Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Trinitarian vs. Christocentric

I have been hearing for some time now that Eastern liturgical piety is "Trinitarian," whereas Western liturgical piety is "Christocentric." We see this most blatantly illustrated in the numerous doxologies that conclude our prayers during the Divine Liturgy or Mass, and by extension our own private prayers contained in our prayer books as well. In the Byzantine East an example of such a concluding doxology would be:

"For You are good, O our God, and You love mankind and we send up glory to You, to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, both now and ever and unto ages of ages."

We can see here an explicit reference to the Trinity.

A common concluding doxology in the West is quite simply, "We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen." In private prayers it is not uncommon for some people to simply end their prayers, "In Jesus' name. Amen," or to use the same formula as is so often repeated at the Mass.

Sadly I've sometimes heard this as an accusation that this shows the West's deficiency in Trinitarian thought and piety. This is just plain nonsense. Fr. Robert Taft has pointed out in numerous places that one of the reasons the West takes such a "Christocentric" approach in its liturgical prayers is that the prayers themselves are old; in many cases they predate the Trinitarian controversies that led the Church to explicitly define its Trinitarian beliefs in the first few Ecumenical Councils. The cultural context of the West must also be taken into consideration. We have to remember that it was primarily in the East where the Trinitarian controversies shook the Church to its foundation. Theology in the West at that time was more "conservative" and not as focused on speculation as in the East.

But that's not really what this post is all about. While contemplating these differences last night, I realized that at the core both Eastern and Western spirituality have the same goal: deification/theosis, participation in the divine life of God. It seems to me that in the East the focus is on direct participation in the life of God itself, whereas in the West the focus is on participation in the life of God through participation in Christ. But, as Fr. Lev Gillet once pointed out, we must remember that the entire theology of the East is contained also in the theology of the West, and the entire theology of the West is contained in the theology of the East. If the emphasis in the East is on direct participation in the life of the Trinity itself, that does not mean that somehow the East believes such a participation is possible apart from participation in Christ. Similarly, if the West's emphasis is on participation in Christ, that does not mean that the West "limits" itself only to participation in Christ and does not believe that such participation is how participation in the Trinitarian life is possible.

Where one Person of the Trinity is, there are the others. Although each Person of the Trinity acts in a completely unique way as distinct persons, each one acts in cooperation with the others. Pope Benedict XVI once pointed out that when we receive Christ in the Eucharist there is a sense in which we receive the Father and the Holy Spirit as well.

In the East as well we see plenty of Christocentric mentalities. The Jesus Prayer, in its shortest forms, is almost exclusively centered on the Person of Christ - although in its longer forms it is said to be very Trinitarian as well. Likewise we have Akathists to Christ and to His holy Name. Our iconography is primarily Christocentric because it is Christ who took on flesh, thus elevating matter to the level of the divine. We typically do not portray the Father or the Holy Spirit in our iconography, although it has been known to happen.

In short, I believe it is important for us to remember that all prayer is meant to lead us to participation in the divine life of the Trinity through contemplation of the same Trinity dwelling within us by virtue of our baptism. But such a participation (such an indwelling) is made possible only by entering into the life of Christ through baptism, and participation in that life through ongoing repentance and conversion.


  1. a thought... in the Eastern liturgies, the mentioning of the Trinity, could it not be originally a left over usage to differentiate those of Eastern rites who were Trinitarian, opposed to some schismatics who were not? Sorry for the long thought or question, NOT that this is wrong. The older reason for doing so becomes liturgical tradition, and in many was is still spiritually uplifting to those of us who come out of the Eastern Slavic rites.

    1. According to liturgical expert, Fr. Robert Taft, S.J., your observation is completely correct. The East is where the greater bulk of Trinitarian controversies took place. Trinitarian formulas worked their way into the liturgy in order to differentiate between those who held the orthodox Faith, and those who were preaching heterodoxy, heresy, and schism. In the West, on the other hand, there weren't the full-fledged Trinitarian debates going on, which is why the greater bulk of Western prayers are Christocentric. Fr. Taft argues that the Canons in the West, particularly the Roman Canon, are not lacking in Trinitarian emphasis because of a lack of Trinitarian belief, but because the Canons predate the Trinitarian controversies of the East.