This note has already been published in “ilDialogo” September 29, 2013 with text only in Italian. It is now published a translation into English, that the author has failed to submit to audit and review, for which he apologizes to English-speaking readers.
The mystery of the Trinity and the meaning of some words
This isn’t a theological note, but only a philological excursion, without any purpose to interpret or to make comments on the mystery of the Trinity, that is only a linguistic research about the use of the word “Person” (Latin and Spanish Persona, French Personne, German Person).
Christianity and particularly its Catholic enactment, that identifies in the Latin or Eastern Church, holds to some fundamental dogmas, that is faith canons and no reason and, first of all, the Trinity dogma, that expresses itself in the prayer of the “Creed” in an one God, that is in a sole nature or substance (essence), that appears (but maybe would be more appropriate to say: it “consists”) in three persons. Word for word the Constantinople II Council of 553 affirms the canon: «Who does not confewhosses that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit have a sole nature or substance (mian phisin etoi ousian), a sole virtue and potency, because they are consubstantial Trinity (Triada homoousion), a sole divinity (mian Theoteta) to worship in three hypostasis (en trisin hypostasesin) or persons (egoun prosopois), this man is anathema. In fact sole is God and the Father, and sole is the Lord Jesus Christ, by who all things are, sole is the Holy Spirit, in who all things are». We must do particular attention to term “persons” (prosopois).
It is aspiration of man to attempt everything, also the impossible one, so the mystery, that becomes dogma, in an effort that is often suffering and sterile, but worthy of respect, because it is true that God is Logos in the sense of Evangelist John, because it is thought, it is intelligible that also His creature trials that. And he has tried that by theology, philosophy and philology, in an effort Sisyphus worthy.
It is necessary to get on the current meaning of some words, that come from far time and in temporal path have changed meaning with the risk of misunderstanding, more dangerous when it is religious dogmas.
I try to line some key words, that, apart, are a puzzle, but, applied in a correct and coordinate way, are an illuminating explanation.
a) Explanation. Certainly, it does not mean demonstration or test neither illustration. It is impossible to explain what is inexplicable, that, besides dogma, is mystery. So “explanation” must be understood in the meaning to clear the sense within in that a clarification can be given, not in connection to the theological Trinity and of worship, but to the words that at least try to express it.
b) Substance. It must be seen in the meaning of substance or essence (homoousion) of “what was, is and will be”, in a dimension outside time, that is a different meaning from existence, that is necessarily joined to a temporality. To say that Christ is “consubstantial to the Father”(Council of Nicaea, 325, “of the same substance of the Father”) means to say that He is founded in a common entity, He is component an indivisible unity, He is the One, without splits, as instead it happen for the numbers. The one of numerology remains indivisible and indissoluble unity in theology. So, more than an identical divine nature, it is an unique divine nature, that is a necessary specification, because in English language “identical” means “exactly equal”, but also two or many entities can be equal, yet being more than one, what would be contradictory with the singularity of the substance. As we can immediately observe, the words are stones and their meaning can appear misleading, because they change color over time. The language, being creativity of man, is always relative in the time and all the more reason, in the space, the more so when the languages at issue are more and its translation becomes difficult, especially when it does not come to objects, but of metaphysical or theological concepts. The translation is a try of translation of concepts, that is an operation that can give deviant results, as good know the translators above all of poetic and philosophical works. The universality of the Latin language, proclaimed and practised until the Council Vatican II, would just avoid the risks of translation as well as to state and to confirm the tradition.
c) Person. It is more ambiguous word, that can breed greater difficult of comprehension, even it is related to the Trinity (Council of Nicaea 325 and Constantinople II 553)
The Trinity dogma, according to semantic arrangement of Council Constantinople II, is in connection to the divine nature: it affirms that God is One, unique and absolutely single is his “substance” or “nature” (ousia, ousia), but common to three “persons” (or “hypostasis”, that is “what lies beneath”) of some numerical substance (consubstantial) yet. What has not been interpreted as if would exist three divinities (polytheism) neither as if the “three persons” would be only three looks of a same divinity (modalism). The three “persons” (or according the language derived from Greek tradition, “hypostasis”) are in effect very distinct, but formed in a same substance.
The translation in English of the word “person” (prosopon) has to understand with attention and prudence. We must reject references to the Aramaic, because the Trinity dogma is of fourth century AD and it comes under nor in the Synoptic Gospels, but it is inferable from John Gospel and also from the Pauline letters, even they are prior to the dogmatic settlement, that took more councils from Nicaea to Constantinople II, before to arrive, after more of two centuries, to final and actual canon. We can note that in the prior councils the word “hypostasis” (upostasiq) was applied also as synonym of “substance” (ousia, ousia) not without theological confusions. We have to get to St. Basil at half of IV century to observe a semantic difference between substance (nature, essence) and hypostasis (person or rather subsistence), that is what lies beneath the substance, as St. Augustine understands it, who, in the De Trinitate, also specifies that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are not three distinct individuals, as are three human beings belonging to same species (three relations subsisting) to who follows St. Thomas d’Aquino. Person, for us westerns, would be word that comes from the Latin, for derivation from the Etruscan and, may be, from the Greek across the Etruscan, and it meant, at the beginning, “mask”, that is the representation, the image, the appearance that in theatre covered up the face of the actors, behind that hided and would be coherent with the unit of the monotheist divinity, but to confuse the meanings, at least in the eyes of theology, would be just the etymology of “person”, that we can derive from the Greek proswpon (mask, face), used in alternative to upostasiq (hypostasis), that, however means “that is beneath” and ambiguously means, instead again substance, and, so, it does not make the word “person”, that is “the fore face of the face and has nothing to do with mask”; that for the incertitude of the councils prior Constantinople II (553).
