THE DOCTRINE OF THE TRINITY:
St. Gregory and Gordon Fee
This post is to evaluate, compare and contrast the positions of St. Gregory and Gordon Fee on the Trinity. Both of these writers have strong and well supported ideas about the Trinity. One deals with the “why” while the other focuses on the “how”.
This was a very fascinating and challenging assignment. It was fascinating because of the subject matter; the Trinity. It was challenging for me to evaluate the writing of St. Gregory. His fourth century writing style was difficult for this amateur student to read or understand.
Luckily for me, two reference books that I have come to know almost as old friends both had something to say about St. Gregory and his orations. Walter Elwell’s Dictionary of Theology as well as early portions of our current textbook by Millard Erickson helped get me started.
Gregory of Nazianzus helped create the concept or doctrine of the Trinity that we use today still in the modern evangelical church. The Father, Son and Holy Ghost reign as equals in God’s kingdom, none any greater than the other, all as one. The Father is “unbegotten, the Son is begotten and the Spirit proceeds” them both. (Elwell, p526). Put another way, the three are equal but with different properties. The Father has paternity. The Son has sonship. The Holy Spirit has sanctifying power. (Erickson, p361).
This doctrine came from years of strife and debate, starting as early as 325 with the Council of Nicea, lasting more than a hundred years. (Erickson, p711) Gregory became involved around 381 at the Council of Constantinople. His orations were written to proclaim and defend his position on the Trinity. Gregory saw it clearly. In the Old Testament, God was clearly presented as the Father, with references about the Son to come. In the New Testament, the Son was born on Earth and linked himself undeniably to the Father. The Son then introduces the Holy Spirit, to bridge the gap between Father, Son and man until the Son returns again. Gregory used the earthly analogy of “source, stream, and river, though different in form, count as one thing.” (Gregory, p142) St. Gregory successfully presents his doctrine of the Trinity from the “why” perspective. From Old to New Testament, from Father to Son to Holy Ghost, he shows why the Trinity is vital to Christian doctrine.
The Trinity is a difficult concept. The word is never used in the Bible. Only Christians hold it as doctrine. (Erickson, p347) As presented by Gregory and held by most Christian churches today, it represents “who God is, what he is like, how he works and how he is to be approached. (Erickson, p347) One cannot truly believe in one without the other.
As with every legitimate question, there is the “how” to go along with the “why”. Fee, in part through his examination of Paul’s writing, gives us the “how”. He focuses on the challenge of how God could be three in one. He presents the case using Paul’s writings that the Trinity is not only possible, but essential to Christian life. Paul was clearly a believer in the Trinity. (Fee, 38) Yet he was also focused on the practical, everyday issues of a missionary spreading the gospel. The Trinity was far more than just a theological discussion for Paul.
Three hundred years before St. Gregory, Paul’s writing in 2 Corinthians 13:14 begins his “Trinitarian Texts.” (Fee, p40) He writes of the gospel as essential to life. The love of God comes through the Gospel, expressed through his son, continually available through the Holy Spirit. (Fee, p40) This text not only clearly gives Paul’s viewpoint of salvation but his viewpoint of God as well. The death of Christ and his resurrection had firmly molded Paul’s belief in the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. He saw the work of all three of them in that experience.
This was Paul’s Corinthian Road of sorts, similar to the Roman Road many of us have learned in our journey to share Christ with others. The Trinity was not only essential to Christian life; it was first and foremost essential to Christian conversion. God the Father sent the Son to save us all leaving the Holy Spirit to bridge the gap between the God and Son in Heaven with believers in Earth. Put another way, God provided the Son. The Son provided the sacrifice the law required. The Holy Spirit provides the “presence of the Spirit” for our everyday lives. (Fee, p42)
To Paul, expressed by Fee, the Trinity is the “how” of salvation, Christian life and fulfillment. Much in the same was the Trinity mystically embraces the three powers of the universe, it also mystically provides our path to know them.
I find the ideas of St. Gregory and Fee very complimentary. They addressed different elements of the same glorious question as to the “why “and “how” of the Trinity. From a day to day perspective, Fee’s point of view is more practical and helpful. For the Christian seeking a deeper relationship with God, St. Gregory’s writing is helpful. There is great value in both.
Elwell, Walter A., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Baker Academic Publishing, 2001.
Erickson, Millard J., Christian Theology, Second Edition, Baker Academic Publishing, 1998.