Race and the Holy Trinity

At the heart of Coptic Orthodox theology lies the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, a cornerstone of Christian belief that elucidates the nature of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in perfect unity. This theological framework underscores the interconnectedness and indivisibility of the divine persons, forming an essential foundation for the Coptic Orthodox Church’s understanding of the divine nature and the relationship between God and humanity.

As we delve into the discourse on race within the Coptic Orthodox Church, the theological significance of the Holy Trinity serves as a guiding light. The notion of a harmonious union within the Godhead challenges us to reflect on unity, equality, and the sanctity of all human beings created in the image of God. This theological lens prompts us to explore how the principles of the Holy Trinity can inform and shape our perspectives on racial dynamics within the Church community.

By examining the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, we aim to illuminate the theological foundations that encourage dialogue, understanding, and a commitment to justice within the Church. This exploration seeks to bridge the sacred and the societal, inviting believers to engage with the transformative potential of their faith as they grapple with the multifaceted issues surrounding race in the contemporary world.

The discussions on this website weave together various topics, but are all anchored by one central theme of the Holy Trinity. This foundational concept serves as a unifying thread, guiding reflections on race, shaping perspectives on divinization, influencing the portrayal of sacred images, and informing the teachings inspired by the apostle Paul, thereby offering a cohesive lens through which to explore the diverse facets of the Coptic Orthodox tradition.

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity, anchored in the tenets of Canonical and Scriptural traditions continuously lives within the life of the Church’s sacramental rites. As we embark on a journey to explore the theological depths of the triune God as they relate to race and culture, we must acknowledge that the early Church Fathers grappled with the need for precise terminology to articulate the divine relationship among God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Guided by Scripture, we recognize the unbroken connection between God the Father, His Word, and Spirit, forming three distinct hypostases. This spiritual conviction establishes a ‘personal’ God engaged in an uninhibited dialogue of love with humanity.

In alignment with the triality of God, defining the parameters through which humanity can attain spiritual perfection necessitates one of the divine hypostases assuming human flesh for eternity. This eternal embodiment demonstrates God’s enduring love for humanity, solidifying a divine transformative love.[17] However, delving into the theological implications of the Holy Trinity requires a thoughtful consideration of the inherent mystery surrounding Him. The challenge lies in conveying these teachings with the understanding that the glory of the triune God surpasses human comprehension. It acknowledges that the sanctity of the Trinity calls for a reverent approach to His understanding, recognizing that the very nature of God transcends human conceptual faculties and can only be known through His will.

This mystery, rather than posing an obstacle, emerges as a true source of inspiration, unveiling the distinct, fluid, and ever-evolving aspects of life as humanity can imagine it.[18] God, in revealing the Holy Trinity through the incarnation of the Son of God, invites humanity to grasp this revelation within the confines of the human mind. As St. Basil the Great contends, God unfolds Himself to humanity in a manner that aligns with the capacity of the human mind to receive such revelation. This perspective invites us to explore the depth of the Holy Trinity with humility, recognizing that His mysteries are a source of continuous inspiration and wonder in the diverse fabrics of human existence.

[17] Stăniloae, “Orthodox Spirituality.”

[18] Philip Kariatlis, The Mystery of the Holy Trinity, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia, 2017, 1.

We know the greatness of God, His power, His wisdom, His goodness, His providence over us and the justness of his judgments; but not His essence… We know our God from His operations, but do not undertake to approach near His essence. His operations come down to us, but His essence remains beyond our reach.[19]

[19] Basil of Caesarea, Letter 234, 1, St. Basil: The Letters, Volume III, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1986, 372.

The Trinity and Theosis

Exploring the Trinity offers a profound theological foundation for recent endeavors in Christian social thought. The concept of a God embodying perfect communion, overcoming the struggles inherent in human life to model a harmonious and ordered society, is undeniably intriguing. The doctrine of God provides a refuge for humanity against individualistic evils that challenge the presence of the individual within the social whole. The dichotomies experienced in the world find resolution in a unitive consciousness expressed at various levels—personally, socially, and beyond. This emphasis on the world’s distinctness mirrors the Trinity, where triality coalesces into perfect unity.[21]

As we navigate the ever-shifting nature of humanity through societal collaboration and cultural influence, the role of the Trinity becomes evident. It implies that the body of Christ is a diverse community of individuals, reflecting the diversity of humankind.

[21] Richard Rohr, Oneing, Volume. 1, No. 1, Center for Action and Contemplation, 2013, 12-13.

God is “One,” just as our Jewish roots taught Christianity [in Deuteronomy 6:4: “Here, O Israel: The Lord our God the Lord is one!”], and yet the further, more subtle level is that this oneness is, in fact, the radical love union between three completely distinct persons of the Trinity. The three members of the Trinity are not uniform – but quite distinct – and yet oned in total outpouring…Christianity must return to its Trinitarian foundations to fully rebuild itself from the bottom up.[22]

[22] Richard Rohr, Oneing, Volume. 1, No. 1, Center for Action and Contemplation, 2013, 12-13.

