Ancient Answers


Trinitarian Thoughts

I recently had lunch with a friend who has always impressed me with his knowledge of the Bible. Though I must admit – as I have also told him more than once – the Bible for him is mostly the letters of Paul. Nevertheless, with Paul as his anchor and guide he has in the past managed to delve deeply into the truths of the Christian revelation.

He shocked me, however, in this my latest encounter with him. He has come to a new understanding of the Christian message that excludes faith in Trinity or the divinity of Christ. So he is basically an Arian; and he did indeed refer to Arius and other ‘heretics’ of the first centuries as the heroes of the faith that he reveres.

To be truthful, I found myself agreeing with much of his exegesis that he used to support his new understanding. I also have sometimes questioned the dogmatic definitions of God as Trinity; they are too confident! But instead of denying the Trinity I prefer to resort to the apophatic approach that was very dear to those very same fathers of the church in the fourth century that established the doctrines of the Trinity.

Icon of the “Hospitality of Abraham” at the entrance of Holy Trinity Church, Portland, Maine (Click to further enlarge)

The apophatic approach is the way of negation, which provides a defence against taking our doctrines as complete representations of God. So I have always seen the Trinity as a metaphor, an approximation in human terms of the ineffable. It should come as no surprise that the Orthodox tradition, though rich in iconographic representations, does not allow a literal icon of the Trinity. Though ‘icons’ of two men and a dove to represent Father, Son and Holy Spirit have crept in, in imitation of western paintings, the Orthodox tradition allows only one icon of the Trinity – and it is not even called an icon of the Trinity. That’s because it is not an icon of the Trinity. It is a representation of the scene in Genesis 18, where three men receive hospitality from Abraham and Sara. And thus the icon is called The Hospitality of Abraham. One such icon sits at the entrance to our church building in Portland, as our church is named Holy Trinity.

The text in Genesis 18 opens with the statement, “The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre,” and then immediately goes on to say, “Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby.” So these three men were the Holy Trinity out for a walk in the desert? Highly unlikely. Were they angels, messengers and representatives of the Most High God? Probably – and the three figures are indeed shown with angelic wings in the icon. But they are also shown with definite identifiers of trinitarian ontology. The figure in the middle gives it away. The halo around his head has a cross inscribed within the circle and three Greek letters, ὁ ὢν. The cross and these three letters are inscribed within the halo in every icon of Jesus Christ. The reference of the cross is obvious, while the three letters form part of the self-identification of Jesus in Revelation 1:8 and Revelation 22:13. The next thing to notice is that the middle and third figures both incline their heads and bodies toward the first figure. Now we can complete our identification: The first figure on the left represents the Father, the middle figure is the Son, and the third figure is the Spirit. Both the Son and the Spirit receive their being from the Father, which is why they both incline toward the first figure. But these identifications are only meant figuratively. This is not a literal icon of the Trinity. It simply takes Genesis 18 at face value and interprets the three men who appeared to Abraham and Sara as somehow representing the three persons of the Trinity. But the iconographic tradition adds ontological symmetry and the dynamic of movement within the symmetry. A fairly sophisticated slice of trinitarian theology is found in this scene of a hospitality in the desert. Let’s leave it at that.

The church fought for the establishment of icons because they added a mystical dimension to theology that mere words and conciliar decisions could not fully express. Icons are genuine expressions of faith. They remind us of the centrality of the incarnation and the human extension of God. My friend now chooses to see Jesus as only a man. He rejects all statements of “the death of God” or “the crucified God” – anything that connects the Cross of Golgotha to God in the flesh. In this manner my friend is saying the Cross has nothing to do with God’s being, since there is no Father-Son relationship. The Cross is thus reduced to a mere instrument for the expiation of our sins. An entire dimension of Biblical teaching is completely lost in such a reductionist revision of Christian truth.

Paul’s letters are the cipher upon which forensic theologies are built. Yet, even Paul sometimes touched on something deeper. Consider that great passage in Philippians 2:5-11.

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (ESV, English Standard Version)

There is nothing about an expiatory death here. Of course elsewhere Paul did define the expiatory significance of the death of Christ. But here in Philippians, the entire dynamic of pre-existence-incarnation-death-glorification is expressed solely in the context of Christ’s relationship to God the Father and the exalted status of Jesus Christ as Lord. One doesn’t have to be a trinitarian to see that there is something more than a man dying on a cross here.

