While there have long been standard terms and sentences relating to the Trinity, there is not and has never been any clear consensus about how to understand those terms and sentences. There is agreement about what the sentences do or don’t imply (Tritheism? No. Monotheism? Yes. Ontological inequalities between the three? No.) But there is not an interpretation of the sentences themselves which is held in common by most. These standard sentences, these “formulas,” range from more to less traditional. It was the council of Nicea in 325 that invented what has become the most traditional trinitarian language.
We believe in one God the Father all powerful, maker of all things both seen and unseen. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten begotten from the Father…
So far, so good. This is all basically New Testament language, and would probably be agreed to by all Christians. But it continues to qualify “begotten,”
…that is from the substance [Greek: ousias, Latin: substantia] of the Father
“Substance”? So, the Son is “begotten” from… God? God’s essence? The stuff or material that composes God? From God’s individual essence or nature? These all seem like problematic claims, for different reasons. And the creed doesn’t tell us how to interpret itself here. But it continues,
…God from God, light from light, true God from true God,
How many gods are described here? It certainly sounds like two, two “true Gods,” one of which is in some sense “from” the other. But the creed began by affirming just one God, the Father Almighty. What gives? In any case, we’re told that the Son is
…begotten not made
What is meant by “begotten,” and how does this differ from being “made”? Again, the document leaves us to wonder. Now, its most famous claim, that the Son is
…consubstantial [Gr. homoousion, Lat. unius substantiae (quod Graeci dicunt homousion)] with the Father,
This claim is and was baffling. It was baffling then because the term “consubstantial” had never been used before in any official or otherwise broadly popular theological statement. And it was by no means clear what it meant. That Father and Son are one being? That they’re the same god? Or are they two gods, but sharing an essence, an ousia? Or is the Father the only god here, while his Son is divine/godly/god-like because he is “from” the Father? And if this essence is supposed to be a property, a feature, is it supposed to be a universal property, like humanity or horseness, in which case, it would seem that Father and Son are two gods, or was it supposed to be an individual essence like being Socrates, in which case, Father and Son would be numerically one? (An individual essence is by definition unsharable.) Either way, it looks bad! Or is the claim rather than Father and Son are composed of one spiritual quasi-matter, as it were, made of the same stuff? Or is the point merely that Father and Son are importantly similar? The creed doesn’t answer such questions. Its most famous claim, the claim around which its partisans eventually rallied, and which some even today wave like a banner, is very ambiguous.
The creed finishes its claims about the Son,
…through whom all things came to be, both those in heaven and those in earth; for us humans and for our salvation he came down and became incarnate, became human, suffered and rose up on the third day, went up into the heavens, is coming to judge the living and the dead.
In light of previous catholic theologies c. 150-325, we read this as claiming that the pre-human Jesus was the direct agent of creation, God being the indirect and ultimate source of creation. God created through the pre-human Jesus. This can certainly be contested on scriptural and philosophical grounds, but at the time, it was widely held, having been promoted by many for both biblical and philosophical/theological reasons since the time of Justin. (c. 150)
“Became incarnate” is unclear. Did this eternal spirit (the pre-human Jesus) somehow control or combine with a complete man? Or did he become the soul of a certain human body? Or did this spirit somehow form one person with both a body and a normal human soul? Or were there two selves in Jesus, the man, the human self, and this eternal spirit, the creator? This creed doesn’t answer such questions. (Another council 126 years later did, sort of… but with more dark formulas.)
And in the holy Spirit.
But where does this Spirit fit into what went before? Is it or he also “consubstantial” with the Father? It doesn’t say either way. And even if it didn’t, we’d be wondering what was meant.
This new, confused and confusing language proved to be enough, in the year 325, to expel Arius, and later the so-called “Arians” from fellowship with the bishop-ruled mainstream of churches. (To them it made the Son too much like God to say that they’re “consubstantial,” and it bothered them that the term was neither scriptural nor traditional.) But it did not clearly express any shared insight at the time. It led to much bitter controversy, until the language was re-affirmed, expanded, and enforced by the might of imperial decree after 381. In this way, the statements we’ve been reviewing came, eventually, to be unquestionably accepted by a great many Christians as expressing the faith of The Church – explicit since 381, and (it is often believed) implicitly before then.
But for all this, we still wonder what many of these claims mean. Why? Because it’s only after you understand what claim is expressed by a sentence, that you can inquire into what the evidence is, for and against that claim. And its only after you understand what claim is expressed by a sentence that you can judge that the sentence well captures what is taught in the scriptures. In this case, various theologians assert that the “consubstantial” claim (whatever it is!) is implied by scripture, or at least that it best explains what scripture says and doesn’t say. To evaluate such claims, we must understand what “it” is – not that we have to perfectly understand it, or be able to explain it, of course.
Until one admits there is a problem, it can’t be solved. Here, we must admit that we don’t have any clear, widely agreed on interpretation of official catholic language about the Trinity. If we’re going to talk about “the doctrine of the Trinity” we should keep in mind that there is, for most churches, a fairly standard set of formulas, but not any fairly standard set of claims (interpretations). Really, we should drop the apologists’ habit of making confident assertions about “the” doctrine of the Trinity.
Less traditional are trinitarian statements like those in the creed of the American evangelical university I attended:
There is one God, eternally existing and manifesting Himself to us in three Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
This is intended to mean the same thing as the older creeds, though it is not clear that this is so, because both the original statement and the newfangled, simpler statement are very ambiguous. Each of the three named is affirmed to be a “Person,” but we’re never told what that is. And it is clear that some theologians take a “Person” in this case to be something like a way God intrinsically and essentially is, something like a personality God always and necessarily lives in. But others take a “Person” to be a self, a being capable of thought, desire, and friendship. Others will strongly insist that what “Person” means in this context can’t be understood. This formula seems to assume that God (“Himself”) is a self, and that seems right. Many thousands of singular personal pronouns referring in the Bible seem like strong evidence that the writers assume God to be a him, and not an it or a them, which is to say, a self. But in the whole Trinity, how many selves are there? Four? Three? One? None? (Or shall we refuse to answer the question?) Again, we have a formula which doesn’t wear its meaning on its sleeve.
Similarly ambiguous is the statement of the largest Protestant denomination in the United States:
“The eternal triune God reveals Himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, with distinct personal attributes, but without division of nature, essence, or being.”
Again, there would seem to be at least one self here – “God… Himself.” But what of the “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”? We’re told that each has “distinct personal attributes” – but mere personalities, full-blown selves, or even something-we-know-not-whats might be thought to do that. Evidently “nature, essence, or being” are meant as synonyms… but expressing what? The obvious philosophical questions raised by the 325 formulas remain.
To really sift through these would take a book.
But you, the thinking Christian, need a place to settle your mind. Can you find that place among one of these interpretations? Or will you feel compelled to go farther, examining the credentials of the formulas? The traditions usually say that we are here in the presence of great truths which are to be believed. A parrot can repeat formulas, but a Christian is a believer in divinely revealed truths. But what claims, exactly, are here proposed for our belief? The authorities who’ve transmitted the formulas to us have not also transmitted any one way to interpret them. And intelligent and informed defenders of the formulas are defending different and incompatible interpretations, insofar as they have intelligible interpretations to offer. (See the sources above.) In truth, many defenders (notably, many apologists) are defending only the formulas, having only vague ideas about what they mean, and they expect you to not ask too many questions about what they mean. Their age and prestige are supposed to exempt them from critical examination. Do you agree?