Johannine Themes in the Early Church Councils
by David Arias

God the Father, God the Son,
and the ad extra Acts of the Blessed Trinity


Introduction:

The late fourth century was a time of great Trinitarian controversy. Early in the fourth century, in 325 AD, the Catholic Church dogmatically defined that the Son of God, Who is the Person of Jesus Christ, is consubstantial with God the Father and is therefore Divine. This definition was directed chiefly against the Arians who denied the divinity of the Son of God and therefore of Christ. By the end of the fourth century, however, there was a group of heretics known as the Macedonians who challenged not the divinity of God the Son, but rather the divinity of God the Holy Spirit. In response to this and other challenges to the Faith, the Church convened the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD. One of the chief purposes of this Ecumenical Council was to define dogmatically the Divinity of God the Holy Spirit so as to make clear, once and for all, the Church's official Trinitarian doctrine.

Within the context of this fourth century time of Trinitarian controversy there arose another doctrinal matter, besides that of the divinity of the Holy Spirit, that needed to be emphasized, defined, and clarified to certain individuals both inside and outside the Church. This doctrinal matter in question asked whether the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity act as one single Principle when it comes to all divine acts ad extra (i.e., all divine acts "toward the outside" or in relation to creation). The question was raised as to whether the Persons of the Blessed Trinity could act independently of one another, as independent Principles, in Their ad extra acts or whether all ad extra acts of the Blessed Trinity are necessarily common to all three Persons as to one sole Principle of action. This matter was chiefly addressed both in the years immediately before and after the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD. The Church, of course, answered that all ad extra acts of the Blessed Trinity are common to all three Persons as to one sole Principle of action (Ott, 72). This doctrine, furthermore, was seen to be implicitly present in the Theology of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed in that the Creed teaches that all three Divine Persons, qua Divine Persons, possess the one (numerical) Divine Nature through which they act. As Ott maintains, "the Fathers base the unity of operation on the unity of the Divine Nature, which is the principium quo of the Divine Activity" (72).

Moreover, we must note that during the fourth century, when the Church Fathers defended this doctrine of the common ad extra acts of the Divine Persons, they often appealed to St. John's Gospel in order to buttress their arguments. In other words, from some of their works, one can see that the Fathers viewed this Trinitarian doctrine as having its roots, at least in part, in Johannine Theology. Here we shall mention and examine some of the works of SS. Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine on this topic of Johannine Theology. We can see from their works that they held this Johannine doctrine of the common ad extra acts of the three divine Persons to be implicitly present in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.
 

Papal Commentary on the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Faith:

In the year 382, one year after the Council of Constantinople, Pope St. Damasus called to together a local council in Rome wherein he anathematized certain errors concerning the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Blessed Trinity. This council was a further attempt to clarify the Church's teachings on these two central doctrines of the Faith. Moreover, this document was meant to further clarify the teachings of the Council of Constantinople and to condemn, as heretical, those views which contradicted these teachings, either explicitly or implicitly. And it is within this context that Pope St. Damasus makes clear the Church's teaching concerning the common ad extra acts of the Persons of the Blessed Trinity. The following citations are excerpts from this council which are relevant for our purposes here:

"If anyone does not say that the Father made all things through the Son and His Holy Spirit, that is, visible and invisible; he is a heretic" (DS, 77).

"If anyone does not say there are three true Persons of Father, and of Son, and of Holy Spirit, equal, immortal, containing all things visible and invisible, ruling all things, judging all things, vivifying all things, creating all things, saving all things, he is a heretic" (DS, 79).

After these and other similar statements Pope St. Damasus concludes the conciliar teaching with the following words:
"This then is the salvation of Christians, that believing in the Trinity, that is, in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Spirit, [and] baptized in this, we believe without doubt that there is only one true divinity and power, majesty and substance of the same" (DS, 82).
From this teaching of Pope St. Damasus we see that at least implicitly contained within the Trinitarian doctrine taught at the Council of Constantinople is this doctrine that the ad extra acts of the Blessed Trinity are common to the Three Divine Persons as one sole Principle of action. Since in the second quotation above (DS, 79) Pope St. Damasus bases the doctrine of the commonality of the ad extra divine acts on the equality of the three Divine Persons, and since Their equality is based ultimately on the fact that the three Divine Persons are consubstantial with each other, we may deduce that this doctrine of the commonality of ad extra acts is ultimately based upon the doctrine of the consubstantiality of the three Divine Persons.
 

The Johannine Basis for the Doctrine of the ad extra Acts of the Blessed Trinity:

As was explained above, the doctrine that the ad extra acts of the Blessed Trinity are common to all three Divine Persons as to one single Principle is taught by the Church Fathers as having its theological roots, at least in part, in Johannine Theology. The Fathers with whose works we are concerned here are SS. Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine. St. Athanasius lived and wrote before the Council of Constantinople was convened in 381. Nonetheless, his writings are in complete accord with the Trinitarian doctrine defined at Constantinople. SS. Gregory and Augustine both lived during and after his Council. The works by them, that we will look at here, were written after 381 and serve as their commentaries and defenses of the Trinitarian doctrine defined at the Council of Constantinople.
 