The doctrine of the Trinity, composed of three hypostases, reveals a mystery of relationship expressed most authentically through an everlasting love reflected in humankind’s image. God’s revelation to humanity occurs through His own person: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”[24] In this profound act of incarnation, God Himself thereby became one of His own creations through the incarnation, copiously partaking in what humankind are and thus establishing an avenue for man to share in His divine life, through a lifelong pursuit of growing in a relationship with Him. This incarnation serves as a unifying force, bridging two natures, and thus offering humanity the opportunity to participate in the divine nature beyond themselves.[25]

[24]Orthodox Study Bible New King James Version, Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2008, John 1:14

[25]Fr. John McGuckin, St. Cyril of Alexandria. On the Unity of Christ, SVS Press, 54-55

The point for our present purposes is that the social reality of early Christianity – at least as idealized by St. Paul – was of a wholly collaborative process, aimed at creating analogies of Jesus, persons whose life-patterns might be understood as belonging together because all are related to the style of praying and the sense of a mission of restoration and re-creation for God’s people associated with the story of Jesus. The climax of that story – the “covenant sacrifice” of the cross and the reconstitution by the resurrection of the disciples’ fellowship serves as the ground for the existence of a new people.[26]

[26] Rowan Williams, Trinity and Pluralism, Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 1990, 8.

The ideal outcome to any interfaith encounter is to benefit through practicing, and yet studying “human cooperation, mutual challenge and mutual nurture”, which can only be accomplished by the unification of that form of liberty, so that the transformation of humanity can occur after the likeness of Christ.[27] In Ephesians 2:18, the Apostle Paul tells us that the three hypostases of the Trinity work in unison with one another in a collective effort to bring unity between Christians. He writes, “For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father.” The context of his text is God’s goal to dissolve an ethnic barrier between the Jewish and the Gentile believers, reminding them that they are one Christ. God’s efforts are implicit that humankind has equal access to God, namely in one Spirit through Christ, as a consequence of our salvation. 

The Holy Trinity, is therefore the means by which our unity with fellow believers is achieved. By unraveling His harmonious role, we gain insights into the divine relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit that should characterize our connections with fellow believers. The study of the Holy Trinity becomes not just a theological exploration but a wellspring of inspiration. This understanding prompts a renewed awareness of our inherent closeness to God and to our brothers and sisters in Christ. It becomes a transformative lens through which we view our relation to the other, sparking a renewed sense of unity and shared purpose.

[27] Williams, Trinity and Pluralism, 11.

The Holy Trinity and Unity

Dumitru Stanaloae eloquently affirms that “only a perfect community of supreme persons can nourish, with its unending and perfect love, our thirst for love in relation to it and between ourselves.”[28] Love, in this context, transcends theoretical contemplation; it is meant to be offered, welcomed, and continuously lived through the sacramental rites of the Church. Drawing inspiration from St. John’s assertion in I John 4:88, “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love,” we recognize that the Trinity Himself is defined by a transformative love, and the journey of Theosis is intimately intertwined with it. 

[28] Stăniloae, Orthodox Spirituality.​

It is often misconceived that the concept of ‘unity’ is the same as ‘uniformity.’ Christianity, at its core, does not demand a homogenous and standardized conformity among its followers. Instead, the Church embraces diversity and individuality within the broader framework of a shared faith. The Christian message proclaims unity in diversity, recognizing that believers can express their unique qualities, perspectives, and cultural backgrounds while still adhering to the theological and biblical principles of Orthodoxy. Unity, however, entails the reconciliation of differences by acceptance and an overpowering of love – which is God. Thereby the very being of God is implicit in unity, which highlights the presence, and, further, the beauty of individualization in both the Trinity and amid humanity, all being crucial to understanding how role of the Holy Trinity reconciles divisions imposed by racial and cultural disparities.

He is a fully united, complete personal entity. The man Jesus is the same person as God the Word Incarnate. God the Word did not take up to himself the man of the line of David, Jesus of Nazareth. [29]

[29] Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ

In Ephesians 2:11-13, the Apostle Paul paints a vivid picture of the transformative power of unity in Christ, reminding believers of their once-disconnected state and their newfound closeness brought about by the blood of Christ. This intentional unity ingrained in humankind is further emphasized in Ephesians 2:14-16, where Christ is heralded as the peacemaker who breaks down walls of separation and reconciles all through the cross.

The philosophies embedded in these verses underscore the potential for overemphasized and separated identities in modern society to move towards God through embracing the universality of the Trinity and the pursuit of theosis. Unity in diversity, continuously lived through love, becomes the embodiment of the central doctrine of the Trinity. As the Apostle Paul elucidates in I Corinthians 12:15-19, the body of believers is diverse, yet unified, with each member contributing uniquely to the whole.

In emphasizing the equality of all creation in God’s image, I Corinthians 12:15-19 echoes the sentiment that God’s kingdom embraces the diversity of tribes, tongues, colors, and people groups—all created to reflect Him. St. Paul’s teachings reinforce this unity, highlighting that from one man, God made every nation, providing a framework where the diversity of humankind rightly appears. They provide a timeless framework for navigating the complexities of identity, fostering a community that not only mirrors the profound unity of the Trinity but actively celebrates the diversity intentionally woven into the fabric of creation. Living by means of the Holy Trinity entails embracing unity, diversity, and love, reflecting the divine harmony that transcends human understanding.

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