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The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity
by Fr. Thomas Hopko
The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not merely an “article of faith” which men are called to “believe.” It is not simply a dogma which the Church requires its good members to “accept on faith.” Neither is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity the invention of scholars and academicians, the result of intellectual speculation and philosophical thinking.
The doctrine of the Holy Trinity arises from man’s deepest experiences with God. It comes from the genuine living knowledge of those who have come to know God in faith.
The paragraphs which follow are intended to show something of what God has revealed of Himself to the saints of the Church. To grasp the words and concepts of the doctrine of the Trinity is one thing; to know the Living Reality of God behind these words and concepts is something else. We must work and pray so that we might pass beyond every word and concept about God and to come to know Him for ourselves in our own living union with Him: “The Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit” (Eph 2: 18-22).
The Holy Trinity Revealed
In the Old Testament we find Yahweh, the one Lord and God, acting toward the world through His Word and His Spirit. In the New Testament the “Word becomes flesh” (Jn 1:14). As Jesus of Nazareth, the only-begotten Son of God becomes man. And the Holy Spirit, who is in Jesus making him the Christ, is poured forth from God upon all flesh (Acts 2:17).
One cannot read the Bible nor the history of the Church without being struck by the numerous references to God the Father, the Son (Word) of God and the Holy Spirit. The New Testament record, and the life of the Orthodox Church is absolutely incomprehensible and meaningless without constant affirmation of the existence, interrelation and interaction of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit towards each other and towards man and the world.
Wrong Doctrines of the Trinity
The main question for the Church to answer about God is that of the relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. According to Orthodox Tradition, there are a number of wrong doctrines which must be rejected.
One wrong doctrine is that the Father alone is God and that the Son and the Holy Spirit are creatures, made “from nothing” like angels, men and the world. The Church answers that the Son and the Holy Spirit are not creatures, but are uncreated and divine with the Father, and they act with the Father in the divine act of creation of all that exists.
Another wrong doctrine is that God in Himself is One God who merely appears in different forms to the world: Now as the Father, then as the Son, and still again as the Holy Spirit. The Church answers once more that the Son and Word is “in the beginning with God”(Jn 1:12) as is the Holy Spirit, and that the Three are eternally distinct. The Son is “of God” and the Spirit is “of God.” The Son and the Spirit are not merely aspects of God, without, so to speak, a life and existence of their own. How strange it would be to imagine, for example, that when the Son becomes man and prays to his Father and acts in obedience to Him, it is all an illusion with no reality in fact, a sort of divine presentation played before the world with no reason or truth for it at all!
A third wrong doctrine is that God is one, and that the Son and the Spirit are merely names for relations which God has with Himself. Thus, the Thought and Speech of God is called the Son, while the Life and Action of God is called the Spirit; but in fact—in genuine actuality—there are no such “realities in themselves” as the Son of God and the Spirit of God. Both are just metaphors for mere aspects of God. Again, however, in such a doctrine the Son and the Spirit have no existence and no life of their own. They are not real, but are mere illusions.
Still another wrong doctrine is that the Father is one God, the Son is another God, and the Holy Spirit still another God. There cannot be “three gods,” says the Church, and certainly not “gods” who are created or made. Still less can there be “three gods” of whom the Father is “higher” and the others “lower.” For there to be more than one God, or “degrees of divinity” are both contradictions which cannot be defended, either by divine revelation or by logical thinking.
Thus, the Church teaches that while there is only One God, yet there are Three who are God—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—perfectly united and never divided yet not merged into one with no proper distinction. How then does the Church defend its doctrine that God is both One and yet Three?
One God: One Father
First of all, it is the Church’s teaching and its deepest experience that there is only one God because there is only one Father.
In the Bible the term “God” with very few exceptions is used primarily as a name for the Father. Thus, the Son is the “Son of God,” and the Spirit is the “Spirit of God.” The Son is born from the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father—both in the same timeless and eternal action of the Father’s own being.
In this view, the Son and the Spirit are both one with God and in no way separated from Him. Thus, the Divine Unity consists of the Father, with His Son and His Spirit distinct from Himself and yet perfectly united together in Him.
One God: One Divine Nature and Being
What the Father is, the Son and the Spirit are also. This is the Church’s teaching. The Son, born of the Father, and the Spirit, proceeding from Him, share the divine nature with God, being “of one essence” with Him.
