Holy Trinity: What does this doctrine tell us about God?

Because God is impossible to define, members of the early church faced many differences regarding the nature of God. They were afraid that the teaching of the Apostles was being distorted. God had revealed Himself in different ways in the Scriptures and some had difficulty making sense out of these differences. To help resolve such problems, the early Church Fathers engaged in an effort to set a boundary around this great mystery of Who is God. They did not define God, but provided a framework to help us to know God as He has been revealed. The result is not a simple statement that can be fully explained, because there still remains the mystery of the essence of God. The resulting doctrine of the Holy Trinity is a gift to help us know more fully the living realty of our God.

The word Trinity is a combination of two words meaning three and unity. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity tells us that God is three persons in total unity. He is one in essence, but has shown Himself to us as three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. These are separate persons (hypostasis) with individual (hypostatic) attributes, yet all one in essence. Make sense? Probably not completely, because there is a mystery involved that cannot be totally explained.

How can it be one yet be three persons? This is the unexplainable mystery. It is the boundary we have been given. There is not more than one God. Yet, God does not appear to us as only one Person. Think about what kind of relationship would exists between three persons who are really one in essence? Meditating on this question will give you an idea of the kind of relationship we can have with God and the true meaning of God’s infinite love.

There have been many misunderstandings about the nature of the Trinity. One is that the Father is God and the Son and Holy Spirit are only creations of the Father. But, this makes them creatures. The revealed Word shows us that both the Son and the Holy Spirit are uncreated and divine along with the Father. They act with the Father in the act of Creation so cannot be created. They are not creatures.
Another misunderstanding is the idea that God merely appears in different forms - sometimes as Father, others as the Son, or sometimes as the Holy Spirit. But, Scripture clearly says that both the Son and Spirit are “of God” and not merely aspects of God. Both the Son and Holy Spirit are realities with different personalities. They are not just different forms.

A third error is where the Son and Spirit are simply names for relationships that God has with Himself. Again such a view does not leave room for the reality that the Spirit and the Son have an existence and life of their own. If they were only relations that God has with Himself then they would be mere illusions. They are not simply relationships.

An extreme view is that they are really different gods. The Father is one, the Son another, and the Holy Spirit a third. But again we know from Scripture that there is only one God. They are not multiple Gods.

Some of the things the doctrine of the Trinity tells us about God:

1. One God, One Father: There is only one God because there is only one Father.

In the Bible the term "God" with very few exceptions is used primarily as a name for the Father. Thus, the Son is the "Son of God," and the Spirit is the "Spirit of God." The Son is born from the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father -- both in the same timeless and eternal action of the Father's own being. In this view, the Son and the Spirit are both one with God and in no way separated from Him. Thus, the Divine Unity consists of the Father, with His Son and His Spirit distinct from Himself and yet perfectly united together in Him.

2. One God, One Divine Nature and Being: What the Father is, the Son and Spirit are also.

The Son, born of the Father, and the Spirit, proceeding from Him, share the divine nature with God, being "of one essence" with Him. Every attribute of divinity which belongs to God the Father -- life, love, wisdom, truth, blessedness, holiness, power, purity, joy -- belongs equally as well to the Son and the Holy Spirit. The being, nature, essence, existence and life of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are absolutely and identically one and the same.

3. One God: One Divine Action and Will: Whatever the Father wills, the Son and the Holy Spirit also will.

Since they are one, whatever the Father wills, the Son and the Holy Spirit will also. Whatever the Father does, the Son and Holy Spirit do also. There is no will and no action of God the Father which is not at the same time the will and action of the Son and the Holy Spirit. You see the unity here? Every action of God is the action of the Three. No one person of the Trinity acts independently of or in isolation from the others. The action of each is the action of all; the action of all is the action of each. The divine action is essentially one.

4. One God, One Divine Knowledge and Love: Each knows the same Truth and exercises the same Love.

Since they are one, they all have the same truth and exercise the same love. Each person of the Trinity knows and loves the others with such absolute perfection, knowledge, and love that there is nothing unknown and nothing unloved of each in the others. Think about this. If the creaturely knowledge of men can unite minds in full unanimity, and if the creaturely love of men can bring the divided together into one heart and one soul and even one flesh as in marriage, how incomparably more perfect and absolutely uniting must be the oneness when the Knowers and Lovers are eternal and divine.

5. Three Divine Persons

What do we mean when we say they are a person? The Greek word is hypostasis. A person is one who has existence and life - a hypostasis.

God the Father is known as unbegotten. The Son is pre-eternally begotten of the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. While we are taught about the distinction between being begotten and proceeding, we do not know fully what this distinction means. It highlights their differing personalities. We have to remember that we are trying to describe God who is indescribable. These descriptions help us to know more about what God is not, rather than what he is. He is not a single person but three who are in essence one.