I respect my friend and I have always valued his approach to Bible study. But I fail to see how his commitment to the forensic significance of Christ’s death survives the reduction of Jesus to mere man. I feel the church has overreached in its dogmatic definitions. The apophatic approach was forgotten when intricately detailed dogmas were articulated to describe God’s inner essence and the interpersonal relationships of the three persons of the Trinity. Way overboard, in my opinion. Gregory Palamas in the 14th century attempted a less presumptuous approach to knowing God, but he too ended up inventing a new language of essence and energies that led to new confusion and neo-gnostic monastic practices. But I cannot join my friend in his rejection of the Trinity. The Trinity is at the core of everything that Christianity is about. But it is much more than any dogmas can define. I prefer to meditate on our icon of the Trinity than spend much time trying to understand the Nicene Creed.

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Trinitarian Community

We are living in treacherous and confusing times. In a recent book, I read the following: “the growth in Muslim populations across Europe since the mid-twentieth century runs parallel to secularization or, perhaps more aptly, de-Christianization. As Muslim populations grow and assert their religious identities in the public sphere, Christianity’s public role and influence fade. In other words, the increasing presence and vitality of Islam is accompanied by the decreasing influence and presence of traditional Christianity.” (Todd H. Green, The Fear of Islam: An introduction to Islamophobia in the West, Fortress Press, 2015, p. 157)

Please do not mistake the above quote; it’s not coming from a racist Islamophobe. The book is actually an attempt to understand and confront Islamophobia. But my purpose here is not to write about Islam, though the recent terror attacks in Paris have once again brought to the fore the worst forms of racist fear-mongering. No, what struck me in this quote is the term ‘de-Christianization’ that the author prefers to ‘secularization’.

It is all too easy to toss terms like ‘secular’ around whenever it suits us. It’s an easy way to complain about fake issues like the “war on Christmas”. There is no “war on Christmas”! Christmas was destroyed by Christians and our complete surrender to commercialism! Christians are the ones who have de-Christianized the European and North American societies in which we live. It is Christians, and not atheists, or secularists, or Jews or Muslims, who have trivialized Chistmas and have turned Christianity into a political slogan and a religious whitewash of ego.

Many Christians have forgotten the deep truths of our identiy and existence in the world. Christians have turned their God and their Lord into convenient labels that have no ontological depth. Quite simply, Christians have forgotten that we are meant to be trinitarian beings, living as reflections of our trinitarian God! And having lost our identity and the truth of our existence, we point fingers at others and we blame anyone other than ourselves for the fact that the ultimate truths of Christianity have been turned into mockery and cheap excuses for rampant commercialism. Go on complaining about a so-called “war on Christmas” if it makes it easy for you to ignore your responsibility for de-Christianization.

One of the first books of New Testament theology I bought (about 35 years ago) was by James D. G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament. It wasn’t required for a seminary course; its title simply caught my eye. The phrase “unity and diversity” perfectly summarizes my own way of looking at the New Testament. I see a message that unites all the various writings of the New Testament, and yet there is a diversity of how that central message, the gospel of Jesus Christ, is communicated, explored, and applied by the various writers whose writings make up the New Testament.

When I look at the church community I see a similar dynamic – except that I prefer to call it “unity in diversity.” We come from so many different backgrounds; we have so many different viewpoints among us; we often experience God and worship in our own unique ways in addition to the ways of Orthodox faith and tradition. We are a diverse community, very much a reflection of the world around us.

But with all this diversity we share a unity. And I am happy to say that the more diverse we become the more united we seem to be. There is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:5-6). We are united in the one faith that we call the Orthodox faith; we have one Lord, the Lord Jesus Christ. We share one baptism; and our church does not distinguish between baptism in the Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, or most Protestant churches – we are all one with other Christians in our baptism! And finally, we have one God, whom we call Father, just as our Lord Jesus taught us to call our God.

Most people think of God as the supreme power, far remote from human experience. And so God is. But God the Father is not just the remote supreme being; our Father is “above all and through all and in all.” Our Father is indeed ‘above’ everything, but don’t miss the other two prepositions that Paul uses in this sentence: ‘through’ (δια) and ‘in’ (εν). God the Father is not only the supreme power in the universe, above everything; God the Father is also present in our lives and fills all things.

This should be the primary vision of our church community: to see God the Father in everything we are and everything we do. But God has chosen to be revealed not only as Father, but as Trinity. What a blessing that our church is the Church of the Holy Trinity. Let’s take the name of our church to heart and live the trinitarian life! The Father is the source of our unity. The Lord Jesus is our mediator (1 Timothy 2:5), our great high priest (Hebrews 4:14), who brings us into the unity that is ours through faith and baptism. And the Holy Spirit is the celebration of our diversity!

