The Distinguishing Characteristics of the Persons of the Holy Trinity

The fact that the three divine persons are co-essential provides the general concept of the one God, while the trinity of individual substances (hypostases) provides the mental picture of the three persons in the Godhead – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The essence of God is not composed of matter, and is to be discerned not by physical, but by spiritual insight. It has an awareness both of itself and of things outside itself; it is an essence which has consciousness, will, and reason. It possesses intellect, reason, and spirit, being full of knowledge of itself and of that which exists outside itself.

Each person of the Holy Trinity has the attributes of the divine essence – the same nature – and thus the three persons are co-essential, with a common essence and nature. Being, intelligence, and power are qualities which the divine persons share in the one Godhead.

In addition to their mutual relationship or co-essentiality, the persons are differentiated by distinct individual qualities. These distinct features are the conditions of:

  1. Eternal existence;
  2. Being begotten;
  3. Proceeding.

The first substance (hypostasis), the Father, is uncreated and exists eternally of itself, for it has within itself the reason for its indispensable existence. It is called Father because it is able to beget and produce; if it were not like this, it could not be called the Father. One is called father who, in the lawful state of matrimony, of his body or from his substance (hypostasis), begets children. Almighty God is Father in the absolute and perfect sense, for He begets a perfect Son, just as He Himself is perfect in and of His eternal essence.

God the Father begets but is not begotten. He projects, but does not Himself proceed. He is the source of the Son who is begotten of Him, and the source of the Holy Spirit who proceeds from Him. The Father of Himself begat a Son, perfect and of the same essence, in no way inferior to Him. Said the Father: “Thou art my Son, today have I begotten thee” (Psalms 2:7; LXX).

He begat the Son before all ages, outside time, and eternally. Never was there a time when the Father was not the Father, and as long as the Father has existed, so long too has the Son existed. The existence of the Father is timeless, and timeless too is the existence of the Son. There was no time when the Son was not, yet this is what the impious Arius blasphemously taught when he declared that there was a time when the Son was not.

Before the universe came into existence, the Son was, as He said Himself, “And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before theworld was” (John 17:5). The Son was in the beginning with God the Father. “In the beginning was the Logos” (John 1:1). From all eternity, the Logos is to be found in the bosom of the Father (John 1:18). Moreover, the Father abides in the Son, and He abides in the Father (John 10:38).

The Father, the unbegotten one, is the cause not only of the Son, but also of the Holy Spirit. Toward the Son He bears the relationship of the one who begets, and toward the Holy Spirit He bears the relationship of the one who projects and sends forth. The Father both begets and projects. Begetting differs from projecting because two different operations, two different methods of derivation, are indicated here. The Father begets; this means that eternally out of His own essence He produces a Son of one essence with Himself. The Father projects; this means that as a sun emitting its rays, He sends forth from His essence an essence eternally.

The Father is the cause of the existence of the Son by begetting or generation, but He is the cause of the Spirit’s existence by projecting or proceeding. We noted previously the difference between generation and procession – as the dogmatic theologian, St. John of Damascus, expounded in the Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, book 1, chapter 8 – but we really do not comprehend or grasp what actually constitutes that difference. Consequently, the difference between the generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit is a mystery beyond man’s understanding.

The Son has characteristic traits peculiar to Himself, because He neither begets nor projects the Spirit, but is Himself begotten of the Father in a mysterious way which we cannot understand. The Son would not be a Son if He were not begotten, even as the Father would not be a Father if He had not begotten a Son.

The Son has His generation – from the Father, eternal and everlasting, and He is unchangeable, the likeness and representation of the Father, “. . . being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person … “ (Hebrews 1:3). He is called the Son of God because He is God of God, light of light, and He would not exist if the Father did not exist, for from Him He has eternal being. The Son has all the attributes of the Father except fatherhood. Fatherhood belongs exclusively to God the Father, and cannot be imparted.

