Trinitarian Truth and the Three-fold Possibility of Falling Short of the Truth

The truth of God, which is to say truth itself, is Trinitarian. Truth proceeds from the Father through the Son and is realized through the Spirit. But this full realization of truth is tied to the historical event of the incarnation and the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is not to say that truth develops for God, but for human-kind it unfolds historically.

Another approach to the same idea is that God as love is a Trinitarian realization, which is not to say love is otherwise absent, but humanity in the Old Testament did not know of the law of love upon which “all the law and prophets hang (Matt. 22:40). According to Jesus, this is a “new commandment” (John 13:34) with which the final discourse of Christ culminates.[1]  If we would describe the fulness of truth as fulness of love it is obvious that the love of the Father apart from the Son is on the order of that between a small child and his father. The child is loved but cannot be entrusted further than his capacities will allow. The period of the Law describes a time in which truth was presumed to be on the order of commands, all for the good of the child perhaps, as the child cannot take in the fulness of love.

Apart from the revelation of the Son, the truth of God did not take on a human or incarnate dimension with all that this entails. It certainly did not entail a direct Spiritual participation, but the truth stood outside of history and outside of the human psyche and experience, like commands of the law. So, while we might describe each period or epoch (marked by the revealing of the three persons of the Trinity) as being prompted by the love of God, the love of the Father apart from the revelation of the Son is on the order of law.

Whenever truth has been reduced to law, or propositions, or abstract universal trues, it has taken on the truncated picture of being over and against the personal. Moses would presume God is an object for sight (like the light of the sun which cannot be looked at directly), but so too notions of God as first Cause, as pure being, or as that which can be extrapolated from creation. God as that to which one concludes outside of creation and outside of history is a force or power on the order of the Aristotelian Unmoved Mover. Rather than God upholding the nexus of creation through an immanent involvement (i.e., through the Word), his transcendence becomes closed off from all that is contingent. Perhaps he knocks over the first domino or sets the contingencies of creation into motion, but he is unmoved. His eternality lies beyond time, rather than serving as the resource and foundation of time and history.

For example, in the Newtonian conception (which remains as part of the modern experience), time is not a relation or mere measurement but a force unto itself, ever devolving and dissolving all things into the nothing from which they arose. The creative force of the Father apart from the intimate involvement of the Son and Spirit leaves creation floating in the void. The God of law reduces to the law and the law displaces God. This is demonstrably the Jewish problem, but in this the Jews are representative of all humanity. A cosmos set in motion by the Father apart from the Son, in spite of recognizing God’s power of creation is not understood as a direct expression of the love of God.

It is Christ who calls his disciples into friendship and into direct participation with the Father on the basis of love and friendship: “I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you” (Jn. 15:15). Christ opens a personal relation (a relation presuming the fulness of personhood) with the Father, and thus the world becomes the cosmic temple where God and humanity meet in the full reciprocity of love. Where the Son and Spirit are realized as aspects of the fulness of truth, in the description of Sergius Bulgakov, “Eternity lies not beyond time or after time, but on a level with it, over time, as an ideal for it and under time as its foundation. . .”[2] Time taken as an independent force is on the order of the Father being separated out from the Son and the Spirit; the danger is that nothing or nonbeing might be presumed to be an actually existing void counterbalancing the something and being as a dialectical resource. Rather than the Son being the medium of Creation through the Father by the Spirit, creation from nothing may implicate creation in a primary relation with the nothing from whence it came.

Modern cosmology has hit upon the truth, in big bang cosmology, of creation ex-nihilo, but this has been grasped as much as a possibility for measurement, containment, and comprehension as an awakening to eternity intersecting time. The conception is that of a world which begins in time rather than a world which unfolds from the beginningless reaches of eternity.[3] The possible (contradictory as it is) popular implication of big bang cosmology, like that of a truncated Christology, is that there was a time before the beginning, a time before God was creator and a time before the Lamb crucified from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8). Though the presumptions of Newton have been proven wrong, there is still the experiential presumption that time preceded creation and that time and law take precedence over creation as a resource from which it arose. Thus, it is assumed that there is a “before creation” and a “before time” and that there will be an after, such that the nothing which precedes and follows becomes the prime reality enfolding creation. Rather than time being a measure of relation the measurement is mistaken for the reality out of which it arises.

