Andrei Rublev's Trinity Icon  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Andrei Rublev (ca 1360-1430) is the most famous Russian iconographer and his most famous work by far is his depiction of the Trinity.  Art historian Alexander Boguslawski comments on some theological implications of this great icon. 


Very few artists before Rublev dared to eliminate all the narrative elements from the story, leaving only the three angels; usually those who did so had to deal with limited space. The results of their efforts did not find general acceptance or many copyists. Rublev was the first to make a conscious decision not to include in his composition the figures of Abraham and Sarah because he did not set out to illustrate the story of the hospitality of Abraham, as did many painters before him, but to convey through his image the idea of the unity and indivisibility of the three persons of the Trinity.  

The doctrine of the Trinity, difficult to explain logically, found various interpretations. Some thought that the Trinity consisted of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Others believed that it was just God and two angels. In the 14th and 15th-century Russia, in the period of many heretical movements, the idea of the Trinity was often questioned. The heretics in Novgorod claimed that it is not permissible to paint the Trinity on icons because Abraham did not see the Trinity but only God and two angels. Other heretics rejected the idea of the three hypostases of God altogether. The church fought the heresies with all the means it had -- usually with polemical treaties, but also with force, if necessary.  Russian icon painters before Rublev subscribed to the same point of view that Abraham was visited by God (in Christ's image) and two angels. Hence, Christ was represented in icons of the Trinity as the middle angel and was symbolically set apart either by a halo with a cross, by a considerable enlargement of his figure, by widely spread wings or by a scroll in His hand.
Trinity Icons. From left to right: Holy Trinity, a part of a quadripartite icon from Novgorod (first half of the 15th c.), Holy Trinity (Hospitality of Abraham), Novgorod School (middle of the 16th c.), Holy Trinity, Pskov School (15th c.).  

In Rublev's icon for the first time all the angels are equally important. Only this icon truly conforms to the Orthodox idea of the Trinity. But Rublev's genius allows the painter to go beyond the constraints of theological theme. His icon is a special kind of challenge to the antitrinitarians -- instead of forcing them to accept the dogma, Rublev softly and gently tries to bring them to the dogmatic understanding of the icon's meaning.  

All scholars agree that the three hypostases of the Trinity are represented in Rublev's icon. But there are greatly differing views as to which angel represents which hypostasis. Many see Christ in the middle angel and God the Father in the left. Others see God the Father in the middle angel, and Christ in the left one. The middle angel occupies a special place in the icon: it is set apart not only by its central position, but also by a "regal" turn of its head towards the left angel, and by pointing with its hand towards the cup on the table. Both the turn of the head and the gesture are important clues to the hidden meaning of the icon. Equal among equals, the middle angel has such expressive power that one hesitates not to see in it a symbolic representation of God the Father. On the other hand one cannot fail to notice that the left angel is also essential: two other angels lower their heads towards it and seem to address it. Therefore, if we assume that the left angel is God the Father, the middle angel, dressed in the clothes customarily used in compositions depicting the second person of the Trinity (a blue himation and a crimson tunic), should represent Christ. This amazing and perhaps purposeful encoding of these two persons of the Trinity by Rublev does not give us a clear clue for a single interpretation. Whatever the case, the icon shows a dialogue between two angels: The Father turns to His Son and explains the necessity of His sacrifice, and the Son answers by agreeing with His Father's wish.  

Neither of these interpretations impacts the interpretation of the Trinity as triune God and as a representation of the sacrament of the Eucharist. The cup on the table is an eucharistic symbol. In the cup we see the head of the calf which Abraham used for the feast. The church interprets this calf as a prototype of the New Testament Lamb, and thus the cup acquires its Eucharistic meaning. The left and the middle angels bless the cup: The Father blesses His Son on his Deed, on His death on the cross for the sake of man's salvation, and the Son, blessing the cup, expresses his readiness to sacrifice Himself. The third angel does not bless the cup and does not participate in the conversation, but is present as a Comforter, the undying, a symbol of eternal youth and the upcoming Resurrection.

The Mystical Significance of Jesus' Baptism  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Baptism is of course a rite of passage marking one's entry into the Church, but there is much more to it than that.  Theologian Steve Turley succinctly sums up the Eastern Orthodox view of the baptism of Jesus, seen as the inauguration of the Christian sacrament but also as a manifestation or "theophany" of God's presence.
For centuries, the Orthodox Church has appropriated January 6th as the occasion to remember and commemorate the baptism of Christ by John in the Jordan River. The celebration is known as “Theophany,” which stems from the Ancient Greek term for the “appearance of a god.” In passages such as Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, and Luke 3:21-22, Jesus’ baptism marks the first explicit manifestation of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

For the early church, it was highly significant that such a divine manifestation was associated with the rite of baptism, for such an association linked together the true nature of the Creator with the true nature of creation. In other words, the revelation of God as Trinity was inextricably linked with the revelation of God as Creator and Redeemer of the cosmos. 

