Home Page

On Line Library of the Church of Greece

 Christos Sp. Voulgaris

The Biblical and Patristic Doctrine of the Trinity

From: The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, vol. 37 (Νov.) 3-4, Holy Cross Orthodox Press, Brookline, Mass., 1992.

1. The Biblical and Patristic Doctrine of the Trinity

In its classical formulation as ‘unity in Trinity’ and ‘Trinity in unity’, the Christian doctrine of God, "the capital of our faith," according to Saint Gregory the Theologian, is not directly stated in the Bible.  Rather, this formulation is the result of a gradual theological reflection upon the subject of the Church's faith as it is roughly portrayed in the Bible and lived in the experience of the Church.  This process began in the 2nd and was concluded in the 4th century, at a time when the Church Fathers struggled against the Sabellians and the Monarchians on the one hand, who in their reaction to Gnosticism denied either the Trinity of the persons of the Godhead or their equality of honor, as well as against the Arians and Macedonians on the other, who regarded the Son and the Holy Spirit, respectively, as God's creatures.

Speaking about the Bible, however, we must point out from the outset that the doctrine of the Trinity does not rest solely on the few Trinitarian formulas and expressions scattered here and there, mostly in the books of the New Testament.  Rather, the entire biblical witness points to the Trinitarian reality of the divine revelation, according to which God reveals himself to the world as He really is and exists in Himself; in the three eternal modes of the existence of His one substance.  It is exactly this Trinitarian revelation which is the scope and the aim of the Church's theological reflection, with the purpose to guard it against human ungodly reflection.  In other words, while human reason, unable to conceive of the paradox of God's Trinity and unity by human standards, tends to place divine reality on the same line of human philosophical, religious, and historical thought forms.  The theological reflection of the Church expounds and interprets the biblical revelation about God.  In doing so, the Church is always conscious of the fact that God is not the ‘object’ of human reflection, but rather its ‘subject’, because it is also aware of the biblical fact that not God, but man is the object of the divine revelatory energy; man's acts are his response to God's primary energy toward him.  In the Bible, God makes himself known.  This is the only way that man can know him; God reveals himself and man believes in Him and accepts Him, and thus experiences Him. Only then can man express himself theologically.    

The Church's theological formulation of her faith in the Triune God is marked by its unbroken unity and identity with the biblical reality itself.  In fact there is a mutual connection between the biblical reality and the Church, since God's revealing activity in sacred history is the founding factor of the religious community within which that activity takes place.  Thus, Israel is the ‘Kahal Yahweh’ in the Old Testament, which is also the object of God's activity.  The same is also true of the Church in the New Testament, the community of God's Messiah, Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  In this respect, the Bible is the Bible of the ecclesial community, not only because this community defined the boundaries of the Bible and formed the canon of its authentic books, but also because this ecclesial community is the author of the Bible through the particular writers who wrote down the Church's experience and faith.  Therefore, the Bible is the deposit of the community's experience and faith in God's revelation. This means that we cannot think of the Bible without the Church, and vice versa.  The bible is not the revelation itself, but that which points to it.

This close connection and mutual coexistence between Church and biblical revelation makes the Church the sole authentic interpreter of the Bible, its guardian and the guarantor of its integrity and continuity in history. This implies that the greatest danger for the distortion of the biblical reality about God comes from the so called ‘biblical’ understanding of the Bible; from the individual interpretation away from the Church's experience and faith. This individual interpretation disregards the existence of the ecclesial reality and replaces the role of the community by the role of the individual, or to speak in Pauline terms, replaces the role of the ‘body’ by the role of the particular members, which are given an absolute status (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:12-30; Romans 12:4-8).  Paul is clear about it; the function of each member is defined by the whole; the ‘body’, to the extent that any individualistic attitude of each member breaks the unity of the body and jeopardizes its very life and existence (cf.1 Corinthians 12:15-21).

That the biblical revelation is threatened to be distorted by the individual, non-ecclesial interpretation is evident from the fact that each individual reader possesses his own perceptive abilities and principles, which differ from those of other readers, as well as from the fact that no individual or even generation is perfectly aware of the perceptive abilities and principles of individuals and generations of the distant past, especially of the historic community which witnessed the divine action in history.  The result is that no one can interpret the biblical reality correctly unless he maintains the necessary connection and continuity with that community that experiences God's actions.  This connecting link between the two, past and present, is the unbroken chain of ecclesial tradition formed by an unbroken living experience of the past in the present, the very consciousness of the ecclesial body.  It is this consciousness that preserves the unity and identity of the Church's theological reflection and formulation of the biblical revelation about the three Persons in the Godhead.  What was revealed to the historic ecclesial community was handed down to subsequent ecclesial generations through their faith in it.  Thus ‘theology’ cannot differ from the Church's own experience, which in turn cannot differ from the revelation to which the Bible bears witness; the revelation cannot differ from the Godhead's eternal mode of existence.  Therefore, we arrive at the Trinitarian faith about God from two directions; from revelation itself and more particularly from the ‘economy’ via Christology and pneumatology, and from ‘theology’, which stems from the Triune God himself and via revelation ends up in Christology and pneumatology.  Theology and economy converge into the same reality.  This implies that as far as the Holy Trinity is concerned, there is no room for any kind of ‘monism’.  However, before entering this discussion we must point two more things.