Bulgakov argues that time has reality only in its relation to eternity and in the fact that “in the fulfilled times and seasons God was incarnated.” “If eternity is clothed in temporality, then time also proves to be fraught with eternity and generates its fruit.”[4] As Bulgakov describes it, “At any given instant of being, in its every moment, eternity enlightens, integral and indivisible, where there is no present, past, or future, but where all that happens is extratemporal.” In the Son, time and eternity, heaven and earth, history and  Spirit intersect, such that the cross is an eternal fact about God. “Vertical segments of time penetrate eternity; therefore nothing of that which only once appeared for a moment in time can vanish anymore and return to nonbeing, for it has a certain projection into eternity, it is itself in one of its countless aspects.” However, this “freedom from temporality” – the alternative to being given over to nothing – comes with a certain dark note: “in this permanence of what once was the joy of being is included, as is dread before eternity, its threat: at the Dread Judgment nothing will be forgotten or concealed.”[5] It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, and best perhaps that we hide in oblivion rather than face this glorious reality.

On the other hand, where the truth of the Son has been taken as primary and sufficient, exclusive of the truth of the Father and the Spirit, the historical and the human have come to have predominance over the transcendent, and time and history have been presumed to contain their own sufficient meaning. The peculiar historicism that marks both theological liberalism and conservativism unfolds from a reappreciation (over-appreciation) of history. Higher critical attacks on the Bible and the retreat to the literalism of biblical inerrancy miss, in Henri de Lubac’s estimate, the Spirit of history.

In his return to the spiritual reading of Origen, de Lubac describes the goal of this form of exegesis as “an effort to grasp the spirit in history or to undertake the passage from history to spirit.”[6] Origen’s spiritual reading of the Bible does not eschew history or the letter or time but presumes that the Son and the Spirit provide the prime meaning to the fleshly and historical. There is a dyadic union between the Son and the Spirit in which the former (the Word, Scripture, the historical) is realizable only through the latter. History or the Old Testament becomes the mediating source for God only with the incarnation of the Son. It is not simply that Moses and the Law prepared for the coming of Christ, but Jesus says Moses spoke of me (Jn. 5:46). Jesus as the interpretive key of history is not a denial of history but, in conjunction with the Spirit, its realized meaning.

History is not an end in itself, as historical facts alone are dead and gone – they have passed on. As de Lubac says, the role of history is to “pass on.” The “events recounted in the Bible, whatever they might be, as they were unfolding, all exhausted, so to speak, their historical role at the same time as their factual reality, so as no longer to survive today except as signs and mysteries.” Only in this light can Paul say, these things happened for our edification. They are only for the purpose of our “spiritual re-creation in Christ, then for the purpose of our moral instruction as Christians. Thus, in its entirety, up to its final event, history is preparation for something else. To deny that is to deny it.”[7]

As Origen pictures it, “In following the trail of truth in the letter of Scripture,” we “will thus be served by history as by a ladder.”[8] The ascent to spiritual realities is provided by the rungs of history and only with this ascent, this perpetual movement toward the transcendent, does the Spirit make all things new. Otherwise, even in reading the New Testament, constituted as such through the Spirit, there can be a clinging to the letter. If we do not ascend above the history, even where we obtain complete harmony between the New and the Old or within the various accounts in the Gospels, “it would still be as if we remained at the literal level. We would thus still be only a scribe or a Pharisee.”[9] Origen, like Paul, invites us to see the heavenly, the Spiritual, the unseen, through the seen. “He wants the mind to be raised to a spiritual understanding by seeking in the heavens for the causes of realities here on earth.”[10]

In the description of Bulgakov, this is a possibility only realized through the Spirit:

