Trinity 4: Try Not to Fall Off the Balance Beam
With the divinity of Christ and of the Holy Spirit and homousios of Christ and the Holy Spirit with God established, the foundation of the Trinity was laid for the early church. But the church still had to figure out how to understand the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The early church understood that there were two ways to fall off the balance beam of the Trinity: you could either overemphasize the three-ness of God and end up in tritheism (there are three deities) or overemphasize the oneness of God and end up in modalism (there is one God with three roles/jobs). They understood that God was both three and one, but putting too much emphasis on either the three-ness or the one-ness got it wrong. So, how do you explain the three-ness and one-ness at the same time?
Three Cappadocian church fathers, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus tackled this problem of staying on the balance beam without falling off into heresy. The Cappadocians established the language of talking about God as one ousia but three hypostaseis. Ousia and hypostaseis are Greek words meaning “essence” and “independent reality” or “persons”, respectively. Three persons, one essence. Ousia and hypostaseis are actually synonyms, but were used to explain that there is one ousia, one essence, one shared will and nature, but at the same time three hypostaseis, three different realities, three sets of special prosperities and activities.
One ousia, three hypostaseis. One essense, three realities. Or, as those in the Western part of the empire put it in Latin, una substantia, tres personae. One substance, three persons. (Yes, translating between the Greek ousia and hypostaseis and the Latin substantia and personae got confusing, and the Latin-speaking church and the Greek-speaking church got mad at each other for a while, but that is another story for another day… just know, the three-in-one language was being tossed around.)
This balance beam of three-in-one was not easy to balance on. The Cappodocian church fathers leaned towards the three-ness of God, while Augustine came along and emphasized the unity of God. The Cappodocian fathers emphasized the difference between the persons of the Trinity as betting, being begotten, and processing. Their relationship to each other differentiates the three persons of the Trinity. Augustine, who emphasized the oneness of the Trinity argued that the Trinity was like one person who encompassed being, knowing, and willing. Augustine also saw the Trinity as lover, beloved, and love itself.
None of these images of the Trinity make total sense, because, maybe any image or analogy of the Trinity is going to fall short of making sense out of a mystery. But the goal of Trinitarian formulations is admirable: making sense out of the nonsensical. In order not to fall off the balance beam, we need to strive for language, imagery, and analogy that captures the three-in-one-ness of God without overemphasizing the three-ness or the one-ness, and the Cappodocian fathers and Augustine were trying to do just that.