Lambros Skontzos, Theologian
The feast of the Holy Spirit represents a special stage in the annual cycle of feasts in the Orthodox Church. On this holy day, we honor and venerate the Holy Spirit, who, the day before, had descended on the upper room in Jerusalem as ‘tongues of fire’, enlightening the holy apostles. Since then, he has remained in the Church and in the world and will continue to do so until the completion of history, as the savior of humankind and of the whole of creation. However, together with the Holy Spirit we worship the whole of the Trinity, because, according to the Orthodox Christian faith, God is indivisible in his essence.
The Church formulated its dogmas, that is, its teaching, on the basis of Holy Writ and Sacred Tradition, which is essentially the empirical understanding of the Scriptures in the Holy Spirit. Historical necessities led the Church to frame its faith and its experience through local and ecumenical synods. At these, with the Holy Spirit as compass and guide, the Holy Fathers precisely defined dogma and shielded it against the variously-named heretics who launched attacks aimed at contaminating the truth through lies and deceit.
Insofar as we wish to be members of the Church and to be saved, we believers are obliged to accept the dogmas of the Church, without deviating from them, as these are set out in the Creed, which we say and confess at the Divine Liturgy as a necessary condition for partaking in the Chalice of Life, Holy Communion.
The fundamental dogma of the Church is correct belief in the Triune God [‘Orthodoxy’ means ‘right belief’]. And it has been precisely this dogma that the various heretics throughout the ages have wanted to taint.
Almost all religions are advocates of some god- or gods if they’re polytheistic. Many people make the serious mistake of identifying the true God of Orthodox Christianity with the god or gods of the heretics or non-Christians. This is a great delusion, because it equates the revealed truth concerning God with various human, deluded doctrines. The Christian Triune God has nothing to do with the single-person God of Judaism, Islam, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons and so on. Moreover, God has no relationship to the multitude of deities in Hinduism, Taoism, Shintoism and our modern-day polytheists. We don’t believe in the same God as they do, because our faith is founded on divine revelation whereas theirs are built on arbitrary, human concepts. The holy psalmist declares that the gods of the gentiles are demons (Ps. 95.5).
According to our Christian faith, people do not have the ability to conceive the notion of God, and this is why he reveals himself to us. Saint Paul tells us that God ‘has not left himself without testimony’ (Acts 14, 17). Holy Scripture is the main channel for communicating this revelation to the world. In the Old Testament, we have a veiled revelation of God because the immaturity of the pre-Christian world was unable to accept a fuller revelation. In the New Testament, on the other hand, more is revealed: what we need to know and to the extent we’re able to comprehend it. God’s revelation in the new era of grace came through the incarnation of his Son and Word, our Lord, Jesus Christ. ‘The Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, has declared him’ (John 1, 18). In his person as God and human, he bore all the divinity, which is why he said: ‘anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’ (John 14, 9). His divine teaching is imbued with the revelation of God’s manner of being.
Through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, and through its collective experience the holy Church defined its faith in God and the limits of human knowledge of him. This was formulated in what’s known as the ‘Baptismal Creeds’ of the early Church and later, of course, in the Creed to which we’ve referred.
The Orthodox Catholic Church, which preserves the Christian faith in its integrity and without contamination, teaches that, as regards his essence and nature, God cannot be an object of knowledge on the part of the limited and circumscribed human mind. We can, however, know the energies of God. Saint John the Damascan insists that ‘We know the existence and the revealed qualities and energies of God. His nature and essence remain entirely incomprehensible and unknown to us’ (P.G. 94, 797). Western Scholastic theology, which failed to make these distinctions, was drawn in to a morass of difficulties.
Divine revelation testifies to the fact that God exists simultaneously as single unit and as a trinity. As regards his essence and his nature, he’s one. But he is and appears in three different forms of being, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Within the one, indivisible divine essence, there are three distinct divine Persons who are distinguished by their particular hypostases. One God, three Persons. The divine Persons are distinguished by their specific hypostatic capacities. The Father is unbegotten, the Son is begotten from the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father.
The Orthodox faith concerning the Holy Trinity stands between two equally serious false doctrines: strict, one-person monotheism; and many-faced polytheism. One-person monotheism (Judaism, Islam, Jehovah’s Witnesses) teach an antisocial God who is not of this world. They condemn Christianity as being polytheistic, because of its belief in the Trinity. Modern, many-faced polytheism, which is represented by a variety of eastern religions and our own neo-polytheists, condemns Christianity as a product of the Jewish monotheistic delusion. Saint Basil the Great wrote: ‘Judaism battles Hellenism [paganism] and both battle Christianity’ (P.G. 31, 600).
We reply to one-person monotheism that we’re not polytheists, because the three Persons of the Trinity aren’t different, with a distinct nature, as the polytheists declare, but rather that we believe in a single divine nature and, therefore, in one God. And we reply to polytheists that we don’t believe in an antisocial God who’s not of this world, but rather in the communion of the divine Persons.
There are some people who are led astray by heresies or false doctrines, to the point that they preach strange faiths concerning God. Some identify God with the material world (pantheism); others don’t accept the presence of God in the world (deism); yet others, including, unfortunately, many Christians, consider God to be a vague, impersonal ‘superior force’. We would make the point that erroneous views about God have most serious consequences for our spiritual journey and, ultimately, for our salvation. According to the teaching of the Church, unless we believe in the Holy Trinity, in the loving communion of the divine Persons, in the love of the Father, in the divinity and humanity of the Son and in the sanctifying and saving role of the Holy Spirit, our salvation isn’t possible.
We have to trust the Church and accept its divine teaching without deviating from it. This is our true interest: for our spiritual journey, our personal fulfilment and especially for our salvation. Without our complete enlistment in the saving body of the Church, we can’t be saved, because, as Saint Cyprian says: ‘There’s no salvation outside the Church’. The right faith concerning God should be the chief expression of our trust in the Church, as should our conscious, organic existence in the ecclesiastical body.