“Further, it too often seems to be the case that these models always appeal to some kind of apostasy and yet the church seemed to do an adequate job with issues much more sophisticated as with Christology and the Trinity. Therefore isn’t this an a forteriori reason for thinking that the church was reliable in ‘word of mouth’ teaching during the same period?”
Did the early church do an adequate job on these issues? Is there no room for improvement?
Certain aspects of so-called Nicene Orthodoxy haven’t gone unchallenged by some Reformed theologians, beginning with Calvin. Calvin initiated a corrective when he defended the autotheos of the Father, Son, and Spirit alike.
Some Reformed theologians have followed his lead and taken his seminal insights to their logical conclusion.
John Frame, The Doctrine of God, 707-19.
Paul Helm, Calvin’s Ideas, 41-57.
Benjamin Warfield, Works 5:189-284.
Traditional (i.e. patristic, scholastic) formulations of the Trinity tend to be prejudicial to the Spirit.
They begin with the Father. Indeed, they regard the Father as the fons deitas. He is the “first” person of the Trinity in a strong sense.
You then have the Father/Son relationship. Because fatherhood and sonship are correlative, the binary relationship seems to be fundamental.
Since, by contrast, “spirit” isn’t correlative, the Spirit seems to be tacked onto God. But that’s is a consequence of how patristic theology has framed the doctrine.
And that also gave rise to the famous controversy over the filioque. The Latin formulation is just a modification of the Greek formulation. It’s operating with the same framework.
Yet, in application to God, fatherhood and sonship are metaphors. Of course, they stand for something—something eternal.
But we still need to unpack the metaphors. For example, both fatherhood and sonship are multifaceted metaphors, and we need to determine, from Scripture, what elements are analogous or disanalogous with the divine nature.
In human affairs, as Scripture depicts it, underage sons are subordinate to their fathers. But adult sons are not (especially when they start a family of their own), although grown children retain a lifelong obligation to honor their parents.
Among other aspects of the paternal/filial metaphor which Scripture applies to the Father/Son relation, we have notions of mutual honor and affection, as well as hereditary authority.
Those are not distinctively divine traits, although the Trinity is the exemplar of the human exempla.
And, of course, the “Son of God” is a divine title in the NT. One might ask why that is. I suppose it plays on the natural inference that fathers and sons are two of a kind. That would dovetail with the notion of consubstantiality.
Metaphysically speaking, there is no “first,” “second,” or “third” person of the Trinity. We can retain that convention as a convenient way of denoting the persons, but it’s not as if the Trinity is actually structured in a numerical series.
Metaphysically speaking, there’s no reason to begin with the Father, or begin with the Father/Son relation, and then try to integrate a “third” person (the Spirit) into that binary relation.
The Father is no more primary than the Son or the Spirit. You could just as well begin with the Son and the Spirit, and then relate the Father to that twosome.
I think that patristic theology makes two or three related mistakes.
i) It’s concerned with preserving the unity of the Godhead. And that’s a valid concern.
But it treats the Father as the unifying principle. And it grounds the unity of the Trinity in the Father by treating the Father as the fountainhead of the deity. As Timothy Ware puts it, summarizing the Cappadocians, there is one God because there is one Father. The “monarchy” of the Father.
But that’s implicitly unitarian.
ii) It underwrites (i) by seizing on the wrong aspect of the paternal/filial metaphor. “Generation” is a sexual metaphor—a metaphor for sexual reproduction.
Of course, the church fathers don’t apply this literally to the Godhead. But they do focus on that aspect of the paternal/filial metaphor, and simply try to reapply it more abstractly to the Godhead. The Father is the source and origin of the Son. And they analogize from that to the Spirit.
Latin theology modifies this model by claiming that the Father is the source of person, but not the nature, of the Son and the Spirit. But it’s moving within the same framework. Both sides reify metaphors.
iii) It’s also a mistake to treat the names of the Trinitarian persons as if that were our only or primary source of information about them, and then erect a whole edifice atop that slender foundation. The names are significant, and they’re a source of information. But most of our information should come from what the Bible ascribes to God in general, and the persons in particular. Not just what it calls them, but the attributes and actions it ascribes to them.
For example, traditional theology treats “spiration” as a distinctive property of the Holy Spirit. Yet not only does this substitute a paraphrastic description for a genuine explanation, but I hardly think the Bible calls him a “spirit” because that’s his distinctive property. All three persons of the Godhead are spirits; what is more, there are creaturely spirits as well as divine spirits.
The early church did a pretty good job on the Trinity. But it also made some missteps along the way. Some midcourse corrections are in order.