‘An ineffable and captivating mutual embrace of infinite love’
‘Oh you who are beyond everything! For what else can be sung about you?’
St Gregory the Theologian
‘The mystery [of God] is honoured in silence!’
St Gregory the Theologian
The Mystery of the Holy Trinity
In an attempt to formulate the Church’s teaching on the Holy Trinity, it has to be remembered that God as Trinity is a mystery – indeed, the absolute mystery par excellence since God will forever remain so – and is therefore to be ”approached” in humility, reverence and thanksgiving rather than exhaustively ”understood”. That is to say, God, in his very nature, is ineffable and inexpressible and could therefore not be known unless He himself had first willed to be revealed to the world in this way. Indeed, the mystery of the Holy Trinity exceeds the finite and created conscience of human persons and transcends their conceptual powers and knowledge. Reflecting specifically on the mystery of the Holy Trinity in the fourth century, St Gregory [Nazianzus] the Theologian (330-389/90 AD) wrote: “to speak of God is impossible and to know him even more impossible.” Many centuries later, St Gregory Palamas (1296-1359 AD) reminded his readers that “the super essential nature of God is not a subject to speak of or think or even contemplate, for it is far removed from all that exists and more than unknowable, incomprehensible forever.” Clearly, the essence of God’s divinity will never be known to humankind, because to be so would be a contradiction in terms. If God could be fully understood by the creaturely mind and described by creaturely concepts, He would cease to be God.
However, God who is hidden (Deus absconditus) has also revealed himself (Deus revelatus) through his ordinary and extraordinary revelation; his ultimate self-disclosure was beheld in the incarnation of the Son of God which gave the world the opportunity to hear God, to see and even touch him (cf. 1 Jn 1:1). St Basil the Great (330-379 AD) wrote that God disclosed himself to humanity to the extent that humanity was capable of receiving this revelation:
“We know the greatness of God, His power, his wisdom, his goodness, his providence over us and the justness of his judgments; but not his essence… We know our God from his operations, but do not undertake to approach near his essence. His operations come down to us, but his essence remains beyond our reach”.
Therefore God is, at the same time totally inaccessible and really communicable to the created world. God is unknowable and ineffable but at the same time we know that He is because He has revealed Himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God is Trinity; a personal God “and this fact can be deduced from no principle nor explained by any sufficient reason for there are neither principles nor causes anterior to the Trinity.” And so, as a wondrous revelation of divine life and love eternal, human persons can, therefore, enjoy his beatitude and, together with St Gregory the Theologian proclaim in praise and thanksgiving, and with a sense of wonder and awe the God who is ‘One-in-Three and Three-in-One’, a doxological proclamation therefore, surpassing all forms of human expression: “Oh you who are beyond everything! For what else can be sung about you?”
God in Trinity
Firmly rooted in the Scriptures , the doctrine of the Holy Trinity was formulated, lived and preserved in the Church. Notwithstanding the fact that the Church’s teaching on the mystery of the Holy Trinity was a divinely revealed truth, it nevertheless took the early ecclesial communities many years to acquire a clear theological formulation. The need for precise terminology particularly emerged when the Church had to define, with accuracy, in what way the one God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – namely, the Father Almighty – was related to Jesus Christ – who was professed to be God’s only begotten Son, his eternal Word and Image – and to the Holy Spirit – identified as the ”breath” of the almighty God in the Old Testament. This was especially vital since the Scriptures were clear that God the Father was never without his Word and Spirit, since both were eternally with God and essential to his being, action and life. Accordingly, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were seen as distinct personal ”subjects” – the Father, for example, was not the Son or Spirit, and the Son was not the Father or Spirit, nor was the Spirit the Father or the Son – and yet all three were worshipped and glorified as ”God” and ”Lord”. Consequently, the fathers of the Church, as we shall see, had to show that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, were entirely unique and distinct in reference to who they were, yet indissolubly identical in what they were – namely truly divine.
