For many of us, the doctrine of The Trinity is shrouded in mystery and seemingly not exactly ‘spelled out’ in the Bible. Is this perhaps because we miss what is being said in the text? Have we become so familiar with the words that we do not really grasp them or have we just stepped away from entering into the mystery for fear of falling if we get too close to the cliff’s edge? Let us glean what we can from some of the writings of the first teacher the Church would give the epithet, ‘Theologian’, St. John the Evangelist. Let us have him for our guide into the mystery. First, an aside on the word mystery.
Mystery As Participation
A mystery is not simply an unsolvable problem. As Christians, we may have gained a bad reputation for saying things like, “The Trinity is a mystery” and then smiling to the person looking back at us, thinking, ‘isn’t that an easy out!’. This approach betrays a misunderstanding of what it really means to say that something is a ‘mystery’ (and not in the sense of Sherlock Holmes). In the Orthodox Church we acknowledge all the ‘Sacraments’ of The Church, ‘mysteries’. To say that Baptism or marriage are mysteries are a very common way of speaking in The East. This does not mean that they are unintelligible. We know what it means for a couple to be married. However, what we are saying is that mystery is something to be participated in rather than intellectually assaulted. Fr Khaled Anatolios of the Eastern Catholic Church speaks about this and the mystery of consciousness (Fr. Khaled Anatolios) and I would agree that the following text from Marcel is a good way of understanding things,
“A problem is something which I meet, which I find completely before me, but which I can therefore lay siege to and reduce. But a mystery is something in which I am myself involved” (Marcel 1949, p. 117)
We do not have a sacramental worldview today and therefore may struggle to fully grasp this idea. Fr. Khaled in the above link likens it to the sacrament of consciousness. How does a body and brain connect in such a fashion that we come to be self-aware? We are not sure, yet we do not throw the mystery aside. Instead, by greater participation in it, we live this mystery more fully. It is the same with marriage, only by entering the arena do we begin to understand the mystery. God willing, we will see that it is like this with The Triune God. If we re-enter the mystery which was before the ages, we shall come to know Him, not lay intellectual siege to Him.
For God is Love
To start the journey, let us consider a text that we Christians often ‘know’ but perhaps miss nonetheless.
“Do not marvel, my brethren, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us…. Now he who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. And by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us… Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him, and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son as Saviour of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. We love Him because He first loved us.” 1 John 3.13 – 4.19
To many of us the Trinity is a sort of black-box mystery that we chose to leave to “the professionals” and is either too scary or too confusing for us to delve into. And yet, in the Orthodox Church we are immersed into It. In the Agpeya (Book of Hours) of the Church of Alexandria we are confronted with a Trinitarian doxology at every turn it seems like. In the liturgical prayers of the Church we see the Trinity active everywhere throughout and again more Trinitarian doxologies. Having St. John as our tour guide, let us do a walk around the mystery that we might be brought ever nearer. This will not be a highly ‘technical’ work nor will it delve into all of the historical material, but we hope will serve as a primer for those desiring to contemplate the mystery further.
The beautiful text above is one many of us are familiar with, either for its moral injunction to love our neighbour or for the encouraging phrase, “God is love”. But is this all that this text teaches us about Who God is and, therefore, who we are? We see that Life and Love are intimately tied in the beginning of the above, ‘We passed from death to life, because we love the brethren’ and that Love is said of God. However, St. John does not simply say that God does love, rather he says that God is love.
‘God is love’ is a lot more poignant a statement than saying that God ‘does love [i.e. loves]’. Here it would seem that St. John the Evangelist is communicating something of the nature of God Himself. Of course, we would confess not to be able to exhaust the Divine nature with our intellect by being able to take it apart the way we would a science experiment. Yet, more is being said here about Who God is than we may initially appreciate. If we love and abide in Love then we are said to abide in Life for God is Love. To align ourselves in a mode of life of selfless love is to live in God in a certain sense. We call to mind this in the Alexandrian liturgy of St. Gregory when we hear the words, “You, the Being” or if paraphrased, “You, the I am”, the existent. God is existence and to live His Life is simply to live, to find true life.
