Thursday, May 24, 2012

On the Holy Trinity

In Christianity (and in Judaism, too) God is transcendent.  He is the One[1] who can not be approached.  Like a great black hole at the center of a galaxy He melts anything that gets too close to Him.  He is a consuming fire[2], and the dreadfulness of His glory is such that even the holy seraphim cover their eyes as they soar around His throne.[3]
But there is more to God than His terrible transcendent Oneness. He is also unimaginable condescending love.  His love is such that He is near whenever He is called[4], and He is unfailingly faithful and loyal.[5]   The Prophet King David describes God’s love:
The Lord executes mercy and judgment for all that are injured. He made known his ways to Moses, his will to the children of Israel. The Lord is compassionate and pitiful, long-suffering, and full of mercy. He will not be always angry; neither will he be wrathful for ever. He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor recompensed us according to our iniquities. For as the heaven is high above the earth, the Lord has so increased his mercy toward them that fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father pities his children, the Lord pities them that fear him. For he knows our frame: remember that we are dust.[6]

His love is so great that it can only be measured by His transcendence:  “as the heaven is high above the earth” .[7]  But what is the source of this love?  How can the One love anything inferior to itself?  Specifically, how can the One love man so as to want to save man? 
It might be that the Holy Trinity Icon by St. Andrei Rublev is the perfect introduction to how the Holy Trinity loves and saves man[8].  Indeed, we can look at this Icon as a framework on which to hang all the theology of salvation.  
The first thing to notice about the Icon is that it is not just an Icon of God.  It is an Icon of a specific event[9] in the history of salvation.  The point being that God acts in history. The Icon teaches us that the three Divine Persons don’t just sit around in Heaven admiring each other. The Holy Trinity acts in history, on earth, with people.  The historical table at which the Divine Persons were seated was prepared by Abraham and Sarah near the Oaks of Mamre.  The Holy Trinity entered history at that point[10] to make a promise[11] and judge two cities[12].
            But this is not the first time the Holy Trinity came down from heaven in order save us; either by keeping us away from total self-destruction by killing the most wicked among us, or by forcing us to obey him. 
An example of the former is when God spoke to Noah.  Then, when he saved a remnant of humanity, we see in the Masoretic text a hint of His Trinitarian nature when he speaks as Elohim not as the singular El.   The second person plural noun (elohim = gods) is turned into a proper noun and used as the singular name of God.[13] 
“The earth also was corrupt before [Elohim], and the earth was filled with violence. And [Elohim]  looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth. And [Elohim]  said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch…And, behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein [is] the breath of life, from under heaven; [and] every thing that [is] in the earth shall die. But with thee will I establish my covenant; and thou shalt come into the ark, thou, and thy sons, and thy wife, and thy sons' wives with thee.”[14]

We see an example of the latter in the story of the tower of Babel in the eleventh chapter of Genesis.  God had told humanity to scatter across the whole Earth but we refused to obey.  Nevertheless, God was determined that we would obey.  The reason this story is important to understanding the Holy Trinity is one word: “us”.  When we read of Him stopping us from committing great evil at Babel we read that He revealed Himself as YHWH but He used a first person plural pronoun (“us”) in reference to Himself[15]:
“And [YHWH] came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the [YHWH]  said, Behold, the people [is] one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.”[16]

Neither of these two examples is explicitly Trinitarian[17] but taken together with the account of the theophany at the Oaks of Mamre, it is clear that the Old Testament teaches that three Divine Persons work together in history for the salvation of men.[18]
But there is more to the Old Testament teaching regarding the Holy Trinity than His[19] actions in history. 
Holy Trinity by St. Anrei Rublev
As we continue to look at the Icon we see three angels with identical faces, wearing blue, and holding rods.  What is the meaning of this.  I think St. Andre was trying to relate to us the inscrutable likeness (faces), Divinity (blue clothing), and power/authority (rods) that the Divine Persons share.  How difficult it is to differentiate the Spirit of God, from the Word (Grk: Logos, Heb: Davar), from Angel of YHWH, from the Law, or from the Glory, or from God![20]  Which of these is the Father?  Which is the Son?  Which is the Holy Spirit?  In the Old Testament it is not often discernable to the reader which of the Divine Persons is acting or speaking.
Regarding the Angel of YHWH it is clear that the messenger is the sender, and that the presenter is the presented.[21]  Hagar encountered the Angel of YHWH, and said to Him “Thou art the God of seeing…”[22]   After Abraham prophesied “My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering[23] the Angel of YHWH does, indeed, provide a sacrifice in the  place of Isaac, but also promises that through Abraham all the people of the earth will be blessed.[24]    
It is interesting to see that Bobrinskoy classes the appearance of “The Angel of Elohim” in Genesis 31:11-13 as another appearance of the Angel of YHWH.[25]  Perhaps he has in mind Exodus 3:4 which brings the two names, Elohim and YHWH together: “When YHWH saw that [Moses] turned aside to see, Elohim called to him out of the bush.”  Thus, the identification of the Angel of Elohim and the Angel of YHWH is complete, and this identification takes place in the context of the salvation of Israel from slavery in Egypt.
 That Philo, the Alexandrian Jew believed that the Angel of YHWH was the Logos is well known, and Bobrinskoy mentions this.[26]  But it is important to remember that Philo was a speculative philosopher in the platonic mold, and seemed to think of the Logos as something less than God:
“But the shadow of God is his Logos, which he used like an instrument when he was making the world. And this shadow, and, as it were, model, is the archetype of other things. For as God is himself the model of that image which he [Moses] has now called a shadow, so also that image is the model of other things, as he showed when he commenced giving the law to the Israelites, and said, 'And God made man according to the image of God,' (Gen. 1:26) as the image was modelled according to God, and as man was modelled according to the image, which thus received the power and character of the model.”[27]

