The Ineffable God

The Holy Trinity by the hand of Andrei Rublev

The Holy Trinity
by the hand of
Andrei Rublev

For of God we speak not all we ought (for that is known to Him only), but so much as the capacity of human nature has received, and so much as our weakness can bear. For we explain not what God is but candidly confess that we have not exact knowledge concerning Him. For in what concerns God to confess our ignorance is the best knowledge.

But some one will say, If the Divine substance is incomprehensible, why then dost thou discourse of these things? So then, because I cannot drink up all the river, am I not even to take in moderation what is expedient for me? Because with eyes so constituted as mine I cannot take in all the sun, am I not even to look upon him enough to satisfy my wants? Or again, because I have entered into a great garden, and cannot eat all the supply of fruits, wouldst thou have me go away altogether hungry? I praise and glorify Him that made us; for it is a divine command which saith, Let every breath praise the Lord. I am attempting now to glorify the Lord, but not to describe Him, knowing nevertheless that I shall fall short of glorifying Him worthily, yet deeming it a work of piety even to attempt it at all. For the Lord Jesus encourageth my weakness, by saying, No man hath seen God at any time.

What then, some man will say, is it not written, The little ones’ Angels do always behold the face of My Father which is in heaven? Yes, but the Angels see God not as He is, but as far as they themselves are capable. For it is Jesus Himself who saith, Not that any man hath seen the Father, save He which is of God, He hath seen the Father. The Angels therefore behold as much as they can bear, and Archangels as much as they are able; and Thrones and Dominions more than the former, but yet less than His worthiness: for with the Son the Holy Ghost alone can rightly behold Him: for He searcheth all things, and knoweth even the deep things of God: as indeed the Only-begotten Son also, with the Holy Ghost, knoweth the Father fully: For neither, saith He, knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whom the Son will reveal Him. For He fully beholdeth, and, according as each can bear, revealeth God through the Spirit: since the Only-begotten Son together with the Holy Ghost is a partaker of the Father’s Godhead. He, who was begotten knoweth Him who begat; and He Who begat knoweth Him who is begotten. Since Angels then are ignorant (for to each according to his own capacity doth the Only-begotten reveal Him through the Holy Ghost, as we have said), let no man be ashamed to confess his ignorance. I am speaking now, as all do on occasion: but how we speak, we cannot tell: how then can I declare Him who hath given us speech ? I who have a soul, and cannot tell its distinctive properties, how shall I be able to describe its Giver?

For devotion it suffices us simply to know that we have a God; a God who is One, a living, an ever-living God; always like unto Himself; who has no Father, none mightier than Himself, no successor to thrust Him out from His kingdom: Who in name is manifold, in power infinite, in substance uniform. For though He is called Good, and Just, and Almighty and Sabaoth, He is not on that account diverse and various; but being one and the same, He sends forth countless operations of His Godhead, not exceeding here and deficient there, but being in all things like unto Himself . Not great in loving-kindness only, and little in wisdom, but with wisdom and loving-kindness in equal power: not seeing in part, and in part devoid of sight; but being all eye, and all ear, and all mind: not like us perceiving in part and in part not knowing; for such a statement were blasphemous, and unworthy of the Divine substance. He foreknoweth the things that be ; He is Holy, and Almighty , and excelleth all in goodness, and majesty, and wisdom: of Whom we can declare neither beginning, nor form, nor shape. For ye have neither heard His voice at any time, nor seen His shape, saith Holy Scripture. Wherefore Moses saith also to the Israelites: And take ye good heed to your own souls, for ye saw no similitude. For if it is wholly impossible to imagine His likeness, how shall thought come near His substance?

Cyril of Jerusalem (2013-03-08). The Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem (Kindle Locations 1445-1447; 1474-1480; 1481-1505).  Kindle Edition.


Mariology as a Defense Against Heresy

 The following text is from my book “Why Mary Matters”.


Definition of Chalcedon, opposed by Nestorianism, Docetism, Arianism, and Monophysitism

Definition of Chalcedon

The earliest Gnostic heresy was Docetism, which taught that Jesus had only appeared to be a man, but did not take on a real human body. The first mention of Mary by a father of the Church appears in the works of Ignatius of Antioch, and is a defense of the full humanity of Christ by means of His birth of the Virgin Mary. In Chapter VII or his Epistle to the Ephesians, titled “Beware of False Teachers”, Ignatius provides the following formulation of the Christ, being both true God and true man.

