At the Methodist seminary I attended sixty (!) years ago, Dr. Philip Watson, one of our professors of Systematic Theology (he was the one who taught the Creed) remarked, “We do well not to delve too deeply into the inner Family Life of God”.
I am probably about to prove him right.
I’ll do the best I can, with my limited understanding and in 2000 words or so. Our finest theologians couldn’t do it in 2,000,000,000,000,000 words. So don’t expect too much here. I hope to see a bunch of corrections and criticisms below.
However, I think we should try to understand as much as we can about this Greatest Mystery – I mean, after all the trouble God went to to reveal Himself to us. This Sunday’s Feast of Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit, completes the revelation of our Thrice-Holy God, so today is a good time to make the attempt.
The Trinity-Centered Church
Recently, many Wisconsin Synod Lutheran churches in our area have signs in front with the slogan “Christ Alone”. I feel like knocking at their doors and saying, “But… but…” One “but” for each of the two missing Persons. (I haven’t done it.)
Someone once asked me “Is the Orthodox Church Christ-centered?” It took a little while for the obvious answer to come: “The Orthodox Church is Trinity-centered!”
Almost all our prayers end with an ascription to the Trinity – never a simple “through Jesus Christ our Lord” here. Our Divine Liturgy begins “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Paschal Matins begins with the magnificent words: “Glory to the Holy, Consubstantial, Life-giving, and Undivided Trinity; always, now and ever and unto ages of ages.” With us the Our Father concludes with the Priest saying “For thine is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” The Creed we recite every Sunday is divided into three sections: “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty…”, “And His only Son, Jesus Christ…” “And in the Holy Spirit…”
We needn’t pursue the obvious. We are the Trinity-centered Church.
How did the doctrine of The Holy Trinity come to be?
Did a band of theologians get together long ago in an “incense-smoke filled room” and invent the Holy Trinity? saying to themselves, “This will confuse them.” Of course not. In fact no respectable theologian would come up with a doctrine so odd, so hard to explain. The Jewish or Muslim “one God” is simpler, more comprehensible. But “One God in Three Persons”? Really? That sounds absurd, impossible, incomprehensible.
Left: the classic Rublev icon of the Holy Trinity, using angels as symbols, since the Father and Holy Spirit are non-depictable. The three Persons are the same age – eternal. The Son and Spirit incline slightly towards the Father.
Not long ago a Jehovah’s Witness accused me of using a word that is not in the Bible: Trinity. He was right. But the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is Scriptural. It is like a scientific deduction, based on evidence given in the Holy Scriptures, then pondered and labored over by brilliant minds till finally (and I’ve simplified this process almost to the point of inaccuracy): “We’ve got it! The way to describe God as He has revealed Himself to us is this: “One God in Three Persons, the Holy Trinity!”
So now let’s do what they did: go back to the evidence and “re-deduce” our way from there to the doctrine of the Trinity.
Does any of this explain why God is the Holy Trinity? Of course not. Only God knows why God is as He is. That’s none of our business. But at least these words give us a way of talking about, thinking about, addressing and praying to God as He has revealed Himself.
This is absolutely clear in our Tradition: There is “one God, the Creator of heaven and earth”. Some religions believe there is one chief god within the cosmos. We believe something different. It’s simplest to take the first verse of the first chapter of the first book of the Holy Scriptures: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Genesis 1:1 Who stood behind the Big Bang? God. He said “Let there be light!” and the universe exploded into existence and the lights came on. He was here before our world came to be. If you see a purported realistic icon of God the Father, look the other way. He is beyond depiction. He exists outside our world of time and space. Actually the Big Bang can’t be depicted either.
The early Old Testament allows for the existence of other gods. Even the First Commandment says “You shall have no other gods but me”, as if there might be others. Certainly there are angels and archangels here. But this One God is different. Whatever else may exist, He rules it all.
The Shema: “Hear, O Israel, the L-rd is our G‑d, the L-rd is One.” Traditionally His Name was not pronounced because it was too holy to be uttered.
Monotheism has now become the Faith of approximately 5.6 billion people, 55% percent of the world’s population (2020 figures) – about 31.5% Christians, 23.2% Muslims, 0.2 % Jews – the so-called Abrahamic religions.
How did this little group of Jews at the far end of the Mediterranean know about God before everybody else? It was not a deduction of Jewish philosophers. Look up “Jewish philosophers”, and you’ll find none listed in Old Testament times. The Jews said the One God had revealed Himself to them, beginning with Abraham. Who are we to doubt it?
God the Father
Before Jesus Christ almost nobody spoke of God as father, and even fewer addressed Him as father. We call God Our Father because Jesus Christ taught us to. So we need to look at Him first.
God the Son
This Man who lived 2000 years ago is God? Really? For if there is one God who is ruling the world, how could this Man Jesus also be God? How could anyone believe that? Well, it wasn’t easy, and it was almost impossible for the Jews. That was precisely why Christ chose to be born among the Jews. For if He was God, then He must somehow be the One God, not just one of the gods.
What caused Thomas, a faithful Jew, to cry out to this Man, “My Lord and my God”? This went contrary to every bone in his Jewish body, every cell in his Jewish brain. For he knew there was only one God. What led this little band of Jesus’ followers to believe that this Man, whom they had walked and talked with and known so well, was God?
Here’s a very little of the evidence.
Jesus healed a crippled man telling him “Your sins are forgiven”. The Pharisees thought to themselves: “Who but God can forgive sins?” Mark 2:7 Indeed. God alone can forgive the sins of total strangers.
Jesus was accused of breaking the Sabbath. He responded: “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” Matthew 12:8 But God created the Sabbath.
