Ascribe to the LORD, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength. Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness. The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over many waters. The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty. The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon to skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox. The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the LORD makes the deer give birth and strips the forests bare, and in his temple all cry, "Glory!" The LORD sits enthroned over the flood; the LORD sits enthroned as king forever. May the LORD give strength to his people! May the LORD bless his people with peace! (ESV)
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Different Words, Same Substance
Tuesday of Advent 2
8 December 2015
Gregory of Nazianzus praised the Constantinopolitan faithful in his farewell address to them upon his resignation as their bishop in 381 A.D. He praised them for the unity of their confession, in which they not only expressed the faith using the proper words, but they also confessed the full substance of the faith of the holy Trinity, no matter which words were used by them. Gregory was not interested in wrangling about words. He was interested in delivering the divine truth. Words easily change in meaning according to usage and context. A dear professor from seminary warned his students that they could write a sermon that had a series of correct statements about the gospel in it, and that the aggregate meaning of those correct statements would be heresy. The truth is not merely a matter of using the correct words, but rather delivering a faithful meaning to God's people.
In the early church there were momentous debates about the proper way to speak of the three persons of the holy Trinity. The terms hypostasis and persons were used to refer to the distinctions within the holy Trinity; distinctions which were not of essence, but of relation. The problem was that each term could be used to faithfully deliver a correct understanding of those relations among the persons of the Trinity or could be used to express an in adequate description of those relations.
The term that caused some anxiety among the faithful was the term persons; the Greek word "prosoopa," which can also mean and be translated "faces." On one level, to the Greek hearer the term meant what we mean by "person," what the Augsburg confession denotes when it says, "The word 'person' is to be understood as the Fathers employed the term in this connection, not as a part or a property of another but as that which exists of itself" (AC 1.4). On another level, the Greek word "person" unfortunately was also used to refer to the masks used on the Greek stage. Every character had a "face" while on the stage, so that he could be seen and heard in the back row of the enormous amphitheaters built by the Greeks to stage their plays. The same actor could play several parts, as long as they weren't on the stage at the same time, by changing masks. This was definitely not what the church meant when referring to the three persons as different "faces."
The meaning of these terms had to be sorted out, so that everyone would know how they were being used when the church spoke this way to clarify the relations among the persons of the Trinity. The church also used the term hypostasis, which means basically "substance." This term also has some unfortunate associations, because it could be taken as equivalent to the term homoousia; "same substance," as it is used in the Nicene Creed where it refers to the oneness of the holy Trinity, each person fully and completely having the divine essence. Western theologians were disturbed by this term until the Council of Constantinople clarified how the term was being used when applied to the persons of the Trinity. Hypostasis was used to reject Modalism, a teaching that implied that there was one person of God, who merely appeared in different faces and the distinction was merely a matter of appearance. Let's not wrangle over words, but teach the truth. The church needs to be clear about the meaning of the words to teach the same substance, even if she does not always use the same words.
"The people of the church are a single concise proclamation of our teaching, an inscription intelligible to all (2Co 2:2-3
). These people sincerely worship the Trinity. Any one of them would sooner be separated from his own life, than to separate one of these three persons from the Godhead. The people of the church are of one mind, of equal zeal, and united to one another, to us and to the Trinity by unity of doctrine (Acts 2:42; 1Co 1:10
"Let us then bid farewell to all contentious shifting and balancing of the truth on either side, like the Sabellians, who attack the Trinity in the interest of the unity, and thus destroy the distinction by a wicked confusion. Nor, like the Arians, attack the unity in the interest of the Trinity, and by an impious distinction overthrow the oneness. For our object is not to exchange one evil for another, but to ensure our recognition of what is good. These are the playthings of the wicked one, who is ever swaying our fortunes toward evil. But we, walking along the royal road which lies between the two extremes, which is the seat of the virtues, as the authorities say, believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as one substance and glory; in whom also baptism has its perfection, both in name and essence (you who have been baptized know this!). It is a denial of atheism and a confession of the Godhead. Through it we are regenerated, acknowledging the unity in the essence and in the undivided worship, and the Trinity in the hypostases or persons (some prefer the term "persons").
"Do not let those who are contentious on these points utter their scandalous taunts, as if our faith depended on terms and not on the realities themselves. For the question is, what do you mean when you assert the three hypostases? Do you imply three different essences when you use this term? I am assured that you would loudly shout against those who do. For you teach that the essence of the three is one and the same. What do you mean, who assert the three persons? Do you imagine a single compound sort of being, with three faces, or of an entirely human form? God forbid! You too will loudly reply that he who thinks thus, will never see the face of God, whatever it may be like. What is the meaning of the hypostases of the one party, of the persons of the other, to ask this further question? They are three, who are distinguished not by natures, but by properties. That is correct. How could men agree and harmonize better than you do, even if there is a difference between the syllables you use? You see what a reconciler I am, bringing you back from the letter to the sense."
Gregory Nazianzus, Theological Oration, 42.15-16
O blessed holy Trinity, You have revealed Yourself in the deep mystery of three persons in one divine essence. Keep us united in that confession and faith, so that the world might know You rightly in accordance with Your holy Word. Keep us from empty wrangling about words and focus us on delivering Your truth. Amen.
For all those suffering from cancer, that the doctors and medical technicians would be guided by our heavenly Father to bring the best care possible to them
For Jo Lodholz, that the holy angels would surround her bed
For the gift of rain, that the Lord would continue to water the earth so that it would give seed for the sower and bread for the eater
Art: VOUET, Simon Annunciation (1640s)
© Scott R. Murray, 2015