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Introduction to Orthodoxy 4: The Holy Trinity

Title:  Introduction to Orthodoxy 4:  The Holy Trinity

Subject:  The Trinity, what it is and is not; the Essence and Energy of God

Age:  16+ years

Prerequisites:  Introduction to Orthodoxy 1 Church Tour, 2 Church History , and 3 Jesus Christ

First and foremost our belief in the Holy Trinity is based in history, and the revelation of God.  It is based in an experience, found in 1 John. 

"That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life—the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us—that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.  And these things we write to you that your joy may be full" (1 John 1:1-4).

It is paramount that we understand that the Church began and continues to make statements about God out of Her experience of Him and out of our experience of the living God.  It is the experience that certain people had of this living God who entered into relationship with them that prompted them to speak of God as Trinity.  That is to say, that we did not first think of God as Trinity and work backwards, but rather, it is God who revealed Himself first as Trinity, and this is what led us to speak of Him as such.

To put it another way this complexity, this mystery, is not something humans thought of but rather it was something revealed to us in our experience of God, and more importantly in our experience of the living God, as opposed to a god of the Philosophers or the god of our own creation.  Thus the direction of revelation, of theology, is from God to human beings and not vice versa.

One of the primary revelations of the Trinity comes to us in the Baptism of our Lord and in the great commission of our Lord. 

"When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him" (Matthew 3.16).

"‘Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,'" (Matthew 28.19).

Another primary source for the revelation of the Trinity comes to us in the book of Genesis chapter 18, where we find the narrative of the Lord's appearance to Abraham at the Oak of Mamre.  Other sources of the revelation of the Trinity include the Transfiguration, Eucharist, Creation, and the Prophecy of Isaiah in Chapter 6.

This revelation and experience of God as Trinity has permeated our experience as a faith community so that it literally predominates every worship service of the Church.  As an aside it is disturbing to note how quickly the evoking of the Name of the Trinity is fading in today's Christian churches.  We hear people pray to their Heavenly Father or the Son, in Jesus' name, almost never to the Spirit.  And it so rare that we do hear prayer that originates, remains, and returns to the Trinity.

In the Trinity's name we are brought into the Church, Baptized in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, through and in the Trinity we pray, we affirm that it is the Trinity that saves us, and in Its Name we are buried.  It is important to note that whenever the faith community has something of grave/primary importance to say, it says it in its worship.  Take note of how we speak and what we say when we worship, for there is where the testimony of the faithful is given.  To this testimony the faithful either gives or withholds its, Amen.

After the reception of Holy Communion, the faithful sing:  "We have seen the true light; we have received the heavenly Spirit; we have found the true faith, worshiping the undivided Trinity, for the Trinity has saved us."  At least one reason the Trinity has saved us is because we have learned how to be human again, specifically we learn from the Trinity how to live in communion, in relationship, and in a society of love.  Since we are made in God's image, we attain to His likeness.  God is Trinity, and the image of the Trinity is a community, a communion of love.  We human beings, in order to be truly human, must learn to imitate this ultimate reality.

All this talk about Trinity, however, places Christians in a quandary.  Do Christians believe in one God or in three?  And if we believe in one God, how does this work, because it seems like funny math to many of us.  Moreover, is it worth it to try and figure out what we mean when we say, God is Trinity?   To put the question another way, when you fall in love, is it important to know for whom you are falling?  Is it important to fall in love with something real or a figment of your imagination?  If God is Trinity, or if He has revealed Himself as such, should you likewise have an understanding for Who He is? 

Is it important to figure out what we mean when we say God is Trinity?  To answer this question, we must first ask another question:  "What is the point of the Christian faith?"  The answer is salvation; life in union with God.  Now, salvation is not accidental.  There are elements of the faith that become paramount to salvation for they serve as signposts along the way.  The theology and belief in the Trinity as held by the Orthodox Church just so happens to be one of those things.  We must, therefore, as best as we can, come to some appreciation of the doctrine and theology of the Trinity. 

Once again, belief in the Trinity is not something made up by humans, but rather a mystery revealed by God concerning His inner life, His Being, His nature.  A proper understanding of the Trinity ultimately informs how we live.  It gives meaning and substance to our actions in a deep and sometimes inexplicable way.  Finally, if God desired to reveal Himself as Trinity, it serves an ultimate purpose. 

