Publications: Articles - Theology
How the formulation of God as Trinity came about
In the last issue of Vema, we said that the Christian God is at the same time three persons yet one God and one God in three persons. The question that needs answering today is why Christians believe in a God who is "Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Trinity one in essence and inseparable" as is sung in the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom (4th century). Why is not God believed in the same way that Jews of Muslims believe in God? How did the doctrine of the one God in three distinct persons come about since there is no explicit mention of this in the Scriptures? Having stated that there are no explicit Biblical references to God as Trinity, one can not however conclude from this that there are no references to God the Father, the Son (God's Word) of God and the Holy Spirit. The numerous affirmations of God's interaction with the world, for example are always expressed in terms of "the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit." (Eph. 2:18-22). Therefore the doctrine of the Holy Trinity was not the result of mere intellectual speculation or philosophical deduction. Rather, it arose from humanity's deepest encounter with the living and personal God.
In beginning to answer the question of how the formulation of God as Trinity came about, the first affirmation to be made is that the early Church stressed the mysterious aspect of the Holy Trinity. However, the expression, "mystery" was not understood as something that was a secret and therefore unknowable. In his letter to the Ephesians, St Paul wrote:
"he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ" (Eph 1:9).
Therefore the concept of mystery in the Christian Scriptures implied something that was hidden but now revealed in order to be experienced on a personal level. Therefore, while it is true that God, in his very nature is inexpressible and infinitely surpasses any human notions, yet He has disclosed himself to the world as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The second important point to be made is that, in the early Church the doctrine of the Trinity began with a confession of Jesus – who He was and what He did. And it was only after this personal encounter with Jesus that the fathers of the Church discovered his relationship with the living God to be one of Father to Son. In fact, in the early Church, the doctrine of God as Trinity did not form part of the exterior preaching of the Church. Only those who were baptised and active members of the Church knew the doctrine of God as Trinity. Only upon accepting the proclamation of Jesus and being committed to this, could God then be confessed as Trinity. In other words, belief in the Trinity came about, only after the existential encounter with the living God through Christ who was raised and glorified and living among His creation through the seal and gift of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church.
This point is important because it highlights that the starting point for God is not some abstract idea of how God ought to be. And for today, this great mystery of God as Trinity can only be approached after an encounter with the person of Jesus for the simple reason that this is precisely how God chose to reveal himself to the world. For the fathers of the Church, it was after experiencing and accepting who Jesus was that led to the proclamation that He had exactly the same divinity as his Father. Finally they then came to confess that the Holy Spirit too was also divine with the same divinity as God the Father. And it was this discovery which led them to proclaim that the Christian God is three persons, (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) yet one Godhead. All this was clearly articulated in the fourth century. In fact St Gregory the Theologian (4th century), who was bishop of Nazianzus in Asia Minor was the first to explicitly name the Holy Spirit is God:
"When I say God, I mean Father, Son and Holy Spirit."
Nevertheless this statement was understood as beginning with an experience of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit leading to the proclamation of God as father.
Having stated that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity was formulated after a careful study and experience, by the fathers of the gospel image of Christ, we now turn to examine what the Scriptures affirm about Christ as this will lead us to the conclusion of the divinity of the Son and Spirit. Now, in the synoptic Gospels (that is the gospels of Saints Matthew, Mark and Luke, so named because they look alike and most probably derived from a common source and different from St John's gospel, which is the first theological statement of the Church) the ministry of Jesus begins with his Baptism in the Jordan River. The baptism account, which is incidentally recorded in all four gospels, has a clear Trinitarian structure to it. Jesus is revealed as the Messiah; the voice of God the Father is heard saying, "this is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased" (Matt 3:17) and the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove confirming the truth of the Father's words. From the very beginning the early Church understood the baptism of Jesus as a manifestation of God acting towards the world with his Son and his Holy Spirit.
After the baptism of Jesus, the New Testament claims that Jesus began his public ministry performing all the Messianic signs, which the Old Testament Scriptures affirmed that the expected Messiah would do. In performing these signs, Jesus wanted to show that he was the Messiah, whom the Israelites were awaiting. The Christian Scriptures do not only claim that he preached the "good news" to all; cast out demons; performed countless miracles but that He also forgave the sins of people. Since the Scriptures claim that only God can forgive sins, this event in itself was a clear indication, for the Church fathers that Jesus was divine with the same divinity as his Father. However, the central confession of who Jesus is took place when Jesus himself asked his disciples, as they are walking on their way to Caesarea Philippi who they thought that He was:
"But who do you say that I am? Simon Peter replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matt 16:16).
The answer to this question, given by Peter in the synoptic gospels but by Martha in the gospel according to St John, formed the very foundation of the Trinitarian dogma. Peter answered that Jesus was the Christ; that is, the anointed one of God, the Messiah of Israel sent into the world to save people from their sins. Furthermore, Peter's answer began to make manifest, for the early Church, the relationship of Jesus to God the Father.
