The Holy Trinity
Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament), continual reference is made to God, to God’s Word, and to God’s Spirit. In the narratives of the Prophets, the Word of God, or the Spirit of God come to a Prophet and speak to him. The Patriarch Abraham, a righteous man through whose descendants God promised to bless all nations of the earth, received a visit from God (Genesis 18:2ff.). The narrative tells us that God appeared to Abraham as three men, and Abraham bowed before them, yet referring to the three of them, he used the singular “my Lord.” Later, when Israel received their creedal statement, called the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4), they were told “Hear, Israel, the Lord our God (actually in the plural!) is one.” This paradox of God being one, yet plural—specifically three—is not resolved until the fulness of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.
We hear at the beginning of the Gospel according to St. John that the Word of God—previously active throughout the Hebrew Scriptures in enlightening the prophets—had been sent by God the Father to become human for our salvation (John 1:1ff.). This ‘incarnation’ (literally ‘in-flesh-ment’) was accomplished through the power of the Holy Spirit of God (Luke 1:35). Later, when the incarnate Word—named Jesus because ‘Jesus’ literally means ‘God Saves’—is baptized, or ritually immersed in water for purification, God the Father speaks His approval of the Word of God, Jesus, and the Spirit of God descends in the form of a dove (a symbol of peace) as the anointing of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Speaking to this paradox, St. John would later write in his first general letter, “there are three witnesses in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these Three are One.” (1 John 5:7) Finally, Jesus Himself would plainly state: “I and the Father are One.” (John 10:30) And immediately before He ascended into heaven, He commanded the Apostles to baptize all nations “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” (Matthew 28:19) here the Name is singular, not plural.
There is in the Scriptures, and in the teaching of the Apostles a paradoxical understanding: there is but one God—yet God is revealed in three distinct Persons: Father, Son—or Word, and Holy Spirit. The understanding of this Three-in-One (‘Trinity’ in Latin), did not change within the teaching of the Church, yet the ability adequately to express this great mystery developed as the leaders of the Church separated incorrect understandings from the Tradition they received from the Apostles. The theological language adopted Greek philosophical terminology because of its precision and common usage. The Father was described as the fountain and source of Divinity—the Son/Word is begotten of the Father from before eternity—the Spirit proceeds from the Father from before eternity. All three share a common essence, but they are distinct persons. Thus, God is one—one in essence, but revealed in three Persons. If this is unclear, that is understandable. The language used by the fathers was not intended to exhaustively explain the inner nature of the Trinity (an impossibility for limited, human understanding!), rather, the fathers’ aim was to distinguish between a correct understanding, and incorrect understandings.
Thus, the fathers of the Church condemned teaching that claimed the Holy Trinity was:
- one Person who at different times took on different roles, or modes
- three distinct Gods, simply united in their love for one another
- one God (the Father) together with two creations of the Father’s (the Son/Word and the Spirit) neither of whom are God, but are the pinnacle of creation
The two fundamental truths the fathers defended were simple, if impossible to comprehend: God is One; God is revealed in three distinct Persons: Father, Son/Word, and Holy Spirit.
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Polycarp the Holy Martyr & Bishop of Smyrna; Proterios, Archbishop of Alexandria; Gorgonia the Righteous, sister of Gregory the Theologian; Damian the New Martyr of Mount Athos; Boswell, Abbot of Melrose Abbey