Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal

It is hard to imagine that controversy can become so engrained an attitude that even the words of hymns become the subject of polemics. But this is the case. In every Liturgy in our Orthodox services we sing the hymn of the Trisagion in one form or another, and in our Coptic Orthodox Tradition it usually has the words,

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, who was born of the Virgin, have mercy upon us.
Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, who was crucified for us, have mercy upon us.
Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, who arose from the dead and ascended into heaven, have mercy upon us.

Most of us sing this without any thought that it could be controversial. It is a Christological hymn, which unites the divine and human natures of Christ, the incarnate Word, reminding us of his divinity as God, and his experience as true man in being born of the Virgin, crucified and entering death for our sake, and rising from the dead and ascending into heaven as a man.

Nevertheless, the fact that the Eastern Orthodox have come to use the Trisagion as a Trinitarian hymn, and in a different form, has often led them to make it a means of polemics, insisting that difference means error. The Eastern Orthodox use the words,

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy upon us.
Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy upon us.
Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy upon us.

It might seem that there is little difference, other than that the Eastern Orthodox form is rather shorter. But the argument which Eastern Orthodox polemics has proposed is that since the Trisagion is a Trinitarian hymn, when our Orthodox Churches have added these extra phrases they are teaching that the divinity, the Holy Trinity, has been born, crucified, and ascended into heaven.

John of Damascus, often a useful Orthodox source, expresses this argument in his writings. In Chapter X, of Book III of his Exact Exposition of the Christian Faith he discusses the Trisagion. The chapter can be summarised as follows,

We declare that the addition which the vain-minded Peter the Fuller made to the Trisagium or “Thrice Holy” Hymn is blasphemous… as though the Holy Trinity was considered passible, and the Father and the Holy Spirit suffered on the Cross along with the Son. For we hold the words “Holy God” to refer to the Father, … the words “Holy and Mighty” we ascribe to the Son… and the words “Holy and Immortal” we attribute to the Holy Spirit. 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. 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 Œcumenical 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.

This remains, essentially, the basis of the polemics which are often directed towards our own use of this hymn. We can perhaps create some bullet points to show even more clearly the argument which John of Damascus is developing.

  1. Peter the Fuller made an addition to the Trisagion
  2. The Trisagion refers to the Holy Trinity
  3. The earlier Fathers speak of the Thrice-Holy Hymn as Trinitarian
  4. The addition makes the incarnation apply to the Holy Trinity
  5. The Hymn was first heard in Constantinople during a crisis
  6. The Hymn without additions was used at Chalcedon

We can consider these points, and some other historical evidence, to examine how much weight they are able to bear, and whether the argument has any force. The aim is not to produce a polemics on the others side, as though our Orthodox use were the only possible one, and that the Eastern Orthodox are in error. Far from it. Rather it will become clear that  a variety of uses, each with its own theological integrity is both possible, and reflects the facts of history.

There are several different traditions which propose the origin of the Trisagion hymn. The Eastern Orthodox tradition is that during an earthquake in Constantinople, at the time of the Patriarch Proclus (434-446 AD), the people were gathered together in prayer and a child was lifted up above the crowd, and heard the hymn being sung. Exhorting the congregation to cry out, “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal”, the crisis was averted. This tradition with all of these details is first reported in one of the letters forged by a group of Nestorian sympathising monks in Constantinople in 512 AD.

The tradition in the Coptic Orthodox Church is represented in the Hymn known as Golgotha, which is sung on Good Friday, and which says,

The righteous Joseph and Nicodemus came and took away the Body of Christ, wound it in linen cloths with spices, and put it in a sepulchre and praised Him saying: “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, who was crucified for us, have mercy on us.

And this tradition is expressed in the account that as Sts Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were burying the Lord, “doubts entered their minds concerning His Divinity. Suddenly, a choir of angels appeared to them singing defiantly, “Holy God, Holy mighty, Holy immortal.”  The two righteous men realizing their error,  joined in the singing, and then as if to confess their sin and to ask for mercy and forgiveness, they added to the angelic hymn the phrase, “O Thou Who was crucified for us have mercy on us.”

