The Holy Spirit
The early Christian understanding of creation and of man’s ultimate destiny is inseparable from pneumatology; but the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament and in the early Fathers cannot easily be reduced to a system of concepts. The fourth-century discussions on the divinity of the Spirit remained in a soteriological, existential context. Since the action of the Spirit gives life "in Christ," He cannot be a creature; He is indeed consubstantial with the Father and the Son. This argument was used both by Athanasius in his Letters to Serapion and by Basil in his famous treatise On the Holy Spirit. These two patristic writings remained throughout the Byzantine period the standard authorities in pneumatology. Except in the controversy around the Filioque — a debate about the nature of God rather than about the Spirit specifically, — there was little conceptual development of pneumatology in the Byzantine Middle Ages. This did not mean however that the experience of the Spirit was not emphasized with greater strength than in the West, especially in hymnology, in sacramental theology, and in spiritual literature.
"As he who grasps one end of a chain pulls along with it the other end to himself, so he who draws the Spirit draws both the Son and the Father along with It," Basil writes.1 This passage, quite representative of Cappadocian thought, implies, first, that all major acts of God are Trinitarian acts and, secondly, that the particular role of the Spirit is to make the "first contact" which is then followed — existentially but not chronologically — by a revelation of the Son and — through Him — of the Father. The personal being of the Spirit remains mysteriously hidden even if He is active at every great step of divine activity: creation, redemption, ultimate fulfilment. His function is not to reveal Himself but to reveal the Son "through whom all things are made" and who is also personally known in His humanity as Jesus Christ. "It is impossible to give a precise definition of the hypostasis of the Holy Spirit, and we must simply resist errors concerning Him which come from various sides."2 The personal existence of the Holy Spirit thus remains a mystery. It is a "kenotic" existence whose fulfilment consists in manifesting the kingship of the Logos in creation and in salvation history.
The Spirit in Creation
For the Cappadocian Fathers, the Trinitarian interpretation of all the acts of God implies the participation of the Spirit in the act of creation. When Genesis mentions, "the Spirit of God moving upon the face
of the waters" (Gn 1:2), patristic tradition interprets the passage in the sense of a primeval maintenance of all things by the Spirit which makes possible the subsequent appearance of a created logical order through the Word of God. No chronological sequence is implied here, of course; and the action of the Spirit is part of the continuous creative action of God in the world: "The principle of all things is one," writes Basil, "which creates through the Son and perfects in the Spirit."3
Basil identifies this function of "perfecting" creation as "sanctification" and implies that not only man but nature as a whole is perfectly itself only when it is in communion with God and when it is "filled" with the Spirit. The "secular" is always imperfect; or rather, it exists only as a fallen and defective state of creation. This is particularly true of man whose nature consists precisely in his being "theocentric." He received this "theocentricity" which the Greek Fathers always understood as a real "participation" in the life of God, when he was created and when God "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life" (Gn 2:7). This "breath" of God’s life identified with the Holy Spirit on the basis of the Septuagint version is what makes man to be "God’s image." "A being taken from the earth," writes Cyril of Alexandria, "could not be seen as an image of the Most High, if he had not received this [breath]."4 Thus, the "perfecting" action of the Spirit does not belong to the category of the "miraculous" but forms a part of the original and natural plan of God. It assumes, inspires, and vivifies everything which is still fundamentally good and beautiful, in spite of the Fall, and maintains in creation the first fruits of the eschatological transfiguration. In this sense, the Spirit is the very content of the Kingdom of God. Gregory of Nyssa reports the ancient variant for the text of the Lord’s Prayer, "Thy Kingdom come," in Luke 11:2, as "May Thy Holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse us."5 And the Byzantine liturgical tradition maintains the same tradition when it starts every single office with an eschatological invocation of the Spirit addressing Him as "Heavenly King."
The liturgical offices of Pentecost, though centred mainly on the role of the Spirit in redemption and salvation, also glorify the Spirit as "the One who rules all things, who is Lord of all, and who preserves creation from falling apart."6 Popular Byzantine customs associated with Pentecost suggest that the outpouring of the Spirit is indeed an anticipation of cosmic transfiguration; the traditional decoration
of churches with greens and flowers on that day reflects the experience of new creation. The same idea dominates the "Great Blessing of Water" celebrated with great solemnity on the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6). Water, the primeval cosmic element, is sanctified "by the power, effectual operation ["energy"] and descent of the Holy Spirit" (Great Litany of the Day). Since the Fall, the cosmic elements are controlled by the "prince of this world," and the action of the Spirit must have a purifying function: "Thou didst hallow the streams of Jordan," says the priest, "in that Thou didst send down from heaven Thy Holy Spirit, and didst crush the heads of serpents which lurked there."
The full significance of this rite of exorcism becomes evident when one recalls that, in Biblical categories, water is a source of life for the entire cosmos over which man is called to rule. Only through the Fall, nature did become subject to Satan. But the Spirit liberates man from dependence upon nature. Instead of being a source of demonic power, nature receives "the grace of redemption, the blessing of Jordan," and becomes a "fountain of immortality, a gift of sanctification, a remission of sins, a healing of infirmities, and a destruction of demons."7 Instead of dominating man, nature becomes his servant since he is the image of God. The original paradisaic relationship between God, man, and the cosmos is proclaimed again: the descent of the Spirit anticipates the ultimate fulfilment when God becomes "all in all."
This anticipation however is not a magical operation occurring in the material universe. The universe does not change in its empirical existence. The change is seen only by the eyes of faith — i.e., because man has received in his heart the Spirit which cries, "Abba, Father" (Ga 4:6), he is able to experience, in the mystery of faith, the paradisaic reality of nature serving him and to recognize that this experience is not a subjective fancy but one which reveals the ultimate truth about nature and creation as a whole. By the power of the Spirit, the true and natural relationship is restored between God, man, and creation.