Kilian McDonnell’s study on the cosmic dimensions of Jesus’ own baptism in early Christian thought observes that it was virtually the unanimous witness of these early authors that Christ was baptized not for his own sins but for the purification of the cosmos.[1] Ignatius of Antioch, who was a student of the Apostle John, wrote that Jesus was baptized in order to sanctify the waters of the world and thereby fulfill all righteousness (Eph. 18:2; Smyrn. 1:1). Justin Martyr (100-165 AD) argued that the anointing of the Spirit on Jesus served to establish Jesus’ identity as messianic king and thus the incarnation of the primordial Logos through whom all things were made (Dial. 88). Irenaeus’ Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching understands Jesus’ baptism as the intermediary by which the Father anoints the material cosmos with the Spirit, an act that revealed in time and space the pre-temporal anointing of Christ by the Father before creation.[2]  

The site of the Jordan River amplified the cosmic significance of Christ’s baptism. In such Jewish extra-canonical texts such as the Life of Adam and Eve, the Jordan River was the river that flowed in the Garden of Eden. Christians picked up this tradition and applied it to the baptism of Christ. Hippolytus of Rome (170-235 AD) associated the Jordan as a cosmic river flowing back and forth into the Paradise restored in Christ, and Gregory of Nyssa (335-394 AD) envisioned all baptismal waters as cosmic extensions of the Jordan, encompassing the whole world, with its source in Paradise. 

The iconography of Theophany testifies to the paradisical significance of the Jordan. In the Jewish text, the Life of Adam and Eve, Adam, having been expelled from Paradise, stands neck-deep in the Jordan for forty days as an act of repentance for his sin. In the icon, Christ stands in the Jordan either naked or with scant clothing, thus restoratively identifying himself with the original nakedness of Adam in Paradise.

For these early Christians, the sanctifying effect Jesus had on the waters of the river Jordan renders worthy all water for baptism, such that baptized Christians are in fact participating in a proleptic manifestation of the new creation. Clement of Alexandria, after declaring Christ as head of all creation, wrote: “For this reason the Savior was baptized, though he had no need of it, in order to sanctify all the waters for those who would be regenerated” (A Selection from Prophetic Writings, 4, 5).[3] The Armenian Teaching of St. Gregory provides a particularly insightful appropriation of Christ’s baptism for the Christian. It is the role of the Spirit to order the cosmos, to change disorder into order. When Adam sinned, the Spirit abandoned not only Adam but the whole cosmos. Christ’s baptism, “by treading the waters with his own footstep, … sanctified them and made them purifying.” The restoration of the creation thus involves “the glory of adoption,” wherein the baptism of Jesus restores the Spirit to a new humanity indwelling a renewed created order. The initiate’s identity is derivative of Jesus’ identity as both are forged at the rejuvenation of creation. 

Theophany is therefore a feast day that celebrates the fact that the totality of the cosmos has been incorporated into the transformative life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The Triune Creator is redeeming both creature and creation in his own self-manifestation as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Theophany is thus a commemoration of the One through whom all things are made, and in whom all things are made new.

[1] The Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan: The Trinitarian and Cosmic Order of Salvation (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1996), 24.
[2] McDonnell, Baptism of Jesus, 58.
[3] McDonnell, Baptism of Jesus, 55.

Authentic Mysticism According to Evelyn Underhill  

Posted by Joe Rawls

In her introduction to Evelyn Underhill:  essential writings (Orbis 2003) Emilie Griffin summarizes five traits of genuine mysticism that can be discerned in the work of the great Anglican spiritual director and writer.  Hat-tip to Carl McColman.


  1. Christian mysticism is active and practical. Even a Carthusian hermit takes responsibility for living his contemplative life with honor, dignity, and personal integrity. Meanwhile, for the vast majority of Christian contemplatives, the life of silence is embedded in a network of community relationships and responsibilities of some form. True mysticism does not fly from such obligations, but embraces them and seeks to meet them well.
  2. Christian mysticism is spiritual and transcendental, rather than magical. The authentic mystic does not seek supernatural power for the purpose of controlling earthly circumstances, but rather seeks to surrender to the will and calling of Divine Love. By doing so, one does not abdicate the need to be engaged with the earthly dimension of life (see #1), but rather abandons all things to Divine Providence, whether “good” or “bad.” Both pleasure and suffering are held lightly and viewed in the light of eternity.
  3. Christian mysticism is centered in love. It is not centered in experience, or in shifts of consciousness, or even in miracles or healing — no matter how worthy such spiritual matters might be. For the authentic mystic, all the phenomena of mysticism is always subordinate to the essential fact and yearning for ever-unfolding intimacy and immersion into the dance of Divine love. Such love is the heart of the Trinity and the key to Divine-human relations.
  4. Union with God in authentic mysticism transforms the mystic for ever richer levels of life. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says of his followers, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Mysticism is a portal into such abundant living. Like all things of God, it is never an end to itself — if it were, it would cease to be an icon and instead become an idol. Mysticism points beyond itself to the life of kenosis and theosis: self-emptying in order to participate in the Divine nature.
  5. As a result of such loving union, the authentic mystic becomes unselfish. Just as normal human moral development moves us from ego-centric to ethnocentric and finally world-centric stages of care, so the mystical life makes love of God and love of neighbor real by anchoring love of self in ever-widening circles of concern. An unselfish mystic is not contemptuous of the self, but rather loses interest in self-aggrandizement because of the deep love for and interest in others: love that is, of course, expressed in concrete, practical ways.