The Syrian Orthodox also hold to this origin, and it is found described in the writings of Moses Bar Kepha written before 903 AD. In his account he also records that it was considered that St Ignatius of Antioch (+107 AD) had heard this hymn when he had been caught up to heaven in prayerful ecstasy, and that he had heard the angels singing antiphonally and so had instituted this hymn and this form of singing it in the Church of Antioch. Moses Bar Kepha also mentions the very long poetic sermon by Isaac of Antioch (5th century) about a parrot which sang the Trisagion with the addition of “who was crucified for us”.

What are we to say? Such legendary origins of matters which become subject to polemical discourse are always rather problematic. Neither account really provides a solution. If the Eastern Orthodox wish to insist that their form of the Trisagion has heavenly sanction from the middle of the 5th century, then our own Orthodox tradition allows us to associate the origin of the Trisagion, in the form that we use it, to the 1st century, and to the very moment of the burial of Christ.

We do find, in the Syriac Chronicle of (Pseudo-)Zachariah of Mitylene, in Book 7, Chapter 9, an historical account of the Trisagion which predates the Chalcedonian tradition and which speaks of a certain Marinus, a friend of the Emperor Anastasius, saying of him,

And accordingly, as he was from the district of Antioch, all of which ever since the days of Eustathius the bishop had been so full of zeal that it was the first to proclaim,”Who was crucified for us,” he also vehemently urged and advised King Anastasius to do the same.

And when some heretics heard of his ardour, they went to him together, and said to him, “You desire and incite men on earth to go beyond the holy hymn of praise which the angels offer to the Trinity, saying, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, mighty Lord, of whose praises heaven and earth are full.'”

Immediately, God the Word Himself, Who in the flesh was crucified for us men, prepared a defence in his mouth to this effect, “The angels, indeed, offer the hymn of praise, which contains their confession to the adorable and co-equal Trinity, rightly, and do not proclaim that He was crucified for them; but we, on the other hand, in the hymn of praise, which contains our confession, rightly say that He was crucified for us men, for He became incarnate from us, and did not invest Himself with the nature of angels.” And so he put them to silence, and he instructed the king, who thereupon commanded that the words, “Who was crucified for us,” should be proclaimed in the royal city as in the district of Antioch. And at the same time a wonderful sign occurred, proving to wise men that Christ, Who was crucified in the flesh at Jerusalem, was God; namely, an eclipse of the sun, which took place in those days, and produced darkness from the sixth hour unto the ninth hour.

I have divided this passage into three to make clear the different points which are being made. In the first place, we see that the addition to the Trisagion was first made in Antioch and in the period of the Patrarchate of Eustathius (324-331 AD). Eustathius was a vigorous opponent of Arianism and the addition to the Trisagion, which must have been in use in Antioch before this time, was intended to reinforce the Orthodox teaching that the one who is crucified is indeed the Holy God. This clearly shows that in Antioch, from a period more than 100 years before the Eastern Orthodox tradition of its origin, it was already in use as a Christological hymn, and with an appropriate and Orthodox Christological addition.

In the second place we see that the argument is made that the hymn is addressed to the Holy Trinity, and is the Holy, Holy, Holy of the angels. It is implied that this means that any addition to the hymn, and its use in a Christological context is therefore un-Scriptural and inappropriate.

The response to this criticism is provided by Marinus, who insists that the angelic hymn is not the same as the Trisagion, since the angels address their praise, properly, to the Holy Trinity, while it is men alone who are able to offer praise to the incarnate Word since he became man, and was crucified, only for our sake. It is not necessary to accept this logic, although it clearly represents our Orthodox point of view. But it does mean that when we read St Athanasius and the other Fathers speaking of the angelic hymn, the Holy, Holy, Holy, being addressed to the Holy Trinity, as all agree, it does not at all mean that the hymn of the Trisagion, which is not the same hymn, but is our own hymn, should not be addressed to Christ, the Word Incarnate. And if it is addressed to Christ, then he is indeed God and mighty and immortal, and is also born, crucified, risen and ascended for us. None of this is theologically controversial at all.