For You Loved Me Before The Foundation of The World
In the above text we also read that love was manifested in that God sent His only begotten Son into the world for our sakes. Certainly we have a certain apprehension of this ourselves and that it manifests God’s love towards us but we shall see later that this entails more than we think. In the Gospel of St. John we also read of this love which is shared in the Trinity, in the communion of the three Persons. This love is what Christ prays we too may share in so that we may become one in Him much as He and the Father are one,
“‘I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me. Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father! The world has not known You, but I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me. And I have declared to them Your name, and will declare it, that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them.’” John 17. 20-26.
We notice many things in this prayer (typically called the Highly Priestly Prayer). We are to be one as The Father and The Son are one and our unity is to be grounded in the triune God. Only in God can we be brought to unity. We are also given a beautiful privilege in that The Lord says that The Father has loved us as He has loved the Son. Moreover, the basis of all of this is the love that The Father has had for the Son from before the foundation of the world. The Trinity is ever existent and eternal and therefore we are saying that The Eternal Love of The Father, The Son and The Spirit are the basis of God’s love towards us. We might summarize this as saying that the love of the Trinity is the foundation of God’s love of the human being. This self-sacrificial love is the motivation for the creation of the human being, and also for the salvation of humanity as we read in St. John’s epistle. Let us delve further into what all of this could mean. We can do this with St. Athanasius who explicated the Church’s understanding of The Trinity due to challenges in the 4th century (His works; Against the Arians and The Letters On The Spirit are beautiful reading for those interested). The next text is a little difficult but very rewarding if we stick with it. For context, this is from one of St. Athanasius’ works called Against the Arians and is written in the aftermath of the council of Nicaea. The work itself goes through many proof-texts the Arians used to bolster their position that The Logos is not co-equal to the Father. It goes as follows,
“But if there be not a Son, how then say you that God is a Creator?… For if the Divine Essence be not fruitful itself, but barren, as they hold, as a light that lightens not, and a dry fountain, are they not ashamed to speak of His possessing framing energy? And whereas they deny what is by nature, do they not blush to place before it what is by will? But if He frames things that are external to Him and before were not, by willing them to be, and becomes their Maker, much more will He first be Father of an Offspring from His proper Essence. For if they attribute to God the willing about things which are not [yet made], why don’t they recognize that in God which lies above the will? Now it is a something that surpasses will, that He should be by nature, and should be Father of His proper Word. If then that which comes first, which is according to nature, did not exist, as they would have it in their stupidity, how could that which is second come to be, which is according to will? for the Word [Logos] is first, and then the creation. On the contrary the Word exists, whatever they affirm, those irreligious ones; for through Him did creation come to be, and God, as being Maker, plainly has also His framing Word, not external, but proper to Him;—for this must be repeated… And thus, as I said, God’s creating is second to His begetting; for Son implies something proper to Him and truly from that blessed and everlasting Essence; but what is from His will, comes into existence from without, and is framed through His proper Offspring who is from It.” St. Athanasius, Discourse II Against the Arians, Chapter 2.
The Fruitful Godhead
This text may at first seem a little unclear but if we dive into it, it manifests a truly beautiful doctrine. God’s creating follows directly from His Begetting The Son. This does not mean that the creation and The Son are similar in substance (this would be a return to Arianism) but that this external reality (the creation, for the creation is something God wills) corresponds to a reality internal to The Godhead (The Triune existence for this is His nature). The rationale given for this is simply that what God does by will must be consistent with Who He is by nature.
“But if He frames things that are external to Him and before were not, by willing them to be, and becomes their Maker, much more will He first be Father of an Offspring from His proper Essence.”
This is St. Athanasius telling us that there must be something in God that is consistent with His creating the cosmos. How is it that we can understand the idea that it must be like this? St. Paul may be of some help where he discusses, in an oft cited passage, how it is that sin prevents him from doing what he wishes or ought to do.
