The Holy Trinity
Fr. Thomas Hopko · July 3, 2008
Fr. Thomas examines the Holy Trinity, which leads to the answer to Christ's question, "Who do you say I am?"
The last and final day of Pascha, the eighth Sunday of Pascha, the Sunday of Pentecost, with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon all flesh from God the Father through and by agency of the glorified Christ, constrains Christians to reflect upon the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. I mentioned already on the radio here that in the Russian Orthodox tradition Pentecost Sunday itself is popularly called Troitsy, or Trinity, Sunday of the Trinity, and that even in some Russian churches on that day they will present, together with the icon of Pentecost, the icon of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles, upon the Church, they’ll also present in church for veneration the icon of St. Andrew Rublev of the Holy Trinity, the three Angels who appear to Abraham as a kind of prefiguration of what came to be called in Christian history the Tri-Hypostatic Divinity, the Tri-Personal Godhead: the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
In the Western Church, I believe, the tradition was, and in some churches still is, that the Sunday after Pentecost, which in the Eastern churches is the Sunday of All Saints, was even called “Trinity Sunday.” You had Trinity Sunday.
When we think of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, it’s very important that we get it straight, that we get it right. In fact, St. Gregory the Theologian, in his five theological orations on the Trinity, he even said when it comes to the Incarnation and the Resurrection of Christ and the meaning of resurrection and how to understand the atonement, he said, “To philosophize about these things is very proper,” and then he said a rather comforting thing. He said: for to miss the mark, not to get it completely totally accurate is not supremely dangerous for the salvation of souls, but to get it right is very helpful, very edifying, and very instructive and illumining to the faithful.
But then this same St. Gregory said, however, when it comes to God, when it comes to theologia, theology, not oikonomia, but when it comes to contemplating how the one God and Father relates to the only-begotten Son and the Holy Spirit, he said: then you’d better get it right, because if you don’t get that right, then everything is skewed; everything is wrong. All of the other doctrines—understanding Incarnation, Resurrection, glorification, the Holy Spirit within us, the activity of the Holy Trinity in our lives—it is rooted and grounded in the right understanding of the relationship and the communion that exists between the one God and Father and his one, only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.
Now, for us Christians, when we reflect on the Trinity, we must remember from the very beginning that the Trinitarian dogma, which is often called in Orthodox theology, “the dogma of dogmas”—you have the holy of holies and the song of songs, the Lord of lords, the King of kings—well, the mystery of mysteries, the dogma of dogmas is the dogma of the Holy Trinity. The Trinity, one in essence and undivided, as we sing in church and as we confess in our credal statements. But it’s important to see, right from the outset, that the dogma of the Trinity is not a kind of metaphysical dogma. It’s not a philosophical dogma at all, in the sense of some kind of contemplation of how divinity ought to be or is or whatever. In some sense it’s not a metaphysical contemplation that even comes from the contemplation of the gospel as such.
It is that, in some sense, for sure, but first of all it is a confession of faith. It is a defense of the Gospel. The doctrine of the Trinity and the word “trinity, triados,” it is not a New Testamental word; it is not a biblical word. It is a word that emerged in Christian history very early—pretty early: second, third century—but certainly it’s not a biblical word. It is an expression that has to be properly understood, and it can only be properly understood when one begins, as a Christian ought always to begin, in every single subject that they contemplate or think about or try to understand, and that is with the Person of Jesus.
Ultimately we can say that the doctrine of the Trinity is the outgrowth, the elaboration of the confession of faith of Jesus. It is about who Jesus is, and then, ultimately, not only who, but what Jesus is. Then, of course, if it’s “who” and “what,” then it is how Jesus is. But it is rooted and grounded in the Gospel itself. The main question of which is: “Who do you say that I am?” That’s the main question that Jesus asks in Matthew and Mark and Luke, the kerigmatic gospels, after Jesus is preaching, teaching, and doing his miracles, his miraculous signs, as they’re called in John’s gospel, in a word, when he does all the things that the Scriptures—the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets—said and testified that the Messiah would do when he came.
Namely, [the Messiah would] preach the good news of the victory of God over all his enemies, therefore preaching the kingship of God and the kingdom of God in creation and over all creation, and therefore bring all the activities to the world that will happen when the kingdom of God comes. Namely, the poor will have this good news preached to them. The poor and the needy will be filled and exalted. The proud, to use Mary’s words in St. Luke’s gospel, will be scattered in the imagination of their minds. The mighty and the glorious of this world who are not godly will be pulled down from their thrones. The meek will inherit the earth. The victims of injustice and evil will be vindicated. Those who persist in evil and injustice and who do not repent will be punished in that sense, or their very persistence in their evil will be a torment to them, even though God would have mercy on them if they would repent and does have mercy on them in the crucified Christ.
