The Creeds and the Trinity with Myk Habets
Mike Morrison: One of the distinctives of the Christian faith is a belief in the Trinity. The word is not found in the Bible, but it has nevertheless been an important part of Christian theology: three Persons, but only one God. The math doesn’t work, but this has been an important formulation that people have been trying to wrap their heads around, trying to understand, what does this mean? Why does Christianity have such a puzzling teaching? MH: Augustine famously wrote at the end of his big, long treatise on the Trinity […]
Mike Morrison: One of the distinctives of the Christian faith is a belief in the Trinity. The word is not found in the Bible, but it has nevertheless been an important part of Christian theology: three Persons, but only one God. The math doesn’t work, but this has been an important formulation that people have been trying to wrap their heads around, trying to understand, what does this mean? Why does Christianity have such a puzzling teaching?
MH: Augustine famously wrote at the end of his big, long treatise on the Trinity something to the effect that “It would be better to say nothing, but we have to say something, so here’s my something,” because God is more than a human mind can ever conceive. If we could fully understand God, we would get bored with God. That’s the original sin. We would turn from God to something else that is more interesting, which is the definition of idolatry.
We are all wrestling with what we rightly term a mystery, but some wrestle more than others and penetrate that mystery more. We believe that God’s a Trinity because that’s what God has revealed himself to be, is the blunt language. When Jesus came and identified himself with the Father as one and sends the Spirit, another Paraclete, another of exactly the same type [John 14:16] – and hundreds of other verses – we have this divine identity is shared by three… What? What’s the human language? We’ve settled on three “Persons” – not three individuals, but three Persons who co-exist in such a unique way that they are one God.
That’s difficult! It’s difficult in any language, any time, and yet it’s a difficulty that is a marvelous difficulty. It’s an enticing difficulty. This is why we pray and worship and sing and write poetry and do theology, because we are striving after that which we already know.
I’ve got children, a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old, and I talk to them about God. I’m talking about the Father, I’m talking about the Son, I’m talking about the Spirit – you get the odd metaphysical question, you know: Is God one or three? But they don’t have too many issues with God as one and three – they’re not dealing with mathematics. They know far more than they could articulate. (Well, I’m hoping so, anyway.) They intuitively and they relationally know, because of what their parents, my wife and I, are telling them, that God – Father, Son, Spirit (we repeat these phrases – not always talking about “God,” not always talking about “Father,” not always talking about Son or Spirit – always talking about all of them) loves you, cares for you, has created you, has a plan for you.
My hope is that they will grow up by default knowing that this Tri-Personal God (however the metaphysics works) loves them. I hope for the rest of their life they will tease out, What does that actually mean? Who is God? How can he be one and three? What is the philosophical-theological language for that? That philosophical-theological language isn’t confirming their faith – it’s merely trying to articulate what I hope as a 5 or 3-year old they already know, what me as a 6 or 7-year old (when I came to faith) implicitly knew – I’m just unpacking that in theology.
That’s what the early church did. The earliest confession in Scripture is “Jesus is Lord – Yahweh.” They believed in Yahweh, what we call the Father, and they also believed that Jesus is the same, but different. They were already doing it. For centuries the early church were worshipping, they’re breaking bread, they’re baptizing, they’re doing works of ministry, alms for the poor, they’re following the way, Jesus, and it’s all worship of a Tri-Personal God, but they don’t have that language. So they come together successively through various councils – Nicea in 325 and again in Constantinople in 381, where they devised what we call today the Nicene Creed.
There were three clauses: “We believe in God the Father, Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, very God of very God, very light of very light” – these wonderful things. The first version had “and the Holy Spirit” – a little muted. By 381 it had, “and we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord.” Significant – same as Father, same as Son – “the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life.” They unpack that. Their worship is primary; the theology is catching up with language about what they are doing in worship.
Same for my kids, same for me, same for (I think) every Christian who comes to faith. It’s by grace, through faith – it’s gift, and now we’re unpacking that. We should do it in the context of worship, not philosophy. That has a place, but it’s not philosophy. This is discipleship. This is sanctification. It’s fun, as well.
