The Trinity, History and Pietism

by Tom Tredway

There’s an old adage: “Be careful what you pray for!” It is certainly true that sometimes prayers are answered in a way we didn’t expect when we first prayed them. When in seminary, I got so confused about the Doctrine of the Trinity, that I prayed for months on end that God would show me the true doctrine. My prayer has, over the course of my life, been answered, though not in the way I originally expected. That answer is what this column is about.

In theological seminary one studies the time in the fourth and fifth Christian centuries when the formal Doctrine of the Trinity was first declared. The original question was whether Jesus was the last and greatest of the messengers or prophets sent by the Father to save humanity or whether he was much more than just a messenger. He was God himself.

After a long and bitter debate, at the Council of Nicea (325 AD) the latter position was declared “orthodoxy” by a majority vote of the bishops and with the Emperor Constantine’s thumb on the scale. Jesus Christ was declared to be fully divine, of the same substance or essence as the Father.

Over the next centuries, the Holy Spirit was understood to be fully God also. The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity as we know it emerged. In the Western Church the emphasis was on the One God who acted in three ways: Creator, Savior, and Fellowshipper. In the east, a “societal” view of the Trinity emerged: three separate Beings (Father, Son, and Spirit) together, forming a divine society which was the Trinity.

In a recent meeting of our Augustana College retired faculty discussion group, I admitted to my friends that I was still not certain that I really understood the Mystery. Had my original prayer for clarity on the matter been answered? Another member of that group, himself a one-time Pietist, said, “OK, at our next session we can help Tredway clear this up: let’s talk about the Trinity.” A month later, now in a Zoom session because of Covid, we considered a theological-historical reading on the Trinity that we had done in common. Then one of the members put it to me: “Have you got it straight, Tom?”

My answer was that I saw more clearly than ever that the orthodoxy that emerged from the Council of Nicea was a hybrid or blend of Jewish and of Greek thinking about God. My seminary prayer to understand the true Doctrine of the Trinity was answered in that emeritus faculty group in the same way it had been for decades—by the command: “Go and study history!”

We are told both by scholars such as W.F. Albright and by more popular writers, such as Thomas Cahill, that the ancient Hebrews understood God himself to be a presence and force who was revealed to his chosen people through the events that became their history. God called Abraham to leave the Tigris-Euphrates river plain and promised a new land, Canaan, to his descendants. He renamed Jacob (who had cheated his brother out of his birthright) as Israel, the father of a people by whom all the peoples of the earth would be blessed.

The only God the Old Testament knew was the God who revealed himself in historical events. When he told Moses to lead his people out of bondage in Egypt, and was asked by Moses what his name was, this God simply replied, “I am who I am!” So much for speculation as to how human reason might explain his essence.

For their part, certain ancient Greeks began sometime in the first millennium before Christ to speculate on the nature of the eternal essence that lay behind nature and human existence. These “pre-Socratic” philosophers were not satisfied simply to accept unthinkingly the cycles of nature and human life, as most of the ancients had.

Neither did the Greeks believe, as the Jews did, that somehow God had chosen to reveal himself to them in particular, making them his special people. It was human intellect, not direct encounter through events, that would uncover the divine nature. That commitment to rigorous thought is what the Greeks believed made them unique among the ancients.

The Greek quest to understand God reached its peak in Plato, who in the fourth century before Christ, taught that behind all appearances lay a world of eternal and unchanging essences or forms. Things in the world were simply copies of these eternal realities. These forms had their being in the One which was itself the good and the true and the beautiful.

In the mind of Plato’s younger contemporary, the less idealistic Aristotle, that One became the Prime Mover, the impersonal cause of all that existed. That Mover had no interest at all in the world that it had brought into being. The impetus of Greek philosophy was to move past the world of appearances, into unchanging principle(s). There was certainly no idea of a God who was active in human life through personal relationships and historical events.

Of course, the first Christians believed themselves to be the heirs of the Jews. The young Church was split between those like Peter, who thought that one must be a Jew first before becoming a Christian, and Paul, who felt that observance of the Jewish law, including circumcision, was not necessary. But both factions held to the essentially Hebrew or Jewish sense that God revealed himself through events and people, through history. Both thought the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to be the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies.

However, Christianity spread itself into a world that was, so far as its intellectual life was concerned, dominated by the Greek quest for the One that lay behind the many. Was it inevitable that Christians should find, especially in Plato’s idea of a One, the same God of their Judaic roots? It is in any case how Christian theology-philosophy developed.

