The Trinity, Categories of Being, and Nominalism

I was reflecting this morning on an exchange on one of the message boards I visit. It was a post on the Trinity, and one of the members, who I take is rather enamored of postmodernist jargon and has what I take to be a somewhat superficial understanding of postmodernist concepts, declared that Christianity didn’t need the theological concept of the Trinity since the concept itself is not explicitly spelled out in Scriptures and since the classical Christian understanding of it is based on categories of being that few people either accept or understand today. That is to say, since we don’t think like the Christians of the fourth century, the theological concept of the Trinity doesn’t make much sense to us. Our minds don’t “process” it well; it doesn’t fit our “programming.” Mind you, he assured me he wasn’t rejecting the concept of the Trinity. He just didn’t care about it.

There are, of course, a whole host of issues to address here, major Gospel-altering problems lurking within this sort of position. And I will not, nor could I, address them all a single post. One of those matters has to do with the addiction to relevance that is pervasive throughout modern mainline and evangelical Christianity here in the U.S. My friend and brother, the priestly goth, talks about the failure of the radical insistance on relevance. He has some very good things to say.

There is also lurking around this the problematic notion of an incipient Jewish primitivism–brought about in part via the latest wave of the quests for the historical Jesus. That is to say, if only we could get behind and before the Harnackian “hellenization of Christianity” to the simple, ethical Jewish teacher Jesus, wholly locating Christianity in a first-century Jewish worldview, we’d finally get to the heart of “true Christianity.” On this, see the redoubtable Perry Robinson’s review and critique of Harnack’s “hellenization” criticism.

But what I want to address here–and which Larry also touches on–is the nominalist heresy that is rife in the Trinity critic’s position noted above. In other words, it is not as though the Trinity is a reality about whom the language we use to speak of is dispensible. We cannot just mix-and-match the terms that makes sense to us. The Trinity is a reality that confronts us and demands things of us. No single philosophical or theological paradigm can grasp the Trinity. But it does not follow that we can say just anything about the Trinity. And some of the ways we speak about the Trinity cannot be jettisoned. It is not the case that we slapped our own conceptual paradigms on the Trinity to make sense of God, but that the Trinity requires us to understand being in a new way, a way enshrined in the divinely wrought terms and concepts of the Church.

My erstwhile Trinity critic noted above took to task the notion that fourth century categories of being had, as it were, taken captive Trinitarian God-talk. He went so far as to say that St. Paul and the Evangelists didn’t have the Trinity (though I think what he meant was the fourth-century conceptual terminology for the Trinity), and therefore, if our categories of being (our understanding of what it means to be, to exist) are different from the Cappadocians, then we can throw out these classical understandings and forge our own new terminology regarding the Trinity.

As I pointed out to him, this is mere nominalism. Any label will do, so long as we can make it fit the reality we want to describe. Now my critic would not deny the reality of God, nor would he deny the reality that has been described by classical Trinitarian categories of being. He only wants to pry our hands off the troublesome (to postmodernist sensibilities) ancient terminology.

The problem is, these terms and understandings are not simply the Christian enshrinement of hellenistic categories of being. Here’s why.

First, it makes an unhistorical assumption: that hellenistic philosophy had a unified and static concept of being and existence. This is manifestly not the case. The pre-Socratic atomists differed in their monism from Plato’s “theory” of the forms, and Aristotle himself transfigured Plato’s ousiology into something different again. There were monists and dualists. Some ascribed being to another realm. Others ascribed being to this physical reality. Some were physicalist materialists, others posited preexistent, eternal immaterial souls. The unity of theoretical conception appealed to as a criticism of “ancient categories of being” is a mythical one.

Secondly, it also assumes that the fourth century Christians made uncritical use of hellenistic philosophy. That is to say, since hellenism was part of the pervasive worldview, they were simply carried along by that worldview and imputed it to their Christian thought. This also is unhistorical. The Christian thinkers of the second through seventh centuries (i.e., St. Justin the Philosopher, St. Clement of Alexandria, St. Athanasios, the Cappadocians, St. Maximus the Confessor) made demonstrably critical use of various concepts and terms from Hellenistic philosophy, adopting some terms as useful in themselves, while adopting and redefining other terms. Aristotle’s energeia was taken over and eventually became the tool by which St. Gregory Palamas overcame Barlaam’s intellectualist heresy. The terms hypostasis (it seems originally a Stoic philosophical term) and homoousios were terms adopted not without controversy and not without change. On this, the late Jaroslav Pelikan’s Christianity and Classical Culture is an excellent resource.

So, it is not the case that the ancient Christians were simply shaped and formed unconsciously and uncritically by their culture. It is, rather, the case that their minds and hearts were formed and shaped by the reality of the experience of Christ and His Body the Church, and that experience critically made use of and transformed certain understandings and concepts of antiquity through which could be articulated that experience. The Church, in her divine wisdom, blessed these articulations and has since used them as touchstones, markers beyond which is to potentially misspeak about God.

So, as I expressed it to the critic: Instead of the necessity of hellenistic categories of being and existence for our conception of the Trinity, having the concept of the Trinity is necessary for our understanding of the nature of being and existence. Because we have experienced the Trinity, all other conceptual understandings of being, essence and existence are taken captive and made obedient to Christ.

Critics such as the one I’m referencing, operate with a viewpoint that a) first came metaphysical categories of being, then b) came the doctrine of the Trinity. In point of fact, a careful examination of the historical record shows a different pattern. First was the Christian belief in the Trinity (though that term itself was not used), then came the centuries long struggle to express that dogma in terms which were faithful to the Gospel. What happened then is that there were certain philosophical terms and concepts that could help safeguard the belief, and these terms and concepts were used.

In other words, the Trinity isn’t a concept delimited by classical metaphysics, but rather, the Trinity is a reality that is expressed and safeguarded by a transformed and transfigured classical metaphysics. If our modern world has jettisoned classical metaphysics, so be it. But we can still express the Trinity in terms of classical metaphysics, and we can still be understood by those to whom we express it. We simply need to explain the terms and the reasons for the terms. And more importantly, we need to invite our interlocutors into the experience of life in Christ by which these concepts and terms gain their meaning and coherence.

I do not, however, want to be read as though we must rigidly and inflexibly parrot these words and concepts. Christianity is not a static religion based on ossified terms. Rather, Christianity is a dynamically lived faith, and these concepts and ideas, even though couched in fallible and incomplete human language, are still determined by the Church to have real meaning and real connection to the living truths they proclaim. Christian faith cannot be wholly captured in propositions, to be sure. But it can be partially and approximately expressed in language. This language really conveys the meaning, the lived reality it expresses. It is not merely a convenient label that may or may not have lived out its usefulness to, as Rorty puts it, get us what we want. These words have power, not in themselves, but in the realities they both convey and in which they participate.

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