“For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me. Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good… For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good.” Romans 7.11-25.
St. Paul is not saying that he is evil or depraved by nature. Rather, being good by nature, and willing to do the good, he does evil. This of course is true of us all. If someone who is good by nature instead does evil, what is causing this disjunction? The answer, St. Paul says, is that sin interrupts the continuity between nature and will. While we would expect the human being, in the image and likeness of God, to do the works of God, this is interrupted by the activity of sin upon us. However, with God this does not happen. God is what He is (indeed this is how He reveals Himself to Moses). Therefore St. Athanasius teaches us that when we see God acting externally there must be something internal to God that corresponds to this very activity.
“But if He frames things that are external to Him and before were not, by willing them to be, and becomes their Maker, much more will He first be Father of an Offspring from His proper Essence.”
If we see God acting in the world, we should see something within the Godhead that corresponds to this, that at least points to it being in logical continuity with Who God is. The error would be to somehow say that because we are created that The Father must thereby create the Son first. Arius said this because it sounded logical but then again, so do most heretical teachings. St. Athanasius teaches us that the creation must correspond to the pre-existent reality, not vice versa. God is fruitful in Himself in that He [The Father] eternally begets a Son and spirates a Spirit. In God there is never a static isolation but rather each member is ever outwardly directed – The Father begetting the Son and the Son being Begotten before all ages. Likewise with the procession of The Spirit. This would later come to be expressed as the Perichoresis of the members of The Trinity and explicated by Sts. Maximos the Confessor and John of Damascus (see a helpful little book, Perichoresis and Personhood: God, Christ, and Salvation in John of Damascus). God selflessly creates the cosmos because this is what He is: selfless. Whereas with the Greek gods who may create or assist the human being in return for sacrifice, The Triune God is not like this. Indeed the Psalms take a jab at these pagan ideas,
“If I should be hungry, I will not tell thee: for the world is mine, and the fullness of it. Will I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God the sacrifice of praise; and pay thy vows to the Most High. And call upon me in the day of affliction; and I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me.” Psalm 49.12-15 LXX (Psalm 50 in the masoretic numbering in most English Bibles).
God has nothing to gain by creating the human being. He will not be made any greater, any more powerful, any happier…. Olivier clement says it beautifully,
“The greatest witnesses of Patristic times, from St. Irenaeus of Lyons to St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Maximus the Confessor, portray God’s creation of the human race as a risk willingly taken by the Creator, Who from then on takes on an infinite vulnerability.” Pg 14 of On Human Being: A Spiritual Anthropology by Olivier Clement.
Or as Fagerberg puts it in his beautiful little book,
“Creation is a generous overflow of the indwelling love that moves between the Father and The Son and The Holy Spirit. Once there was nothing besides God, and then the Uncreated made created beings beside Himself. If we dare say so, creation is God being beside Himself with love.” Fagerberg, David., On Liturgical Asceticism, p.5.
God creates the human being because He is love. The outwardly directed, self-sacrificial God, creates the human being because He is love. A monad can only love itself. An isolated being has no love in its being, in its structure. A monad must go tarrying afar off to find another to love. The Christian revelation is that their God is love in His very being in that we know Father, Son, and Spirit before the ages, living in a communion of love. So then the creation, external to God, is directly correlated to God’s Being as unity in community, Three in Hypostases and One in Essence. The one name of The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit into Whom (singular) we are baptized. We see this in the text quoted from the Gospel of John where Christ prays that we may all be made one in Him as He and The Father are one. This then culminates as The Lord prays,
“Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father! The world has not known You, but I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me. And I have declared to them Your name, and will declare it, that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them.” John 17.24-26.