Then, of course, you have all these signs. The blind see. The lame walk. The deaf hear. The dumb talk. The demons are cast out. There’s no more lunatics or epileptics or paralytics or possessed people. Everyone is sane, in his or her right mind, clothed. The shalom of God, the peace of God, reigns among those who are with God. Even in the cosmos, what the insurance companies call the acts of God, the tsunamis and the tornadoes and the hurricanes and the floods will now be under human control as they ought to be, with the power of God, and they will no longer be dangerous. The lion and the lamb will lie down together.
There will be peace in the whole world, and there will be this marvelous communion, as St. Maximus the Confessor [said]. The way he formulated it was: There will be a perfect communion reconciling all divisions between male and female, between flesh and spirit, between matter and spirit, between civilization and barbarism—all the peoples of the earth will be united—between heaven and earth, the noetic realm, the angelic realm, and the earthly realm, the angels, the humans, the animals, the plants will all be in marvelous communion. The whole cosmos will be in communion, and then, of course, all of creation will be in perfect communion with the uncreated—with God. God and creation will be in perfect communion. That’s the kingdom of God. That’s the kingship of God.
Christians confess that this is the Gospel, namely, that Jesus of Nazareth brings this to the world; that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messianic prophet, the Messianic priest, the Messianic king; that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ; that he is the Son of the living God; that he is the Lord. Then, of course, it is confessed that Jesus of Nazareth is the incarnate Word of God, the Logos of God, the Wisdom of God in human flesh; that he is the Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages, and born of the Theotokos, Mary, the Birth-giver of God on earth; and that he is divine with the same divinity as the one, true, and living God. In the language of the Nicene Creed, it will say he is
God from God, true God from true God, begotten of the Father, not created, of one very same essence (one same ousia, one same being or divinity) with God the Father himself.
All of that is the result of the confession about who Jesus is. So all theology, and certainly Trinitarian theology, begins with that question and that answer. The question is given by Jesus himself. After he preaches, teaches, does the signs of the Messiah, he asks the Twelve: “Who do the people say I am?” And they say, “Well, some say you’re John the Baptist, raised from the dead,” because John had already been killed. “Some say you’re one of the prophets”—I don’t know whoever it may be; maybe redivivus, you know—“alive again.”
Then Jesus says, “Who do you say that I am?” And that’s where Peter says, “You are the Christ.” In Mark and in Luke, it is written that Peter simply says, “You are the Christ.” Then in those two gospels, Jesus says to Peter, “Don’t tell anybody this until I am betrayed into the hands of the sinners and the Gentiles and then killed and then raised and glorified.”
In Matthew’s gospel, though, you have the longer response, which might even be called the fundamental Christian creed. In Matthew’s version, Peter says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And then the Lord Jesus says to Peter that he has not learned this from flesh and blood. He says, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, Simon, son of Jonah, but my Father, who is in heaven.” Then he says that the whole foundation of the New Covenant Church, the ultimate, final Church on the planet earth, the final Qahal Israel on earth, would be those who believe that Jesus is the Christ and that the Christ is the Son of the living God.
Now here we have to see a very important point for Trinitarian theology, and that is that in the Bible, in the Scriptures, and then, therefore, in the creeds—and particularly the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, which became the credal statement for ancient Christianity and remains the baptismal, liturgical creed for Eastern Orthodox churches and most Christian churches to this very day, as it was formulated and put together and received from the first two Ecumenical Councils (Nicaea in 325 and Constantinople in 381)—that [is] in this creed and as it is proclaimed in liturgical prayers—and certainly in the liturgical prayer, the anaphora (which is a word that means “raising up” or “offering up,” which is a technical term for the Eucharistic prayer, the Eucharistic canon, where the bread and wine, the prosphora, are first elevated and offered to God as we lift up our hearts and have our hearts on high when we remember the saving activity of Christ at the holy Eucharistic service)—in the Bible, in the creeds, and in the Liturgy, it’s very important, really critically important, to note and to affirm and to remember that the one God in whom we believe, strictly speaking, is not the Holy Trinity. The one God is God the Father. In the Bible, the one God is the Father of Jesus Christ. He is God who sends his only-begotten Son into the world, and Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Then, of course, in a parallel manner, the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, is the Spirit of God, that the Holy Spirit, being the Spirit of God, is therefore also the Spirit of Christ, the Messiah, because the Christ is the Son of God, upon whom God the Father sends and affirms his Holy Spirit.
