Theological Insights from a Modern Perspective

The Trinitarian Concept

A key dogma in the Christian church is that of the Holy Trinity – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, enigmatically one, yet separate. The source and unity of the Holy Trinity is the Father, Father to both the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Son is begotten of the Father, yet never has the Father existed without the Son. And the Holy Spirit, proceeding from the Father, yet one with both the Father and the Son. Each has been experienced separately within Sacred Scriptures, but acting together as one. The concept of the Trinity is throughout the Old Testament, but not fully revealed until John does it in the opening verses of his Gospel:

John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God. The Word was with God in the beginning. All things were created by him, and apart from him not one thing was created that has been created. In him was life, and the life was the light of mankind. And the light shines on in the darkness, but the darkness has not mastered it.

John 1:32 Then John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending like a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. And I did not recognize him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining – this is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ I have both seen and testified that this man is the Chosen One of God.”

This, along with the beginning of Genesis, is the groundwork for the Trinitarian teachings.

Gen 1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was without shape and empty, and darkness was over the surface of the watery deep, but the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the water. God said, “Let there be light.”

The two phrases from Genesis are the basis for the Holy Trinity, the Spirit of God and the Word of God (God said), with John filling in that Jesus is the Word of God. In Christianity no group can deny the existence of the Holy Trinity and still be fully considered Christian. This has been the unquestioned basis of Christianity since the First Ecumenical Council held in 354 A.D.

That does not mean that the concept is an easy one to understand, three Divine Persons (hypostases) who share a single essence (ousia). Sharing a single essence is not difficult to understand; we, as humans, all share the same human essence, that which makes us human (as opposed to animals, birds, fish, neanderthals) is unique to homo sapiens (our homoousios). The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, all share the same Divine ousia, that which makes them Divine. The other part is the difficult to grasp concept – the three Divine persons are one, have always been one, and always will be one. The name given to Moses by God (Exo 3:14 Ego Eimi) is a unique construct, most Bibles translate is as “I Am”, but that is not quite correct, the Hebrew word (YHWH) is not blocked to a single instance in time, a more appropriate translation would be, “I Was, I Am, I Will Be.” This is the same word Jesus uses to identify himself to the Pharisees during his inquisition, John 8:58 “before Abraham was, I Am.” Thus linking himself to the Eternal God.

But, how do you wrap you mind around the concept that, while we speak of them separately, they are, in reality, one? One Orthodox theologian presents this concept as relating the Holy Trinity to the human being – man is a construct of body, mind, and spirit:

Christ is comparable to the body, since we experienced him as the incarnate Word of God

The Father is the mind, since is is through his thoughts that everything came into being

The Holy Spirit is the spirit, or breath, of man (spirit means breath in the Bible), as the breath comes through the body under control of the mind

This gives us a human perspective on the construct of the Holy Trinity, one that is easy for us to relate to and understand. In the Genesis and John accounts God (the mind) directs the Son (body) to create the earth, which he does through the Spirit (breath). This lets us easily see and understand the distinction between the three persons in the Holy Trinity. While this does enable us to understand the different workings, it falls short in giving us an understanding of how there can be three disctinct “persons” within one “person”. For that I delve back to a time, several decades ago, when I first tackled the mystery of the Holy Trinity, to a book written by renown Orthodox Theologian Fr. Jon Braun, Divine Energy. During my reading of his book I developed the my concept of how we experience three hypostases.

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Imagine, if you will, a blacksmith working on a sword. Constantly heating the steel, then banging it on the anvil to form it into a beautifuly crafted sword: shiny, sharp, and well balanced. But, during the forging process, an amazing state can be observed. In the final stages, when the sword begins to take on its’ characteristic size and shape, we see it emerge from the firey furnace bright, hot, and ready for the tempering process; it is at this point that we can try to understand the relationship of the Holy Trinity.

What we experience at this point is a glowing hot sword. The sword, like the Holy Trinity, has three hypostases that we can experience separate from each other, but at the same time they are all part of the same sword – inseparable, but individually observable.

First, we observe the sword itself, the metal and shape that define that this is a sword, and not just a peice of indistinct metal. This is the Father, the source of everything else that we observe. The strength and source of everything we experience in the Holy Trinity.

The next thing we observe is the bright light, almost blinding, in a smith’s shop it brings light to everything. Just as the Son is the light of the world (John 9:5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”). The light is distince from the sword, but takes its’ very being from the sword, even the shape of the light is the shape of the sword, just as everything which Jesus said and did came from, and took its’ essence from, the Father (John 14:10 The words that I say to you, I do not speak on my own initiative, but the Father residing in me performs his miraculous deeds. Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me”

Finally, we experience the burning heat as it reaches us from the sword. A heat that, even without touching the sword itself, is capable of burning the flesh from man. This is the Holy Spirit, whose form of buring fire was used to purify the Apostles before they set out to evangelize the world (Acts 2:3 “And tongues spreading out like a fire appeared to them and came to rest on each one of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit”). Just as we experience the heat from the sword because it is white hot, so too we experience the Holy Spirit coming from the Father, through his relationship with the Son.

Understanding the concept of the Holy Trinity can be difficult, especially for those just starting to deal deeply with theology. I hope these examples make the doctrine easier to grasp.

Glory to Jesus Christ,

The Modern Theologian

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