The Western Versus the Eastern View of the Trinity

I have recently realized that I have primarily been focusing on the Western concept of the doctrine of the Trinity. As I have recalled some of what I have read on the Eastern concept of the Trinity, I have come to the realization that it might be worth doing at least two things: comparing and contrasting the Western concept of the Trinity with the Eastern concept and also investigating whether the Eastern view of the Trinity is perhaps not subject to the same logical objections as the Western view. 

THE FILIOQUE

One of the most famous differences between the Western and the Eastern concepts, at least among theologians, is found in a phrase added to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed called the filioque, which is Latin for “and the Son.” This phrase was added to the clause: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son[1].” This addition was accepted in the West but was rejected in the East. Now, this controversy between the West and the East highlights more than a regional difference in a seemingly nonconsequential difference in describing the Holy Spirit’s place in the Trinity. It underscores a very important theological difference between how the West has traditionally understood the unity of the Trinity and how the East has understood it.

THE SOURCE OF UNITY

In Western Christianity, particularly in Roman Catholicism and in traditional Protestant denominations, the source of the unity among the three members of the Trinity is found in that they are of one essence. Throughout my posts on the Trinity, I have repeatedly critiqued the idea that God can be one essence with three persons and have even called this a logical contradiction. In Eastern Orthodoxy, on the other hand, the source is the Father so that the unity of the Trinity is found in the Father. Vladimir Lossky, a 20th century Russian Orthodox theologian, even described the Father as the “unique source of Godhead and principle of the unity of the three[2].”

However, both the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches agree that there is only one God and that God is three persons. They both reject the idea that there are three different gods and the idea that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are different modes or personalities but not actually separate persons, a view called modalism. From my observation, the traditional Western, Catholic view of the Trinity tends to be more rigidly defined as if it were a scientific matter of making a precise description of a subject. In contrast, Eastern Orthodoxy sees the Trinity as being more personal and describes it as a sort of family or community.

WHICH VIEW IS MORE LOGICAL?

I will probably not be able to answer this question fully in this post, but it appears to me as if the Eastern Orthodox view is at least not subject to being a logical contradiction as the Western view is. In the traditional Western view, God is one essence with three persons, but it does not seem possible for each person to fully have the same essence, or the same instance of that essence. Nevertheless, that is exactly what the West posits. If each fully has the same essence, then each must be fully each other. Thus, it is difficult, if not impossible, to get around the logical contradiction that each is fully the exact same divine essence without somehow being simultaneously each other.

Because in the Eastern view the unity of the Trinity is found in the single source of the Father, it does not seem to be subject to this same logical contradiction. The Eastern Orthodox, as already stated, see the Trinity as being a community and, hence, focuses more on the distinctness in persons. This social view of the Trinity seems to essentially define God as the Trinity so that God is really a collective noun. Thus, to me, the Eastern concept of the Trinity should not be subjected to the same criticism as the Western concept.

CONCLUSION

Although I still do not accept the doctrine of the Trinity, after some research, I think that the Eastern view of the Trinity is not a logical contradiction as the Western view is. Nevertheless, it is the Eastern Orthodox Church that more ardently emphasizes the incomprehensibility of God’s nature. One may here make a distinction between that which is logically contradictory and that which is logically incomprehensible. 

However, a common issue that proponents of the Latin view of the Trinity (that is, the Western, Catholic view) will point out in the Eastern model is that it leans too far toward tritheism, the belief in three gods, although the Eastern Orthodox Church will of course deny the belief in three separate gods. Personally, I see how this can be an issue; but I also think that if one were to simply define God as a community of persons rather than a strict, single instance of one essence, this issue can be avoided. Still, such a model of the Trinity brings another problem that I see: it obviously makes no room for the doctrine of the absolute oneness of God.

NOTES

  1. “What We Believe,” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, https://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe
  2. Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997), 62.

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