I think that this is very important, because there are wrong understandings of the Holy Trinity. First of all, there are those who deny that there even is a Trinity of divine Persons or divine Hypostases. They just do not understand the proper relationship between Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and God, his Father, and the Holy Spirit. So some, who might be called Unitarians or Adoptionists, or—there’s different names for them—they would say that the one God is just a uni-Personal Monad or God, and he has no Son; he does not beget; the divinity is his and his alone; and everything that exists in addition to the one God is a creature, has been created by God, has been brought into being out of nothing by God, but is certainly not an element of the very divinity and being of God himself; it doesn’t belong to God as such.
Here we Orthodox Christians, certainly the ancient Orthodox Christians of the Councils and the Fathers, would say, “That’s just plain wrong. That is not a proper understanding of who Jesus Christ is, and it’s an absolutely incorrect understanding of what it means that Jesus is the—with a definite article—Son of God, the Word of God, the Wisdom of God, the Icon of God. It would be simply a wrong exegesis, a wrong understanding of holy Scripture and a wrong understanding of the Christian faith that was preached, the canon of faith that even antedates the writing down of this faith in writing in what we call the books of the New Testament.
It would even be a wrong interpretation of the Old Testament. To say that the Word of God is a creature would be a wrong interpretation of the Old Testament. To say that the Ruach Yahweh, the Spirit of God, is a created being like some big angel or like the universe or like trees or like stars or stones or human beings would just be totally wrong.
On the other hand, there is another terrible error, and the other terrible error, usually called Modalism in technical theological terminology, is where people say there is one God who is the Holy Trinity: there is he who is the Trinity. And we Orthodox Christians, following Scripture and the credal statements and the liturgical prayers, can never say there is one God who is the Trinity. There is one God who is the Father, and this one God who is the Father has with him eternally, whom he begets timelessly before all ages, his only-begotten Son, who is also his Logos, his Word, and also his Ḥokmot, his Sophia, his Wisdom, also his Eikona, his Icon, his Image.
But this Wisdom and Word and Image and Icon of God is divine with the very same divinity as God, the one, true, and living God, because he is who he is, and he’s another who from the Father. There are three whos. There is he who is the Father, he who is the Son, and he who is the Holy Spirit. Those three whos are called the three Persons or three Hypostases. Probably the term “hypostases” is a better term, because it means three instance of divine life in a perfect and total unity.
But it is important to remember that the one God is the Father of Jesus. Jesus is the Son of God. As the Nicene Creed said, “He is God from God, true God from true God.” Here the Christians would say and insist that the one God and Father, from all eternity, has with him his Son. He has with him his Son, who is of the very same divinity as he is and who was born from him, who comes forth from him, who proceeds from him; and that this one, true, and living God also has with himself his Spirit, who proceeds from him, who comes forth from him.
Here, in technical language of Christian theology, the teaching would be, following the Scripture, that the Son comes forth from God by way of begetting, that he is a Son as a Son to a Father. That is the characteristic of the Person of the Son. That is who the Son is. That is what the Son is. And the Holy Spirit comes forth from God by manner of procession. He is not another Son. The relation of the Spirit to the Father is not as of Son to Father. It’s a completely different kind of relationship. It’s a different kind of reality.
But this whole contemplation begins in the Scripture, because it begins with Jesus. Jesus is the Son of God. Well, how is he the Son of God? He’s the Son of God because he’s begotten of the Father, meaning he has no human begetter. He has no human father. His Father, literally, is God. And God who is his Father begets him before all ages, and then this very one, who is God’s Son, is born as a man, as a human being, from the Virgin Mary. And it’s interesting that, in Greek, the same verb, when it applies to a father, is “beget”; when it applies to a mother, it’s “born.” So we wouldn’t say that Jesus was “begotten” of Mary humanly; he was “born” of Mary humanly. But we would also not say that he was “born” of the Father; he was “begotten” of the Father. Those are important things to think about, and that’s why we’re talking about them now. We have to contemplate these things and get it straight, get it clear.