At a time of growing suspicion and divisions in the world, as violence and hatred, often in the name of ‘god’, spread everywhere, the trinitarian vision of community life is the only answer, the only way that unity and diversity can be perfected as unity in diversity. “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.” This is spoken by the priest at the Liturgy immediately after the Creed. The Creed is the Symbol of Faith, Σύμβολον της Πίστεως; it is a concise summary, sometimes using technical language, of the central dogmas of the Christian faith. It is a Σύμβολον because it brings together our fundamental dogmas. But the priest’s words after the Creed relate the doctrines of the Trinity to us: the love of God the Father, the grace of God’s Son our Lord Jesus Christ, and the communion (shared life) of the Holy Spirit.

The Father is the source, from whom everything flows and has its being. The Father is God in the purest definition. Worship in our Orthodox Church is primarily addressed to God the Father. It is to God the Father that we are accountable. The Father is the origin of life and the ultimate destination to whom we return. Our destiny is to be ‘one’ with the Father, just as Jesus was/is one with the Father: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us,” Jesus prayed on the night of his arrest (John 17:21), “so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (John 17:26).

“God is love,” John wrote in his first letter, “and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:8 & 16). God is love, the purest and simplest name for God. But this is love in action: God’s love acts through the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. Everything Jesus did and spoke was a revelation of God’s love. Even when Jesus passed judgment and condemned certain individuals and their actions, it was still out of love – love for those who were abused and misused, or ignored, by those being judged by Jesus. This revelation of God’s love in action is what we call ‘grace’ – hence the prayer in the Liturgy, “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father…”

But it doesn’t end there. The Holy Spirit completes the trinitarian picture: “… and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” Communion, κοινωνία, is the shared life that is the gift of the Holy Spirit – shared with each other and shared with God. The unity with God that Jesus promised in chapter 17 of John’s Gospel is made real by the Holy Spirit; But it’s a unity in diversity, because the Holy Spirit is the giver and distributer of gifts and talents and abilities. Saint Paul in his letters repeatedly pointed to the role of the Holy Spirit in building the church as the body of Christ – a body made up of many members, with each member contributing to the well being of the whole. And the way we each contribute to the well being of the whole is by using the gifts that the Holy Spirit gives to each of us.

We are different, every one of us is unique and uniquely gifted. Even if two of us have the gift of singing, we are different in how we sing the same music; it’s called interpretation. If two of us have the gift of teaching, even if we teach the same subject matter, we teach it differently. This is the miracle of giftedness. No two musicians are alike; no two teachers are copies of each other; no two cooks will create the identical result from the same recipe. This is what makes us unique human beings; we put our own personal stamp on everything we do. And this is the work of the Holy Spirit. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are for the wellbeing of the body of Christ. Note how the apostle Paul states this truth while placing it in trinitarian language: “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:4-7).

Here in this extraordinary, brilliant passage we see the trinitarian community in all its pageantry. Note the three consecutive statements phrased the same way: “there are varieties of…, but the same…” But these are not just statements about the three ‘persons’ of the Holy Trinity – Spirit, Lord (Jesus, the Son), and God (the Father) – and you can’t help but notice the ascending order from Spirit to God the Father. They are not just statements about the Trinity, because Paul connects each ‘person’ of the Trinity to a distinct aspect of our lives: gifts (χάρισμα) are connected with the Spirit; service (διακονία) with the Lord Jesus; activities (ενέργημα) with God the Father! The life we live in a trinitarian community reflects the trinitarian life of God: Our activities are reflections of God’s loving energy that makes everything possible; our activities are works of service and grace, just as the Lord Jesus served the purposes of God the Father; and we do everything with the gifts that we receive when we are in communion with the Holy Spirit and with each other!

Diversity in unity; unity in diversity. 

The miracle of trinitarian life!

P.S. I used an expanded version of this in our church newsletter.

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Fellowship and Movement

This blog is a place for theological and topical reflections and a sister to the website of the parish that I pastor, Holy Trinity Orthodox Church.

Holy Trinity – what a beautiful name for a Christian congregation, a name that brings us to the heart of the Christian faith. And the heart of the Christian faith is not a dogma, but a fellowship of being. Most Christians relate to the conventional trinitarian terminology “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” as dogma. Of course, it is dogma, a fundamental dogma of Christianity. But it is also a dogma that has been frequently misinterpreted or misapplied. It has led to idolatrous and downright heretical icons showing an old bearded man, a younger bearded man, and a bird! No wonder most people imagine God in masculine terms. We have such an icon in our iconostasion:

The iconostasion at Holy Trinity Church, with "icon of the Holy Trinity" second on the left from the center.

