TRINITARIAN APOPHATICISM

For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by himself to be both God and Lord, So are we forbidden by the Catholic Religion to say, There be three Gods, or three Lords. The Father is made of none, neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone, not made, nor created, but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son, neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.

Athanasian Creed

In the Athanasian creed is hidden perhaps one of the most sublime descriptions of what it means for the divinity to be Trinitarian. The various qualifications and reiterations of the “three yet one” theme are arranged so that we do not fall exclusively on either side of this strange duality, but stay on the “narrow path”. But none of the statements made would be comprehensible if not for the last three sentences in the section of the creed quoted above. They state, in beautiful detail, what distinguishes the persons, and yet what unites them, and the key to this differentiation and still ineffable unity lies precisely where it starts: The Father.

By the time this creed was written, it doesn’t seem like the Monarchian Trinity had yet faded from memory. The Father, as per the very name, is still “top” and “source” of the other two persons, and yet this asymmetry is precisely why there is One God, or as I prefer to say, One Divinity.

I am sure I am not the first to notice, but the very person of the Father, whose name is positive, is described using negative statements. All persons are uncreated, but only the Father is unbegotten and unproceeding. This is what distinguishes the Father from the other two persons. Right in the heart of an exposition of our “positive” revelations are negative, apophatic statements, and it could not be otherwise. In the Apostle’s creed, to call the Father “creator” is to say he is not created. To say the son is begotten and not made, as it says in the Nicene creed, is to unite the apophatic and cataphatic in a remarkable way. What this shows is that, in fact, the revelation of the Father is also his veiling, and that the deepest cataphatic, our very positive revelation, is apophatic. To say Christ is the image of the Father is to say the Father as such is, strictly, inaccessible. He is, in Islamic terms, “without associate”. There is no other “Father” beside the Father, who is “equal” to the Father on its own terms, independent, or dependent in a way that makes the Father also dependent on the “associate”. Right here is a Christian interpretation of the Tawhid. But, also in this “esoteric ecumenical” theology is the very justification of the Christian Trinity, for it is precisely the Father’s negative absoluteness that spawns the other two persons, and makes them “God”[1].

Because the “Father” can only be described by direct or indirect negative statements, we cannot even “speak” of the Father as such, because we are not grasping a being intellectually, we are negating all beings. As I have mentioned before, the negative implies the positive, to deny indicates there is something to deny, and an absolute denial of any exclusive identification of any being with unity is the absolute affirmation of that unity that spawns them. Because of this, we can see that, in a very real sense, the Father is the negation of the Son and Spirit, for his description is “not begotten” (Not Son) and “Not proceeding” (Not Spirit). But, also as we have seen, this implies that there is “someone” to deny. The denial of the Son implies the Son is, and is begotten. The denial of the Spirit implies the Spirit is, and is proceeding.

The difference between this and the application of this in the realm of beings and their limitations lies precisely in the nature of the negation we are doing here. Ordinary things can be partly defined by what they are not. That I am a human individual implies that I am not a plant. Negation is indirect affirmation (the plant has to exist in some way for me to deny it), but this negation is also a limitation. The negation is not complete, I cannot say “I am not a human individual” because, at least in the realm of manifestation, this is plainly false. But, in the case of the Father, we can even deny “fatherhood”, since we do not mean that the ineffable is an instantiation of something else, namely fatherhood, or that the ineffable is a “universal” named fatherhood, a form with the essence of fatherhood, and hence limited by that form, since it is one form and not another. Instead, we understand “Father” as a cipher that is understood negatively, that is, “not Son” and “not Spirit”, and in fact, because uncreated, not “anything” at all. His person is strictly, “impersonal”, since he is defined by the negation of persons, divine persons, the peculiarities of whom we will return to.

This “negation” of persons, because it implies and affirms the existence of persons to deny, is then the very personality of the Father. Just as because the Father is no-thing in particular, he is in all things, as all things (“All in All”), so too the denial of persons is the “person” of the Father, and this peculiarity is why the Son and Spirit are Son and Spirit. The very negative of the Father is revealed in the positive of Son and Spirit, perfectly, since this negation is complete and infinite. Because all limitations are denied, the Son who reveals the Father cannot be limited either. Neither can the Spirit. What the Son reveals through the Spirit is not a discrete entity named father, nor a universal, but the very hiddenness of the divine. Christ reveals the very concealment. The concealment is the revelation. The revelation of the Father is the very statement “No one has seen the Father”, and it is Christ who has revealed him, the one who no one has seen and cannot be seen as such. All you see is the Son, who is the revelation of the Father as infinitely hidden. The opening of the veil is also the closing. God is revealed in Christ’s flesh, but his flesh is also the veil, which is “torn” at his death, revealing “nothing”, and yet everything. “Death”, the masquerade that apes the divine darkness, is exposed as a fraud, and Christ’s death, his very “negation” is depicted as his “exaltation” and deification in John’s gospel.

