The Shaping Of Trinitarian Doctrine And Language

Patristic writings, in continuity with the New Testament, reflect the Church's faith in Jesus Christ, dead and risen. It is from the core of a chris-tological approach that the trinitarian vision of the apostolic Fathers and their successors unfolds. Likewise, the Spirit is known by his advent at Pentecost and by his permanent indwelling of the Church. He is the Giver of new life, that is, the life in Christ, and of prophetic and charismatic gifts (cf. Acts and i Cor) in the context of an eschatological inauguration of messianic times in the sacramental 'today' of the Church. Thus, instead of providing reflections about the Spirit, the Fathers share with us their experience of the Spirit in the Church. Christocentrism and belief in the power of the Holy Spirit do not diminish the early Fathers' fundamental theocentrism: they emphasise that it is God the Father who is the Principle of divine activity in the world and who manifests himself in his incarnate Son and in his life-giving Spirit.

Until about the fourth century, the Fathers of the Church sought above all to examine trinitarian action in the world. The apologetic works of St Irenaeus of Lyons stand out especially here, as he strongly emphasised the joint action of the three persons of the Trinity: the Father plans and gives commands, the Son performs and creates, while the Spirit nourishes and increases, and, by degrees, man ascends towards the Perfect One.2 All three act simultaneously, but each acts in his own particular way.

It was with a spirit of reverential fear that the Fathers were then compelled to defend the divinity of the Son at the council of Nicaea in ad 325. They sought to remind Christians that Christ's coming into the world was a true manifestation of the eternal God and that his Incarnation opened the way to the fullness of salvation and of deification: '[God] was made man', said St Athanasius, following St Irenaeus, 'that we might be made God'.3 But such insistence on the eternal unity of the Father and the Son risked compromising or minimising the uniqueness, or irreducible specificity, of each of the divine persons. The Cappadocian Fathers worked in the course of the fourth century to formulate a theological language and to establish the meaning of precise terms that would permit Christians on one hand to distinguish the unity of the Three in essence, or shared substance, and, on the other, to express the mystery of each of the three persons by using the philosophical term 'hypostasis'. This term settled the trinitarian debate more conclusively than did the term 'person', which had been introduced by Tertullian in the early third century, by emphasising the unfathomable depth of personal being of each member of the Trinity.4

The language of theology, in which the Church gives an account of its faith, hope and knowledge of the trinitarian God, reflects the position of the Church and of theology at the frontier between God and the world. This language is 'capable of God' (capax Dei), yet at the same time always inadequate. Language itself must undergo a baptism of fire; it must die to human wisdom and be reborn in 'God's folly' (1 Cor 1:25).

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