By Mother Miriam, CSM
After 2000 years of devout and sincere Christians praying, discussing, and organizing ecumenical councils to work out theological expressions about identity of Jesus Christ and the mystery of the Holy Trinity, translations and meanings of these descriptive words change with changes in culture and threaten the right understanding of their original meaning.
I am writing this post as an encouragement to pastors to use the joyous time between Easter and Trinity Sunday to teach our people the original meaning of Greek and Latin words in our Nicene Creed. Gaining a robust understanding of such words as ousia/substantia (“substance”), homoousion, and hypostasis/persona, is a healthy exercise before determining a better set of vernacular words to name the persons of the Trinity for 21st-century ears that react so negatively against the idea of patriarchy.
For the sake of brevity and simplicity, while affirming God is one God, the astonishing revelation of God incarnate in Jesus Christ opened the minds of New Testament people like Peter, James, and John. They knew God in their encounters with Jesus Christ and by being filled with the Holy Spirit. How were they to explain this experience? Tertullian (160-225 AD) used the word substance to describe the essence of God, borrowing a Roman law concept that allowed multiple persons to own one piece of property. It would prove an important and contentious term in years to come, before it became a part of the Church’s creed.
The Church Fathers saw Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, beginning with Genesis: the Spirit hovering over the uncreated waters with the Word spoken; the three men who appeared to Abraham; and Jacob wrestling with the “angel.” Similarly, in texts like the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, they struggled to express the nature of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as one God in trinity of persons.
The question of how to explain concepts like substance and person has been a perennial concern, particularly in the Church’s catechesis. For example, in 1939, Bishop Frank Wilson was careful to define his terms in Faith and Practice against contemporary understandings of these words.
“Substance” refers to the essential Being of God which is always one. “Person” does not mean a separate being but a distinct Self. There are three Selfs in one Being–or three Persons in one God. For want of better names we call them Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (Faith and Practice [Morehouse Publishing, 1941], p. 59)
Wilson was also careful to quote the exact texts in the New Testament that gave rise to the sense/intuition of God being in relationship within God and with humanity. An example is Matthew’s “Great Commission” at the close of his gospel: “Go you therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19).”
Insights from modern psychology have made the uniqueness and individuality of human personality commonplace. Logic would expect God to be something greater than human persons. The converse, of course, is that it would be an insult to human life to build a faith and worship of anything less than a God beyond all human capacity. And yet, God must be recognizable and within the reach of our human imagination. Therein is the key to the Cappadocian Fathers’ insight into the meaning of “person” (hypostasis, persona) as a clarification of St. Athanasius’ contribution of homoousion, “of one being with the Father,” in the description of Christ in the Nicene Creed.
The word person today in casual American speech is an impoverished synonym for an individual human being. When I was very young, it always irritated me that our family pets would obey my father, and never me, because he was perceived as more dominant. They would obey my mother, but not me, because she fed them. I was their playmate. So I asked my mother one day about my relationship with them, since they ignored my every word. She told me that I was their person, and they would be sad if I did not play, i.e., interact, with them. Even 50 years ago, the word person meant more than just an individual in a vacuum.
The Trinity cannot be pictured as a nuclear family of Father, Mother, and Child, as my intended metaphor above presents itself. A nuclear family lends itself to a captive introspection and weakens our faith and understanding in God’s grace and redemption outpouring upon humanity. St. John’s revelation “God is Love” evolved into the Nicene Creed’s definitions for Three Persons in One Being greater than human persons and requiring relational names that do not completely parallel human relationships. For better or worse, one family with diverse members (How can the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father be seen as a family member?!) is a human construct that has worked analogically from the first centuries of Christianity.
The Cappadocian Fathers used the term “relation (schesis),” probably referring to one of Aristotle’s Categories, to explain how the Son and Father had different hypostases (literally, “under-pinnings”) upholding the same substance/ousia. Their intention was to show the unity in relationship between the Father and the only-begotten Son (a Son only in the sense of generation from the Father before time) and Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father for the Church.
We have two ways of understanding God-with-us. We who have been raised in western Christianity are accustomed to making analogies to describe the Trinity. The most famous is Augustine’s psychological model of human self-knowledge and self-love where the generation of the Son was the fruit of the Father’s understanding and the Holy Spirit was the mutual love between the Father and the Son. Those familiar with the Eastern Doctors of the Church know of that strain of negative theology that always ends with “God is unknowable.” The inadequacy of the Western analogy agrees with the Eastern “shrug of the shoulders.” God is a mystery beyond our ability to understand, and we rise together on grace and paradox into eternal life.
Rather than change the schesis to fit broken, sinful human society, should we not accept our debt to the Church Fathers and our limits in understanding, uphold the classic creedal expression, and change our behavior to match what God has asked of us who are his partners in the New Covenant?