MM: Sometimes it’s difficult for us to even describe human persons, a personality. When someone calls me on the telephone, I recognize their voice. But how would I describe that voice? I cannot put it into words. There are aspects of personality even on a human level, people we know very well, and I can see that raised to a much greater level when we’re dealing with divine Persons. How do I describe this? Words… [MH: fail.] MM: yeah.
MH: They do. The Holy Spirit intercedes in his own speech and language (whatever that means); the Holy Spirit picks up where we leave off. How do we describe that? I think it’s a lot like a relationship of a man and wife, a marriage relationship, where analytical description is okay if you’ve lost your spouse and you’re trying to get a policeman to find him or her – how tall, what color eyes, what color are they wearing – it really doesn’t tell anything about them. I think a lot of Christianity is analytical description of God: God is omnipresent, omniscient and omnibenevolent (if that’s a word). God is these things. It’s all utterly abstract.
It would be true, but it’s almost meaningless, unless it becomes internalized: God is Abba, my Father. He is my Abba, Father, because I am in relationship with Jesus Christ, which he has initiated through his Holy Spirit. The tradition I have come from would be happy to talk about irresistible grace, where the Spirit irresistibly draws me to God, but it’s not an irresistible force like the Star Trek tractor beam, where regardless of what you want to do, you’re caught. This is the irresistible force of love.
If someone asks me, Why do you love your wife? I love her because she’s kind, she’s Christ-like, she’s loves me, etc. But why, why, behind that? I don’t know why I love her – I just do. It’s inexplicable. At that level, I will turn to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, or poetry (or the odd limerick, if you like), but analytics aren’t any good. It’s the language of love, the language of poetry, and then beyond that, I’ll just give her gifts. Not necessarily bought stuff, but gifts of service, attention, quality time, because language is a bit useless. It’s necessary, but a bit useless. So I’ll just give myself.
Let’s put that on its head: How does God love us? He loves us through the word, but not just through giving us a Bible. Most people who read it don’t get anything out of it. God doesn’t just give us words – he gives us himself, through the Son incarnate, ultimately and finally, and then, through Christ, the Spirit.
So from the inside out, we know God. We know God and think of God from a center in himself, the Trinity, rather than from a center in ourselves, idolatry. Those are big terms, and those are big concepts, but I think everyone who comes to faith, that’s how they come to faith. Then they look back and try to unpack: How do we know God? How do we speak of God? Well, the way God speaks to us, the way God relates to us: by self-giving.
MM: They may not have the terminology, but as long as they have the basic “God loves you.” They have a relationship even if they cannot articulate it.
MH: This is where I think the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist, Communion, whatever terminology you want), that’s why these rhythms of church life that Christ in his wisdom has given us. “You don’t have the words – I know you don’t.” Even the best theologians (that doesn’t make them the best Christians) have a lot of words, but at the end of the day, here’s these rituals. “I want you to come under the preached word, I want you to keep reciting it, keep repeating it, keep praying it. I want you to have this initiation of baptism.” Entering water, getting wet – especially as an adult, if you’re an adult convert – it’s very humbling, very humiliating. Yet this is signifying, this is symbolic, this is participating, re-enacting what Christ has done for us.
Then we gather around this table of mundane elements – simple bread and wine. We eat, we drink, we participate. This is what these rhythms are, what these sacraments are, why church becomes the focus through Scripture, from the church to the world. God is saying, “Words are good, but participation is ultimately what relationships are about.”
MM: Old Testament worship had a lot of rituals, but they were done away. The church, the New Testament has few.
MH: Two – well, maybe more than two. There’s alms-giving, good works and stuff, but yeah.
MM: There’s some puzzle there: why these? What are they conveying? You were saying they were conveying, re-enacting what Jesus has done for us…
MH: Someone said that they are acted-out parables. I like that – it works.
MM: It’s obvious how the Lord’s Supper is a re-enactment. Jesus tells us, “This is my body, this is my blood.” How would baptism be a re-enactment? Of course, Jesus was baptized…
MH: Different traditions would have different ways of articulating the details of which, that’s fine, but it’s this identification with Christ. “Believe and be baptized for the remission of your sins” [Acts 2:38]. Baptism doesn’t regenerate us. Baptism in Scripture, I would argue, is part of the one activity of coming to faith. You believe and you are baptized; they should be done close together, if at all possible. It’s two parts of one whole.
