This is a summary of a well-known talk on the Trinity by a well-known Eastern Orthodox theologian, Father Thomas Hopko. I added some comments. I do not agree with everything which Hopko says, but I think he did a brilliant job of reconciling the ancient creeds with the Bible. The reader is advised to listen to that podcast before reading this article. But first, I would like to argue why we should listen to the Eastern Orthodox Christians:
The Eastern Orthodox Church
The beliefs of Eastern Orthodoxy is important because Christianity originated in the Eastern Roman Empire (in Judea) and because most of the Christian theologians of the first centuries, like Athanasius, Origen, the Cappadocian Fathers, and Augustine of Hippo were from the Eastern Roman Empire, including Africa. For that reason also, most of the delegates at Nicaea in 325 AD were from the Eastern Roman Empire (God in Three Persons, Millard J. Erickson, p82-85). However, the Muslim conquests of the seventh century and later significantly weakened the church in the east. At the same time, the church in the Western Roman Empire – the Church of Rome – became a powerful force in Europe. For that reason, the theology of the church in the Western world today has been inherited, largely, from the Church of Rome.
There always were theological differences between the east and the west. For example, over the day on which Passover should be celebrated and the filioque controversy. As another example, at the Council of Sardica, somewhere in 342 to 347, many Eastern bishops left the meeting to hold another council in Philippopolis because they were fearing domination of the council by Western bishops (Pavao, p120). Pavao claimed that “Arianism was exclusively an eastern phenomenon even prior to Nicea” (Decoding Nicea, p115). Consequently, the development of theology in the east followed a different path than in the west. Furthermore, the persecution that the church in the east suffered over the centuries stifled the development of doctrines. The church in the east, for that reason, retained the theology of the early church to a greater extent.
For these reasons, I propose, it is important that we understand how the Eastern Orthodox Church understands the Trinity.
In this section, I summarize Hopko’s talk. According to Hopko:
The Trinity is the tri-hypostatic Divinity or Godhead; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; one in essence and undivided.
Jesus of Nazareth is “the Christ; the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16). He is not created but begotten timelessly of the Father before all ages. Therefore, He is divine with the same divinity as the one true and living God. As the Nicene Creed says, “God from God, true God from true God … homoousios” with the Father. The term homoousios might be better translated as “who is of the same divinity as the one God who is His Father.”
He is the Logos (Word) and Wisdom and Icon (Image) of God. Since John 1:1c means that the Word is divine with the same divinity as God, it should be translated as “and the Word was divine.”
The One God
The one God in whom we believe is not the Holy Trinity. The one God is the Father of Jesus Christ. To say that there is one God who is the Holy Trinity is Modalism. We may use the terms tri-personal or tri-hypostatic divinity but there is no tri-personal God.
As the Son is the Logos and Wisdom OF God and the Spirit OF God, the Son and the Spirit belong to the Father.
The one true and living God, who is the Father Almighty, has never been and will never be separated from His Son and His Spirit. He would be God without the hundred billion galaxies but He would not be God without the Logos and the Spirit. He has with Him eternally His Son and His Holy Spirit.
The church fathers would never have said that the Father is of one essence with the Son. They would only say that the Son is of one essence with the Father. As there is one God – the Father, there is one divine nature. Since the Son is “God from God” (Nicene Creed), His divinity is the Father’s divinity (or nature). The divinity of the Holy Spirit is also the Father’s divinity.
Hopko never explicitly describes the Son as part of God but he does quote Irenaeus saying that the Son and the Spirit are the two hands of God. And at another point, he implies that the Son is “an element of the divinity and being of God.”
Act as One
The Father, Son, and Spirit act as one. Every activity of God (creation, sanctification, redemption, etc.) comes from the Father, through the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit comes forth from God by the manner of procession; He proceeds from Him. He is not another Son.
The Spirit of God does not proceed from the Father AND the Son together; He proceeds from the Father alone. The Spirit is also the Spirit of the Son because He proceeds from the Father and rests on the Son. Everything that the Son has, divinely or humanly, He has received from the Father. From the Son, the Spirit then proceeds to us. The Son is the agent of all of the Father’s activities in the world, including the sending of the Holy Spirit.
The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three Persons or three hypostasies. But hypostases is a better term because there are three instances of divine life in perfect and total unity.
This very one who is begotten of the Father is born as a man (as a human being) from the virgin Mary. The Logos is NOT so perfectly divine, as some say, that He cannot become flesh; that He cannot become man. As the Nicene Creed says, He became flesh (incarnate) AND He became human (was made man). He is a real human being but He is not a mere human being. He is the divine Son of God who is also Mary’s son, who is a real human being just like we are.
