One in three, three in one


  • Question from VN, United Kingdom

    Is God the father the boss of the trinity or are they all equal? Does God have a personality disorder, as there are different bits with varying characteristics?

    The assertion that the Christian concept of God is of ‘one God in three persons’ has been the cause of many debates throughout Christian history. It is hard to understand how three can be one can be three, given the fact that human beings are individuals. The relationships between human beings have clearly defined limits and humans, as physical beings, have natural physical limits regardless of relationship. While any number of models to explain how the Trinity ‘works’ have been proposed (e.g. God as the Sun, light and heat), they are all slightly flawed because they rely heavily on physical examples.

    It is not easy to talk about the way God relates within the Trinity as opposed to God’s external relationships with the world and created beings. Within orthodox Christian thought, though, one important concept is the idea of ‘coinherence’, or ‘perichoresis’. This idea was present in the Trinitarian debates of the fourth century, and then refined over the following centuries, as this question was repeatedly debated.

    Put simply, coinherence/perichoresis refers to a relationship of mutual indwelling, so that when one person of the trinity acts, all three act. One is invariably in the other two, just as they are in the one. From this idea of perfect relationship and harmony comes the uniquely Christian idea of God being in very nature relational, which is the central point of creation and, of course, underscores the absolute tragedy of abused free will and the Fall. The creatures created out of a desire for relationship rebel against that relationship and turn their back on the creator.

    The primacy of one Trinitarian person over the others was the cause of the fourth century Arian controversy, which saw God the Father as the prime, unbegotten God, with the Son as a lesser divine agent, and the Spirit as lesser again. This idea of gradated Godhead was countered at the Council of Nicea in AD325, when the Son was declared to be ‘homo-ousios’ (literally: of exactly the same being) as the Father, and then again at the Council of Constantinople in AD381 when the same was applied to the Spirit. The names ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ denote relationship, but not primacy. The ‘Father’ cannot be a ‘Father’, without a ‘Son’; the ‘generation’ of the Son happens eternally within the Godhead, so there was never a time when the Father was alone. The Spirit is the ‘bond of love’ between the Father and the Son. The Spirit thus proceeds from the Father and the Son (although that indicates a major point of theological disagreement between western Catholic theology and eastern Orthodox theology, with the west historically regarding the Spirit’s procession from both, while the east sees the Spirit proceeding from the Father alone).

    While it is tempting to do, the concept of a coinherent Trinity means that drawing distinctions between God’s “different bits with varying characteristics” is slightly misguided. While the different persons may act in different ways towards the created cosmos and the creatures who inhabit it, there is a strong sense of united purpose and action together. So, the Son becomes a mortal man through the impetus of the ‘sending’ Father and the agency of the Spirit, all three working together as one to achieve the same ends; the Father endorses the Son through the sending of the Spirit; and the Son imparts the Spirit to reveal the Father in the life of the Church.

    Thanks for your question VN.

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