Writing intensely dogmatic poetry within the constraints of classical meters is not easy to do. One of the best and most interesting of those who have made the attempt is the most erudite and virtuosic Christian poet of Late Antiquity, Aurelius Prudentius Clemens (late fourth/early fifth century). Below is the hymn on the Trinity that he prefixes to his long dogmatic Apotheosis, a poem in dactylic hexameters (the meter also used in the hymn) in which he defends Trinitarian and Christological orthodoxy against various heresies.
The poem is twelve lines long, a number of wide significance itself in Scriptural terms and also divisible by three, of obvious import for a poem about the Trinity. Twelve is the sum of one set of three and three sets of three, and thus perhaps signifies trinity in unity.
In this particular hymn, lines 1-3 treat the Trinity in general terms; 4-6, the relation between the Father and Son, and the eternality of the Son as the wisdom (sapientia) and Word (verbum) of God; 7-9, the work of the Son, especially in his Incarnation and saving work on behalf of man; 10-12, the work of the Holy Spirit in communicating the Father and Son to man.
Text and Translation
Est tria summa deus; trinum specimen, vigor unus.
Corde patris genita est sapientia, filius ipse est.
Sanctus ab aeterno subsistit spiritus ore.
Tempore nec senior pater est nec numine maior.
Nam sapiens retro semper deus edidit ex se
per quod semper erat gignenda ad saecula verbum.
Edere sed verbum patris est, at cetera verbi:
adsumptum gestare hominem, reparare peremptum,
conciliare patri dextraque in sede locare.
Spiritus ista dei conplet, deus ipse: fideles
in populos charisma suum diffundere promptus
et patris et Christi virtutem in corpora transfert.
God is three wholes; threefold honor, one power.
Wisdom was begotten from the heart of the Father, it is the Son himself.
The Holy Spirit subsists from his eternal mouth.
The Father is neither older in time nor greater in divinity.
For wise always from eternity past God has begotten from himself
for creating the ages the Word through which he always existed.
But begetting the Word belongs to the Father; on the other hand, the rest belongs to the Word:
to wear the human nature he has assumed, to repair it, having been destroyed,
to reconcile it with the Father, and to place it at his right hand.
The Spirit of God completes these things, God himself: ready
to pour out his gift on the faithful peoples,
he transfers the power of the Father and of Christ into their bodies.
Prudentius begins the poem with an immediate assertion of God’s unity and tri-unity in his first two words, est (“God is,” singular) and tria (“three”), modifying summa. The remainder of the line is a chiasmus, trinus (number adjective) specimen (nominative noun) vigor (nominative noun) unus (number adjective. Not only that, but the terms that can be construed numerically form a chiasmus as well: est tria…trinum…unus. The line thus begins and ends with unity, with God’s threefold nature in between. If one reads the first two words of the line together, he finds “[God] is three”; if the first and last together, “[God] is one.”
Line 3 is a so-called “golden line” (not an ancient term, but useful all the same), structured abVAB.1 While the Son is “begotten” from the Father’s heart, the Spirit “subsists” from his mouth. The interlocking word-order characteristic of the golden line is useful in this instance for reflecting the internal relations and communion of the Persons.
The eighth line is also a chiasmus: participle, infinitive, noun, infinitive, participle. “Man,” or “human nature” (hominem) is at the center of the line, for mankind was the special object of God’s love in the Incarnation of the Word. Hominem continues to be the direct object of the infinitives that bracket the next line as well, as human nature is reconciled to God and glorified.
Finally, the elision between virtutem and in–thus pronounced virtutin–is particularly effective for mirroring in sound the transference of the power (virtutem) of Father and Son into human beings by the work of the Spirit.
More could be said about this fascinating little poem; but it is at least enough to get one started in considering how (at least some) Christians in antiquity attempted to describe and meditate upon their faith in literary modes other than the exegetical commentary or doctrinal treatise.