He is divine with the same divinity as the one and true living God AND He is human with the humanity which all men and women have.
That is why He has two natures, meaning that He is fully divine but also fully and completely, truly human.
While the Godhead are three divine hypostases (Persons) with one divine nature, Jesus Christ is one hypostasis (one Person) with two natures because divine.
The Holy Trinity is the tri-personal Godhead; the one God and Father, the one Lord Jesus Christ, and the one Holy Spirit in perfect unity.
– END OF SUMMARY –
In this section, I provide a summarized transcript of Hopko’s talk which I typed myself. Perhaps the reader will be able to listen to the talk while reading this. I added headings, comments, and text references.
The Trinity is the tri-hypostatic Divinity – the tri-personal Godhead; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; one in essence and undivided.
Importance of the Trinity
The dogma of the Holy Trinity is often called the dogma of dogmas, like the Lord of Lords, or King of kings.
Saint Gregory, the theologian, said that, when it comes to various other doctrines, not to get it completely totally accurate is not supremely dangerous for the salvation of souls, but when it comes to God – how the one God and Father relates to the only-begotten Son and Holy Spirit, if you don’t get that right, everything else is skewed, for all the other doctrines are rooted and grounded in the right understanding of the relationship and the communion that exists between the one God and Father, and His one only-begotten Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
The word Trinity
“Trinity” is not a Biblical word. It is a word that emerged in Christian history – very early – in the second and third centuries.
Who is Jesus?
The Trinity can only be properly understood when we begin with contemplating the Person of Jesus. The Trinity doctrine is the elaboration or outgrowth of the confession of who and what Jesus is.
Who Jesus is, is rooted and grounded in the gospel itself. The main question of the gospel is, “Who do you say I am?” That is the main question which Jesus asks in the gospels. After preaching, teaching, doing His miraculous signs – after He does all the things that the Scriptures said that the Messiah would do when he came, namely to bring the kingdom of God to the world and to bring all created beings in perfect harmony with the uncreated (God), Jesus asks, “Who do you say I am?”
COMMENT: Here, Hopko says much more than what I typed. I think his argument is that God, through Jesus, when “the end” comes, will restore perfect peace in all the universe (1 Cor 1:24) and that the world had a foretaste of this when He was on earth. We see that in how He healed people and how He controlled the winds and the waves of nature.
In response, Christians confess that Jesus of Nazareth is the messianic prophet, priest and king; the Christ; the Son of the living God; the Lord. Christians confess that Jesus of Nazareth is the incarnate Word of God; the Logos and wisdom of God in human flesh. He is the Son of God; begotten of the Father before all ages and born of the theotokos Mary; the birth giver of God on earth. He is divine with the same divinity as the one true and living God. In the language of the Nicene Creed, He is “God from God, true God from true God; begotten of the Father; not created, of one very same essence (ousia) – one same being or divinity with God the Father Himself.”
All of that is the result of the confession of who Jesus is. The question is given by Jesus Himself: “Who do you say I am?” And that is where Peter confessed, in what may be called the fundamental Christian Creed: “You are the Christ; the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16).
Jesus then said to Peter, “flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven” (Matt 16:17). He added that the whole foundation of the covenant church – the ultimate final church on the planet earth would be those who believe that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of the living God.
COMMENT: This is an interesting interpretation of Jesus’ words: “you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church” (Matt 16:18).
God is not the Trinity
It is critically important to note that, in the Bible and, therefore, in the creeds, such as the Nicene Creed (325) and Creed of Constantinople (381), the one God in whom we believe is not the Holy Trinity. The one God is God the Father. In the Bible, the one God is the Father of Jesus Christ. He is the Father who sends His only begotten Son into the world.
And Jesus Christ is the Son of God. In a parallel manner, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God and, because the Christ is the Son of God on whom God the Father sends and affirms His Holy Spirit, the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ – the Messiah. This is very important because there are wrong understandings of the Holy Trinity.
These are those who deny that there is a trinity of divine Persons – of divine hypostasies. Unitarians would say that God is just a unipersonal nomad and that He has no Son; the divinity is His and His alone, and everything that exists in addition to the one God is a creature – has been created by God – has been brought into being out of nothing – not an element of the divinity and being of God Himself.
COMMENT: The Nicene Creed also uses the phrase “out of nothing.” It refers to things that have been created, in contrast to the Son and the Spirit that are “out of” the uncreated being of God.