” For this reason [the Jewish authorities] tried all the more to kill him; not only was He breaking the Sabbath, but He was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” John 5:18
We easily miss what this meant. A son is of the same “nature” as his father. As his father is human, so he also is human. Jesus was saying: Just as my Father is God, so I also am God.
His Great Prayer in Gethsemane makes this clear. Here was Jesus the Son of God. praying to His Father God. And there, clear as can be, we have the first two distinct Persons of the Holy Trinity.
If they killed Him for claiming to be Son of God, what else can His rising possibly mean? Vindication.
And at the end of Jesus’ ministry: “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to Me.” Matthew 28:16 Put that on the lips of any other man who has lived, and you’d have to put him away! But this Man was taken seriously.
The Apostle John, Jesus’ closest friend writing years later, finally described Him like this: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God… and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us…” John 1
No one has said it better than C.S. Lewis: “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else He would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” Mere Christianity
Now back to:
God the Father
As I said, it was Jesus Christ who taught us about God the Father. He said we should pray to God as “our Father”. What is this seemingly inaccessible God like? – God “who alone has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see”. 1 Timothy 6:15-16 I look at night out towards perhaps 200 billion galaxies (and they’re still counting) and wonder how God the Creator can possibly even notice me. And yet…
“Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear? ’For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.” Matthew 6
“Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Luke 12:32
“Every hair on your head has been counted.” Luke 12:27 And I guess this must be so, for God is creating all things this very moment. So great is our God!
The Apostles were still unsure. Philip said to Him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is sufficient for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” John 14:8-9
And so on the Cross Jesus showed us just how much our Father loves us. “Greater love has no man than that he should give up his life for His friends.” John 15:18 And so He did.
Does it always seem to us that God cares for us? No. Nor did it seem so to Jesus. He felt abandoned on the Cross: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” But had His Father forsaken Him? No. Nor does He forsake us.
One more thing. Though the Son of God and his Father God are of the same “essence”, the Father has a priority. In Gethsemane Jesus prayed “Father, thy will be done.” Therefore the Creed begins with the “Father Almighty” who is the Source of all things. This is why the Western addition of the Filioque is an error. Christ does not stand on the same “level” as His Father. Christ sends and directs the Holy Spirit, but the Spirit proceeds (“originites”) from the Father alone John 15:26, for all things come from the Father.
This is why the icon above is incorrect. The Spirit originates from the Father, not from both Father and Son. Also Christ is shown as younger than the Father, which He is not.
God the Holy Spirit
Let’s begin with the Creed: “And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets.”
All our English words are insufficient: “Holy Spirit” suggests an impersonal mist or something. “Holy Ghost” suggests something out of Hallowe’en. The original Greek πνεύμα (“breath”, “wind”, “spirit”, “soul”) is more comprehensive but still inadequate.
On Holy Thursday night, Christ spoke of the Holy Spirit always as “He”, not “it”. The Holy Spirit is a Person. It took the Church a while to clarify the place of the Holy Spirit. This is why the third paragraph of the Creed wasn’t added till the Second Ecumenical Council. Saint Basil the Great’s writings made it obvious: All through the Old Testament the Holy Spirit did things which only God can do. He is the personal Spirit of God. Research it yourself. (No time here.) Look up “The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament”. Or better, read the little paperback On the Holy Spirit by Saint Basil the Great, available from Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press.
The way to get the “feel” of the Holy Spirit is to read the story of Pentecost (Acts 2). The Spirit came upon the Apostles with power like a “rushing mighty wind”, with “tongues of fire”, setting them afire with the love and power of God.
In Baptism and Chrismation, the gift of the Holy Spirit is poured out upon us as it was on the Apostles at Pentecost – albeit more quietly. The rest of our lives consist of living that life of love and power which He gives us then. If you open yourself up to Him, what happened to the Apostles can happen to you.
“But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth.” John 16:13 Christ spoke of this mysterious gift which would be given to the Apostles and the Apostolic Church. Christians today are divided into a multitude of groups believing a multitude of different things, adding this, subtracting that. So has this promise of the Holy Spirit, this gift of Truth been lost? No. It has not. It is not arrogant to say this, because it is none of our doing, yours or mine: The One Authentic Church continues today completely united as always in that Truth: the Orthodox Faith.
God the Holy Trinity
So much to say, so little space.
But that is the evidence as given. There is only one possible conclusion: Within the One God, there are Three Persons completely united with Each Other, yet completely distinct from Each Other.
To repeat, this in no way explains why God is the Holy Trinity. God only knows! This only describes Him as He has revealed Himself to us.
Looking back, we now can see images of the Holy Trinity all through the Old Testament. Take Genesis 1:1-3. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. Then God said [spoke His Word] “Let there be light” Do you see? There is the Holy Trinity creating the cosmos.
Which Person of the Trinity should i pray to? Father, Son or Holy Spirit? I once heard Father Tom Hopko say: Don’t worry about it. When you call on One, you get them All!
God the Holy Community
God is Himself a Family. This has important implications for us. There is no earthly image that does Him justice. We’re all sinners here. But first of all the Church: many people united in Truth, united in love. And then God the Trinity shows us the human family as He designed it to be – people united in love. And the world: He did not design us to be a bunch of individuals competing against each other, with “winners” and “losers”. God does not intend us to be “individuals” functioning all by ourselves. He created mankind to be like Himself, like God the Trinity, persons united in love and cooperation.
We are all made in the image of God. And surprise! God has turned out to be not a Loner but a Family.
Next Week: Why are there so few “ordinary” saints like us?
Week after Next: Well….??