Why I believe the canon is fallible…and am fine with it


I am looking on page 23 of my Bible and it has the list of books. The books all together number 66—39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament. This is often referred to as the “canon” of Scripture. “Canon” (Gk. kanon) means “rule” or “measuring rod.” The canon of Scripture is the collection or a “rule” of books that Christians believe belong in the Bible. There are some variations among Christian traditions concerning the number of books. The Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox churches all use different canons (some eastern churches will vary, also). The Catholic and Orthodox include a group of books in their Bibles referred to as the Deuterocanonical books (“second canon”) or, as Protestants would call it, the “Apocrypha” (although the Orthodox church is not quite as settled upon the status of the Apocrypha).

The question How do you know what books belong in the Bible? is a significant one. The Catholics and Orthodox will normally refer to the establishment of these books as part of the canon by fourth-century councils. Catholics would further refer to the teachings of the council of Trent (1545-1563) which dogmatically and infallibly declared the current Catholic canon (including the Apocrypha) as being authoritative.

I believe that the 66 books of the Protestant canon belong in the Bible, no more no less. I believe that all 66 books are inspired, inerrant, and infallible. Yet the list on page 23 of my Bible is not part of the canon. In other words, the list itself is not part of the inspired word of God. I am using the English Standard Version, but it is the same in any version of any language. The NET Bible does not have an inspired list, even in the footnotes! There is no early Greek or Hebrew manuscript that solves the problem either. Therefore, I have a potential difficulty. Since I do not believe in an infallible human authority that can determine what books belong in the Bible, how can I be certain what books belong in the Bible?

It was R.C. Sproul who first made the claim that Protestants have a fallible canon of infallible books. A fallible canon of infallible books? What good is that? Catholics often jest about the seemingly ironic situation in which advocates of sola Scriptura find themselves. The doctrine of sola Scriptura was one of the two primary battle cries of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Essentially it means that the Scripture is the ultimate and only infallible authority for the body of Christ in matters of Christian faith and practice. Professing this doctrine does not mean that there are no other authorities, but that there are no other ultimate and infallible authorities. Catholics, on the other hand, will claim that they, due to their belief in a living infallible authority, have an infallible collection of infallible books.

Not only this, but what about interpretation? Not only do Protestants not believe in an infallible authority to dogmatize which books belong in the Bible, but they don’t believe in an infallible authority to interpret the Bible. Therefore, we can take this to the next level. Protestants have a fallible interpretation of a fallible canon of infallible books. Ouch! Sounds like its time to convert to Catholicism, eh?

Not so fast. In the end, this is an issue of epistemology. Epistemology deals with the question “How do you know?” How do we know the canon is correct? How do we know we have the right interpretation? Assumed within these questions is the idea of certainty. How do you know with certainty? Not only this, but how do you know with absolute certainty?

The question that I would ask is this: Do we need absolute, infallible certainty about something to 1) be justified in our belief about that something, 2) to be held responsible for a belief in that something. I would answer “no” for two primary reasons:

1. This supposed need for absolute certainty is primarily the product of the enlightenment and a Cartesian epistemology. To say that we have to be infallibly certain about something before it can be believed and acted upon is setting the standard so high that only God himself could attain to it. Outside of mathematics and analytical statements (e.g. a triangle has three sides), there is no absolute certainty, only relative certainty. This does not, however, give anyone an excuse or alleviate responsibility for belief in something.

For example, I believe that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. I prepare each day with this belief in mind. Each night, I set my alarm clock and review my appointments for the following day, having a certain expectation that the next day will come. While I have certainty about the sun rising the next day, I don’t have infallible certainty that it will. There could be some astronomical anomaly that causes the earth to stop its rotation. There could be an asteroid that comes and destroys the earth. Christ could come in the middle of the night. In short, I don’t have absolute, infallible certainty about the coming of the next day. This, however, does not give me an excuse before men or God for not believing that it will come. What if I missed an early appointment the next day and told the person “I’m sorry, I did not set my alarm clock because I did not have infallible certainty that this day would come.” Would that be a valid excuse? It would neither be a valid excuse to the person who I was supposed to meet or to God.

We have a term that we use for people who require infallible certainty about everything: “mentally ill.” Remember What About Bob? He was mentally ill because he made decisions based on the improbability factor. Because it was a possibility that something bad could happen to him if he stepped outside his house, he assumed it would happen. There are degrees of probability. We act according to degrees of probability. Simply because it is a possibility that the sun will not rise tomorrow does not mean that it is probability that it won’t.

The same can be said about the canon and interpretation of Scripture. Just because there is a possibility that we are wrong (being fallible), does not mean that it is a probability. Therefore, we look to the evidence for the degree of probability concerning Scripture.

2. The smoke screen of epistemological certainty that seems to be provided by having a living infallible authority (Magisterium) disappears when we realize that we all start with fallibility. No one would claim personal infallibility. Therefore it is possible for all of us to be wrong. We all have to start with personal fallible engagement in any issue. Therefore, any belief in an infallible living authority could be wrong. As Geisler and MacKenzie put it, “The supposed need for an infallible magisterium is an epistemically insufficient basis for rising above the level of probable knowledge. Catholic scholars admit, as they must, that they do not have infallible evidence that there is an infallible teaching magisterium. They have merely what even they believe to be only probable arguments. But if this is the case, then epistemically or apologetically there is no more than a probable basis for Catholics to believe that supposedly infallible pronouncement [either about the canon or interpretation of the canon] of their church is true” (Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences, p. 216).

This means that we are all floating the same river, just different boats. Catholics have a fallible belief about an infallible authority; Protestants have a fallible belief about an infallible authority. Both authorities must be substantiated by the evidence and both authorities must be interpreted by fallible people.

This is the question that I have: In the end, what is the difference?

Do we have a fallible collection of infallible books? Yes, I believe we do. When all is said and done, all of our beliefs are fallible and therefore subject to error. I am comfortable with this. But remember, the possibility of error does not necessitate the probability of error. We have to appeal to the evidence to decide.

The incoherency of the Christian faith or “Why Calvinism is Confusing, Yet True”

(HT Parchment and Pen)

I had a gentleman come by the Credo House the other day. I think he just came to argue. He was one of “them.” You know what I am talking about. You would think that we would get more of these types, but this was actually the first one in the eight-month existence of the Credo House. Here was his basic argument: “If it does not make rational sense, we should not believe it.” In his view, we are obligated to understand something before we commit our belief to it. Therefore, this guy rejected some important doctrines of classical Christianity.

Christianity is often confusing. Reality is often confusing. There are certain things that we believe that simply must be, but they don’t “add up.” A good theologian needs to have worked through this. While we should be extremely diligent and committed to a task of understanding truth, a lack of understanding does not necessarily mean that it cannot be true. In other words, coherence is not the final and infallible test of truth.

It is interesting to me to see the charges of “incoherency” that we can often bring against those who oppose our perspective. Calvinist do so with Arminians and Arminians do so with Calvinists. Egalitarians to so with Complementarians and Complementarians do so with Egalitarians. “You view simply does not account for __________ and my view does. Therefore, my view is right.” Or, “If what you say is true, here is the crazy situation you find yourself in . . .” Formally, these type of arguments are called reductio ad absurdum and they are more often than not very effective in giving logical and emotional credit to your case.

Don’t get me wrong, much of the time this can be a legitimate charge that should give pause to the proponent. So I am not saying that incoherency is a position of value by any means.

However, I think that Christians must realize that there are some things in our world view that are going to be beyond our coherence tolerance.