How do the Church Fathers explain the Holy Trinity?

One way our early Church Fathers used to explain this doctrine of the Trinity was to think of three people. Then ask, what are they? And you answer, they are humans. As humans they are the same, but when we ask who they are we find that individually they are totally different. They share the same human nature (essence in the case of God) and have the following attribute: created, temporal, physical, rational, etc. When we ask what God is, we come up with attributes such as ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever existing, and eternally the same. But, when we ask who is God we find the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Just like when we ask about what a human being is we identify some common attributes of their sameness, but when we ask who they are then we begin to identify that differences in their personalities. In the revelation of God to us through the Scripture, we see that He has been shown to us in three different persons, but when we seek as to find what each is we come up with the same attributes surrounding His unknowable essence.

Some of the other ways the early Church Fathers attempted to explain the unexplainable were as follows: the sun and its rays of light; the root, trunk and fruit of a tree are different parts of one thing called a tree; a spring of water, the fountain, and the river that feeds it; three candles burning simultaneously giving off a single light; fire and the warmth and light that result. Saint Gregory the Theologian writes, “I have carefully considered this matter with my own mind,... to find some likeness..., but have been unable to discover anything on earth with which to compare the Nature of the Godhead.” So no matter what analogies we come up with, they are all unsatisfactory to explain the unity and diversity of the Holy Trinity to the satisfaction of our rational minds. We must accept with humbleness the mystery that surrounds knowledge of God.

What are some practical benefits of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity?

The Holy Trinity indicates a closeness to God.

We can think of God the Father as being above us as the ever flowing source of love. The Son of God is with us begotten by the Father. The Holy Spirit is in us and all creation. This affirms that God is in all places and fills all things. God is always with and close to us.

Divine Love

Each person of the Trinity knows the same Truth and exercises he same love. The love of each is the Love of all. There is nothing unknown and nothing unloved of each in the other. It is a model of perfect love. Think about this loving relationship. If we unite our minds in full unanimity with another person and act as with one mind and soul what would this be like?. Isn’t this what happens in the sacrament of marriage where the couple is united to become one flesh?. In a marriage we are called to model this perfect love. The knowledge of one is to become the knowledge of the other. The intimacy gained in a marital relationship strives toward this end. They are to have the same love for each other. One is the love for the other. There is to be nothing unknown and nothing unloved of each in the other. As you can see, the Trinity is the model of perfect love to be attained in marriage.

Dorotheos of Gaza has a useful model about love. He says that “the closer we are to God, the closer we become to one another. The closer we are to one another the closer we become to God.” We can think of this relationship as spokes in a wheel with God at the hub. As we move from the rim to the center towards God we come closer together. The more we learn to love in our marriage, the closer we will come to God. This is the path of a married person to take for salvation, to continually work on this loving relationship to help them both come closer to God.

How does the Holy Trinity Operate in Christian Life?

Christ gave us the new commandment for Christian life. He commanded us "to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5:48). He also said, "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you" (Jn 15:12). To carry out this love means to be like the relationship that exists in the Holy Trinity which may seem like an impossibility. But Christ also told us that we cannot live the Christian life without the grace of the Holy Spirit. "For with God all things are possible.” (Mk 10:27) We can become like Christ, doing the things that he did and becoming sons of God in Him by the power of the Holy Spirit. Christ showed us how and the Holy Spirit now provides us with God’s grace to become like God.

How does it relate to our Salvation?

After the fall, God took special actions for our salvation. The Word and the Spirit are sent to the Old Testament saints. The Word “incarnates” himself in the Law as given to Moses. The Spirit inspires the Prophets to encourage the people to honor and recognize their creator. Both the Law and the Prophets are revelations of God. Throughout the Old Testament, there are partial revelations, or "shadows," as the New Testament calls them, that prefigure the total revelation in the "fullness of time" of the Incarnation.

Once the world was made ready:The Virgin is prepared. The Word becomes flesh. The only-begotten Son born fully man and fully God. Then through His teachings, sacrificial death and Resurrection He shows us the way to union with God. After His Crucifixion and Ascension, the Holy Spirit is given to all men, making them sons of the Father, capable of attaining His perfection (theosis) by growing forever, "to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ." (Eph 4:13)

In the NT we have the full manifestation of the Holy Trinity: the Father through the Son in the Spirit to us; and we in the Spirit through the Son to the Father. The essence of Orthodox Christianity is the “acquisition of the Holy Spirit” and the “deification” of man by the grace of God, or theosis. The Fathers of the Church unanimously claim that Christian life is the participation in the life of the blessed Trinity in the most genuine and realistic way. The Orthodox Christian life is about becoming divine in union with God.