Reformation Doctrinal Controversy Thesis

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¶ … theological questions in Christianity is the nature of God and whether He is a single being or entity -- the unified God of the Unitarians, in other words -- or an entity that is three-in-one, the trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. This point has been passionately debated over the centuries and remains a point of difference among contemporary Christian sects. But while it remains a point of difference, the question of the nature of God in terms of trinity or unity has cooled dramatically. It is no longer at the center of the Christian world as it has been at other historical times, perhaps because much of the essential questions have already been debated, perhaps simply because the nature of the modern church is so very different from that of the church before the Reformation.

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Indeed, the question of God-as-Trinity or God-as-Unity can be seen in some sense as the quintessential and formative question of the pre-Reformation church. The shift to the acceptance of the Trinity (not that is universally accepted within Christianity, of course, but it is of course very widely accepted as a part of modern Christian belief and practice) can be seen, I believe as an important element in the process by which the early church distinguished itself from Judaism. The God of the Jews is certainly a more unified God -- perhaps the word "homogeneous" might even be accurately used -- than the God of the New Testament. And so I believe that in some sense the shift to a firmer grounding in the concept of the Trinity can be seen as the maturation of the Christian church away from God as conceived of by Moses or Abraham. (Although I will discuss below some possible precursors in the Old Testament of the Christian Trinity.)

Thesis on Reformation Doctrinal Controversy Assignment

In this paper I take up this question of whether God is better understood in Trinitarian terms or in one of the Nontrinitarian forms -- most commonly Unitarianism but also Binitarianism (the belief that God exists as two persons in one deity). I shall explore both the historical and theological background of the different perspectives of this debate providing scriptural support for my contentions. I should note at the beginning that I personally believe in the Trinitarian nature of God. However, I also understand that those who have taken differing positions throughout time have also held their beliefs sincerely and should not be considered heretical in their beliefs. (Although they have been considered to be such during many times in the history of the early church.)

In order to begin to answer the question of whether it is accurate (although that word rings a little oddly in the current context) to conceive of God in Trinitarian form, it is essential to understand the nature of "person" as it was used in initial descriptions of the Trinity. For if we conceive of the Trinitarian nature of God in terms of modern definitions of personhood then we will be lead into an inaccurate understanding of the possible ways in which God can be understood to encompass three different persons.

A Unified Godhead

Trinitarian doctrine teaches that there are three persons -- the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit -- within the Godhead. We are as Christians to hold simultaneously the idea that these are actually three distinct persons (or personae) and the idea that they are irrefutably the same essence. In the modern West (one might in fact refine that to say in the post-Freud West) a "person" is considered to be a separate being, an entity that has free will and consciousness, a creature that is in itself fully complete (Letham 41). One might even use the word "perfect" in conjunction with this concept of personhood because this secular, modernist view of humanity is predicated on the idea that humans remain themselves even if they are not connected to God, even if they are not connected to each other. In this perspective persons are something of an island.

But a better understanding of the way in which "person" can be interpreted from a Trinitarian perspective is to consider both etymological and cultural roots of the word in the classical world. (The problems with doing this, of bringing in classical sources will be discussed below.) The idea behind "person" can perhaps most clearly be conveyed by the Greek word "hypostasis," which can be translated as "that which stands beneath" (Williams 112). It thus means something that is between an archetype and a manifestation. "Hypostasis" can be contrasted to the idea expressed by "ousia," which is similar to the English word "essence" (Williams 114). Thus God can be described in these terms as being "three hypostases in one ousia." This is a concise and elegant translation of the orthodox concept of the Trinity and can be seen to connect smoothly with the Trinitarian concept as set out in John 20:19-23. (The following comes from the King James Version):

19 Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.

20 And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the LORD.

21 Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you.

22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost:

23 Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.

This formulation of "three hypostases in one ousia" (which was standardized by the Cappadocian fathers, a group of fourth-century church officials who were instrumental both in developing and consolidating Christian theology) was distrusted by others in the early Western church both because they believed that it connected Christianity too closely to the classical, pagan world. Early Western church thinkers were also concerned that this concept was linked it to a suspect concept within Eastern Christianity. Some early Western Christian leaders made the claim that there existed within Eastern Christianity an understanding of "three hypostases in one ousia" as actually referring to three separate substances -- the doctrine of Tritheism (Williams 187). This idea of "tritheism" is both interesting and important not because of its actual theology value but rather because it helps illuminate the ways in which concepts of God's unity (or unity-in-trinity, if I may play a little loosely with traditional terminology here) have historically been used.

As the etymology of the word suggests, tritheism is simply the belief in three distinct and separate gods who work together to conduct the affairs of the world. No Christian sect has ever adhered to such a belief (which can be seen to be fundamentally at odds with core Christian beliefs). Rather the attribution of a belief in or adherence to tritheism is essentially an accusation that different Christian groups use to defame each other. Each of the major Christian sects considers to be the idea a heretical one, and so have at times used the idea to claim that other Christian traditions are heretical ones. (This practice, of course, has been common around a number of liturgical and theological issues, not simply discussions of the Trinity.)

Other early Church officials were suspicious of the concept of the Trinity that I have been describing here as being the same as the error of consubstantiality, which is the idea that while the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are unified, there is a temporal element to this Trinity, with the Holy Spirit preceding the Father, who is turn precedes the Son (Arendzen 36-7). This is something of a simplification of the concept, which is both highly metaphorical and highly metaphysical. The important point here is that consubstantiality can be opposed in important ways contrasted with orthodox concepts of the Trinity. As such, accusations of consubstantiality are parallel to accusations of tritheism.

Importance of Fourth Century Developments

The most significant developments in articulating the doctrine of the Trinity that lead to our current understanding of the term took place in the fourth century. Until this point, the focus of much of the work of Christian theologians had been an emphasis on the pastoral obligations and responsibilities of followers of the church. This arose in part as the nature of a young church and partly in response to the fact that Christianity was (to various degrees) either suppressed or persecuted in Rome. When Constantine became emperor and Christians became free to practice their faith, Christian theology began to change and in many ways became more metaphysical. As Christians no longer had to expend so much energy on simply being able to practice their religion, theologians began to explore some of the subtler aspects… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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