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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

The Orthodox Faith – The Holy Trinity (2)

As we have seen, the two fundamental dogmas of the Orthodox Church are the Trinity and the Incarnation. The dogma of the Trinity is that God is one in essence or substance and He is three in persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the Incarnation is that Jesus Christ is true God and true man. We will look at the Incarnation later and continue our discussion of the Trinity now.

Christianity is a monotheistic religion; we believe in one God. This is a belief that we share with Judaism and Islam. However, there is a major difference between Christianity and the other two, which is the belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that God is a Trinity of persons. For Jews and Moslems this belief in the Trinity is at best a grave error and at worst a blasphemy against God. However, let us remember that the dogma is not based on any kind of speculation, but rather is based on the experience of the Apostles that Jesus was the Son of God. Despite this, the Church asserts her believe in the One God.

When we look at the doctrine of the Holy Trinity we see it primarily in the New Testament. The Old Testament Jews were not in a position to see that God had a son. In the Old Testament we see the Jewish people worshipping false gods, any gods. Over the centuries God sent prophets to strengthen their faith in the one God. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity would simply have misled them.

Nevertheless, there are hints which point to the Trinity.   For example, one of the most common names for God in the Old Testament is Elohim one of its variants. We see this right at the beginning of the Bible in Genesis (Gen 1:1)

In the beginning God (Elohim) created the heavens and the earth.

The word Elohim, with its variant is found even in the pagan religions in the Middle Ages. However, this word originally had a plural meaning, gods. In the Old Testament the word is used with a singular meaning. Knowing that the Hebrews were tempted by false gods why should this plural word be used to apply to the one God? First, it can be a plural of majesty. For example, in the Roman Papacy and the English monarchy, popes and monarchs often used the word “we” to refer to themselves. In other words, the King or Pope man say “It is our command…” This is old fashioned but this is one explanation of Elohim in the Bible. For Christians, the use of a plural noun for a singular subject is a hint of the Trinity. In other words, it points forward to the Triune God revealed in the New Testament. The word Elohim is used throughout the Old Testament to refer to the one God.

An important example of this is in Genesis 1:26:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness….

The Father teaches us that the plural Elohim used here in the creation of man shows that human beings are made in the image and likeness of the Holy Trinity, which is indeed one and three.

Another such example of the Trinity of God is in Psalm 33:6

By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth.

In other words, God the Father is creating the world together with His Word (Jesus Christ) and His breath (the Holy Spirit). When Christians read this passage we see it pointing to the Holy Trinity.

For Christians, the Old Testament is a collection of books which have the purpose of pointing to Jesus Christ, whom we see as the Messiah promised in the Old Testament. Jews did not see it that way and have other explanations of the above-mentioned words and passages. But for us, they point to Jesus who fulfilled all the hope of the Old Testament.

In the next article we will continue looking at the Trinity in the Old Testament.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Holy Trinity (1)

After looking at the Symbol of Faith (the Creed), we now begin to look at one of the most important dogmas of the faith, the Holy Trinity (the other fundamental doctrine, the Incarnation, will be covered at a later date).  In modern society, dogma is considered a negative thing. It is said that a dogma is something which restricts freedom of thought, that an authority imposes on people to bind them. However, this is not the case. A dogma is a teaching which originates in the life experience of the Church. This is not the experience of church leaders who impose this teaching on everyone else. No, the Holy Spirit leads the entire people of God to express in words this fundamental experience.

The doctrine of the Trinity proclaims that God is one in substance or essence and three in persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that there are three gods or that the divine essence is divided into three parts, or that sometimes God wears the mask of Father or Son or the Holy Spirit. Each person of the Trinity is completely and always God.

We might ask ourselves how this teaching arose. In the Old Testament, the first part of the Bible, we see God sending prophets to the Jewish people to teach them that there is only one, true God and one should worship only Him. As we see in the Old Testament, the Jewish people were tempted to fall into polytheism, the worship of many (false) gods. This is what the pagans who surrounded the Israelites did and the Jews frequently fell into this error. It took centuries for the prophets sent by God to teach the Jewish people that there ws only one God.

By the time Jesus Christ appeared, the Jews were finally set on a belief in the one, true God. The Jews maintained this teaching even in the face of persecution and martyrdom. Jesus, of course, believed in the one God whom he called Abba, or dear father and the apostles did also.

So how did this idea that God was one and also three arise? It is from the experience of the Apostles. For example, we see that Jesus Christ said he had the authority to forgive sins, a divine authority. Jesus demonstrated His possession of this right though his miracles and healings. We see that Jesus calmed storms at sea, worked many healings and even raised people from the dead. Jesus regularly addressed God as Abba. Abba is an Aramaic word meaning something like dear father. It was a term that Aramaic speakers used to express their love and closeness to their own fathers. The Jews never used this world to address God because they felt it wasn’t respectful enough. This is the word that Jesus used to pray to the Father, showing that He was claiming a sonship unique to Himself. And of course, Christ rose form the dead.

All of the above-mentioned things shows that Jesus Christ had a unique relationship to God.

Of course, the Apostles were devout Jews, ready to die for their belief in the one God so it took a while for them to truly recognize who Christ really was.