For some are in the habit of carrying about the name [of Jesus Christ] in wicked guile, while yet they practise things unworthy of God, whom ye must flee as ye would wild beasts. For they are ravening dogs, who bite secretly, against whom ye must be on your guard, inasmuch as they are men who can scarcely be cured. There is one Physician who is possessed both of flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in flesh; true life in death; both of Mary and of God; first passible and then impassible, even Jesus Christ our Lord. (P. Schaff, ANF01. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus 1884, 86)

From there we begin to see references to the Virgin Mary pop up in early Gnostic writings. These writings provide us with evidence of what the Church was trying to avoid — the syncretic identification of the Mother Goddess with the Virgin Mary. Hilda Graef mentions two works — the Ascension of Isaiah and Odes to Solomon — both of which describe the birth of Jesus as something other than a true birth. In fact, these are the earliest literary sources (if perhaps not the theological sources) for the doctrine that Mary maintained her virginity in partu, in the birth, and that this was something other than an ordinary vaginal delivery. (Graef 2009, 27-28)

I note in passing the relative impossibility of keeping secrets. The “disciplina arcani: the secret, inner life of the Church” was bound to slip out. Witness for example the description of Christianity by Pliny the Younger in his letter to the Emperor Trajan where he seeks council on how to deal with Christians (Epistulae X.96). This letter, written early in the second century, provides the earliest literary description of the Eucharist, something that was hidden from the catechumenate, and which the Church forbade discussion of to those outside the Church. Even today we pray (in the pre-Communion prayer of St. John Chrysostom): “Of thy Mystical Supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant; for I will not speak of thy Mystery to thine enemies, neither like Judas will I give thee a kiss; but like the thief will I confess thee: Remember me, O Lord, in thy Kingdom.”

Having discussed the existence of the Virgin Mary as part of the secret, inner life of the Church, we must also state that the veneration of the Blessed Virgin is indeed to be found in Sacred Scripture.  We will follow the example of Archimandrite[i] Lev Gillett in using only the Gospels and the book of Acts for this; the more symbolic witness of the Old Testament and the book of Revelation cannot be understood without a proper evaluation of the more straightforward evidence. (Gillett 1949, 76) Lev Gillett writes:

The Gospel itself ascribes to Mary a privileged place among the creatures. The angel Gabriel said to her: ‘Hail, thou that are highly favoured, the Lord is with thee’ (Luke i:28). The place occupied by Mary in the divine scheme of our salvation is not only privileged, but unique. Therefore, Elisabeth said to Mary: ‘Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb’ (Luke i. 42). The Gospel observes that Elisabeth, when she saluted Mary in this manner, was ‘filled with the Holy Ghost’ (Luke i. 41). Every ‘evangelical’ (in the Protestant sense) Christian will acknowledge as true and inspired these words of the angel Gabriel and Elisabeth. The same words form the greatest part of the text of the Latin Ave Maria, which many ‘evangelical’ Christians mistrust, and the whole text of the corresponding Byzantine prayer. Could ‘evangelicals’ object to our addressing the glorified Virgin Mary in the same words with which she, on earth, was greeted by an angel and by a woman filled with the Holy Ghost? Could they object to our repeating such words, as recorded in the Gospel? If they did, would they still be ‘evangelical’? (Gillett 1949, 76)

A standard evangelical argument against the veneration of Mary is that Jesus himself did not honor her. The argument is that when a woman tried to honor Mary for having given birth, Jesus instead rejected her. This argument is faulty, as Lev Gillet explains.

Jesus himself explained in what is the blessing of God which rests on Mary. When a certain woman out of the multitude lifted up her voice and said to our Lord: ‘Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the paps which thou hast sucked’, he answered: ‘Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it’ (Luke xi. 27-38). These words are part of the lesson from the Gospel which the Orthodox Church reads at the liturgy on every feast of the Virgin; this shows that the Orthodox Church considers them as the most perfect expression of her own mind concerning Mary’s holiness. The words of Jesus must certainly not be interpreted as a disavowal of the praising of his mother by the woman or as an underestimation of Mary’s excellence; but they emphasize the real point and show where lies the merit of Mary. (Gillett 1949, 77)

St. Nikolai Velimirovich, in his Prayer number XXII, explores this idea. “O my Majestic Lord! You dance on Your Mother’s lap, quickened by the All-Holy Spirit … You fill the whole soul of Your Mother, all Her virgin breast; and there is nothing in Your Mother’s soul except You. You are Her radiance and Her voice, truly Her eye and Her song.” (Velimirovich 2010, 40) Herein we see the connection between the witness of the Sacred Scriptures and that of the inner life of the Church. The meaning of Jesus’ words regarding His mother are unclear, and could be interpreted any number of ways. Historically, Christianity has interpreted these words of Christ as expressing the true measure of Mary’s greatness, and the reason why she is to be specially honored today. This is in line with the Lukan account of how “Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19; see also 2:51).