Thus, as the Father is “ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing and eternally the same” (Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom), so the Son and the Spirit are exactly the same. Every attribute of divinity which belongs to God the Father—life, love, wisdom, truth, blessedness, holiness, power, purity, joy—belongs equally as well to the Son and the Holy Spirit. The being, nature, essence, existence and life of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are absolutely and identically one and the same.
One God: One Divine Action and Will
Since the being of the Holy Trinity is one, whatever the Father wills, the Son and the Holy Spirit will also. What the Father does, the Son and the Holy Spirit do also. There is no will and no action of God the Father which is not at the same time the will and action of the Son and the Holy Spirit.
In Himself, in eternity, as well as towards the world in creation, revelation, incarnation, redemption, sanctification, and glorification—the will and action of the Trinity are one: from the divine Father, through the divine Son, in the divine Holy Spirit. Every action of God is the action of the Three. No one person of the Trinity acts independently of or in isolation from the others. The action of each is the action of all; the action of all is the action of each. And the divine action is essentially one.
One God: One Divine Knowledge and Love
Since each person of the Trinity is one with the others, each knows the same Truth and exercises the same Love. The knowledge of each is the knowledge of all, and the Love of each is the Love of all.
If taken in distinction, each person of the Trinity knows and loves the others with such absolute perfection, knowledge, and love that there is nothing unknown and nothing unloved of each in the others, and all in all. Thus, if the creaturely knowledge of men can unite minds in full unanimity, and if the creaturely love of men can bring the divided together into one heart and one soul and even one flesh, how incomparably more perfect and absolutely uniting must be the oneness when the Knowers and Lovers are eternal and divine.
The Three Divine Persons
In Orthodox terminology the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are called three divine persons. Person is defined here simply as the subject of existence and life—hypostasis in the traditional church language.
As the being, essence or nature of a reality answers the question “what?”, the person of a reality answers the question “which one?” or “who?” Thus, when we ask “What is God?” we answer that God is the divine, perfect, eternal, absolute… and when we ask “Who is God?” we answer that God is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
The saints of the Church have explained this tri-unity of God by using such an example from worldly existence. We see three men. “What are they?” we ask. “They are human beings,” we answer. Each is man, possessing the same humanity and the same human nature defined in a certain way: created, temporal, physical, rational, etc. In what they are, the three men are one. But in who they are, they are three, each absolutely unique and distinct from the others. Each man in his own unique way is distinctly a man. One man is not the other, though each man is still human with one and the same human nature and form.
Turning to God, we may ask in the same way: “What is it?” In reply we say that it is God defined as absolute perfection: “ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing, and eternally the same.” We then ask, “Who is it?”, and we answer that it is the Trinity : Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In who God is, there are three persons who are each absolutely unique and distinct. Each is not the other, though each is still divine with the same divine nature and form. Therefore, while being one in what they are; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are Three in who they are. And because of what and who they are—namely, uncreated, divine persons—they are undivided and perfectly united in their timeless, spaceless, sizeless, shapeless super-essential existence, as well as in their one divine life, knowledge, love, goodness, power, will, action, etc.
Thus, according to the Orthodox Tradition, it is the mystery of God that there are Three who are divine; Three who live and act by one and the same divine perfection, yet each according to his own personal distinctness and uniqueness. Thus it is said that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are each divine with the same divinity, yet each in his own divine way. And as the uncreated divinity has three divine subjects, so each divine action has three divine actors; there are three divine aspects to every action of God, yet the action remains one and the same.
We discover, therefore, one God the Father Almighty with His one unique Son (Image and Word) and His one Holy Spirit. There is one living God with His one perfect divine Life, who is personally the Son, with His one Spirit of Life. There is one True God with His one divine Truth, who is personally the Son, with His one Spirit of Truth. There is one wise and loving God with His one Wisdom and Love, who is personally the Son, with His one Spirit of Wisdom and Love. The examples could go on indefinitely: the one divine Father personifying every aspect of His divinity in His one divine Son, who is personally activated by His one divine Spirit. We will see the living implications of the Trinity as we survey the activity of God in his actions toward man and the world.