Following the Old and New Testaments, the fathers of the Church – especially those of the fourth century – came to refer to God not as ἕν (one) – namely, a uni-personal monod – but as ἕνωσις (unity) – indeed, an absolute, indissoluble and continuous unity of three divine persons. Regarding such a ”tremendous and fascinating mystery” (mysterium tremendum et fascinosum) of the unity-in-diversity and diversity-in-unity of the Holy Trinity, St Gregory the Theologian (330-379/90 AD) wrote in a rather mystical, liturgical and poetical way:
No sooner do I conceive the unity than the Trinity bathes me in its splendour. And when I think of the Trinity, again the unity seizes me and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking escapes me.5
In expounding the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the Orthodox Church begins with the community of the three genuinely ”existing” persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – rather than with an abstract concept of metaphysical or transcendental unity. Again, St Gregory the Theologian wrote: “When I say God, I mean Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” In fact, the fathers of the Church identify person with hypostasis – namely, a real concrete existence – and teach that the three persons, or hypostases, are three absolutely distinct and unique modes of personal existence, that are, nevertheless, co-equal, co-eternal and co-substantial; with one and the same divine being, power and activity. And so, the Trinity is referred to as the Tri-Hypostatic Godhead in the patristic and liturgical traditions, in which there are three persons, yet one essence, a harmony and unity of one life, one divine action and will, and one rule. In this way, there is one God, yet three divine persons; a stumbling block for the purely ”rationalist” mind, but a cornerstone of the Christian faith.
In reflecting upon the mystery of the Holy Trinity, the Eastern Orthodox tradition teaches that there are three distinct and equal divine persons; that is to say, that the three divine persons are absolutely unique to one another, entirely other yet united, and each possessing the fullness of the divinity. Thus, according to St Gregory the Theologian, “the Godhead is undivided in separate persons.” The otherness of each person is not moral or psychological but ontological. By the expression ”ontological otherness”, in relation to the Holy Trinity, is simply meant that there are three real, concrete and absolutely distinct modes of existence [τρόποι ὑπάρξεως] and life within the Trinitarian mystery; not simply three different ways that the one God can supposedly appear or become manifest momentarily to the world. In other words, the Church does not teach that God sometimes appears in the form of Father, then as Son and still other times as Spirit. Rather, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three entirely distinct modes of existence, yet perfectly united and sharing the same divine essence. And so, experiencing God in this way, the early Church spoke of the doctrine of the Holly Trinity in terms of ”three persons in one essence”.
In differentiating between the three divine persons, the Eastern Orthodox tradition teaches that the Father is to be distinguished from the other persons inasmuch as He eternally begets the Son and eternally gives forth the Holy Spirit; the Son is to be distinguished in that He is begotten of the Father; and the Holy Spirit in that He proceeds from the Father. Thus, the entirely unique hypostatic or personal attributes of the three persons are as follows: the Father – his unbegotteness [ἀγέννητον] and paternity; the Son – his begotteness [γεννητόν] and sonship; and the Holy Spirit – his procession [ἐκπορευτόν] or ‘ekpempsis’. Again, St Gregory the Theologian affirmed that the “characteristics of the Father is his unbegotteness, of the Son, his birth and of the Holy Spirit his procession.” However, the Church proclaims that even though the Father, Son and Holy are distinct from one another, there is nevertheless a perfect and harmonious identification of the three persons in one and the same essence so that there is no confusion, division or subordination between them. Indeed, in relation to the created world, the unity of action is articulated in the following manner: the Father is the ”primordial cause” of creation, the Son, the ”creative and redeeming cause” and the Holy Spirit, the ”perfecting cause”. Having distinguished the three divine persons in general terms, our attention, in the next issue of Voice will turn to focus on each in more detail.
