God in Trinity
Our social programme, said the Russian thinker Fedorov, is the dogma of the Trinity. Orthodoxy believes most passionately that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not a piece of ‘high theology’ reserved for the professional scholar, but something that has a living, practical importance for every Christian. Man, so the Bible teaches, is made in the image of God, and to Christians God means the Trinity: thus it is only in the light of the dogma of the Trinity that man can understand who he is and what God intends him to be. Our private lives, our personal relations, and all our plans of forming a Christian society depend upon a right theology of the Trinity. ‘Between the Trinity and Hell there lies no other choice (V. Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, p. 66). As an Anglican writer has put it: ‘In this doctrine is summed up the new way of thinking about God, in the power of which the fishermen, went out to convert the Greco-Roman world. It marks a saving revolution in human thought' (D. J. Chitty, ‘The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity told to the Children,’ in Sobornost, series 4, no. 5, 1961, p. 241).
The basic elements in the Orthodox doctrine of God summarized briefly:
- God is absolutely transcendent.
‘No single thing of all that is created has or ever will have even the slightest communion with the supreme nature or nearness to it (Gregory Palamas, P.G. 150, 1176c (quoted on p. 77)). This absolute transcendence Orthodoxy safeguards by its emphatic use of the ‘way of negation,’ of ‘apophatic’ theology. Positive or ‘cataphatic’ theology — the ‘way of affirmation’ — must always be balanced and corrected by the employment of negative language. Our positive statements about God — that He is good, wise, just and so on — are true as far as they go, yet they cannot adequately describe the inner nature of the deity. These positive statements, said John of Damascus, reveal ‘not the nature, but the things around the nature.’ ‘That there is a God is clear; but what He is by essence and nature, this is altogether beyond our comprehension and knowledge (On the Orthodox Faith, 1, 4 (P.G. 94, 800B, 797B)).
- God, although absolutely transcendent, is not cut of from the world which He has made.
God is above and outside His creation, yet He also exists within it. As a much used Orthodox prayer puts it: ‘Thou art everywhere and finest all things.’ Orthodoxy therefore distinguishes between God’s essence and His energies, thus safeguarding both divine transcendence and divine immanence: God’s essence remains unapproachable, but His energies come down to us. God’s energies, which are God Himself, permeate all His creation, and we experience them in the form of deifying grace and divine light. Truly our God is a God who hides Himself, yet He is also a God who acts — the God of history, intervening directly in concrete situations.
- God is personal, that a to say, Trinitarian.
This God who acts is not only a God of energies, but a personal God. When man participates in the divine energies, he is not overwhelmed by some vague and nameless power, but he is brought face to face with a person. Nor is this all: God is not simply a single person confined within his own being, but a Trinity of three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each of whom ‘dwells’ in the other two, by virtue of a perpetual movement of love. God is not only a unity but a union.
- Our God is an Incarnate God.
God has come down to man, not only through His energies, but in His own person. The Second Person of the Trinity, ‘true God from true God,’ was made man: "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). A closer union than this between God and His creation there could not be. God Himself became one of His creatures.
Those brought up in other traditions have sometimes found it difficult to accept the Orthodox emphasis on apophatic theology and the distinction between essence and energies; but apart from these two matters, Orthodox agree in their doctrine of God with the overwhelming majority of all who call themselves Christians. Monophysites and Lutherans, Nestorians and Roman Catholics, Calvinists, Anglicans, and Orthodox: all alike worship One God in Three Persons and confess Christ as Incarnate Son of God (In the past hundred years, under the influence of ‘Modernism,’ many Protestants have virtually abandoned the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Thus when I speak here of Calvinists, Lutherans, and Anglicans, I have in mind those who still respect the classical Protestant formularies of the sixteenth century).