St. Athanasius’ seemingly challenging saying is simply his affirmation of the words of The Lord. Christ prays that we may be one in Him and united to Him that we may be where He is. He bases this love and this prayer in the love with which The Father has loved the Son before the foundation of the world. This movement of love which has always existed between the persons of The Trinity is the foundation and basis for how we understand God’s creative and salvific acts in the world. Because this is true of the nature of God, of course He must act this way. We call The Lord by the title Philanthropos (the lover of the human being) in the midnight praises because He has revealed Himself to be so. The triune God reveals Himself this way (i.e. He acts this way by will) because this is Who God is (ie, His nature). This is why, in God, there is never a ‘why’ or justification of His love. What I mean to say is that on the human plane (or with our pets) we often say we love someone. This love comes with an explanation though. I love ‘X’ because he does these things for me. I love ‘Y’ because she is always there for me and etc. In God, there is no why – no impetus – for His love. There can be no explaining it other than to say, ‘God loves because this is what He is’.
Rublev’s Hospitality of Abraham and The Divine Communion
Rublev’s icon of the hospitality of Abraham (above) speaks to another element of this profound truth. In the icon we see the three visitors seated and an ‘empty’ fourth seat. What we see is that each of the members has an open stance, both to the other two but also to the empty seat. Their heads are inclined towards one another, but their gaze is not closed off from the other person nor from the empty seat. What we realize is that the ‘empty seat’ is the invitation for us to join. That is our place. The icon does not come to a focus on any particular member and in a way, we are the focus. The invitation to move inward and towards this communion of love is perhaps the strongest impression left on the one venerating the icon.
I would opine that one of the reasons this icon has had such an enduring legacy in the Church is that its ‘invitational’ aspect speaks to the way in which Orthodox Christians have envisioned salvation. Our salvation is not so much about having a right status with God as it is about re-entering this communion of love into which we are always being invited. We see this in the prayer of Christ above from John 17. We see this in that Christ says it is to our benefit that He go away (cf. John 16) that The Spirit might descend. St. Paul tells us that this is the economy,
“But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.” Galatians 4.4-7
“For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His. And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you. Therefore, brethren, we are debtors—not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together.” Romans 8.2-17
St. Paul is clear; to be carnally minded or to be seeking life in the flesh to the exclusion of God, is death. The whole of the economy can be summarized in the short passage above from Galatians. Christ comes and becomes one of us, not to get us out of jail nor to pay our fine, but rather that we might ultimately receive the adoption as sons. We neglect this to our detriment because it is by The Spirit that we can cry out “Abba, Father” as we see in both passages above. This is the re-entry into Divine Life and communion with God. This is the realization of Christ’s prayer in the garden that we may be united to Him and His Father through the Spirit. We may not often hear this today, but this vision is something found throughout the fathers of The Church. The True Son of The Father comes and becomes human that He might destroy sin and death in us and thereby send the Spirit. The Spirit of The Son dwells in us making us adopted sons and daughters of The Father in the Likeness of The Son of The Father because The Son has become as we are. St. Irenaeus puts it plainly,
“For it was for this end that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God. For by no other means could we have attained to incorruptibility and immortality, unless we had been united to incorruptibility and immortality. But how could we be joined to incorruptibility and immortality, unless, first, incorruptibility and immortality had become that which we also are, so that the corruptible might be swallowed up by incorruptibility, and the mortal by immortality, that we might receive the adoption of sons?” St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 19.
For this reason St. Athanasius can speak about our being ‘knit into the Godhead’ by our participation in The Spirit by Whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father’,
“Therefore because of the grace of the Spirit which has been given to us, we come to be in him, and He in us. And through his becoming in us, and we having the Spirit, it is reasonable that, since it is the Spirit of God, we are considered to be in God and God in us. Not then as the Son is in the Father, do we also become in the Father; for the Son does not merely participate in the Spirit in order to be in the Father. Nor does He receive the Spirit, but rather supplies it himself to all. And the Spirit does not unite the Word to the Father, but rather the Spirit receives from the Word. And the Son is in the Father, as his proper Word and radiance; but we, apart from the Spirit, are foreign and distant from God, and by the participation of the Spirit we are knit into the Godhead; so that our being in the Father is not ours, but is the Spirit’s, which is in us and remains in us, while by the true confession we preserve it in us.” St. Athanasius, Against the Arians, 3.24.