Let me talk about this word “incoherency” for a moment. Here are some synonyms for what I am talking about: unintelligibility; inconsistency; incomprehensibility; discontinuity.

What I am talking about are those things that we believe which lack some degree of viability due to their confused nature. This confusion may be emotional or intellectual. It may be based on how we feel things should be or how we think things should be. In some sense, these things lack a degree of credibility due to our inability to coherently understand them and relate them to other things we know.

Here are some examples:

1. Calvinistic understanding of predestination: A belief that while God loves everyone, he only chose a few.

2. Arminian belief in libertarian freedom: A belief that an act of our will can be birthed from neutrality.

3. Christian belief in creation ex-nihilo: A belief that God created all that there is from that which does not exist.

4. Christian doctrine of the Trinity: God is one in substance, three in person.

5. Christian belief in the hypostatic union: Christ is fully God and fully man; one person, two complete natures which are neither confused or divided.

6. Christian belief in human freedom and divine foreknowledge: God exhaustively knows the future, yet the future is a result of free choices, including God’s.

7. Christian belief that God is transcendent and imminent: God, in his essence, transcends time and does not experience a succession of moments yet he truly interacts in time.

8. Jesus Christ’s incarnation and fellowship in the Trinity: The Second member of the Trinity, while in eternal transcendent immutable unity in the Godhead, becomes forever incarnate in a time-bound universe in Christ.

9. The atheistic view that there is no ultimate beginning (some atheists): An infinite number of moments cannot be traversed, yet we have somehow traversed an infinite number of moments to get here.

10. Christian belief in God’s universal foreknowledge and love and in the doctrine of hell: Although God is good and loving, he chose to create people who he knew were going to reject him and go to an eternal hell.

Now this is a large and varied list. Many of these I agree with and some I don’t. Some of these represent outright contradictions and analytical absurdities, and some are legitimate mysteries that have no formal absurdity, but are incoherent from the standpoint of a limited observer. Some are a standard part of Christian orthodoxy and some are positions about which there is legitimate disagreement and alternatives. Obviously, not all are in agreement about which fits into what category. Christians would all agree that #9 presents a logical absurdity. I will leave it to you to decide on the rest for now!

Some people distinguish between a contradiction and a paradox. A paradox is something that may be true but beyond our understanding while a contradiction cannot be true by definition.

Let me focus on #10 for a moment. All branches of historic orthodox Christianity believe that 10 is correct. Whether you Roman Catholic or Protestant, Calvinist or Arminian, Baptist or Presbyterian, all believe that God created people knowing that they would end up in hell. All orthodox Christians believe that it is biblical to teach these four things:

1. God has exhaustive knowledge of the future

2. God created all people

3. God loves all people

4. Many people are going to end up in an eternal place of torment for rejecting God

Of course, there are solutions, but all of them require changing what seems to be a clear teaching of Scripture as well as sacrificing one’s standing in orthodox Christianity for the sake of coherence, emotional or logical.

Here is what the options look like:

Open Theism

1. God has exhaustive knowledge of the future

2. God created all people

3. God loves all people

4. Many people are going to end up in an eternal place of torment for rejecting God


1. God has exhaustive knowledge of the future

2. God created all people

3. God loves all people

4. Many people are going to end up in an eternal place of torment for rejecting God

Pantheism (though I don’t know of any “Christian” pantheism)

1. God has exhaustive knowledge of the future

2. God created all people

3. God loves all people

4. Many people are going to end up in an eternal place of torment for rejecting God


1. God has exhaustive knowledge of the future

2. God created all people

3. God loves all people

4. Many people are going to end up in an eternal place of torment for rejecting God

In the end, I think it is best that we leave all four in place and recognize the paradoxical difficulty with this issue.

If absolute coherence, emotional or logical, is your goal, then you will never find a system that is completely satisfying. Never. Even in science, room must be left for anomalies (things that don’t make sense under the current paradigm of data). More importantly, I think it is vital to recognize that while coherence is indeed something we should diligently strive for, it is not the highest priority in the Christian faith. The highest priority for the Christian is to let rightly interpreted Scripture be our ultimate source for truth. Emotion and reason are not unimportant, it is just that they must be submitted to Scripture. Anyone can twist and manipulate Scripture to make it fit their idea of coherency. I see this done every day. Anyone can come up with a more palatable solution and force the puzzle to create a new picture, but palatability is not the final test of truth. Scripture is.

However, I don’t want it to sound as if incoherency is the highest ideal. I have also seen this “I-believe-because-it-is-absurd” mentality. We should never adopt such an irresponsible stance. While a modernistic ideal of perfect harmony in understanding is not our guide, harmony is more often than not a characteristic of truth. Disharmony and true incoherency are, more often than not, a hallmark of error.

As well, it is important to realize that just because something does not seem to have coherence, this does not make it truly incoherent. Often we are too limited to find coherence, even though it is actually present. In other words, just because something may seem incoherent to us, this does not mean that it is incoherent to God. While the doctrine of the Trinity is a mystery to us, it is not a mystery to God. Some things in Christianity do not seem to have coherence, but this does not mean that they are truly incoherent. (And yes, this does make the title of this article misleading.)

In this, we must realize that there are some things that God has withheld information about for his own reasons. Could God have made everything perfectly understandable and emotionally satisfying? Most certainly. The fact that he has not does not make his truth any less true, it just mean that he, for some reason, from time to time, wants us to believe something even though he does not want us to understand it.

A very particular Scripture comes to mind here:

Deut. 29:29
“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.”

The “secret things” are those things that God has, for whatever reason, intentionally withheld. But, thankfully, the emphasis in this passage is on “the things revealed,” and they belong to us forever.

God may never clear everything up. And he might make it all clear someday. I don’t know. As a Calvinist, one of the seemingly incoherent things that I believe is that God could have elected everyone, but he did not. Why? I will ask him one day. Will he tell me? I don’t know. Either way, I know that he is righteous and he is good. These missing pieces of the puzzle gives me no right to doubt him when he has already proven himself in so many ways. I know that if I dare to judge him by manipulating the truth to make it more palatable, he will prevail (Rom. 3:7).

While there are so many things we can understand, we must recognize that there is true mystery to which we must submit. When we get the temptation to judge God by manipulating the truth, let’s pause and learn to find stability even when things are not as palatable or coherent as we would like them to be.

Human Nature and the Purpose of Existence

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Christian Beliefs

Christianity teaches that the universe was created through love by an intelligent power, namely the God of the Bible. Creation was purposeful, and, therefore, the universe is not morally neutral, but essentially good. In this purposeful creation, everything and everyone is intrinsically valuable. God’s design or purpose for creation reflects God’s intention that all creatures enjoy perfect love and justice. God works in human history to fulfill that purpose. God created human beings in the divine image, enabling humans to have some understanding of God and of God’s vast and complex design. The purpose of life is to love and serve God in order to help bring about God’s glorious plan for creation.

Christianity_Anno2_90Reason is a unique gift bestowed by God on humans and enables them to reflect on their own nature and conscience, and from that derive knowledge of God’s will for creation. But a complete understanding is beyond human reach. To fulfill the goal of wholeness in an existence perfected by both justice and love, something more is needed. Humans are not expected to accomplish the divine plan alone. The fulfillment of God’s purpose depends on God’s grace. For Christians, grace is God’s freely-given favor and love.

Reason is a good gift, sometimes misused for selfish, willful, or prideful purposes. The substitution of selfish ambition for God’s will is a condition that Christians call sin, meaning separation from God.

