John Behr on the Trinity

The Trinity: Scripture and the Greek Fathers

by the Very Rev. John Behr

Some 30 years ago, Karl Rahner claimed that most Christians are “mere monotheists,” that if the doctrine of the Trinity proved to be false, the bulk of popular Christian literature, and the mindset it reflects, would not have to be changed. Unfortunately, this is largely still true.

Defining the doctrine of the Trinity as a mystery which cannot be fathomed by unaided human reason invites a position such as Melanchthon’s: “We adore the mysteries of the Godhead. That is better than to investigate them.” But the danger of not reflecting carefully on what has been revealed, as it has been revealed, is that we remain blinded by our own false gods and idols, however theologically constructed.

So how can Christians believe in and worship the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and yet claim that there is only one God, not three? How can one reconcile monotheism with trinitarian faith?

My comments here follow the structure of revelation as presented in Scripture and reflected upon by the Greek Fathers of the fourth century, the age of trinitarian debates. To avoid the confusion into which explanations often fall, it is necessary to distinguish between: the one God; the one substance common to Father, Son and Holy Spirit; and the one-ness or unity of these Three.

The Father alone is the one true God. This keeps to the structure of the New Testament language about God, where with only a few exceptions, the world “God” (theos) with an article (and so being used, in Greek, as a proper noun) is only applied to the one whom Jesus calls Father, the God spoken of in the scriptures. This same fact is preserved in all ancient creeds, which begin: “I believe in one God, the Father …”

“For us there is one God, the Father … and one Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 8:6). The proclamation of the divinity of Jesus Christ is made not so much by describing Him as “God” (theos used, in Greek, without an article is as a predicate, and so can be used of creatures; cf. John 10:34-35), but by recognizing Him as “Lord” (Kyrios). Beside being a common title (“sir”), this word had come to be used, in speech, for the unpronounceable, divine, name of God Himself, YHWH. When Paul states that God bestowed upon the crucified and risen Christ the “name above every name” (Phil 2:9), this is an affirmation that this one is all that YHWH Himself is, without being YHWH. This is again affirmed in the creeds. “And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God … true God of true God.”

According to the Nicene creed, the Son is “consubstantial with the Father.” St Athanasius, the Father who did more than anyone else to forge Nicene orthodoxy, indicated that “what is said of the Father is said in Scripture of the Son also, all but His being called Father” (On the Synods, 49). It is important to note how respectful such theology is of the total otherness of God in comparison with creation: such doctrines are regulative of our theological language, not a reduction of God to a being alongside other beings. It is also important to note the essential asymmetry of the relation between the Father and the Son: the Son derives from the Father; He is, as the Nicene creed put it, “of the essence of the Father” – they do not both derive from one common source. This is what is usually referred to as the Monarchy of the Father.

St Athanasius also began to apply the same argument used for defending the divinity of the Son, to a defense of the divinity of the Holy Spirit: just as the Son Himself must be fully divine if He is to save us, for only God can save, so also must Holy Spirit be divine if He is to give life to those who lie in death. Again there is an asymmetry, one which also goes back to Scripture: we receive the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead as the Spirit of Christ, one which enables us to call on God as “Abba.” Though we receive the Spirit through Christ, the Spirit proceeds only from the Father, yet this already implies the existence of the Son, and therefore that the Spirit proceeds from the Father already in relation to the Son (see especially St Gregory of Nyssa, To Ablabius: That there are not Three Gods).

So there is one God and Father, one Lord Jesus Christ, and one Holy Spirit, three “persons” (hypostases) who are the same or one in essence (ousia); three persons equally God, possessing the same natural properties, yet really God, possessing the same natural properties, yet really distinct, known by their personal characteristics. Besides being one in essence, these three persons also exist in total one-ness or unity.