So what we believe is that Jesus is God’s Son. Also, in St. John’s gospel, it said, “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God and the Logos was divine.” He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and nothing came to be that is, except through him, including the very existence and life of all that exists. In him was life; in him was light. But we Orthodox Christians interpret these sentences of Scripture to show that the Logos really is divine with the same divinity as the Father. Then, in the prologue of St. John’s gospel, it says, “And the Logos became flesh, and he pitched his tent among us. He dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” In other words, as the Nicene Creed would say:
The only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not created, who for us men and for our salvation, came from heaven…
Came from the realm of God. That’s what heaven means. It’s not a geographical, physical, located space. “Came down from heaven” means comes from the realm of God. “...came down from heaven and was incarnate”—sarkōthenta, became fleshed, was enfleshed, and became human. You have those two words that he became flesh and he became human. He became human. Born of the Virgin Mary, he became human. So he who was divine became human.
Jesus, if we ask who he is, he’s the divine Son of God, who is also Mary’s Son, the same Son who is a real human being, just like we are. And that’s why Eastern Orthodox Christians reject Nestorianism. We not only reject Arianism, that said that the Logos was a creature, that the Son of God is a creature. We say, “No, he’s not a creature. He belongs to the very Being of God, and his Being is divine.” But we also deny the Nestorians, who said that the one born of Mary is not the same one begotten of the Father; that the Logos is so perfectly divine that he cannot become flesh, he cannot become man; he can be joined to a man; he can be entempled in a man; he can be united with a man to such a degree that he can be called Son of God and Christ, but he cannot really be born of a woman. And the Eastern Orthodox Christians say, “Oh, yes, he can, and he did.”
As St. Cyril of Alexandria, the great warrior on this point, insisted, “The Son of God, the Son of Mary, the same Son,” begotten of the Father and born of Mary, the God-man, the Theanthropos, truly divine and truly human.” That’s what the Council of Chalcedon, after Cyril, will say that he is divine with exactly the same divinity as God the Father, the one, true, and living God, the one who is the one God; and he is human with the humanity that all men and women have, the only humanity that exists, the humanity of all human beings. That’s why we say he is “in two natures” or “of two natures, has two natures, is two natures,” meaning that he is truly divine and truly human.
When we say he’s truly divine, then we can call him God. St. Thomas, in the Bible, did call him God: “My Lord and my God.” The Logos is called God. Some of the sentences of St. Paul can be read as if Jesus can be called God. It depends a little bit on puncutation, but, like “Our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ”: “Our great God-and-Savior, Jesus Christ,” not “Our great God, and the Savior, Jesus Christ.” Even other Old Testament terms, like calling him Lord in a divine manner: “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand.’ ” Well, he’s using the same term for the one who sits at his right hand as for God himself, because “Lord” means “Yahweh,” and “Yahweh” is God. “Theos Kyrios”: God is the Lord; the Lord is God, and Kyrios is Yahweh in the Bible.
Jesus, in John’s gospel, even uses the “I am"s. We’ve reflected on this before. “Before Abraham was, I am. When I am lifted up, you will know that I am. Unless you believe that I am, you will die in your sin.” That’s a divine name.
Here the confession is that the man, Jesus, is the divine Son of God. That’s what the Council of Nicaea defended. That’s what it formulated, and it used one non-biblical term to make this point, and that term was “homoousios,” which can be translated “consubstantial” or “of one essence” or “of the same essence” or “of the same substance.” Sometimes I think, to be clearest, we might better just translate it into English: “...and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages, Light from Light, true God from true God…” and then simply say, “...of the very same divinity as the one God who is his Father.” That’s how the Bible speaks.
When I was a seminarian, many years ago, I went to my professor of dogmatic theology, Professor Serge Verhovskoy, and I said to him, “Prof”—everybody called him “Prof”—“I don’t find the doctrine of the Holy Trinity in the Bible. I don’t think it’s in the Bible.” Of course, in those days, I had a very skewed idea of the Trinity. I thought of the Trinity as sort of one God who is somehow three. I thought of it as like three-leaf clovers or like three elements of water, that water could be liquid, water could be steam, and water could be ice. Actually, I came to learn that, in fact, those symbolisms are Modalistic. They’re Modalistic symbolisms; they’re not accurate. You can speak of God as fountain and stream or something like fire and heat and warmth and so on, as emanating from the one God and Father through his Son and his Spirit, but not all analogies are apt, not all are good ones, and three-leaf clovers and three forms of H2O and so on, those are not happy images, because they give the very wrong idea.
