The Holy Trinity as notion and reality

The Visitation of Abraham, by Andrei RublevFor Trinity Sunday, here are some thoughts on the Trinity from Bl. John Henry Newman, in his Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (see previous post).

One of the distinctions Newman makes in the Grammar of Assent is between “notional” assent and “real” assent. “Notional” assent is when we assent to a proposition as a mere idea, an abstract truth. “Real” assent is when we assent to a proposition as a concrete “thing”, something that can have a real practical expression. Newman gives the example of how Christians had long been able to give notional assent to the abstract proposition that “slavery is wrong”, but British society only took decisive action against slavery when William Wilberforce and his colleagues were able, gradually, to transform this into a real assent to the concrete proposition that “we must end the slave trade and free the slaves”.

Newman argues that, in matters of religion, notional assent is the province of theology, while real assent is the domain of religious belief. Both are good and necessary, but a distinction needs to be made between them. He discusses the doctrine of the Holy Trinity as an example of this. Is this doctrine ultimately a matter of abstract notions (as it can often feel), or “does it admit of being held in the imagination, and of being embraced with a real assent”?

Most of the language used in the Creeds and other classical statements of the Trinity consists of words that have a plain sense in everyday language:

The words, Father, Son, Spirit, He, One, and the rest, are not abstract terms, but concrete, and adapted to excite images. And these words thus simple and clear, are embodied in simple, clear, brief, categorical propositions. There is nothing abstruse either in the terms themselves, or in their setting. (pp.127f.)

Contrast the language of “formal theological treatises” on this subject:

There we find such words as substance, essence, existence, form, subsistence, notion, circumincession; and, though these are far easier to understand than might at first sight be thought, still they are doubtless addressed to the intellect, and can only command a notional assent.

Newman goes on to set out the nine concrete propositions that make up the dogma of the Trinity. All of these, it will be seen, use the concrete language of the first quotation above, rather than the abstract terminology of the second:

  1. There are Three who give testimony in heaven, the Father, the Word or Son, and the Holy Spirit.
  2. From the Father is, and ever has been, the Son.
  3. From the Father and Son is, and ever has been, the Spirit.
  4. The Father is the One Eternal Personal God.
  5. The Son is the One Eternal Personal God.
  6. The Spirit is the One Eternal Personal God.
  7. The Father is not the Son.
  8. The Son is not the Holy Ghost.
  9. The Holy Ghost is not the Father.

Each of these, taken separately, is a concrete proposition in readily intelligible language, something that admits of “real” assent. It is this language that fills the Creeds – even the Athanasian Creed. This demonstrates that:

the dogma may be taught in its fulness for the purposes of popular faith and devotion without directly insisting on that mysteriousness, which is necessarily involved in the combined view of its separate propositions. That systematized whole is the object of notional assent, and its propositions, one by one, are the objects of real.

Or, as Newman puts it a few pages earlier:

Break a ray of light into its constituent colours, each is beautiful, each may be enjoyed; attempt to unite them, and perhaps you produce only a dirty white. The pure and indivisible Light is seen only by the blessed inhabitants of heaven; here we have but such faint reflections of it as its diffraction supplies; but they are sufficient for faith and devotion. Attempt to combine them into one, and you gain nothing but a mystery, which you can describe as a notion, but cannot depict as an imagination. (p.132)

Perhaps all this helps us understand the problem with too many Trinity Sunday sermons. They make a half-hearted and awkward attempt to address the abstract mystery of the Trinity, rather than following the example of the Bible (“which is addressed far more to the imagination and affections than to the intellect”), the Creeds and the Liturgy – not to mention icons such as that which illustrates this post – by focusing on the concrete propositions that are the material for “real assent” and for “popular faith and devotion”.


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