I confess with my mouth and believe in my heart that I shall be saved [cf. Romans 10:9]. It doesn’t say anything about baptism… They’re using shorthand expressions for the whole thing. I believe, and I’m baptized, and my baptism re-enacts my faith. I’m in union with Christ as I enter the water, into his death as I go down into the water, his assumption of the human flesh, his incarnation and atonement, his taking of my sins on the cross, his complete and utter identification, substitution, reconciliation, the whole dealing to the whole deal. Then coming up the other side a new creation, a new life, resurrection.
It’s this funny wet parable of the cross, of the life, the death, the resurrection of Christ. It’s saying to our community (if the world wants to watch, that’s fine), the church, the body of Christ, “I’m entering this body through Christ – no, that’s not good enough – in Christ. What he’s done can only be done once, and so I’m acting that out to show that I, while I wasn’t there 2000 years ago, I was as good as there in Christ. I’m participating in that. My sins are now his sins, on the cross. My guilt is taken by him.” It’s that utter identification. Then it’s coming out of the water, it is resurrection as well. I think that’s often overlooked.
MM: Most people, when they are baptized, have very little clue on all this symbolism, and yet it becomes a point in their lives which they can be pointed back to and say, this was done to you.
MH: We have to be careful there, and some traditions will baptize infants (Presbyterian, Anglican, Roman Catholic); that has a whole theology. A Baptist like myself has a believer’s baptism, a credo-baptism. Regardless of those dynamics (we can have those debates, and they are worth having), there is a sense in which we never know fully – we’re always catching up. That’s where the symbolic acts are important.
I was saved, but not because I was baptized. I was baptized at age 16 (1986, I think it was). I know who did it and where I was. I was baptized by my father, so it was a special occasion. It is a marker, as you were saying, but it’s a marker only if we can see through it to what it represents. It represents Christ’s unfailing love for me. As long as we don’t substitute baptism for what it symbolizes (and I think that’s what a lot of Christians are doing – “Are you saved?” “Oh, let me think…” “Did you go to Sunday School?” “Yes, I did.” “Did you hear the gospel?” “I did hear the gospel.” “And did you get baptized?” “I did.” “Then you’re OK.” I don’t know if Paul would say that.
It is a strength, it is a nourishing of our faith, but only if it points through to Christ. What have you done since baptism? What is this newness of life that baptism represents? Are you living in that baptism reality? Those are the questions we should be asking.
MM: It comes back to Christ…
MH: Always. The Spirit brings us to him. If the Spirit’s bringing us anywhere or anyone other than Christ, then it isn’t the Spirit of Christ we’re talking about.
MM: You were talking earlier about how the early church developed, began to put words into the doctrine of the Trinity – trying to phrase what they can say and what they can’t say. How was Jesus’ humanity involved in that? Jesus is not just God, one of the members of the Trinity.
MH: After Nicea in 325, Constantinople in 381, after they got to the word homoousios – Jesus is of the same stuff, substance, essence, identity as the Father and as human. Jesus is divine; Jesus is to be worshipped; Jesus is equal to God, and equal to human. Then they work out, What does that mean? We’ve got Trinity; that’s who God is, that’s what he has revealed himself to be. I’ve got a handle (only a handle) on that.
Then, what are we talking about, one person with two natures? What is that? So in 451, the Council of Chalcedon is where they knocked out what they can’t say about Jesus. What we can’t say is that he’s two people, because that would be some sort of schizophrenia. (You see that in preaching today: When Jesus is forgiving sins, it’s his divinity that’s doing it. When Jesus is eating or going to the toilet, that’s his humanity.) That’s ruled out. No, that is not an appropriate way to speak of the one God-man, Jesus Christ. That’s Nestorian. That’s two persons. Or he looks like a human, but he’s not really. His flesh is so different that he’s actually not human at all. It’s a weird Docetism, as they call it at times, and there are a lot of other heresies.