By its procession from the Father upon the Son, the Third hypostasis loses itself, as it were, becomes only a copula, the living bridge of love between the Father and the Son, the hypostatic Between. But in this kenosis the Third hypostasis finds itself as the Life of the other hypostases, as the Love of the Others and as the Comfort of the Others, which then becomes for it too its own Comfort, its self-comfort. . . . It is possible, however, to distinguish different modes of this love and, in particular, to see that, in the Third hypostasis, the kenosis is expressed in a special self-abolition of its personality. The latter disappears, as it were, while becoming perfectly transparent for the other hypostases, but in this it acquires the perfection of Divine life: Glory.[11]

This perfection through the Spirit points to the third possible error, which is at once the most dangerous and perhaps the most pervasive. Where the Spirit has been cut off from the Son and the Father and made a rival deity, the human and the historical are set aside in a presumed Gnostic embrace of the divine apart from the human. The Spirit in this instance, as it was perceived in the Old Testament, is sheer power. Where the Spirit’s dyadic connection with the Son is relinquished, there is the presumption that Christ in the flesh is of no consequence. Exposure of this anti-Christ teaching takes up a good portion of the New Testament and is the primary target of several of the Church fathers.

Gregory of Nazianzus pictures the entire preparation of the Old Testament and the preparation of Christ as preparation for the indwelling of the Spirit: “For it was not safe, when the Godhead of the Father was not yet acknowledged, plainly to proclaim the Son; nor when that of the Son was not yet received to burden us further (if I may use so bold an expression) with the Holy Ghost.”[12] Gregory describes a gradual process in which Christ’s entire work, with “the beginning of the Gospel, after the Passion, after the Ascension” is dedicated to “making perfect their powers” so that only then did he breathe the Holy Spirit upon them. Always Christ spoke of the Spirit in conjunction with his own teaching and the work of the Father. The Father sends the Spirit, but only in “my Name” and in order to “call to remembrance all that I have taught you” (Jn. 14:26). As Gregory describes it, this careful approach to the Spirit, was in order to ensure “that He might not seem to be a rival God.”[13]

According to Gregory this is the third and most dramatic of the movements of God. “The Old Testament proclaimed the Father openly, and the Son more obscurely. The New manifested the Son, and suggested the Deity of the Spirit. Now the Spirit Himself dwells among us, and supplies us with a clearer demonstration of Himself.”[14] This third “earthquake” unleashes the most radical of possibilities, as here the Trinitarian Truth of God is open as the final possibility (or the ultimate perversion). “For what greater thing than this did either He promise, or the Spirit teach. If indeed anything is to be considered great and worthy of the Majesty of God, which was either promised or taught.”[15] Perhaps it is the finality and fulness of the Spirit which also raises the specter of the unforgivable sin (Matt. 12:31-32).

God can only be properly worshipped and the fulness of the truth apprehended in the fulness of the Trinity, apart from which the truth of God is subject to perversion. Only on the basis of this fulness can humankind enter into Truth or into participation in God (i.e., into theosis and deification). “And indeed from the Spirit comes our New Birth, and from the New Birth our new creation, and from the new creation our deeper knowledge of the dignity of Him from Whom it is derived.”[16]


[1] Sergius Bulgakov, The Comforter, Translated by Boris ]akim (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids/Cambridge, 2004), 316.

[2] Sergius Bulgakov, Unfading Light: Contemplations and Speculations, Translated by Thomas Allan Smith (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids/Cambridge, 2012), 332.

[3] Bulgakov works this out most extensively in The Bride of the Lamb, Translated by Boris Jakim (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), 71-76.

[4] Bulgakov. Unfading Light, 335.

[5] Ibid. 316.

[6] Henri de Lubac, History and Spirit: The Understanding of Scripture according to Origen, Translated by Anne England Nash (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2007), 317.

[7] Ibid. 322.

[8] Origen, Commentary on John, Book 20.3. Quoted from de Lubak, 323.

[9] Ibid. de Lubak.

[10] Ibid. 325.

[11] Bulgakov, The Comforter, 181-182.

[12] Gregory of Nazianzus, Fifth Theological Oration, Oration 31.26.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid. 31.27.

[16] Ibid. 31.28.


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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