Monthly Archives: June 2018

The Orthodox Faith – The Holy Trinity (4)

The book of Ecclesiastes says: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecc 1:9)

This saying can have a positive meaning. After all, the teachings of the Orthodox Church originated centuries ago but they are still a living aspect of the Church. But it can also have a negative meaning. We remember the false teaching of the priest Arius from Alexandria in Egypt who, in the beginning of the 4th century, said that Jesus Christ was not truly God, but a created being. Many modern people would agree with this. They say that Jesus was a prophet, a mystic, a religious teacher but not God. Actually, these modern people have an even lower idea of God than Arius had. Arius said that Jesus Christ was a creature but He was the first to be created, created before the angels, the cosmos and human beings: and even that Jesus helped God to create these things. Few moderns would go this far. But the church does not accept either ancient Arianism or the modern belief. This faith of the Church is that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are not creatures but are uncreated and fully divine as God the Father.

Another false teaching, ancient and modern, is that the names Father, Son and Holy Spirit are simply roles that the one God acts out. For example, in the Old Testament God appears as God the Father, in the New Testament as God the Son and in the ongoing life of the Church as the Holy Spirit. In this teaching the names Father, Son and Holy Spirit are simply names for God’s activities.

A modern variation of this is to say that Christians may call God Father, Hindus might call Him Vishnu and Buddhists might call Him the cosmic Buddha. The idea here is that these names of God are interchangeably human concepts. Christians would say that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three distinctly real persons with whom we can have a personal relationship. They are not simply interchangeable names.

With God we distinguish nature and person. God’s nature answers the question “what God is”. In other words, human beings have a common human nature. Of course, there is great variety in humanity, but there is a common human nature. Nature corresponds to the ‘what’ of humanity. Persons on the other hand answer the question “who”. If we ask “what” John Smith and Mary Jones are we would answer and say they are human beings. If we ask who they are, the answer is Mary and John.

This distinction exists with God. We ask what God, we answer He is divine, uncreated, omniscient, omnipresent and so forth. If we ask the question who is God, we answer Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They all share in the common divine nature but in three personal ways.

But our human nature and person correspond to the divine nature and person. For example, Jesus Christ is called the Logos or Word of God. Logos means more than simply Word in our modern sense, but also includes the meaning of reason, logic, knowledge. Because we are created in the image of Jesus Christ we participate in the Logos of God. Of course, this does not mean simply logic in a mathematical or philosophical sense. It goes beyond that. This Logos give us the ability to know God and have a spiritual relationship in a way that goes beyond logic in the narrow sense.

Human beings are also spiritual. This word should not be taken in some vague general sense. Rather, God the Holy Spirit dwells within us. In other words, human beings are called to imitate and participate in God because we are made in the image and likeness of God, and because God the Word and God the Spirit dwell within us and lead us to union with God.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Holy Trinity (3)

Although God revealed Himself as Trinity more clearly in the New Testament, He pointed forward to this dogma even in the Old Testament. For example, we see this in the mysterious meeting of Abraham and the three strangers. We will quote here from an older translation of the Bible to show a distinction which is lost in more modern translations. As we read these few lines, let us look for the oddity

And the Lord appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; And he lift up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground, And said, My Lord, if now I have found favor in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant: Let a little water, I pray you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree… (Genesis 18:1-4)

Here is the oddity. There are three men, but Abraham addresses them with a singular pronoun, i.e., Thou. In modern English the distinction between the informal Thou and the formal You is lost. Now-a-days we use you for all people. English formerly made this distinction which is preserved in other languages as we see in the German “du-sie” or the French “tu-vous” When the Fathers commented on the passage they see the use of the singular Thou to address three people as a hint of the Tripersonal unity of the Trinity. Taken by itself this interpretation may seem somewhat obscure but in context of the whole Old Testament it makes an important point.

It is interesting that this Old Testament Trinity is the basis of many icons. Sometimes when people talk of the Old Testament Trinity icon they think of one that shows God the Father as an old man, Jesus Christ as a young man and the Holy Spirit as a dove. This icon is very popular in Western Christian churches and is also found in many Orthodox Churches. As an object of piety and devotion, it should be respected. However, many scholars will state that a better icon of this scene is seen in the icon by St. Andre Rublev, commonly called the Hospitality of Abraham. An important council of the Russian Church held in 1551 said that only icons of the Rublev type should be used. The idea then is that God the Father never became a human being so trying to paint Him, one is bound to be subjective. By depicting the three strangers as angels the Rublev Trinity leads us to a more profound understanding of this passage.

Incidentally, there is some controversy about who is who in the icon. Some say that the center figure is the Father and the figure on the left represents the Son. Other interpretations hold that the center image is that of Christ with the Father on the left and the Holy Spirit on the right. But this is taking the icon in too literal a sense. An artist ultimately cannot paint a literal icon of the Trinity, so we have to respect the mystery.

However, if we want to know the Holy Trinity, we do so not by manipulating words or concepts, but by the experience of the Trinity through prayer, liturgy, and meditation or by reading the Bible. In the end, God is beyond all words and images but the works are concepts given to us by the church as stepping stones to know the one, true God.

Fr. John