The Spirit and Man’s Redemption
In the "economy" of salvation, the Son and the Spirit are inseparable: "When the Word dwelt upon the holy Virgin Mary," Athanasius writes, "the Spirit, together with the Word, entered her; in the Spirit, the Word fashioned a body for Himself making it in conformity with Himself in His will to bring all creation to the Father through Himself."8 The main argument in favour of the consubstantiality of the Spirit with the Son and the Father — used by Athanasius, by Cyril
of Alexandria, and by the Cappadocian Fathers — is the unity of the creative and redemptive action of God, which is always Trinitarian: "The Father does all things by the Word in the Holy Spirit." 9
But the essential difference between the action of the Logos and that of the Spirit was that the Logos and not the Spirit became man and thus could be directly seen as the concrete person and hypostasis of Jesus Christ while the personal existence of the Holy Spirit remained covered by divine incognoscibility. The Spirit in His action reveals not Himself but the Son; when He indwells in Mary, the Word is being conceived; when He reposes on the Son at the baptism in Jordan, He reveals the Father’s good will toward the Son. This is the Biblical and theological basis of the very current notion found in the Fathers and in the liturgical texts of the Spirit as image of the Son.10 It is impossible to see the Spirit; but in Him, one sees the Son while the Son Himself is the image of the Father. In the context of a dynamic and soteriological thought, the static Hellenic concept of image reflects a living relationship between the divine persons into which through the incarnation of the Son mankind is introduced.
We have already seen that in Greek patristic and Byzantine thought salvation is understood essentially in terms of participation in and communion with the deified humanity of the incarnate Logos, the New Adam. When the Fathers call the Spirit the "image of the Son," they imply that He is the main agent which makes this communion a reality. The Son has given us "the first fruits of the Spirit," writes Athanasius, "so that we may be transformed into sons of God according to the image of the Son of God."11 Thus, if it is through the Spirit that the Logos became man, it is also only through the Spirit that true life reaches all men. "What are the effect and the result of the sufferings, works and teaching of Christ?" asks Nicholas Cabasilas.
The Spirit transforms the Christian community into the "Body of Christ." In Byzantine hymns for the day of Pentecost, the Spirit is sometimes called the "glory of Christ" granted to the disciples after the Ascension; 13 and at each Eucharist, the congregation after communion chants: "We have seen the true light; we have received the heavenly Spirit; we have found the true faith; we worship the undivided Trinity, for it has saved us." Pentecost, the birthday of the Church, is the moment when the true meaning of Christ’s cross and Resurrection becomes manifest when a new mankind enters back into divine fellowship, when a new knowledge is granted to "fishermen." This is the main theme of the feast of Pentecost in the Byzantine tradition; and, curiously, it matches the awareness of many modern students
of Christian origins that full understanding of Christ’s teaching is indeed a "post-Resurrection" experience of the early Church: "The Spirit through His appearance in tongues of fire firmly plants the memory of those man-saving words which Christ has told the Apostles having received them from the Father."14
But the "knowledge," or "memory" granted by the Spirit is not an intellectual function; it implies an "illumination" of human life as a whole. The theme of "light," which through Origen and Gregory of Nyssa permitted the association of the Biblical theophanies with Greek Neo-Platonic mysticism, also permeates the liturgical hymnography of Pentecost. "The Father is light, the Word is light, and the Holy Spirit is light; that light was sent to the Apostles as tongues of fire and through it the whole world is illumined and venerates the Holy Trinity" (solemn hymn, called exaposteilarion). For indeed, the Holy Spirit is the "glory" of Christ which not only transfigures the body of the historical Jesus, as in the case of the Transfiguration but glorifies as well His wider "Body," i.e., all those who believe in Him. In fact, a comparison of the Byzantine liturgical texts of Pentecost with those appointed for the Feast of the Transfiguration (August 6) — and it is always important to remember that for the Byzantines the liturgy has been the highest expression of their faith and Christian experience — shows that the miracle of Pentecost is considered as an expanded form of the mystery of Tabor. On Mount Tabor the divine light was shown to a restricted circle of disciples, but at Pentecost Christ "by sending the Spirit has shone forth as the light of the world"15 because the Spirit "enlightens the disciples and has initiated them into the heavenly mysteries."16
Examples can be easily multiplied and it shows that the Byzantine theological tradition is constantly aware that in the "economy" of creation and salvation the Son and the Spirit are accomplishing one single divine act without however being subordinated to one another in their hypostatic or personal existence. The "head" of the new, redeemed humanity is, of course, Christ, but the Spirit is not only Christ’s agent; He is, in the words of John of Damascus (which are paraphrased in the hymns of Pentecost):
"Spirit of God, direct, ruling; the fountain of wisdom, life and holiness; God existing and addressed along with the Father and Son; uncreated, full, creative, all-ruling, all-effecting, all-powerful, of infinite power, Lord of all creation and not subject to any; deifying but not deified; filling but not filled; shared in but not sharing in; sanctifying but not sanctified."17
This personal "independence" of the Spirit
is connected, as Vladimir Lossky points out, with the whole mystery of redemption, which is both a unification (or "recapitulation") of mankind in the one divine-human hypostasis of Christ — the new Adam — and a mysterious personal encounter between each man and God. The unification of human nature is a free divine gift, but the personal encounter depends upon human freedom: "Christ becomes the sole image appropriate to the common nature of humanity. The Holy Spirit grants to each person created in the image of God the possibility of fulfilling the likeness in the common nature. The one lends His hypostasis to the nature, the other gives His divinity to the persons."18There is, of course, one divinity and one divine action, or "energy," leading mankind to the one eschatological goal of deification; but the personal, hypostatic functions of the Son and of the Spirit are not identical. Divine grace and divine life are a single reality, but God is Trinity and not an impersonal essence into which humanity would be called to merge. Thus, here, as we have seen above, Byzantine Christian tradition requires the distinction in God between the One unapproachable Essence, the three hypostases, and the grace, or energy, through which God enters into communion with creatures.
