Understanding the Holy Trinity
Updated: Jun 7, 2020
By Robert Latsko, M.Div., M.Arch.
First Published in "SOLIA" May/June 2010
Orthodox Christians believe in and worship the Holy Trinity. After receiving Holy Communion we boldly exclaim, “We have found the true Faith.... worshiping the undivided Trinity, Who has saved us.”
Even though the term “Holy Trinity” is not found in the Bible, the Holy Trinity is biblical — all the books of the New Testament (and some of the books of the Old Testament) speak about the relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Trinity was manifested for the first time in a clear way when Jesus Christ was baptized in the Jordan by John the Baptist. “And when Jesus was baptized, He went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on Him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with Whom I am well pleased’” (Matthew 3:14-15). The main hymn of the feast of Theophany explains this event: “When Thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest! For the voice of the Father bore witness to Thee, calling Thee His beloved Son. And the Spirit, in the form of a dove, confirmed the truthfulness of His word. O Christ our God, Who has revealed Thyself and hast enlightened the world, glory to Thee.”
We bless ourselves with the sign of the cross saying, “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.” The words “and to the” in this doxology are there for a reason. The Holy Trinity is a relationship between three divine Persons (the words “and to the” preserves this distinction) Who are united by divine Love. We can, in a simple way, think of the phrase, ‘and to the’ as the love that unites the three Persons. The biblical verse, “God is Love” (1 John4:8), is very profound. God is not a mathematical "one”—if He were, He would not be Love, but would be the opposite of love. We know this from our own human experience—when we are alone with no one to relate to it is not good— in fact, it often is hell. God Himself said after creating Adam, “It is not good for Adam to be alone” (Genesis 1:26). Human beings have been created in the image and likeness of the Holy Trinity. God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness (Genesis 1:26) and not “Let me make man in my image according to my likeness.” Since the Godhead is a plurality of divine Persons of the same divine nature, God has created human beings as male and female—a plurality of persons of the same human nature. “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created them” (Genesis1:27)
In the Old and New Testaments the term “God” generally refers to the Person of the Father (except in a few cases where “God” is used in the generic sense of divinity—such is the case with John 1:1, “And the Word was God”). We can, therefore, substitute the term “Father” for most places where “God” is found in the Bible. When we do this we can see more clearly the relationships between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. For instance, we often read and hear the term “Son of God.” This term, therefore, means “Son of the Father” and clearly shows a relationship between the Father and the Son. When we read “God’s Son” we can render it as “the Father’s Son.” When we read “God’s Spirit” we can render it as “the Father’s Spirit.” All these terms, as well as “Spirit of the Son,” are biblical and show the relationship between the Persons of the Holy Trinity.
The term “God the Father” is biblical, but the terms “God the Son” and “God the Holy Spirit” are NOT. Many people, many of whom pride themselves on their knowledge of the Bible, use the terms “God the Father,” “God the Son,” and “God the Holy Spirit” when speaking of the Holy Trinity. This is WRONG because the relationships between the divine Persons (which is essential in our Orthodox Christian understanding of the Holy Trinity) are destroyed and the temptation to think of God in terms of “Modalism” becomes present. “Modalism” is the ancient heresy that said that the one God expresses Himself in three different ways. This heresy says that God the Father can shift into a different “mode” and express Himself as God the Son or God the Holy Spirit at different times.
The terms, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not terms which a patriarchal (male dominated) society has pinned on God, but rather are terms which God has given us as being most appropriate to express the reality of what is happening in the Trinitarian Godhead. We cannot substitute “inclusive language” terms such as “Mother” and “Daughter” or “Creator” [for “Father”], “Redeemer” [for “Son”], and “Sanctifier” [for “Spirit”], because these terms lead to a false understanding of the relationships between the three divine Persons.