To understand it properly, you begin with Jesus, and you read the Scriptures. And then you can contemplate how the one God is God the Father and his Son and his Holy Spirit, how he is one God with his Son and with his Holy Spirit. Very often, the preposition “with” is used, but “and” is used. For example, in the baptismal formula, we baptize in the name of the Father and therefore also of the Son, because there is no Father without the Son, and therefore also the Holy Spirit, because there is no Holy Spirit without the Father and the Son, and there is no Son without the Father and the Spirit, and there are no Son and Spirit without the Father, and the Son and the Spirit are what the Father is.
Here, very interestingly, the Church Fathers of the fourth century, like Gregory the Theologian and Basil the Great and Ambrose of Milan and Hilary of Poitiers and Gregory of Nyssa, they would have never said that God the Father is of one essence with the Son. They would only say that the Son is of one essence with the Father, because the Son’s divinity is the Father’s divinity. The Son is God from God. He is a divine Person, a divine Hypostasis, from the one God.
So when I said to my professor, in any case, “You know, Professor, I don’t find the doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament,” and as I said, I think the problem I was having with the Bible generally, and the New Testament in particular, was that I had been taught all these strange doctrines—foreignly strange doctrines; the doctrine of the Trinity is called “strange” in the service of Pentecost: strange teaching, strange mystery, but you have strange ones that are true, and then you have strange ones that are false—in any case, what my professor told me was this. He said to me, “You don’t think that the doctrine of the Trinity is in the Scriptures?” I said, “No.”
He said to me, “Have you read the Scriptures? How familiar are you with the Scriptures?” I said, “Well, not too.” Of course, I was like 18 years old, 19 years old. Then he said to me, “Here’s what I would ask you to do. Before we have any conversation, this is what I would ask you to do. Get a notebook and make three columns in your notebook. Under one column, write, ‘God’ or ‘the Father.’ Under another column, write, ‘Jesus’ or ‘Christ’ or ‘the Son of God’ or ‘the Word of God.’ Then in a third column, write, ‘Holy Spirit’ or ‘Spirit of God’ or ‘Spirit of Christ’ or ‘the Spirit,’ anything that refers to the one who is the Holy Spirit. In the second column, anything that refers to him who is the Son and Word of God, who is Jesus. In the first column, anything that refers to one God who is the Source.” In later theology, they would even say the Cause or the Principle or the Fountain of the Son and the Spirit.
“So get a notebook, make three columns, and begin with the New Testament. Then you can go to the Old, because when you go to the Old, you will see that there is also in the Old Testament, there is also the Word of God, the Wisdom of God, who is not God, but is of God, but is divine with the same divinity as God. And you will come to the Spirit of God, the Breath of God, who inspires the prophets. You’ll read texts like, ‘The heavens were made by the Word of the Lord, and all the earth by the breath of his lips,’ and so on.” Those are Old Testament sentences. Then you’ll find sentences about the Son of Man who’s presented to the Father, the royal King who sits at the right hand, and so on. “But we’ll leave the Old Testament aside for now,” he said. Start with the New Testament. That’s the Scripture for Christians, and that’s the Christian interpretation of the Old Testament.”
“Get this notebook, read the New Testament, and keep notes in the New Testament in these three different columns, and see what is said and how these three columns are connected to each other in the teaching of Scripture.” Well, I can tell you, I actually did that. I did it. And just the other day, I found the notebook. I was cleaning up all my notes and everything, planning to get rid of a lot of stuff in my old age, and I found the notebook. It’s a green spiral notebook, and I have my notes of the New Testament. For the sake of full disclosure, I have tell you the entire New Testament is not there in three columns, but a lot of it is. But after a while I just stopped doing it, because it became so clear. It just became so clear that you cannot read the New Testament without God, who is clearly God, who is not Jesus, and who is not the Holy Spirit; and you can’t read the New Testament without Jesus Christ, who is not God the Father and who is not the Holy Spirit; and you can’t read the Scripture without meeting at every page the Holy Spirit, who is not the Son and who is not the Father.
But when you read the text, you see that the Son and the Spirit are of the Father, from the Father, belonging to the Father, yet they are divine. They present themselves, as St. Basil showed so well in his treatise, On the Holy Spirit, as fully divine; as being, as St. Irenaeus called them, the two hands of God. God is not without his hands, he said, and he never works with one hand. As John of Damascus will say, when God speaks his Word, he breathes, and when he breathes, he speaks, and his words are not dumb, and they’re not alogos. As St. Athanasius will answer, you cannot contemplate God as alogos, wordless, or without wisdom. You cannot even think of God without his Son.