Nevertheless, it seems that Philo might have planted a seed that flowered in the teaching of the Alexandrian Chruch Fathers that the Angel of YHWH was the Son.   St. Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 120 –  c. 200) and  Theodoret of Cyrrhus (c. 393 – c. 458) built on this, showing that God readied the Incarnation of the Son through a series of theophanies, among which were the appearances of the Angel of YHWH.[28]  Nevertheless, St. Jerome (c. 341- 420) and St. Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) taught that the Angel of YHWH was a theophany of all Three Divine Persons.
This same difficulty in discerning which Divine Person is which is a theme that runs throughout the Old Testament. This confusion (for want of a better word) is especially apparent when we consider the Word of God and the Wisdom of God.  It might seem to us, at first, that the Word of God is the Son, and that the Wisdom of God is the Holy Spirit.  But the facts are not that neat and tidy. The Spirit who brings forth life on earth and who is breathed into Adam thus making him a living being seems to have a co-laborer in the life-giving works: namely, the Word.[29]  This is seen in powerful imagery in the valley of dry bones, where the Word of God, that Jeremiah described “as a burning fire shut up in my bones”[30] is spoken by the Holy Prophet Ezekiel and the Spirit brings life to dead bodies.[31]    And the Word’s creative power is also possessed by the Spirit.[32]   
But we also have to look at Wsidom.  What is it?  Where is t from?  From the pen of Solomon the Wise we learn of the eternal existence of Wisdom:
“The LORD possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was. When [there were] no depths, I was brought forth; when [there were] no fountains abounding with water. Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth: While as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the highest part of the dust of the world. When he prepared the heavens, I [was] there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth: When he established the clouds above: when he strengthened the fountains of the deep: When he gave to the sea his decree, that the waters should not pass his commandment: when he appointed the foundations of the earth: Then I was by him, [as] one brought up [with him]: and I was daily [his] delight, rejoicing always before him; Rejoicing in the habitable part of his earth; and my delights [were] with the sons of men.”[33]

Well, obviously, Wisdom is the Holy Spirit.  Of what other Being can these statements be truthfully made? Certainly no created thing can say these words.  Perhaps the Son might say them but look at the references to water in the text: They demand that we look at Genesis 1:2:
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness [was] upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

In addition to the quoted text from Proverbs 8 we can find other places where Wisdom seems to align with our understanding of the Holy Spirit: Ecclesiasticus 24:1-9, Baruch 3 come to mind.  But there is a famous passage in the Wisdom of Solomon which seems to muddy the waters:
            “For wisdom, which is the worker of all things, taught me: for in her is an understanding spirit holy, one only, manifold, subtil, lively, clear, undefiled, plain, not subject to hurt, loving the thing that is good quick, which cannot be letted, ready to do good,  Kind to man, steadfast, sure, free from care, having all power, overseeing all things, and going through all understanding, pure, and most subtil, spirits.  For wisdom is more moving than any motion: she passeth and goeth through all things by reason of her pureness. For she is the breath of the power of God, and a pure influence flowing from the glory of the Almighty: therefore can no defiled thing fall into her. For she is the brightness of the everlasting light, the unspotted mirror of the power of God, and the image of his goodness.  And being but one, she can do all things: and remaining in herself, she maketh all things new: and in all ages entering into holy souls, she maketh them friends of God, and prophets. For God loveth none but him that dwelleth with wisdom. For she is more beautiful than the sun, and above all the order of stars: being compared with the light, she is found before it. For after this cometh night: but vice shall not prevail against wisdom. Wisdom reacheth from one end to another mightily: and sweetly doth she order all things.”[34]

