Although there is no developed or systematic doctrine of the Holy Trinity in the Bible, yet the holy scriptures, especially the New Testament, bear witness to the self-revealing mystery of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit as distinct and yet inseparable persons acting for the life, salvation* and glorification of all humanity and of all creation.* In this respect, all the individual biblical references to God,* the Creator of heaven and earth, to his eternal Word and his eternal Spirit, from the beginning of the book of Genesis till the end of the book of Revelation, find their coherence and focus in the mystery of the incarnation* of Jesus Christ* (1 Tim. 3:16) and in its ultimate goal: the participation of the whole creation in God’s kingdom* (Rev. 21:1-3). The mystery of the cross of Christ and of his resurrection* is the window and light through which the church* experiences the mystery of the divine Trinity as eternal love and sees the inner coherence and unity of the otherwise apparently diverse biblical witnesses related to the mystery of the Triune God.

Shortly before his crucifixion, the incarnate Word of God gives account to his eternal Father of his mission in the world, saying that he revealed to his disciples the very name of God, i.e. Father, and the eternal love of the Father for his only begotten Son (John 17:6-26, also 1:14), with whom the Father shares the same glory before the existence of the world (John 17:5). It is for the Father’s eternal Son and through him that the world was created (John 1:1-3; Col. 1:15-20) and the church comes into existence (John 17:9-26; Eph. 2:19-22, 4:9-16; Col. 1:17-18). The very purpose of the Son’s incarnation was to reveal to the world not only the love of God for his eternal Son but also God’s love for the whole creation, and to inaugurate its participation in the eternal life of God (John 3:16), liberating the world from sin* and death (Matt. 26:28; John 6:51-58; 1 Cor. 15:20,26). The incarnate Son reveals also the identity of the Holy Spirit* as an eternal person distinct not only from the Father, from whom he proceeds, but also from the Son, to whom he bears witness (John 14:26, 15:26). The Father and the Holy Spirit not only confirm the very identity of Jesus Christ as being the only begotten, eternal Son of the Father, upon whom rests the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:16-17 and par.; John 1:29-34), but they are also united with the Son, cooperating permanently with him, being present in him even in or since the very moment of the Son’s incarnation, although the Son alone became man (Luke 1:35).

This differentiated yet indivisible action of the three distinct and inseparable divine persons revealed through the mystery of the incarnation of Christ is in fact present in the whole economy of salvation and consequently in the whole life of the church, pointing to the kingdom of God as being the kingdom of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This life and activity of the Holy Trinity is an eternal and perfect communion* of love, a permanent movement of mutual and fully free self-offering of each person* to the others and of all of them to the world (John 10:17-18, 17:4; Phil. 2:6-11; Heb. 9:14). The Trinitarian revelation shows that ultimately the truth, life and unity in God are identical with koinonia*/communion.

The Father and the Son sent the Spirit into the world (Luke 4:18) in order that the Son may reveal to the world the love of the Father for it and the future action of the Spirit, who by his personal dwelling in the believers enables them to participate in the eternal love and glory which unite the Father and the Son (John 14:15-26, 15:26, 16:14-15). It is precisely by the dwelling of the Holy Spirit in those who believe in Christ that they can truly confess Jesus Christ as Lord (1 Cor. 12:3) and call God “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15-16), for the Spirit alone knows and declares all that the Father possesses and has given to the Son (John 16:13-15).

There is no confusion or subordination among the persons of the Holy Trinity but only mutual self-giving, each person glorifying the others. In fact the unity of the Trinitarian life lies in the movement of perfect mutual self-giving. This Trinitarian unity affirms the communion and distinctiveness of the persons.

The fact that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father (John 15:26) and rests upon the Son or is received by the Son from the Father (John 1:32; Luke 4:18; Acts 2:32-33) allows him to be called the Spirit of God the Father (1 Cor. 2:12, 3:16) and the Spirit of his Son or the Spirit of Christ (Gal. 4:6; Rom. 8:9). Since the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, he is called the Spirit of God, but he is also called the Spirit of the Son, since he is received by the Son and sent by the Son from the Father, or by the Father in the name of Christ and at the request of Christ (John 14:26, 15:26). Being in a distinct manner the Spirit of the Father and the Spirit of Christ, the one Holy Spirit bears witness to the other two distinct persons in their irreducible distinctiveness: the Father and the Son.

