The Bible itself doesn’t formulate a doctrine of the Trinity. While there are references to each of the three persons, it was left to the Church to figure out what it meant as time went on. For some that is an uncomfortable fact, because it sounds like a bunch of bishops just made the whole thing up. But we need to remember that the promise of Pentecost is that the Spirit is there to guide the Church into all truth.
The fourth-century Church faced some pretty dramatic changes that were set in motion when Emperor Constantine converted to the Christian faith. Overnight, the Church’s relationship with the dominant culture changed from being a persecuted, counter-cultural sect to becoming the official religion of the empire. (One aspect of that change is that bishops started to more closely resemble kings, even in their dress!) The Church which had from its inception stood over and against the culture, now faced new challenges as a cultural force to be reckoned with—and with responsibility for helping to shape public policy. There is no way to overestimate the radical shift that required as the Church adapted to new circumstances and a whole new set of challenges. One of the odd new things, then, is that those bishops gathered at Nicaea because they were summoned there by the Emperor—who wanted the matter settled once and for all on what the Church was teaching about God. Kings like things settled, and don’t do well with rancorous theological debate. It’s no accident that the Church became more dogmatic as it became more and more established.
there were, on the one hand, some who wanted to stress the notion that God is
One. If they had carried the day, then Christianity would be very much in
line with the theology of the other branches of Abrahamic faith: both Judaism
and Islam stress that God is one. Moses and Mohammed are seen as great prophets
and leaders and visionaries—but no Jew or Muslim claims to worship them or pray to them. Neither is understood to be "very god of very god.” The problem with that approach for “orthodox” Christiana is that the witness of the Church was (and is) that Jesus Christ was
more than a prophet—more than Moses or Muhammad—and that in the life and death
and resurrection of Jesus the Word that
was with God and the Word that was God had become flesh. So at the other end of
the spectrum were those who wanted to stress the three-ness of God’s Being—precisely
because they were so clear that they had experienced the presence of God
through Jesus and the Holy Spirit. But in stressing the three—Father, Son, and
Spirit—it sounded to some in the Church like polytheism—which contradicted the
monotheism of the Scriptural witness.
And so they argued and prayed, and they argued and prayed some more. I suspect that the bishops who gathered at
Nicaea felt at times a lot like we feel in the Church today, in the midst of what sometimes seem to be irreconcilable
differences. Is God three or is God one, they asked. Someone had to be right, which would suggest that the other side clearly had to be wrong. Right?
No, they eventually concluded. Sometimes when you ask a really good question the answer is multivalent. What if both sides were right, or at least mostly right? And yet without the truth of the other, completely wrong? Sometimes truth is paradoxical—a mystery.
I think that the real miracle of
Nicaea (and evidence of the Spirit's presence) is that they did hang in there with each other - arguing and praying, praying and arguing - until
eventually they began to hear one another. Until eventually they began to listen
again for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The doctrine that emerged was “One
God, revealed in three persons”—as outlined in the the Nicene Creed, which thankfully begins with the word "we." (It is a statement of faith that emerged in community, for the sake of community; it is not a litmus test!)
If we turn this into a matter for our intellect to grasp, we miss the point. If we use this (or any other church doctrine) as a “weapon” to decide who is in and who is out, we misunderstand the meaning of “orthodox” faith. Literally that word “orthodox” is not (as is sometimes asserted) about “right belief” - as if one side has the “right” answers and the other side is “wrong.”
Nicaea is a case study in
just why that approach is so misguided. Rather, when we sing the doxology—
Praise God from whom all blessings flow!
Praise God all creatures here below!
Praise God above ye heavenly host!
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!
- we are singing “words of praise.” Orthodoxy shares that same meaning—literally. It’s not about right belief but about right praise. If we mean to help people more deeply praise God, then we need to learn that the doctrine of the Trinity is not a math problem to be solved; but a mystery to be embraced in love. Maybe the best way to do that is to sing it.