COMMENT: The phrase “not an element of the divinity and being of God Himself” implies that, in Hopko’s theology, the Son and the Spirit are elements of the divinity and being of God. That is similar to the pre-Nicene Fathers, who thought of Christ as “a derivation and portion of the whole” (Tertullian (AD 165-225), in Against Praxeas 9 “Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. III : Against Praxeas”)
Here the orthodox Christian would say that that is just plain wrong. It is an incorrect understanding of what it means that Jesus is THE Son of God, THE Wisdom of God, and THE Icon of God. To say that the Word of God is a creature would be a wrong interpretation of both the New and Old Testaments. To say that the Spirit of God is a created being would just be totally wrong.
The other terrible error is usually called Modalism. This is where people say that there is one God who is the Holy Trinity. They say, ‘He who is the Trinity’.
COMMENT: With this, I think, Hopko classifies the western understanding of the Trinity as Modalism (Sabellianism).
We orthodox Christians, following Scripture and the credal statements, can never say this. We say, there is the one God who is the Father, and He has with Him eternally, whom He begets timelessly before all ages, His only begotten Son, who is also His Logos (His Word) and His Wisdom and His Icon (Image), but this only begotten Son is divine with the very same divinity as the one true and living God. He is another (different?) Who from the Father.
Three Instances of Divine Life
There are three ‘Whos’; He who is the Father, He who is the Son and He who is the Holy Spirit. They are three Persons or three hypostasies. But hypostases is a better term because there are three instances of divine life in perfect and total unity.
The Son of God
But it is important to remember that the one God is the Father of Jesus: Jesus is the Son of God. As the Nicene Creed says, Jesus is “God from God; true God from true God.”
God’s Son, who is of the same divinity as the Father and who is born from Him; comes forth from Him. And this one true and living God also has with Him His Spirit who proceeds from Him – who comes forth from Him.
Begetting versus Proceeding
According to the Scriptures, the Son comes forth from God by means of begetting; He is a Son as a son is to a father. That is who and what the Son is.
And the Holy Spirit comes forth from God by the manner of procession. He is not another Son. It is a different kind of relationship.
The Son is the Son of God because He is begotten of the Father, meaning that He has no human begetter. He has no human father. His Father, literally, is God. God, who is His Father, begets Him before all ages.
Begetting versus Born
And then this very one who is God’s Son is born as a man (as a human being) from the virgin Mary. In Greek, the same verb, when it applies to the Father, is “beget.” When it applies to a mother, it is “born.” So, we would not say that Jesus was begotten of Mary humanly; He was “born” of Mary humanly. But we would also not say that He was born of the Father; He was begotten of the Father.
In John’s gospel, in the beginning, the Logos was with God, and the Logos was divine. All things came to be through Him (John 1:1-2). Orthodox Christians interpret these sentences to show that the Logos is really divine with the same divinity as the Father.
And then in the prologue of John’s gospel, it says that “the logos became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). As the Nicene Creed would say:
the only-begotten …
Who for us men, and for our salvation,
came down and was incarnate and was made man
You have those two words; that He became flesh (incarnate) and He became human (was made man), born of the virgin Mary. So, He who was divine became human.
If we ask who He is, He is the divine Son of God who is also Mary’s son, who is a real human being just like we are. That is why Eastern Orthodox Christians reject Nestorianism.
We not only deny Arianism which says that the Logos – the Son of God was a creature. No, He is not a creature. He belongs to the being of God and His being is divine.
But we also deny the Nestorians who say that the one born of Mary is NOT the same one as the One begotten of the Father; that the Logos is so perfectly divine that He cannot become flesh; that He cannot become man. The Nestorians say that He can be enjoined to or united with a man but He cannot really be born of a woman. Eastern Orthodox Christians say, o yes, He can and He did. Truly divine and truly human. That is why the council of Chalcedon would say that He is divine with the same divinity as the one and true living God – the One who is the one God – AND He is human with the humanity which all men and women have. That is why we say He is of two natures or has two natures, meaning that He is truly divine and truly human.
Jesus is called God.
And when He is divine, we can call Him God.
Thomas did call Him God. He exclaimed, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).
Some of the sentences of Paul can be read as if Jesus is called God. It depends a little bit on punctuation, but like “our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).
Even certain Old Testament terms, like calling Him Lord in a divine manner, such as, “The LORD (YHVH) says to my Lord, Sit at My right hand” (Psm 110:1). He is using the same term for the one who sits at His right hand as for God Himself, for “the LORD” mean Yahweh and Yahweh is God.