[i] The term “Archimandrite” can refer to a superior abbot who is given authority over several ordinary abbots and monasteries. However, it is more commonly used as an honorific, bestowed upon certain clergy out of respect, often out of gratitude for a special service to the church. This term is applied only to celibate clergy; married clergy receive the honorific of “archpriest”.

The Trisagion Hymn

The Trisagion Prayers are a set of ancient prayers that begin each service of the Daily Cycle of divine services. They are also commonly used to begin one’s private prayers.

The Trisagion Thrice Holy by Angelboy


+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Glory be to Thee, our God; glory be to Thee.

O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things; Treasury of blessings, and Giver of life:  Come and abide in us, and cleanse us of every impurity, and save our souls, O Good One.

+ Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, have mercy upon us.  (with bow)
+ Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, have mercy upon us.  (with bow)
+ Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, have mercy upon us.  (with bow)

+ Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.  Amen.

Most-holy Trinity, have mercy on us:  Lord, cleanse us of our sins; Master, pardon our transgressions; Holy One, visit and heal our infirmities, for Thy Name’s sake.

Lord, have mercy.  Lord, have mercy.  Lord, have mercy.

+ Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.  Amen.

+ Our Father, Who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name.  Thy Kingdom come; Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.

For Thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory, + of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.  Amen.

Meet it is in truth to bless thee, O Theotokos,
ever-blessèd and all-pure, and the Mother of our God.

More honourable than the Cherubim,
and more glorious incomparably than the Seraphim,
thou who without corruption gavest birth to God the Word,
the very Theotokos:  we thee magnify.

+ Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.  Amen.

Lord, have mercy.  Lord, have mercy.  Lord, have mercy.

Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, + O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy upon us.  Amen.

From John Damascene’s book “An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith”

Depiction of the Cherubim

The Cherubim

For we hold the words “Holy God” to refer to the Father, without limiting the title of divinity to Him alone, but acknowledging also as God the Son and the Holy Spirit: and the words “Holy and Mighty” we ascribe to the Son, without stripping the Father and the Holy Spirit of might: and the words “Holy and Immortal” we attribute to the Holy Spirit, without depriving the Father and the Son of immortality. For, indeed, we apply all the divine names simply and unconditionally to each of the subsistences in imitation of the divine Apostle’s words. “But to us there is but one God, the Father, of Whom are all things, and we in Him: and one Lord Jesus Christ by Whom are all things, and we by Him.” And, nevertheless, we follow Gregory the Theologian when he says, “But to us there is but one God, the Father, of Whom are all things, and one Lord Jesus Christ, through Whom are all things, and one Holy Spirit, in Whom are all things:” for the words “of Whom” and “through Whom” and “in Whom” do not divide the natures (for neither the prepositions nor the order of the names could ever be changed), but they characterize the properties of one unconfused nature. And this becomes clear from the fact that they are once more gathered into one, if only one reads with care these words of the same Apostle, Of Him and through Him and in Him are all things: to Him be the glory for ever and ever. Amen(4). For that the “Trisagium” refers not to the Son alone, but to the Holy Trinity, the divine and saintly Athanasius and Basil and Gregory, and all the band of the divinely-inspired Fathers bear witness: because, as a matter of fact, by the threefold holiness the Holy Seraphim suggest to us the three subsistences of the superessential Godhead.

Depiction of the Seraphim

The Seraphim

But by the one Lordship they denote the one essence and dominion of the supremely-divine Trinity. Gregory the Theologian of a truth says, “Thus, then, the Holy of Holies, which is completely veiled by the Seraphim, and is glorified with three consecrations, meet together in one lordship and one divinity.” This was the most beautiful and sublime philosophy of still another of our predecessors.

Ecclesiastical historians, then, say that once when the people of Constantinople were offering prayers to God to avert a threatened calamity, during Proclus’ tenure of the office of Archbishop, it happened that a boy was snatched up from among the people, and was taught by angelic teachers the “Thrice Holy” Hymn, “Thou Holy God, Holy and Mighty One, Holy and Immortal One, have mercy upon us:” and when once more he was restored to earth, he told what he had learned, and all the people sang the Hymn, and so the threatened calamity was averted. And in the fourth holy and great Ecumenical Council (I mean the one at Chalcedon), we are told that it was in this form that the Hymn was sung; for the minutes of this holy assembly so record it.

Damascene, St. John (2010-08-08). An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (Kindle Locations 1955-1981).  Kindle Edition.

For more information, See John Sanidopoulos’s blog: The Miracle of the Trisagion (“Thrice-Holy Hymn”)

The Virgin Mary and the Creeds

The three Ecumenical Christian Creeds are a witness to the universal faith of all Christians. The three Ecumenical Christian Creeds serve to define content and boundaries of the Christian faith. Therefore any teaching that is at variance with the three Ecumenical Creeds is by definition outside the boundaries of Orthodox Christianity.

