The Orthodox Understanding of the Trinity

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is far more than an article of faith within the Holy Orthodox Church, and is far greater than the sum of scholastic intellectual speculation. It is a deep truth about the nature of God that stems from knowledge received of revelation by those who have truly come to know God in faith, for it is by revelation alone that we can come to know the truths of God. God has revealed himself to us as three persons in communion. It is an unalterable part of the dogmatic fabric of the Christian faith.

The Trinity has been affirmed, and at least nominally understood since the first century. We see in scripture, as well as in the parallel writings of the Early Church fathers from within the same time frame, such as Ignatius, that the three persons of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, were affirmed by the Church and her faithful. Though, it was a nominal understanding, in that they recognized the three persons of the trinity, but they did not necessarily understand the relationship of those three persons. The Church would end up passing through a number of Trinitarian and Christological heresies before arriving at her eventual concluding theologies on the matter. The beginnings of our trinitarian theology being formed in 325 AD, and finalized at the council of Constantinople in 381 AD.

The term Trinity was first used by Tertullian, though his conceptualization of the Trinity was “not a triune God, but rather a triad or group of three, with God as the founding member."1 He identifies Trinity as God, his Logos and Sophia in the context of a discussion around the first three days of creation. This was one of the earliest defenses of the doctrine of the Trinity, if not the first one, and shows that although the relationship of the three persons was not fully understood at that time, the triune nature of God was recognized, as has been since the first century of Christian faith. Later, Saint Basil would write his seminal treatise “On The Holy Spirit,” written to defend against the prepositional arguments of the pneumatikoi. This book would be used to form the foundation for Trinitarian theology in the east, and Ambrose would later use to form the same in the west.

The doctrine of the Trinity focuses on the persons of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For, God as a whole is “ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing and eternally the same” and is therefore unknowable to us.2 Yet, God is a God of revelation, and he has revealed himself to his Holy Church as existing as three persons in communion with one another, existing co-eternally. Instead of attempting a rational contemplation of the fullness of God, we can instead rationally contemplate the rational elements of God as three persons (yet one God), as revealed to us both in scripture, and through the history of revelation throughout his Holy Church. One is far more likely and able to understand God rationally by the explanation and exploration of his persons, than one is able to understand the fullness of God in his essence and energies.

The Father is both the ground of unity of the Trinity and also of distinction. We intrinsically understand God as Father, and there is only one God because there is only one Father of any and all things. The Father is the cause, the source of all things, and all that exists in His created order. He is outside of creation, but there is nowhere in creation that God cannot, or does not exist. Yet, we do not understand God by his relation to the created order, but in relation of persons. In order for God to be understood as Father, there must also be a Son. God the Son is begotten of the Father, not made, yet it is by the Son whom all things are made. It is further by this relationship that the perfect love of God is expressed, for the Son is the creator of all things not because the Father is incapable of creation on his own, but because the Son works in perfect cooperation with the will of the Father in creating all things. Thus, all things created, it is by the Holy Spirit that all things made are perfected. Though, the works of the Son are not insufficient or lacking if they are completed apart from the Holy Spirit, yet it is by a complete and perfect cooperation in His divine will that all things are completed. Here, God has revealed himself as three persons in communion with one another in the Godhead, and working in perfect cooperation with one another.

There is a voluntary cooperation that exists between the three persons of the trinity, three persons working towards one divine will, each person having their own volition of will, but in pure and divine Love working in perfect harmony with one another. The Godhead exists as three persons working in synergy (συνεργία ) towards the same perfect end of His divine will. As such, in our path to theosis, we seek to emulate this, to be as the body of Christ, living as persons in communion with one another. The three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are of the same divine essence. They are three separate and distinct persons, yet equal in divinity, honor, and glory.. They are three persons, yet share one ousios. Yet, of the three, God the Son is the only person of the Trinity to possess two natures, one divine and the other Human, further establishing His uniqueness of person from the other two persons of the Trinity. It is His humanity by which we may come into contact with God, both by his spotless sacrifice, and seeking to attain that perfection by which he leads us to. It is through His humanity, that we can come to something of a rational understanding of God. Towards this end, since God is the God of revelation, it is by the Holy Spirit that Christ is revealed to man, and it is by Jesus Christ that God the Father is revealed to man. It is by the Holy Spirit we are perfected, and strive to the pinnacle of perfect love3 in Christ Jesus.