The mystery of Pentecost is not an incarnation of the Spirit but the bestowing of these gifts. The Spirit does not reveal His Person as the Son does in Jesus and does not en-hypostasize human nature as a whole; He communicates His uncreated grace to each human person, to each member of the Body of Christ. New humanity is realized in the hypostasis of the Son incarnate, but it receives only the gifts of the Spirit. The distinction between the Person of the Spirit and His gifts will receive great emphasis in Byzantine theology in connection with the theological controversies of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Gregory of Cyprus and Gregory Palamas insisted, in different contexts, that at Pentecost the Apostles received the eternal gifts or "energies" of the Spirit, but that there was no new hypostatic union between the Spirit and humanity.19
Thus, the theology of the Holy Spirit implies a crucial polarity which concerns the nature of the Christian faith itself. Pentecost has seen the birth of the Church — a community which acquires structures and presupposes continuity and authority — and is an outpouring of spiritual gifts toliberatingman from servitude giving him freedom and personal experience of God. Byzantine Christianity remains aware of an unavoidable tension between these two aspects of faith: faith as doctrinal continuity and authority and faith as the personal experience of saints. It generally understands that an exaggerated emphasis on one aspect or the other destroys the very meaning of the Christian Gospel. The Spirit gives a structure to the community of the
Church and authenticates the ministries which possess the authority to preserve the structure, to lead, and to teach; but the same Spirit also maintains in the Church prophetic functions and reveals the whole truth to each member of Christ’s body if only he is able and worthy to "receive" it. The life of the Church — because it is created by the Spirit — cannot be reduced to either the "institution" or the "event," to either authority or freedom. It is a "new" community created by the Spirit in Christ where true freedom is recovered in the spiritual communion of the Body of Christ.
The Spirit and the Church
In Byzantine liturgical language, the termkoinonia("communion") is the specific expression designating the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Eucharistic community and one of the key notions in Basil’s treatise on the Holy Spirit.20 This observation is important inasmuch as it emphasizes that the "communion" of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit as divine Trinity the "communion of the Holy Spirit" which introduces man into divine life, and the "communion," or "community," which is then created between men in Christ are not only designated with the same term but ultimately represent the same spiritual experience and reality. The Church is not simply a society of human beings associated with each other by common beliefs and goals; it is akoinoniain God and with God. And if God Himself was not a Trinitariankoinonia, if He was not three Persons, the Church could never be an association of persons irreducible to each other in their personal identity. Participation in divine life would be nothing more than a Neo-Platonic or Buddhist integration into an impersonal "One."
The very specific "oneness" realized in the Eucharistic koinonia, is, par excellence, a gift of the Spirit.
One of the recurring themes in the Byzantine hymnography of Pentecost is a parallel drawn between the "confusion" of Babel and the "union" and "symphony" effected by the descent of the Spirit in tongues of fire: "When the Most High came down and confused the tongues, He divided the nations; but when He distributed the tongues of fire, He called all to unity. Therefore, with one voice, we glorify the all-holy Spirit."21 The Spirit does not suppress the pluralism and variety of creation; nor, more particularly, does He exclude the truly personal experience of God, accessible to each man; He overcomes division, contradiction, and corruption.
He Himself is the "symphony" of creation which can be fully realized in the eschatological fulfilment. The Church’s function is to render this fulfilment accessible by anticipation through its role of "sanctification" effected by the Spirit.
"Creation is sanctified," Basil writes, "and the Spirit is the Sanctifier. In the same manner, the angels, the archangels and all the super celestial powers receive their sanctity from the Spirit. But the Spirit Himself possesses sanctity by nature. He does not receive it by grace but essentially; hence, He is distinctively called Holy. Thus, He is holy by nature as the Father and the Son are holy by nature."22The mysterious but overwhelming role of the Spirit in the "economy" of salvation cannot be expressed fully other than by this suggestive tautology: the Holy Spirit "sanctifies," i.e., He creates a koinonia of man with God, and, hence, of men between themselves as a "community of saints." It is best expressed in the "anaphora of St. Basil" — celebrated ten times each year in the Byzantine Church — at the most solemn moment of the epiclesis:
We pray Thee and call upon Thee, Ο Holy of Holies, that, by the favour of Thy goodness, Thy Holy Spirit may come upon us and upon the gifts now offered, to bless, to hallow, and to show this bread to be the precious Body of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ, and this cup to be the precious Blood of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ, shed for the life of the world, and [that the Spirit may] unite all of us to one another who become partakers of the one Bread and Cup in the communion [koinonia] of the Holy Spirit.
Each one individually having been baptized "in the death of Christ" and having received the "seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit" in the sacrament of chrismation faithfully participates with otheres together in the mystery of the Eucharist. The existence of theirkoinonia is both a condition of the Eucharistic miracle — the Spirit is being invoked not only on the "gifts" but "upon us and upon the gifts" — and its consequence: the Spirit sanctifies the gifts so that the koinonia may become an always-renewed reality.