Firstly, the Christian doctrine of God in three persons has nothing to do with pagan polytheism.  The Christian Trinity of persons is at the same time a unity in substance, which means that the Trinity in Oneness and the Oneness in Trinity is of a personal, hypostatic nature.  Pagan polytheism, being a product of human imagination, is of an impersonal character.  In fact, it is the hypostatic character of the divine nature that forms the reality of the relationship and therefore of the unity of the divine persons, since each person's peculiar quality is understood only in his relationship to the other persons.  Thus, the Father is ‘Father’ only in relation to the Son, which means that if the Son does exist, or if He is deprived of his divine substance and reduced to the level of the ‘divine men’ of the Hellenistic world or to the level of a creature as Arius maintained, then the Father's peculiarly personal quality and so His very existence is done away with, too.  The same principle applies in the cases of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  It is clear then that the unity of the divine Persons presupposes their multiplicity, which is the basis of their mutual relationship.  The Christian doctrine of God, therefore, is not about an impersonal and static God, as in Hellenism, but personal and dynamic; God is personally in a perpetual energy and relationship.  This implies that ‘monisms’ with respect to the Triune God have grave consequences upon theology and anthropology.

Secondly, when the Bible speaks about God, it mostly identifies Him with the first Person of the Trinity, that is, the Father, as the beginning and cause of the existence and life of everything that exists and lives on the divine and human level.   "Father, the beginning of all, the cause of the existence of beings, the root of the living."  Thus, God's Fatherhood is tantamount to ‘Principium Divinitatis’, since on account of His divine essence, God the Father is the beginning and the cause of the Son by birth, and of the Holy Spirit by procession.  On account of His divine will and energy, He is the beginning and the cause of all creation, visible and invisible.  According to the Bible, the Fatherhood of the first Person of the Holy Trinity is not an acquisition or achievement granted to Him by man, as in pagan religions, but a peculiarly natural, personal quality, because the attribute Father’ is the very name by which this Person is revealed in the world, first of all as the Father of His Son, regardless of creation (cf. Matthew 11:27, 24:36; John 1:16, 10:15).  The relationship between the Father and His Son is a timeless relationship between cause and effect, to the extent that the Son cannot exist without the Father as the Father cannot exist without the Son.  The existence of the one implies the existence of the other and His peculiar quality (1 John 2:22-23).  The same is also true of the Holy Spirit, who timelessly "proceeds (only) from the Father (John 15:26),” so that if the Father does not exist, there is no procession and thus there is no Holy Spirit, and vice versa.

This clear biblical reality was distorted in the ancient Church by the Monarchians, who gave an absolute status to the Father at the expense of the Son and the Holy Spirit, whom they regarded as functions of the Father, as well as by Marcion, who gave an absolute status to the Son at the expense of the Father, thus emphasizing economy at the expense of the theology, that is, a Christology without patrology.  Both of these ancient ‘monisms’ survive still today in Western theology, which quite often treats Jesus Christ as an inspired human person deprived of his divine quality.  But the Holy Spirit is also quite often given an absolute status, especially by the so-called ‘charismatic’ communities, while as previously stated, the ‘Filioque’ doctrine confuses between the Spirit's timeless procession from the Father alone, with His timely sending of the word through the Son.  If the Holy Spirit proceeds timelessly ‘filioque’, then the Son acquires a quality which He does not naturally possess, that of the Fatherhood, which makes the Son the source and cause of the Spirit's existence.  At the same time, this idea underrates the Spirit in comparison to the Son.  Most of all it underrates the person of the Father from whom, according to Saint Paul, " are all things and for whom we exist (1 Corinthians 8:6; Romans 11:36),” even the Son himself (1 Corinthians 15:28).  It is obvious that none of these ‘monisms’ correspond to the biblical reality.  On the other hand, Marcion's rejection of the Father as the creator of the universe overlooks His relations to it and rejects non-Christian reality altogether.  Indeed, the biblical doctrine about God stresses the fact that revelation took place within the already existing world, without which Christ's redemptive work becomes meaningless.  However, even before Christ's coming God "did not leave himself without witness (Acts 14:17).”  Without any relation to the world, as Marcion maintained, God the Father becomes a mere ‘essence’ in a platonic sense, impersonal, static and inactive, which makes impossible not only the existence of the world, but even His own existence and life in Himself. 