John Chrysostom's Christmas Sermon  

Posted by Joe Rawls

St. John Chrysostom’s Christmas Homily
Behold a new and wondrous mystery. My ears resound to the Shepherd’s song, piping no soft melody, but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn. The Angels sing. The Archangels blend their voice in harmony. The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise. The Seraphim exalt His glory. All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He Who is above, now for our redemption dwells here below; and he that was lowly is by divine mercy raised.

Bethlehem this day resembles heaven; hearing from the stars the singing of angelic voices; and in place of the sun, enfolds within itself on every side, the Sun of justice. And ask not how: for where God wills, the order of nature yields. For He willed, He had the power, He descended, He redeemed; all things yielded in obedience to God. This day He Who is, is Born; and He Who is, becomes what He was not. For when He was God, He became man; yet not departing from the Godhead that is His. Nor yet by any loss of divinity became He man, nor through increase became He God from man; but being the Word He became flesh, His nature, because of impassability, remaining unchanged.

And so the kings have come, and they have seen the heavenly King that has come upon the earth, not bringing with Him Angels, nor Archangels, nor Thrones, nor Dominations, nor Powers, nor Principalities, but, treading a new and solitary path, He has come forth from a spotless womb.
Since this heavenly birth cannot be described, neither does His coming amongst us in these days permit of too curious scrutiny. Though I know that a Virgin this day gave birth, and I believe that God was begotten before all time, yet the manner of this generation I have learned to venerate in silence and I accept that this is not to be probed too curiously with wordy speech. For with God we look not for the order of nature, but rest our faith in the power of Him who works.

What shall I say to you; what shall I tell you? I behold a Mother who has brought forth; I see a Child come to this light by birth. The manner of His conception I cannot comprehend.

Nature here rested, while the Will of God labored. O ineffable grace! The Only Begotten, Who is before all ages, Who cannot be touched or be perceived, Who is simple, without body, has now put on my body, that is visible and liable to corruption. For what reason? That coming amongst us he may teach us, and teaching, lead us by the hand to the things that men cannot see. For since men believe that the eyes are more trustworthy than the ears, they doubt of that which they do not see, and so He has deigned to show Himself in bodily presence, that He may remove all doubt.

Christ, finding the holy body and soul of the Virgin, builds for Himself a living temple, and as He had willed, formed there a man from the Virgin; and, putting Him on, this day came forth; unashamed of the lowliness of our nature’. For it was to Him no lowering to put on what He Himself had made. Let that handiwork be forever glorified, which became the cloak of its own Creator. For as in the first creation of flesh, man could not be made before the clay had come into His hand, so neither could this corruptible body be glorified, until it had first become the garment of its Maker.

What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of days has become an infant. He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He Who cannot be touched, Who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men. He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infants bands. But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation the measure of His Goodness.

For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit, that He may save me.

Come, then, let us observe the Feast. Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been ‘in planted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels.

Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He became Flesh. He did not become God. He was God. Wherefore He became flesh, so that He Whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive. He was placed in a manger, so that He, by whom all things arc nourished, may receive an infant’s food from His Virgin Mother. So, the Father of all ages, as an infant at the breast, nestles in the virginal arms, that the Magi may more easily see Him. Since this day the Magi too have come, and made a beginning of withstanding tyranny; and the heavens give glory, as the Lord is revealed by a star.

To Him, then, Who out of confusion has wrought a clear path, to Christ, to the Father, and to the Holy Ghost, we offer all praise, now and for ever. Amen.

Ongoing Incarnation in Maximus the Confessor  

Posted by Joe Rawls

During this Advent season, we of course ponder the wonder of  God taking on human flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  Maximus the Confessor, the great seventh-century Greek theologian, suggests that we can allow Jesus to become incarnate within us in a metaphorical yet very real way.  This concept is explored by Brock Bingaman in his comprehensive essay "Becoming a spiritual world of God:  the theological anthropology of Maximus the Confessor."  It is chapter 9 in The Philokalia:  a classic text of Orthodox spirituality, Brock Bingaman and Bradley Nassif, eds.  Oxford, 2012.