There are three characteristics ways in which this unity is described by the Greek Fathers. The first is in terms of communion: “The unity [of the three] lies in the communion of the Godhead” as St Basil the Great puts it (On the Holy Spirit 45). The emphasis here on communion acts as a safeguard against any tendency to see the three persons as simply different manifestations of the one nature; if they were simply different modes in which the one God appears, then such an act of communion would not be possible. The similar way of expressing the divine unity is in terms of “coinherence” (perichoresis): the Father, Son and Holy Spirit indwell in one another, totally transparent and interpenetrated by the other two. This idea clearly stems from Christ’s words in the Gospel of John: “I am in the Father and the Father in me” (14:11). Having the Father dwelling in Him in this way, Christ reveals to us the Father, He is “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15).

The third way in which the total unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is manifest is in their unity of work or activity. Unlike three human beings who, at best, can only cooperate, the activity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is one. God works, according to the image of St Irenaeus, with His two Hands, the Son and the Spirit. More importantly, “the work of God,” according to St Irenaeus, “is the fashioning of man” into the image and likeness of God (Against the Heretics 5.15.2), a work which embraces, inseparably, both creation and salvation, for it is only realized in and by the crucified and risen One: the will of the Father is effected by the Son in the Spirit.

Such, then, is how the Greek Fathers, following Scripture, maintained that there is but one God, whose Son and Spirit are equally God, in a unity of essence and of existence, without compromising the uniqueness of the one true God.

The question remains, of course, concerning the point of such reflection. There are two directions for answering the question. Theological reflection is, to begin with, an attempt to answer the central question posed by Christ Himself: “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt 16:15). Yet at the same time, it also indicates the destiny to which we are also called, the glorious destiny of those who suffer with Christ, who have been “conformed to the image of His Son, the first-born, of many brethren” (Rom 8:29). What Christ is as first-born, we too may enjoy, in Him, when we also enter into the communion of love: “The glory which though hast given me, I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one” (John 17:22).

The Living Pulpit (April-June, 1999), pp. 22-23

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15 Responses to John Behr on the Trinity

  1. Agni Ashwin says:

    “The Father alone is the one true God.”

    Strange words.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I agree. They do sound strange to us. And yet every Sunday we confess: “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible,” and we do not even note the oddity. For most Western trinitarian Christians, the Monarchy of the Father has no real function; but it most certainly did for the Eastern Fathers.

      You may find of interest my series on St Gregory and the divine monarchy: “St Gregory the Theologian and the One God.”

      Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I thought I would add that I think it would be hard today to preach “the Father alone is the one true God,” without generating a lot of confusion.

      The curious thing is that the Western rite liturgy more clearly displays “God=Father” than the Eastern rite. The Western still displays the primitive structure of prayer to the Father through the Son in the Spirit, whereas the Eastern rite is dominated by prayer either to the Trinity or to Christ. The Anaphora is directed to the Father, of course, as is the Our Father.


      • In more of the modern Evangelical Protestant circles, most people just pray “Dear Heavenly Father…” with no mention of the Son or the Holy Spirit. If they do mention the Son, it’s “…in Jesus name, amen.” Our Habitat for Humanity leader prays “Father God…” and never has mentioned the Son or the Holy Spirit at all.

        Then I go to the Byzantine liturgy and the Trinity and deity of Christ are so prominent throughout, it’s like, “Whoa! No wonder anti-Trinitarianism has only become rampant in the Western Christian circles!”


  2. Father Gregory says:

    It sounds strange indeed. Fr. Behr was my professor and confessor at Saint Vladimir’s and he and I have had several occasions to talk about what the words mean to him. To Fr. Behr it is about using words with care. In a course dedicated to trinitarian theology we went through the meaning of all this at length. “God” is often used, Fr. Behr would point out, without it being clear “what God” we are talking about. Even worse the word God would have a shifting shade of meaning not derived from exegesis and brought to the scriptural language about the God of the Scriptures. We thereby distort the scriptural testimony.

    “The one true God” is language used by Scripture, Creeds, and Greek early Fathers to refer to the Father. The terminology is never applied to the Son or the Spirit. That is not because they wish to exclude the Son and Spirit from what-it-is-to-be-god but because they seek to maintain scriptural language as much as they can and therefore the language used concerning Father, Son, and Spirit proper to each Person ought not be confused. Fr. Behr does not exclude the Son and the Spirit from being consubstantial with the Father. Rather, as Fr. Kimel points out, the monarchy of the Father within trinitarian relations is thereby expressed.