The role of the Spirit in transforming a community of sinners into the "Church of God" is distinct but not essentially different from His role in creation; for the "new Adam," being a "new creation" is also an anticipation of the universal transfiguration of the world, which is the ultimate intent and goal of God’s creative activity. Byzantine liturgy and theology are always aware of the fact that "by the Holy Spirit every living thing receives life,"23 and that therefore as the new temple of the Spirit the Church is invested with a divine mission to the world. It does not receive the Spirit for its own sake but in order to accomplish God’s purpose in human history and in the whole cosmos. The parallelism as well as the difference between the "first" and the "new" creation is well expressed by Nicholas Cabasilas:
"[God] does not create anew out of the same matter which He has created in the beginning. Then, He made use of the dust of the earth; today He calls upon His own body. He restores life to us not by forming anew a vital principle which He formerly maintained in the natural order but by shedding His blood in the hearts of communicants so that He may cause His own life to spring in them. Of old He breathed a breath of life; now He imparts to us His own Spirit."24
"New creation" implies mission to the world; hence the Church is always "apostolic," i.e., not only founded on the faith of those who saw the risen Lord, but assuming their function of "being sent" to announce and establish the Kingdom of God. And this mission receives its authenticity from the Spirit. The Byzantine hymns for Pentecost glorify Christ "who has made the fishermen most wise by sending down upon them the Holy Spirit and through them has drawn the world into His net."25
The Spirit has bestowed upon the Church its "apostolicity" since the day of Pentecost; and only through the Spirit can the Church preserve consistency and continuity with the original Christian Gospel. The various
ministries, created by the Spirit in the Christian koinonia even more particularly that of the episcopate, are meant to maintain and structure this continuity thus assuring the purity and effectiveness of the Church’s mission in the world.
The Spirit and Man’s Freedom
We saw in Chapter 11 that man was not understood in the Greek patristic tradition as an autonomous being; participation in divine life was seen as an integral part of his nature. But since man is created free, it is obvious that there cannot be as in Western theology any opposition between "grace" and freedom. It is quite to the contrary. Man can be authentically free only "in God" when through the Holy Spirit he has been liberated from the determinism of created and fallen existence and has received the power to share in God’s lordship over creation.
This approach to freedom has crucial implications for man’s attitude toward the Church as well as for his social and personal ethics. On the one hand, it presupposes that nowhere, except in the sacramental community of the Church, is it possible to achieve the truly liberating divine life. On the other hand, the whole approach to man’s salvation remains based on a personal, responsible, and free experience of God. This paradox, irreducible to a rational scheme, corresponds to an essential element of pneumatology: the Spirit simultaneously guarantees the continuity and authenticity of the Church’s sacramental institutions and bestows upon each human person a possibility of free divine experience and therefore a full responsibility for both personal salvation and corporate continuity of the Church in the divine truth. Between the corporate and the sacramental, on the one hand, and the personal, on the other, there is therefore a necessary tension in the spiritual life of the Christian and in his ethical behaviour. The Kingdom to come is already realized in the sacraments, but each individual Christian is called to grow into it by exercising his own efforts and by using his own God-given freedom with the cooperation of the Spirit.
In the Byzantine tradition, there has never been any strong tendency to build systems of Christian ethics, and the Church has never been viewed as the source of authoritative and detailed statements on Christian behaviour. Church authority was certainly often called upon to solve concrete cases, and its decisions were seen as authoritative criteria for future judgments; but the creative mainstream of Byzantine spirituality was a call to "perfection" and to "holiness" and not a prepositional system of ethics. It is the mystical, eschatological, and therefore maximalistic character of this call to holiness which gives it its essential difference from the legalism of Medieval Roman Catholicism, the puritanical moralism of other Western
trends, and the relativism of modern "situation ethics." Whenever they searched for models of Christian behaviour, Byzantine Christians looked rather at saints and "athletes of the faith," especially the monks. Monastic literature is the source par excellence for our own understanding of Byzantine spirituality, and it is dominated by a "quest" of the Spirit.
Especially associated with the tradition of Macarius, this quest is particularly evident in the flowery, hymns of Symeon the New Theologian, addressed to the Holy Spirit:
I give thanks to Thee for this, that Thou, divine Being above all things, makest Thyself a single spirit with me — without confusion, without change — and that Thou didst become all in all for me, ineffable nourishment, freely distributed, which falls from the lips of my soul, which flows abundantly from the source of my heart; the resplendent vesture which covers me and protects me and which destroys the demons; the purification which washes from me every stain through these holy and perpetual tears which Thy presence accords to those whom Thou visitest. I give thanks to Thee for Thy being which was revealed tome as the day without twilight, as the sun which does not set. Ο Thou who hast no place where Thou hidest Thyself, for Thou dost never shun us, never hast Thou disdained anyone; it is we, on the contrary, who hide ourselves, not wishing to go toward Thee.26
The conscious and personal experience of the Holy Spirit is therefore the supreme goal of Christian life in the Byzantine tradition, an experience which presupposes constant growth and ascent. This experience is not opposed to an essentially Christocentric understanding of the Gospel, for it itself is possible only "in Christ," i.e., through communion in the deified humanity of Jesus; nor is it contradictory to practical ethical requirements, for it remains impossible unless these requirements are fulfilled. But obviously, such experience reflects a basically personalistic understanding of Christianity. To a degree larger than in the West then, the Byzantine Church will see in the saint or in the mystic the guardian of the faith and will trust him more than any permanent institution; and it will not develop legal or canonical guarantees for an independent Christian action in the world hoping rather that if they will be needed prophets will arise to preserve the identity of the Gospel; this hope will indeed be fulfilled in the irreducible non-conformity of monastic personalities and communities throughout Byzantine history.
