Saturday, March 8, 2014

Modern Arians, the Fathers & the Trinity?

When first reading the Fathers of the Church one may be tempted to smile at the quaintness of those phenomenological writers of old and to congratulate more recent theologians for advancing from simplistic and obvious tenets of faith, like the Divinity of Jesus, to more complex and intellectually challenging fields like the mechanisms of justification and the temporal exchanges of merit concerning purgatory. Vatican I quoted St. Vincent of Lerins' Commonitory which gives a brief exposé on the development of doctrine, a concept which also influenced John Henry Newman in his conversion. 

However, intellectual fulfillment and spiritual piety will profit very little from advanced schools of theology in the modern day. Knowing the concept of a sacramental form and how to deduce it for Confirmation will not profit the soul of modern man, whose religious experience rarely extends beyond an occasional Christmas Mass and whose education is confined to the dullest and most monotonous of topics (specialized training, business courses, IT etc). What could appeal to these people?

The Church Fathers are the most obvious choice. The Fathers, particularly the Apostolic Fathers, did not rely as heavily on technical terms, particular philosophical traditions, and an established Christian culture as did the Scholastics, the casuists, the neo-Scholastics, and the manualists. Their own culture was marked by either persecution or confusion. A few of them came from neo-Platonist backgrounds (St. Augustine, Origen, and St. Dionysius), but even those writers' influence is inessential to accepting their claims. Another advantage of the Fathers is that they did not live in an orthodox Christian society. They were either persecuted by the Empire, fighting heresy, and persecuted by heretics. Their appeals were to laity in homilies and letters, and to other thinkers in tracts, although even their educated audiences were not "theologians" in the later sense of the word. Consequentially their language, framework, and approach is much more intuitive for modern readers, appealing to instinct rather than specialized traditions of logic. Also, their claims are easier to check. Every American home owns some sort of Bible and dozens of Bibles are available for free online in English alone. Finding a chapter of Mark is much easier for the lax modern man than finding and understanding the Common Doctor.

Perhaps the greatest strength of the Fathers is that the bulk of their tracts and polemics focus on the consubstantiality of the Trinity and the Divinity of Jesus Christ. The Church may have settled this matter in the year 325AD, but Arianism is far from gone. One might say that the error of Arius is as prevalent now as it was in the time of Diocletian, and Christianity is more hated now than it has been in any time since Diocletian. Why should Catholics focus their sights on the Fathers and the Trinity? Because sacramental forms, transubstantiation, indulgences, propitiation, and Papal infallibility are all quite useless without a proper understanding of Who God is and Who Jesus Christ is. Case in point a dear friend of mine.

My friend, let us pretend his name is George, grew up in a gay household, was nominally Catholic, never received any form of religious instruction whatsoever, served 15 years in the military, was stationed at Ground Zero for the two weeks following 9/11, received a very prized but specialized education, and now works in the political sphere to promote American imperialism. What he has kept from the Church is an understanding of guilt. George is a good man and a good friend, but his understanding of Christ and Christianity is quite troubled. Like most modern Americans he accepts the existence of God and calls Jesus the "Son of God," but cannot identify Him with God. "Jesus" is George's "buddy" while "God" is George's maker. I once shared with George that haunting Byzantine petition "That the end of our life may be painless, unashamed, Christian, and peaceful, and for a good answer before the awesome judgment seat of Christ, let us ask! Grant this, O Lord!" "God" will judge George, but "Jesus" will intervene and assure George of his salvation.

Unlike the Arians, whose theological malice existed among a world familiar with Scripture and the Sacraments, George has no religious education and has been trained by the world to have no familiarity with the humanities or with the religious imagination. George has been molded in ignorance, but ignorance will not split the Trinity into three separate creatures. When I shared with George that eternal sentence of Our Lord's "Before Abraham was I am" (John 8:58) and intimated that, with no material objects Jesus could not have been fashioned but rather was "begotten," the poor man was horrified. He has thought, and might still, that "Jesus" was a super-special "Son" made by "God" for our benefit. The concept of Three Divine Persons in One God nearly caused his mechanistic, rational mind to explode—quite an accomplishment considering George's high IQ. He pondered the matter for a short time and then, as the world trains modern men to do, he swept the matter under the rug and forgot about it.