Understanding the unique hypostases of the three persons of the Trinity, we can thus accept the hypostases as a relation of origin, eternally and outside of time, wherein their uniqueness is established. God the Father is the source of all things, and is therefore unoriginate, it is He that communicates his essence (ousios) to the Son, who is begotten of the unoriginate Father; and likewise He (the Father) communicates His essence to the Holy Spirit, proceeding from the Father – this is not done in such wise manner as to multiply His essence, but this is accomplished in such way that the essence of the Godhead remains unequivocally one. God is one God, one Essence, one Will, and there is no confusion of persons, and though three persons in one Godhead, there is no separation of time, location, or unity.

God in his essence is totally inaccessible to man, and is "all that subsists by itself and which has not its being in another", and is distinct from his energies or activities as actualized in the world.4 The essence of God cannot be seen, witnessed, or experienced by man, yet we can participate in his energies (ἐνέργεια). He has the fullness of all good things - of “power, glory, wisdom, and philanthropy” etc.; or, in another manner of saying, “all the good things that Son has are the Father’s, and everything that the Father has, is made visible to the Son.”5 These energies create an experience of relationship with God, as we participate in all these good things which God possess. This relationship is best understood in the communion of persons. God being three persons, we can experience the energies of God by relationship with His person, the Word incarnate Jesus Christ, our point of contact with God. We accomplish this through the acquisition and exercise of virtue. All that we can say about the person, and our relationship with Him, manifests not His nature, but the things about his nature.”6 So, our rational contemplations of God, of the Trinity, are a finger pointing at the moon, to borrow a phrase from Buddhist philosophy.

Knowing what we know about about the Trinity, and acknowledging what we don’t know, or at least acknowledging that which we don’t understand, we can begin to build a sort of intellectual construct of God by relation of our own terminology and definitions. They will help us understand God as persons, the ineffable as relational entities, and the unknowable by the shadow it leaves upon our finite human knowledge. Our rational knowledge of God will help us build a relationship to the person of Jesus Christ, who existed in time with us, and is the point of rationality in which God physically existed in the created order. Such knowledge will point us towards the divine, and at least lead our minds in the direction towards the mountain of theosis.

Theology is essentially faith seeking understanding of the things of God. We take that which has been revealed to us by God, and we seek what conclusions can rationally be drawn from them; our stating that the Hypostases are “consubstantial” is a good example of this idea. The scriptures detail the divinity, uniqueness, and eternality of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that all three are to be worshiped and glorified together as God; it also teaches us that there is one God. “The concept of consubstantiality is a way of reconciling these two articles of faith, which are evidently in tension with one another.”7 Yet, ultimately our rational speculation of God can only take us so far. Such can bring us true knowledge of God, but knowledge does not confer relationship, but all knowledge of the person with whom we seek to have relationship with, can only make such even stronger. The knowledge will get us to the base of the mountain, but it is in the cloud of unknowing, like Moses, that we ascend to true knowledge of the Mystery of God.

Doctrine of the Holy Trinity in Pauline and Johannine scriptures.

There are those today who would deny the Trinitarian formula of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We find them in groups such as the Jehovah’s witnesses, Mormons, Oneness Pentecostals, as well as other fringe groups identifying themselves under the Christian flag. These same people will also use scripture to defend their heretical ideologies, some having altered their translations from the Greek texts to match their beliefs. Yet, when one makes a thorough study of the scriptures, one cannot deny the presence and support of the trinity all throughout.