When it came to understanding the divine nature of Jesus, the Christ, and his relationship to the Father who had sent him to live, die, and come back to life, Christians invoked the Greek idea, most clearly enunciated in both Plato (an idealist) and Aristotle (a simple materialist), that all entities were composed of both substance and accidents. “Substance” referred to their essential being, which was to be a man or a table or a dog; and “accidents” to their individual particularities, as a man with a crooked nose or a table of cypress wood or a dog with a shaggy coat.

Jesus was understood to share with the Father the substance or essence of divinity; he was as fully divine as the Father. So was the Spirit. The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity was the hybrid of this encounter between Jewish and Greek ways of understanding God.

It is of interest to note that this substance-accidents distinction was the way in which the Church, east and west, came to understand what it saw as the miracle of the Mass, in which the bread and wine became the body and blood of Christ. By the end of the first Christian millennium and formally declared as orthodoxy in 1215 AD, it was understood that while the accidents of bread and wine remained, the elements were transformed literally into Christ’s body and blood during the celebration: Transubstantiation. Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and some Anglicans still hold this view.

Christianity was rooted in a Jewish mindset about God and his action in human history—Heilsgeschichte, holy or salvation history. But as Christians sought to evangelize the Greco-Roman world, they adopted from Greek philosophy its idea of God—the long quest for the One behind the many. What one or another of the contemporary Christian churches regard as orthodoxy is a hybrid of Jewish and Greek thought, a blending that took place in the first four or five centuries of the Christian era.

Perhaps this understanding of how the Trinitarian creed developed historically has some relevance for traditional Pietism’s ambiguous attitude toward formal confessional statements. We heirs of the Missionsvänner, the Missions Friends who founded the Swedish and the American Covenant churches, know that our ancestors in the faith were leery of creeds and doctrines. They would never have denied the Trinity, but they did have reservations about the strong Lutheran emphasis on their confessions; it tended to substitute creedal orthodoxy for living religious experience.

Pietists’ gatherings rarely if ever included recitation of the Nicene Creed. Their impulse was to read Scripture, to pray for the enlightenment of the Spirit, and to fellowship with one another in love. On the other hand, as Karl Olsson writes in By One Spirit, the Swedish Lutherans who settled in North America were even more loyal to their confessions, their creed, than the Church of Sweden had been. That is why the immigrants called their new Synod “Augustana,” after the Confessio Augustana, the Augsburg Confession.

Many historians think that this confessional loyalty was a defensive reaction to the wide array of doctrines and denominations that the Swedes encountered in the New World. In contrast to the Augustana Synod, Olsson says, the Mission Friends were concerned that their fellowship be with other committed, born again Christians and that it be warm and welcoming of converts. Leave cold creedalism to Lutherans!

Conrad Bergendoff, the President of Augustana College and the Synod’s leading intellectual, spoke once of the Covenant students who, leaving North Park (then a two-year college), came to Augustana College to finish a BA. They had his sympathy: “[They] would like to be along with us who really believe something.” And of the Pietists: “Well, when you think of these kind of groups—the Lutheran Church can at least say ‘this is what we believe.’”

Karl Olsson once remarked that a certain wistfulness about their separation existed between Augustana Lutherans and Mission Covenanters. I do not think that such wistfulness included the Pietists wishing they had a confession the way the Augustana Synod did; the Scriptures and the Spirit were more than adequate for the Christian life.

Had we Covenant students thought back then that orthodoxy, including its Lutheran iteration, was itself a hybrid of Hebraic-Jewish thought with Greco-Roman, we might, if President Bergendoff expressed sympathy for our creedless plight, have replied that, “With all due respect, we Pietists hold to a simple faith that is, like that of the first Christians, rooted in a direct relationship with Jesus.” Later, when in seminary and grad school, we would find out that historic orthodoxy was the product of a centuries-long melding of two ancient ways of thinking, two different mindsets.

That’s the best answer that I, late in life, have so far received to my prayer that I might be shown the true Doctrine of the Trinity. Understanding that doctrine means understanding certain historical realities. Some of the members of our retirees’ discussion group were satisfied with this view that sees creedal orthodoxy essentially as an historical phenomenon; others scratched their heads and wished me more clarity and maybe a deeper faith. Both reactions are the reason to keep attending these sessions.