Sunday, June 19, 2011

Some Thoughts for Reflection on the Holy Trinity

From another forum (ALPB) comes this summary of the distinction between East and West when it comes to the Trinity.  Most answers on forums or blogs (even this one) are forgettable.  I found this one to be a keeper.  All I can do is to pass it on to you to frame the Filioque debate and the nuance of perspective that separates East and West while suggesting that the fullness includes both. On this Father's Day, I offer it to you, words from "Brother Boris..."  Note especially the words to paragraph #3 and its way of describing Father as fount and source.  It is this aspect of fatherhood that Scripture offers us and this idea of source or fount that we find most difficult to accept today.  In our sense of mutuality, none if before another.  In our sense of time, none is first.  We have fought this in so many different places -- not in the least of them the role of husband and father in the family. 

You may not get it at first and you may not agree with all of it but the Orthodox brother has given us much to chew on here... So read it here:

1.  God is not an individual. That's right.  Our God is most certainly not an isolated individual. He is not a Monad. Jews and Muslims worship a Monad,.  Orthodox Christians worship THREE Diviine persons.  These three Divine Person form a Community with one another that we refer to as the Synod of the Holy Trinity in Greek or the Sobor of the Holy Trinity in Slavonic.  In English this would be best translated as the "Council of the Holy Trinity". 

2.  Why is there one God?  The Eastern Orthodox answer to that question is there is one God because there is one Father.  The person of the Father is the foundation for the Orthodox understanding of the Holy Trinity, not some mystical Divine "substance" that all three share.  That's too philosophical for us.  It's too complicated and detached, and it just doesn't sound like the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to us.   It sounds like the god of academics and philosophers: cold, removed and detached.

3.  So we have God the Father.  What can we say about Him?  Not much, actually. Because He is the most mysterious person of the Godhead. He hasn't revealed that much to us.  So we describe Him by way of the negative (by what He is not, called the apophatic method).  God the Father is neither created, begotten nor proceeding.  He simply IS.  He is the fount and source of the rest of the Holy Trinity.  All other persons in the Trinity are defined by their relationship to Him.  This is referred to as the Father's monarchy.

4. Then we have God the Son.   God the Son is neither created nor proceeding but eternally BEGOTTEN from the Father.  He is the Father's "face" so to speak and has come to reveal the mysterious Father to us. Since He is begotten of the Father, He shares in the Father's essence (Divinity) and is fully God.  Yet He is also fully human since he took flesh from the Most Holy Theotokos and Ever Virgin Mary.  And His human nature and His human mother are of great importance.  For the Orthodox, the whole reason Israel was selected to be the Chosen People of God was to raise up a holy humanity in the person of the Theotokos, a person (as we sing in the Akathist Hymn) who would be the Divine Ladder by which God came down to earth, the Bride of God, the Burning Bush (burning with the fire of divinity within her womb, yet not consumed.) Indeed, all of Israel served to be a preparation for her who would be the Divine Tabernacle containing Christ the Heavenly Bread.  And the purpose for which God the Son came was man's theosis:  that is, to make man like God, to incorporate man into the life of God and rescue him from the bondage to sin, death and the devil into which he had fallen.

5. Then we have God the Holy Spirit.  He is neither created nor begotten, but eternally proceeding from the Father.  He proceeds from the Father alone and not from the Son because the Father is the source, fount, and unity of the Holy Trinity. To make him proceed from the Son, is, in Orthodox eyes, to subordinate the Holy Spirit to the Son.  And that cannot be done.  All three persons of the Holy Trinity are equal and fully God.  So we cannot diminish the role of the Holy Spirit by subordinating Him to the Son.  He stands on His own as fully God. And we cannot, as Augustine did, refer to the Holy Spirit as "the love between the Father and the Son".  To us, that is just hideous. The Holy Spirit is not an emotion. He is a Divine Person, and He has his own unique role that cannot be taken away from Him.  One of the Holy Spirit's roles is to be the Life giver, as we confess in the Nicene Creed: He is the Lord and Giver of Life. At the Incarnation it was the Holy Spirit who overshadowed the Mother of God like a cloud and made her conceive Christ. In the Holy Eucharist also it is the Holy Spirit who descends upon the Bread and Wine and transforms it into the Body and Blood of Christ.  The Holy Spirit is the one who makes Christ present. 


Rev. Eric J Brown said...

So, this might just be me being picky - but did this fellow just toss out "being of one substance" as being too philosophical? Doesn't that just mammothly undercut Nicea? This is especially when he says in Para. 3 that all the other members of the Trinity are defined in terms of their relationship to the Father... and "being of one substance" describes that relationship!

Also, I worry when he views "love" as described by Augustine as an emotion -- for what does he then think the Scriptures mean when they teach that God is Love? First - love describes action - and if it is demeaning to the Spirit to describe Him as love between Father and Son, is he not them implying that John demeans God by saying that God is love?

It's not just Augustine who would blanch at this language - Athanasius and the Cappadocian Fathers would as well.

Pastor Peters said...

No, I do not think he is discarding homousias -- just the idea that God is some sort of divine substance divided up into three parts. Of the same substance does not mean one lump cut into thirds.

While I cannot fully speak for him, would you not agree that Scripture defines the Son and the Spirit in relation to the Father?

Love here is not mere emotion -- feeling -- between the Father and the Son. Here I would suggest that we would agree and that Augustine himself did not mean that the Spirit was not fully person but merely emotion or feeling even though he defined the Spirit in this way.

I think this points to the the tendency in the West to emphasize Unity over Trinity -- not to emphasize Trinity over Unity but as counterbalance.

If anything, the Orthodox are Cappadocian in the way they speak of the Trinity. Interesting point he makes is that Augustine did not speak Greek and the Cappadocians did not speak Latin. Could we still suffer the same problem?