In order to begin speaking about the Trinity, we could start by listing what the Trinity is not.  These are a few of the formulas that have been tried in the past and are still being used to give an answer to what the Trinity is.  Keep in mind that many of these formulas were formulated with the best of intentions; they were proclaimed by men and women who earnestly tried to appropriate the experience of God's Trinitarian revelation.  Some of these false explanations are:

  • Modalism/Sabellism:  God appeared in different forms at different times.
  • God the Father is alone truly God, and the Son and the Spirit are demigods or super creatures or even the first created beings.
  • God is one; the Son and the Spirit are merely names for relations which God has with Himself.
  • All three of them are Gods on their own, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

Against these attempts to describe the Holy Trinity the Church has formulated the following statement:  "God is one essence in three persons/hypostasis."  In this statement we are affirming that it is not that we know what God is, but we do know that God is.  What is attempted here is not an attempt to provide a logical or philosophical definition of God that is reasonable; rather, it is to give expression to what is ultimately in-expressible.  The incomprehensible God has indeed revealed Himself in a manner that is incomprehensible.  All errors in trying to explain the Trinity come down to the following issue:  people tried to explain the living God, using a method of human thought, rational, natural, or philosophical, instead of witnessing to the reality, the truth of an encounter with the living God.  To ask what God is, is the wrong question.  Rather, Who He is, is primary.  He is Trinity.

Before we go into that, however, we must spend a little time on two related terms:  the essence of God and the energy of God.  What is the essence of God?  We can say that the essence of God is that which is totally transcendent to us human beings, it is that which is totally other.  What is the energy of God?  We can say that God's energy is that which is accessible to us, immanent (remaining within; indwelling, inherent).  The essence of God remains beyond our understanding, inaccessible, while His activity in the world, His energies, we have beheld, and to some degree we can understand.  In fact, all of our understanding of God, what we say about Him, comes from what He has done in the world, from His energies.  It is God's energies then that have revealed to us Who He is, and to another degree, it is God's energies that we have participated in.  God in His immanence, in His transcendent acts, in His desire to save the human race, has manifested Himself as Trinity. 

Lest this conversation of essence and energies appear irrelevant, let me say that without a clear understanding of it, our theology of the Trinity becomes muddled and eventually heretical.  We have experienced in God a differentiation, Father, Son and Holy Spirit; and yet we affirm He is one.  For Orthodox, the energies of God are distinct from His essence, much like your actions are not you but a distinct extension of you.  At the same time we affirm that the energies of God are Divine and uncreated. 

Now, what each of the Persons of the Trinity shares totally in, is in the essence.  And what each person differs in is contained within their personhood, the way they hypostasize their essence.  It is kind of like how your personality is the manifestation of your personhood.  Take for example, the procession of the Holy Spirit.  Procession can either be shared by all three and thus be part of the essence of God, or, procession of the Holy Spirit can be ascribed to the personhood of one of the three.  To ascribe it to more than one is to disrupt the unity or to confuse the personhood (Draw a chart showing those characteristics that are shared by all 3 Persons of the Trinity, like love, and those properties that belong only to one Person of the Trinity, like begotten, fountain head).

Fr. Coniaris uses the following analogy to describe this formula:  three men are one, in what they are, they are all human beings, but in who they are, they are three persons and therefore they are each absolutely unique and different from the others.  The difference here being that God, unlike man, does not move towards disunity and fragmentation in the multiplication of Persons, but rather He moves towards unity and harmony.  In like manner, God is different in His personhood, there are three unique Persons, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, but God in His substance in His essence, is one, without division and without confusion. 

"There is eternally in God true unity, combined with genuinely personal differentiation:  the term "essence", "substance" or being "ousia" indicates the unity, and the term "person" (hypostasis, prosopon) indicates the differentiation."  The Orthodox Way, page 30. 

With this we must also say that while there is in God differentiation through personhood, there is never separation.  Also, while there is complete and total union there is not in God, confusion.  Now, this can all seem like a riddle.  This doctrine above all others is not easy to handle and only out of necessity has the Church and we today forced to put into words something that is ultimately experienced.

