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"In His unbounded love, God became what we are that He might make us what He is." - Saint Irenaeus (died 202 A.D.)
GOD IN TRINITY
Our social programme, said the Russian thinker Fedorov, is the dogma of the Trinity. Orthodoxy believes most passionately that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not a piece of ‘high theology’ reserved for the professional scholar, but something that has a living, practical importance for every Christian. Man, so the Bible teaches, is made in the image of God, and to Christians God means the Trinity: thus it is only in the light of the dogma of the Trinity that man can understand who he is and what God intends him to be. Our private lives, our personal relations, and all our plans of forming a Christian society depend upon a right theology of the Trinity. ‘Between the Trinity and Hell there lies no other choice (V. Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, p. 66). As an Anglican writer has put it: ‘In this doctrine is summed up the new way of thinking about God, in the power of which the fishermen. went out to convert the Greco-Roman world. It marks a saving revolution in human thought (D. J. Chitty, ‘The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity told to the Children,’ in Sobornost, series 4, no. 5, 1961, p. 241).
The basic elements in the Orthodox doctrine of God have already been mentioned in the first part of this book, so that here they will only be summarized briefly:
1. God is absolutely transcendent. ‘No single thing of all that is created has or ever will have even the slightest communion with the supreme nature or nearness to it (Gregory Palamas, P.G. 150, 1176c (quoted on p. 77)). This absolute transcendence Orthodoxy safeguards by its emphatic use of the ‘way of negation,’ of ‘apophatic’ theology. Positive or ‘cataphatic’ theology — the ‘way of affirmation’ — must always be balanced and corrected by the employment of negative language. Our positive statements about God — that He is good, wise, just and so on — are true as far as they go, yet they cannot adequately describe the inner nature of the deity. These positive statements, said John of Damascus, reveal ‘not the nature, but the things around the nature.’ ‘That there is a God is clear; but what He is by essence and nature, this is altogether beyond our comprehension and knowledge (On the Orthodox Faith, 1, 4 (P.G. 94, 800B, 797B)).
2. God, although absolutely transcendent, is not cut of from the world which He has made. God is above and outside His creation, yet He also exists within it. As a much used Orthodox prayer puts it: ‘Thou art everywhere and finest all things.’ Orthodoxy therefore distinguishes between God’s essence and His energies, thus safeguarding both divine transcendence and divine immanence: God’s essence remains unapproachable, but His energies come down to us. God’s energies, which are God Himself, permeate all His creation, and we experience them in the form of deifying grace and divine light. Truly our God is a God who hides Himself, yet He is also a God who acts — the God of history, intervening directly in concrete situations.
3. God is personal, that a to say, Trinitarian. This God who acts is not only a God of energies, but a personal God. When man participates in the divine energies, he is not overwhelmed by some vague and nameless power, but he is brought face to face with a person. Nor is this all: God is not simply a single person confined within his own being, but a Trinity of three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each of whom ‘dwells’ in the other two, by virtue of a perpetual movement of love. God is not only a unity but a union.
4. Our God is an Incarnate God. God has come down to man, not only through His energies, but in His own person. The Second Person of the Trinity, ‘true God from true God,’ was made man: "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). A closer union than this between God and His creation there could not be. God Himself became one of His creatures (For the first and second of these four points, see pp. 72-9; for the third and fourth points, see pp. 28-37).
Those brought up in other traditions have sometimes found it difficult to accept the Orthodox emphasis on apophatic theology and the distinction between essence and energies; but apart from these two matters, Orthodox agree in their doctrine of God with the overwhelming majority of all who call themselves Christians. Monophysites and Lutherans, Nestorians and Roman Catholics, Calvinists, Anglicans, and Orthodox: all alike worship One God in Three Persons and confess Christ as Incarnate Son of God (In the past hundred years, under the influence of ‘Modernism,’ many Protestants have virtually abandoned the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Thus when I speak here of Calvinists, Lutherans, and Anglicans, I have in mind those who still respect the classical Protestant formularies of the sixteenth century).
Yet there is one point in the doctrine of God the Trinity over which east and west part company — the filioque. We have already seen how decisive a part this one word played in the unhappy fragmentation of Christendom. But granted that the filioque is important historically, does it really matter from a theological point of view? Many people today — not excluding many Orthodox — find the whole dispute so technical and obscure that they are tempted to dismiss it as utterly trivial. From the viewpoint of traditional Orthodox theology there can be but one rejoinder to this: technical and obscure it undoubtedly is, like most questions of Trinitarian theology; but it is not trivial. Since belief in the Trinity lies at the very heart of the Christian faith, a tiny difference in Trinitarian theology is bound to have repercussions upon every aspect of Christian life and thought. Let us try therefore to understand some of the issues involved in the filioque dispute.
One essence in three persons. God is one and God is three: the Holy Trinity is a mystery of unity in diversity, and of diversity in unity. Father, Son, and Spirit are ‘one in essence’ (homoousios), yet each is distinguished from the other two by personal characteristics. ‘The divine is indivisible in its divisions (Gregory of Nazianzus, Orations, 31, 14). for the persons are ‘united yet not confused, distinct yet not divided’ (John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith, 1, 8 (P.G. 94, 809A)); ‘both the distinction and the union alike are paradoxical’ (Gregory of Nazianzus, Orations, 25, 17).
But if each of the persons is distinct, what holds the Holy Trinity together? Here the Orthodox Church, following the Cappadocian Fathers, answers that there is one God because there is one Father. In the language of theology, the Father is the ‘cause’ or ‘source’ of Godhead, He is the principle (arche) of unity among the three; and it is in this sense that Orthodoxy talks of the ‘monarchy’ of the Father. The other two persons trace their origin to the Father and are defined in terms of their relation to Him. The Father is the source of Godhead, born of none and proceeding from none; the Son is born of the Father from all eternity (‘before all ages,’ as the Creed says); the Spirit proceeds from the Father from all eternity.