So the church is saying, that’s not true. That leaves a big middle ground for how to say what is true. That’s the beauty of the creeds, of early confessional theology, there is a big middle ground. You can have differences in your tradition, and that’s not necessarily wrong, as long as they’re not contradictory differences – you can have, for example, Arminianism and Calvinism. We can get along fine; we can have our arguments (and we should), but arguments as brothers and sisters, because there is a significant middle ground. The early church is ruling out other options: not that, not that, and it leaves this orthodox space. It’s not so constricting.
The filioque controversy
MM: You mentioned several councils – Nicea, Constantinople, Chalcedon – where they were trying to create these creeds. In each of these councils the church from east and west got together and developed what they could say, what they could not say – in Greek and in Latin. But eventually, the two halves split. [MH: sadly] They went different ways. How did that happen? What was the issue there?
MH: The doctrine of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of love, the bond of love, as we’ve often called the Holy Spirit, has been the occasion of some of the most bitter divisions in the church. So in 1054, east and west go separate ways over the doctrine of the filioque. That’s the Latin word meaning “and the Son.” The Western church started to insert it into one of the creeds without asking the east. You can’t just change a creed without asking the whole church – that was the issue. But the west does. They start altering the creed, saying that the Father and the Son send the Holy Spirit.
If we take them in the best reading, they’re trying to defend that Jesus is really God. It’s not just the Father that sends the Holy Spirit – it’s the Father and the Son, because the Son is really God. They’re trying to uphold his divinity – a really good impulse.
The east objected, partly on political grounds: You can’t change a creed without asking us – who do you think you are? The theological grounds for them is that the Father is the font of divinity – the Father is the archē, the chief, the head, the ruler. The Son and the Spirit are equal, but in a coordinated way. Always first the Father, then Son and Spirit. We think you’re undermining the Father when you say “Father and Son.” If you undermine the Father, we think you’re undermining the Trinity.
It’s a complete (I think) talking past each other. What they both wanted to affirm, one by having filioque and the other by not having it, wasn’t being heard. Language was a barrier, politics was a barrier, personalities were a barrier. It’s one of the more bitter splits – the Great Schism, it was called. It’s still a schism today. We don’t want to get into ecclesiastical politics too much, but it’s complicated today by things like having a pope and a hierarchy, apostolic succession – things like that make it something of a barrier, as much as anything else.
Then there are us Protestants, who are generally stand outside of much of that today, and look on with some interest. A lot of Protestantism now is trying to speak into those situations specifically and say, Hang on, brothers and sisters. We have a shared and common sense of the Trinity, and the early church worked with Greek and Latin. They did settle on terms: this means that, etc. One being, three persons, in each of our languages, so can we get back to that Trinitarian understanding that we all share, and can we start to work backwards so that we can get behind the filioque to what you’re trying to say, and what you’re trying to say? I think you’re trying to say the same thing, so can we just put the filioque to one side and construct a language that works and see what happens.
MM: And find some new terminology.
MH: New terminology, yeah. I would say the filioque is neither right nor wrong, because they’re wanting to affirm what the east wanted to affirm, but they did it in a particular way. If the east is so disgruntled by the use of filioque, just (I think fair enough) don’t use it. It’s a barrier to ecumenical discourse. But what’s the theology behind it – that’s what we’re really wrestling with, and I think east and west agree. I think Augustine and Athanasius and Basil and Jerome all agree on the core. If we get back to that core, the Trinitarian doctrine, I think it will (I’m a bit naïve) take care of itself.
MM: They haven’t found the terminology that will achieve unity?
MH: No. There have been lots of suggestions. The one that I am happy to go with (I didn’t create it, and it has been suggested many times – right back from the Council of Nicea onwards it has been suggested): “from the Father, through the Son.” I think it solves everything.
MM: Obviously not everyone takes the same view.
MH: Right. There is political stuff involved, there is personality, there is a long tradition involved. It’s easier for me as a Protestant to make that conclusion than for a Roman Catholic or an Eastern Orthodox.
MM: The Roman Catholic church is one church, whereas the Eastern churches are plural. Even if you could get the Greek church to agree to this, there’d be the Russians, the Coptics.
MH: Yeah. It’s been tried. In 1995, the Roman Catholic Church brought in an agreed clarification of filioque. It was a result of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox dialogue. I think they went out of their way to temper the language, but at base, it’s the same, but it’s a good effort. Earlier, in 1991, the World Alliance of Reformed Theology and Churches met with a number of Eastern Orthodox representatives (Tom Torrance was the one who initiated and led that), and they worked out an “Agreed Statement on the Holy Trinity.”