(See handout of quote from St. Gregory of Nanzianzus). 

To put it another way, for the time being imagine that the doctrine of the Trinity is for you and I a life saving medicine.  Our doctor upon having prescribed it to us informs us that if we faithfully take this medicine we will be cured.  In faith, without knowing how this medicine works we take our daily pill.  And in time, we come to realize that indeed the medicine is working and our health is returning.  Although, we might have been skeptical at first regarding our doctor's prescription, we now have full faith in his first prognosis.  In like manner our acceptance of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity must be accepted, or more appropriately, experienced.  And in time, we will come to learn in part how this doctrine, this medicine, saves our lives.

We also come to the realization that our experience of God as Trinity is not dissimilar to the experience of the Saints.  That is to say we find common ground.  Our experience of God is similar to that of others; it is independently and communally verifiable.  The doctrine of the Trinity is experienced first and only later is it put into doctrine.  This outward experience of God as Trinity is what has led us to believe that God is Trinity in reality, in His inner life.  This is what the early followers of Christ went through.  It is what you and I must go through as well.    First we experience God as Trinity, then, we proclaim it.  We do not debate it. 

It is a common understanding among Orthodox theologians that the Trinity is de facto above human comprehension.  So it is not up for discussion so much as it is up for reflection and prayer.  This point can not be emphasized enough.  We must always remember that this doctrine we proclaim cannot ever be fully comprehended.  For example, think how difficult it would be to describe your relationship with a loved one in just a few words, or try and describe your spouse, your child, your mother, your brother, or best friend in a short few sentences.  Such an exercise is impossible.

More so is it with the God of the universe.  To describe His relationship with the Son and the Spirit in a few sentences is difficult in the least.  To explain who He is, is impossible.  In the end it is a mystery, just like each of us.  This does not mean that the Trinity is totally incomprehensible but that our finite mind can only comprehend partially what and who God is.  In the end, we live with and quite honestly there can only be a partial understanding of the Trinity, we can only grasp the Trinity conceptually in figures, in shapes that are at times vague and just out of our grasp.  But so it is with God, for a God that can be totally comprehended, completely understood is no longer God, no longer a real Person that we must know through a personal relationship and encounter.

The good news is that God has tried to impart as much as He can about who He is; He has tried to open our finite minds to the infinite.  Read p. 30, section "How Accessible God is."

In the end the Christian expression of God as Trinity is something more than stating God is one.  While we affirm this we also are giving utterance to something deeper and more profound that has to do with God and how He relates to you and I, to the world.  As was mentioned in the first class, what Jesus revealed, the Apostles preached, and the Church maintained.  Their preaching contained the full deposit of the faith; they didn't cut corners but rather they delivered the message as it was received.  This seems to us to be messy.  We would prefer it if they had evened out their testimony by glossing over inconsistencies or difficult doctrine.  But this was not their mission and it is not the mission of the Church.  The Church has not been commissioned to invent the truth but rather to proclaim it.  The great commission, given by Christ to the disciples in Matthew 28.19, is this, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit..."

We will turn our focus now to God in relationship, perichoresis, mutual indwelling.  With each of us the following statement can be made:

"Each [of us] becomes a real person only through entering into relation with other persons, through living for them and in them.  There can be not man, so it has been rightly said, until there are at least two men in communication.  The same is true, secondly, of love.  Love cannot exist in isolation, but presupposes the other.  . . And that is precisely what the doctrine of the Holy Trinity means.  At the very heart of the divine life, from all eternity God knows himself as ‘I and Thou' in a threefold way, and he rejoices continually in this knowledge."  The Orthodox Way, page 28. 

God is a community of love, a dynamic movement of three persons, who dwell in a dynamic state of love and communion.  This is the highest state of being, to live in relationships of love.  Remember that God who is a person, desires a relationship with us; unlike the devil who does not desire a relationship, but rather who wishes to dominate us, God being a Person and the origin of Personhood desires relationship.  In a sense our ability to live in a Trinitarian manner is our ability to live like God.

Prepared by Fr. Evan Armatas



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