Yet there is one point in the doctrine of God the Trinity over which east and west part company — the filioque. We have already seen how decisive a part this one word played in the unhappy fragmentation of Christendom. But granted that the filioque is important historically, does it really matter from a theological point of view? Many people today — not excluding many Orthodox — find the whole dispute so technical and obscure that they are tempted to dismiss it as utterly trivial. From the viewpoint of traditional Orthodox theology there can be but one rejoinder to this: technical and obscure it undoubtedly is, like most questions of Trinitarian theology; but it is not trivial. Since belief in the Trinity lies at the very heart of the Christian faith, a tiny difference in Trinitarian theology is bound to have repercussions upon every aspect of Christian life and thought. Let us try therefore to understand some of the issues involved in the filioque dispute.
One essence in three persons.
God is one and God is three: the Holy Trinity is a mystery of unity in diversity, and of diversity in unity. Father, Son, and Spirit are ‘one in essence’ (homoousios), yet each is distinguished from the other two by personal characteristics. ‘The divine is indivisible in its divisions (Gregory of Nazianzus, Orations, 31, 14). for the persons are ‘united yet not confused, distinct yet not divided’ (John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith, 1, 8 (P.G. 94, 809A)); ‘both the distinction and the union alike are paradoxical’ (Gregory of Nazianzus, Orations, 25, 17).
But if each of the persons is distinct, what holds the Holy Trinity together? Here the Orthodox Church, following the Cappadocian Fathers, answers that there is one God because there is one Father. In the language of theology, the Father is the ‘cause’ or ‘source’ of Godhead, He is the principle (arche) of unity among the three; and it is in this sense that Orthodoxy talks of the ‘monarchy’ of the Father. The other two persons trace their origin to the Father and are defined in terms of their relation to Him. The Father is the source of Godhead, born of none and proceeding from none; the Son is born of the Father from all eternity (‘before all ages,’ as the Creed says); the Spirit proceeds from the Father from all eternity.
It is at this point that Roman Catholic theology begins to disagree. According to Roman theology, the Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father and the Son; and this means that the Father ceases to be the unique source of Godhead, since the Son also is a source. Since the principle of unity in the Godhead can no longer be the person of the Father, Rome finds its principle of unity in the substance or essence which all three persons share. In Orthodoxy the principle of God’s unity is personal, in Roman Catholicism it is not.
But what is meant by the term ‘proceed?’ Unless this is properly understood, nothing is understood. The Church believes that Christ underwent two births, the one eternal, the other at a particular point in time: he was born of the Father ‘before all ages,’ and born of the Virgin Mary in the days of Herod, King of Judaea, and of Augustus, Emperor of Rome. In the same way a firm distinction must be drawn between the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit, and the temporal mission, the sending of the Spirit to the world: the one concerns the relations existing from all eternity within the Godhead, the other concerns the relation of God to creation. Thus when the west says that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, and when Orthodoxy says that He proceeds from the Father alone, both sides are referring not to the outward action of the Trinity towards creation, but to certain eternal relations within the Godhead — relations which existed before ever the world was. But Orthodoxy, while disagreeing with the west over the eternal procession of the Spirit, agrees with the west in saying that, so far as the mission of the Spirit to the world is concerned, He is sent by the Son, and is indeed the ‘Spirit of the Son.’
The Orthodox position is based on John 15:26, where Christ says: ‘When the Comforter has come, whom I will send to you from the Father — the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father — he will bear witness to me.’ Christ sends the Spirit, but the Spirit proceeds from the Father: so the Bible teaches, and so Orthodoxy believes. What Orthodoxy does not teach, and what the Bible never says, is that the Spirit proceeds from the Son.
An eternal procession from Father and Son: such is the western position. An eternal procession of the Spirit from the Father alone, a temporal mission from the Son: such was the position upheld by Saint Photius against the west. But Byzantine writers of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries — most notably Gregory of Cyprus, Patriarch of Constantinople from 1283 to 1289, and Gregory Palamas — went somewhat further than Photius, in an attempt to bridge the gulf between east and west. They were willing to allow not only a temporal mission, but an eternal manifestation of the Holy Spirit by the Son. While Photius had spoken only of a temporal relation between Son and Spirit, they admitted an eternal relation. Yet on the essential point the two Gregories agreed with Photius: the Spirit is manifested by the Son, but does not proceed from the Son. The Father is the unique origin, source, and cause of Godhead.