John the Evangelist

The corpus of Johannine scriptures consist of the Gospel of John, the Book of Revelation, and the Johannine Epistles; though, the primary source of knowledge of the Trinity is found here in the Prologue of his Gospel, which is expanded further later on in his first epistle. John wrote with intention to show the Jews that Jesus Christ the messiah was truly the logos (λόγος), co-eternal with the Father, and was truly the Son of God: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God.”8

John the Evangelist begins with the relationship of the Son to the Father: The Word was with God,” (ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν). The word πρὸς, Vladimir Lossky says, denotes a movement, a dynamic closeness: one could translate it as towards rather than with.9 So, another appropriate reading would be “the Word was towards God.” In 1 John the evangelist declares both the generation of the Son from the Father, and the incarnation of the Son (thus being in time). The ideas and differences between procession and generation were not often clear to the Church Fathers, Saint John Damascene having said, “we have learned that there is a difference between generation and procession, but the nature of the difference we in no wise understand.” St Gregory Nazianzen was forced elsewhere to reject the attempts made to define the mode of divine procession.

Within the Gospel of John, Jesus Himself gives a clear indication in John chapter 12 of who sent Him,and what His mission was. Also, In John 3:16, perhaps one of the most quoted and well known verses of the Bible, Christ establishes Himself as no way inferior to the Father, establishing that salvation comes from not only believing in the Father, but in the Son as well: “For God so loved the world,[a] that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”10 Christ further emphasizes his unity with the Father in His response to Philip in chapter 14, when Philip asks Jesus to see the Father: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Jesus adds a few lines later, “the Father who dwells in me does his works.” So Jesus establishes Himself as an image of the Father, and indicates that the Father works through Him. His disciples cannot see any of this however, because the Holy Spirit has not yet been given to them, to illuminate to them the divinity of Christ, for the Holy Spirit reveals Christ to men and Christ reveals the Father. The name λόγος being attributed to Christ “is primarily a designation of the ‘economic’ order, proper to the second hypostasis as manifesting the nature of the Father, for logo is another way of saying definition.11 So, Christ is the definition of the Father, the image of God revealed to man in man.

Further establishing the relationship if the Father to the Son, we hear Christ in Chapter 10 saying “I and My Father are one.” So not only is Christ equal to the Father, is the image and definition of the Father, but He is the same as the Father. Perhaps this is a distinction that the Sabellians missed during the formation of their heresies. Also, later in the Gospel we hear “I am going away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.”12 Now, some may confused this as the Son subordinating Himself to the Father, but he is simply recognizing that His Father is the source of all things, for Jesus comes from the Father, and He does so in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is by the Spirit in which he is baptized, it is by the Spirit in which He is led, by the Spirit that he reveals the truth of the Gospel to the people, and it is by the Spirit that he finds victory on the cross, conquering death by death.

The Gospel of John reveals the “location” of the Holy Spirit, and its relationship to the other two persons of the Trinity, stressing its own personal uniqueness.13 Christ mentions several times to the Apostles that he will send another comforter, implying that the Spirit is other than the Son, who is also referred to as the comforter, but the Spirit is thus send in the name of the Son to bear witness to him. We hear this in His words to the Apostles: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another comforter (παράκλητος) ...the Spirit of truth”14 and again: “the comforter (παράκλητος), the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name.”15 He also establishes the Spirit as a separate person from both the Father, and the Son. This idea is affirmed in the commentaries of the Father, “The Saviour affirms that the Holy Spirit is sent by the Father, in His, the Saviour’s name; which name is the Son. Here an agreement of nature and propriety, so to speak, of persons is shown.”16 So, the relationship of the Spirit to the Son is neither one of opposition or of separation, but one of distinction and cooperation– thus, in communion with the Father. The Relationship of the Spirit is much the same as that of the Son with the Father.17 He is a different and wholly separate person from the Father, but is so united to Him by a similar bond of procession from the Father, but one that is unique to him and differs from the generation/procession of the Son from the Father.

