EPHESUS: DOCTRINE OF TRINITY
The City of Ephesus, located in modern day Turkey, has hosted some of the most important advances in the history of Western Philosophy. Heraclitus, a Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher and arguably the first exponent of “Process Philosophy” (at least in the West), lived and taught in Ephesus almost 2500 years ago.
For Heraclitus, the fundamental principle of reality was change: “All things change…what was scattered gathers, what was gathered blows apart…”
And the fundamental value was harmony: “From the strain of binding opposites comes harmony. The harmony past knowing sounds more deeply than the known.”
Ephesus takes center stage again five centuries later, when the apostle John, author of The Gospel of John, becomes Bishop of Ephesus and head of the Christian community there. John’s theology leans heavily on Heraclitean concepts (e.g. “the logos”).
About this same time, the Christian community at Ephesus received a letter, reputedly written by St. Paul and now included in The New Testament as Letter to the Ephesians.
Paul’s letter to the Ephesian community sets forth some of the most important principles of Christian theology including an early outline of the doctrine of Trinity. In doing so, the letter makes use of concepts and images that would have been familiar to the students of Heraclitus and that would likewise be recognized and embraced by many Process Philosophers today.
Through its Heracletian and Johannine incarnations, Ephesus is indisputably the cauldron from which modern day Process Philosophy drew its earliest nourishment.
Fast forward. The most important Process Philosopher in the 20th century was, of course, Alfred North Whitehead. His cosmology, systematically expounded in Process and Reality, rests on the concept of God. For Whitehead, God is a single actual entity but an entity with two “natures”: a Primordial Nature and a Consequent Nature.
The Primordial Nature of God contains the eternal qualities that inform all Being. These include the full gamut of ethical and aesthetic values. The Consequent Nature of God, on the other hand, ingests all of cosmic history (future as well as past…such temporal concepts, of course, having no meaning in the context of God). But it does not swallow that history whole. Rather it carefully prunes the events that make up history and gently harmonizes them into a consistent whole that ultimately expresses God’s primordial values.
This is the ‘binding of opposites’ and the ‘harmony past knowing’ that Heraclitus described.
So does God stamp Universe deterministically with his primordial values? Or is his Consequent Nature ultimately the contingent outcome of freely occurring events? The answer is: both! It is entirely determined that Universe will ultimately instantiate God’s values. What is entirely undetermined is the particular complex of actual events that will come to make up that totality.
This answers what are perhaps the two most pressing questions in popular philosophy: (1) Will the story of ‘universe’ have a ‘happy ending’; (2) Do the things I do make any difference?
On both counts, happily, the Ephesians answer, “Yes!”
When Paul uses “Father”, he evokes the concept we recognize today as God’s Primordial Nature; when he uses “Christ”, he evokes God’s Consequent Nature. Let’s dip in:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world to be holy and without blemish before him. In love, he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ…” (Eph. 1:3-5a)
“…he has made known to us his will…as a plan for the fullness of times, to sum up all things in Christ, in heaven and on earth.” (Eph 1:9-10)
“In him we were also chosen, destined in accord with the purpose of the One who accomplishes all things according to the intention of his will…” (Eph 1:11)
“And he put all things beneath his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.” (Eph 1:22-23)
“For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.” (Eph 2:10)
“This is according to the eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Eph 3:11)
“Rather, living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ…” (Eph 4:15)
“Therefore, putting away falsehood, speak the truth, each one to his neighbor, for we are members of one another.” (Eph 4:25)
The language is difficult and unfamiliar but the structure, the architecture, of Paul’s world view is quite clear:
> All events happen “in Christ”. It is “in Christ” that we are blessed, chosen, destined, adopted.
> Christ perfectly embodies God’s primordial values. These values constitute what we call God’s will and they amount to a plan that encompasses all time and space. All things are in fact summed up in Christ.
> Everything in Christ is holy and without blemish; this was determined before the foundation of the world (i.e. outside of time and space), according to God’s eternal purpose (i.e. his Primordial Nature).
> We ourselves come to be in Christ in order that we might grow into him. We do so by performing works that embody the values of the Primordial Nature and give concrete historicity to the Consequent Nature. When we do so, we literally become part of the Consequent Nature. (That is the meaning of “eternal life”.)
