1. First principle: The being of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit is inherently relational and in communion.
Many people in the world affirm a belief in God as the Personal Absolute, but the One God for them is also One Person. This is obviously the case for Judaism and Islam: Muslims and Jews affirm a belief in a personal God, but deny the Trinity. But even people who claim to be Christian will often speak of God as the Father and not believe in the Trinity. In the early church, when Arius put forward the heretical view that Christ the Son of God was a creature, one of the key arguments against him made by St Athanasius and others was that the name “Father” implied the name “Son” from all eternity. There was no time or age when God was not Father, and the Person of the Father implies the Person of the Son. In other words, God as “person” or “personal” implies “persons”, moreover persons in loving and total communion (He who has seen Me has seen the Father… I am in the Father and the Father in me
On a side note here, we should be wary of the tendency among many in modern society to speak of the three “Abrahamic Religions”, meaning by this term Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. There is only one religion of Abraham: Christianity. As Christ Himself declares,
Abraham rejoiced to see my day;
and he saw it, and was glad
There is only one God of Abraham, and that is the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Those who deny Christ do not worship the God of Abraham. I say this because it is intimately linked to the concept of divine personhood. For Muslims or Jews (and many heretical Christians), the God of Abraham cannot be the pre-eternal Father of the pre-eternal Son: their concept of God as person will not allow it, which betrays an erroneous individualistic concept of the personal God.
The Orthodox position maintains that the personal God is truly one in essence, life, and energy, but as personal implies relation (σχέσις)
and communion (κοινωνία), the revelation of the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit is the basis for our theological articulation of Trinitarian dogma. In the Church, we know the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as distinct yet united without division or confusion. Since the Three Persons are united in nature and attributes, the only positive way to distinguish them is on the basis of their relations one to another. The Father begets, the Son is begotten of the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father.
This leads me to make another side note. Some Christians believe it is permissible to substitute the names of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for three different names, such as “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.” Some Protestants and even for a time certain Roman Catholics began baptizing with these new, non-traditional names. Of course, we can immediately reject such an innovation on the basis of both Scripture and Tradition. On a theological level, the innovation does not make sense either. The terms “Creator”, “Redeemer”, and “Sustainer” are not personal/proper names but attributes or activities of God, and we know that all attributes or activities of God are shared by all three persons of the Trinity. Thus all three persons are Creator (the Father creates through the Son in the Holy Spirit), all three take part in redemption (the Father sends His only-Begotten Son who after His ascension sends the Spirit upon mankind), and all three are active in sustaining the world. The Proper Names of the Persons of the Trinity are the Names which denote or point to the relation with the other Persons, and so they cannot be altered.
2. Divine Persons are not centers of consciousness.
The second principle of the Orthodox approach to divine personhood I would like to highlight relates to the idea of consciousness. In the West, the concept of the person is so bound up with consciousness and self-reflexivity that the Orthodox idea seems completely incomprehensible. Without wishing to generalize too much, the idea put forward by Boethius in the sixth century that a person is “an individual substance of a rational nature” has dominated the Western understanding of personhood. The emphasis on person as a rational individual has spilled over into psychology, where virtually all models of personality are built around the assumption that persons are centers of consciousness. But this idea is foreign to Orthodox dogmatic theology. The persons of the Trinity are not independent centers of consciousness: they share, in the fullness of love, one mind, one thought, one life in every respect. The Orthodox thus do not, as some critics assert, believe in the Trinity as “three people” who happen to get along: this is tritheism, a form of polytheism. I will leave this point here, as the idea will occur again when we look at principles of human personhood.
3. The Monarchy of the Father
The third principle I would like to mention with regard to divine personhood is the Monarchy of the Father.
is a Greek word that simply means single source or one source. Some non-Orthodox theologians have been attracted by the idea of divine persons in communion as expounded by certain Orthodox like Metropolitan John (Zizioulas)
and Vladimir Lossky. They often dislike, however, the idea that the communion within the Trinity is still linked by the Orthodox to the person of the Father. This distaste usually springs from a politically correct desire not to over-emphasize the Father over the others (too patriarchal), and the wish to avoid subordinationism in the Trinity. Subordinationism is the idea that one person in the Trinity is better than the others, or that there is a set rank of persons (first, second, third;
gold, silver, bronze).
These criticisms, however, are misguided. The insistence by the Fathers of the Church on the Monarchy of the Father has nothing to do with the idea that the Father is better than the Others, or that He has some kind of monopoly over the divine life. It is simply an affirmation of the Father’s function as personal source in God. Just because the Son is begotten of the Father and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father does not make them subordinate or less than the Father. A distinction of relation does not imply a distinction of rank or any inequality.
As Orthodox Christians, we know that there is nothing beyond Christ. Whether we want to know the measure of who God is or the measure of man, we find all our answers in Christ, perfect God and perfect man. The centrality of Christ in our understanding of human personhood cannot be overemphasized. But this might seem confusing: if Christ is a divine person, how can he be the model of human personhood?
There are a few points to be made here. First, we are created in the image of Christ our God. St Nicholas Cabasilas makes the point that “the old Adam is not a model for the New Adam
[i.e. Christ], but the new is a model for the old”. That is, from the beginning man was made according to the image of his archetype, who is ultimately the Incarnate Son. The Son of God made man is our access to personhood, our means to personhood. We can only fulfill the divine image and likeness within us in Him. As Christ himself tells us,
no man cometh to the Father, but by me
I am making this point forcefully because there are those who speak in a rather abstract way about human beings as persons after the pattern of the Holy Trinity. They speak as though human beings have a kind of innate capacity to live like the Trinity, and they use Trinitarian doctrine to create sociological or political theories. But this is misguided. Such thinking misinterprets and lowers Trinitarian theology to a human level, as if an idealized human society could compare with the ineffable life of the Godhead!
No. Our world is a fallen world and it cannot save itself. It does not have the capacity for true personhood in and of itself. As we saw, divine personhood implies a total communion in which each person of the Trinity bears the fullness of the life and nature of the other persons, a life of such love that no interval can be conceived between them;
the Three are One.
Human beings are indeed blessed with the image of God, and this image is directed towards the exalted goal of sharing in the life of Trinity, but crucially, this image finds its only true rest and fulfillment through filial adoption
[the adoption of sons]
in Christ, through being called sons by grace through Him who is Son by nature. In other words, we do not become persons by making a more just society here below, through moral progress or international peace treaties. We cannot realize our personhood through the cultivation or refinement of our natural gifts separate from Christ, whether they be scientific, intellectual, or physical gifts. We become true persons when we put off the old man and are clothed with the new, when we are reborn as children of God.