The Christian concept of sin originates in the story of Adam and Eve found in chapters 2-3 of the Book of Genesis, a story that has importance for Christians. The story relates Christianity_Anno2_91the creation by God of the first humans, a man and woman. God placed them in a beautiful garden called Eden, which provided for all their physical needs, as well as companionship with each other and fellowship with God. For these first humans, God had only one rule. In the garden stood “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” whose fruit Adam and Eve should not eat. When Adam and Eve later broke the rule and ate the fruit, God banished them from the garden, condemning them and their descendants to a life of hard work, pain, disease, and eventual death, and submitting the earth itself to “bondage.” Christians call this humanity’s “fall” from innocence.

Some Christians believe that these events actually took place, while others understand this story to be symbolic of the human condition. But all Christians tend to view the story as meaningful for all of humanity–that God is in a personal relationship with humans who must decide how to respond to God. They can obey God’s will, working together with God to take care of each other and creation, or they can follow their own desires, rebelling against God’s will and design.

The story illustrates the Christian belief in the inevitability and universality of sin. Throughout their lives, people will pursue their personal interests instead of seeking to serve God and follow God’s will. Some believe in the doctrine of original sin, following Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, who theorized that the rebellion of the first human parents is physically passed Christianity_Anno2_92on to all human beings from one generation to the next. Others believe that sin originates with Satan, who first tempted Eve and now preys on humankind, seeking souls to devour. Many contemporary Christians seek ways of understanding sin separately from the story of Adam and Eve, believing that we must take responsibility for our tendency to sin and the harm it does to our loving fellowship with both God and each other.

Christianity teaches that everyone is equally prone to sin and so it focuses not only on human behavior, but also on human nature. In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote that “there is no difference, for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22-23). Even though there can be a considerable scale of wrongdoing in sinful human activity, a person’s sin does not make him or her less valued by God; everyone is equally a candidate for redemption.

Study Questions:

  1. Why might Christians argue that humanity is essentially good?
  2. What is meant by reason? Why must it be coupled with grace?
  3. Where do Christians believe sin originated?
  4. Why is sin a part of everyday life? How is it overcome?

Schisms and Sects

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Christian History

When the Visigoths (an invading Germanic tribe) sacked Rome in 410, Christian communities could be found as far west as the British Isles, south to North Africa and Ethiopia, north to the Danube and modern-day Romania, and east from modern-day Turkey into Armenia and perhaps even India. Geographical distance and political and cultural differences gave rise to two powerful and competing seats of power, the pope in Rome and the patriarch in Constantinople. The Latin-speaking western Church referred to itself as the universal or Catholic Church. While the Greek-speaking eastern Church also affirmed the Church’s universality, it developed an equally firm understanding of the pure and unchanging nature of its doctrine. Thus it became known as Orthodox, meaning “correct worship,” including the sense of “correct belief.”

Filioque Clause
Et in Spiritum Sanctum, Dominum, et vivificantem: qui ex Patre Filioque procedit.And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.

Over the centuries, the two churches were involved in power struggles between the Byzantine Emperor, the Roman pope, the patriarch of Constantinople, and the various rulers and warlords of the peoples and nations of northern and central Europe. Nevertheless, the split between the churches of the East and West was not abrupt, but a result of a slow breakdown in understanding and solidarity. In the 6th century, the western Church had slightly modified the Nicene Creed in order to clarify the doctrine of the Trinity (the filioque clause), but the eastern Church was not involved in this revision, did not add the same language to the Creed, and protested the western Church’s unilateral action. 

Christianity_Anno2_39In the 8th and 9th centuries, the entire Church was deeply upset by a serious controversy over the use oficons in the Byzantine Church. Finally, when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne, king of the Franks, the Holy Roman Emperor in 800, the eastern Church perceived this as an apparent challenge to the authority of the Emperor in Constantinople. The two branches of the Christian church grew increasingly distant.

The two churches also developed different positions on a variety of leadership issues. The western Church discouraged marriage of priests and bishops, while the eastern Church allowed it. The western Church insisted that the pope was the first among bishops and the supreme authority, while the eastern Church encouraged more autonomy for local churches and their leaders, including the patriarch at Constantinople, and attributed supreme authority to the councils of bishops.

Christianity_Anno2_41Ultimately, what came to be referred to as “the Great Schism” divided Latin Roman Christianity (in the West) from Greek Byzantine Christianity (in the East). The formal or official schism of 1054 resulted not from one specific event or argument, but from powerful differences in geography, culture, politics, and Christian doctrine. The geographical, linguistic, and theological distances between the two churches, their different ways of worshipping, and their different styles of internal organization and authority, resulted in two very different churches.

At the local and regional level, there was varying awareness of these differences, but the Crusades made the differences apparent on all levels. In March of 1095, Pope Urban II, with ambassadors from Constantinople at his side, made a passionate appeal for Christian soldiers to help free formerly Christian lands from Muslim rule.Christianity_Anno2_42This invocation launched the first crusade. Pope Urban II was able to maintain harmonious relations between the Christian soldiers from the west and the Christians of the east. But after Urban’s death in 1099, bishops from the western tradition were appointed to the traditionally eastern patriarchates of Jerusalem and Antioch.  The introduction of western-style worship and hierarchy made the differences between the two churches immediately visible. The differences were made more painfully clear in 1204, when Christian soldiers sent from Rome to Egypt diverted to Constantinople, sacking it and driving the Byzantines into exile.


Efforts to heal the schism and reunify the two churches continued throughout the 13th and 14th centuries, but when the Ottomans, led by Muhammad II, conquered Constantinople in 1453 and renamed the city Istanbul, all possibility of reunion was lost. From this point forward, Christianity would be divided into an eastern Church and a western Church.

Christianity_Anno2_47Less than a century passed before a teacher and monk named Martin Luther famously nailed his list of ninety-five propositions or “theses” to the castle-church door at Wittenberg in Saxony in 1517. Luther’s list addressed Church practices and the nature of faith. Luther believed passionately that truth should be sought in scripture, and that Church teaching is to be based on and accountable to scripture. His ideas echoed those of Jan Hus and John of Wycliffe, two 14th-century theologians who protested Church corruption and the abuse of authority.Moreover, Wycliffe wrote that Christians need nothing more than the example of

Moreover, Wycliffe wrote that Christians need nothing more than the example of scripture, and that they should be able to read the Bible in their own languages.

Although Luther intended his propositions as an invitation to debate within the Church, the theses prompted the second great split in Christianity, the Protestant Reformation. Luther acted at a time when the recently-invented printing press made it possible to reprint his theses. In six short years, 1300 copies were printed. The widespread dissemination of Luther’s ideas made it difficult for the Church to simply reprimand him and sweep the problem under the carpet. Northern Europeans and their leaders, weary of Church corruption and yearning for independence from Rome, embraced Luther’s criticisms. An airing of controversial tenets on a church door culminated in catastrophic violence and persecution, and a permanent splintering of the western Church.

Christianity_Anno2_49Reformation ideas infiltrated England, and in 1533, King Henry VIII severed the English Church from Rome’s authority, thus creating the Church of England. In 1555, the Treaty of Augsburg created Lutheranism, permanently breaking this group away from Roman authority. More schisms followed. Huldreich Zwingli, theAnabaptists, and John Calvin all led reformation movements in Switzerland. Calvinists in England were known as the Puritans, proclaiming their desire to purify the Church of any reminders of Roman Catholicism.

In response to this tide of schisms, the Catholic Church tacitly accepted Protestant criticisms of corruption and undertook its own reformation. It initiated steps to bring increased integrity and accountability to seminaries, dioceses, and monasteries. Christianity emerged from the paroxysm of reformation ready to take great strides in mission, global exploration, and conquest.