The Holy Trinity in Creation
God the Father created the world through the Son (Word) in the Holy Spirit. The Word of God is present in all that exists, making it to exist by the power of the Spirit. Thus, according to Orthodox doctrine, the universe itself is a revelation of God in the Word and the Spirit. The Word is in all that exists, causing it to be, and the Spirit is in all that exists as the power of its being and life.
This is most evident in God’s special creature, man. Man is made in the image of God, and so he bears within him the unique likeness of God which is eternally and perfectly expressed in the divine Son of God, the Uncreated and Absolute Image of the Father. Thus, man is “logical”; that is, he participates in God’s Logos (the Son and Word) and so is free, knowing, loving, reflecting on the creaturely level the very nature of God as the uncreated Son does on the level of divinity.
Man also is “spiritual”; he is the special temple of God’s Spirit. The Breath of God’s Life is breathed into him in the most special way. Thus, among creatures man alone is empowered to imitate God and to participate in His life. Man has the competence and ability to become a Son of God, mirroring the eternal Son, reflecting the divine nature because he is inspired by the Holy Spirit as is no other creature. Thus, one saint of the Church has said that for man to be a man, he must have the Spirit of God in him. Only then can he fulfill his humanity; only then can he be made a true Son of God, likened to him who is only-begotten.
On the most basic level of creation, therefore, we see the Trinitarian dimensions of the being and action of God: the Word and the Spirit of God enter man and the world to allow them to be and to become that for which the Father has willed their existence.
The Holy Trinity in Salvation
With man’s failure to fulfill himself in his created uniqueness, God undertakes the special action of salvation. The Father sends forth His Son (Word) and His Spirit in yet another mission. The Word and the Spirit come to the Old Testament saints to make known the Father. The Word, as it were, incarnates himself in the Law (in Hebrew called the “words”) which is inspired by the Spirit. The Spirit inspires the prophets to proclaim the Word of God. Thus, the Law and the Prophets are revelations of God in His Word and His Spirit. They are partial revelations, “shadows” (as the New Testament calls them), prefiguring the total revelation of the “fullness of time” and preparing its coming.
When the time is fulfilled and the world is made ready, the Word and the Spirit come once more—no longer by their mere action and power, but now in their own persons, dwelling personally in the world.
The Word becomes flesh. The only-begotten Son is born as a man, Jesus of Nazareth. And the Spirit who is in him is given to all men to make them also sons of the Father in an eternal development of attaining His perfection by growing forever “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13).
Thus, in the New Testament we have the full epiphany of God, the full manifestation of the Holy Trinity: the Father through the Son in the Spirit to us; and we in the Spirit through the Son to the Father.
The Holy Trinity in the Church
The life of the Church is the life of men in the Holy Trinity. In the Church all become one in Christ, all put on the deified humanity of the Son of God. “For as many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal 3:27). The unity of the Church is the unity of many into one, the one Body of Christ, the one living temple of God, the one people and family of God.
Within the one body there are many individual members. Many “living stones” constitute the living temple. Many brothers and sisters make up the one family of which God is the Father. The unique diversity of each member of the one Body of Christ is guaranteed by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Each unique person is inspired by the Spirit to be a true man, a true son of God in his own distinct way. Thus, as the Body of the Church is one in Christ, the one Holy Spirit gives to each member the possibility of fulfilling himself in God and so of being one with all others in calling God “Father” (See 1 Cor 12).
The Church, then, as the perfect unity of many persons into one fully united organism, is a reflection of the Trinity itself. For the Church, being many unique and distinct persons, is called to be one mind, one heart, one soul and one body in the one Truth and Love of God Himself. The calling of the Church to be one in all things is the prototype of the vocation of all mankind which was originally created by God as many persons in one nature, ultimately destined by God for ever-more-perfect growth in free unity of Truth and Love, in the life of God’s Kingdom.
The Holy Trinity in the Sacraments
The sacraments of the Church portray the Trinitarian character of the life of God and man. Each person is baptized by the Holy Spirit into the one humanity of Christ. Being baptized, each person is given the “seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit” of God in chrismation to be a “christ”, i.e. an anointed son of God to live the life of Christ.
In marriage the unity of two into one makes the new unity a reflection of the unity of the Trinity, and the unity of Christ and the Church. For the family of many persons united in one truth and love is indeed the created manifestation of the one family of God’s Kingdom, and of God Himself, the Blessed Trinity.