The Apostle Paul

Saint Paul is perhaps one of the more prolific writers in the Canons of scripture. His perspective is all together different. Unlike Saint John the Evangelist, he was not able to sit at the feet of Jesus. The revelations of Paul into the truths of God were given solely by the illumination of the Holy Spirit. He did not know Christ during his earthly ministry to the Jews, but only met Him after He had ascended and was sitting at the right hand of God the Father. He saw the exaltation and glory of the uncreated light, like that experienced by the three apostles on Mount Tabor. This was given, and was enough to Saint Paul, as evidence of the divinity of Christ. This is a light inaccessible, in which God makes his dwelling, which Paul recounts in First Timothy: ‘who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see.’ Paul has seen this light, and so continually declares the glory of Jesus Christ our Lord. Yet, Paul seem to be at times relating the Holy Spirit with Jesus Christ, in particular when he writes:

“Now the Lord[a] is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord,[b] are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.[c] For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”18

The earliest mention of the Trinity by Saint Paul in any of his epistles is found in the closing of his second letter to the Corinthians: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” One of Saint Paul’s primary goals was to nurture and grow the Body of Christ, the Church which Christ instituted, the Church birthed by the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. The fellowship of the Holy Spirit, at least to Saint Paul, is that which both strengthened and united the Church. The Holy Spirit united a mankind fragmented by the ego-centricities born of sin, and restored the original unity of human nature previously marred by the fall.“The original unity of nature, re-established in the Church, seemed of so absolute of Character to Saint Paul that he called it the Body of Christ.”19

To Paul, it is the Holy Spirit which both unites and strengthens the Church. The goal of our salvation is that of theosis, or deification, where the image of God will be perfected in all mankind. So, it is by the Holy Spirit in which we are granted the myriad gifts of the spirit, working towards that end. These gifts are given to the benefit of the Church, the Body of Christ: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control”20 In addition to this, it is within the Church that we come into communion with Christ, cultivating the gifts thus given to us, elevating us even further on our trajectory to holiness. We are not with Christ on this spiritual trajectory, but Christ is the goal of that trajectory, for “Christianity is an imitation of the nature of God.” 21

The Holy Spirit birthed the Church, and worked within the Church. Paul saw the actions and activities of the Holy Spirit were different from both the Father and the Son, but were complementary to the Love of the Father, and the Grace of Jesus Christ our Lord. Saint Paul affirmed that it was by Christ all things were made: “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him;”22 and it is thus by the Holy Spirit all things are perfected. It is by the Holy Spirit that Christ is revealed to all men, and it is through Christ that the Father is revealed, for “He is the image of the invisible God.”23

*

Both Saint Paul and John the Evangelist establish the divinity of the Father and the Son, and tie the two of them together with the work of the Holy Spirit. While the Father is the source of all things, and it is by the Son through which all things are created, the Holy Spirit “is the very Content of the Kingdom of God”24 While the spirit functions as a luminary of Holy mysteries within the created order, the Spirit remains mysteriously hidden from all things, its function rather is to reveal the Son. It is by Love that the three persons of the Trinity are connected and commune with one another, and it is through this Love that is found the salvation for all mankind. As the Trinity exists as persons in Communion, so then must we, the Body of Christ, exist as persons in communion, thus bringing us closer to the uniting love of the Father.


[1] - Tuggy, Dale & Zalta, Edward N. (ed.) (2016). "History of Trinitarian Doctrines". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University

[2] - Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom.

[3] - John 14:15

[4] - David Bradshaw, Aristotle East and West (Cambridge university press, 2004), 91

[5] - Gregory of Nyssa, “Against Eunomius”, A’ I’ 126

[6] - Lossky, Vladimir. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. (SVS Press, 1997), 73.

[7] - Father Louis Melahn, Ateneo Pontificio Regina Apostolorum. Personal Communication, December 26th, 2017.

[8] - John 1:1-2

[9] - Vladimir Lossky, Orthodox Theology: An Introduction (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1978), 38

[10] - John 3:16

[11] - Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1976), 83

[12] - John 14:28

[13] - Vladimir Lossky, Orthodox Theology: An Introduction (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1978), 39

[14] - John 14:16

[15] - John 14:26

[16] - Catena Aurea John 471

[17] - Vladimir Lossky, Orthodox Theology: An Introduction (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1978), 39.

[18] - 2 Corinthians 3:17-18

[19] - Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1976), 121

[20] - Galatians 5:22-23

[21] - Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1976), 124

[22] - Colossians 1:16

[23] - Galatians 1:15