The Nicene and the Apostles Creed

The Apostles Creed

The Apostles Creed

It is common liturgical practice to confess the Creeds in the Divine Service. It is both curious and little noticed that only two persons besides Jesus himself are mentioned in the Creed: the Virgin Mary and Pontius Pilate. Both the Nicene and the Apostles Creed place these two persons back to back, in opposition as it were:

Nicene Creed

I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God, …
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.

Apostles Creed

And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord:
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried.


The creeds clearly place the conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit and the birth of our Lord of the Virgin Mary over against the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, at the hands of the fifth Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate. The only woman mentioned is honored in her obedience; the only man mentioned is dishonored for rejecting the truth and putting to death the Son of God. Thus we see the fulfillment of the Protoevangelium: for of the seed of the woman our Lord was born for the purpose of being delivered for our offenses, but raised for our justification. Thus Pilate was Satan’s instrument by which Christ’s heel was bruised; the Virgin Mary’s was God’s instrument through whose obedience the serpent’s head was crushed beneath Christ’s heel.

The creedal title “Virgin Mary” is quite interesting. In Part II we discussed the prophecy of Isaiah that a virgin would conceive, and a virgin would bear a son. The Son of God was became incarnate of the Holy Spirit by the Virgin Mary, without impacting her virginity. In like fashion the incarnate Word was born of the virgin Mary without affecting her virginity. Thus in using the title of Virgin Mary, we confess Mary to be virgin still. Every time we use the title Virgin Mary we are making a statement about the perpetual virginity of Mary, for no one is called a virgin once they cease to be a virgin.

The Athanasian Creed

The Athanasian Creed expresses the seriousness with which the church fathers treated doctrinal matters. The Athanasian Creed begins by stating: “Whoever wishes to be saved must, above all else, hold the true catholic faith. Whoever does not keep it whole and undefiled will without doubt perish for eternity.” The Trinitarian half of the Athanasian Creed ends with this statement: “Whoever whishes to be saved must think thus about the Trinity.” Then the Christological half of the Athanasian Creed begins as follows: “It is also necessary for eternal salvation that one faithfully believe that our Lord Jesus Christ became man.” The Athanasian Creed ends as it began: “This is the true Christian [in the Latin, “catholic”] faith. Unless a man believe this firmly and faithfully, he cannot be saved.” With these words, known as the “damnatory clauses”, the error of those who believe doctrine does not matter is laid bare.

The Athanasian Creed stands firmly over and against those who would separate the Word from doctrine; those who make experience the arbiter of faith; and those for whom faith is a matter of good works instead of an orthodox doctrinal confession. The Athanasian Creed clearly states that one’s salvation depends upon holding to the Christian faith, whole and undefiled. Those who fail to hold firmly and faithfully to the Christian faith, as confessed in the Creed, cannot be saved and will without doubt perish for eternity. Therefore the stakes are high. Eternal destiny is at stake, and it is therefore imperative for us to understand what the Creeds have to say.

The Athanasian Creed stands firmly over and against those who would separate the Word from doctrine; those who make experience the arbiter of faith; and those for whom faith is a matter of good works instead of an orthodox doctrinal confession. The Athanasian Creed clearly states that one’s salvation depends upon holding to the Christian faith, whole and undefiled. Those who fail to hold firmly and faithfully to the Christian faith, as confessed in the Creed, cannot be saved and will without doubt perish for eternity. Therefore the stakes are high. Our eternal destiny is at stake, and it is imperative for us to understand what exactly is confessed in the Creeds.

The Athanasian Creed was not written by Athanasius, but was instead composed around 500 AD. It seems reasonable that the use of Athanasius’ name was to honor the man who saved Christianity from the Arian heresy and maintained the faith against Julian the Apostate. The Athanasian Creed is a confession of the orthodox faith over and against Arianism[ii], Nestorianism[iii], Monophysitism[iv], and Macedonianism[v]. As previously discussed, the opening and closing lines of the Athanasian Creed proclaim its purpose: to proclaim the true Christian faith, without which a man cannot be saved. As the Athanasian Creed is primarily concerned with the proper definition of the triune God, it’s description of Christian doctrine is not as well rounded as that of the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds.


[i] The texts of the Three Ecumenical Christian Creeds are included at the end of this article.

[ii] Arianism: Jesus was a created being, and not God from God — a demigod, if you will.

[iii] Nestorianism: Jesus exists as two persons: the Son of God, and the Son of Man.

[iv] Monophysitism: The belief that Christ had only one nature, as opposed to the Chalcedonian position that Christ has both a divine and a human nature.

[v] Macedonianism: the denial of the full divinity and personhood of the Holy Spirit.