Pastor Peters said...

Here is more from the same author:

The short answer is this: Western theology of the Trinity is Augustinian. Eastern theology of the Trinity is Cappadocian. That's the difference in a nutshell. It isn't that one is "right" and the other is "wrong" as much as it is that they start the discussion at difference places and therefore come to different conclusions.

It is important to remember that the language barrier contributed to this. St. Augustine was not conversant in Greek and I don't think he read many of the Greek fathers of the Church. Therefore it should not surprise us that Augustine uses Latin exclusively as his theological language. The same is true of some of the Greek Fathers. Many of them didn't speak or read Latin, so their theology was developed in isolation from Augustine. This is a HUGE point, and often misunderstood by Western Christians. Augustine's assumptions and presuppositions (which are often taken for granted by Western Christians) are simply unknown in the Christian East. This greatly contributes to the differences between our Trinitarian theology.

At risk of oversimplification, I'll give my explanation:

The Augustian-Western explanation of the Holy Trinity lays great emphasis on God's oneness. God is the three in ONE. The ONE part is a huge emphasis. Whatever the "stuff" of the Godhead consists of, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spririt share this "stuff" in the Western view. This is an abstract view of the Godhead, and I might add also, a very impersonal and philosophical explanation of the Holy Trinity. The reason there is one God in the Western view is because all three Divine persons share the same Divine substance or essence.

The Eastern view is very different from this. The Eastern view emphasizes the THREENESS of God. This is a hard thing for Westerners used to Augustine's approach to wrap their heads around. The Eastern explanation of the Trinity will almost seem polytheistic to a Western Christian at first, but eventually you get used to it.

BrotherBoris said...

Dear Pastor Peters:

I feel so honored to be quoted on your blog. I am a great fan of yours and I read it every day.

When I made my post, I wrote before I had coffee or breakfast. I wasn't sure my words were even coherent. I am genuinely surprised at how well received they were.

Please don't make too much of what I wrote. I am merely an Orthodox layman. I am no spokesman for the Church. I am sure if someone were to go over what I wrote with a fine-toothed comb, he would find some theological inaccuracy.

These thoughts were really not original with me and can be found in the book "The Orthodox Church" by Bishop Kallistos (Timothy) Ware.

I probably over-stated something or over-emphasized something.

Thanks for your charity and kindness.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Oh, I did like the strong emphasis on the relationship aspects - 1, 3, and 4 I like a lot. But I wouldn't want to mess with "substance" in English because that is the heart of how we in English understand the Homoousious.

I think a lot of the difference between East and West is a difference in language - I'd put that at the heart of the filioque controversy -- it really is about what "proceeds" means... and the nuances in Latin and Greek discussions there are quite different. Latin's "procedetum" ends up being more descriptive of the act of sending the Spirit, whereas in Greek "ekporeuomenon" takes more of an derivation of source nuance... if I recall the East tends to be okay with "proceeds the Father through the Son" -- that way the source idea is protected... in Latin it's never threatened. I'm sure there are many other bits of nuance that get brought out. (Toss on top of that we are talking in English, and it's all just a mess)

I wouldn't doubt that some of the nuance also derives from the opponents spoken against. The Greek communities were more apt to have many discussions over and against Jews and then later Muslims -- where the Three aspect would need to be emphasized. The West dealt more with polytheistic pagans, where the Oneness would need to be emphasized.

Theological statements are derived in response to error... and quite often the problem between East and West has been that one hasn't dealt with the problems the other has faced, and then off hand tosses aside their statements and being necessary, silly, and wrong.

Anonymous said...

“For the Orthodox, the whole reason Israel was selected to be the Chosen People of God was to raise up a holy humanity in the person of the Theotokos, a person… “ And, by the way, Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the Living God was also there.

“To make him proceed from the Son, is, in Orthodox eyes, to subordinate the Holy Spirit to the Son. And that cannot be done. All three persons of the Holy Trinity are equal and fully God. So we cannot diminish the role of the Holy Spirit by subordinating Him to the Son.” But we can subordinate Him to the Father? The word “subordinate” cannot be used in connection with the Most Holy Trinity; therefore the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, yet is not subordinate to either, because His will is the will of the Father and the Son.

“In the Holy Eucharist also it is the Holy Spirit who descends upon the Bread and Wine and transforms it into the Body and Blood of Christ.” I have heard some Lutherans assert this, but I find no support for it in Scripture. However, I have never heard an Orthodox Christian assert that on can receive “more” Holy Spirit or that the Holy Spirit “leaks out”, as some Lutherans do. I suppose they couldn’t even fathom how anyone could come up with this idea.

And dear Brother Boris, I have it on good authority that the Holy Spirit dwells in laymen as well, and it is He Who leads us into all truth.

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart
A layman by the grace of God

Pastor Peters said...

Perhaps this is a bit like trying to break open the egg to see what is inside without destroying it, but we do not impose upon God a definition as much as try to capture what He Himself has said. So, often we are left with apparent contradictions that we simply trust rather than understand or reason away. The Trinity are three fully co-equal and yet there is in Scripture an order, even a monarchy, which the Trinity reflects to us -- the Spirit who points to Christ and Christ who points to the Father. Surely the inadequacy of human voice in any language renders us at a disadvantage when speaking of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We summon up words, drawn from His own Word to us, and they become the creedal formulations that give us boundaries for faithful confession. There is a difference between eternal procession and procession in time but how do we speak it -- so the filioque gives us pause to nuance the language. This is one controversy that is born not so much of heresy or apostasy as much as it is like the sharp edge of the knife being made even more sharper. In such an endeavor you might cut yourself a bit -- all the while realizing that sharpness, with all its risk, is the good fruit of our efforts to speak of God. No?