Every action of God is a Trinitarian action. No one Person of the Trinity ever acts alone without the consent and action of the others, because they all share the self-same Divine Will. A good example of this is the creation of the universe. The Father is not the Creator alone. He creates by means of His Son (His Word)) and Spirit. “In the beginning, God [the Father] created the heavens and earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God [the Holy Spirit] was moving over the face of the waters. And God said [God’s Word], ‘Let there be light’; and there was light” (Genesis 1:1-3). St. Paul made it clear that the Son was involved in creation when he wrote, “All things were created through Him [the Son] and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16-17).
Although the Father is the Source (Principle or Cause) of the Son and the Holy Spirit, He alone has always been “Father.” There was never a time when the Father was “alone in His divinity” without His Son and Spirit. There was never a time when the Son was not (this is the heresy of “Arianism”), and there was never a time when the Spirit was not. The Holy Trinity simply exists and always has existed. The Old Testament name for God, “I Am,” expresses this (see Exodus 3:14). The Trinity is not the result of a process—God does not change and cannot “improve.” Human beings, on the other hand, have been created to change “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18) and to become “perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48).
The Holy Trinity is eternal, where “eternal” is understood to mean existence in “timelessness” and “spacelessness.” Time and space are created entities and God does not need them to exist. Because God created time and space, He is not constrained by them. The Creator is stronger than His creation—and this is why God can see the past, present and future all at once and can be everywhere “at the same time.”
The Son of God is eternally born of the Father (we use the biblical term “begotten” to refer to this: John 1:14) and the Spirit eternally comes forth from the Father (we use the biblical term “proceeds” to refer to this: John 15:26). We cannot use the term “begotten” to refer to the manner in which the Spirit comes forth from the Father because that would wrongly imply that the Father has two Sons.
We often hear the phrase “one in essence” in our Church. We say every Sunday when we recite/sing the Nicene Creed that the Son of God is “of one essence with the Father.” We also sing every Sunday the hymn, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Trinity, one in essence and undivided.” This phrase, “one in essence,” is the English translation of the Greek word “homoousios,” which is a theological term developed by the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council (at Nicaea in 325 A.D.) to express how the Son is exactly what the Father is. The Son of God is “true God of true God” as we say in the Nicene Creed. The Son is exactly what the Father is in terms of His divine attributes and divine Nature, but He is not Him! The only difference is that the Father is the Father, and the Son is the Son, and the Spirit is the Spirit! Note that Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, is not only “homoousios” with the Father, but He is also “homoousios” with us! Jesus Christ is both fully divine and fully human (He is therefore the “God-Man”).
Because the Son of God is “of one essence with the Father,” Jesus Christ can say, “I and the Father are one” (John10:30) and “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). All the attributes relative to the Father’s being belong also to the Son. Jesus Christ “is the likeness of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4) and we can see “the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). The Son is the radiance of the Father’s glory. The Son is God’s perfect self-expression—God’s Life, God’s Power, God’s Word, God’s Wisdom, etc. “Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1Corinthians 1:24).
We often refer to Jesus Christ as “Lord.” We hear in the Liturgy, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages.” “Lord” is a term that was used in the Old Testament to refer to God. We can also refer to the Holy Spirit as “Lord,” because the Holy Spirit is also “God” in a generic sense (“And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life”: Nicene Creed).
St. Paul also refers to Jesus Christ as “the Rock” (“and the Rock was Christ: 1 Corinthians 10:4) knowing that the Rock of Israel, according to the Old Testament, was Yahweh. St. Paul, therefore, identifies the pre-existent Christ with Yahweh—with God. It is for this reason that the words “I AM” are written in the halo of every icon of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the “I AM” Who spoke to Moses from the burning bush. “I AM” is the literal translation of the Hebrew word, “Yahweh.” One of the reasons that the Jews sought to kill Jesus was, in fact, because He said that He is the I AM. “‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.’ So they took up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple” (St. John 5:58-59). The Orthodox Church makes it very clear to all that we believe Jesus Christ to be more than simply a “good man,” an “inspired teacher,” (a “rabbi”), or “a prophet”—He is the Son of God Who became a man to die on a cross and to rise again for our salvation.