St. Athanasius:

In his Orations Against the Arians (ca. 355), St. Athanasius clearly holds to the doctrine that the ad extra acts of the Blessed Trinity are common to the Three Divine Persons. In Book I of this work St. Athanasius teaches that "the Triad" is the "Creator and Fashioner" of all things (# 16). Moreover, St. Athanasius stresses that God the Father and God the Son act as one Principle in Their act of creation and in Their bestowal of life to all things. For, as he points out, God the Father and the Son are One in Nature (John 1:3; 10:30) and it is only through the Son and with the Son, Who is God's Wisdom, that the Blessed Trinity creates, fashions, and bestows life (## 15-20). St. Athanasius also maintains that each of the Divine Persons is the divine attributes (#19). In other words, since each of the Divine Persons is consubstantial with the Others, and since the Divine Nature is the foundation of all of the divine attributes, each of the Divine Persons is the divine attributes, just as each Divine Person is God. This, for example, is what the Incarnate Logos is referring to when He says, in John 16:6, "I am the Life" (#19). And, as "the Life," the Divine Logos in common with the other two Persons of the Blessed Trinity is the "Fountain" of life or the Divine Principle of life for all of creation (#19). It is interesting to note, that in this work, St. Athanasius focuses the majority of his attention on the Persons of God the Father and God the Son and on Their consubstantiality. His focus on these first two Persons on the Blessed Trinity rather than on a more even focus on all three Divine Persons seems to be due to the chief purpose of his work. Since this work of his is set forth as a refutation of the Arians, and since the Arian heresy focused on the first two Persons of the Blessed Trinity almost exclusively, it seems fitting that St. Athanasius should spend the majority of his work focusing on the Persons of God the Father and God the Son.
 

St. Gregory of Nyssa:

St. Gregory of Nyssa, writing after the Council of Constantinople, similarly seems to have seen this doctrine on the Blessed Trinity's ad extra acts as having at least part of its biblical foundation in Johannine Theology. To begin with, it is clear from his work, Concerning We Should Think of Saying that there are not Three Gods to Ablabius (ca. 390), that St. Gregory holds to the Catholic doctrine concerning the ad extra acts of the Blessed Trinity. For in it he holds:

The principle of the power of oversight and beholding in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one. It starts off from the Father as from a spring; it is effected by the Son, and by the power of the Spirit it completes its grace. No activity is divided to the hypostases, completed individually by each and set apart without being viewed together. All providence, care, and attention of all, both of things in the sensible creation and of things of the heavenly nature - and the preservation of what exists, the correction of things out of tune, the teaching of things set right - is one and not three, kept straight by the Holy Trinity. It is not severed into three, according to the number of Persons beheld in faith, so that each activity, viewed by itself, is of the Father, alone or of the Only-Begotten individually or of the Holy Spirit separately (Rusch, 157). In this text we clearly see that doctrinal position laid out by Pope St. Damasus on the commonality of the ad extra works of the Blessed Trinity to the three Divine Persons. In his statements here St. Gregory is very definitive in that he says that no activities of the Godhead are unique to any one Hypostatsis (i.e., Person) and that all acts of the Blessed Trinity in relation to the created order are one and not three.

Although St. Gregory by no means appeals to Scripture, in this work, as much as do SS. Athanasius or Augustine in their respective works cited in this essay, he does, nonetheless, appeal to Scripture in general and to St. John's Gospel in particular within the context of this quote. In fact he mentions John 5:22a as a possible objection to his position on the Constantinopolitan doctrine of the ad extra acts of the Blessed Trinity. John 5:22a reads: "The Father judges no one, but has given all judgement to the Son, that all may honor the Son, even as they honor the Father." St. Gregory says that one could misinterpret this text to mean that the Son judges alone in such a way that this ad extra act is not common to the Father and the Holy Spirit also. However, St. Gregory maintains that if one observes the analogy of Faith, then one must hold that while all ad extra acts of the Blessed Trinity are common to the three Divine Persons it is nonetheless the case that it can be fitting to attribute or appropriate certain acts to specific Divine Persons. Thus, St. Gregory holds that since God the Son is the Wisdom of God the Father, and since wisdom is a chief virtue which a judge ought to have, it follows that the act of judging mankind is fittingly attributed or appropriated to God the Son even though, as an ad extra act, it is common to all three Divine Persons. Thus, St. Gregory concludes, this Johannine text, rather than undermining this Trinitarian doctrine, in fact radically supports it (Rusch, 157).
 

St. Augustine:

St. Augustine, like St. Gregory, wrote his work De Trinitate (from ca. 399-419) after the Council of Constantinople and in it tried to explicate and defend the Trinitarian doctrine of the Church. It is important for our purposes here to note that in De Trinitate St. Augustine cites the Gospel of St. John far more times than he does any other book of Scripture. This is in itself interesting for it reveals that this Doctor of the Church thinks that the most explicit Trinitarian themes in Scripture are to be found in St. John's Gospel.

At least several times in the De Trinitate St. Augustine explicitly says that it is of Catholic Faith that the ad extra acts of the Blessed Trinity are common to the three Divine Persons (e.g. I, 4, 7, 11). Moreover, he often appeals to the Gospel of St. John in order to biblically ground this Trinitarian doctrine. For example, St. Augustine explicitly appeals to John 5:19c, "whatever the Father does, the Son also does likewise," in order to demonstrate that there is no ad extra act which is only accomplished by the Father, or by the Son, or by the Holy Spirit autonomously from the other Divine Persons (I, 11). In addition to this St. Augustine also appeals to John 1:1-3 on different occasions in order to show that from the doctrine of the consubstantiality of the Divine Persons flows the doctrine of the commonality of Their ad extra acts (I, 9, 12). This insight is particularly profound since it shows that, according to the mind of St. Augustine, the whole essence of the Trinitarian doctrine of the Council of Constantinople can be derived from the Gospel of St. John.

In our brief treatment of this topic we have seen that at least some of the Church Fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries held that the Trinitarian doctrine, regarding the commonality of the ad extra acts of the Blessed Trinity to the three Divine Persons, is firmly rooted in the biblical soil of St. John's Gospel. Thus, we see that in the mind of the Early Church the Fourth Gospel was certainly held to be explicitly Trinitarian in its Theology and, in this way, it provided biblical support for the Trinitarian doctrines of the Early Church Councils.
 


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