Obviously, however, Byzantine Christianity will also be faced with temptations inherent in its personalistic outlook. Spiritualistic and dualistic sects will often prosper in the Byzantine and post-Byzantine world, side by side with Orthodox spirituality. Between the fourth and the fourteenth centuries, various forms of Messalianism — "the Plagiarisms of the East"27 — will promote an anti-social, non-sacramental, and dualistic interpretation of the monastic ideal. They will be followed by the RussianStrigol’nikyand other sects. Their influence under the form of an exaggerated anti-institutionalism will always be felt inside the canonical boundaries of the Orthodox Church itself.
The Church, of course, has never admitted that spiritualistic individualism and "enthusiasm" to be erected as an ecclesiological system but has maintained its sacramental structure and canonical discipline. Conscious of the fact that in the Kingdom of God there are no laws other than those of the Spirit, it has also remembered that the Kingdom already accessible as a true and direct experience has not yet come in strength and remains hidden under the sacramental veils. In the present aion, structures, laws, canons, and institutions are unavoidable asmeanstoward a fuller realization of the Kingdom. In practice, the Byzantine world recognized that the Christian empire had a legitimate role to play in codifying practical Christian ethics and in supervising their application. The standard code of Christian behaviour was theNomocanon, a collection of Church rules and of state laws concerning religion. Even there, however, the basic personalism of Byzantine Christianity was preserved in the fact that a person, not an institution, was invested with direct responsibilities in the Christian world: the Christian emperor, "elect of God." Historically, the perpetuation of the empire in the East played a role in preventing the Byzantine Church from assuming the direct role of ruling society politically and thus keeping more strictly to its function as a signpost of the Kingdom to come — a Kingdom fundamentally different from all political systems of this age.
Whatever the obvious ambiguity and the hypocrisy which at times was evident in the Byzantine state, it thus served as an historical framework for a tradition which maintained the eschatological character of Christianity. In general, whether in the lands of Islam or in modern secular societies of Eastern Europe the Orthodox settled for a ghetto life: the closed liturgical community with its experience of the heavenly served both as a refuge and as a school. It demonstrated a remarkable capacity for survival and also as for example in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russia for influencing intellectual development. Its emphasis on the free experience of the Spirit as the liberating goal of human life may be even better appreciated among those who today are looking for alternatives to the over-institutionalized ecclesiasticism of Western Christianity.
The Triune God
"When I say God, I mean Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," writes Gregory of Nazianzus.1 Far from being a form of abstract speculation, the doctrine of the Trinity was always for the Greek patristic tradition a matter of religious experience — liturgical, mystical, and often poetical:
No sooner do I conceive of the one than I am illumined by the splendour of the three; no sooner do I distinguish them than I am carried back to the one. When I think of any one of the three, I think of Him as the whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking escapes me.2
The basis of this Trinitarian theology, which was formulated by the Cappadocian Fathers in the fourth century at the conclusion of the Arian controversies and remained standard throughout the Byzantine period, was found in soteriology: the Fathers were actually preoccupied not with speculation but with man’s salvation. The Nicaean doctrine of con-substantiality meant "the confession of the fullness of divinity in Christ and implied that the Incarnation was essential to the redemptive act of Christ;" and maintained similarly that if "the Spirit was not fully God He was unable to bestow sanctification."3
In itself, the Cappadocian doctrine of the Trinity remains totally meaningless unless one remembers that its goal is to maintain the Christological and pneumatological presuppositions developed in the last two chapters: the incarnate Logos and the Holy Spirit are met and experienced first as divine agents of salvation, and only then they are also discovered to be essentially one God. It was well known that during the theological debates of the fourth century the Cappadocian Fathers were accused of tritheism, so that Gregory of Nyssa was even obliged to issue his famous apologetic treatise proving that "there were not three gods."4 It remained debatable however whether he succeeded in proving his point philosophically. The doctrine of the three hypostases, adopted by the Cappadocian Fathers to designate the three divine Persons, had definite Plotinian and Origenistic associations, which normally implied substantial differentiation. The Fathers however remained faithful to the terminology they had adopted, in spite of all difficulties and criticism — both from the "old Nicaeans" faithful to Athanasius and from the theologians of the Latin West — because they saw no other means of preserving the Biblical experience of salvation in the fully identifiable and distinct persons of Christ and the Spirit, an experience which could never enter the categories of philosophical essentialism.
The Latin West adopted a different approach to Trinitarian theology, and the contrast has been well expressed by Theodore de Régnon: "Latin philosophy considers the nature in itself first and proceeds to the agent; Greek philosophy considers the agent first and passes through it to find the nature. The Latins think of personality as a mode of nature; the Greeks think of nature as the content of the person."5 Practically speaking, the difference of emphasis means that in both thelex orandiand thelex credendiof
Byzantine Christianity the Trinity remains a primary and concrete experience; the unity of God’s nature was an article of faith coupled always with an insistence on the absolute unknowability of the divine essence. In the West, however, especially since the time of Augustine, the unity of the divine being served as the starting point of Trinitarian theology.
Obviously, as long as the two schools of thought remained open to dialogue and mutual understanding, they could have developed in a complementary way. Unfortunately, the bitter polemics on theFilioqueissue led to a stiffening position and became one of the major causes of the schism. The modern crisis of deism, the increasing difficulty faced by modern theologians in explaining and justifying the being of God as a philosophically definable entity, may prove helpful not only in solving the Medieval controversy between East and West but also in the revival of a more authentic Trinitarianism. "It would seem that in our time," writes Theodore de Regnon, "the dogma of the divine unity had, as it were, absorbed the dogma of the Trinity of which one only speaks as a memory."6 But the "dogma of the divine unity" is being challenged by that of the "death of God;" hence, there is a return to an existential and experiential approach to the doctrine of God seen in the context of salvation history: "Without our experience of Father, Son, and Spirit in salvation history," writes Karl Rahner, "we would ultimately be unable to conceive at all of their subsisting distinctly as the one God."7
These modern concerns meet directly the consistent position of Byzantine theology.