The Son of God relates to God the Father by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father (cf. John 15:26) and eternally radiates from the Son, enabling the Son’s eternal relationship with the Father. This same Holy Spirit has been sent to us so that we may also have the same type of relationship with the Father as does the Son. The Son’s relationship with the Father, however, is by nature, and our relationship with the Father is by grace (God’s power). Before His Ascension into heaven, Jesus said, “you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:8). The Holy Spirit’s mission in us is to empower us, to enlighten us, and to inspire in us a relationship with the Father through the Son. The words of St. Paul confirm what Jesus promised, “If the Spirit of Him [God the Father] Who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He Who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through the Spirit which dwells in you” (Romans 8:11). The understanding that we are to have a relationship with the Father is shown clearly by the fact that the ‘prayer of all prayers,’ which Jesus Christ, the Son of God incarnate, has given us is “Our Father Who art in heaven....”
There is only one uncreated Son of God (“Begotten of the Father before all ages”: Nicene Creed), but as a result of the action of the Persons of the Holy Trinity toward man, there is now a possibility that there can be many created sons of God. We all have the opportunity to be sons of God by adoption. “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Romans 8:14) ... “and because you are sons, God [referring to the Father] has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts crying, Abba! Father! (Galatians 4:6) We receive the gift of the Holy Spirit at the time of our baptism (cf. Luke 3-16, Romans 6:3). Baptism with the Holy Spirit (“... you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit”—Acts 1:5) is the way we unite ourselves to Christ and the way we become members of His Body, the Church. “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Corinthians 12:13). It is the one and same Holy Spirit who sanctifies and illumines all people of all times and places. The ultimate source of the Holy Spirit’s actions is God the Father. “He [God the Father] is the source of your life in Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 1:30).
Without the Holy Spirit dwelling in us (“... your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God” 1 Corinthians 6:19) we could not call God “our Father” and we could not say “Jesus is Lord.” No one can say “Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit (1Corinthians 12:3). The way to divine knowledge ascends from the one Spirit, through the one Son, to the one Father, which conceptualizes how God communicates to man and how man communicates with God. It is for this reason that St. Basil the Great, a great theologian of the Church, approves of the doxology, “Glory to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit,” as well as the more common, “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.”
We say “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit,” and not “Glory to the Son and the Holy Spirit and to the Father,” or Glory to the Holy Spirit and to the Father and to the Son” (or any other order) because there is a hierarchy within the order of the Trinitarian Godhead. The Father is the “First Person” of the Holy Trinity; the Son is the “Second Person” of the Holy Trinity; and the Holy Spirit is the “Third Person” of the Holy Trinity. The Father is the “First Person” because He is the Begetter of the Son and the Source of the Holy Spirit. We know from Scripture that the Father is the “First Person” because Jesus Christ, the Son of God incarnate, said “The Father is greater than I” (John 14:28). This hierarchy, however, does not imply any “subordinationism” (an ancient heresy which said that the Son and the Spirit do not have the same degree of divinity as the Father), or “domination” by any one Person of the Holy Trinity. There is always a perfect relationship of Love between the Persons of the Trinity.
We can pray to the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit “individually,” or we can pray to the Holy Trinity “together.” Examples of these types of prayers are the “Our Father,” the “Jesus Prayer” (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”), “O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth...” and “All-Holy Trinity have mercy upon us...” We can pray to any one Person of the Trinity however, only by involving the other two—because of the Unity of the Holy Trinity. Orthodox Christian prayer is always Trinitarian, whether we realize it or not. Whenever we pray to the Father, it is only through the Son (Jesus Christ), by means of the Holy Spirit. Whenever we pray to the Son, Jesus Christ, we are praying to the Person Who, in His resurrected body, radiates the Holy Spirit which comes forth from the Father. Whenever we pray to the Holy Spirit, it is only because the Son has sent Him to us and continually sends Him to us from the Father.
The Holy Trinity is a communion of divine Persons in Love, and the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit want to share this love with us. Jesus prayed, “Holy Father, keep them in my name, which Thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are one” (John 17:11).