So then you come to the conclusion that the one, true, and living God, by nature, is the Father. The one, true, and living God, by nature, is not the Creator. God freely decides to create. God would be God without the world. God would be God without the hundred-billion galaxies and the hundred-thousand-billion stars. But God would not be God without the Logos and the Spirit, without the Devar Yahweh, the Word of God, and the Ruach Yahweh in the Old Testament terms, Hebrew, the Breath of God.
Even if you would speak to a good Orthodox Jew and say to an Orthodox Jew, “Is God ever devoid of his wisdom?” Well, a good Orthodox Jew would say, “Never.” Is God ever without his Word? Never. A good Orthodox Jew would even say that the Torah is eternal in essence. It is written in human words, but it itself is divine, so if you’d say, “Is the ruach of God, the breath of God—is God ever without his breath?” No, no! He’s the living God. The Spirit of God is divine. So then we Christians could say, if we wanted to, politely, “You see, you believe in the Holy Trinity. You believe in the Trinity, because you cannot conceive of God without his Word and without his Spirit, and that Word becomes flesh and it is the Messianic King. It is his Son.”
That’s the great mystery hidden from the angels, that the Messiah of Israel is God’s literal own Son. He’s not simply a human being. He’s a real human being, as the Council of Chalcedon would say, telios anthrōpos, real human being, but not psilos anthrōpos, not a mere human being. He is the human being that the Son of God has become when he was born of Mary. Then, as you contemplate Scripture, you just see this at all times.
Let’s take just Matthew, Mark, and Luke for now. John, of course, is the great theological gospel that shows the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but if you just take Matthew, Mark, and Luke, if you just take Matthew and Luke on the infancy narratives, already when they speak about the birth of Jesus, they say he will be called the holy one, the Son of the Most High; that he will establish the kingdom of God; God will be his Father; his Father is God; he has no human father in those narratives. How is he conceived? He’s conceived of the Holy Spirit, just the same way that, as St. Ephraim of Syria said, the Spirit of God was brooding over the nothingness at the beginning of creation, so the same Holy Spirit is brooding over the barren womb of Mary, the virginal womb of Mary, and then God speaks his Word, and the Word is incarnate in Mary’s womb. The Word becomes flesh in Mary’s womb, and she conceives, as he said, by way of her ear. But you can’t read the Christmas stories in the New Testament without seeing the one God and Jesus who is being born and the Holy Spirit.
Then when Jesus is born and starts living, it says that he increased before God, who is his Father, because the Holy Spirit was upon him and in him. Then when he goes to the temple, he says he has to be about his Father’s work, and that he’s filled with the Holy Spirit. Then when he’s baptized, for us and for our salvation, to fulfill humanly what he already has divinely, as St. Athanasius says, what happens? The Father speaks and says, “This is my Son, the beloved,” and the Holy Spirit rests upon him in the form of a dove. That’s why, on the Epiphany, the baptism day in the Orthodox Church, we sing:
When you, O Lord, were baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity became manifested, for the voice of the Father bare witness to you as his beloved Son, and the Spirit, in the form of a dove, confirmed the truthfulness of his words.
So you have the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in the Epiphany. Then when Jesus does all his signs and preaching, he preaches by the Spirit of God, but he is the incarnate Son of God, the Logos, the Teacher. He does the miracles by the Spirit of God. When people attack him, he says, “This is done by the Holy Spirit, and if the Spirit is here, then the kingdom of God has come upon you,” because the Spirit is the Spirit of God who is his Father. But then he says this Spirit is his own Spirit, because everything that he has, divinely and humanly, he has received from the Father. He has received everything divinely, eternally, and everything humanly in the Incarnation, in the oikonomia after he’s born of Mary. In the letter to the Hebrews, it even said it was the Holy Spirit who led the Son of God to be crucified in the flesh for the salvation of the world, and when he’s crucified he offers himself to the Father. Then the Father, as he says in John’s gospel, “is always with me.”
You cannot contemplate God as a Christian without contemplating immediately and essentially and necessarily the Son and the Holy Spirit. Like St. Gregory the Theologian—he said it in a marvelous way when he said: “Whenever my mind contemplates any one Person of the Holy Trinity, of the divine Godhead, the Theotēs, it immediately goes to the other two. The minute I think of God, I cannot think of him without Christ and the Holy Spirit. The minute I think of the Son, I cannot think of him without the Spirit and without the one God and Father. Whenever I think of the Spirit, I know that he is the Spirit of the Son, but he is the Spirit of the Son because he proceeds from the Father and rests on the Son.”
