In my last note on the Nicene Creed, I considered the creed’s affirmation of monotheism: “We believe in one God.” We confess that there is only one God, but we also believe the one God is Father, Son, and Spirit. The rest of the creed is a confession of faith in the Triune God.
Gregory of Nazianzus, a pastor and theologian in the fourth century, can help us understand our faith in the Triune God. To begin, Gregory warns that we cannot say more about the Triune God than Scripture reveals:
“For me it is enough to hear that there is a Son, and that he is from the Father, and that the one is Father and the other is Son. I do not trouble myself beyond this, lest I become just like those voices that go completely hoarse from shouting too loudly, or the eye that strains towards the rays of the sun.” (Oration 20.10; trans. Brian Daley).
Looking to Scripture, Gregory notes that the names Father, Son, and Spirit are tied to their relationship with one another and the manner in which the Son and the Spirit have their being from the Father.
The Son and Spirit are what the Father is, because they are from the Father. The unity and oneness of God has its source in the Father’s being, which he shares with the Son and the Spirit. Scripture reveals that the Son is “the only-begotten from the Father” (John 1:14) and the Spirit “proceeds from the Father” (John 15:26). The Son is the Son because he is begotten from the Father. The Father is the Father because he has begotten the Son. The Spirit is the Spirit because he proceeds from the Father.
The Father is “unbegotten,” the Son is “begotten,” and the Spirit “proceeds.” The terms “unbegotten,” “begotten,” and “procession” are not definitive of God’s divine being; rather, they signify three properties, which distinguish the three persons and their relationship to one another as Father, Son, and Spirit.
The one God has revealed himself in Scripture as Father, Son, and Spirit. Given this divine revelation, Gregory writes,
“The aim is to safeguard the distinctness of the three [persons] within the single nature and quality of the Godhead . . . The three are one in their Godhead and the one is three in properties.” (Oration 31.9; trans. Lionel Wickham)
Whenever we are reading Scripture, praying, singing, contemplating God, we must be careful to safeguard the unity and oneness of God and the distinction of the three persons. The Father, Son, and Spirit are one God and the one God is Father, Son, and Spirit.
When we’re thinking about the Triune God, we must remember that God is eternal. To say that the Son and Spirit have their being from the Father does not mean they have their being after the Father. The Father has always been the Father; the Son has always been the Son; and the Spirit has always been the Spirit.
Gregory also warns against analogies for the Trinity: “There is one God, one supreme nature, where can I find analogy to show you? Are you looking for one from your environment here in this world?” (Oration 31.10) Analogies for the Trinity will only reduce and obscure our understanding. We cannot look to the world around us to understand the Son’s generation and the Spirit’s procession.
Even so, the Bible says that the Son is begotten from the Father (John 1:14) and the Spirit proceeds from the Father (John 15:26). What does that mean? I’ll consider that question in next week’s note.