The Meaning of the Trinity

January 27, 2018
Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine
Author: Khaled Anatolios
Purblisher: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic (2011)
Hardback: 352 pages
Price: $39.99.

Many will claim that a renaissance of trinitarian thought has taken place in the English-speaking world in recent decades. If that is the case, what kind of renaissance has it been?

Along these lines, I can recall several moments of conversation during my doctoral studies at Harvard and my first years of teaching. For example, I participated in many discussions with a fellow student who loved the doctrine of the Trinity because of its philosophizing about “perfect relationships in equality,” but who was not particularly interested in the scriptural narrative of salvation involving Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There were still others who loved talking about “relationality” and being “incarnational,” but did not seem particularly interested in Jesus Christ, the Word incarnate. Later, when I had begun teaching, I recall a student sharing his excitement about social trinitarianism because it “makes so much sense” that three “individuals” can have “so much in common with each other”—as opposed to the more mysterious “Western” view of the Trinity. Was each of these discussions really just a step on the path to a social renaissance of trinitarian thought?

Of course, any “renaissance” will have its moments of excess and aberration. But at times, the recent renaissance of trinitarian thought has been quick to claim revolutionary insights which move beyond the inadequacies of earlier trinitarian thought, while not being particularly attentive to that thought. In Retrieving Nicaea, Khaled Anatolios, who teaches historical theology at the University of Notre Dame, has written a subtle and insightful book which exposes our more fanciful claims to novelty. Through a detailed historical analysis and retrieval of pro-Nicene trinitarian theology, Anatolios paints a portrait of how fourth century trinitarianism was deeply engaged with the biblical narrative and much more sophisticated than many of our contemporary categories for describing this history have recognized.

In his substantial Introduction, Anatolios begins by summarizing some contemporary debates in trinitarian theology—and suggests that even the terms of debate themselves should be destabilized by a careful reading of Nicene trinitarian theology. One such debate is about whether one should use “social” analogies for the trinity (associated with the East) or “psychological” analogies (associated with the West). Anatolios retorts that both sides have tended to make analogies the “primary location of trinitarian meaning,” which Nicene theology does not (6).

Similarly, many contemporary theologians have claimed that “the greatest deficiency of ‘classical’ trinitarian theology and Christology is that it begins with a non-christological ‘Hellenistic’ conception of divine transcendence and that this deficiency is now being redressed by efforts to rethink divine transcendence from the perspective of the person and work of Jesus Christ” (9). But Anatolios once again suggests this widespread belief gets the history wrong: throughout the book he seeks to show how key Nicene theologians revised Hellenistic divine transcendence precisely in light of the Incarnation and cross of Christ.

What does Anatolios propose as an alternative to these deficiencies in contemporary trinitarian discussion? That “Nicene trinitarian doctrine involved most decisively not so much the creation of a certain vocabulary, or the use of certain analogies, or indeed any one thing, but rather comprehensive interpretations of many aspects of Christian faith and life” (11). In other words, there is a very broad systematic significance to trinitarian doctrine. Key to that broad significance is the fact that Nicene trinitarian doctrine is a reworking of the scriptural narrative of the God of Israel who makes himself known in the economy of salvation as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Anatolios’ book pursues this agenda in the first two chapters with an overview of both the history of fourth century trinitarian controversies and also the competing movements in those debates. While these chapters offer basic key issues and figures, Anatolios also gives a helpful typology for making sense of the issues at stake amidst a complex set of alliances and disputes. These disputes include theologies which argued for the unity of the Trinity on the basis of a unity of will, set against those who grounded unity in a unity of being. Anatolios is careful to note the common theology and Christian experience that held together both sides.1

All parties in the debate accepted the common beliefs of some notion of the Trinity as an object of Christian worship, the Lordship of Christ, and that Jesus Christ – as divine and human – was “the Savior of the world” (37). How these common beliefs were defined and articulated were different. Yet, Anatolios also outlines reasons for a “Break in Pre-Nicene Experience” which led to the controversies – namely, emerging issues concerning the “radical difference between God and the world,” the nature of Christ’s person, and the need for a “unified and consistent expression” of the church’s faith (39-41). In light of these challenges, theologies which rooted divine unity in God’s will or, alternatively, in God’s being, were developed.

In the next three (quite lengthy) chapters, Anatolios executes the program outlined in his Introduction by closely examining the trinitarian thought of three Nicene theologians: Athanasius2, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine of Hippo. Anatolios’ interpretation of each man highlights the broad implications of their trinitarian thought for Christian faith and salvation, for the close relationship of Trinitarian doctrine to biblical hermeneutics and exposition, and for the scriptural narrative’s revelation of the Triune God. He also describes ways in which many other recent interpreters have imposed reductive schemas on each figure’s thought.

