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Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky
Orthodox dogmatic theology

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The dogma of the Holy Trinity in the Ancient Church.

The Church of Christ in all of its fullness and completeness has confessed the truth of the

Holy Trinity from the very beginning. For example, St. Irenaeus of Lyon, a disciple of St. Polycarp

of Smyrna, who was himself instructed by the Apostle John the Theologian, speaks clearly

of the universality of faith in the Holy Trinity: “Although the Church is dispersed throughout the

whole inhabited world, to the ends of the earth, it has received faith in the one God the Father

Almighty . . . and in one Lord Jesus Christ the Son of God, Who was incarnate for the sake of our

salvation, and in the Holy Spirit Who has proclaimed the economy of our salvation through the

prophets . . . Having received such a preaching and such a faith, the Church, although it is dispersed

throughout the entire world, as we have said, carefully preserves this faith as if dwelling

in a single house. It believes this (everywhere) identically, as if it had a single soul and a single

heart, and it preaches it with one voice, teaching and transmitting it as if with a single mouth. Although

there are many dialects in the world, the power of Tradition is the same. None of the

leaders of the churches will contradict this, nor will anyone, whether powerful in words or unskilled

in words, weaken the Tradition.”

Defending the catholic truth of the Holy Trinity against heretics, the Holy Fathers not only

cited as proof the witness of Sacred Scripture, as well as rational philosophical grounds for the

refutation of heretical opinions, but they also relied upon the testimony of the first Christians.

They indicated: 1) the example of the martyrs and confessors who were not afraid to declare their

faith in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit before their torturers; and they cited 2) the writings of

the Apostolic Fathers and, in general, the ancient Christian writers, and 3) the expressions which

are used in the Divine services. Thus, St. Basil the Great quotes the Small Doxology: “Glory to

the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit,” and another: “To Him (Christ) with the Father and

the Holy Spirit may there be honor and glory unto the ages of ages.” And St. Basil says that thisdoxology was used in the churches from the very time that the Gospel was announced He likewise

points to the thanksgiving of lamp-lighting time, or the Vesper Hymn, calling it an “ancient

hymn handed down “from the Fathers,” and he cites from it the words: “We praise the Father

and the Son and the Holy Spirit of God” in order to show the faith of the ancient Christians

in the equal honor of the Holy Spirit with the Father and the Son.

There are likewise many testimonies from the ancient Fathers and teachers of the Church

concerning the fact that the Church from the first days of her existence has performed baptism in

the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, as three Divine Persons, and has accused

the heretics who tried to perform baptism either in the name of the Father alone, considering the

Son and the Holy Spirit to be lower powers, or in the name of the Father and the Son, and even of

the Son alone, thus belittling the Holy Spirit (see the testimonies of Justin the Martyr, Tertullian,

Irenaeus, Cyprian, Athanasius, Hilary, Basil the Great, and others).

The Church, however, has experienced great disturbances and undergone a great battle in

the defense of the dogma of the Holy Trinity. The battle was chiefly fought on two points: first

on the affirmation of the truth of the oneness of Essence and equality of honor of the Son of God

with God the Father; and then on the affirmation of the oneness of honor of the Holy Spirit with

God the Father and God the Son.

In the ancient period, the dogmatic aim of the Church was to find such precise words for this

dogma as could best protect the dogma of the Holy Trinity against the reinterpretations of heretics.

Desiring to bring the mystery of the All-Holy Trinity a little closer to our earthly concepts, to

bring what is beyond understanding a little closer to that which is understandable, the Fathers of

the Church used comparisons from nature. Among these comparisons are: (a) the sun, its rays

and light; (b) the root, trunk, and fruit of a tree; (c) a spring of water and the fountain and river

that issue from it; (d) three candles burning simultaneously which give a single inseparable light;

(e) fire, and the light and warmth which come from it; (f) mind, will, and memory; (g) consciousness,

knowledge, and desire; and the like. But this is what St. Gregory the Theologian says

regarding these attempts at comparison: “I have very carefully considered this matter in my own

mind, and have looked at it in every point of view, in order to find some likeness of this mystery,

but I have been unable to discover anything on earth with which to compare the nature of the

Godhead For even if I did happen upon some tiny likeness, it escaped me for the most part, and

left me down below with my example. I picture to myself a spring, a fountain, a river, as others

have done before, to see if the first might be analogous to the Father, the second to the Son, and

the third to the Holy Spirit. For in these there is no distinction in time, nor are they torn away

from their connection with each other, though they seem to be parted by three personalities.

However, I was afraid in the first place that I should present a flow in the Godhead, incapable of

standing still; and secondly, that by this figure a numerical unity would be introduced. For the

spring, the fountain and the river are numerically one, though in different forms.

“Again, I thought of the sun and a ray and light. Nevertheless, here again there was a fear

lest people should get an idea of composition in the Uncompounded Nature, such as there is in

the sun and the things that are in the sun. In the second place lest we should give Essence to the

Father but deny Personality to the Others and make Them only powers of God, existing in Him

and not Personal. For neither the ray nor the light is another sun, but they are only emanations

from the sun, and qualities of its essence. And lest we should thus, as far as the illustration goes,

attribute both Being and Not-being to God, which is even more monstrous . . . In a word, there is

nothing which presents a standing point to my mind in these illustrations from which to considerthe Object which I am trying to represent to myself, unless one may indulgently accept one point

of the image while rejecting the rest. Finally, it seems best to me to let the images and the shadows

go, as being deceptive and very far short of the truth, and clinging myself to the more reverent

conception, and resting upon few words, using the guidance of the Holy Spirit, keeping to the

end as my genuine comrade and companion the enlightenment which I have received from Him,

and passing through this world to persuade others also to the best of my power to worship Father,

Son, and Holy Spirit, the one Godhead and Power” (St. Gregory the Theologian, Homily 31, “On

the Holy Spirit,” sections 31-33; Engl. tr. in Eerdman's Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second

Series, vol. VII, p. 328).

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