Study Questions:

  1. Was the earliest split of Christianity more about location or language? Explain.
  2. What was the Great Schism? What was the result?
  3. How did the crusades contribute to schisms of Christianity?
  4. Who was Martin Luther? What movement did he found and why?

Eastern Orthodox Church

Orthodox Churches

Orthodox prayer rope

Orthodox prayer rope.

The Orthodox Church is one of the three main Christian groups (the others being Roman Catholic and Protestant). Around 200 million people follow the Orthodox tradition.

It is made up of a number of self-governing Churches which are either ‘autocephalous’ (meaning having their own head) or ‘autonomous’ (meaning self-governing).

The Orthodox Churches are united in faith and by a common approach to theology, tradition, and worship. They draw on elements of Greek, Middle-Eastern, Russian and Slav culture.

Each Church has its own geographical (rather than a national) title that usually reflects the cultural traditions of its believers.

The word ‘Orthodox’ takes its meaning from the Greek words orthos (‘right’) and doxa (‘belief’). Hence the word Orthodox means correct belief or right thinking.

The Orthodox tradition developed from the Christianity of the Eastern Roman Empire and was shaped by the pressures, politics and peoples of that geographical area. Since the Eastern capital of the Roman Empire was Byzantium, this style of Christianity is sometimes called ‘Byzantine Christianity’.

The Orthodox Churches share with the other Christian Churches the belief that God revealed himself in Jesus Christ, and a belief in the incarnation of Christ, his crucifixion and resurrection. The Orthodox Church differs substantially from the other Churches in the way of life and worship, and in certain aspects of theology.

The Holy Spirit is seen as present in and as the guide to the Church working through the whole body of the Church, as well as through priests and bishops.

Are Orthodox Churches the same as Eastern Orthodox Churches?

Not all Orthodox Churches are ‘Eastern Orthodox’. The ‘Oriental Orthodox Churches’ have theological differences with the Eastern Orthodox and form a separate group, while a few Orthodox Churches are not ‘in communion’ with the others.

Not all Churches in the Eastern tradition are Orthodox – Eastern Churches that are not included in the Orthodox group include the Eastern Catholic Churches.

The Eastern Orthodox Churches

The nominal head of the Eastern Orthodox Churches is the Patriarch of Constantinople. However, he is only first among equals and has no real authority over Churches other than his own.

There are 15 ‘autocephalous Churches’, listed in order of precedence.

Churches 1-9 are led by Patriarchs, while the others are led by Archbishops or Metropolitans:

  1. Church of Constantinople (ancient)
  2. Church of Alexandria (ancient)
  3. Church of Antioch (ancient)
  4. Church of Jerusalem (ancient)
  5. Church of Russia (established in 1589)
  6. Church of Serbia (1219)
  7. Church of Romania (1925)
  8. Church of Bulgaria (927)
  9. Church of Georgia (466)
  10. Church of Cyprus (434)
  11. Church of Greece (1850)
  12. Church of Poland (1924)
  13. Church of Albania (1937)
  14. Church of Czech and Slovak lands (1951)
  15. The Orthodox Church in America (1970)

The Orthodox communion also includes a number of ‘autonomous Churches':

  • Church of Sinai
  • Church of Finland
  • Church of Estonia*
  • Church of Japan*
  • Church of China*
  • Church of Ukraine*
  • Archdiocese of Ohrid*

* indicates a Church whose autonomy is recognized by only some of the other churches

History and schism

The Great Schism

The doctrine of the Christian Church was established over the centuries at Councils dating from as early as 325CE where the leaders from all the Christian communities were represented. The Eastern Church recognizes the authority of the Councils of Nicea 325 CE, Constantinople I (381), Ephesus (431) Chalcedon (451) Constantinople II (553), Constantinople III (680) and Nicaea II (787).

Although initially the Eastern and Western Christians shared the same faith, the two traditions began to divide after the seventh Ecumenical Council in 787 CE and is commonly believed to have finally split over the conflict with Rome in the so called Great Schism in 1054.

In particular this happened over the papal claim to supreme authority and the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The break became final with the failure of the Council of Florence in the fifteenth century.

However, in the minds of most Orthodox, a decisive moment was the sack of Constantinople in 1204 during the (Western Christian) Fourth Crusade. The sacking of Constantinople by the Crusaders eventually led to the loss of this Byzantine capital to the Muslim Ottomans in 1453. This has never been forgotten.

The divisions between the East and Western Churches happened gradually over the centuries as the Roman Empire fragmented.

Eventually, while the Eastern Churches maintained the principle that the Church should keep to the local language of the community, Latin became the language of the Western Church.

Until the schism the five great patriarchal sees were Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. After the break with Rome Orthodoxy became ‘Eastern’ and the dominant expression of Christianity in the eastern Mediterranean, much of Asia Minor, Russian and Balkans.

Life and worship

Eastern Christianity stresses a way of life and belief that is expressed particularly through worship. By maintaining the correct form of worshipping God, passed on from the very beginnings of Christianity. Eastern Christians believe that they confess the true doctrine of God in the right (orthodox) way.


The Orthodox Bible is almost the same as that found in Western Churches.

The Bible of the Orthodox Church is the same as that of most Western Churches, except that its Old Testament is based not on the Hebrew, but on the ancient Jewish translation into Greek called the Septuagint.

The wisdom of the Fathers of the Church is central to the Orthodox way of life as today’s inheritors of the “true faith and Church” passed on in its purest form. By maintaining the purity of the inherited teachings of the Apostles, believers are made more aware of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit being present both in history and at the present day.

A life of prayer

At the centre of worship and belief is the Eucharist surrounded by the Divine Offices or the Cycle of Prayer. These prayers are sung particularly at Sunset and Dawn and at certain other times during the day and night.

Personal prayer plays an important part in the life of an Orthodox Christian. For many Orthodox Christians an important form of prayer is the Jesus Prayer. This is a sentence which is repeated many times; for example: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The aim of this repetition is to enable the person to concentrate solely on God.

The strict life of a monk or nun is seen as an important expression of faith.

Mount Athos and Monasticism

Monastry on hills of Holy Athos Mountain

Monastry on hills of Holy Athos Mountain.


Monasticism is a central part of the Orthodox faith. Mount Athos in north-eastern Greece is described as the centre of Orthodox monasticism. It is the only place in Greece completely dedicated to prayer and worship of God. For this reason, it is called the Holy Mountain.

Most monasteries are coenobitic: living a communal life. The peninsula is divided into twenty self-governed territories. Each territory consists of a major monastery and some other monastic establishments that surround it (cloisters, cells, cottages, seats, hermitages).

For monk and nun alike, their spiritual life should follow the same way of living that all Christians try to achieve by following God’s commandants. While not being against marriage, it is generally accepted that celibacy in the Church allows for a closer understanding of the Christian life away from worldly things.

Fasting and prayer

Fasting and prayer play an important part of the Orthodox Christian life. Orthodox believe that fasting can be the ‘foundation of all good’. The discipline of training the body can enable a believer to concentrate the mind totally on preparation for prayer and things spiritual.

There are four main fasting periods:

  • The Great Fast or the period of Lent
  • The Fast of the Apostles: Eight days after Pentecost until 28th June. The ends with the Feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.
  • The Dormition Fast which begins on 1st August and ends on the 14th August
  • The Christmas Fast from 15 November to 24th December.

Also all Wednesdays and Fridays are expected to be days of fasting.