At the same time, the Holy Spirit enables those who believe in Christ to be baptized in the koinonia of the one body of Christ, while preserving their unique identity (1 Cor. 12:13) and helping them to have access to the Father (Eph. 2:18) and to live within the world as adopted sons and daughters of the Father, receiving the same glorious gifts which the risen Jesus Christ received from the Father (Rom. 8:14-18). These gifts of the Father are communicated by the Spirit to those who believe in Christ in order that they may become like his Son, so that the Son should be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters (Rom. 8:29). Those who receive the Holy Spirit know the love of the Father as the Son knows it (John 17:25). In this way the Holy Spirit builds up church life and unity* through the participation of human beings in the life and koinonia of the Holy Trinity. Therefore all sacramental life of the church is accomplished through the action of the Holy Spirit and bears witness to the saving presence of the kingdom of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit within the world, thus preparing believers to long for the revelation of the glorious freedom of the children of God, for which in fact the whole creation is longing (Rom. 8:18-25).

For this reason, the apostolic church early identified baptism* with sharing in the mystery of the cross and resurrection of Christ (Rom. 6:3-4) and in the eternal Trinitarian communion of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19). The same church experienced in the whole ecclesial celebration both the distinctiveness and the indivisibility of the divine Trinitarian love for humankind (2 Cor. 13:13: “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit”). To early Christians, this experience of the living presence of the Holy Trinity in church life was so deep and self-evident that they could easily grasp the fact that “the church is full of Trinity” (Origen).

The Trinity in church history

The fact that the sharing in the Trinitarian communion of life and love was the centre and focus of the new life of the Christians is particularly attested by the baptismal creeds* and rituals of the church but also by its whole sacramental and liturgical life in the first millennium after Christ (and esp. in the Eastern and Oriental churches). The Christological and pneumatological controversies of the 4th and 5th centuries were in fact a challenge for the church to express and defend in more conceptual ways the permanently lived mystery of the divine Triune communion revealed in Christ and communicated by the Spirit to the church.

The doctrine of the Trinity as formulated by the fathers of the church in the Nicene* (325) and Constantinopolitan (381) Creeds and in the Chalcedonian council (451; see Chalcedon ) was in fact a great effort to preserve the unity of God, not as an abstract arithmetical or quantitative kind of unity which makes of God an eternal solitude, but precisely the Trinitarian unity as the eternal, indivisible and life-giving communion of the three consubstantial, equal and yet distinct persons, avoiding any separation, confusion and subordination among them. It is precisely the uniqueness of the Trinitarian unity that crucifies the human discursive (or linear) way of thinking.

The dogmatic formula of the council held in Chalcedon in 451 (“one person in two natures”) is not primarily an explanation of the mystery of the incarnation of Christ but rather an effort to preserve the fullness of the divine-human communion accomplished and revealed in Christ, in which humanity fully and eternally participates in the life of the Trinity, without confusion or separation between God and humanity. In fact the Chalcedon formula protects the faith of the apostolic church, which recognized and confessed the risen Christ as being at the same time the only begotten Son of God (John 1:14) and “the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29 RSV). To Greek philosophy or any human way of thought which is inclined to confound or separate God and humanity in order to obtain artificial unity, the church, inspired by the Spirit of truth (John 15:26) and of communion (2 Cor. 13:13) and faithful to the revelation, opposed a real and authentic theology, i.e. that of the saving and deifying communion.

The Trinitarian unity as mutual self-giving and total sharing of life, love and glory, accomplished through the mutual dwelling of each person in the others (perichoresis) , becomes both the supreme model and the ultimate source of church unity (John 17:21-23) and points to the final unity in the glorious kingdom of God, when all of creation will be renewed and united in God (Rev. 21:1-4). In the light of this unity revealed by Christ to his disciples and communicated to the church by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the fathers of the church took the mysterious plural of the book of Genesis – “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness” (1:26) – as a project of God which anticipates the eschatological unity of all humankind in God. In this respect the patristic doctrine of the Trinity, as expressed in the formulas of the ecumenical councils* and in the sacramental life of the patristic church, has a permanent ecumenical significance precisely because it bears witness to the living apostolic faith that continues throughout the centuries, representing in itself a praise directed to the Trinitarian communion present in the church catholic universal.

The Trinity in the modern ecumenical movement

The understanding of the Trinity, after many centuries of ecclesiastical polemics and theological controversies, offers a new climate and basis for re-discovering the mystery of the Holy Trinity as the source, model and goal of Christian unity and as the basis for a deep renewal of Christian theology and spirituality. Although the doctrine of the Trinity has not yet been the object of an organized and systematic ecumenical reflection, the

ecumenical interest in a common understanding of the centrality of the mystery of the Holy Trinity for the life of the church, and particularly for Christian unity, can be detected in many significant ecumenical events.