In penance once more we renew our new life as sons of the Father through the grace of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, forgiven and reunited into the unity of God in His Church.
In holy unction the Spirit anoints the sufferer to suffer and die in Christ and so to be healed and made alive with the Father for eternity.
The priesthood itself, the ministry of the Church, is nothing other than the concrete manifestation in the Church of the presence of Christ by the same Holy Spirit who makes accessible to all men the action of the Father and the way to everlasting communion in and with Him.
Finally, the “mystery of mysteries,” the Holy Eucharist, is the actual experience of all Christian people led to communion with God the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit through Christ the Son who is present in the Word of the Gospel and in the Passover Meal of His Body and Blood eaten in remembrance of Him. The very movement of the Divine Liturgy—towards the Father through Christ the Word and the Lamb, in the power of the Holy Spirit—is the living sacramental symbol of our eternal movement in and toward God, the Blessed Trinity.
Even Christian prayer is the revelation of the Trinity, accomplished within the third person of the Godhead. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, men can call God “our Father” only because of the Son who has taught them and enabled them to do so. Thus, the true prayer of Christians is not the calling out of our souls in earthly isolation to a far-away God. It is the prayer in us of the divine Son of God made to His Father, accomplished in us by the Holy Spirit who himself is also divine.
For we have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry Abba! Father! The Spirit itself bears witness that we are children of God ... for we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit itself intercedes for us ...
(Rom 8:15-16, 26)
The new commandment of Christian life is “to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). It is to love as Christ himself has loved. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12). Men cannot live the Christian life of divine love in imitation of God’s perfection without the grace of the Holy Spirit. With the power of God, however, what is impossible to men becomes possible. “For with God all things are possible.” (Mk 10:27)
The Christian life is the life of God accomplished in men by the Spirit of Christ. Men can live as Christ has lived, doing the things that he did and becoming sons of God in Him by the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, once more, the Christian life is a Trinitarian life.
By the Holy Spirit given by God through Christ, men can share the life, the love, the truth, the freedom, the goodness, the holiness, the wisdom, the knowledge of God Himself. It is this conviction and experience which has caused the development in the Orthodox Church of the affirmation of the fact that the essence of Christianity is “the acquisition of the Holy Spirit” and the “deification” of man by the grace of God, the so-called theosis.
The Holy Trinity in Eternal Life
At the end of the ages Christ will come in the glory of God the Father, He will make the Father known throughout all creation. The Holy Spirit will fill all things and enable all to be in union with God through Christ for eternity. Again we have the presence and action of the Holy Trinity.
What we know and experience now in the world as members of the Church will be manifested in power in the life of the kingdom to come. The essence of life everlasting is the life of the Holy Trinity, the same eternal life given to us already in the mystery of faith.
And I saw no temple in the city, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb (Christ) are the temple of it. And the city had no need of the sun ... for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb (Christ) is the light thereof…
And the throne of God and the Lamb (Christ) shall be in it, and his servants shall see him ... and they shall see his face…
And the Spirit and the Bride (the Church) say Come!
(Rev 21:22; 22:3, 17)
In the eternal life of the Kingdom of God, the Holy Trinity will fill all creation: the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. Every man enlightened by Christ in the Spirit will know the invisible Father. “And this is eternal life, that they may know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent” (Jn 17:3). Such knowledge is possible only by the indwelling of the Spirit of God, “the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Eph 1:23; 2:22).
Come O Ye People! Let us adore the Three-Personal Godhead, the Son in the Father with the Holy Spirit.
For before all time the Father gave birth to the Son, co-eternal and co-enthroned with Himself.
And the Holy Spirit was in the Father, glorified with the Son.
Adoring One Power, One Essence, One Divinity, let us cry:
O Holy God who made all things by the Son through the cooperation of the Holy Spirit!
O Holy Mighty through whom we know the Father and through whom the Holy Spirit comes ino the world!
O Holy Immortal, the Spirit, the Comforter, who proceeds from the Father and rests in the Son!
O Most Holy Trinity! Glory to Thee!
(The Vespers of Pentecost)
From:The Orthodox Faith by Fr. Thomas Hopko