Even though today the call to fast is not always strictly followed, nevertheless many devout Orthodox Christians do undergo a time of genuine hardship and it has been said that:

Orthodox Christians in the twentieth century – laity as well as monks – fast with a severity for which there is no parallel in western Christendom…

Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church


Sacred Mysteries (sacraments)

The following seven principal Mysteries or sacraments are at the heart of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Baptism and Chrismation

The first two are Baptism and Chrismation. Baptism of adults and infants is by immersion in water three times in the name of the Trinity and is both the initiation into the Church and a sign of forgiveness of sins.

Chrismation follows immediately after baptism and is by anointing with holy oil called Chrism. Chrismation is followed by Holy Communion. This means that in the Orthodox Church babies and children are fully communicant members of the Church.

Chrism can only be consecrated by the Patriarch, or chief Bishop, of the local Church. Some of the old Chrism is mixed with the new, thus linking the newly baptised to their forbears in the faith.

The Chrism is used to anoint different parts of the body with a sign of the cross. The forehead, eyes, nostrils, mouth and ears, the chest, the hands and the feet are all anointed. The priest says the words, “The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit” as he makes the sign of the cross at each point.

The newly baptised Christian is now a layperson, a full member of the people of God (the ‘Royal Priesthood’). All Christians are called to be witnesses to the Truth.

Chrismation is linked to Pentecost in that the same Holy Spirit which descended on the apostles descends on the newly baptised.

The Eucharist

The Eucharist, usually called the Divine Liturgy, fulfils the command of Jesus Christ at the Last Supper: “Do this in remembrance of me”.

A member of the congregation standing at the front of the church to lead the hymn-singing

A member of the congregation standing at the front of the church to lead the hymn-singing.

As in many Western churches the Eucharist is a service consisting, in the first part, of hymns, prayers, and readings from the New Testament, and in the second the solemn offering and consecration of leavened bread and wine mixed with water, followed by the reception of Holy Communion.

The Orthodox believe that by the consecration the bread and wine are truly changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. Communion is given in a spoon containing both the bread and the wine and is received standing. A sermon is usually preached either after the reading of the Gospel or at the end of the service. At the end of the Liturgy blessed, but not consecrated, bread is distributed to the congregation, and non-Orthodox are often invited to share in this as a gesture of fellowship.

Both parts of the Liturgy contain a procession. At the Little Entrance, the Book of the Gospels is solemnly carried into the sanctuary and at the Great Entrance the bread and wine are carried to the altar for the Prayer of Consecration and Holy Communion.

The prayer of consecration is always preceded by the proclamation of the Nicene Creed, frequently by the whole congregation.

The Orthodox Church lays particular emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit in the Eucharist, and in the Prayer of Consecration calls on the Father to send down his Holy Spirit to effect the change of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.

There are four different liturgies used throughout the year:

  • The Liturgy of St John Chrysostom (used on Sundays and weekdays)
  • The Liturgy of St Basil the Great (used 10 times a year)
  • The Liturgy of St James, the Brother of the Lord (sometimes used on St James’ Day)
  • The Liturgy of the Presanctified (used on Wednesdays and Fridays in Lent and on the first three days of Holy Week)
Greek Orthodox priests wearing beards, black robes and flat-topped hats

Greek Orthodox priests wearing beards, black robes and flat-topped hats.


Although the Church is a self-governing community the Church recognises the diaconate, the presbyterate or priesthood and the episcopate (bishops).

The Bishops in the Orthodox Church are considered to be the direct successors of the original Apostles and they are very much a unifying focus in the Church. Priests in the Orthodox Church are permitted to be married but may not marry after ordination. Bishops must always be celibate. Orthodox priests normally do not shave their beards, in accordance with the Bible.

You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.

Leviticus 19:27


All Orthodox Churches use the Mystery of Penance, or Confession, but in Greek-speaking Churches only priests who have been blessed by the Bishop as ‘Spiritual Fathers’ are allowed to hear confession. Children may be admitted to the sacrament of Confession as soon as they are old enough to know the difference between right and wrong.

Through this sacrament sinners may receive forgiveness. They enter into confession with a priest often in an open area in the church (not in a confessional as in the Roman Catholic tradition nor separated by a grille).

Man with head bowed sitting with a priest

Man with head bowed sitting with a priest.

Both priest and penitent stand and a cross and book of the Gospels or an icon is placed in front of the penitent with the priest standing slightly apart. This stresses that the priest is simply a witness and that forgiveness comes from God not the priest.

The priest will then hear the confession and perhaps give advice. After confession the penitent kneels before the priest, who places his stole on the penitent’s head saying a prayer of absolution.

Anointing of the sick

In Greek-speaking churches this is performed annually for the whole congregation during Holy Week on the eve of Holy Wednesday. Everyone is encouraged to come forward for anointing with the special oil whether they are physically ill or not. This is because it is generally held that all are in need of spiritual healing even if they are physically well.

Anointing of the sick can also be performed on individuals. People sometimes keep the blessed oil of the sick in their homes.

The Church anoints the sick with oil, following the teaching of St James in his Epistle (5:14-15), “Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the Church, and they should pray over him and anoint (him) with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins he will be forgiven.”

This sacrament,’, remarks Sergius Bulgakov, ‘has two faces: one turns towards healing, the other towards the liberation from illness by death.

Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church


Marriage is celebrated through the rite of crowning, showing the importance of eternal union of the couple. Although marriage is seen as a permanent commitment in life and in death, remarriage and divorce are permitted in certain circumstances.


Orthodox Church painting showing the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus

Orthodox Church painting showing the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus.

Icons are of great importance to Orthodox Christians. These beautiful and elaborate paintings are described as “windows into the kingdom of God”. They are used in worship both in the decoration of the church and for private homes. The icon is seen as both a form of prayer and a means to prayer.

An icon is usually an elaborate, two-dimensional painting. They often have a gold leaf background and are usually on wood. They depict Christ, his mother Mary, scenes from the Bible or the lives of the Saints.

The iconographer prepares for the painting of an icon with prayer and fasting. By worshipping at the Icon the Orthodox Christian enters into a sacred place with God.

The icon is venerated and often candles and oil lamps are burnt before them. The worshipper kisses the icon, making the sign of the Cross and may kneel or prostrate before it.

In most Orthodox churches the Altar, or sanctuary, is separated from the main body of the church by a solid screen (known as the iconostasis), pierced by three doors, the one in the centre being known as the Holy door. The screen is decorated with icons, of which the principal ones are those on either side of the Holy Door of Christ and the Mother of God.

Sir John Tavener

Sir John Tavener.

These are normally flanked by icons of St John the Baptist and of the Saint, or Feast, to which the church is dedicated. In Russian churches the iconostasis normally forms a solid wall decorated with four or five rows of icons according to an elaborate traditional arrangement.

The composer Sir John Tavener is one of Britain’s most famous followers of Orthodox Christianity and calls icons “the most sacred, the most transcendent art that exists”. In this clip, he talks about his interpretation of these works of art.

Calendar and Christmas

The Orthodox calendar

After World War I various Orthodox Churches, beginning with the Patriarchate of Constantinople, began to abandon the Julian calendar or Old Calendar, and adopt a form of the Gregorian calendar or New Calendar. The Julian calendar is, at the present time, thirteen days behind the Gregorian Calendar.

Today, many Orthodox Churches (with the exception of Jerusalem, Russia, Serbia, and Mount Athos) use the New, Gregorian Calendar for fixed feasts and holy days but the Julian calendar for Easter and movable feasts. In this way all the Orthodox celebrate Easter together.

The Orthodox Church calendar begins on September 1st and ends on August 31st. Each day is sacred: each is a saint’s day, so at least one saint is venerated daily.

Orthodox Christmas

Candles in a gold and blue holder

Candles in a gold and blue holder.