Another central event recorded in the gospels is that of the transfiguration of Christ. This too, like the baptism manifested his special relation to God. Immediately after the confession of Peter that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God, Jesus told his disciples of his forthcoming suffering which was received resentfully by the disciples. The gospels then record Jesus going up to Mr Tabor with Peter, James and John showing them his glory when he transfigures in front of them, his face shining like the sun and his clothes becoming white as snow (cf Matt 17:2). Here, as in the baptism account, the voice of the Father is heard saying, "this is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear him!" (Matt 17:5) the presence of the Holy Spirit is recorded – this time in the form of a cloud; and Christ shining with the uncreated light speaking with Moses and Elijah symbolising heaven and earth. Clearly the transfiguration has a Trinitarian structure to it especially attesting to the divinity of Jesus through a display of his uncreated, divine energy. Moreover the shining of the face of Jesus like the sun demonstrated that Jesus is God because God is light (cf 1 Jn 1:5). Finally the titles of Jesus as mentioned above – Christ as the Messiah, the Son of God and the Christ are reaffirmed.
After Jesus came down from the mountain, he spoke to his disciples of his crucifixion and asked those who were trying to catch him out "Who is the Messiah?". This, he asked so that he could show that he is the Messiah and Lord. When Jesus asked about who Christ was, the people, knowing the Scriptures, answered, "David's son." Jesus then referred to Psalm 110 quoting the most quoted Old Testament verse in the New Testament. Quite simply, he asked them, "How is it then that David, inspired by the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying "the Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand till I put your enemies under your feet!" (Psalm 110). If David thus calls him Lord, how is he his son?" (Matt.22:41-46).
Wanting to show them that He is Lord, like God, he asked them why David, inspired by the Holy Spirit, called Christ, the Lord if he was to be David's son since a father never calls his son Lord. Even though Biblical scholarship has shown that the term "lord" was a popular title used to refer to any man yet when prefixed by the definite article, "the" it referred solely to God. So surely if Jesus too is referred to as the Lord, he too must be divine.
Coming to recognise that Jesus was the Messiah, the early Church wanted to articulate his relationship with God. And in the Scriptures the affirmation is made that Jesus is God's Son; that God is his Father. Furthermore, the New Testament Scriptures claim that Jesus is God's Word, uncreated, divine and existing from all eternity. In his gospel, St John wrote that:
"In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God" (Jn 1:1).
From this, the early Christians concluded that God's Word was not only divine but that God was never without his Word. Upon further reading, we discover that God's Word became flesh and dwelt among us (Jn 1:14). The early Church soon discovered that whatever was said about the true God in the Hebrew Scriptures was also said about the man Jesus in the New Testament. And it was precisely for this reason that the early Christians, in reflecting upon all this, were able to claim that the man Jesus was also God with exactly the same divinity as his Father.
Now, not only was the Word of God acting with God in the world but so was the Spirit of God active in the world from the very beginning. In the Genesis account of creation, we read that "the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters" (Gen 1:2). The early Church became aware that the Holy Spirit was always involved with God and his Word in such a way that all three persons were always acting together. In the Hebrew Scriptures there is no evidence of God acting alone without speaking his Word and breathing his Spirit. So even in the Old Testament we have God and His Word and His Spirit acting together – all distinct yet divine with the same divinity. Even though it would be St Gregory the Theologian who would affirm the personhood of the Holy Spirit in the fourth century, for the first time, that is not to says that this teaching is altogether absent from the New Testament.
There are many indicators betraying the personal and divine character of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is described as teaching, interceding, helping, and searching the hearts of people - activities only ascribed to a person (cf Jn 14:16-26); the Holy Spirit is attributed with the same qualities as God the Father – therefore the Spirit of God is the Spirit of life (Rom 8:11), the Spirit of truth (Jn 16:13) and the Spirit of divine sonship (Rom 8:14) to name a few. It is this Spirit which makes possible our personal encounter with Jesus who is the perfect image of God the Father. This is how the formulation of the Trinity came about. It began with Jesus followed by the confession that Jesus was divine with the same divinity as his Father and that the Holy Spirit was also God, distinct from the Father and the Son, yet all united as one.
Lastly, a question which justifiably arose in the early Church was how all this did not lead to a confession of three Gods? In his letter to Ablabius, St Gregory of Nyssa (4th century), used the analogy of three distinct human persons (for example Peter, James and John) yet each of the three possessing one common human nature. He argued that when speaking of "what" these three persons are, we would claim that they are one – i.e., one common human nature. But if we were to ask "who" they are, then we would assert that they are three. This analogy of three human beings possessing the same humanity was used to demonstrate that in the Godhead, there are three distinct divine persons yet one divinity.
From the above analysis, we showed that in expounding the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the Christian Church began with the community of the three persons in the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit and then asserted their oneness. In the mystery of the Holy Trinity, Christians would claim that there are three distinct and equal persons, divided yet each possessing the fullness of the divinity. Thus according to St Gregory the Theologian, "the Godhead is undivided in separate persons." The same father wrote;
“No sooner do I conceive on 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.”
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer,
St Andrew's Greek Orthodox Theological College