I have attempted the rationalized explanation of the Trinity before with George and gotten no where with it. A mind trained in logic normally can only function according to the assumptions accepted in its era. Although right wing politically, the assumptions of Goerge's era descend from the materialism of Marx, Engels, and the Capitalists, and from the science of Darwin, and from the pseudo-scientific "social sciences" of economists such as Keynes and the neo-classicists. The best path in my experience is to appeal to more basic and human elements when discussing the Divine, elements shared by most people. My conversations with the un-churched and un-believing are the primary sources of my frustration with legalistic theology which I voice here so often. St. Gregory Nazianzen's concept of the Trinity based on the process of thinking—wherein the Father is the mind, the Son is speech and words, and the Holy Spirit the breath flowing from the mouth—has been far more successful with George than most methods of teaching the Trinity since then. Similarly, explaining the Incarnation to George became easier with that aphorism from St. Athanasius, "God became man so that man might become God." After assuring himself that God had not smited us for such a "disturbing" thought, he began to understand the Church's teaching on the two natures of Christ and on the Trinity. Is this obsession over the Trinity too harsh given George's upbringing? Perhaps, but we Catholics must not forget that the un-revised Creed of Nicaea ended with "But those who say: 'There was a time when he was not;' and 'He was not before he was made;' and 'He was made out of nothing,' or 'He is of another substance' or 'essence,' or 'The Son of God is created,' or 'changeable,' or 'alterable'—they are condemned by the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church."

As the world becomes increasingly secular few people will have the concerns of past times. In 1960 America, when Ike was cleaning out his desk draws to make room for Kennedy, most people asked whether the Catholics or the protestants were right about what Christianity is. These days the few curious people are asking if God even exists. Those who accept the existence of God construct a fitting God in their minds and a fitting Jesus, too. Lost in all this is the Trinity and the Jesus of the New Testament. Lost is God as He is. Before we can discuss the Immaculate Conception we must be able to communicate the most basic and absolutely fundamental parts of the faith, above all, Who God is. The Fathers can help.


  1. I think this post on a related topic by a Thomist philosopher may interest you: The comments are also quite interesting. I think on the whole he is correct that the issue is rhetorical not substantial. I also tend to think that any Thomist worth his salt would agree that evangelization requires tailoring your language to your audience.

    1. My real concern is not necessarily with Thomism, but with the lack of religious fundamentals among people today. Thomism, or any form of Scholasticism,requires critical thinking and a willingness to make one's opinion vulnerable. Modern man is emotionally driven, intellectually sterile, and will not listen to anything longer than 140 characters.

      The comments are interesting. I particularly enjoyed the notoriety given to mockery, a valuable rhetorical tool used by the Fathers and which could easily be integrated into modern apologetics if the overly respectable prelates permitted it!

  2. I'm not sure that the scholastics, for all their cold and rational ways, would necessarily disagree with the main principle that you are bringing up in this post, that knowing Who God is, at a kind of more personal level, is absolutely more important than knowing the speculative truths about sacramental forms, transubstantiation, etc. St. Thomas himself taught that charity is greater than intellectual learning, and Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange - the foremost scholastic of the 20th century - taught also that the intellectual life is indeed useless without a good spiritual life. So yes, to have that rational theological learning, as understood by the scholastics, is not necessary to a good spiritual life, and is even worthless without it. But I'm not convinced that this has any negative implications about such an approach to theology. It just means that any theologian ought first to be a good Christian, and then worry about being a good theologian. Also not everybody is even called to be a theologian in that sense.

    Perhaps I am missing your point though...

