Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“A Cross for Human Thought” first appeared in the October 2001 issue of Touchstone.
A Cross for Human Thought
The Mystery of the Trinity: Trinitarian Experience and Vision in the Biblical and Patristic Tradition
reviewed by R. Andrew Newman
Vladimir Lossky once called the dogma of the Trinity “a cross for human ways of thought.” Boris Bobrinskoy, an Orthodox theologian, agrees with the late master in this first of his books to appear in English translation.
To say that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are the subject(s) of Bobrinskoy’s The Mystery of the Trinity would be an understatement. As he explains, the mystery of the Trinity is “the starting point and the end point of all our reflection about God.” Man, the Church, salvation, and all reality from creation to the eschaton cannot be separated from the dogma of the Trinity.
As the title implies, Bobrinskoy’s text is no lightweight. His trinitarian meditation covers a great deal of territory, from the Old Testament to today’s Orthodox theologians. He closely reads the Old Testament and demonstrates that the Trinity is not absent but shadowed. Following in the tradition of the church fathers, he sees in the Hebrew experience of God not only the Father, but also the Word and the Spirit. He traces the “unfolding of Old Testament monotheism into trinitarian Revelation in the Gospels” and in the faith lived in the Church, led by the Holy Spirit, and in her councils, sacraments, and Liturgy down to this day. Positive (cataphatic) and negative (apophatic) theology and how they revolve around the Trinity are another topic. He also explores the filioque question.
He rejects the notion that God should or can be discussed as the One before moving on to the Three. In speaking “of God’s eternity, wisdom, omnipotence or goodness, we are obliged to use a language different from that of the philosophers. This can only be the language of revelation, a revelation that is necessarily trinitarian.” Revelation speaks of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: persons, not an abstract, self-contained cause solely outside of the universe.
If the One is discussed before the Three-in-One, the Trinity can appear to be something tacked on by theologians. This happens, I would add, when the foundation for the oneness of God is presented in strictly or mostly philosophical terms. Fr. Michael Pomazansky’s Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, for instance, ably presents the oneness of God, drawing on the Scriptures and patristic texts, and then proceeds to illustrate how the “Christian truth of the oneness of God is deepened by the truth of the Tri-hypostatical unity.” Bobrinskoy’s warning that philosophy cannot be allowed to dictate how God is described, however, is well taken. It’s especially true for philosophers who are not open to revelation and to the life of the Spirit in the Church.
As to which is prior, the Unity or the Trinity, Bobrinskoy says there is no way “even for the sake of discussion” to know, and it’s a mistake even to try. He cites a beautiful passage from the writings of St. Gregory the Theologian: “As soon as I begin to contemplate the Unity, the Trinity bathes me in its splendor. As soon as I begin to think of the Trinity, I am seized by the Unity. When one of the Three appears to me, I think it is the whole, so fully my eye is filled, so fully the abundance escapes me.” God—three co-equal persons in one undivided godhead—amounts to no abstract, geometric theorem to be dissected. Rather, to turn to the Liturgy, “We have seen the true light, we have received the heavenly Spirit, we have found the true faith, we worship the undivided Trinity: for the same hath saved us.”
For Bobrinskoy, dogmas have a personal element to them. By that he does not mean they are subjective. They are to be lived. He calls his work “a testimony to the joy I have experienced constantly in discovering the continuity and unity of the trinitarian faith of the Orthodox Church, yesterday and today. On the basis of biblical texts, this unity, through ecclesial worship, emerges from the works of the Doctors of the Church, and culminates in modern Orthodox theological thought.”
The spirit of joy permeating the text gives it an infectious quality. Bobrinskoy has spent more than 30 years of his life as a professor of theology in France, loving and teaching the mystery of the Trinity, and he excitedly wants to share with the reader this personal, living, and transforming encounter with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is serious business. In the end, he insists, the living trinitarian faith “is absolutely necessary for the mind and the heart.”
The Mystery of the Trinity has the quality of that all-too-rare specimen, the lively college text. If the reader invests the necessary effort for what is by no means an easy book, a good education is to be found between its covers, as well as a thoughtful, loving meditation on the most central and necessary of doctrines.
R. Andrew Newman is a writer in Scottsbluff, Nebraska.
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