Robert LWilken

Christians confess God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The classical statement of belief in the Triune God was adopted at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE and reaffirmed and expanded at the Council of Constantinople in 381 CE. This creed, with its tripartite structure ('We believe in one God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth...and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds.and in the Holy Spirit the Lord and Lifegiver'), is used to this day by millions of Christians throughout the world when they celebrate the Eucharist. It is the most ancient authoritative summary of Christian teaching and the mark of orthodox Christian faith.

To many Christians, however, the doctrine of the Trinity appears as a theological construct, useful perhaps as a way of explaining the manifold ways God is known to us, but not a necessary teaching of the Christian faith. In the early nineteenth century when Friedrich Schleiermacher organized his dogmatics, The Christian Faith, he relegated the doctrine of the Trinity to an appendix. He acknowledged that the doctrine expressed a fundamental truth about the union of the divine and human, but he considered it a means of defending something else, an effort at theological explanation of more fundamental truths, not a teaching in its own right. The doctrine of the Trinity, he wrote, is not 'an immediate utterance concerning the Christian self-consciousness'. In his view there are only two immediate utterances, that the being of God is present in Christ, and that the divine unites itself with human nature in the Spirit who animates the Church. Neither of these affirmations requires that one posit a triune God.

Schleiermacher's approach to the problem was not new. Already in the early Church Sabellius had taught that the various terms, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, were simply names that Christians give to the ways we know and experience God's activity and presence, the modes by which God is known. In calling God Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, it was argued, we are only speaking about how God manifests himself to us; we are not saying anything about the nature of God. The questions raised centuries ago by Sabellius, and echoed by later critics of the doctrine of the Trinity during the Church's history, can be stated as follows: if we take it as axiomatic that God is one, is there any reason, on the basis of the several ways God is known to us, to project the plurality of our experience of God into the life of God? Why should the manifestations of God be thought to designate distinctions within the Godhead?

Sabellius was not the only Christian thinker to raise questions about the emerging doctrine of the Trinity. Almost from the beginning some Christians had reservations about confessing God as 'triune'. Although the terms Father, Son and Holy Spirit were used in the Bible and in Christian worship, not all agreed on how this language was to be understood. To speak of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit seemed to compromise belief in the one God. During the early centuries these matters were debated as Christian thinkers sought to express what they had come to know through the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. In time differing views began to coalesce around a centre, and it was this centre, expressed in the Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan Creed, which came to define orthodox Christian faith. It is historically and theologically important to understand how this came to be, and in the pages that follow I discuss several of the factors, the Bible, the Resurrection of Jesus, and the Church's liturgical life, that contributed to the formation of the Trinitarian faith.

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