Unity and Trinity
The Cappadocian Fathers adopts the formulation which would remain the criterion of Orthodox Trinitarian theology in the East: God is one essence in three hypostases. This Cappadocian settlement given the circumstances of the fourth century never pretended to be anything more than the best possible description of the divine mystery, not the solution of a philosophical process similar to the Plotinian "Trinity of hypostases." The Fathers always affirms that we cannot know what God is; only thatHe isbecause He has revealed Himself — in salvation history — as Father, Son, and Spirit. God is Trinity, "and this fact can be deduced from no principle nor explained by any sufficient reason, for there are neither principles nor causes anterior to the Trinity."8
Why then are this description and this terminology preferable to others? Mainly, it is because all the options then available seemed inadequate
from the start. The formula "one essence, threeprosopa," for example, was not able to exclude a modalistic Trinity since the termprosoponalthough commonly used to designate "person" could also mean "mask" or "appearance." The Cappadocian Fathers meanwhile have wanted to affirm simultaneously that God is one object and three objects, that both His unity and His trinity are full realities. "When I speak of God," writes Gregory of Nazianzus, "you must be illumined at once by one flash of light and by three. Three in properties, in hypostases or Persons, if anyone prefers so to call them, for we would not quarrel about names so long as the syllables amount to the same meaning; but one in respect of theousia, that is, the Godhead."9
There is no claim here for philosophical consistency although an effort is made to use current philosophical terms. The ultimate meaning of the terms however is clearly different from their meaning in Greek philosophy, and their inadequacy is frankly recognized.
This is particularly true of hypostasis, a term crucial in Trinitarian theology, and in Christology. Neither in Aristotelianism nor in Neo-Platonism was the term intended to designate apersonin the Christian (and modern) sense, an agent, "possessing" his own nature and "acting" accordingly, a unique subject whose absolute identity can in no way be duplicated. Against the "old Nicaeans," the Cappadocian Fathers wanted to emphasize that the Nicaean homoousion ("consubstantial") did not identify the Son with the Father on the personal level but only on the level of the ousia. "Neither is the Son Father, for the Father is one, but He is what the Father is; nor is the Spirit Son because He is of God, for the Only-begotten is one, but He is what the Son is."10 Thus, in God, the "what" is one, but the three hypostases are personal identities irreducible to each other in their personal being. They "possess divinity,"11 and divinity is "in them."12
One recognizes the hypostatic character [of the Spirit] in that He is revealed after the Son and with the Son, and in that He receives His subsistence from the Father. And the Son, in Himself and with Himself revealing the Spirit, who proceeds from the Father, shines alone with the un-begotten light and has nothing in common with the Father and the Spirit in the identity of His particularities, but is revealed alone in the characters proper to His hypostasis. And the Father possesses the particular hypostatic character of being the Father and of being independent from all causality...13
The same personalistic emphasis appears in the Greek Fathers’ insistence on the "monarchy" of the Father. Contrary to the concept which prevails in the post-Augustinian West and in Latin Scholasticism, Greek theology attributes the origin of hypostatic ‘‘subsistence" to the hypostasis of the Father — not to the common essence. The Father is the "cause" (aitia) and the "principle" (archē) of the divine nature, which is in the Son and in the Spirit. What is even more striking is the fact that this "monarchy" of the Father is constantly used by the Cappadocian Fathers against those who accuse them of "tritheism": "God is one," writes Basil, "because the Father is one."14 And the same thought is found in Gregory of Nazianzus: "God is the common nature of the three, but the Father is their union [henōsis]."15 Pseudo-Dionysius also speaks of the Father as the "source of Divinity,"16 and John of Damascus in his Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faithalso affirms the essential dependence of the Son and the Spirit upon the Person of the Father:
Whatsoever the Son has from the Father, the Spirit also has, including His very being. And if the Father does not exist, then neither does the Son and the Spirit; and if the Father does not have something, then neither has the Son or the Spirit. Furthermore, because of the Father, that is because of the fact that the Father is, the Son and the Spirit are; and because of the Father, the Son and the Spirit have everything that they have.17
By accepting Nicaea, the Cappadocian Fathers eliminated the ontological subordinationism of Origen and Arius, but they preserved indeed together with their understanding of hypostatic life, a Biblical and Orthodox subordinationism, maintaining the personal identity of the Father as the ultimate origin of all divine being and action: "The three [are] one God when contemplated together; each [is] God because [they are] consubstantial; the three [are] one God because of the monarchy [of the Father]."18 Developing his well-known doctrine of the divine image in man, Gregory of Nyssa defines one aspect of human personal existence which is clearly different from that of God: each human person possesses the power of reproducing himself while in God there is only "one and the same Person of the Father from whom the Son is born and the Spirit proceeds."19 Thus, the human race is in a constant process of fragmentation, and can recover its unity only through adoption by the Father in Christ — i.e., by becoming children of the one single hypostasis which generates without fragmenting or multiplying. The origin of unity in the Trinity, the Father restores the unity of creation by adopting humanity in His Son, the New Adam, in whom humanity is "recapitulated" through the activity of the Spirit.