Certainly, in about 470 AD, Peter the Fuller, the Patriarch of Antioch, seems to have introduced the phrase, “who was crucified for us”, in some sense. But we have seen that it was already in use, therefore the report of his addition might mean that it was introduced at this time into some liturgical use. Taft, the liturgical scholar, notes that the Trisagion has the form of a processional hymn, and believes it was introduced into the Constantinopolitan use for such a purpose. Since the Trisagion was already known in Antioch 140 years before the time of Peter the Fuller, his association with it might mean no more than that he introduced it into some new use, or re-established it after it had been modified to remove the additional phrase.

One thing is clear, he was using it in a Christological sense, in accordance with the established Antiochian tradition, and therefore the Christological addition is entirely Orthodox and theologically consistent. How can we say this? It is because the contemporary Chalcedonian Patriarch, Calandion, who also held the See of Antioch, was perfectly able to use the Trisagion as a Christological hymn and with a Christological addition. It was he who instructed that it be used in the form,

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, Christ the King, who was crucified for us, have mercy upon us.

We can see that a Chalcedonian in Antioch was able to use the Trisagion as a Christological hymn, and make his own additions to it, at the same time as a non-Chalcedonian was using the Trisagion as a Christological hymn with a similar addition. And in Antioch, at the time of the Chalcedonian Ephraim of Amida, (c. 545 AD) he writes that the Trisagion is used there with the Christological addition as a hymn to Christ, while in Constantinople the addition is rejected and it is used as a hymn to the Holy Trinity. Indeed, he states that it is permissible to use the hymn as addressed to Christ and with the additional phrase.

More than that, the Maronites, a Chalcedonian community in the Middle East, now in communion with Rome, continue to use the Trisagion as a Christological hymn with the Christological addition. And if we turn to the Chalcedonian West we find the same acceptance of the Trisagion as a Christological hymn. Bishop Avitus of Vienne, modern Lyons in France, wrote to the Burgundian King in about 512 AD saying that the text of the Trisagion is well know to the King, and has the form,

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, who was crucified for us, have mercy on us.

It is clear that an important bishop in the West, sometimes acting even as Papal Vicar, had no problem in accepting both the Council of Chalcedon, and the Christological Trisagion with the Christological additions. More than that, in the same diocese of Vienne, a generation before, under Bishop Mamertus (+ 475 AD), the hymns used during the Rogation processions, introduced in the Church by Bishop Mamertus himself, included the hymn,

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.

And it would appear that in the diocese of Autun at this time, the central musical item in the mass was the Christological Trisagion with the Christological additions, until suppressed by the Carolingians in their modification of the Mass.

These seem to be enough examples to show that the Christological Trisagion was used well before its proposed origins as a Trintarian hymn in Constantinople, and that as a  Christological hymn it was used by Chalcedonians in the East and West without controversy, and was described by Chalcedonian sources as being permissible in both a Trinitarian and Christological form. Nevertheless it needs to be shown that the non-Chalcedonians also meant to use it in a Christological sense.

Moses Bar Kepha says,

We say that it is addressed to the Son, and so to the self-same Son, who because of us, and for us, became man and was crucified, we say, Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, who was crucified for us, have mercy on us.

This is not an accidental reference but forms part of a sustained argument about the Trisagion. It is clear that in the 9th century the Trisagion was explictly used in a Christological manner. Dionysius Bar Salibi, writing in the 12th century, says,

We Syrians, with the Armenians, the Egyptians, the Abyssinians, the Nubians, and the Indians, refer the Trisagion to the Son.

