Thursday, April 28, 2016

Tertullian's Testimony of the Holy Trinity

Many years back - probably summer of 2005 - I was heavily engrossed in the study of the patristics. I remember, as I was researching on the Pre-Nicean formulations of the Trinity, I've had the occasion to dig up such precious excepts from such a vast goldmine. The study of the Early Christians has been the most rewarding and enriching experience to me intellectually and to my faith spiritually. 

I'd like to share with you all a favorite passage of mine about the Trinity from a very prolific writer of North Africa in the 3rd century, a lawyer by the name of Tertullian. He flourished in the Roman province of Carthage in North Africa around c. 160-230 A.D. His writings are absolutely incendiary, articulating the gospel against his pagan detractors, heretics, and Judaizers with such a ferocious fervor. His wrote apologies to the Roman senate, exhortations to Christians in highly refined Latin. In the beginning of the 3rd century (211) he seems to have come under the influence of the Montanist sect, a charismatic movement that stressed on the gifts of the Holy Spirit and of the End Times.

The Christological formula of Jesus Christ "being of the same substance as the Father," seems to have originated with Tertullian. The precise word he uses is consubstantialis = "consubstantial" which in itself of the translation of the Greek homoousios = "of the same substance," i.e. Jesus's relation to His Father; and that the generation was from the Father, "begotten not made," hence Jesus was not part of God's creation as the later Arians held. This formula eventually found its way into the Nicean Creed of the famous Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 to deal with the Arian controversy - that had erupted in the city of Alexandria in Egypt by a presbyter from Libya by the name of Arrius -  presided by the Emperor Constantine and the 318 presbyters in attendance.

 I believe the following passage is from Contra Praxeam, "Against Praxeas" an arch-heretic who had taught that the persons of the Trinity were one: in that the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit are really one person rather than three. This doctrine was immediately seen as heretical, an indubitable precursor to the doctrine of the Modalists today. Tertullian referred to this warped view of the Trinity as "Patripassianism," which means "Father-who-suffers-ism," in reference to the inevitable conclusion deriving from the understanding that since all the members of the Trinity are one person, God the Father therefore must have suffered on the cross, since the Father and the son were one person. Tertullian, though distinguishes the personhood of both while still maintaining the essential oneness of divinity shared by all the three distinct persons of the Holy Trinity.

Let us dispense now to my rambling and let us get right into the text:
"The Word, therefore, is both always in the Father, as He says, "I am in the Father;" and is always with God, according to what is written, "And the Word was with God;" and never separate from the Father, or other than the Father, since "I and the Father are one." This will be the prolation, taught by the truth, the guardian of the Unity, wherein we declare that the Son is a prolation from the Father, without being separated from Him. For God sent forth the Word, as the Paraclete also declares, just as the root puts forth the tree, and the fountain the river, and the sun the ray. For these are probolai, or emanations, of the substances from which they proceed. I should not hesitate, indeed, to call the tree the son or offspring of the root, and the river of the fountain, and the ray of the sun; because every original source is a parent, and everything which issues from the origin is an offspring. Much more is (this true of) the Word of God, who has actually received as His own peculiar designation the name of Son. But still the tree is not severed from the root, nor the river from the fountain, nor the ray from the sun; nor, indeed, is the Word separated from God. Following, therefore, the form of these analogies, I confess that I call God and His Word -- the Father and His Son -- two. For the root and the tree are distinctly two things, but correlatively joined; the fountain and the river are also two forms, but indivisible; so likewise the sun and the ray are two forms, but coherent ones. Everything which proceeds from something else must needs be second to that from which it proceeds, without being on that account separated: Where, however, there is a second, there must be two; and where there is a third, there must be three. Now the Spirit indeed is third from God and the Son; just as the fruit of the tree is third from the root, or as the stream out of the river is third from the fountain, or as the apex of the ray is third from the sun. Nothing, however, is alien from that original source whence it derives its own properties. In like manner the Trinity, flowing down from the Father through intertwined and connected steps, does not at all disturb the Monarchy, whilst it at the same time guards the state of the Economy."