I think of particular interest – and it is the aid of explanation of this note – to remember that Giovanni Semeraro, a philologist expert in eastern languages and specially Akkadian-Babylonian, specifies that the base of person corresponds, instead, to the ancient Babylonian parsu, that means also “part”, casted on persu (again part). Then, intended in this sense, the etymological mean of person replaced by its origin “part”, involves that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, are three persons, but they are “part”, in the sense of “to belong” to One, not in the sense of three share, the sum of that gives one, but in sensed of “unity”, that is indivisibility. The etymological origin Semeraro “parsu”’, in the sense of part, helps us to go out from very improper mask concept, but we do not fall in to the heresy of Ario or in the modalism or in the thesis of the patriarch Fozio (867 and 879), who giving more importance to the “persons” (upostasiqi) of the Trinitarian mystery than to the substance (ousia) fed the schism of the Eastern Church with Michael Cerulario, division that has made sterile, at least until today, all the attempts at composition about two divergent interpretations. But, considering the historically attested approaches of two protagonists Fozio and Cerulario, we can think that the schism was fed above all by personal purposes, ambitions and thirst for power, as always it happens in the political separations, that use the religion for different designs.
Every declaration of dogma – and the last significant example is that of the Pope infallibility countered but promulgated by Pio IX (also the Council Constantinople II was countered) – is marked by contrasts, what is also understandable, because it happens in an assembly of men, everybody has a personal view of the faith, an individual intelligence and often hidden interests and conflicting finalities: it is the usual play between majorities and minorities, also if we cannot forget that the dogma is almost always proclaimed following and not leading a tradition already rooted, what explains its adoption.
The conclusion has not to be a doubt about the Trinity, but the request for the use of the words, that reveals the poverty, the instability and the ambiguity of the human language. On the other hand the words are as tools of the trade, they are utensils: we use those that have available to mean an idea and there are cases that an attempt is abandoned for unsuitability of the language, as it happens to Heidegger in To be and time. Wittgenstein described the language, above all that of ethics, a cage against that we rush without success. In the case in point the word “substance or essence or nature” (ousia, ousia) is satisfying, a little ‘less the word “person”. When the believer pries the Trinity and he thinks about three Persons, he instinctively thinks to mean of person as the common definition and he falls unconsciously in contradiction, because in reference to the Trinity the mean of person is theological and not juridical and even less theatrical. We can admit that, if after the Council Constantinople II of 553 was adopted the word “person” (proswpon), translated in Latin persona instead of “sub-sistence” (upostasiq), it is why they did not found a better one more intelligible to the people of believers and we wonder how many animated discussions developed those Fathers, who also perfectly knew the Greek language. We must also imagine where the thought of the English prayer would go if, instead of “person”, would pronounce more correctly “hypostasis” it would be more right but still less intelligible.
But, the inadequacy of the word “person” stays, maybe because in believers of the time later in that Council and a fortiori to the present ones a sense more anthropological and juridical and less theological is taken root.
In the end, we have to consider that, as St. Augustine and almost a thousand years after St. Thomas d’Aquino have good underlined, the Trinity mystery has been accepted and professed by faith and not by reason.
It is advisable to open a parenthesis on point. We can ascertain that the four great components of the Christianity: the Catholic Church, the Protestant, the Anglican and the Orthodox accept the words of the fundamental prier of the Creed in the same theological sense given by the Councils Nicea-Constantinople, with the explanation, for the last, that is given, as we have already remembered, a greater emphasis to the concept of person than that of essence, but that does not mean divergence and it also makes little justification to the diatribe know with the name of Filioque.
Then, we wonder, why the interreligious dialogue has not give results, at least until today, although it is understandable that in the centuries the contrasts become established and not certain for the fundamental unacceptability to give up their autonomy in opposition to the centralization in the Roman Church. We can note, among other, that the Catholic Church is the only one of the four that is independent and even in opposition to the political power, so it is the only really free. And, then, we wonder there is the problem? It is in the history of the heresies and of the schisms, all of political origin or thirst of power or of personal interest. The Anglican Church was originated from the intention of King Henry VIII, a mad cutter of the heads, who to support expansionist objectives wanted to take possession of the goods of the catholic monasteries; so he placed himself at the head of the Anglican Church and the English kings have inherited such office to the present day. Martin Luther, for the Protestant Church, revolted against the Roman Church that needed funds to built the St. Peter Basilica (offering of St. Peter) and sold indulgences, but the proceeds were intended only in part (less than a third) to the papacy, while two-third were kept and requisitioned by Albrect von Hoenzollern Prince Bishop of Magdeburg and Mainz, everything, it seems, unbeknownst to the unsuspecting Luther. As for the Orthodox Church, it is known that Michael Cerulario, author of the schism, was investigated even the Emperor of Constantinople and he escaped a sentence only because he died before the end of the process. After, we know, as in all the human questions, what adds to what and the splits are grown and the religion is used as pretext of political purposes.
In short, we cannot forget that the most expressive picture of the Trinity has given, before all the conflicts of the churches, Dante Alighieri, who in the XXXIII and final canto of the Paradise summarize in the lines 115-117 all the Trinitarian theology with the full knowledge of the sense of the words “subsistence”, instead of “person”, ad of “unity” (alto lume e una contenenza: high light and one content)
Ne la profonda e chiara sussistenza
de l’alto lume parvemi tre giri
di tre colori e d’una contenenza.
(In the deep and light subsistence
of the high light appeared to me three circles
of three colours and of one contents)
The conclusion of the poem could not be different, all focused on the Trinity and on the number three: three part of thirty-three cantos all plus one prologue, that form the inseparable unity of a divine Comedy.