> These good works we are to perform were formed by God in potentia outside of space and time; but they cannot actually occur in history, i.e. contribute to the Consequent Nature, until an historical person comes to “live in” those works by actually performing them. Our action is entirely a product of free will but our destiny is to do the works of God: to instantiate God’s values in the world and to build up the “Kingdom” (i.e. God’s Consequent Nature).
> All things have been placed beneath Christ’s feet and he has been given as head over all things. (Note the tense: this not something that will happen in the future but something that is in fact the case right now, something that has happened outside of time and space. In this special sense everything that will ever happen, indeed everything that could ever happen, has already happened; but that in no way compromises the absolute existential freedom of each and every actor, each and every time he acts. Only a fully free actor can co-create with God.It is not creation if it is not ex nihilo.)
> Christ’s body is the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way. Outside of Christ there is no-thing, no event (only God’s disembodied values). It is Christ that provides the substance that makes real things real, the glue that holds events together to constitute a Universe; and it is Christ that provides these events with a reality outside of space and time, i.e. an eternity.
But something is missing! How do we get from point A to point B, from the Alpha to the Omega? What makes history happen? It is the Spirit: “the lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son” (Nicene Creed).
The Spirit IS the relationship between the Father and the Son (Christ). Without the Spirit, the Primordial Nature does not know the Consequent Nature nor does the Consequent Nature know the Primordial Nature. For this reason, the Spirit has often been referred to both as Wisdom and as Love.
The concept of Spirit permeates Whitehead’s work, though he doesn’t use the term. Instead, he distributes the function of the spirit across a trinity of concepts: “creativity”, “hybrid prehension” and “superject”. These categories constitute an effort to account for the actuality of historical process, the unity of the conceptual and the physical, and the ability of events to influence one another in a patterned way.
While Whitehead’s model works, albeit clumsily, Paul offers a simpler and much more satisfying explanation. God has three co-equal natures, not just two. In addition to Father and Son (Christ), there is Spirit. The Spirit is the relationship between the Father and the Son (“…proceeds from the Father and the Son” – Nicene Creed) and a third, independent divine nature.
The Spirit mediates the impetus of God’s values with the destiny of Christ’s Kingdom. Through that mediation, events take shape and acquire aim, purpose. The Spirit, God’s “superject”, makes God’s primordial values and consequent destiny immediately available as potential constituents for every space-time event. Without the mediation of the Spirit, how would anything ever happen and, if something did happen, how would it ever develop its own unique and definitive character?
Because of the Spirit, every event that ever occurs is, at least potentially, a bridge between God’s Primordial Nature and his Consequent Nature. But that bridge is also a bridge between each of us. By the power of the Spirit, we are growing into one head, Christ (in which each of us already lives). Therefore we are by definition growing into one another. In Paul’s words, “We are members of one another.” We exist in Christ (and only in Christ) and Christ exists in each one of us; therefore we exist in each other.
Spirit permeates Paul’s exposition: “In love he destined us…he has made known to us his will,” but Paul makes explicit reference to the Spirit as “the One who accomplishes all things”.
We were “destined in accord with the purpose” of the Spirit who “accomplishes all things according to the intention of his will.” Christ’s body is “the fullness of the one (Spirit) who fills all things in every way.”
The Spirit’s paradigmatic intervention in salvation history is the Incarnation. According to the Nicene Creed, it is “by the power of the Holy Spirit” that the Son (Christ) is “incarnate of the Virgin Mary” and becomes man. The Consequent Nature, the Omega point outside of history, enters into history as a quantum element. The whole becomes the least of its parts.
God’s tripartite nature is not an accident. There is no God, at least not in any sense we would recognize, who does not somehow manifest the nature of Father, the nature of Son and the nature of Spirit. Whitehead’s system, for example, does not explicity assert the trinitarian nature of God, but it does provide for the roles of Father, Son and Spirit in its ontology.
Paul’s presentation of a trinitarian doctrine in Letter to the Ephesians is theologically ground breaking, but deeply resonant with the intellectual history and legacy of Ephesus. Heraclitus’ recognition of change and harmony as the fundamental characteristics of Being was systemitized by Whitehead but also underpins the Christian theology of Trinity.
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