In this passage we see Wisdom called the “image” and we are told that the “spirit holy” resides in Wisdom, these two descriptions seem to have more to do with Jesus than with the Holy Spirit.  Nevertheless, there are other phrases in the passage that seem more in line with what we know about the Holy Spirit.
            It seems that St. Andre Rublev expressed this closeness, this frequent inability to distinguish one Divine Person from another, both in essence and in operation. This is why he has each Divine Person wearing blue and holding a rod.  And though it is impossible to distinguish one face from another, one authority from another we do see glimpses of their separateness in the fact of their number and in their postured and some of their clothing (i.e. the Holy Spirit is wearing green in addition to blue.)   
Notwithstanding the separateness of the Divine Persons, the close working relationship that leads readers of the Bible into difficulties continues throughout the Old Testament so that the reader comes to see that the modalities of the Word and the Spirit are such that each transmits the other:  The Sprit transmits the Word, the Word transmits the Spirit.[35]  The Divine Persons serve each other and do each others work.  And this brings us to the table in the Icon. 
In the Icon by St. Andre we see the Divine persons seated around a table enjoying a meal. And what does this table signify?  It signifies sacrifice, for it is no ordinary table: It is an altar.  The fellowship of the Three is one of mutual self-surrender.  Even the Father, the source of the others, loves and gives himself to the others.  He does not ever think of himself, but only of the others.  He is never the subject of his own divine gaze, rather “He sees himself as the object of the Son’s love.”[36]  In fact, because of his intense focus on the Son he would utterly forget himself but for the Son’s love for him.[37]  There is no thought of self, only of other.  No individual “I”, only individual “Thou”.[38]  Thus the Son and the Father, beholding themselves in each others gaze are reduced to one, and in their unity there is “I”[39]  And this union exists between the Son and the Holy Spirit, and between the Holy Spirit and the Father.  Each one gives everything to the others.  And the other two give their unity to the one.[40]  Kovalovsky has said:
“The Character of the hypostasis of the Holy Spirit is to love by eclipsing himself, as the Father forgetting himself loves the Son in whom he has placed all his joy, and as the son is beloved because he puts off his own “I” in order that the Father may be made manifest and the Spirit shine forth.”[41] 

In short, relationship among the Three requires sacrifice of “I” - preferment of the others before the self.  This is why this paper is not merely three lists:  The Father does X, the Son does Y, and the Holy Spirit does Z.  “The work of human persons is distinct.  Not so those of the Divine persons; for the Three, having but one nature, have but a single will, a single power, a single operation.”[42]  Nevertheless, as St. Irenaeus of Lyons has shown[43], it is possible to make such lists.  But there is danger in that such lists can result in a misunderstanding of how the Holy Trinity does what He does, to say nothing of the polytheism such lists could represent.  The persons of the Holy Trinity work together in every thing they do[44]– All three are seated at the table in the Icon.  This is part of what St. John the Theologian meant when he said, “God is love.”[45]  And what Archimadrite Kallistos had in mind when he said the motto of the Holy Trinity could be Amo ergo sum.[46]  And this brings us to the cup sitting on the table.       
Having discussed the historical table set by Abraham, and having discussed the table in the Icon, which is really an altar of sacrifice, we should look carefully at the table one more time and let the Icon reveal two more things to us.   
First, resting on the table is a cup.  But it is not just a cup.  It is a chalice.  And it indicates the Mystery of Christ. How so?  A chalice on an altar only contains one thing: The Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.  But why would this chalice be in the middle of the altar, equidistant from each of the Divine Persons, as though Jesus Christ is proper to each of them, and not only proper to the Son?  This is so because Jesus Christ is not only the revelation of the Son, but he is also the revelation of the Father and the Spirit[47], indeed he is the “One in whom the Father and Spirit remain in fullness”.[48]
The facts of what the Son did in history are well known and oft repeated in the Creed:
“We believe in … one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God… who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man. And He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried. And the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father...”[49]