Christmas is celebrated by Orthodox Christians in Central and Eastern Europe and throughout the world on the 7th of January in the Gregorian Calendar – 13 days after other Christians.

In the East, Christmas is preceded by a 40 day fast beginning on November 15th. This is a time of reflection, self-restraint and inner healing in the sacrament of confession.

Usually, on Christmas Eve, observant Orthodox Christians fast till late evening, until the first star appears. When the star is seen, people lay the table ready for the Christmas supper.

On Christmas Day people take part in divine liturgy, after which many walk in procession to seas, rivers and lakes. Everyone gathers around in the snow for outdoor ceremonies to bless the water. Sometimes rivers are frozen, so people make holes in the ice to bless the water. Some take water home to bless their houses. Then a great feast is held indoors where everyone joins in to eat, drink and enjoy themselves.

A Orthodox Russian custom is to serve Christmas cakes and to sing songs. The tradition is mixed with other pagan traditions of ancient Russia such that people may visit their neighbours in disguises, dance, sing and ask for presents, similar to trick-or-treating.

There are similarities, as well as differences, between the Eastern and Western celebration of Christmas. The Eastern Christmas has a very strong family and social appeal just as it does in the West. It brings people of all generations together to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.

Unlike the West, where Christmas ranks supreme, in the East it is Easter, centred on the cross and the resurrection of Christ, which is the supreme festival of the year. Eastern Orthodox Christmas also lacks the commercial side that is typical of the West.

The Trinity

The core belief

The doctrine of the Trinity is the Christian belief that:

There is One God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Stained glass window with three sections representing the Trinity

Trinitarian stained glass window.

Other ways of referring to the Trinity are the Triune God and the Three-in-One.

The Trinity is a controversial doctrine; many Christians admit they don’t understand it, while many more Christians don’t understand it but think they do.

In fact, although they’d be horrified to hear it, many Christians sometimes behave as if they believe in three Gods and at other times as if they believe in one.

Trinity Sunday, which falls on the first Sunday after Pentecost, is one of the few feasts in the Christian calendar that celebrate a doctrine rather than an event.

A fundamental doctrine

The doctrine of the Trinity is one of the most difficult ideas in Christianity, but it’s fundamental to Christians because it:

  • states what Christians believe God is like and who he is
  • plays a central part in Christians’ worship of an “unobjectifiable and incomprehensible God”
  • emphasises that God is very different from human beings
  • reflects the ways Christians believe God encounters them
  • is a central element of Christian identity
  • teaches Christians vital truths about relationship and community
  • reveals that God can be seen only as a spiritual experience whose mystery inspires awe and cannot be understood logically

Unpacking the doctrine

The idea that there is One God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit means:

  • There is exactly one God
  • The Father is God
  • The Son is God
  • The Holy Spirit is God
  • The Father is not the Son
  • The Son is not the Holy Spirit
  • The Father is not the Holy Spirit

An alternate way of explaining it is:

  • There is exactly one God
  • There are three really distinct Persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
  • Each of the Persons is God

Common mistakes

The Trinity is not

  • Three individuals who together make one God
  • Three Gods joined together
  • Three properties of God

The Bible and why Christians believe in the Trinity

Christianity adopted this complicated idea of God because it was the only way they could make sense of One God in the context of the events and teaching of the Bible.

The idea of the Trinity does not supersede monotheism; it interprets it, in the light of a specific set of revelatory events and experiences.

Keith Ward, Religion and Creation, 1996

Encounters with God

Humanity met God in three different forms:

  • God the Father: revealed by the Old Testament to be Creator, Lord, Father and Judge.
  • God the Son: who had lived on earth amongst human beings
  • God the Holy Spirit: who filled them with new life and power

What the Bible teaches

The Bible teaches that Christians were to worship Father and Son and Holy Spirit. It also taught that Christians should only worship God. Finally, it taught that there was only one God:

  • We must worship only God
  • We must worship God the Father
  • We must worship God the Son
  • We must worship God the Holy Spirit
  • There is only one God

This seemed to put Christians in an impossible position from which they were rescued by the doctrine of the Trinity, which solved the puzzle by stating that God must be simultaneously both Three and One.

Scripture and the Trinity

For obvious reasons the Trinity is not referred to in the Old Testament, although many writers think that the Old Testament does drop heavy hints about it – for example when it uses a plural Hebrew noun to refer to God.

The New Testament of the Bible never explicitly refers to the Trinity as such, but it does contain a number of references to the Economic Trinity:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Matthew 28:19


The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

2 Corinthians 13:14

 One text that is often quoted to provide scriptural authority for the doctrine of the Trinity is now thought to have been added to the text much later, and with the specific purpose of justifying the doctrine.

For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one

The mystery of the Trinity: (1+1+1=1) = Nonsense!

This idea that three persons add up to one individual seems like nonsense. And logically, it is.

So Christians don’t try to understand the doctrine of the Trinity logically or as a problem of arithmetic.

Unfortunately most other attempts to explain the Trinity don’t really capture the concept either, or are very difficult to understand.

God is not like us

One way out of the problem is to say that God is not like human beings and human beings get in a mess when they try to describe God using the same sort of language and understanding that they use to describe other human beings.

But human beings don’t have any other language available, so they have to do the best that they can with it. That’s fine, as long as they remember that the whole truth of the nature of God is simply beyond them.

So the doctrine of the Trinity only attempts to provide a rudimentary sketch of the mystery of God’s nature, rather than a full description of what God is like. God is a mystery, before which humanity should stand in awe.

Why the Trinity is important

Before trying to understand the doctrine of the Trinity, it’s vital to realise why it’s important.

Its purpose is not to provide factual knowledge of God’s hidden nature of the sort that describes a dog as “having 4 legs, fur, barks, bites, domesticated by humankind etc”.

The doctrine of the Trinity has other functions:

  • it brings humanity face to face with the mystery of God
  • it helps humanity recognise the God they meet in the Bible, in history and in their own lives
  • it helps humanity understand God’s complexity, otherness and mystery
  • it helps humanity worship God
  • it steers humanity away from wrong ideas of God, such as:
    • a patriarchal/hierarchical God
    • a God who can be logically understood
  • it is the foundation of much Christian worship and liturgy
  • it helps humanity understand its own nature as made in the image of God
  • it provides a model for human relationships, both as individuals and in community

So, for example, one might be inspired by the doctrine of the Trinity to come up with an understanding of human relationships that was something like this…

  • Human beings are made in the image of God
  • God is a community of persons in a mutual loving relationship
  • Therefore the essence of humanity is to be found in human relationships with others, with God, and with God’s creation
  • These relationships are filled with transforming power
  • For human beings to live truly in the image of God, these relationships must be mutual, generous and just
  • These relationships must acknowledge and value difference as well as sameness
  • These relationships must accept as well as give

That’s one way in which contemplating the Trinity might provide useful information for a Christian as to how they should try to live their life.

Making use of the Trinity

Is the Trinity a useful idea?

The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is not just an abstract belief, but something that has real practical use for those who believe it.

Absolutely nothing worthwhile for the practical life can be made out of the doctrine of the Trinity taken literally.

Immanuel Kant, Der Streit der Fakultätencite>

…the doctrine of the Trinity so easily appears to be an intellectual puzzle with no relevance to the faith of most Christians.

Karen Kilby

Until quite recently, many theologians thought that the doctrine of the Trinity was pretty pointless.

And the churches themselves disagree about the content of the doctrine; the most common Western statement of the Trinity is not accepted by the Eastern churches.

