The Trinity, One and Three, East and West

It is interesting to note the emphases of the East (Eastern Orthodox) and the West (the rest of the church) when it comes to the theology of the Trinity. During the Council of Toledo, for instance, the West inserted into the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (we usually say “the Nicene Creed”) the phrase “and from the Son,” in Latin filioque. This is the famous filioque clause controversy. The phrase in question refers to the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and from the Son. This is the theology of the West. The rationale of inserting this clause is that if the Son does not send the Holy Spirit, then He is less than God the Father. While this would be just fine with Arians, it would not be acceptable to the orthodox church. However, the East objected to this phraseology. The East said that the Father is the monarch of the Trinity (they usually guard against the Father being superior to the other persons of the Trinity), and that if the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and from the Son, then the Holy Spirit’s deity would be reduced to merely someone who is sent, and the Father would no longer be the Father to the Son. The West would reply that the East then would have no acceptable way of describing the relationship between the Son and the Spirit, if the Son does not send the Spirit. The East would reply that if the Son sends the Spirit, that obscures the relationship of the Father and the Spirit. I believe the West to be right in this debate, although we must guard against some of the errors to which the East points in its criticism of the West. In affirming that the Son is fully equal to the Father in essence, we must be careful to affirm the Father’s role as Father. We must be careful to guard against some kind of impersonal essence as being the center of the Trinity. God is one and God is three. Though the oneness and threeness are equally ultimate, God is one and three in different ways. God is one in being (not impersonal being, but personal being). God is three in person.

Another difference between East and West has been their varying emphasis on oneness or threeness. The West tended to focus on the one essence of God such that the threeness of God sometimes faded into the background. The East focused on the threeness of God so much that the oneness of God sometimes faded into the background. I think that the East and the West have much to teach each other. The best representatives from both traditions are careful to guard against the faults to which their traditions are sometimes prone. The West is prone to modalism (God is more essentially one; each person is merely a different face that God wears), whereas the East is prone to tritheism (three gods).