    In a conversation I had with Fr. Behr during a coffee break he expressed that he was aiming at the sloppy use of the word “God” by later latin theologians (Peter Lombard comes to mind). Fr. Behr particularly objected to an idea he had encountered that even though the Son had become incarnate, there was no reason why the Father and/or the Spirit could not do the same at some point if they wanted to. Such speculation, Fr. Behr, explained begins with a non-scriptural reflection on the word “God” and runs with it. He therefore emphasized so strongly (and I remember Prof. Peter Bouteneff stressing the same point in dogmatics) that we need to begin and stay with the language of Scripture as do the Creeds and as did the early Greek Fathers. In that way we would simply never question whether the Father and Son could incarnate. Scripture (and tradition) identify the Son of God (the Word of God) as incarnate. Full stop. Whatever else we might say of the other Divine Persons with regard to incarnation is engaging in counterfactuals. What if … ? In Scripture the Word is the Incarnate Jesus Christ and we cannot separate pre-incarnate Word and Jesus Christ. To do so, Fr. Behr warned me, is Nestorianism. Iow for Fr. Behr it is a matter of speaking about the Trinity with the language of Scripture and not confusing our terms so we won’t end up Nestorians or Modalists of some sort.

    At the “Orthodox Readings of Augustine” conference at Fordham University a number of years ago, Fr. Behr presented a paper stating pretty much what Fr. Kimel wrote above. After the reading of the paper, David Bentley Hart (who had also presented at the conference) stood up and challenged Fr. Behr on precisely the denial that “one true God” can have any other referent than the Father. He did so by calling Fr. Behr’s theological position pseudo-orthodox and at least semi-eunomian. Hart is well known for his outspokenness. Hart’s point, and I tend agree with the point he made while disagreeing with how he qualified Fr. Behr’s theology, is that since Augustine (De Trinitate) it has been common to use the term “one true God” of the entire Trinity. Augustine does this precisely on an exegetical basis (not a merely speculative one). I had an opportunity to briefly discuss De Trinitate with Fr. Behr and he admitted not being very familiar with it at the time, but familiar enough to disagree with the shift of “trinitarian grammar” which occurs in De Trinitate. To Fr. Behr the term “one true God” can only refer to the Father and not the Trinity, whereas Augustine, pleads that “one true God” cannot be proper to one Divine Person since the “true divinity” is attributed in Scripture to all three Divine Persons. Scripture, Augustine asserts, speaks of each Person as being truly God and therefore “one true God” is a common term not a term specific to one Divine Person alone.

    The papers can be found in a book published, i think by SVS Press, “Orthodox Readings of Augustine” edited by George Demakopoulos if I remember correctly. It was an interesting conference, not the least the fireworks between Behr and Hart.

    Gregory Wassen +


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I don’t recall fireworks between Hart and Behr, but I certainly see why this topic might generate them. It seems to me that Behr overstates his case. Once the word “God” begins to be used as a predicate for the Son and Spirit, then it becomes almost too picky to insist that the Father is the one true God. It’s one thing to stick close to the biblical-creedal usage; it’s another thing to say suggest that we may not also say, e.g., that the one true God is God the Holy Trinity. Consider, e.g., this passage from St Epiphanius:

      God is one, the Father in the Son, the Son in the Father with the Holy Spirit . . . true enhypostatic Father, and true enhypostatic Son, and true enhypostatic Holy Spirit, three Persons, one Godhead, one being, one glory, one God. In thinking of God you conceive of the Trinity, but without confusing in your mind the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Father is the Father, the Son is the Son, the Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit, but there is no deviation in the Trinity from oneness and identity. (Epiphanius, Anc. 10)

      And St Gregory the Theologian:

      Each person is God when considered in himself; as the Father, so the Son, and as the Son, so the Holy Spirit; the Three One God when contemplated together; Each God because consubstantial; one God because of the Monarchy. I cannot think of the One without being enlightened by the splendour of the Three; not can I distinguish them without being carried back to the One. (Or. 40.41)

      But when I say God, I mean Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (Or. 38.8)

      I bet one can find similar kinds of language in St Cyril of Alexandria. Blaming the linguistic development on St Augustine doesn’t seem plausible. In fact, the development seems quite natural and inevitable.