The Three Persons of the Holy Trinity
God the Father Almighty
In further expounding upon the mystery of the Holy Trinity, the Eastern Orthodox Church teaches that God the Father is the ”source” and ‘timeless principle of origin’ of the Godhead. This is precisely what is meant by the expression, “the monarchy of the Father” within the inner life of the Holy Trinity – namely, that the Father, as the sole principle of the Son’s generation and the Holy Spirit’s procession, is the exclusive source of the divine essence, which the Son and the Holy Spirit equally share and possess. The Church’s conviction regarding the monarchy of the Father has been based on the interpretation of the words of Jesus that “the Father is greater than I” (Jn 14:28), which was always interpreted, by the Eastern Patristic tradition, to be a reference to the Father’s ”unoriginated” hypostatic quality; and not to any greater moral or functional importance of the Father in relation to the Son and Holy Spirit. In other words, the Father was considered to be greater not because his essence was superior or for the reason that He transmitted it to the other two persons, but because He was the sole principle cause of the Godhead – however, One who always personally shared his incomprehensible divinity with his Son and Spirit.
The teaching of the ‘‘monarchy of the Father’‘ was constantly employed by the fathers of the fourth centuries to counter those who would accuse them of tritheism (belief in three gods). St Basil the Great (330-379 AD), for example, wrote: “God is one, because the Father is one.” And precisely the same teaching is found in St Gregory the Theologian:
For us there is one God, for the Godhead is One, and all that proceeds from him (i.e. the Father) is referred to the One, though we believe in three persons. When, then, we look at the Godhead, or the first cause, or the monarchia, that which we conceive is One; but when we look at the persons in whom the Godhead dwells, and at those who timelessly and with equal glory have their being from the first cause, (i.e. the Son and the Spirit of the Father), there are three whom we worship.
For the fathers of the Church, the Holy Trinity is a unity not because there is a unity of substance, as the West has argued, but because of the monarchia of the Father, who is himself one of the Trinity. Accordingly, the fathers of the Church taught that there is one God because there is only one Father. Or put another way, it was the monarchia of the Father that was the ground of koinonia within the Trinity and not any abstract conception of the divine ousia. This was nothing other than the biblical affirmation that the one God was the Father almighty (cf. 1 Cor 8:6; Eph 4:6 & 1 Tim 2:5).
The only begotten Son and Word of God
As the ”uncaused” hypostasis [person], the Father was nonetheless always with his divine Word and Spirit, who themselves were also concrete and distinct modes of existence within the divine essence. Being Father necessarily implied a schesis with his Son and Spirit, without whom, fatherhood would be logically inconceivable. That is to say, the Father could never be perceived to be alone in his divinity as this would imply that He was not always ”father” but became so, which would be unacceptable in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. And so, there was never a time when God was without his Word and Spirit. Indeed, St Irenaeus (130-202 AD) had noted that when God acts in the world, He always does so through his Word and Spirit, which he called the “two hands of God.” Accordingly, the teaching of the Church on the Son of God is that He was begotten of the Father before all ages, and not created in time like all other created beings of the world. Being begotten of the Father before all ages [τὸν ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς γεννηθέντα πρὸ πάντων τῶν αἰώνων] – as is said in the Nicene- Constantinopolitan Creed – simply meant that the
Son of God shared the same essence as God the Father and so was ‘light from light, true God from true God.’ And this eternal Son of God they identified with Jesus, whom they taught was God incarnate and born of the Virgin Mary.
In countering the Arian controversy in the fourth century, which claimed that the Son of God was a creature – even though a most exalted one – born in time, the fathers of the Church taught that Jesus, as the Son of God was consubstantial [of one essence] with the Father. In teaching that the Son of God was consubstantial with the Father, the Church not only refuted the famous Arian slogan which stated that “there was a time when He [i.e., the Son of God] was not”, but also made plain that that the ”being” [ousia] of the Son in relation to his Father was identical, one and the same; and hence entirely ”other” from that of the world’s nature. On the contrary, the Son’s ”being”, the fathers taught, belonged to the same substance or essence of God, whereas that of the world’s belonged to the will of God and was created. As the eternal Son of God, Jesus Christ was divine with exactly the same divinity as God the Father, but, as One born on earth from the virgin Mary in Bethlehem, he was also fully human. Being of the same substance with the Father, God’s only begotten Son, the man Jesus of Nazareth not only revealed the Father – “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6) – but was also the saviour of the world. Being fully human, Jesus Christ identified totally with the human condition – except for sin of course – and therefore raised it back to God, uniting it with God. And so, the Church teaches that in the theanthropic person of Jesus Christ, the faithful of the Church not only ”behold” and ”see” God but are also saved by him as well.