And Jesus in John’s gospel even uses the “I am,” for example, “before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). That is a divine name. So, here, the confession is that the man Jesus is the divine Son of God.
And that is what the council of Nicaea defended. The Nicene Creed used one non-Biblical term to make this point, and that term is homoousios, which can be translated “of one essence” or “of the same essence” or “substance.” Sometimes to be clearest, we might better translate it into English as “who is of the same divinity as the one God who is His Father.” And that is how the Bible speaks.
The Trinity in the Bible
Many years ago, I went to my professor of theology and I said to Him, Prof, I do not find the Trinity in the Bible.
Of course, in those days I had a very skewed idea of the Trinity. I thought of the Trinity as one God who is somehow three, like three-leave clover or water could be liquid or steam or ice. In fact, I have come to learn that those symbolisms are modalistic. They are not accurate. You can speak of God as fountain and stream or something like fire and heat and warmth as emanating from God the Father through His Son Jesus Christ and His Spirit, but not all analogies are apt.
To understand the Trinity properly, you begin with Jesus and you read the Scriptures. Then you can contemplate how the one God is God the Father WITH His Son and WITH His Spirit. Very often the preposition “with” is used but “and” is also used. For example, in the baptismal formula, we baptize in the name of the Father and, therefore, also of the Son because there is no Father without the Son and, therefore, also the Holy Spirit because there is no Holy Spirit without the Father and the Son. And there is no Son without the Father and the Spirit. And there are no Son and Spirit without the Father.
The church fathers of the fourth century, like Gregory the theologian, would never have said that the Father is of one essence with the Son. They would only say that the Son is of one essence with the Father. The reason is that the Son’s divinity is the Father’s divinity. The Son is “God from God” (Nicene Creed). He is a divine Person “from” the one God.
In the Old Testament, there is also the “word” of God and the “Spirit of God” who is not God but is “of” God and divine with the same divinity as God. The Spirit of God inspired the prophets. You will read texts like; the heavens were made by the Word of the LORD; all the earth by the breath of His lips.” You will find sentences about the son of man that is presented to the Father (Dan 7:13).
You cannot read the New Testament without God, who is clearly God, who is not Jesus and who is not the Holy Spirit. And you can’t read the New Testament without Jesus Christ who is not God the Father and who is not the Holy Spirit. And you can’t read the Scriptures without meeting at every page the Holy Spirit, who is not the Son and who is not the Father. But when you read the text, you see that the Son and the Spirit are OF the Father – FROM the Father – BELONGING TO the Father.
Yet, they are divine. They present themselves as fully divine and like the two hands of God (quoting Irenaeus). God is not without His hands. He never works with only one hand. When God speaks His word, He breaths, and when He breaths, He speaks. You cannot even think of God without His Son. Then you come to the conclusion that the one true and living God is the Father. The one true and living God is not the Creator. God would be God without the hundred billion galaxies. But God would not be God without the Logos and the Spirit; without the Word of God and the Breath of God.
So, even if you would speak to a good orthodox Jew and ask, is God ever devoid of His wisdom? A good orthodox Jew would say, never! Is God ever without His word? Never! Is God ever without His breath? No, no, He is the living God; the Spirit of God is divine. So, we Christians could say, see, you believe in the Holy Trinity because you cannot conceive of God without His Word and without His Spirit.
The Son of God is a real human being but He is not a mere human being. He is the human being that the Son of God has become when He was born of Mary.
John is the great theological gospel that shows the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But if you just take Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
When they speak of the birth of Jesus, they say He would be called the Holy One, the Son of the Most High; that He will establish the kingdom of God, His Father is God.
He has no human father. He is conceived of the Holy Spirit. Just like the Spirit of God brooded over the emptiness at the beginning of creation, so the same the Holy Spirit brooded over the barren womb of Mary and then God speaks His Word and His Word is incarnate in Mary’s womb. The Word becomes flesh in Mary’s womb.
When He goes to the temple, He says He must be about His Father’s work and He is filled with the Holy Spirit.
At His baptism, The Father speaks and says, “this is my beloved Son” and the Spirit rests on Him in the form of a dove.
The Spirit is the Spirit of God who is His Father, but then He says that the Spirit is His own Spirit because everything that He has, divinely of humanly, He has received from the Father.
In Hebrews, it even said that it was the Spirit of God who led the Son of God to be crucified in the flesh for the salvation of the world. In John’s gospel, He says the Father is always with Him (John 8:29; 16:32).
