.g.: 'the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all' (2 Cor. 13:13)?
Hilary's answer is that everything was transformed with the resurrection of Christ, and Thomas was the first to grasp the nature of the change. Once Jesus was raised, Thomas 'understood the whole mystery of the faith through the power of the resurrection'. For 'no nature is able to rise from death to life by its own power except God's nature'. Now, i.e. in light of the resurrection, Thomas was able to confess Christ as God 'without rupturing his loyalty to the one God', for he saw that his confession was not the 'acknowledgement of a second God, nor a betrayal of the unity of the divine nature'. The resurrection of Christ teaches us, says Hilary, that God is not a 'lonely God' or an 'isolated God' (in solitudine), yet at the same time it does not teach us that there are two Gods.
For Hilary, the resurrection of Jesus was the basis for rejecting a strictly monistic view of God. One cannot exaggerate the significance of this reasoning for the development of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The economy not only reveals God's purposes for humankind; it also discloses the inner life of God. In the words of a contemporary theologian, Wolfhart Pannenberg: 'As God reveals himself, so he is in his eternal deity' (Pannenberg 1991:300). Though God is ineffable and his ways beyond finding out, the Scriptures teach that in Christ we come to know not only the 'face' of God but are able to look within God. A striking text in this regard was Colossians 1:19, 'In [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.' With characteristic boldness, Origen took this passage to mean that through God's revelation in Christ we become 'spectators' of the 'depth of God'.
Hilary, then, has reason to say that through Christ's resurrection the apostles learned something of God that was not evident prior to the 'economy'. He expresses what is implicit in early Christian discussions of the Trinity and states the reasoning that was at work in early Christian thinking about God.
The event in Christ's life that was decisive in God's self-disclosure, the event that sealed and completed his mission, was the resurrection from the dead. Through the resurrection Christ's unique relation to God was made apparent. In the words of St Paul: Christ 'was declared to be the Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead' (Rom. 1:3).
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