The Life-Giving Spirit of God
The Holy Spirit, as the third person of the Holy Trinity, is equally divine in the same way as the Father and Son. For this reason, he is given the titles ”Lord” and ”Giver of Life” (cf. Rom 8:10) – attributes, which can only properly belong to God and not to created beings. For this reason, as is recited in the Creed, the Holy Spirit is worshipped and glorified together with the Father and the Son. Beyond affirming the divinity of the Holy Spirit, the Church also taught that the Holy Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father; yet was sent into the world, within time, by the Son of God to continue the salvific work of God. There is, therefore, an important distinction made in Orthodox theology between the Holy Spirit’s eternal procession and existence, and his temporal mission. That is to say, whereas the Holy Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father only, He is sent into the world, in time, through the incarnate Son of God. In particular, the Eastern Orthodox tradition teaches that Holy Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father alone – that is, not from both the Father and the Son as is taught in Western theology with the addition of the filioque [Latin for, ”and from the Son”] in the Creed – whilst, He is sent into the world in time, by the Son.
The teaching regarding the distinction between the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father alone, and his temporal mission from the Son, is clearly seen in the gospel according to St John. Whilst the original Greek is clear in this distinction, employing
two different verbs to distinguish the eternal procession – ἐκπορεύεται – from the temporal mission – πέμψω- the Latin translated both words with the one term procedere – to proceed – and therefore spoke of the Holy Spirit proceeding eternally from the Son of God as well; something which the Eastern Orthodox tradition outrightly rejects. The Eastern Orthodox position is based upon John 15:26:
When the Advocate comes, whom I will send [ὅνἐγὼ πέμψω] to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father [ὅ παρὰ τοῦ Πατρὸς ἐκπορεύεται], he will testify on my behalf. (Jn 15:26).
The text clearly shows that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father – ὅ παρὰ τοῦ πατρὸς ἐκπορεύεται – since the Father alone is the source and beginning of the Godhead. Indeed, the Eastern Orthodox tradition understands the verb ‘ἐκπορεύεται’ to have a special meaning signifying the Spirit’s eternal procession from the Father alone. And so, when referring to the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit, which concerns the relations existing within the Trinity from all eternity [the immanent Trinity], the Church attributes the Spirit’s procession and existence to the Father alone.
It is for this reason that the Eastern Orthodox Church refuses to say that the Spirit also proceeds also from the Son, since this is not the Scriptural use of the verb ”e˙kporeu/etai”, nor was it understood like this at the Second Ecumenical Council (380 AD) which formulated the Church’s teaching on the Holy Spirit. However, in referring to the Spirit’s temporal mission in the world, then it is clear that the Holy Spirit is sent by Jesus Christ – ὅν ἐγὼ πέμψω. Failure to distinguish between the two verbs ‘ἐπορεύεται’ and ‘πέμψω’, can consequently easily lead one to believe that the Holy Spirit ”proceeds” from the Father and the Son since the Scriptures mention the Son sending forth the Spirit – but this only concerns the Spirit’s temporal mission in the world. To do this, however, would not only introduce two separate principles or sources to the Godhead, which would amount to ditheism, but also distort the equality between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; that is, an imbalance in the eternal relations is introduced in which the Holy Spirit is subordinated to the Son. Consequently, in order to avoid introducing two principles into the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and destroying the equality between the three divine persons, the Eastern Orthodox Church rejects the filioque.