At first they called Jesus teacher or rabbi or prophet. They began to realize that these title were not adequate to express their experience of Jesus Christ. They began to call him Son of God. But even then they didn’t fully realize what this meant. The Apostles finally recognized who Jesus was after the Resurrection when we see St. Thomas address Jesus as “my Lord and my God”. Even at that, it took the Church centuries to learn how to express the belief that God is one, but also three. But this dogma is rooted in the Church’s experience of God.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Symbol of Faith (19)

At long last we are coming to the end of our reflection on the Symbol of Faith, i.e., the Creed sung at every Divine Liturgy. We remember that this symbol of Faith was adopted at two ecumenical (general) councils in the years 325 and 381 AD. This Creed was adopted to avoid error concerning Jesus Christ and the Holy Trinity and to proclaim the Orthodox faith.

The Creed begins with the words “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” In other words the Creed begins with the creation of the world by God. The Creed ends with the end of the world: “I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”

What does all this mean? Sometimes people think that Christianity despises the material world allegedly thinking only of heaven. This is not true. In the first book of the Bible, Genesis, after the creation of the world it says: “And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.” (Gen 1:3) In other words, the world as created by God is good. However, the world as we experience it now is not totally good.  In addition to the horrible things which human beings do, there are natural disasters, disease, famine and so forth. Somehow the world is not as God had created. The Church tells us that the world is fallen just as humanity is fallen. In other words, the world was wounded by the sin of Adam and Eve. We do not know clearly how this has happened and this is not provable by science but the Church has the firm conviction that the human race and the world are fallen together. As Saint Paul puts it in his Epistle to the Romans:

“…. for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now…” (Rom 8:20-22)

People sometimes think that Christians are concerned only with the soul and heaven, but this is not the case. Just as we believe that the dead will rise at the end of time so we believe that the material world will be restored at the end of time. As the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, tells us:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”  (Rev 21:1-5)

In other words, the whole created cosmos will be renewed and returned to the state in which God created it.

Although we do not know when all this will take place, we participate in this renewal of the world in the church. In the Church we are reborn through the water of baptism, we receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine. We see and venerate icons and we smell the fragrance of incense.  In other words, the material world is participating in the process of salvation giving us a foretaste of the transformed world to come. Finally, on theophany when we go to the harbor to bless the waters, we ask the Holy Spirit to sanctify (make holy) this water and all water and finally all of the creation. We are participating in the coming renewal of creation.

However, in the Bible we sometimes encounter verses that seem to say that the end of the world will be a total destruction of it. For example:

“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up.” (2 Peter 3:10)

But this passage does not predict the total annihilation of the world, but rather the world and all of humanity must go through a change which will be painful. Or to put it another way, we go through the horror of death to attain the joy of resurrection. This is true of humanity and of the material world.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Symbol of Faith (18)

In the Creed we say we “… believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” Those four words are called the four marks or notes of the church. Many volumes have been written about each of these marks or notes, but here we will look at these most easily understood of these words, that is the word catholic.

When most people hear the word catholic they assume it refers to the Roman Catholic church, the church headed by the Pope, the Bishop of Rome. (It should be noted, although this church is called Roman it includes many Eastern Catholic churches, churches that use the same Liturgy as the Orthodox Church but who are under the jurisdiction of the Pope.)

Because so many people understand catholic to mean Roman, some Orthodox who are used to the Creed in Slavonic are surprised or even scandalized to hear the word catholic in the English translation of the Creed. This is because the Creed in Slavonic does not have a word which is exactly the equivalent of catholic. So we can see that the word catholic can be misunderstood.

The word catholic is often understood to mean universal. In other words, the fact that the Church is spread all over the world, and of course has a message for every time, place and people, which is why the church is always a missionary church. Although of course, it is universal in the sense that it is spread all over the world, the word catholic has a deeper meaning than this. The word catholic also means full, complete, lacking nothing. This means that even the smallest isolated church is catholic in the sense that it has all the things necessary for salvation. In New Testament times, the church of Jerusalem, or even Antioch or Rome, were rather small in terms of membership and size, but each was fully catholic. It lacked nothing. So for example, there is a small Orthodox Church at the Russian base in Antarctica. When the Liturgy is being celebrated when a bishop or priest gathers together with the laity, the church is fully catholic. The whole of Orthodox doctrine, ministry and sacrament are present in that small, isolated church.

According to the late Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko, dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, catholic refers to quality rather than quantity.

This is why when Roman Catholics, even Roman Catholics friendly to the Orthodox Church, say that the Orthodox Church is not “fully catholic”, to be truly catholic in the sense they mean the Orthodox Church needs to be under the Pope. The Orthodox reply is that each and every Orthodox Church, no matter how small or isolated is fully catholic and lacks nothing.

This means that to leave the church for some reason is to leave the catholic church. The church may suffer many things from human sins on the part of those inside and outside the church, no matter how many seemingly negative things appear in the church, the church is always the “pillar and bulwark of the truth,” as Saint Paul wrote in Timothy (I Tim 3:15).

In conclusion, we can say that human beings may sin and do terrible things, the church will always remain catholic. Give us all we need for salvation.

Fr. John