Particularly at the demand of the Eastern churches, the Christocentric affirmation of the Amsterdam basis (1948; see WCC, basis of ), i.e. “a fellowship of churches which accept our Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour”, was placed at New Delhi 1961 into a Trinitarian setting: “to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit”. The ecumenical vision of unity formulated at New Delhi is also marked by a Trinitarian perspective: “The love of the Father and Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit is the source and goal of the unity which the Triune God wills for all men and creation… The reality of this unity was made manifest at Pentecost in the gift of the Holy Spirit, through whom we know in this present age the first-fruits of that perfect union of the Son with his Father, which will be known in its fullness only when all things are consummated by Christ in his glory.”

This Trinitarian perspective concerning the unity of God and church unity also marked to a certain extent the efforts of the Second Vatican Council* (1962-65) in its teaching on revelation and the mystery of the church. At the same time, the Faith and Order* conference in Montreal (1963) displayed interest in a Trinitarian perspective in its understanding of worship as a “service to God the Father by men redeemed by his Son, who are continually finding new life in the power of the Holy Spirit”. Later, when the “conciliar fellowship” model of unity was discussed at the fifth assembly of the WCC (Nairobi 1975), it also appeared necessary to place the deep theological and spiritual understanding of conciliarity in a Trinitarian setting.

Furthermore, the study of the F&O commission on the ecumenical significance of the so-called filioque* controversy ended in 1979 with the recommendation that the meaning of faith in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be more fully explored “so that the Holy Trinity may be seen as the foundation of Christian life and experience”. Another study of the F&O commission, namely the project “Towards an Ecumenical Explanation of the Apostolic Faith as Expressed in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (381)”, has been to a certain extent an ecumenical effort to understand the apostolic faith in the Holy Trinity in the light of contemporary challenges (human responsibility for the integrity of creation, women’s emancipation in church and society, dialogue with people of other living faiths, etc.). Again, in their evaluation of the Lima document on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry ,* many churches expressed their appreciation of the fact that baptism and eucharist are approached in BEM from a Trinitarian perspective.

At the same time, an increasing interest in deeper ecumenical understanding of the significance of the faith in the Holy Trinity for church unity and life in the world is also displayed in many bilateral dialogues. Some examples are the Orthodox-Roman Catholic international dialogue with its first theme “The Mystery of the Church and of the Eucharist in the Light of the Mystery of the Holy Trinity” (1980-82), or the Orthodox-Reformed and Anglican-Orthodox dialogues in which common agreement on the faith in the Holy Trinity appears as a necessary presupposition for a common vision of church unity.

To promote an ecumenical ecclesiology of communion based on an ecumenical reflection on the very nature of the church appears today to be one of the most urgent

ecumenical tasks. It calls all churches to re-discover together that the mystery of the Holy Trinity is the very heart of any authentic Christian theology and spirituality. Since, from the Christian point of view, the unity that really matters is a saving and liberating divine-human communion, the ecumenical prayers and theological efforts, and the practical actions have a lasting value when they help us recover the early Christian experience according to which the “church is full of Trinity” amid a creation that is ultimately moving towards the glorious reign of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.


n B. Bobrinskoy, Le mystère de la Trinité (ET The Mystery of the Trinity , Crestwood NY, St Vladimir’s Seminary, 1999) n L. Boff, La Trinidad, la Sociedad y la Liberación (ET Trinity and Society, Maryknoll NY, Orbis, 1988) n British Council of Churches, The Forgotten Trinity , (1) report of study commission, (2) study guide, London, BCC, 1989 n W. Kasper, Der Gott Jesu Christi (ET The God of Jesus Christ , New York, Crossroad, 1984) n H.-G. Link ed., One God, One Lord, One Spirit: On the Explanation of the Apostolic Faith Today , WCC, 1988 n J. Moltmann, Trinität und Reich Gottes (ET The Trinity and the Kingdom of God , London, SCM Press, 1981) n J. L. Segundo, Nuestra Idea de Dios (ET Our Idea of God, Maryknoll NY, Orbis, 1974) n J. Thompson, Modern Trinitarian Perspectives , New York, Oxford UP, 1994 n T.F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being, Three Persons , Edinburgh, Clark, 1996 n T.F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith: The Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church , Edinburgh, Clark, 1988 n T.F. Torrance, Trinitarian Perspectives: Towards Doctrinal Agreement , Edinburgh, Clark, 1994 n W.A. Visser ‘t Hooft, “The Basis: Its History and Significance”, ER , 38, 2, 1985 n G. Wainwright, “The Ecumenical Rediscovery of the Trinity”, OC , 34, 2, 1998 n J. Zizioulas, Being as Communion , Crestwood NY, St Vladimir’s Seminary, 1985.

The text above is extracted from “ Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement ” 2 nd Edition , published by World Council of Churches (courtesy of World Council of Churches)

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