Not an abstract intellectual speculation, the doctrine of the Trinity stands at the very centre of Byzantine religious experience: the immanent Trinity manifests itself as the "economic" Trinity, i.e., the saving revelation of God in history. This is made particularly clear in the liturgy, especially in the Eucharistic canon. As a solemn prayer to the Father by the adopted human community united in the incarnate Son and invoking the Spirit, the Eucharist is indeed the sacrament of divine unity being bestowed upon men. The same Trinitarian reality is expressed in innumerable hymns scattered throughout the Byzantine liturgical cycles. Here is a solemn hymn of Pentecost attributed to the emperor-poet Leo VI (886-912), and constituting a variation on the famousTrisagion:
Come, Ο peoples, let us venerate the tri-hypostatic Deity,
The Son in the Father, with the Holy Spirit
For before time the Father generated a Son, sharing His eternity and His
And the Holy Spirit was in the Father, glorified together with the Son.
One Power, One Essence, One Deity, whom we all venerate and say:
Holy God, who created all things through the Son, with the cooperation of
the Holy Spirit;
Holy Mighty, through whom we knew the Father and the Holy Spirit
dwelt in the world;
Holy Immortal, the Spirit Comforter, who proceeds from the Father
and abides in the Son,
Holy Trinity, glory to Thee.20
In the classical Latin Trinitarian doctrine, "Father, Son, and Spirit are only ‘relatively’ distinct."21 Whatever the interpretation given to the idea of "relation" implied in this statement, it is clear that Western thought recognized the ontological primacy of essential unity over personal diversity in God; that is that God is essentially one, except in the divinePersonswho are defined in terms ofrelations. In Byzantine thought, however, — to use an expression from Maximus the Confessor, — "God is identically monad and triad,"22 and there is probably a tendency in both worship and philosophical formulations (as distinct from doctrinal statements) to give a certain pre-eminence to the personal diversity over essential unity. A reference to the Nicaean "consubstantial" was the Byzantine response to the accusation of "tritheism."
This reference however could not be decisive in itself simply because Greek patristic thought and particularly that of the Cappadocians always presupposed the starting point of apophatic theology: that God’s being and, consequently, the ultimate meaning of hypostatic relations were understood to be totally above comprehension, definition, or argument. The very notion of God’s being both Unity and Trinity was arevelationillustrating this incomprehensibility; for no reality accessible to the mind could be both "one" and "three." As Vladimir Lossky puts it: "the Incomprehensible reveals Himself in the very fact of His being incomprehensible, for His incomprehensibility is rooted in the fact that God is not only Nature but also Three Persons."23
The knowledge of God is therefore possible only inasmuch as He reveals Himself, inasmuch as the immanent Trinity manifests itself in the "economy" of salvation, and inasmuch as the transcendent acts on the immanent level. It is in the fundamental oneness of these "acts" or "energies" of God that the Greek Fathers, particularly Basil and Gregory of Nyssa, discover the decisive and existential sign of the unity of God’s essence. Basil’s well-known argument in favour of the divinity of the Spirit is that He has the same "energy" as the Father and the Son. Similarly, Gregory of Nyssa proves the essential unity of Father, Son, and Spirit from the unity of their operation.24 This argument also fitted into the context of the Cappadocians’ polemics against Eunomius who affirmed the possibility of knowing God’s essence; no knowledge concerning God they asserted was possible, except from His "energies." The "economic" Trinity revealed in God’s action in the
world is therefore the only possible basis for affirming that God is indeed, paradoxically and incomprehensibly, a transcendent and immanent Trinity. Gregory of Nyssa’s doctrine of the "energies" is well described by G. L. Prestige:
In men..., in spite of the solidarity of the whole race, each individual acts separately, so that it is proper to regard them as many. This is not so... with God. The Father never acts independently of the Son, nor the Son of the Spirit. Divine action... always begins from the Father, proceeds through the Son, and is completed in the Holy Spirit; there is no such thing as a separate individual operation of any Person; the energy invariably passes through the three, though the effect is not three actions but one.25
In fact, the Aristotelian principle according to which each "nature" (physis) has an "energy" (energeia) — i.e., an existentially perceivable manifestation, — provides the terminological background for the patristic concept of "energy" (We find this terminology is used as well in Christology where Maximus the Confessor, for example, maintains that the two natures of Christ presuppose two "energies" or wills). However, significantly, the Aristotelian dyad, nature-energy, was not considered sufficient in itself when applied to God because in God’s nature the decisive acting factor is hypostatic; hence, divine "energy" is not only unique but tri-hypostatic since the "energy" reflects the common life of the three Persons. The personal aspects of the divine subsistence do not disappear in the one "energy," and it is indeed the Trinitarian life of God which is communicated and participated in the "energy": through the "energy" therefore the divine hypostases appear in their co-inherence (pcrichōrēsis):26 "I am in the Father and the Father in me" (Jn 14:11). Human persons though also one in nature and substance act disjointly and often in conflict with each other; in God however thepcrichōrēsisexpresses the perfect love, and, therefore, the perfect unity of "energy," of the three hypostases, without however any mingling or coalescence. The "energy," because it is always Trinitarian, is always an expression and a communication of love: "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you: abide in my love" (Jn 15:9).
It is probably in the context of the doctrine of thepcrichōrēsisthat one should understand a unique passage in Palamas, where he seems inspired by the Augustinian "psychological" image of the Trinity.27 Palamas writes, "This Spirit of the Word from on high is like the mysterious love of the Father toward the Word mysteriously begotten; it is that possessed by the Word, the beloved Son, toward the Father who begat Him; this the Son does insofar as He comes from the Father conjointly with this love, and this love rests naturally upon him."28 Since the whole approach to the Trinity in Palamas is different from Augustine’s, it is certainly the result of the personalistic interpretation, which can be given to the "psychological" image being used here to suggest the Trinitarian mystery: love unites the three divine hypostases, and pours out, through their common divine "energy" or "action,"
upon those worthy to receive it.