So, as a Christian, you cannot contemplate God without immediately and necessarily contemplating the Son and the Holy Spirit. The minute I think about God, I think about Christ and the Spirit. You cannot think about one without thinking about all three.
The Spirit is the Spirit of the Son because He proceeds from the Father and rests on the Son. That is why we orthodox is against the filioque in the creed (“and the Son” – Athanasian Creed). There was a break with the West. We claim that the Spirit of God does not proceed from the Father and the Son together. We believe that He proceeds from the Father alone. And He rests on the Son from all eternity and does the same thing when the Son becomes man. He rests upon Him as a man too. We can say that the Spirit proceeds to us from the Father THROUGH the Son. That is true. The Son is the agent of all of the Father’s activities in the world, including the sending of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus said, “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father” (John 15:26).
Three in Perfect Unity
So, you always have these three in perfect unity. Therefore, when I think of one, I immediately think of all three together.
There is one God because there is one Father. And there is one God because there is one divine nature of the Father, which is the nature of the Son and the nature of the Holy Spirit too. So, the Son and the Spirit are of the same essence as the Father. That is what Scripture teaches us, if you put it in philosophical terms. That is what the Bible teaches. They needed that word (homoousios) to defend the Bible.
And when you contemplate the activities of God, you see that every activity proceeds from the Father. The Source of every divine activity – creation, sanctification, redemption, whatever God is doing, it comes from the Father – it is God’s. But the Agent is always the Son. God creates through His Son. He speaks through His Son. He redeems through His Son. So, the Son is His Word. The Son is the Savior, but then, all these activities are accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit. So, every activity of God is from the Father, through the Son in the Spirit. Or, you can say from the Father, AND the Son AND the Spirit.
So, we worship the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit – the Trinity; one in essence; undivided. We pray to thee, o one God and Father, AND thy only-begotten Son AND thy Holy Spirit.
The Son is incarnate and crucified, but the Father is in Him at all time. He is never separated from the Father. Even when He experiences in His humanity the abandonment of God to die the death, He is not separated from the Father. God is in Him. The Holy Spirit is in Him. God, the Father, is raising the dead through Him by the power of the Holy Spirit.
So, when we think of the one God and Father, who is never devoid of His Son and Spirit, we think of the one divinity.
No Triune God
In eastern orthodoxy, the term triune God is not a traditional formula. You find the term tri-personal or tri-hypostatic divinity. There is no tri-personal God. There is the one God and Father Almighty. That is the one God. But then that one God is Father eternally with His Son who is God from God, and with His Holy Spirit.
Is the Spirit called theos?
The Nicene Creed did not call the Holy Spirit theos (God). Gregory, the theologian, was the first one to do that – late in the fourth century. The Bible never calls the Holy Spirit theos. The Nicene Creed called the Son “God from God” but it did not call the Spirit “God from God.” The closest thing in the Bible is when it says that Ananias and Saphira lied to “God.”
“Why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit … You have not lied to men but to God” (Acts 5:3-4).
And then Jesus said that the one sin that is unforgivable is the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. And blasphemy can only be done against God – a divine Person.
Three Persons with one divine nature
What we say is that the Godhead are three divine hypostases (Persons) with one divine nature. There is one God and Father, whose nature also belongs to the Son and Spirit and there is one divine activity with three who act; the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Then we say that Jesus is one hypostasis (one Person) with two natures because He is fully divine but, because He is also born of Mary, He is fully and completely, truly human.
So, we have, the Godhead being three Persons in one nature, and then we have Jesus Christ being one Person in two natures.
So, how must we think about the Trinity? We begin with the Scriptures, we contemplate Christ, then we contemplate how Christ relates to the one God and Father, how He relates to the one Holy Spirit. We see how the unity of the divine divinity belongs to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This is what we must always remember and never forget – it begins with Christ and it begins with the Scriptures. It begins with the activity of God in saving the world in the Person of Jesus. It begins with the question, “Who do you say I am?” And when we say, “You are the Christ, the Son of God,” the result will be the dogma of the Holy Trinity – the tri-personal Godhead; the one God and Father, the one Lord Jesus Christ and the one Holy Spirit in perfect unity.
Article Series on this Website
Jesus Christ and the Trinity
- There is no evidence for everlasting torment in the Bible.
- The Gospel in Galatians
- Who is Israel in the book of Revelation? – Romans 9 and 11
- Why Satan thought he could win against God (Job
- The first 30 years of the church
- The Law of Moses
- The Return of Christ