The heretical Arius attacked the eternal generation of the Son, for he taught that there was a time when the Son was not, and that the Father was not always the Father. He asserted that the Son was a part of God’s creation, His first creature. But the first ecumenical council pronounced the doctrines of the eternal generation of the Son from the Father and of His co-essentiality with the Father, to be the official doctrines of the Church. By the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Creed, it was stated explicitly that the Son of God is His only begotten Son, begotten of His Father before all worlds – eternally, as light from light, and that He is very God of very God, of one essence with the Father by whom all things were made.

The Holy Spirit has characteristic traits peculiar to Himself, for neither does He beget nor is He-begotten, but He proceeds from the Father. He is the third person of the Holy Trinity. and this person is the one who proceeds. The procession of the Spirit from the Father is eternal and everlasting. There never was a time when the Spirit was not proceeding from the Father. Moreover, He proceeds from the Father alone and not from the Son also, as the papal sect mistakenly dogmatized.

Christ’s words about the eternal procession of the Spirit are these: “But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me:” (John 15:26). The individual reality of the Spirit is indivisible. However, if He proceeds from both the Father and the Son, it is divided. The Roman Catholics and Protestants, in teaching the procession from the Father and from the Son, divide the indivisible reality of the Spirit and commit blasphemy by contradicting the spoken witness of Christ. Consequently, they are neither right thinking nor right believing.

The Holy Spirit has everything that the Father and the Son have, except fatherhood, which belongs to the Father exclusively. and sonship, which belongs to the Son. The Spirit proceeds from the Father and rests upon the Son. Because He rests on the Son, He also is called the Spirit of the Son, just as He is called the Spirit of the Father. “God hath sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father” (Galatians 4:6).

Those who were called pneumatomachoi attacked the divinity and the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit. They were followers of the heretic Macedonius (died 362 A.D.), who taught that the Holy Spirit is not God, but only a subordinate power, having no individual reality in the Godhead. This heresy was an outgrowth of the Arian heresy which taught that the Son of God is a creature, created in time. But the second ecumenical council decreed that the Holy Spirit is an eternal person in the Godhead, an eternal existence, the lord and giver of life, proceeding eternally from the Father and resting upon the Son.

By the differential characteristics of being unbegotten, being begotten, and proceeding, the persons in the Godhead are distinguished. The unbegotten Father begets a Son eternally from His essence, a Son of the same essence as His, and He projects the Holy Spirit eternally from His essence, and so the Spirit too is of the same essence. Three eternal persons in the Godhead are of one essence and nature, unity in trinity and trinity in unity: the Father an eternal being, the Son an eternal being, and the Holy Spirit an eternal being. Those who deny the truth that God is one in three persons, have become heretics with a perverted faith, and have lost all hope of salvation.

The denial of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is the denial of the principal theological truth upon which the second truth depends – that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God. Because if God is not in three persons, it is clear that He cannot have a Son. If God does not have a Son, it is obvious that Jesus Christ is not the Son of God, but – because He said of Himself that He is the Son of God – a liar and deceiver!

Consequently, in what they said, Sabellius, who taught that God is one person only, and also Arius, together with Macedonius, spread false teaching and contradicted the truth of God. They sought to make Christ a liar and deceiver in what He said concerning the eternal existence of three substances (hypostases) in the Godhead. Therefore, the apostolic Church denounced them and excommunicated them, for she condemned them justly as heretics.

It follows that those who take offence at the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, as Sabellius or as Arius and Macedonius, deny the first theological truth and as a result of this denial, deny also the incarnation of the Son of God. All such people are antichrists and enemies of the truth of the Gospel. Those who believe that God is one in three persons hold the right belief and are in harmony with the Gospel and the divine teaching whereby we know the nature of the one and only true God, and of Him whom God sent into the world, Jesus Christ. They are on the way toward attaining their salvation, for they are enlightened by the truth in their life and practice, so that their lives and actions are virtuous.

Thus far we have presented three differential qualities for the three persons of the Holy Trinity:

  1. The Father – that He is the eternal, uncreated Being, neither begotten nor proceeding;
  2. The Son – that He is begotten, but not proceeding;
  3. The Holy Spirit – that He proceeds from, but is not begotten by, the Father.