Hypostasis, Essence, and Energy
The distinction — arealdistinction — between divine "essence" and divine "energy" is made unavoidable in the context of the doctrine of "deification," which implies a "participation" of created man in the uncreated life of God whose essence remains transcendent and totally unparticipable. All these aspects of the doctrine of God will, in fact, be faced simultaneously during the controversies between Gregory Palamas and his adversaries in the fourteenth century. His conclusion necessarily is that "three elements belong to God: essence, energy, and the triad of the divine hypostases."29
This triple distinction is rendered inescapable as soon as one rejects the Augustinian option of Trinitarianism in favour of the Cappadocian. For, indeed, if the Persons are only relations internal to the essence, the revelation of God, if any, is a revelation either of the "essence" or of "analogous" created symbols; the "energies," then, are either the "essence" of God or created signs, and there is no real distinction inGod. But if, on the contrary, the Persons are distinct from the essence, which is common to them but transcendent and inaccessible to man, and if in Christ man meets God "face to face," so there is a real "participation" in divine existence, this participated divine existence can only be a free gift from God, which safeguards the inaccessible character of the essence and the transcendence of God.
This God-giving-Himself is the divine "energy;" a living and personal God is indeed an acting God.
We have seen that the doctrine of the "energies" in the Byzantine tradition is central both to the understanding of creation and to Christology. Refusing to reduce the being of God to the philosophical concept of simple "essence," Byzantine thought affirms the full and distinct reality of the Triune hypostatic life of God ad intra as well as His "multiplication" as creator ad extra. These two "multiplicities" do not however coincide. The terminology which the doctrine of energies received, in its relation to the three hypostases, was stabilized in the Palamite synthesis of the fourteenth century:
The proper appellations of the divine hypostases are common to the energies; whereas appellations common to the hypostases are particular to each of the divine energies. Thus, life is a common appellation of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, butforeknowledgeis not called life, nor is simplicity, norunchangeableness, nor any other energy. Thus, each of the realities which we have enumerated belongs at the same time to the Father, the Son, and the Spirit; but they only belong to one energy and not to all; each reality, in fact, has only one signification. Inversely, Father is the proper appellation of one sole hypostasis, but it is manifest in all the energies... And the same is true of the appellations Son and Spirit... Thus, since God in His wholeness is wholly incarnate, He has unchangeably united to the whole of me ... the divine nature and all its power and energy in one of the divine hypostases. Thus, also, through each of His energies one shares in the whole of God ... the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit...30
The triple distinction — essence, hypostasis, energy — is not a division of God’s being; it reflects the mysterious life of the "One-who-is" — transcendent, tri-personal, and present to His creation.
The Palamite formulations of the fourteenth century were preceded by theological developments which dealt with the same triple distinction. In 1156 and 1157, two local councils held in Constantinople debated the problem whether the sacrifice of Christ; in both its historical and its Eucharistic dimensions, was offered to the Father alone or to the Holy Trinity. Soterichos, a theologian, was condemned because he held that the acts of offering and of receiving constituted thehypostatic characteristicsof the Son and the Father respectively — an opinion the councils considered to be a confusion between the "immanent" and the "economic" Trinity — or between the hypostatic characteristics and "energies." And, indeed, the Byzantine liturgies of Basil and of John Chrysostom include at the offertory a prayer addressed to Christ: "For it is you who offer and are offered, who receive and are yourself received." The mystery of the hypostatic life as it is revealed in the Incarnation and in the act of redemption is also expressed in a Byzantine Eastertroparion(repeated by the priest during the offertory at the Eucharist): "O Christ indescribable! You filled all things: bodily in the grave, in Hades with your soul as God, in Paradise with the thief; you also sat on the divine throne with the Father and the Spirit."
Therefore, even if the Father alone is the addressee of the Eucharistic prayer, the act of "receiving" the sacrifice is a Trinitarian act as are all the divine actsad extra?31The mystery of the Incarnation however consists in the fact that the divine hypostasis of the Logos assumed also the role of offering bringing humanity with itself to the throne of the Father. The Eucharistic sacrifice is precisely this offering accomplished in the body of Christ where human nature is penetrated with divine energy assumed as it is by the hypostasis of the Logos.
The hypostatic, personal existence implies an "openness," which makes it possible for the incarnate Logos to "offer" and to "receive," to be man and God, and to remain, with the Father and the Spirit, the "actor" of the "energies" characterizing divine nature.
The Living God
"God, when He was speaking with Moses, did not say: ‘I am the essence’ but: ‘I am who am’ [Ex 3:14]. It is therefore not He-who-is who comes from the essence, but it is the essence which
comes from He-who-is, for He-who-is embraces in Himself all being."32 When Palamas in the passage just quoted explicitly refers to the Biblical doctrine of the living God or when he refuses to identify the being of God with the philosophical notion of essence — "The essence is necessarily being, but being is not necessarily essence," 89 — he expresses the very content of his quarrel with Barlaam and Akindynos but also maintains thetheologiaof the Cappadocian Fathers.
We have already noted that the conflict within Byzantine society which set the monks against the "humanists" involved an understanding of man’s destiny based on the Bible as opposed to one based on Platonic spiritualism. A similar problem developed on the level of "theology" proper, i.e., the doctrine of God. The issue was complicated by the fact that Latin Scholasticism provided the Byzantine anti-Palamites with a truly "Greek" interpretation of the divine being, and they readily turned into Latinophrones. For, indeed, the real significance of theFilioquequarrel consisted in the fact that the two sides held to a different approach to God.