Biblical reality is distorted by ‘monisms’ centered in the person of the Son, if an absolute status is given to Him at the expense of the other two Persons, or if the Son is demoted in comparison to the other two Persons.  Thus, theology without Christology is foreign not only to the Christian doctrine of God as such, which is inseparably connected with the person of Jesus Christ as the incarnate Logos of the Father "in whom the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily (Colossians 2:9; cf. 1 Corinthians 5:19),” but to the reality of the peculiarly personal attribute of the Father, since there is no Father without the Son.  In addition to this, without the Son the Father remains unknown to the world.  Thus, historical revelation is done away with.  However, as Jesus Christ said, "No one has ever seen God, only the Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known (John 1:18; cf. 14:6,9,10; 16:3,32; 5:23 etc.).”  On the other hand, if we give absolute status to Christology at the expense of ‘patrology’ and pneumatology, we are eventually led into a mere ‘anthropology’.  Indeed, a Christology of this kind makes theology a mere ‘Jesusology’ of an Evionite type, as well as an ‘anthropology’ destined to end up, as it did, to a ‘theology’ of the death of God, which is the justification of  atheism by way of the Christian faith itself.  Phenomena of this kind abound in Western theological textbooks, where human values such as love, justice, brotherhood, etc., are disconnected from and treated independently of Jesus Christ's divinity.  They are projected as models of human life without any reference to the divine reality.  The result is the degradation of the Christian faith and man's existential and ontological renewal.  In other words, ontology is replaced by morality.  Thus, Christianity runs the risk of becoming an atheistic humanism, since such a Christian life does not differ from the life prescribed by other religions, because its model and criterion is not, "Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24)”…“in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Colossians 1:14),” but rather "the wisdom of this world (1 Corinthians 1:20, 2:6),” which as anthropocentric is at the same time ‘satano-centric’. This ‘monism’ overlooks the fact that Jesus Christ is a perfect man only because He is God-man, because "in Him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily (Colossians 2:9).”  Therefore, Christian values are Christian only in their reference to the person of Christ in his twofold natures.

Biblical reality is finally distorted by the "monisms" centered around the person of the Holy Spirit.  In the history of the Church, such "monisms" were advocated by the Arians and the Macedonians in the ancient times and by the filioque later on, which degrade the Holy Spirit in relation to the other Persons of the Trinity on the one hand and by the enthusiastic groups in the apostolic times (cf.1 Corinthians 14) and by the so-called ‘charismatic’ communities of our own times, which give an absolute status to the Holy Spirit on the other.  Now, if the Holy Spirit is degraded, salvation in Christ becomes inactive on the personal level since “anyone who does have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to Him (Romans 8:9)” and “no one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3)” and "by this we know that He (Christ) abides in us, by the Spirit which He has given us (1 John 3:24).”  It is only in the Holy Spirit that man can be adopted as a son by God the Father (Romans 8:14-17; Galatians 4:4-7).  The spirit in fact prevents Christ's redemptive work to be viewed from the point the individual (John 14:18).  On the other hand, giving an absolute status to the Spirit annihilates the transcendent as well as the historical character of the divine revelation.  Proceeding eternally from the Father, the Spirit is given in time by the Son.  This makes Christ's person and work absolutely necessary for man's appropriation of the Spirit and so for his adoption by the Father.  Thus, the charismatic element of the Holy Spirit cannot be viewed independently of the historical roots of our faith in Christ.  If it does it becomes a mere utopia.  It was for this very reason that St. Paul, whole not forbidding glossolalia in Corinth, he nevertheless stressed the importance of the ‘prophecy’ or the kerygma about Christ's Person and work, with which it connects the believer and ‘edifies’ him.  At the same time ‘prophecy’ calls into account and ‘convicts’ the unbeliever.  Therefore, "the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so falling on his face he will worship God and declare that God is really among the believers." Left without control, the charismatic element leads into ecstasy (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:23, "you are mad") and absurdity, and at the same time rejects the sense of sinfulness and guilt.

From what has been written so far it becomes obvious that Patrology, Christology and Pneumatology must be examined together, grounded upon the unity of the three persons in the Godhead.  When we talk about the one Person we are bound to always have in mind the other two, since the work carried out by any one of them presupposes the participation and co-operation of the other two Persons.  The unifying factor that lies in the background is the hypostatic and dynamic divine nature.  


[i] Saint Basil, Against the Sabellians 3.4.15: On Faith 2.