Trinitarian Reality

In less than two weeks the period of Epiphany will end in the liturgical calendar (Eastern Christians speak in this context of Theophany). This name comes from the ancient Greek ἐπιφάνεια, epiphaneia, “manifestation, striking appearance”. In the Christian perspective the self-manifestation of God is inextricably linked to the mystery of the Trinity. God reveals himself as a unity of three persons. And yet for many Christian, particularly in the West, the Trinity ceased to be, or perhaps has never become, a living reality, but is one of the strange things one “has to believe in every day, already before breakfast and your first cup of coffee”, as Pradusz said in his sermon on Trinity Sunday. The below text is a summary and compilation of two papers I wrote during my studies at Tilburg University’s Department of Theology. I try to demonstrate in them that the Trinitarian dogma doesn’t have to be treated as a Catechism truth claim, but as a living reality that encompasses all aspects of life and sheds a special light on them, helping us to understand them better.

The Trinity is the reality to which Christianity points, and may be regarded to be the principle permeating the understanding of every aspect of life in the Christian way of looking at it. Its essence is personal communion, which is nothing less than life itself, the fullness of it. The Trinitarian principle provides or at least points to answers to primordial questions about the one and the many, individuality and society, the part and the whole, and prompts one to reject all customary positions as wrong. True life, seen through the lens of the Trinitarian principle, is neither an all-encompassing unity, which knows only parts serving a whole, nor the separation of an individual, who is but a rebelling part of the whole (that is, society, group or any other matrix) and cannot rise above it. In the light of the Trinity both the solitariness of an individual and the uniformity of a universal harmony, a melting away of personality in a greater reality, seem misconceived. Trinitarian community doesn’t crash the persons, but it presupposes their ultimate openness towards each other, and it is in this openness that they gain their being from each other. They do not form a greater whole, but rather they have the whole in themselves, as the concept of perichoresis, employed in Trinitarian disputes, reveals. They subsist in one another and thus form the unity: they are at the same time distinct and united, absolutely free and absolutely loving. The limitations of subjectivity are overcome as communion, most intimate and open, is in fact a transcendence, an act of self-offering in which the barrier between the subject and the object is eliminated and they share everything they have, all experiences and even their very essence. If I were to look for metaphorical means to express it, I would point to erotic love, which is a kind of embodied language and whose aim is to get beyond normal barriers between people, as much as to speech agency, postulated especially in Protestant theology, understood in the light of normal human conversation and communication.

The Trinitarian communion is dynamic, not static, as persons are at the same time one and distinct, they fully give themselves and yet remain in a relationship, in exchange, in perpetual mutuality. And it is this Communion and personality that are of key importance in understanding the nature of the Church, its sacramental nature. It is sacramental because it points beyond itself to ultimate reality – the communion with God – and it already shares in this reality.

Christ, the Son, the God-Man, offered himself to the Father in the Holy Spirit, and by his absolute obedience, his absolute offering, restored the human nature to its proper state and divinized it, that is, opened to it the Trinitarian communion in which he eternally participates. Humanity was liberated from the infirmity of death, from its self-inflicted separation from the source of life which is divine communion (separation, self-centeredness and locking oneself in oneself is the opposite of communion and life, it is hell and the way to nothingness). In Christ human nature was ‘unlocked’ from within, enlightened in a substantial sense, without violence or coercion, but through obedience and love. The essence of the fall lies in the isolation of man in his egoistic subjectivity and his opposition to the object world and other subjects. The healing was brought by Christ and we can find it only in him. It was a revelation – and enabling – of the personal principle in human life. The Holy Spirit is the one who makes this effective, in whom this happens – individual human beings are united in him with the human nature that Christ deified and so enter communion with each other and with God.

In the East everything is marked by Trinitarian thinking: ecclesiology, the understanding of society, and finally eschatology and the destiny of man itself. The last is for me of greatest significance. Perhaps the best known specifically Eastern doctrine is theosis, deification. It does not merely speak of justification and sanctification, but participation in the divine life itself. Rublev’s famous icon of the three angels as if opens up towards the human being in an invitation, pointing at what Fedorov called the “ontological place of man“. Man is meant to share in the very life of God, the dynamic relationship exemplified and made possible by the Trinity: not annihilated by the Godhead and not eternally alienated from its life. The patristic notion of hypostasis, invented anew for doctrinal purposes, and not persona or prosopon, which relate to theatre and masks, illusionary beings, has been the cornerstone of modern personalism for which the human being, the person, contains within herself the universal, the nature, and is not a part of it. The person posited as it were between individualism (alienation) and complete union finds her fulfillment in communion (the Russian concept of sobornost’, for example, is thoroughly Trinitarian, and social philosophies of Fedorov and Berdyaev are likewise). I believe that the truly unique potential of Christian anthropology and theology, as well as social philosophy and ecclesiology, can be developed only on the basis of thoughtful and serious acknowledgment of personhood.

Celtic symbol of the Trinity

The Church in its true sense is koinonia [communion] of persons who through grace bestowed by the Holy Spirit are united in love with God and with each other. Everything institutional about the Church is there only in order to enable the celebration of the Eucharist – the embodiment of koinonia by which it is actualized and eternity brakes into time. Everything legal, institutional and official about the Church is good only in so far as it is necessary for the realization of communion, and all functions and particular tasks of the Church – mission, teaching, discipline and ministry of all sorts – are just instruments of bringing about the communion, of bringing people to God. It means that everything discoursive and abstract serves persons and has no value of and in itself. Life and Truth is a person: Christ, and the mission of the Church, the fact of the Church, is to enable everybody to become persons in the true sense.

Full communion is of course impossible in time, it is still obscured and distorted, but when the Eucharist is celebrated, it becomes reality, and this allows the Church to maintain its joyous expectation of the eventual fulfillment of communion. God can offer only one ‘thing’: himself. And that is also true of the human being. All gifts of the Spirit, all that happens in the Church, is just an expression of the foundational fact of communion, which is the condition of freedom, creativity and goodness and itself is freedom, creativity and goodness. The true nature of the Church is communal, because these are people who by God’s grace receive God himself and themselves become true persons, in the image and likeness of the Trinity. The instruments that the Church was bestowed with, the (formal) sacraments (acts where, through matter, which is essential to the work of redemption, grace is communicated in rites traditionally repeated in history of the Church), are the main gateways to Communion with God. It is however the grace, and so God himself, that is crucially important, and so in one sense it is true that sine ecclesiam nulla salus (there is no salvation beyond the church), and in another not, as God’s grace is sovereign and can be given without the mediation of the institutional Church.

One of the most important issues that ecclesiology struggles with is the unity of the Church. The ecclesiology of the East insists on unity yet it sees its realization in practice through diversity of local churches. Every local church has in itself, through the Eucharist, fullness of Catholicity and Catholicity is revealed only in the local churches and their communion. The (Roman) West tends in turn to emphasize that Catholicity is found more in the framework where the churches operate and thus to weave them into one institutional and canonical fabric. The Trinitarian inspiration of local church ecclesiology, originally Eastern, was expressed in the following manner by Pierre Whalon, the bishop-in-charge of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, referring to an agreement between Old Catholics and Anglicans on full communion:

“The few words of the Bonn Agreement point to the kind of unity we share. It is not a monad, under one bishop who tells the rest of us what to believe and how to act. It is an image — albeit a very pale and feeble image — of the life we share in the Triune God. The Three have each a separate identity, yet they are perfectly one.”

For in the end there is just one Church, one Trinity and one sacrament: communion which should encompass the whole reality. 

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