Along with Maximus's teaching on the incarnation as the key to understanding all things, as an act of divine love, as a trinitarian work, and as the self-emptying of Christ, is the idea that the incarnation continues to occur within believers.  In the First Century of Various Texts on Theology, The Divine Economy, and virtue and Vice, Maximus asserts that the "divine Logos, who once for all was born in the flesh, always in his compassion desires to be born in spirit in those who desire him".  Maximus goes on to explain that the Logos becomes an infant and forms himself in the believer through the virtues.  The Logos reveals only as much of himself as he knows the believer can accept.  The limited manifestation of his own greatness in each believer is not due to his lack of generosity, but is based on the receptive capacity of those who long to see him.  "In this way", Maximus continues, "the divine Logos is eternally made manifest in different modes of participation, and yet remains eternally invisible to all in virtue of the surpassing nature of his hidden activity."

In another philokalic text, where Maximus speaks of a balance of dispositions and an inner unity that reflect the holiness of the divine image and likeness, he explains that this is how one participates in the kingdom of God and becomes a translucent abode of the Holy Spirit.  Through grace and free choice, the believer's soul becomes the dwelling place of Christ:  "In souls such as this, Christ always desires to be born in a mystical way, becoming incarnate in those who attain salvation."  Thunberg argues that Maximus's teaching on Christ's presence, birth, and embodiment in the virtues demonstrates that human perfection has two sides.  First, it includes restoration, integration, unification, and deification; and second, it includes divine inhabitation in human multiplicity.  This double emphasis is found whenever Maximus reflects on the theme of Christ's ongoing incarnation in believers and is based on Maximus's late Chalcidonian theology with its emphasis on communicatio idiomatum and perichoresis (or the sharing of attributes and the interpenetration of the divine and human natures in Christ).  Thus Maximus understands that the incarnation of the Logos and the deification of humanity are two sides of the same mystery. 

Theosis in Augustine  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Theosis or deification is typically considered an Eastern Orthodox concept.  Yet it does crop up fairly often in the writings of Western theologians.  One such is Augustine of Hippo.  In his blog Alvin Rapien collates several Augustinian quotes pertaining to theosis and comments on them, prefacing his remarks with a concise description of what theosis is.  One such quote is reproduced below.  Augustine is at pains to stress that theosis is a participation in the life of God and not a transformation of our created essence into the divine essence.


So also, just as His inferior circumstances, into which He descended to us, were not in every particular exactly the same with our inferior circumstances, in which He found us here; so our superior state, into which we ascend to Him, will not be quite the same with His superior state, in which we are there to find Him.  For we by His grace are to be made the sons of God, whereas He was evermore by nature the Son of God; we, when we are converted, shall cleave to God, though not as His equals; He never turned from God, and remains ever equal to God; we are partakers of eternal life, He is eternal life.

Richard Hooker and Tradition  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Richard Hooker (1554-November 3 1600) is almost universally recognized as the single greatest Anglican theologian.  His Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, essentially a treatise on ecclesiology, is a defense of the Elizabethan settlement against the criticisms of Puritans and other radical Protestants.  But it also affirms the validity of the reformed English church in the face of critiques by Roman Catholics.  A very good assessment of Hooker and his work may be found in chapter 4 of Anglicanism and the Christian Church, by Paul Avis, a theologian and priest of the Church of England (Edinburgh, T&T Clark 1989).  I have excerpted what Avis has to say about Hooker's approach to tradition, which appears on pp 66-67.


The term tradition will serve to designate this third component [along with Scripture and reason] of Hooker's synthesis, though practice, experienceand consent are all involved.  They constitute the third and final test or touchstone of religious truth.  "Where neither the evidence of any law divine, nor the strength of any invincible argument otherwise found out by the light of reason, nor any notable public inconvenience" are decisive, "the very authority of the church itself...may give so much credit to her own laws, as to make their sentence touching fitness and conveniency weightier than any bare and naked conceit to the contrary".

There is a fundamental conservative principle underlying Hooker's thought at this point and it belongs to the uniformitarian presupposition that he shared with all European culture before the eighteenth century.  Truth was eternal.   What was right was right for all times and places.  Universal consent was equivalent to nature itself, and the voice of nature was as the voice of God.  Let us be loath "to change, without very urgent necessity, the ancient ordinances, rites and long approved customs of our venerable predecessors...antiquity, custom and consent in the church of God, making with that which law doth establish, are themselves most sufficient reasons to uphold the same, unless some notable public inconvenience enforce the contrary".  If and when it does, Hooker immediately goes on, the church has authority to respond by altering its practice.