Tuesday, October 21, 2014

You Look Thirsty

Modern Theological critique of Trinitarian Doctrine asserts the doctrine is aloof from Christian experience, that it is presented only as one more set of propositions about the divine being which are to be accepted along with a variety of other topics with pat answers and descriptions for memorization and recapitulation. Critics claim that these propositions are not only disconnected from Christian experience, but Trinitarian propositions are essentially irrelevant to the remainder of Christian teaching.

In Retrieving Nicaea, Khaled Anatolios counters that, while the modern critique is not without merit with regard to how Trinitarian teaching is presented even by orthodox Christians in these days, the modern correctives suggested have not taken sufficient account of the pervasive manner in which the Trinitarian doctrine is holistically expressed in 3rd, 4th, and 5th century patristic theology. For the teachers involved in these discussions, from Origen to Augustine, ones conception of the Triune God (in particular, how one related the primacy of God and the primacy of Christ to the creation) would of necessity further impact cosmology, anthropology, soteriology, scriptural hermeneutics, epistemology, worship, sanctification, and sacramental theology. The point here is that Anatolios shows that all of these teachers recognized the relevance of Trinitarian assertions relative to the entire body of Christian teaching.

The Baptismal formula as the locus for baptismal theology is a good example distinguishing Nicene theology from other formulations. Anatolios demonstrates that the proponents of various theological formulations in these discussions shared a common heritage of presuppositions and practices. He reviews a list of these on pages 36-38. The very first of them is a shared creedal and liturgical heritage in the name of God Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The New Testament references to the Trinity, particularly the Baptismal formula from Matthew 28 provided a foundational practical theology with which every Christian was familiar from their own baptism, especially if they had been baptized as adults. The baptismal formula as a common theological heritage not only for the learned and the bishops, but also for all the baptized gave testimony to the practical reality of God’s Trinitarian presence throughout the Church’s life together.

Arius, Eusebius, and Eunomius have nowhere to go in describing the Holy Spirit once they have made the Son essentially subordinate to the Father. As they protect the divine prerogative of the one true God by conceding the Son as essentially separate no matter how united in purpose, the Triune relationship of the Holy Spirit has become exhausted to the extent that they are not able to continue articulating a theology of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is a cursory thought appended as a conclusion, a Spirit greater than all other angelic spirits. The baptismal formula for these is retained as a matter of tradition, but their theological contemplation has not extended to the practical theological soteriological moment when the Triune God saves sinners from death by His name.

By contrast, the pro-Nicene fathers have no qualms about extending their descriptions of the divine essence to the very extent Christ Jesus described in the baptismal formula in Matthew 28. While the anti-Nicene theologians avoid, stumble over, or dismiss the Holy Spirit as to the Divine Essence once they have subordinated the Son, the pro-Nicene theologians employ a robust theology of the Holy Spirit as their argument’s coup de grace.  Athanasius, Gregory, and Augustine all follow up their defense of the divinity of the Son by detailing Jesus’ words and promises regarding the Holy Spirit’s person and work. A primary reason for His ascension is so that the Church may receive the Holy Spirit for her mission. The Holy Spirit will convert, teach, remind, anoint, comfort, vivify, reconcile, and unify sinners into the Body of Christ.

They are able to bring their argument full circle from the Baptismal formula itself, through all the various theological topics identified previously, right back to the baptismal experience every Christian has had. In this manner, their Trinitarian theology is supremely relevant to their hearers and readers. God the Father’s adoption, God the Son’s salvific work, and God the Holy Spirit’s regeneration are all signed, sealed, and delivered by water and the Word. If moderns have come to believe the doctrine of the Trinity irrelevant to the faith and life of Christians, a return to Scriptural Baptism may well slake their thirst.