And yet somehow it remains at the heart of the Christian faith:

It is impossible to overemphasise the importance of the Christian doctrine that God is one in three persons. This has correctly been called the teaching distinctive of the Christian faith, that which sets the approach of Christians to the “fearful mystery” of the deity apart from all other approaches.

Gerald S. Sloyan, The Three Persons in One God, 1964

The Trinity and worship

Christian worship is inherently Trinitarian. Christians worship God in the presence of Christ and with the Holy Spirit within them.

So for example:

  • Worship and praise are offered “to God through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit”
  • Blessings are given “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”, the sign of the Cross is a Trinitarian gesture.
  • The creed, the fundamental statement of Christian belief, sets out the Trinitarian nature of God.
  • Baptism is carried out “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”.

Eucharistic prayers are firmly Trinitarian in concept. The traditional doxology is Trinitarian:

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be,

World without end. Amen

Trinitarian doxology

Many hymns are explicitly Trinitarian, such as this one:

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!

Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee;

Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty,

God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!

Or this

I bind unto myself today

the strong name of the Trinity,

by invocation of the same,

the Three in One, and One in Three.

Or this

Firmly I believe and truly

God is Three, and God is One;

and I next acknowledge duly

manhood taken by the Son.

Or this modern classic

Shine, Jesus, shine,

fill this land with the Father’s glory;

blaze, Spirit, blaze,

set our hearts on fire.

The Trinity as a lesson to Christians

The Trinity expresses the way Christians should relate to God:

  • worship God the Father
  • follow the example set by God the Son
  • God the Holy Spirit lives in them

The Trinity as a recipe for life

The doctrine of the Trinity teaches human beings how they should shape their lives.

Many Christians see the relationship between the persons of the Trinity as providing a recipe for the best sort of human relationships. These are relationships in which individuality is balanced with relationship; relationships whose basis is mutual love and perfect communication.

The relationship that exists within the Godhead is the basis for unity in every human relationship, be it marriage, family, or church.

Patrick Henry Reardon

The American theologian Catherine LaCugna suggested that the doctrine of the Trinity helps humanity answer the question

How are we to live and relate to others so as to be most Godlike?

Catherine LaCugna, God For Us: The Trinity and the Christian Life

She suggested that the Trinity taught:

a theology of relationship, which explores the mysteries of love, relationship, personhood and community within the framework of God’s self-revelation in the person of Christ and the activity of the Spirit.

Catherine LaCugna, God For Us: The Trinity and the Christian Life

And the key teaching within this doctrine of relationship is that the best relationships are those of equality and mutuality.

Social implications

The Trinity as a power structure

The relationships within God as a Trinity discredit any hierarchical power structure in which those lower down are dominated and oppressed by those above them.

Instead, using the example of the Trinity leads to an ideal structure of mutual interdependence and support in pursuit of a common aim.

Thus the Trinity shows the way God wants the world to be run and the power structures that he recommends to human society.

This seems to contradict the traditional idea of God as one Supreme Being, Lord of all, but should be seen as demonstrating the non-hierarchical nature of God in himself, without diminishing God’s status in relationship to others.

This idea can be developed in Church life:

  • in the hierarchical model power and authority in the church flow in one direction from God, through senior and junior clergy, down to the lay people
  • in the Trinitarian model there is a church of mutual self-giving and equality that emulates the community of the Trinity.
  • In this the members communicate with each other in a spirit of love that accepts responsibility for the well-being of each individual and that of the whole community.
  • In this way the Church, and each church and community become a unity in which diversity flourishes and in which differences are seen as valuable and essential elements in the substance of these institutions.

The Trinity and Liberation Theology

The liberation theologians thought it was essential to start thinking about the Trinity by focusing on its three-ness first, then its oneness.

They saw the Trinity as first and foremost a community of divine persons whose essence was in their shared existence, their shared relationship and their surrender to each other.

They objected to the hierarchical model of One God, because they thought that it justified political power structures that oppressed the poor and allowed the Church to continue with a patriarchal model that was out of date and unhelpful to the poor.

So the liberation theologians took the Trinitarian theology of relationships to a grand scale. They used it to promote the ideal human society as a closely related and unified group of equal people living so as to promote the good of society as a whole.

The leading liberation theologian Leonardo Boff said the Trinity was a “model for any, just, egalitarian (while respecting differences), social organisation.” It provided a “prototype of human community dreamed of by those who wish to improve society”.

Essential and Economic Trinity

Essential and Economic Trinity

Some of the problems of the Trinity arise from confusion between the internal life and nature of the Trinity itself and the external life or “self-revelation” of God. The only thing humankind can directly know of God is his external life.

There are two ways of looking at God in Trinitarian terms:

  • The Essential (also called Immanent or Ontological) Trinity looks at the essence or substance of God; at what God is actually like in himself as he stands outside the created universe. It’s how God appears to God.
    • Warning: This is an unusual use of the word immanent, which Christians often use to refer to God’s actions in the world.
  • The Economic Trinity is concerned with humanity’s experience of God; in human lives, in creation, in salvation; and derives the nature of God from that experience. This is how God appears to humanity.
    • Some theologians point out that only the Son and the Spirit are directly met in the Economic Trinity.

The Economic and Essential Trinities are not two separate entities – just two ways of looking at God.

Are these two the same? Victor Shepherd (Professor of Systematic Theology at Tyndale University College, Toronto) put the question like this:

Is God’s revelation merely the “face” God wears as he turns to us, or is it who God is in himself?

Is his face something he merely displays, or does his face unambiguously disclose his heart?

Victor Shepherd

The Western Churches believe that they are pretty much the same and that human beings meet God fully and completely as he is through his actions.

The ‘economic’ Trinity is the ‘immanent’ Trinity and the ‘immanent’ Trinity is the ‘economic’ Trinity.

Karl Rahner, The Trinity, 1970

To put it another way: God’s actions reveal who God is. And since God acts as a threefold God, God himself must be threefold.

Some Western writers hint at the idea that there is no more to God than his actions in the world.

The Eastern Churches disagree, and teach there is much more to God than human experience can reveal.

Trinitarian heresies

Trinitarian heresies

Some theories of the Trinity are so wrong that they have been declared heretical.


The proponents of Modalism were Noetus and Praxeas (late 2nd century CE) and Sabellius (3rd century CE).

Modalism teaches that Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are not distinct personalities, but different modes of God’s self-revelation.

The idea is that there is only one God, but that this one God reveals himself in different ways and different forms – sometimes as Father, sometimes as Son, sometimes as Holy Spirit.

  • Father: The creator and the law giver
  • Son: The revealer, the Messiah and the redeemer
  • Holy Spirit: The sanctifier and giver of eternal life

One of the standard analogies for the Trinity is a good example of modalism: The Trinity is like water because water comes in three forms – ice, water, steam. This is Modalism because these are three states or modes of the substance water.

Some modalists believe that God revealed himself differently at different times in history, others believe that during any particular period of history God can reveal himself in different ways; so when God is acting as redeemer, that’s God the Son, and so on.

Warning: Some modern writers refer to the different persons of the Trinity as different “modes of being”, but they aren’t guilty of Modalism because they are not referring to different modes in which God appears to humanity, but different internal ways in which God is to him/herself.


Tritheism portrays Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three independent divine beings; three separate gods who are linked together in some special way – most commonly by sharing the “same substance” or being the same sort of thing.

People often make this mistake because they misunderstand the use of the word “persons” in defining the Trinity; it does not mean that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three separate personalities.


This is the idea that Father, Son and Holy Spirit together make up God. This would suggest that each of the persons of the Trinity is only part God, only becoming fully God when they are together.