    1. My point here is simply that theological systems (of which Scholasticism, Hesychasm, cauistry are the main) are difficult to use with most people these days given the prevalence of secularism and of religious illiteracy. Those systems require a either a strong religious culture or a generally assumed set of principles that fewer and fewer hold. I propose that the more human instinct approach by the earlier Fathers could be useful because it appeals to more basic traits and experiences. In short, I am asking how do we talk about Jesus or the Trinity to Joe America? St Athanasius seems more helpful than St Anselm right now, but that might not always be the case.

    2. I think that makes sense, practically speaking, as long as whatever new language we adopt in order to speak to the man of today is not contrary to or viewed as contrary to the principles of theological systems like scholasticism. So I will grant that, in today's circumstances, the scholastic method might not be the most effective practical means of appealing to modern man; but this should not lead us to deny that the principles of scholasticism, simply because they are TRUE (assuming that they are in fact true) ought always to be recognized. Basically I don't want to go so far as to say that because scientific theology won't get use far in convincing your friend George, there is therefore something wrong with it in principle.

      Maybe this isn't what you're saying, but sometimes it is the impression I get from traditionalists of your type. My personal position is that, while to the ordinary layman of today, scientific theology might not be the most practical approach, whatever approach we do take musn't be incompatible with scientific theology. And further, that in combating the theoretical causes or the principles behind today's crisis, a scientific approach to theology is indeed the answer.

    3. You hit the nail on the head in the second paragraph. More and more people resemble George today which is why I argue for a more practical approach. While Scholasticism does not interest me very much I do not deny the truth of many of its principles nor its contribution to the Church. For example, along the Eastern line of thought there is no difference between legality and validity in administering Sacraments. Given that the Orthodox have little or no use for Scholasticism, they cannot tell if Roman Catholics, Eastern Catholics, non-Chalcedonian Orthodox, Anglicans, and Assyrians have valid Sacraments. Indeed there are many disparate lines on thought on the matter whereas to us the situation is clear in all of those cases.

  3. Dear Rad Trad (by the way, I've always enjoyed your use of the third person when referring to yourself--very delightful),
    I see your point and concur by and large. For instance, when I give instruction in the Faith--in the talk on the Trinity--I give a clear but simplified exposition of the Church's dogma and terminology (nature, person, etc.). But it seems that what makes the deepest impression is the (apocryphal?) story of St. Augustine and the Angel in the form of a little boy drawing water from the sea into a bucket and pouring it into a hole in the sand--a story very much in keeping with the spirit of the Fathers. At least it seems to impress the students (some of whom are pushing 50) with the true immensity of God.

    As always: fortiter!
    Fr. Capreolus

  4. "But it seems that what makes the deepest impression is the (apocryphal?) story of St. Augustine and the Angel in the form of a little boy drawing water from the sea into a bucket and pouring it into a hole in the sand--a story very much in keeping with the spirit of the Fathers. At least it seems to impress the students (some of whom are pushing 50) with the true immensity of God."

    With all due respect, Father, that story is rather facile and is *not* in keeping with the spirit of the Fathers -- and especially not Augustine, who wrote a thick and learned tome about the Trinity. I'm told that story every Trinity Sunday, and I simply cannot stand it anymore. The via negativa is useful in approaching the mystery of God -- indeed, necessary -- but that tale is often used as an excuse not to think critically. I don't mean to be harsh ... Perhaps I've just had bad experiences with it.

    It seems easy enough to tell people that we believe in a God who speaks and loves himself eternally, thus affirming the principle and its two processions.

    1. The story of St Augustine and the angel parallels with a vision St Thomas Aquinas received while celebrating a Mass, when he realized the fruitlessness of compressing the ways of God into a neat logical system. The second narrative would probably be discussed more if there was an "Aquinas Sunday" during "Ordinary Time." Neither story is wrong, but I agree with Philip that the Augustinian story is nauseatingly overplayed by sermonists looking to avoid saying anything substantial about the central mystery of God.