The term, "prolation" meant "bringing forth," i.e. in reference to the generation of the Son from the Father: The Father prolates His Logos in order to create the universe. The Son is neither inseparable ("non-separatum") from the Father, nor is He distinct from His true essence. Tertullian refers to this position as "custos unitatis," a guard of unity. One cannot distinguish the root from the fruit ("radix fruticem"), fountain from the spring ("fons fluvium), and the radiance from the sun ("sol radium"), in the same way the Word cannot be distinguished from the Father ("Deo Sermo"). Note well that Tertullian uses the Latin word sermo in translating the Greek Logos, meaning "Word"; the Latin vulgate, on the other hand, renders the Greek as Verbum. It is quite evident that Tertullian was using an older, more ancient translation of the Latin Bible, centuries before Jerome's translation of the Vulgate. Tertullian would have this characteristically old Latin rendition of the Psalm, "eructavit cor meum sermonem optimum," "my heart has uttered a good word," or literally, "my heart has vomited out an excellent speech" (Psalm 44:2). Sermo is more than just "Word," it is the speech, the rational thought, and the embodiment of the mind of God. The Father and the Son are conjoined: coniunctae: sharing in the oneness of essence: substantia.

It seems somewhat unclear as to the usage of the Greek term probolai, which Tertullians transliterates it, leaving the word in its original. The LS Lexicon defines it as "putting forward," "projecting forward," "jutting out;" therefore, in this context probolai would seem to connote an emanation. The concept seems to be similar to that of prolatio as discussed above. To reiterate, the Father generates the Son from Himself, and also the Holy Spirit; the three are distinct but all proceed from the same parent source: from the same co-equal and co-aeval substance.

This understanding of the "prolation" goes back to the Christian philosopher from Athens named Athenagoras around A.D. 160-180, when he describes the generation of the Holy Spirit as an "outflow from God, flowing out and returning like a ray of the sun" (Athenagoras, Embassy, 10). Like Tertullian, Athenagoras, though affirming the euality of the persons in essence and being, are still distinct by rank: "Who then would not be amazed hearing those called atheists who call God Father and Son and Holy Spirit, proclaiming their power in unity and in rank their diversity?" (ibid.). Tertullian echoes that line of reasoning in affirming, "Everything which proceeds from something else must needs be second to that from which it proceeds."

Here is the complete Latin text of the original passage from Tertullian:

sermo ergo et in patre semper, sicut dicit, Ego in patre: et apud deum semper, sicut scriptum est, Et sermo erat apud deum: et nunquam separatus a patre aut alias a patre quia Ego et pater unum sumus. [5] haec erit probolh_ veritatis, custos unitatis, qua prolatum dicimus filium a patre sed non separatum. protulit enim deus sermonem, quemadmodum etiam paracletus docet, sicut radix fruticem et fons fluvium et sol radium: nam et istae species probolhai\ sunt earum substantiarum ex quibus prodeunt. nec dubitaverim filium licere et radicis fruticem et fontis fluvium et solis radium, quia omnis origo parens est et omne quod ex origine profertur progenies est, multo  magis sermo dei qui etiam proprie nomen filii accepit: nec frutex tamen a radice nec fluvius a fonte nec radius a sole discernitur, sicut nec a deo sermo. [6] igitur secundum horum exemplorum formam profiteor me duos licere deum et sermonem  eius, patrem et filium ipsius: nam et radix et frutex duae res sunt sed coniunctae, et fons et flumen duae species sunt sed indivisae, et sol et radius duce formae sunt sed cohaerentes. [7] omne quod prodit ex aliquo secundum sit eius necesse est de quo prodit, nec ideo tamen est separatum. secundus autem ubi est, duo sunt, et tertius ubi est, tres sunt. tertius enim est spiritus  a deo et filio, sicut tertius a radice fructus ex frutice et tertius a fonte rivus ex flamine et tertius a sole apex ex radio: nihil tamen a matrice alienatur a qua proprietates suas ducit. ita trinitas per consertos et connexos gradus a patre decurrens et monarchiae nihil obstrepit et oeconomiae statum protegit.

The next translation is even more explicit:

"Bear always in mind that this is the rule of faith which I profess; by it I testify that the Father, and the Son, and the Spirit are inseparable from each other, and so will you know in what sense this is said. Now, observe, my assertion is that the Father is one, and the Son one, and the Spirit one, and that They are distinct from Each Other."

Tertullian here pronounces his "regula fidei," the "rule of faith," a popular ecclesiastical phrase in Latin churches of any doctrine from which our salvation hinges. The persons (personae) of the Trinity are one (unum) but also distinct (alium).

The (incomplete) Latin:

Hanc me regulam professum, qua inseparatos ab alterutro patrem et filium et spiritum testor, tene ubique, et ita quid quomodo dicatur agnosces. ecce enim dico alium esse patrem  et alium filium et alium spiritum

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