But how Jesus Christ is the fullness of the Father and the Spirit might not be so well known.  Jesus was sent by the Father[50], reveals the Father[51], and is revealed by the Father[52].  Similarly, the Son is “from all Eternity the ‘place’ of the presence of the Spirit; and therefore, that the incarnate Son naturally becomes Anointed of the Spirit.”[53]   And “Christ [i.e. Anointed] is the term in whom resides the fullness of grace, of wisdom, of power, of authority and holiness, that is, the fullness of the Spirit”.  As St. Paul wrote, “In [Jesus Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”[54] And  Holy Spirit, as Bobrinskoy writes, “conceals Himself, and, somehow, blends with His gifts, His energies which are the eternal radiance of Divinity.”[55]  And Jesus, the “abode of the Holy Spirit”[56] is also able to give the Spirit with Whom he is anointed.
All of this “fullness” is expressed by St. Paul when he writes, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God [the Father], and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you.”[57]  It is impossible to be the recipient of only one because “the trinitarian revelation is all-encomapssing”.  If we see the glimpse of the Father in the Old Testament He directs us to the Son in the New Testament, Who pours out the Holy Spirit on the Church.  And, if we are apprehended by the Spirit, He will prepare us and lead us to the Son, Who will bring us into communion with the Father in whom all things will be fulfilled.[58]
The second thing we need to notice about the altar is that though Three Divine Persons sit around it, the table has four sides and one side is open to us.  It is God’s invitation for us to dine with him[59].  He offers us a place at the table, participation in the divine nature[60], fellowship with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.    Salvation is not merely survival, either of the spirit or of the body.[61]  Rather it is eternal life in communion with God.
And since Pentecost we experience this in the life of the Church. During the Divine Liturgy[62] the Holy Spirit changes the bread and wine into the body and blood of the Son, and  “introduces us to the Trinitarian communion and intimacy (Rom. 8:16-17)”[63]. Man offers, much as Abraham offered food to the Holy Trinity, this food to the Father, “on behalf of all and for all”[64].   And then we “in faith and love”[65] eat the Logos[66] who was slain for us from before time, and “enter freely and personally into communion with the divinizing grace” of God[67].
But for those who are “members of Christ and temples of the Holy Spirit” Eucharist does not stop when the final words of the Divine Liturgy have been said.  For having consumed the Bread of Life[68] they are in Christ and Christ is in them[69] and Christ is forever offering Eucharist at the throne of God.[70]  Therefore, St. Paul can offer Eucharist in the inner liturgy of his heart:
“I do not cease to give thanks (eucharistôn) for you, remembering you in my prayers…(Eph. 1:16). I give thanks to God always for you…(1 Cor. 1:4)  We give thanks to God always for you all…(1 Thess. 1:2)  I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine… (Phil. 1:3-4) [see Col. 1:3; 1Thess. 2:13; 2 Thess. 1:3; 2:13]. Always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father (Eph. 5:20).  Give thanks (eucharisteite) in all circumstances…Do not quench the Spirit (1 Thess. 5:18-19).”[71]

But we need to notice that this offering of Eucharist in the Divine Liturgy and this inner offering of Eucharist expressed by St. Paul both followed the descent of the Holy Spirit.  And St. Paul says the Eucharist is spiritual food and spiritual drink, and that the songs sung during the rite are spiritual songs, and Church is a spiritual house and the sacrifices offered by the church are spiritual sacrifices.[72]
And here, finally, in the age of the life of the Church, where the Spirit dwells, which the Spirit penetrates, we see the Holy Spirit.  Thus the Father, Who was revealed in the Old Testament, and the Son, Who was revealed in the Gospels, have been joined in being revealed by the Holy Spirit, Who is revealed in the Church.