    2. Well, I have to admit that I'm a little nonplussed at these reactions. I didn't realize this story is so current out there in the pulpit. Maybe I should have prefaced it a bit more by mentioning that I go over the "ways" to demonstrate God's existence; the divine attributes that are revealed through these ways; the notion of Person as subsistent relation; the "Notions," Processions, and relations; and so forth. Still, it is very important to end with something (I was always moved by this story; maybe I'm a naif) that emphasizes how utterly distant from God as He is in Himself are our dogmas and theological conclusions (accurate and exact as they are). It is true, after all, that the Holy Angels have more in common with a grain of sand than they do with God.

      As to the story told by Reginald of Piperno concerning St. Thomas' vision: I'm not sure I would express it exactly like that ("fruitlessness of compressing the ways of God," etc.); nevertheless, it is true that the Saint is related to have said that all he wrote was "as straw" compared to the things he had seen (the key word). The Dominicans have traditionally considered that St. Thomas was given to see briefly the Beatific Vision while "in via" (like the Bl. Mother, St. Paul, and perhaps St. John the Divine).

    3. Sorry to go on and on. One more thing: "it seems easy enough, etc." Not exactly. The spoken word is the effect of the speaker. To say God speaks Himself eternally implies dependence and therefore a denial of the equality of the Persons. "Subsistent relations" is not something easily introduced into a sermon. By all means, let us preach on the attributes of God and their glory; but for my part, these "analogies" of the Persons (which necessarily "limp" in that they are drawn from created things) were always a little confusing and not very helpful.

      Regarding St. Augustine: you do realize that the learned tome he wrote--so great in itself--makes it so poignant when the child tells the Saint: "It is easier to put the sea into a hole than that you should put the Trinity into a book"? De gustibus non est disputandum.

  5. Father,

    I apologize if I was rude and belligerent. I didn't mean to snap at you. The story is simply over-used, in my humble opinion.

    I believe that it is possible to proclaim the mystery of the Trinity in sharp, smart language, so as to simultaneously edify and enlighten the people of God. The psychological analogy of memory, understanding, and will is satisfactory, as is the social analogy of the lover, the beloved, and mutual love. Both analogies must be qualified, but they are adequate for a homily to laymen. We can also look directly to Scripture (i.e. John's Prologue, the Baptism of the Lord, Colossians 1, etc.) for "images" of the Trinity, both economic and immanent.

    "To say God speaks Himself eternally implies dependence and therefore a denial of the equality of the Persons."

    I strongly disagree. The Word is not "dependent," he is not "caused," but he is begotten. He is not, contra John Calvin, "auto-theos." The Father is the principle, the fountainhead, the source of the entire Godhead, as both Augustine and Aquinas, along with the whole Catholic tradition, readily affirm. The image of the Father eternally "speaking himself" or "thinking himself" is not without its drawbacks, but it is utilized by the fathers and the doctors of our faith. Thus Augustine writes, "For [the Father] speaks by the Word which He begot ... by the Word which is equal to Himself, by whom He always and unchangeably utters Himself" (On the Trinity, 7, 1). And Aquinas writes, "For the Father, by understanding Himself, the Son and the Holy Ghost, and all other things comprised in this knowledge, conceives the Word; so that thus the whole Trinity is "spoken" in the Word; and likewise also all creatures" (ST, 1, 31, 1).

    This image of the Father speaking/thinking himself -- indeed, all things -- in the Word is also used by modern apologists like Frank Sheed. "The First Person knows Himself; His act of knowing Himself produces an Idea, a Word; and this Idea, this Word, the perfect Image of Himself, is the Second Person" (Sheed, Theology and Sanity).

    And this is Rad Trad's point: We need not fixate on the technical language of "subsistent relations," at least not initially. The Trinity can be proclaimed using the sort of analogies mentioned above. They are not perfect, but they are at once compelling and understandable for the average pewsitter. Indeed, I still marvel at lover-beloved-love, even though I recognize its weaknesses.

    "Regarding St. Augustine: you do realize that the learned tome he wrote--so great in itself--makes it so poignant when the child tells the Saint: "It is easier to put the sea into a hole than that you should put the Trinity into a book"? De gustibus non est disputandum."

    I appreciate the irony. And, again, I don't deny the legitimacy nor the appropriateness of the apophatic approach.