Having delineated the Church’s teaching on how the three divine persons of the Holy Trinity are distinct and diverse, it remains now to focus our attention on the terminology used by the Church to express how they were one and the same. The fathers of the fourth century taught that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are entirely ”other” in who they are – that is, three concrete and distinct persons or hypostases – but indissolubly identical in what they are. In order to intimate the what of God, the fathers of the Church employed the term ”essence”. St Basil the Great (330-379 AD) wrote: “I know that God is; but what his essence is, I consider to be beyond my understanding.” Also St Gregory the Theologian taught: “What God is in His nature and essence no human person has ever discovered or ever will discover.” Accordingly, God’s essence signifies what God is within Himself and that will forever remain totally unknown, incommunicable, unapproachable, unutterable and beyond any human comprehension. However, having underlined the ineffability of God’s essence, the fathers of the Church, nevertheless used simply human analogies in order to explain what was meant by the term ”essence” within the context of explaining the difference between essence and hypostasis.
In his letter to his brother St Gregory of Nyssa, St Basil attempted to show that essence referred to what is common within the Godhead, signifying, in this way, the inseparable oneness in their divine being, power and activity. In employing the example of created human beings, he was able to show that just like all men and women are essentially the same in their sharing the same humanity, so too, the divine persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are substantially the same – namely, divine. Specifically, he wrote:
Suppose then that two or more are set together, as for instance Paul, Silvanus and Timothy, and that an inquiry is made into the essence or substance of humanity; no one will give one definition of essence or substance in the case of Paul, a second to that of Silvanus, and a third to that of Timothy; but the same words which have been employed in setting forth the essence or substance of Paul will apply to the others also…
This excerpt clearly and simply explains that, in the case of humanity, even though there may be a countless number of human persons, there is still one humanity, since all share in those common properties and characteristics [such as, reason, thought, will, judgement, imagination, memory, etc] which defines humanity in general. If this analogy were to be transferred to God, then it could be said that in God, essence refers to all those common and ineffable qualities, which are shared by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit equally and identically. However, unlike human persons, who retain their own distinct will and energy, acting separately and out of their own initiative, in the case of God there is no such separation. On the contrary, there is a perfect unity and oneness in every respect of the divine essence. Accordingly, one in essence in the case of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit signifies one single, unique and indivisible reality.
Nonetheless, an essence, whether in the case of God or in the case of the created realm, does not exist unless a specific person gives it existence. It is persons who give existence [i.e. hypostasize] essence. Whilst it may be conceptually possible to speak of the divine essence of God without taking into account the three divine hypostasis (i.e. a unique existence of nature), it nevertheless remains outside the parameters of reality, since the persons hypostasize [that is, give existence to] essence. That is to say, every being that exists, whether created or uncreated, exists hypostatically, that is as a specifically unique existent. Therefore for the fathers of the Church, it was the person who constituted the initial possibility of experiencing God. It was not the essence that preceded and defined existence but the person. On this, St Gregory Palamas (1296-1359 AD) wrote:
“And God, speaking to Moses, did not say ‘I am the essence’, but ‘I am who I am’ (Ex 3:14); for He who is, is not from the essence, but rather the essence is from He who is [οὐκ ἐκ τῆς οὐσίας ὁ Ὦν, ἀλλ’ ἐκ τοῦ ὄντος ἡ οὐσία]; for He who is has captured in
himself whatever is.” 7
From this it is quite evident that it is persons that have a real and specific existence – persons are the mode of existence of essence. The God who is and acts in the world is seen and known personally as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The fathers proclaimed that God is in principle a person, who being absolutely free from every necessity and predetermination hypostisized [i.e. gave existence to] his Being giving birth eternally to the Son and sending forth the Holy Spirit.
