All Saints Parish Newsletter 29th May 2015
The figures on the south side of the sanctuary at All Saints are rather tucked away. Most only glimpse them when they come up to receive communion when their eyes and minds are likely to be elsewhere in that solemn moment.
Ninian Comper’s figures of four of the Eastern Doctors of the Church, along with four western counterparts on the north wall, represent the appeal of the Tractarians and Anglicans more generally to the patristic era. Each holds a scroll with a quotation in Greek from his writings.
With the help of the Revd. Dr. Andrew MacGowan, now the Dean of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, who tracked down these quotations a few years ago, I want to look at how they illuminate what we celebrate on Sunday because these men had a central role in the struggle to establish and defend this doctrine.
The first figure on the left is St. Gregory Nazianzus, known together with St. Basil the Great and his brother St. Gregory of Nyssa, as the Cappadocian Fathers.
St. Gregory’s quotation from his “28th Oration” prays, “that one illumination may come upon us from the one God, one in diversity, diverse in unity.” The Trinity is not just the object of contemplation, but the source of the grace which allows us to understand it.
Next to him is a slightly earlier figure, Athanasius of Alexandria, (296-373). He taught the unity and co-equality of the Father and the Son in the mid-4th century when many opposed, led by a popular Alexandrian priest called Arius, from whom we get the name “Arian” for those who deny that unity and co-equality. This opposition continued even after the Council of Nicaea had adopted this teaching in the Creed which, in the form modified by the later Council of Constantinople we still use at mass on Sundays and major feasts. You can see latter-day Arians outside Oxford Circus station most days, in the guise of Jehovah’s Witnesses handing out books claiming to tell “What the Bble Really Teaches.” Jehovah’s Witnesses are perhaps best known for predictions of the end of the world, (so far wrongly) and refusing blood transfusions. They also deny the two principal planks of orthodox Christianity: the divinity of Christ and the doctrine of the Holy Trinity
His scroll comes from his work “On the Incarnation”: “He became human that we might become divine.”
Gregory’s friend and collaborator St. Basil the Great appears next. His treatise “On the Holy Spirit,” vindicated the full divinity of the Holy Spirit. The quotation from it emphasizes both the reality and the divine sovereignty of the Spirit: “The Spirit is a living essence, mistress of sanctification.”
For Athanasius and the Cappadocians, this was not some arcane theological dispute of interest only to a few: it was a matter of salvation. Generations of revivalist evangelism have conditioned many to think that salvation is only about individuals getting to heaven and avoiding hell; a sort of lifeboat to cling to. But, as the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart says in ‘The Story of Christianity,’ “For the theologians of that time, salvation was an intimate and immediate union with God, by which the human being would literally be ‘divinized’: that is, made to become (in the language of II Peter 1.4) a partaker of the divine nature. They believed that Christ had assumed human form so as to free humanity from bondage to death and to make it capable of a direct indwelling on the divine presence.” This richer notion of salvation also includes the restoration of the whole of creation.
The chief question for the Eastern Fathers was: is such a union with God possible for finite creatures? If “God became man that man might become God”, how could the Son or the Spirit be a lesser God, or merely a creature? Only God, not some inferior intermediary, is able to join creatures to God.
Hart summarizes their simplest and most effective argument: “If it is the Son who joins us to the Father, and only God can join us to God, then the Son is God; and if, in the sacraments of the Church and the life of faith, it is the Spirit who joins us to the Son, and only God can join us to God, then the Spirit too must be God.”
And so we say, not only on Trinity Sunday but on every day: Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and shall be for ever; not just out of habit but because it praises the God whose life of perfect loving relationship and communion we are enabled to share even in this life and then fully in the next.
It is that real participation in the life of God that we celebrate both on Trinity Sunday and on Corpus Christi when our thanksgiving for the Eucharist and our Procession of the Blessed Sacrament around the parish speaks of the world as a creation which can only find its fulfillment in communion with its Creator.
Yours in Christ,
Fr. Alan Moses