There is an extraordinary beauty in Orthodox trinitarian theology. I all too easily lose sight of that beauty, but it came back to me again the other day after a conversation I had with a non-Orthodox friend.
To his mind, God is beyond any formulation we can make of Him. He is the “wholly Other,” taken literally: a God beyond all creation and all imagination. I had the feeling he could have added, beyond all revelation.
His problem, as he describes it, is with the Church’s traditional doctrines—which he referred to with a slight edge of hostility as “dogmas”—that appear to “put God in a box.” Formulas such as “One in Three,” or “three Hypostases united in a single divine Essence,” strike him as artificial and woefully inadequate. He reads them as nothing more than human constructs designed to impose on believers a uniform orthodoxy.
This is especially true of formulas concerning the Holy Spirit. Why, he wanted to know, do we Orthodox make such an issue of the “filioque,” the clause added to the Nicene Creed that affirms, “[I believe] in the Holy Spirit…who proceeds from the Father and the Son”? Who, he added, can presume to say anything at all about this most unfathomable aspect of the Godhead?
When I got home, I took out St. Basil the Great’s marvelous fourth century treatise “On the Holy Spirit.” Opening it at random brought me to where I wish I had been during our conversation.
In chapter 16 St. Basil speaks about the absolute unity of nature, purpose and work shared by the Three Persons of the Trinity. “In everything the Holy Spirit is indivisibly and inseparably joined to the Father and the Son.” This is revealed most fully in creation itself. “When you consider creation I advise you to first think of Him who is the first cause of everything that exists: namely, the Father, and then of the Son, who is the creator, and then the Holy Spirit, the perfector.” The Author of Creation, the creative Agent, and the Perfector or Sanctifier of all things. “The Originator of all things is One: He creates through the Son and perfects through the Spirit.”
Then Basil quotes from Psalm 32, “By the Word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the Spirit of His mouth.” The specific work of the Spirit, he says, is to perfect and strengthen: to produce “perfection in holiness, which expresses itself in an unyielding, unchangeable commitment to goodness.” That goodness characterizes God in His innermost being. “No one is good but God alone,” Jesus declares. And readers of the Gospel recognize that by that very fact Jesus Himself is essentially good.
It is this goodness, expressed as sacrificial love, that motivates the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity to work out the world’s redemption. “When we speak of the plan of salvation for men,” St. Basil continues, “accomplished in God’s goodness by our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who would deny that it was all made possible through the grace of the Spirit?”
God is good, God is light, God is love, God is Spirit. And that Spirit, who is God, fills all of creation, including every human life, in order to lead it to perfection, to sanctify and render it holy. Thereby He offers to creation, as to us, the possibility of sharing forever in that goodness, that light, and that love.
This is why Trinitarian theology is so important: because it expresses God as He actually is—as He reveals, manifests and confirms Himself to be—in the experience of those who love Him and know they are loved by Him.
God is indeed the “wholly Other,” infinitely beyond created reality. Yet this same God shares fully in every aspect of that reality, filling it with His goodness, His light, His love, His Spirit. As a trinity or threefold unity of divine Persons, the Father, the Son and the Spirit dwell in an inexhaustible communion of mutual love. That love is so abundant that it overflows the limits of divine life, to embrace and transfigure the entire creation. Nothing lies outside the warmth of that embrace: not sin, not death, not even my friend’s well-intentioned agnosticism.
If I could have left him with anything in this season of Holy Pentecost, it would have been this. That in the depths of his being he know and experience trinitarian dogma, not as abstract formulas, but as liturgical poetry which speaks ineffable truth. That he see God and come to know His Spirit, not as infinitely beyond this universe, but as “everywhere present and filling all things,” closer to him, in fact, than his own heart.