Monarchianism stresses God as One and downgrades the idea of the Trinity; it comes in various versions:


Christ was born human and adopted by God at his resurrection (or baptism).


This isn’t a strictly Trinitarian heresy but it’s relevant because it’s the idea that the Son is in some way less fully God than the Father.

The Filioque fracas

The Filioque fracas

Can you believe that the Christian Church fell apart over a single word?

Well it’s true: The greatest row in the history of Christianity centred on a single word filioque and on the doctrine of the Trinity.

The row split the Eastern Church, which mostly became theOrthodox Church, and the Western Church, which became theRoman Catholic Church and its later Protestant offshoots. There were other matters at issue as well, but the row over “the filioque clause” led to the Great Schism of 1054.

What the row was about

The Churches were arguing about whether the Son played any part in the origin of the Spirit as one of the persons of the Trinity from the Father, who is the only ultimate source.

The Latin word filioque, which means “and from the son”, was gradually inserted by Western churches into the Nicene Creed so that it stated that the Holy Spirit proceeds not from the God the Father alone, as the early Church Fathers believed, but fromboth God the Father and God the Son.

The Eastern wing of the Church believed and believes that the Father alone had given rise to the Holy Spirit, and the idea that both Father and Son had done so was condemned as heretical.

Even today, the creed used by the Eastern Churches professes faith “in the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father,” without mentioning the Filioque. The Western Churches (i.e. the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches) expressly say that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.”

There were fundamental problems of authority as well as of doctrine. The Eastern wing of the Church was angry that the Western wing of the Church had altered a fundamental part of the creed without their agreement – indeed without even consulting them. This didn’t seem to them like the behaviour of a united church, and so the two wings eventually went their separate ways.

Many church historians think that the Western wing of the Church did behave very badly by trying to introduce such a major change to Christian belief in such a cavalier way.

The doctrine of ‘dual procession’

This is the name that theologians give to the idea that the Spirit proceeds from both Father and Son.


When Christians say that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father (and the Son), what do they mean, and why do they use such an odd word?

The word comes from the Greek text of John 15.26, which speaks of the one “who proceeds (ekporeuetai) from the Father”. The Greek word has the sense of movement out of, and early theologians used it to show that the Spirit’s origin was within the person of the Father.

Greek theologians restricted this Greek word to this particular technical use – the coming forth of the Spirit from the Father – so that it has a unique reference to the relationship of the Father and the Spirit.

The Greek theologians also thought that the way in which the Spirit comes from the Father is similar to, but significantly different from, the way the Son comes from the Father.

The equivalent Latin word is “procedure“, but unlike the Greek word it doesn’t include the notion of a starting point within something; it’s a more general word for movement. This different meaning may have contributed in a small way to the dispute.

Latin theologians taught that the Spirit comes from both the Father and the Son, but comes from each of them in significantly different ways. These differences do not diminish the Father’s role as the only cause of everything that exists.

The arguments

The arguments in the dispute are highly technical, and seem pretty dull to anyone except a theologian – but they stirred hugely passionate debates in the church because they were about something that mattered terribly: the nature of God.

To get a flavour of the passion the debate aroused, look at this comment from a 9th century Patriarch:

…dishonourable men emerged out of the darkness (that is, the West), and poured down like hail or, better, charged like wild boars upon the newly-planted vineyard of the Lord, destroying it with hoof and tusk, which is to say, by their shameful lives and corrupted dogmas.

Encyclical to the Eastern Patriarchs

Here are some of the arguments that were used by each side.

Against the filioque clause

  • The nature of God the Father is to be the sole cause of everything
  • God the Father is the “First Person of the Trinity” because he gives existence to everything else
  • Giving life to others is what it means to be a father, it is not what it means to be a son
  • Jesus said only that the Spirit proceeds from the Father

But when the Counsellor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me.

John 15:26

  • The idea that the Spirit proceeds from Father and Son detracts from the separate character of each person of the Trinity, and confuses their relationships
  • The idea that the Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as the Father diminishes the status of God the Father

In favour of the filioque clause:

  • Jesus did not say that the Spirit only proceeds from the Father
  • The Creed and the Bible say that the Son does give life to others:

All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.

John 1:3

  • Jesus said that the Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son:

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be unto you. As the Father has sent me, even so send I you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit”

John 20:21-3

  • If the Spirit and the Son both proceed only from the Father, then there is no internal distinction between them in the Godhead (as opposed to their action on Earth).
  • The Spirit is the bond of love that unites Father and Son – this bond must proceed from both Father and Son
  • The Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father and Son as from a single principle

Moving closer

In modern times the Eastern and Western churches have moved closer together.

In December 1965 Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople revoked the excommunications of 1054 and called for an active pursuit of mutual understanding.

Glossary of the Trinity

Glossary of the Trinity

Appropriation and Perichoresis are two ideas that are important in reconciling God’s one-ness with the three-ness of God in human experience.


Appropriation teaches that all three persons of the Trinity do everything God does, but that it is appropriate to see some actions as being particularly associated with one specific person of the Trinity.

So the Father is associated with creation and the Son with redemption, but all three persons are actually involved with these actions.


Perichoresis is a Greek word that means permeation without confusion.

This is the idea that each of the persons of the Trinity shares completely in the life of the other two.

Theologians say that each of the persons of the Trinity “interpenetrates” the others, so that the distinctions between the persons are preserved and the substance of God is not divided into three.

The theologian Leonardo Boff described perichoresis as “the intimate and perfect inhabitation of one Person in the other,” meaning that the three persons of the Trinity live in and relate to each other perfectly.

Many modern writers prefer to use the word indwelling to express the idea of perichoresis. They say there is a mutual indwelling of the persons of the Trinity.

Other words for the same thing are coinherence andcircuminsessio.

All facets of divine activity are reflected in all three persons of the Trinity. They are dynamically intermingled. They may not be separated.

Richard B. Hays


Persons is a theological word that answers the question “Three what?”

The traditional statement of the doctrine of the Trinity is this: There are three persons within the Godhead; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. These three persons have equal status and are equally divine.

But the word person in this definition doesn’t mean person in any sense that modern people understand it – it’s an ancient technical philosophical term, which originally meant the mask worn by actors playing parts in an ancient Greek play.

The Greek word was hypostases (the singular term is hypostasis). The ancient writers said that there were three distinct hypostases in one ousia (ousia is the word now translated as substance – see below.)

There’s a hint here of a very important concept in the idea of the Trinity. Actors playing a part in a play do so in relationship to other members of the cast, and a key element of the doctrine of the Trinity is that the three persons of the Trinity are in relationship with one another.

But “person” to modern people means, at the very least, a separate centre of consciousness, and more usually, an individual human being. That is not what it means in the definition of the Trinity.

The idea that the three persons of the Trinity are separate individuals is the heresy of tritheism.

Unfortunately, modern theological translations of the word “persons” into phrases such as “distinct manners of subsisting” don’t make things much clearer (and that particular phrase, as it happens, sounds very like the heresy of modalism).


This word is used to describe the coming forth of one of the persons of the Trinity from another (or from both the others).

The use of this word in statements of the Trinity is a reminder that there is movement and dynamic energy in the Christian concept of God.


Substance is the theological word that answers the question “One what?”

It comes from the Greek word ousia, which means “beingness”, but it has a more restricted meaning in this context than it had had to the ancient Greek philosophers who coined the word.

A substance is a thing which fully exists; a presence in the universe – so for example, a dog is a substance. Although in the case of God this is not a substance made of matter.

The key concept of substance is that of unity – it’s not separate from the three persons of the Trinity, it’s what makes them one.