These qualities express distinguishing attributes among the persons in the Godhead, but do not divide or separate them. Nor do they annul or abrogate the indivisible and undivided essence of God, an essence neither begotten nor proceeding.

These qualities also determine the relationship which exists among the persons in the Godhead – of the Father toward the Son and the Holy Spirit, and of both the Son and the Holy Spirit toward the Father. By these distinct qualities, the persons in the Godhead are differentiated, and their distinct existence is demonstrated. Yet without their intrinsic characteristics, no personal distinction is evident and the separate, distinct existences of the persons in the Godhead are not made clear. Instead, what should not be confounded is confounded, and the individual existence of the persons is destroyed.

The heretical Sabellius denied the distinct substances (hypostases) and existences of the persons in the Godhead, and taught that the three names recorded in Holy Scripture, where reference is made to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are the names of one and the same essence. Sometimes this essence is called the Father, sometimes the Son, and at other times the Spirit. Splitting hairs and arguing falsely in this way, he denied the substantial (hypostatic) existence in the Godhead of three beings, of three persons of equal might, equal godhead, and equal perfection. He taught a God of single essence and of only one person, whom he called Father, Son, and at other times, Holy Spirit.

This heresy was censured and condemned by the Church after it was refuted by means of Holy Scripture and the science of logic. It was proved that God is not as the heretical Sabellius taught, but as Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, through the apostles, taught and spoke of Him. These are authentic witnesses and their evidence is true and indisputable.

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – these three distinct substances (hypostases) in the Godhead are equal to one another and perfect. In them, everything that is predicated of one is equally predicated of the other two, and all the characteristics with which their eternal essence and nature are endowed are also equal.

If we ask what is the Father in the Godhead, or what is the Son, or what is the Holy Spirit, we will learn that the first person in the Godhead is the Father, eternally existing, thinking, willing, and joyful, and that eternally out of His essence He begets a Son, like Himself in everything, of the same essence, and perfect – a Son eternally begotten, eternally existing, thinking, willing, and joyful. Then we will learn that eternally from His eternal essence He projects and sends forth the Holy Spirit, of the same essence as He, and perfect – a Spirit eternally proceeding from Him, eternally existing, thinking, willing, and joyful.

Consequently, the Father is the cause that itself has no cause and eternally exists, thinks, wills, and rejoices. Eternally this cause begets the Son and eternally projects from itself the Spirit of truth, thus eternally giving being to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. Of these the Father is the source without a source, and the cause without a cause, greater than all. This is God the Father.

To continue with reverent study of the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Son is the second person in the Godhead, eternally begotten from the Father. His origin and source is the Father, and He is equal to the Father, of the same essence, of the same nature, of equal might and power-perfect.

The Holy Spirit is the third person in the Godhead, eternally proceeding from the Father alone, and eternally resting on the Son. He is a person equal with the other two persons, of the same essence, of equal power and might, and perfect in every respect.

Because He is the cause of the Son’s begetting and of the Spirit’s procession, the Father is the cause of the eternal existence which was bestowed on them – on the one by generation and on the other by procession. He is also the source of their eternal intelligence, will, and might.

Therefore, whatsoever is predicated of the essence of the Father is predicated also of the essence of the other two persons, just as whatsoever is predicated of them is predicated of the Father also. Nevertheless, the special quality and peculiar attribute of the Father is different and distinct from the special attribute of the Son or the Holy Spirit. Likewise, their special attributes are entirely different from His special quality.

The fact that the Father is begotten of no one and that there is no external cause of His existence, is characteristic exclusively of the Father. The fact that He is begotten and has His origin from the Father alone, is characteristic exclusively of the Son. The fact that the Holy Spirit proceeds and has His origin from the Father alone, is characteristic exclusively of Him. Thus the difference among the persons in the Godhead lies in these three characteristics. All the other characteristics, however, are shared, and here there is no difference. Because the Son (who is eternally begotten of the Father) and the· Holy Spirit (who is eternally proceeding from the Father) received and possess eternal existence, intelligence, and will, in every respect equal to and like the existence, intelligence, and will of the Father (who is without beginning and without external cause), they received from everlasting and always possess the nature of God the Father.