      Also see the usage displayed in the Orthodox/Reformed Agreement on the Trinity.


      • Father Gregory says:

        Fr. Aidan I entirely agree with you. I was simply trying to express what I remember Fr. Behr trying to teach us. As far as the fireworks … I don’t think there was a shouting match, but rather after Hart’s remark there was an “oooooooooh” followed by an awkward silence. When I told Fr. John in the same coffee break I mentioned above, that liked what i was reading in De Trinitate he (jokingly) suggested that maybe he should not have given me such a high grade on that class. I replied by saying that the good grade reflects that i understood his teaching not that I agreed with him.



  3. Arianism was never a complete rejection of the truth. It was simply an overemphasis of the Father’s monarchy in the Trinitarian relationship.


  4. Ben Nasmith says:

    That was an excellent post! Very rich and refreshing. His distinction at the beginning is helpful: “it is necessary to distinguish between: the one God; the one substance common to Father, Son and Holy Spirit; and the one-ness or unity of these Three.”
    As I understand him, the one God is the Father. The three persons share the common substance (from the Father) and are therefore equally divine. Lastly, the Three exhibit a unity or one-ness characterized by (1) communion, (2) coinherence, (3) common activity.
    I think in our discussion about tritheism on the Bauckham post the elements that were missing were the (1) communion and (2) coinherence. People were saying that common activity is not enough to avoid tritheism. But it seems like in this post the fact that the one God is the Father is the belief that secures monotheism. I’m open to that because the divinity of the Son and Spirit are in no way threatened in this exposition.


  5. Matthew Petersen says:

    This touches on a point that’s been concerning me with the Baucham stuff on the unique divine identity. (Another friend has been blogging about it too.) Specifically, it sounds modal to me. Is the claim that Jesus is part of the unique Divine Identity, together with he claim that “The Father alone is the one true God” a claim that Jesus is the Father?

    Since presumably, Baucham would deny that Jesus is the Father, does he deny that the Father alone is the one true God, so that the unique Divine Identity is the Son?

    But that doesn’t seem to work either–if “identity” refers to the Son, then it is referring to the hypostasis, to use the traditional language, and there *is not* one unique Divine hypostasis, and so there is not one unique Divine identity, rather there are three unique Divine identities: The Father the Son and the Spirit.

    Alternatively, he could mean “identity” to mean the three Persons in Trinity–what in Greek was referred to as “essence”, and which, perhaps, is better referred to in English as identity. But that doesn’t make sense, because he uses identity to refer to Jesus, that is, one of the *three*.


    • Ben Nasmith says:

      I’m also trying to figure out how to reinterpret Bauckham’s research to avoid these apparent inconsistencies. I think he is very strong when it comes to clarifying how divinity is an absolute category in which the the Father, the Son, and the Spirit each belong–individually and collectively. But I’d love to find out who he thinks the “one God” is.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Bauckham, of course, is a biblical scholar, not a systematic theologian. Hence his task is to articulate the that which he finds in the Scripture, historically read. Perhaps we are expecting too much from him (and from the Scripture, historically read). It took over 300 years for the Church to articulate and dogmatically define the doctrine of the Trinity.

        My guess is that Bauckham would say that the NT writers confess the Father as the one God, yet not the Father without the Son (hence his claim that the NT writers bring Christ into the identity of God).

        Yet from the point of view of developed trinitarian theology, surely we must speak of three identities in God, as Matthew has stated above. I believe it was Robert Jenson who first employed the language of identity in his book The Triune Identity. He argues that “identity” better captures the trinitarian meaning of hypostasis than “person.” Jenson, however, develops this usage with an eschatological construal of time and eternity in a way that Orthodox theologians probably will not be able to follow.


  6. orthodoxchristian2 says:

    What an interesting post!


  7. Pingback: Reflections on the Trinity | All Along the Watchtower

  8. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Also of interest here is Fr Thomas Hopko: “The Holy Trinity.”


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