That’s why, by the way, we are against the filioque in the Creed; that’s why there was a break with the West, because we claim that the Spirit of God does not proceed from the Father and the Son together, even not together as if from one. Thomas Aquinas put it that way: the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, “ab utroque sicut ab uno,” he said in Latin: “from both as if from one.” We don’t hold that. We believe that he proceeds from the Father alone, and he proceeds from the Father and divinely rests and remains in the Son from all eternity, and does the same thing when the Son becomes man: he rests upon him as a man, too, proceeding from the Father, abiding in the Son.
We can say that the Holy Spirit proceeds to us from the Father through the Son in the economy of salvation. That’s true, that the Son is the agent of all of God the Father’s activities in the world, including the sending of the Holy Spirit, but if Jesus sends the Spirit, as he says in St. John’s gospel, “I will send you the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father.” So you always have these three in perfect unity, and that’s why Gregory says, “When I contemplate any one, my mind is brought to the three, and if I try to contemplate the three together, the one Godhead, immediately my mind flashes to the three.” He says, “When I have the three, my mind flashes to the one. When I have the one, my mind flashes to the three.” So he said there’s one God because there’s one Father. And there’s one God because there’s one divine nature of the Father, which is the nature of the Son and the nature of the Holy Spirit, too.
The Son and the Spirit are consubstantial to the Father. They are of the same essence of the Father. That’s the witness of holy Scripture. That’s what the Bible teaches us, if you put it in philosophical or metaphysical terms—[with] that one term in the Creed that’s not from the Bible—but they needed that term to defend the Bible. And then when you contemplate the activities of God, you see that every activity proceeds from the Father, the Source of every divine activity in creation—sanctification, redemption, whatever God is doing—it comes from the Father.
It’s God’s, but the agent is always the Son. God creates through his Son. He speaks through his Son. He redeems through his Son. He sanctifies through his Son. So his Son is Word; his Son is Redeemer; the Son is the Savior; the Son is the King. But then all activity is accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit. So every activity of God is from the Father, through the Son, and in the Spirit; from the Father, by the Son, and in the Spirit. Or you can say: from the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. So you can have conjunction: and. So we sing in the Liturgy, “It is meet and right to worship the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: the Trinity, one in essence, and undivided.” Then we say, “It is meet and right to worship thee, to praise thee, to bless thee, to hymn thee, to give thanks to thee.” Then it says, “To thee, O one God and Father, and thy only-begotten Son, and thy Holy Spirit.” That’s how the Eucharistic prayer of St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil has us pray. (I’m just now quoting Chrysostom.)
And then when we sing the Trisagion, the Thrice-Holy Hymn, “Holy, holy, holy,” which the Church says can even give a reflection to each of the three holy ones, the three holy, divine Persons—the one God and Father and his Son and his Spirit—then what do we say? “Holy art thou and all-holy, thou, the one holy God, and thine only-begotten Son and thy Holy Spirit.”
That’s why some Syriac Christians and Egyptian Christians say it is not totally wrong to sing, “Holy God, holy Mighty, holy Immortal,” to any one of the divine Persons: you can sing it to Christ. They even used to sing, “Holy God, holy Mighty, holy Immortal, who was crucified for us,” because the Father is not crucified, the Holy Spirit is not crucified, but the Son is incarnate and crucified, but God is in him and with him at all times, and he is never separated from the Father. Even when he experiences in his humanity the abandonment by God in order to cleave unto his sinful bride and to die the death, which is the wages of sin, he is not separated from the Father. God is in him; the Holy Spirit is in him, destroying death in and through him, raising the dead. God the Father is raising the dead through him by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Whether we think of the one Person of the Father, who is never devoid of his Son and Spirit, whether we think of the one divinity—and here we should notice, by the way, that in Eastern Orthodoxy, the term “Triune God” is not a traditional formula. In fact, I believe you never find it in any liturgical prayer ever, the expression “Triune God.” You find the expression “Tri-Personal, tri-Hypostatic divinity,” “Theotēs” in Greek, “Bozhestvo” in Slavonic, but not “Theos” or “Bog.” There is no tri-Personal Theos, God. There is the one Theos, kai Patera, the one God and Father: “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty…” That’s the one God. But then that one God is Father eternally with his Son, who is God from God, and with his Holy Spirit.
