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Opposing some 4th-century theologians who believed the Spirit to be subordinate to the Father and Son and aligning with a key argument of the Cappadocian Fathers , he writes, "If he is in the same rank with myself, how can he make me God, or join me with Godhead? John of Damascus also offers his take on this question of the Trinity. In Exposition of the Orthodox Faith , he remarks, "For the subsistences dwell in one another, in no wise confused but cleaving together" Damascus, 10 , and "the three holy subsistences differ from each other, being indivisibly divided not by essence but by the distinguishing mark of their proper and peculiar subsistence" Damascus, The Holy Spirit, then, is in equal unity and relation with the Father and Son.

What Are Some Common Misconceptions about the Trinity?

Although each member may focus on different roles, they are still of the same essence—meaning that throughout all is the divine nature and a divine interconnection. Expanding upon their position on the Trinity, Gregory and John offer an even more detailed breakdown of the unique purpose and character of the Trinity, specifically of the Spirit. Gregory points out, "He is the Author of spiritual regeneration" Nazianzus, Oration on Pentecost , Furthermore, the Spirit is "Another Comforter, that you might acknowledge his co-equality" Nazianzus, Oration on Pentecost , , and is the vehicle "by Whom the Father is known and the Son is glorified" Nazianzus, Oration on Pentecost , The Spirit has a distinctive mission suited to his divine character and talents.

However, the Spirit also "shares with the Son in working both the creation and the Resurrection" Nazianzus, Oration on Pentecost , Therefore, biblically, the Spirit engages in certain unique activities such as enlightening and sealing the salvation of believers, etc. In other words, the Holy Spirit has the main focus of a particular activity even though the other members of the Trinity are still involved and supportive.

This understood, John still maintains that the Spirit is "inseparable and indivisible from Father and Son, and possessing all the qualities that the Father and Son possess, save that of not being begotten or born" Damascus, 9. Paradoxically, the Spirit is at one time distinguished from and yet unified with the other members of the Trinity.

Perceiving the conundrum this creates, John of Damascus attempts to further expound upon the relationship of the Spirit and Son to the Father.

Philosophical and Theological Essays on the Trinity

John suggests that the Father is the 'cause' of the Son and Spirit much in the same way that light is caused by a fire. He states, "Just as we do not say that fire is of one essence and light of another, so we cannot say that the Father is of one essence and the Son of another but both are of one and the same essence" Damascus, 9. The two are intricately connected and one is not possible without the other. It is impossible to tell where one stops and the other begins, although some have differing opinions.

Countering the idea that the Spirit may proceed from the Son, John suggests that with its unique purpose and character, the Spirit "is one Spirit, going forth from the Father, not in the manner of Sonship but of procession" Damascus, Jesus may have been begotten, but the Spirit was not. He points out that to say that the very force that helped incarnate the Son could even proceed from the Son would be illogical if not impossible. It is in the profound sense of revelation, not just association.

Their examinations are extremely useful in defining what the Holy Spirit and the rest of the Trinity members are not. For these ancient theologians, this approach was definitely unorthodox thinking and dangerous , as it went against traditional Judeo-Christian biblical precedent. Yet, in attempting to define what the Trinity is, these Eastern theologians were still restricted to using human terms in their definitions.

If the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are transcendent and supernatural, then any symbols attached to them can only be a partial reflection of what they really are, and any definition is limited by human communication and reasoning. John of Damascus attests to this when he states, "It is quite impossible for us men clothed about with this dense covering of flesh to understand or speak of the divine and lofty and immaterial energies of the Godhead" Damascus, Furthermore, the human perception of the Godhead, then, is limited to what one experiences concerning God and what one reads in the Bible of his essence and attributes.

As Tertullian, the Father of the Latin Church c. One person can look like someone else, or behave like someone else, or even sound like someone else. But a person cannot actually be the same as another person. They are distinct individuals. God, however, lives without the limitations of a three-dimensional universe. He is spirit. And he is infinitely more complex than we are.

But emphasizes that there is only ONE God. It is a way of acknowledging what the Bible reveals to us about God, that God is yet three "Persons" who have the same essence of deity. Some have tried to give human illustrations for the Trinity, such as H 2 O being water, ice and steam all different forms, but all are H 2 O. Another illustration would be the sun.

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From it we receive light, heat and radiation. Three distinct aspects, but only one sun. A medieval diagram often found in European cathedral windows expresses the gist of the Nicene formulation. The central ring affirms monotheism.


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There is one essence of God; the emphasis is on oneness, not three-ness. An equilateral triangle around the circle represents the equality of the three expressions of the Godhead. This symbol also conveys the idea that there are three simultaneous expressions of the divine substance. It is not that first we have God the Father, then at a later time God the Son, and after both of these the Holy Spirit carries the relay torch.

History of Trinitarian Doctrines

Beginning with Augustine in the fifth century, attempts have been made to provide analogies from our human experiences to shed light on the doctrine of the Trinity. For instance, Augustine extracted a clear comparison from botany:.


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  • Other helpful illustrations have been proposed. The idea is then expressed in a physical way—the literary artist puts words on paper; the musical artist writes down notes; the graphic artist paints a canvas. When the book is published, the music played, or the drawing viewed an effect is made on those who read, hear or see it.

    Just as there is a threefold aspect of art as idea, expression and effect, so there is a three-in-one revelation of God. In her Call to Faith , Presbyterian educator Rachel Henderlite laments the lingering Trinitarian misunderstandings that have resulted in three-headed monstrosities. She finds this analogy of A. Electromagnetic force provides a similar analogy: No one has seen this basic energy of the universe, and yet we witness electricity in distinct ways: We experience it as shock if we put our finger in an outlet. This is quite different from seeing it as light in a light bulb or feeling it as heat from a stove.

    In a similar manner the one invisible God is experienced in various modes. There is, however, a distinct deficiency in comparing God to the sun or to electricity; a personal analogy is needed to point to our personal God. In classical drama an actor often wore different masks to play several roles. However, according to the Nicene formulation, there are three simultaneous expressions of the divine substance. Consider the several roles that an individual can play on the stage of life: In relation to our parents we are a son or a daughter; in relation to our boss or teacher we are an employee or student; in relation to our spouse we are a husband or a wife.