While these final chapters make many insightful points, there are two areas  which demand the special attention of anyone seeking a true trinitarian renaissance today. First, as Anatolios notes in the Introduction, theologians as diverse as Karl Barth, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and Jurgen Moltmann have undertaken the task of rethinking divine transcendence in light of the person and work of Christ (9). In contemporary theology, this is usually framed as a novel task, since many assert that patristic theology uncritically imported divine attributes like divine impassibility into Christian theology without interrogating such categories by the revelation of Christ, the God-human who is crucified Lord. Anatolios carefully shows how this account of patristic Nicene thought is a caricature.

Athanasius faced this issue directly in response to the theology of Eusebius. In Anatolios’ account, Eusebius suggested that the Father represents the “extremity of divine transcendence,” while the Son represents a lower level of being, the “extremity of divine immanence” (104). Athanasius cut through this Hellenized claim by refusing to assign a traditional view of divine transcendence to one and immanence to the other. Instead, in the Incarnation and cross of Christ we see God’s condescending, self-abasing love and mercy. This is not so much a loss of divine power, but a revelation of it, for “the biblical God’s creative power is matched by his loving-kindness” (119). Thus, Athanasius reads passages like the Christ hymn in Philippians 2 as addressing “the character of Christ’s divinity,” not its degree (123). The Son’s taking the form of a servant in Christ displays God’s very own merciful, self-humbling love.

Gregory of Nyssa extended a similar line of thought in showing how inherited philosophical ideas both about divinity and humanity need to be revisited in light of the Incarnation and cross of Christ. Indeed, that is exactly what is at stake when Gregory redefines divine impassibility in affirming it. Because “the divine nature is defined in terms of generous and beneficent love, then the cross is an appropriate demonstration of divine transcendence, not evidence of a lack of transcendence” (178). The divine nature does not suffer in itself, precisely because through Christ, divine mercy and power come into contact with human vulnerability actively transforming human suffering, sin, and death.

With regard to a second critical issue, Anatolios argues that the various sides of a contemporary debate about social trinitarianism are, to some extent, wrong. Throughout Retrieving Nicaea, Anatolios shows how the search for creaturely analogies for the Trinity has a much more subordinate place in Nicene trinitarianism than in contemporary theology. He also agrees with the works of Lewis Ayres and Michel Barnes which show that, from the perspective of Nicene theology, an East-West polarization on the Trinity is simply false. Contrary to older textbook accounts, Augustine did not “start” with the one substance and then “move” to the three persons (while the Cappadocians headed in the opposite direction).

At the same time, Anatolios thinks that opponents of social trinitarianism have often overstated their case. While “hypostasis” in Nicene theology does not simply correspond to modern notions of personhood, it does “intersect with some aspects of our modern notion of personhood” (153). When Gregory of Nyssa speaks of the hypostaseis, one must guard against “a too facile assimilation… to a so-called ‘social model of the Trinity and, on the other hand, a categorical rejection of all ‘personalist’ elements” in Gregory’s conception (219). Moreover, Anatolios notes that Augustine includes analogies which emphasize the “interpersonal” dimension of the Trinity which he does not simply jettison for more “individualistic” analogies (260-1).

Following Athanasius and Gregory of Nyssa in particular, Anatolios suggests in his conclusion that “we should not be afraid to say that the communion of the Father, Son, and Spirit is willed by each of them and is thus a genuine interpersonal communion,” even as we affirm that all three persons are “equally owners of all the divine perfections such that the divine being is a single perfection” (292).

Whether or not readers agree with each point in Anatolios’ interpretation of Nicene theology, in Retrieving Nicaea he accomplishes what theologies of retrieval should: he gives close readings of texts from an earlier age in a way that calls into question our current theological discourse.

Evangelicals, in particular, need to be attentive to this book. We tend to take an idea and run with it, to run headlong into scores of new projects that the allegedly “lax” (or “Constantinian,” or “Christendom”) church has supposedly never considered. Positively, the church at large does need to see the profound and practical implications of trinitarian theology. But as evangelicals, we also need to be humbled by reading authors like Anatolios, reminding us that we are not the first to tread these paths. In fact, reading Retrieving Nicaea may give us second thoughts about some of those “cool new trinitarian ideas” that we’re trying to implement, turning us back to the narrative of Scripture where God is not a useful idea or trendy rubric, but the one true God who reveals himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


About the Author
  • Todd Billings (ThD, Harvard University Divinity School) is Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, and an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America. He is the author of several books, including Union with Christ, winner of a Christianity Today Book Award, and Calvin, Participation, and the Gift, winner of a 2009 John Templeton Award for Theological Promise.

  1. This section is helpful in clearly designating what the trinitarian controversies were not about, and also avoiding caricatures of Arian positions.  

  2. about whom Anatolios has written two monographs