[1] Deuteronomy 6:4, Isaiah 49:15
[2] Deuteronomy 4:24
[3] Bobrinskoy, Boris, The Mystery of the Trinity: Trinitarian Experience and Vision in the Biblical and Patristic Tradition (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: Crestwood, New York, 1999), P. 15
[4] Deuteronomy 4:7
[5] Hosea 11:1-4, Isaiah 49:15
[6] Psalm 103: 6-14 (LXX, Sir Lancelot Brenton trans. , )
[7] Bobrinskoy, Op. Cit. 15
[8] This Icon reveals much more than this but I am only dealing with salvation.
[9] Genesis 18
[10] Circa 1700 B.C.  See
[11] Genesis 18:10
[12] Genesis 18:20-21
[13] Scofield, C.I., Scofield Study Bible (Oxord University Press: New York 1967), p. 981
[14] Genesis 6:11-14 and 17-18
[15] Scofield, C.I., Op.Cit. p. 981
[16] Genesis 11:5-7
[17] Brobrinskoy, p. 62
[18] We could also look at Genesis ch.1 where God [the Father] Created, The Spirit moved, and God said [the Word].  But that is the history of creation and not the history of salvation.
[19] I am not sure that I feel comfortable using any of the pronouns available in English to speak of the Holy Trinity.  They all lack something.  If I use a plural personal pronoun it sounds like I am talking about three gods.  If I use a non-personal pronoun it sounds horrific.  If I use the singular personal pronoun it seems that I am denying the Three Persons. I do not think there is a sloution to the problem.  In this paper, as I do in the rest of my life, I sometimes use the plural personal and sometimes use the singular personal.  There doesn’t seem to be a solution.
[20] Bobrinskoy, p. 18
[21] Ibid.
[22] Genesis 16:13
[23] Genesis 22:8
[24] Genesis 22:11-18
[25] Bobrinskoy, Op. Cit., p.18
[26] Bobrinskoy, Op. Cit., p.19
[27] Philo quoted by Hillar, Marian, The Logos and Its Function in the Writings of Philo of Alexandria: Greek Interpretation of the Hebrew Myth and Foundations of Christianity, A Journal from The Radical Reformation. A Testimony to Biblical Unitarianism, Vol. 7, No. 3 Spring 1998, Part I pp. 22-37; Vol. 7, No. 4 Summer 1998, Part II pp. 36-53.    
 [28] Bobrinskoy, Op. Cit., p.19
[29] Psalm 107(106):20
[30] Jeremiah 20:9
[31] Ezekiel 37:1-10
[32] Psalm 104 (103):29-30
[33] Proverbs 8:22-31
[34] Wisdom of Solomon 7:22-8:1
[35] Bobrinskoy, Op. Cit. p.23
[36] Staniloae, Dumitru, Theology and the Church (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: Crestwood, New York, 1980), P. 88
[37] Ibid., p.89
[38] Ibid., p.88
[39] Ibid., p.89hn 10:31
[40] Ibid.
[41] Ibid. p. 89, f. 11
[42] Lossky, Vladimir, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: Crestwood, New York, 1976), p.53
[43] McGrath, Alister, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 2nd Ed. (Blackwell Publishers: Malden, Mass. & Oxford, UK, 1997), p.296
[44] Yannaras, Christos, Elements of Faith: An Introduction to Orthodox Theology (T & T Clark: Edinburgh, Scotland, 1991), p. 21-22
[45] 1 John 4:8
[46] Ware, Kallistos, The Orthodox Way, (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: Crestwood, New York, 1986), P. 33
[47] Colossians 2:9
[48] Bobrinskoy, Op. Cit., p. 142
[49] The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed  accessed on line at
[50] John 3:16
[51] John 14:9
[52] Matthew 16:15-17
[53] Bobrinskoy, Op. Cit. p.66
[54] Colossians 1:19, 2:9
[55] Bobrinskoy, Op. Cit. p.66-67
[56] Ibid., p.68
[57] 2 Corinthians 13:13
[58] Bobrinskoy, Op. Cit., p. 69
[59] John 21:12.  Also the sermon on Exodus 24:1-11 by Bernard Bell (
[60] 2 Peter 1:4
[61] Yannaras, Op. Cit., p.66
[62] The very name of the act indicates that people are doing divine work.
[63] Bobrinskoy, Op. Cit., p. 132
[64] Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom
[65] Ibid.
[66] John 6
[67] Mantzaridis, Georgios, The Deification of Man: St. GregoryPalams and the Orthodox Tradition (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: Crestwood, New York), p. 42
[68] John 6:48
[69] John:6:56
[70] Hebrews 8:1
[71] Bobrinskoy, Op. Cit., p.132
[72] Ibid., p.133


Bobrinskoy, BorisThe Mystery of the Trinity: Trinitarian Experience and Vision in the Biblical and Patristic Tradition (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: Crestwood, New York, 1999)

Hillar, Marian, The Logos and Its Function in the Writings of Philo of Alexandria: Greek Interpretation of the Hebrew Myth and Foundations of Christianity, A Journal from The Radical Reformation. A Testimony to Biblical Unitarianism, Vol. 7, No. 3 Spring 1998, Part I pp. 22-37; Vol. 7, No. 4 Summer 1998, Part II pp. 36-53.   

Lossky, VladimirThe Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: Crestwood, New York, 1976)

Mantzaridis, GeorgiosThe Deification of Man: St. Gregory Palams and the Orthodox Tradition (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: Crestwood, New York, 1984)

McGrath, AlisterChristian Theology: An Introduction, 2nd Ed. (Blackwell Publishers: Malden, Mass. & Oxford, UK, 1997)

Staniloae, DumitruTheology and the Church (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: Crestwood, New York, 1980)

Ware, KallistosThe Orthodox Way (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: Crestwood, New York, 1986)

Yannaras, ChristosElements of Faith: An Introduction to Orthodox Theology (T & T Clark: Edinburgh, 1999)

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