Eternally they possess the godhead, the dominion, and the power. They are Lord equal to the Lord God the Father. They are omniscient, omnipotent, and all-good just as the Father. The very fact that the Son and the Holy Spirit are omniscient, omnipotent, and all-good, as God the Father, from whom are all things, and the fact that they, as the Father, are equal in existence, intelligence, and will, witness and testify to the co-essentiality which exists among the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, in the one essence and nature of God.

This is because no multiplicity exists where no distinction or differentiation is present. In that case there is only a unit. Three beings, equally omniscient, are three because of their personal substances (hypostases), which in each case is differentiated by a special individual quality or attribute, but they are one in essence because they share the joint quality of perfect, complete wisdom. Hence we witness:

There are three persons, but one omniscient God.

We observe the identical phenomenon in the case of omnipotence, another attribute characteristic of and common to the three persons. Omnipotence binds together as one all­powerful God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, while concomitantly, the distinct realities of the individual persons are unviolated. We now observe:

There are three persons, but one omnipotent or all-powerful God.

The three persons of the Holy Trinity also possess the attribute of perfect goodness, equally and mutually shared. Therefore:

There are three persons, but one all-good God.

The likeness and the mutual quality comprise the unit – the one essence and nature, while the distinguishing characteristics of the three persons – the Father being uncreated, the Son being begotten, and the Holy Spirit proceeding – comprise their individual identifications. Thus we may conceive of many beings in one essence, but in the perfect essence we cannot conceive of anything but three beings, three persons, because in the Holy Trinity there is perfection.

Those who conjure up a god in one single person, or in two persons, and not in three persons and as a trinity in one essence and nature, devise a monstrous god, quite impossible, a false, grotesque deity. Orthodox Christianity antithetically envisages, teaches, and safeguards belief in one God, one in essence, but a trinity in substances (hypostases) and persons – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – a perfect God.

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – these three substances (hypostases) in the Godhead are one and the same. They think alike. They will alike. They have the same mind and the same resolve. They live the same life, which is full and perfect, both blessed and blessing.

The Father rejoices in the contemplation of His perfect Son, because in the Son He sees Himself perfectly represented and mirrored, for the Son is a faithful and true icon and representation. The only begotten Son of the Father rejoices, likewise, with His Father because He sees Himself resting in the bosom of the Father, and because He has perfect knowledge of His Father whom He reflects, and has all that the Father possesses. He sees His own existence in the existence of His Father, and rejoices with eternal joy in this eternal contemplation.

The Father rejoices in the Son because through the Son He knows Himself and in the others He is revealed and known. The Son, in His turn, rejoices because through the Father He is and exists, for He is begotten of Him. The Holy Spirit rejoices because He is the bond between the Father and the Son, for He proceeds perfect from the Father and rests upon the Son in perfection. He rejoices in the contemplation of the Father from whom He has eternal being, and in the contemplation of the Son. In this contemplation He is content and of Him He bears witness. Thus each person makes His own contribution with righteousness and discipline, and among them reign eternal peace, blessedness, and everlasting joy.

The Father has being of Himself, but the Son and the Holy Spirit rejoice that they have their being from the Father. The Father thinks through the Son and lives through the Spirit. The Son thinks of Himself and lives through the Spirit. The Spirit lives of Himself and thinks through the Son.

In this contemplation they rejoice with an eternal joy beyond man’s understanding. The Father is mirrored and represented by the Son who is His icon in Heaven and on earth. The Son and the Holy Spirit are the two witnesses who testify to the eternal existence of the Father, from whom all things exist. From Him the one is eternally begotten and the other is eternally projected.