The iconostasion at Holy Trinity Church, with “icon of the Holy Trinity” second on the left from the center (click to enlarge)

We had a second, similar, one at the entrance, but we replaced that one with an icon that more truly represents the Orthodox understanding of Trinity:

HT Icon 35X65 900dpi copy

The Hospitality of Abraham icon at the entrance of Holy Trinity Orthodox Church (click to enlarge)

The icon which Orthodox tradition calls “The Hospitality of Abraham” shows the scene in Genesis 18 when Abraham and Sarah were visited by three men who somehow represented the presence of God. Most likely they were angels, and the icon shows them with wings. But the iconographic tradition is very faithful to the book of Genesis and sees them as somehow representing God the Trinity. Indeed, this is the only acceptable icon of the Trinity; but it must not be taken as a literal representation of the Trinity.

Trinity is fellowship – the fellowship of equals. But within the fellowship of equals, one is the source of being. Notice how the second and third persons are shown leaning toward the first person. Clearly, the two derive their being from the first. There is fellowship and movement in this icon. The inner life of the Trinity is dynamic. If the church is to be the medium of God’s presence and activity in the world, its existence must also be dynamic. The church fails when it chooses the safety of what is known no matter how outdated it is.

The icon of the Hospitality of Abraham saves us from the danger of idolatry. It prevents us from thinking in exclusively masculine terms. The three figures are male, but masculinity is not what defines them. Their appearance and relationship to each other are expressions of profound theology and mysticism. One can pray before such an icon. One can experience mystical unity before such an icon. And every congregation can understand the mission of the church as fellowship and movement.

There is something static about the terminology “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” but the icon reminds us that the Orthodox tradition has drawn on the full richness of biblical language to speak of the Trinity. Especially important is the identity of Jesus as the Word (Logos), just as we read in the Gospel of John. The dynamic Word of God is the means by which God created the universe. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). In Philippians 2:6-11 Paul sees the entire history of Jesus as a story of movement.

The first two verses of the Bible, Genesis 1:1-2, picture the Holy Spirit (the ruah of God) as a wind sweeping over the primeval chaos, before God began to give form to the creation. Today also the Holy Spirit sweeps over the chaos that humans have created: political chaos, economic chaos, environmental chaos, moral chaos, spiritual and psychological chaos, confusion in all realms of life and thought, devaluation of the arts, the loss of human individuality, privacy and freedom… The Spirit is ready to sweep away the chaos. But the chaos is created by us, so the Spirit will not sweep the chaos away without our cooperation.

Jesus, in the Gospel of John, calls the Spirit by the Greek word Paraklitos, which means Comforter, Counselor, Advocate… The Spirit counsels, inspires, guides and comforts us in our struggles. But the Spirit does not impose God’s will on anyone, not even on the planet. Jesus spoke of “rivers of living water” overflowing from the hearts of those who believe in him, and by this he meant the Spirit. The meaning is clear: God gives the Spirit, and we allow the Spirit to flow out of our hearts, our words and actions. We are meant to be co-workers with the Spirit. There are too many in the Church who simply believe that the Spirit blesses everything we undertake, especially if we say the right prayers or do the proper ritual. No, there is freedom in our relationship with God. God respects our freedom. God also is free, and cannot be manipulated by rituals or prayers. God reads our hearts, not our rituals

In the Acts of the Apostles (2:1-4) the Spirit is described as “a violent rushing wind” and “tongues of fire”! In (John 7:37-52), Jesus described the Spirit as “rivers of living water.” Dynamic images of movement describe the Spirit as much as they describe the Word. And it’s all because God wants to share fellowship with us – the same fellowship that exists within the Trinity. Yes, the Trinity is a foundational dogma of the Christian faith. But it is more than dogma. It is an invitation to share life with God and with each other. The life of the Christian should be a life of fellowship and movement. Look upon the icon of the Hospitality of Abraham and enter into the hospitality of God. Next time you enter Holy Trinity Church in Portland stop and gaze on this icon for a bit. Let it show you the inner life of the Trinity. Let it show you the life you and I are to live – a life of fellowship and movement. God does not remain still. Neither should we. The Christian life is meant to be a life of renewal, transformation and TRANSFIGURATION. More on transfiguration as we come to the feast of Transfiguration on August 6th. In the meantime, rejoice in the hospitality of God!