Sunday, May 26, 2024

Sacred Liturgy as a Source of Trinitarian Doctrine in the Early Church

Though we live in an age when few points of doctrine are completely safe from the ravages of “dialogue” and “further study,” one doesn’t hear much argument about the nature of the Blessed Trinity these days. Though this is surely a sign of the generalized postmodern indifference to things metaphysical, interest in Trinitarian theology, at least in the West, started waning long ago.

The modes of thought that predominated during the eighteenth century were hostile to “irrelevant” doctrinal details that had no bearing on the utopian society soon to be ushered in by scientists and secular philosophers. This trend continued into the nineteenth century, despite a renewed appreciation for certain aspects of medieval religion and culture. A revival of sorts—of course accompanied by sterile debate and dubious speculation—began in the twentieth century and has continued into the twenty-first; Karl Barth and Karl Rahner, both highly influential theologians, published works on the Trinity and helped to move trinitarian doctrines away from the periphery and toward the center of Christian theology. This revival is mostly an academic phenomenon, but it nonetheless gives us a small sense of affinity with the early Church, which prayed and studied and labored tirelessly in response to that most fundamental of Christian questions: How is God both One and Three?

A fourteenth-century illumination depicting the Holy Trinity as Father, Lamb, and Dove.

The Three Centuries before Nicaea

The First Council of Nicaea, convened in 325, did not entirely dispel the obscurity surrounding man’s understanding of the Trinity. Nothing ever will, for as Augustine and Aquinas recognized, it is the very nature of the Deity to be three-in-one, and nothing in the material or psychological realm supplies an analogy that makes such a nature fully comprehensible to the human mind. Nevertheless, Nicaea was a turning point. The Council spoke with strength and clarity against the principal dangers of the time, declaring that the Son is eternally begotten, not created, and that He is consubstantial with, rather than ontologically subordinate to, the Father.

Dante and Beatrice adoring the Blessed Trinity. “Gazing upon His Son with that Love which / One and the Other breathe eternally, / the Power—first and inexpressible— / / made everything that wheels through mind and space / so orderly that one who contemplates / that harmony cannot but taste of Him” (Paradiso, 10; Mandelbaum translation).

The three hundred years of Christianity that preceded Nicaea were a period of grave and often contentious uncertainties about the relationships between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Relatively little doctrinal development occurred during the first two centuries. The triune nature of God was established in Holy Scripture, invoked by Apostolic Fathers (Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch), and explained by Apologists (Justin Martyr, Tatian, Theophilus of Antioch), but the Church lacked a precise and philosophically robust understanding of her trinitarian beliefs. Thus, the dogma of the Trinity existed, but it did not always satisfy inquiring minds, and it was vulnerable to potentially catastrophic theological attacks—such as that of a certain heresiarch by the name of Arius.

In the third century, theologians supplied insights that brought greater coherence and clarity to trinitarian orthodoxy, thus laying the groundwork for the triumph of Nicaea. Three of the most prominent were Hippolytus of Rome, Tertullian, and Origen; in this article I will focus on Origen, who gives us an early example of the intimate relation between orthodoxy and liturgical orthopraxis—or in other words, between doctrinal Truth and the poetic Truth that ordinary Christians experience in the expressive language and multisensorial artistry of the Church’s public worship.

A sixteenth-century iconographic rendition of the First Council of Nicaea.

The Triune God in the Liturgy of the Early Church

Though records are sparse, liturgical devotion to the Holy Trinity was present, if not pronounced, in the first three centuries of Christianity. The three Persons were invoked in the administration of sacraments, St. John Cassian (d. 435) reports that Egyptian monks ended their psalmody with a brief hymn “in honor of the Trinity” (Institutes, II.8), and St. Basil (d. 397) indicates that the faithful had long praised the Holy Trinity when lighting the Vespers lamp:

Who was the author of these words of thanksgiving at the lighting of the lamps, we are not able to say. The people, however, utter the ancient form, and no one has ever reckoned guilty of impiety those who say, “We praise Father, Son, and God’s Holy Spirit.” (De Spiritu Sancto, ch. 29)

A fascinating passage from St. Cyprian’ s treatise On the Lord’s Prayer, written in the middle of the third century, interprets the liturgical horarium as a symbol and “sacrament” of the triune God:

In discharging the duties of prayer, we find that the three children with Daniel, being strong in faith and victorious in captivity, observed the third, sixth, and ninth hour, as it were, for a sacrament of the Trinity.... For both the first hour in its progress to the third shows forth the consummated number of the Trinity, and also the fourth proceeding to the sixth declares another Trinity; and when from the seventh the ninth is completed, the perfect Trinity is numbered every three hours, which spaces of hours the worshippers of God in time past having spiritually decided on, made use of for determined and lawful times for prayer. (ch. 34)

Origen and the Appeal to Sacred Liturgy

We see, then, that the Church’s intuitive understanding of the Holy Trinity, perhaps in a wide variety of poetic and ritualistic forms, had filtered into her life of communal prayer. Origen’s writings show us how these liturgical manifestations of trinitarian belief could then return to the theological domain and influence the formulation of dogma.

A portrait of Origen attributed to the sixteenth-century French printer Guillaume Chaudière.

On two occasions of which I am aware, Origen mentions trinitarian liturgical practices in a way that is particularly significant. He doesn’t merely describe these practices; he appeals to them as justification for trinitarian beliefs that were, in these pre-Nicene days, still unsettled. One instance is found in De Principiis (I.3.5):

It seems proper to inquire what is the reason why he who is regenerated by God unto salvation has to do both with Father and Son and Holy Spirit, and does not obtain salvation unless with the co-operation of the entire Trinity; and why it is impossible to become partaker of the Father or the Son without the Holy Spirit.

Here Origen invokes the Church’s baptismal practice in affirming the unity of the Trinity and, more specifically, the full membership of the Holy Spirit in that divine unity. The discussion was a topical one insofar as the pre-Nicene understanding of the Holy Spirit developed more slowly than that of the Father and the Son; Origen himself, in the preceding paragraph (I.3.4), falls unintentionally into heterodoxy: “For although something else existed before the Holy Spirit, ....”

The second instance is in the Dialogue with Heraclides, a document discovered in 1941 by British soldiers who were looking for a place to store ammunition. Bishop Heraclides was caught up in a doctrinal controversy related in some way to prayers used in the eucharistic liturgy, and Origen insists that when praying we should ward off heretical notions by respecting both the distinction of Persons and the unified divinity in the relationship between Father and Son. He continues:

Offering is universally made to Almighty God through Jesus Christ inasmuch as, in respect of his deity, he is akin to the Father. Let there be no double offering, but an offering to God through God.

With admirable concision, Origen makes a profound argument about the nature of the Holy Trinity by drawing our attention to established liturgical practices. The Church prays to the Father through the Son, and therefore the Persons must be somehow distinct; yet the prayer is not a dual offering, and therefore the Two must be One God.

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