We are now returned to the Life of The Triune by our participation in The Spirit. The Spirit is always external to us in the sense that we are gifted His being within us but He is not ours by nature. By The Son pouring forth the Spirit into us, we have become ‘knit into the Godhead’ participating in the eternal love of The Trinity.
St. Cyril also teaches us,
“For I live’, [Christ] says, ‘for I am life by nature, and I display the Temple of my own body as living. But when you yourselves, even though you are of a corruptible nature, behold yourselves living in like manner to me, then indeed you will know most clearly that I, being life by nature, united you through myself to God the Father, who is himself also life by nature, rendering you, as it were, sharers and partakers of His Incorruption. For I am naturally in the Father—for I am the fruit and true offspring of his being, subsisting in it and shining forth from it, life from life—and you are in me and I in you, inasmuch as I have appeared as a man, and rendered you partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4), by having placed my Spirit in you.’ For Christ is in us through the Spirit, returning that which is naturally corrupt to incorruption, and transferring it from the condition of dying to that which is not so.” St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John 14:20.
Notice in the above quote that the returning of humanity from corruption to incorruption and from death to life is by our uniting to God. By our union with the Divine, we are brought back from death and made alive once more because God is Life. This is said by St. Gregory the Theologian in a beautiful way when speaking about the incarnation and Christ’s assumption of our humanity,
“For what He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved. If only half of Adam had fallen then that which Christ assumes and heals might only be half as well; but if the whole of Adam’s nature fell then it must be united to the whole nature of the Begotten One, and so be saved as a whole.” St. Gregory the Theologian, Letter to Cledonius.
It is the establishment of human communion with God that proves salvific, this is the economy. Rublev’s icon expresses this truth – we are invited into this Divine communion of love. The Logos has united to humanity to destroy death for He is Life. By this He also grants us access to the Spirit (Theophany – The Spirit Descended and Remained Upon Him) by which we participate in His Sonship that we might once more call God, father. Here we return back to where we started from the first epistle of St. John, “And by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us”. This is the trinitarian faith of The Church and the way the fathers of The Church have expressed God’s creating, sustaining and saving of the world because He is the triune Philanthropos.
Liturgy as Entry Into Divine Life
In the Church we are given access to this participation in the Divine Life. The Liturgy itself is a re-entry into Divine Life as it is our joining the communion of The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit. The Eucharistic liturgy is an instance in which we see this more simply in that it culminates with our partaking of the body and blood of Christ, the God-man. The blood of course being symbolic of The Life (cf. Leveticus 17.11) of Christ and the flesh being that which nourishes our flesh. The Liturgy is the Divine Communion extended to humanity and this is said very beautifully by Fagerberg who I cited above,
“Liturgy is the Trinity’s perichoresis kinetically extended to invite our synergistic ascent into deification. In other words, the Trinity’s circulation of love turns itself outward, and in humility The Son and Spirit work the Father’s good pleasure for all creation, which is to invite our ascent to participate in the very life of God; however, this cannot be forced, it must be done with our cooperation.” Fagerberg, David., On Liturgical Asceticism. p. 9.
This is true liturgy, to participate in the communion of love that exists within the Trinity from all eternity and out of which proceeds our salvation. This is our re-entry into the dinner feast as we saw with the icon of Rublev. Of course we see that this re-entry into Divine Life is also something we pursue in the communal life of The Church. The plane of human interaction is the level on which we can learn love. We must seek to become love as The Trinity is so that we can prove able to open ourselves to God and receive the Divine within ourselves (SEE GENESIS AND THE EUCHARIST). If we look back to the first passage from the first epistle of St. John the selection started with, “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren.’ We know we are no longer dead by our love because God is Love. This is why ‘he who abides in love abides in God’.
“God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world.”
As He is, so are we. By returning to the Divine dinner feast and re-entry into Divine communion, we become as He is. We come to enter this mutual dance of love which the Three Persons dwell in from before the foundation of the world.