When the Holy Trinity is thought of in this way in the Christian world, it is the truth, the living, perfect prototype of probity, righteousness, peace, and the life of blessedness. He who believes in the Holy Trinity believes in the existence of eternal probity; eternal righteousness, peace and blessedness; and eternal life. He who does not believe in the Trinity does not believe in the eternal existence of probity, righteousness, and blessedness, or in eternal life.

Eternal life is to be found only in the existence of the Holy Trinity. Indeed, eternal life is the Holy Trinity itself. This is why Christ said, “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3).

Therefore, it is incumbent upon us not only to believe in the existence of the Holy Trinity, but also to come to know the Holy Trinity, because through belief in and knowledge of it, we are in communion with it and share the freedom from death, and the eternal life that is in it. The Holy Trinity exists, thinks, and lives eternally, throughout all ages, world without end. Likewise, we too, in that we understand the Trinity, exist, think, and live to all eternity. We become partners of the spirit of its deathlessness. We become one with the Trinity, having our being in it, living in it, thinking in it. We too become blessed and immortal.

Thus far the following questions about God have been posed and answered in light of the evidence of Holy Scripture and orthos logos:

  1. The question of one God, and of the one essence of God;
  2. The question of the divine nature and qualities of God;
  3. The question of the persons in the Godhead.

It has been shown, and this agrees with Holy Scripture, that God is one in essence and perfect, possessing a perfect nature; that He is all-wise, all-powerful, and all-good; and that He is Spirit, perfect in self intellect, in self will, and in self power. He is the source of existence, of mind, and of life, ever­being, ever-thinking, and ever-living. Similarly, according to the evidence of Holy Scripture, we have proved that God, one in essence, is lord of all, because He also is the creator of all. He is unchangeable, one and the same always, all-surveying and all-knowing, the source and cause, uncaused and absolute.

However, this one and only true God would not be perfect if He were not a trinity. Yet God is perfect in an absolute and not in a relative sense, Being perfect, God is not one person only, as in the false teaching of the Koran or in the pseudo­philosophy of the deists, but three persons, three substances (hypostases), and three beings, bound together but differentiated. God would not be perfect if He were a single person only, because He would have both life and thought, and therefore existence also, limited, as with men, and then would be perfect in a relative but not absolute sense.

Consequently, we also have proved from Holy Scripture, this truth: God, perfect as He is in being, in living, and in thinking, is one perfect God in three persons – the Father, of whom are all things; the Son, through whom and by whom are all things; and the Holy Spirit, in whom are all things. Among these three divine persons there exists one will, one energy, complete parity, concord, and blessedness.

The doctrine of monarchy in the Godhead excludes polytheism, for polytheism provides place for the existence of many gods, mythical, of course, and different from one another in essence. Conversely, the doctrine of triarchy in the Godhead excludes any idea of the questionable existence of a single­person god.

The doctrine of monarchy in the Godhead is the doctrine of one perfect essence in the Godhead with a perfect nature. The doctrine of triarchy in the Godhead is the doctrine of three individual beings in the Godhead. Consequently, we believe that:

  1. God is one in essence and nature.
  2. God is a triad, a God in three persons; this one God is a unity in trinity and a trinity in unity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Orthodox Christians are the only people who know this fully. All who do not accept Christianity are ignorant of it and do not believe in the Theanthropos, the saviour, who revealed to us the true God. Therefore, the true, correct theology dwells in Orthodoxy alone and may be found in Holy Scripture.

With our memories thus refreshed about the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, we proceed to an explanation of the relationship that exists among the persons in the Godhead, and toward a fuller understanding of the Holy Trinity with the help of types and illustrations. The understanding of metaphysical truths becomes clearer when analogies and illustrations from the physical world are employed to explain and illustrate them to anyone who cannot understand the sublime metaphysical truths by metaphysical arguments alone, without the help of analogies.

A marvelous analogy exists between metaphysical and physical truths, and we can rise to an understanding of the first by way of knowledge of the second. Therefore, knowledge of physical truths is useful – nay, essential – because it is helpful toward an understanding of metaphysical truths.

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