Orthodox Christians believe about the Trinity… but according the unchanged Biblical and Apostolic teaching set forth in the ancient Creeds. Few Christians realize that when it comes to the Trinity, the world of “Western Christianity” took a different route after a thousand years, resulting in quite a bit of confusion. So you have Christians (and Muslims) asking questions that reveal how confused Christians have become, such as “Is Jesus Christ the Son of God or is he God?” or “If Jesus is God as you say, why is he praying to himself in the Garden?”
So here, we will discuss why the Trinity is so important, and also so terribly misunderstood.
Let us start here: the Creed of the Christian Faith as finalized during the 4th century:
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages; Light from Light: true God from true God; begotten, not made; of the same essence as the Father, by Whom all things were made; Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from the heavens, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man; And was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried; And arose again on the third day according to the Scriptures; And ascended into the heavens, and sitteth at the right hand of the Father; And shall come again, with glory, to judge both the living and the dead; Whose kingdom shall have no end.
And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life; Who proceedeth from the Father; Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; Who spake by the prophets.
In One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. I confess one baptism for the remission of sins. I look for the resurrection of the dead, And the life of the age to come. Amen.
So we can express the idea of the Trinity simply:
There is one God (mono-theism) the Father who is always with his Word (Son) and Spirit (sometimes referred to as Wisdom). How could that be? Because God is love! He is not a solitary monad who decides one day to create so as to have communion. No, God exists as communion because “love is other-centered” (1 Corinthians 13). Love means communion, and “father” implies a relationship with a person who is at the origin. We affirm that the Son (who was incarnate as Jesus Christ) and the Spirit are uncreated like the God the Father; they have always existed beyond space and time; they fully share in the work of creation and redemption.
But the Orthodox Church affirms, like the Apostles and Early Christians, that there is one God because there is one Father who is the origin, source and cause of all, even of the Word and Spirit. The Word and Spirit are “what God is” – they are theos in Greek – they are by nature God, but they are eternally derived from the person of God the Father. It is in this sense that Jesus Christ can say:
John 14:28 You heard me say to you, `I go away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I go to the Father; for the Father is greater than I.
Here are two ancient commentaries on this text, and they make perfect sense:
Alexander of Alexandria, Epistles on Arianism and the Deposition of Arius 1.12
“That He is equally with the Father unchangeable and immutable, wanting in nothing, and the perfect Son, and like to the Father, we have learned;in this alone is He inferior to the Father, that He is not unbegotten. For He is the very exact image of the Father, and in nothing differing from Him. For it is clear that He is the image fully containing all things by which the greatest similitude is declared, as the Lord Himself has taught us, when He says, My Father is greater than I. John 14:28 And according to this we believe that the Son is of the Father, always existing. For He is the brightness of His glory, the express image of His Father’s person.”
Athanasius, Discourse 1 Against the Arians. 58,
“But since he has here expressly written it, and, as has been above shown, the Son is Offspring of the Father’s essence, and He is Framer, and other things are framed by Him, and He is the Radiance and Word and Image and Wisdom of the Father, and things originate stand and serve in their place below the Triad, therefore the Son is different in kind and different in essence from things originate, and on the contrary is proper to the Father’s essence and one in nature with it. And hence it is that the Son too says not, ‘My Father is better than I John 14:28,’ lest we should conceive Him to be foreign to His Nature, but ‘greater,’ not indeed in greatness, nor in time, but because of His generation from the Father Himself , nay, in saying ‘greater’ He again shows that He is proper to His essence.”
Now, in the West, the Creed was modified to read that the Spirit “proceed from the Father and the Son” (filioque). It may seem like a detail, but it ended up throw in the pyramid (with God the Father on top as source) sideway (with the Father and Son on top).
In this Western system, it is tempting to say that we believe in One God (one divine essence) that is shared equally by the Father, Son and Spirit. It is a slight departure that ends up confusing everyone. How is Jesus Christ “God?” Not by being God the Father but by being “God” in the qualitative sense. When we say Jesus true God and true Man, we mean truly divine (uncreated) and truly human.
A symptom of this confusion among many Christians is to hear prayers addressed at the same time to God the Father and the Lord the Jesus Christ, back and forth in the same prayer.
And now, we can also understand the relationship between the Trinity and icons.
God the Father, as ultimately transcendent and source, is described as dwelling in unapproachable light. But God the Father has a co-eternal perfect icon: his only-begotten Son:
Colossians 1:15 He [Jesus] is the image [Greek: icon] of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation;
Hebrews 1:1 In many and various ways God spoke of old to our ancestors through the prophets; 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the ages. 3 He reflects the glory of God and bears the very seal of his person, upholding the universe by his word of power.
John 14: 7 No one comes to the Father, but by me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also; henceforth you know him and have seen him.” 8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, `Show us the Father’?
What does this mean? That God the Father is worshiped and glorified through his perfect icon: his only begotten son Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit. And we too are created in the “icon and likeness of God” and are called to be living icons.
Icons are an expression of the Trinity: all honor, worship, and glory must ultimately be directed though the Son, in the Holy Spirit, to the glory of God of Father.