Such in outline are the positions taken up by either side; let us now consider the Orthodox objections to the western position. The filioque leads either to ditheism or to semi-Sabellianism (Sabellius, a heretic of the second century, regarded Father, Son, and Spirit not as three distinct persons, but simply as varying ‘modes’ or ‘aspects’ of the deity). If the Son as well as the Father is an arche, a principle or source of Godhead, are there then (the Orthodox asked) two independent sources, two separate principles in the Trinity? Obviously not, since this would be tantamount to belief in two Gods; and so the Reunion Councils of Lyons (1274) and Florence (1438-1439) were most careful to state that the Spirit proceeds from Father and Son ‘as from one principle,’ tanquam ex (or ab) uno principio. From the Orthodox point of view, however, this is equally objectionable: ditheism is avoided, but the persons of Father and Son are merged and confused. The Cappadocians regarded the ‘monarchy’ as the distinctive characteristic of the Father: He alone is a principle or arche within the Trinity. But western theology ascribes the distinctive characteristic of the Father to the Son as well, thus fusing the two persons into one; and what else is this but ‘Sabellius reborn, or rather some semi-Sabellian monster,’ as Saint Photius put it? (P.G. 102, 289B).
Let us look more carefully at this charge of semi-Sabellianism. Orthodox Trinitarian theology has a personal principle of unity, but the west finds its unitary principle in the essence of God. In Latin Scholastic theology, so it seems to Orthodox, the persons are overshadowed by the common nature, and God is thought of not so much in concrete and personal terms, but as an essence in which various relations are distinguished. This way of thinking about God comes to full development in Thomas Aquinas, who went so far as to identify the persons with the relations: personae sunt ipsae relationes (Summa Theologica, 1, question 40, article 2). Orthodox thinkers find this a very meagre idea of personality. The relations, they would say, are not the persons — they are the personal characteristics of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and (as Gregory Palamas put it) ‘personal characteristics do not constitute the person, but they characterize the person’ (Quoted in J. Meyendorff, Introduction à 1’étude de Grégoire Palamas, Paris, 1959, p. 294). The relations, while designating the persons, in no way exhaust the mystery of each.
Latin Scholastic theology, emphasizing as it does the essence at the expense of the persons, comes near to turning God into an abstract idea. He becomes a remote and impersonal being, whose existence has to be proved by metaphysical arguments — a God of the philosophers, not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, has been far less concerned than the Latin west to find philosophical proofs of God’s existence: what is important is not that a man should argue about the deity, but that he should have a direct and living encounter with a concrete and personal God.
Such are some of the reasons why Orthodox regard the filioque as dangerous and heretical. Filioquism confuses the persons, and destroys the proper balance between unity and diversity in the Godhead. The oneness of the deity is emphasized at the expense of His threeness; God is regarded too much in terms of abstract essence and too little in terms of concrete personality.
But this is not all. Many Orthodox feel that, as a result of the filioque, the Holy Spirit in western thought has become subordinated to the Son — if not in theory, then at any rate in practice. The west pays insufficient attention to the work of the Spirit in the world, in the Church, in the daily life of each man.
Orthodox writers also argue that these two consequences of the filioque — subordination of the Holy Spirit, over-emphasis on the unity of God — have helped to bring about a distortion in the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Church. Because the role of the Spirit has been neglected in the west, the Church has come to be regarded too much as an institution of this world, governed in terms of earthly power and jurisdiction. And just as in the western doctrine of God unity was stressed at the expense of diversity, so in the western conception of the Church unity has triumphed over diversity, and the result has been too great a centralization and too great an emphasis on Papal authority.
Such in outline is the Orthodox attitude to the filioque, although not all would state the case in such an uncompromising form. In particular, many of the criticisms given above apply only to a decadent form of Scholasticism, not to Latin theology as a whole.
From the book The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware (Now Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia)