Lewis Ayres in Nicaea and its Legacy offers a helpful summary of the “pro-Nicene” theology of fourth century church leaders. The Council of Nicaea (in 325) set out an acceptable manner for speaking of God’s oneness while still affirming his eternal distinctions as Father, Son, and Spirit. Yet the debate over how best to speak about God continued in following decades. Ayres, on page 236, offers three points that expressed the emerging consensus of orthodoxy in that era:
1. a clear version of the person and nature distinction, entailing the principle that whatever is predicated of the divine nature is predicated of the three persons equally and understood to be one;
2. clear expression that the eternal generation of the Son occurs within the unitary and incomprehensible divine being;
3. clear expression of the doctrine that the persons work inseparably.
The care taken by the early church fathers in expressing their shared faith in the Triune God has been critical to the health of the Church in the centuries that followed.
A question for us: how well are we doing today in maintaining the clarity and force of these insights? And, if we do speak of the Trinity in these terms, what sort of narrative emerges?
Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, established one option when he portrayed the Triune relationship as an eternal, non-material One (contra the Arians & Stoics) whose being is characterized by love. The Father is the lover, the Son is the beloved, and the Spirit is the love between them—that is, the communicator of that love. Each is fully personal and distinct—so that the Father is always the Father and never the Son; the Son is always the Son and never the Father; and the Spirit is neither Father nor Son, but is uniquely engaged in searching the depths of both the Father and the Son as he communicates their mutual and reciprocal love. Their oneness is maintained in that love.
In Augustine’s way of speaking of the Trinity he maintained the set of values noted by Ayres. The activities of God, whether in his creation; in his addressing the Fall through the Son’s incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension; and in his self-giving purpose to offer eternal communion to the saints; are all explained by the Triune God who invites humanity to enter the mutual love and glory of God. The Spirit pours out this love into the hearts of believers. God’s passion is an expression of his united yet diverse Heart.
There are, of course, other ways to speak of God. After the Reformation some Protestants elevated God’s stability in terms well aligned with the prevailing Greek notions of linear causation and divine necessity. It was crucial for them to first define God’s singular essence—as rooted in the Father—and then to extend this essence to both the Son and the Spirit. William Ames, an English Puritan, promoted this approach in his acclaimed The Marrow of Theology (1620-22 lectures to Dutch students). In Book I:4 Ames presented “God and His Essence”.
Ames presented God’s Essence in 67 items. The Trinity, by the way, wasn’t featured as a starting point—it was addressed next, in section I:5. In speaking of God’s essence Ames took up an apophatic starting point—featuring God’s hiddenness rather than his self-disclosures. Ames explained that much of what is said of God in the Bible is anthropopathic: using human qualities to speak of God (item 4). Yet any anthropopathism fails to represent God’s essence in adequate or accurate terms. What is affirmed of God by Ames was aligned with the classical Greek portrayals of God as pure act (actus, item 20) as guided by a perfect knowledge and singular will (items 52-61).
If we compare this approach to Augustine’s relational God who is essentially a Triune lover who shares his eternally pre-existing love with his creation, we find a starkly new way of portraying God. Ames, for instance, followed up his assertions about the divine knowledge and will by disavowing any affections in the divine: “The affections attributed to God in scripture, such as love, hatred, and the like, either designate acts of will or apply to God only figuratively” (item 62).
So while both narratives of God—Augustine’s and Ames’—are arguably consistent with the Nicene insistence that the Triune “persons work inseparably”, the bases of the two views are very different. Augustine treats the Father, Son, and Spirit as actively engaging one another from within their distinctions yet with complete (“inseparable”) accord because of their unity in love. Ames, however, treats the divine unity as rooted in a singular, guiding, disaffected will—i.e. “God’s essence”.
What sort of narratives of the Trinity are active today? Of the two I sketched out here I certainly prefer Augustine over Ames. I see a much broader alignment with the biblical portrayal of God who “is love”—a love rooted in a relational context. The disaffected essence that Ames promotes seems well out of step with texts like John 3:16. In Augustine’s picture I see a basis for our own growing alignment with God’s will as our love for God reciprocates his love for us. Our love engages his desires.