This is Christ’s “equality”. In being a “negation”, which at this point should only be understood as “Kenosis”, the Father, who is no being and is “no-thing”, is the “abyss” where the duality of Son and Spirit are eternally begotten and proceeding. But, the Son and Spirit are not themselves “beings”, they are the very revelation of non-duality as and through duality, and this revelation can only begin proper manifestation in beings, who are themselves “discrete” (the Son as the principle of “discrete” unity) and “continuous” (The Spirit as the principle of “continuous” unity, she who unites many into One, the “One” being the Son). In this, they share the nature of the Father, as they do not assert their own unity at the expense of others, but are also “the abyss” in which creation dwells, where we “move and have our being”, where we have unity and peace, life and wisdom.

In mirroring the Father’s non-present presence, they are united with the Father, and since the Father is not a discrete being or a side of a duality, or “anything”, this unity is simply the very “beyond being” reality of the Son and Spirit. Their reality is the revelation of the ineffable, and their unity with it, a unity that is not the equality of two beings, or of the form of equality, but as that between the point and the space, distinguishable (the point is not the space), yet indistinguishable (the point is everywhere and nowhere, it is space itself).

One might ask, why two more “persons”? The answer lies in the kind of theology we are doing here, if we can call it “theology”. We are doing “henadology”, the science of unity. Unity is identity, and identity defines personhood. When we think about unity, we reach a certain point where we cannot go further. There are two basic “types” of Unity:

1. The unity of discrete beings as “one” apart from others.

2. The unity of many things together as “one”.

These are distinguishable, but not separable, one “thing” is always also many things as one. We can’t locate any discrete prior principle of unity “above” these two. It would be redundant. The principle of discrete unity can’t have another discrete principle above it. We also can’t have something else that connect the two principle into one, since one of the things we are trying to unite is the very principle of continuous unity. So, we are stuck. But, there is “One” principle of unity that makes these two intelligible, or “super intelligible”, since these are not universals. The principles themselves are not discrete beings or continuously united beings, since they are the principle, not the manifestation. They even ground the universal forms of all things, since the forms are themselves unities, continuous and discrete. But, the principles are two, not one. Paradoxes result. “Two” is one thing, yet it is two. They are mutually reinforcing, and yet they are distinguishable. Their “unity” is therefore ineffable, because it is indescribable. Their very reality as principles is the affirmation of an ineffable unity that is both of them and none of them. Their negation is their affirmation. It’s a circle that is only broken by gnosis, which we glimpse in the very fact that they are inseparable and yet distinguishable, and in the fact that we “know” they there is a “principle” that brings both to our knowledge that makes them knowable at all. This is “non-duality”, the One “who neither is, nor is one”, the Father, who is “without associate”, and the very source of persons who we call “God”, who are only so as they reveal and instantiate “Him” perfectly, as themselves. This “instantiation” is not a “diminution”, like that between form and manifestation of form. The Son and Spirit are not “less” than the Father, as their relationship is not between “something” and its lesser manifestation in and as “things”. The very fact of “Non-duality” is what gives duality absoluteness. As Frithjof Schuon says, the Son (the Good) and Spirit (radiation of the Good) already belong or the realm of Maya, of “relativity”, but at the same time, the Absolute could not “spawn” the Son and Spirit if it was not already the Good and the Radiation[2]. Because the Father is “no-thing”, his manifestation cannot be a diminishment of “something”. His revelation must be a full revelation, and a full unity with that revealed. A unity in distinction, a unity that is a “return”, where in mirroring the abyss, you are the abyss, and yet, not the abyss as such, but its “revelation”.

To put it like the creed: The Father is Unity. The Son is Unity, The Son is Unity. Yet not three Unities, since they are not things with unity, but simply Unity. The Father is Unity unoriginate. The Son is Unity begotten. The Spirit is Unity proceeding.

[1] James S. Cutsinger, ‘Disagreeing to Agree: A Christian Response to “A Common Word”’, Muslim and Christian Understanding: Theory and Application of ‘A Common Word’, 2.March (2010), 111–30 <https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230114401>.

[2] Frithjof Schuon, From the Divine to the Human: A New Translation with Selected Letters (Writings of Frithjof Schuon) (World Wisdom, 2013).

I'm just a fiction loving theology amateur with a background in Physics, who loves to integrate the fragmented parts of his life into a Christocentric whole