They’re trying to get behind the filioque. As a result of that, they settled on language that those present (they weren’t formally representing all those churches, but informally they were) agreed: “from Father through Son by the Spirit.” The East recognized that this safeguarded what they wanted; the West recognized that it safeguarded what they wanted, and everyone was happy. I’m happy. But because it’s not an official document, it’s not binding on any actual church. Sadly, I think it’s been ignored since 1991.
MM: Even though it seems to have potential for agreement.
MH: Yeah. A bunch of us, myself included, any opportunity we get, we try to put that back into the discussion, the agenda: “Here’s a good solution that recommends itself; it has good support. Can we reconsider that, maybe? You might be able to improve on it, but can we at least….” A few of us keep putting that on the agenda, to work towards unity. That’s our job.
MM: But unity is not just in terms of formal acceptance of certain creeds; there are other things involved in church unity, too. For one, Jesus said that whether we look like it or not, we are one.
MH: Right. There’s only one church.
MM: We are all in him, so there’s a unity there.
MH: Yeah. But what it gets to on the ground, when we have our academic inter-tradition dialogue, we do the academic stuff, the sharp end of the stick is when we come to the Eucharist. I’m a Baptist, and generally, in a Baptist theology, if one is baptized and loves the Lord, the Lord’s Table is open. We don’t ask if you’re a Roman Catholic or an Eastern Orthodox or Presbyterian or Anglican – it does not matter. If you are baptized and you love the Lord, you may take. That’s not true in other traditions and communions. I’m biased. I think Baptists are uniquely placed to have perspective on that, but so is everyone else.
On the ground, theologians can do their work and come up with some nice language, but when we come back into worship proper, around the Table, if Christians are excluded, stuff stops. That’s where the challenge in ecumenical theology is, for theology to be consistent with practice, and practice consistent with theology.
George Hunsinger wrote a book recently where he unpacks a lot of that from a Reformed reading and he tries to find in the early church (before the split) common ground, common theology. He settles on this very technical term “transelementation,” which is very hard to say, let alone unpack. Whether he’s right or wrong, that sort of work represents the very best of Christians working towards the “one holy, catholic, apostolic church” that exists. Even though it doesn’t look like it, it does. I think we need more of that sort of stuff.
MM: That’s not easy.
MH: No, it’s not. You need to be in positions of authority, positions of elected representation. There’s aren’t many of those in the Baptist world. Other denominations are far better placed to do that sort of discussion: Presbyterians, Catholics, Orthodox. There are spokespeople who do represent them. That’s what we have been seeing in the last what, 13 years of ecumenical discussions: genuinely working and striving towards agreement – not at the lowest common denominator (some of the worst World Council of Churches stuff: What can we all agree on? God loves us. Don’t define God, don’t define love. Let’s just say “God loves us” and we’re all happy.) That’s thankfully not happening in ecumenical discourse much now. It’s genuinely theological, robust, scriptural, looking for common belief.
MM: In some ways theology has been the source of the division; it is now being the initiator for healing that.
MH: I’d like to think so, as a theologian. But what I’m saying is, Theologians can do their work, and we should, but it needs to be translated, if you like, into priestly work – into actual people in front of congregations of believers, where it makes an actual difference. That’s our job, to translate, but it’s also pastors, ministers; it’s also churches’ job to be interested in participating. It’s a two-way thing.
The classic distinction that there are clergy and laity, that has lots of problems, lording it over, but in its best guise you have doctors – you have people separated to learn Greek and to learn Hebrew and do the history and think of this high-faluting theology, to try to unpack it, working with and for the church. But what we’ve ended up with are academies and the university structure (not that universities are bad), where you have a university which is independent thinking, and theology is housed there, and you have churches. That’s tended to split them. We need to bring them together.
About Myk Habets
Head of Carey Graduate School in New Zealand. He received his PhD from the University of Otago in 2006.The interviews with Dr. Habets were originally done for the video series You’re Included. The technical quality was not sufficient for audio or video, but we were able to transcribe the interviews.