Interestingly enough, the Nicene Creed does not call the Holy Spirit “Theos, God.” Gregory the Theologian was the first one to do that, and he did it in the fourth century. St. Athanasius, when he wrote the letters to Serapion proving the divinity of the Holy Spirit, never called him “Theos,” because the Bible never calls him “Theos.” St. Basil the Great, when he wrote his treatise, On the Holy Spirit, he never called the Holy Spirit “Theos,” and Gregory the Theologian was angry with him. He said, “You’re a coward. You have to do it. The Spirit is divine with the same divinity as God the Father and the Son.” And Basil said, “Yes, he is, but let’s be careful with our language. We’re having enough trouble with the Son of God; not to get in trouble with the Holy Spirit yet.”
He did call, and Nicaea did call the Son “God from God,” but it didn’t call the Spirit “God from God.” It could have, and later on, of course, it became very clear, and then, later on, the Holy Spirit is also called “Theos, God.” But we should be honest and clear and know that biblically it is never done. The closest thing in the Bible is the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit with Ananias and Sapphira, when it says they lied to God. They said, “Why did you lie to the Holy Spirit? You lied to God.” So if you lie to the Holy Spirit, you definitely lie to God the Father, whose Spirit the Holy Spirit is. You’d lie to the Son because the Spirit of God is the Spirit of Christ and the Spirit of the Son, but you’d lie to the Spirit also, because the Spirit is divine. Then, of course, Jesus says the one sin that’s unforgivable is the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, and blasphemy can only be done against God, a divine Person.
Maybe we will speak again sometime about these terms: hypostasis, nature, energy—which became very classical in Christian metaphysical theology, beginning with the teaching of how Jesus Christ relates to God the Father and the Holy Spirit, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, but then also began to be used in Christology, in the doctrine about Jesus Christ, because what we say is: The Godhead are three divine Hypostases or three divine Persons with one divine nature. There’s one God and Father, whose nature belongs also to the Son and the Spirit, and there’s one divine activity with three who act: the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Then we say that Jesus is one Hypostasis, one Person, with two natures, because he’s fully divine and also, because he became man and was born of Mary, is fully and completely and truly human.
So we have the Godhead being three Persons in one nature, and then we have Jesus Christ being one Person in two natures. We can talk about that again sometime, but what we want to see for now is how we must go about thinking of the Trinity. We begin with the Scripture. We contemplate Christ. Then we contemplate how Christ relates to the one God and Father, how he relates to the one Holy Spirit (because there’s only one Holy Spirit). We realize that Jesus shows forth the unity of the one God. We see that the Holy Spirit secures this unity and builds up this unity, because there’s only one Spirit. So we see how the unity of the one divinity belongs to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit in a very perfect way.
But the doctrine of the Trinity, the dogma of dogmas, begins with the Person of Jesus and begins with the contemplation of the biblical, scriptural texts. And that’s what we have to always remember and never forget. It begins with Christ, and it begins with the Scriptures. It begins with the activity of God in saving the world in the Person of Jesus. It begins with the question: “Who do you say that I am?” And when we answer and say, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” the result will be the dogma of the Holy Trinity, the Tri-Personal Godhead, the one God and Father, the one Lord Jesus Christ, and the one Holy Spirit, in perfect unity of the one God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: one God, one divinity, one Godhead.
And so we sing in church, on the feast of the Holy Spirit, this following hymn:
Now the apostles are clothed with the power of Christ from on high, for the Paraclete, the Comforter (meaning the Holy Spirit) renews them. He is renewed in them by a mystical newness of understanding. They preach to us and in strange and exalted voices, teaching us to worship the eternal yet simple nature of divinity, the Tri-Personal (or Tri-Hypostatic) nature of our Benefactor, the one God of all. So, being enlightened by their teaching, let us worship the Father with the Son and the Holy Spirit, praying that our souls may be saved.
Then we also sing:
Come, let us worship the Tri-Hypostatic divinity (the Tri-Personal Godhead): the Son in the Father with the Holy Spirit. The Father timelessly begets the co-reigning and co-eternal Son; the Holy Spirit was in the Father, glorified equally with the Son. One power, one essence, one substance, one Godhead, one divinity. In worshiping the one God, let us all say: Holy God, who made all things through the Son, with the co-operation (the co-acting) of the Holy Spirit. Holy Mighty, through whom we know the Father, through whom the Holy Spirit came into the world. Holy Immortal, the comforting Holy Spirit, proceeding from the Father and abiding in the Son. O Holy Trinity, glory to thee.