Therefore, even though, totally incommunicable, the fathers did teach that the divine essence is not without hypostasis and so ventured to refer to God’s essence in terms of a ”trihypostatical energetic essence.” In upholding the personal dimension of essence, the Eastern Orthodox tradition refused to conceive the essence of God in terms of an undifferentiated simplicity. Furthermore, they were able to affirm the truth that it was not the essence which defined God – as this would limit his absolute freedom – but rather, the divine essence was the result and realisation of an absolutely free and personal God. That is to say, it was not the essence that preceded and defined existence but the ”person”. In attributing the ultimate reason for existence to a person – and not to an abstract essence – a freedom from any constraints of nature or givens was safeguarded. As a person, God does not act by a predefined nature, which would amount to a compulsory way of being, but according to his free will. Consequently, the expression, God ”in one essence” expressed not only the ontological otherness of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in their relation to the created world, but also their absolute harmony and unity within the inner life of the Trinity.
Communion in the Trinity
The unity of the divine essence was not considered, by the fathers of the Eastern Orthodox Church, to be the only principle of the perfect unity within the Godhead. As we previously saw, God was considered one because there was one Father. In addition to this, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were regarded as one because of their perfect koinonia. For this reason, the Church teaches that the three unique and distinct persons of the Holy Trinity continually embrace one another in an interpenetrating communion of love
(ἀλληλοπεριχώρησις). Each of the persons is completely open to the other, totally transparent and receptive. This transparency and receptivity is expressed by the
notion of perichoresis [περιχώρησις]. In describing the notion of perichoresis, Archbishop Stylianos beautifully characterised it as “an ineffable and captivating reciprocal embrace of infinite love [ἕνα… ἄρρηκτο καί ἄλληκτο ἀλληλοεναγκαλισμό ἀπείρου ἀγάπης].” And so, the Eastern Orthodox tradition would claim that Father, Son and Holy Spirit exist in interpersonal koinonia, dwelling in one another through a movement of reciprocating love yet without losing their distinctive personal attributes. In fact, the unbreakable communion and otherness that exists in the Triune God is a sine qua non condition of the
unity of the three divine persons.
The very being of God, as a communion of three hypostases relating to one another in love and inter-penetrating one another in that same divine love, is the foundation of the unity of within the Godhead. It follows, therefore, that the Trinity is a unity not because there is a unity of substance, as the West has argued, but because of the unbreakable koinonia that exists between the three divine persons. This implies that otherness does not threaten the divine unity but is a sine qua non condition of it. And so, for the Holy Trinity, diversity does not destroy the unity of the three persons but on the contrary “expresses three entirely different ways of God’s undivided and identical life by which the fullness of God’s love is manifested”. Consequently, diversity”, in the case of God, does not lead to separation, as ”logic” would dictate, but rather intensifies and reconciles on a deeper level the mystery of communion and love which each of the three persons of the Holy Trinity share. For the Holy Trinity, this koinonia presupposes freedom and a limitless dynamism – an eternal interpenetration radically renewing the common divine beatitude.
Fellowship or community is central to the being of God since it presupposes not an abstract being of God, as is supposedly the case in the West, but persons who are capable of fellowship. St Gregory of Nyssa stresses the idea of Trinitarian koinonia:
In the life-creating nature of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit there is no division, but only a continuous and inseparable communion (koinonia) between them… It is not possible to envisage any severance or division, such that one might think of the Son without the Father, or separate the Spirit from the Son; but there is between them an ineffable and inconceivable communion (koinonia) and distinction.
The divine unity, therefore should be viewed from the standpoint of love. Each of the persons is not a selfish withdrawal into himself, but a complete pouring out of himself toward the others. Since all love is unifying, it is this communion of love amongst the persons, rather than the common divine essence, that best expresses the unity in the being of God. And it is precisely this interpenetrating love to which the entire created world looks forwards with eager expectation and longing when all things, of which we now only have a foretaste, will be perfectly re-established in God: I long to be in that unshaken dwelling place, where my Trinity is found in the gathered brightness of its splendour – the Trinity whose dim shadows exalt me.
Dr Philip Kariatlis
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College