Again, Dionyisus Bar Salibi was one of the great figures of the Syrian Orthodox Church in his time. His view represent the settled opinion of the non-Chalcedonian community. And in Egypt, a collection of hymns written on scraps of leather and sherds of pottery from the 7th century contain Christological uses of the Trisagion in poetry such as this,

For the Lord of All
Submitted to suffering
YOU WHO WERE CRUCIFIED FOR US
HAVE MERCY ON US

Where does this leave us when we consider the points made by John of Damascus in his argument? Again, the object is not to suggest that the Trinitarian use is improper. But his argument lacks any weight and is essentially a matter of polemics. Those points were,

  • Peter the Fuller made an addition to the Trisagion
  • The Trisagion refers to the Holy Trinity
  • The earlier Fathers speak of the Thrice-Holy Hymn as Trinitarian
  • The addition makes the incarnation apply to the Holy Trinity
  • The Hymn was first heard in Constantinople during a crisis
  • The Hymn without additions was used at Chalcedon

In fact the addition to the Trisagion seems to have been there from the beginning in Antioch, and it seems that according to liturgical scholars, Peter the Fuller was introducing it into the Liturgy for processional use for the first time, rather than making any modification to its text. Just as it had been introduced into the Liturgy in Constantinople for the first time some decades before.

The Trisagion does not necessarily refer to the Holy Trinity, there have always been different understandings and uses of this text. It was in Constantinople that it had an especially Trinitarian meaning, but in Antioch, Alexandria and parts of the West it was used as a Christological hymn, and it is still used as a Christological hymn by some Chalcedonians. The earlier Fathers did comment on the angelic, Holy, Holy, Holy, but there is no need to understand this as being the same hymn as the Trisagion, indeed there are perfectly reasonable explanations why it is not the same hymn, one being that of the angels addressing the Trinity, and the other the prayer of men, who alone can praise the crucified one, and ask for his mercy.

There is no reason at all to conclude that the addition applies to the Holy Trinity, indeed the use of this addition by Chalcedonians, and the very clear insistence that it does not refer to the Holy Trinity, but to the Word of God incarnate, makes this argument empty. Neither at the time of Peter the Fuller, nor in the following centuries, nor in the present, do any of the non-Chalcedonians attribute the phrase, was crucified for us, to the Holy Trinity.

The hymn was certainly not first heard in Constantinople. Perhaps it was indeed introduced there in the 5th century, but it had already been known for 100 years in Antioch before he earthquake that later Eastern Orthodox hagiography links with the origin of the hymn. And if we are to rely on hagiography, then the non-Chalcedonian origin account, presented as part of the burial of the Lord Jesus, predates the Constantinopolitan tradition by 400 years.

And the last point? It is not true that the hymn was used at Chalcedon. The authoritative translation of the Acts of Chalcedon by Richard Price describe the crowd of bishops all shouting out at the end of the first session. Pope St Dioscorus has just been arrested by soldiers, and in the chaos the less important bishops, as was the custom at the time, wanted to make their agreement known, and some of their earnest cries are recorded,

The most devout Oriental bishops and those with them said: Many years to the senate! Holy God, Holy Almighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us. Many years to the emperors! The impious are always routed; Christ has deposed Dioscorus. Christ has deposed the murderer. This is a just sentence. This is a just council. This is a holy council. The senate is just, the council is just. God has avenged the martyrs.

The Oriental bishops are those from Antioch and beyond. They clearly did not burst into song. But one of them, joining in with the other shouting bishops and their supporters, cries out,

Holy God, Holy Almighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.

This tell us little, other than that someone there used this form. And that is not unexpected. It was used in this form. But it is certainly not a formal acceptance of this form, and most certainly not an acceptance of this form to the exclusion of any other. We have already seen than many Chalcedonians after Chalcedon were happy to continue to use the Christological Trisagion.

The Chalcedonian Council in Trullo (692 AD) says…

Canon LXXXI.

Whereas we have heard that in some places in the hymn Trisagion there is added after “Holy and Immortal,” “Who was crucified for us, have mercy upon us,” and since this as being alien to piety was by the ancient and holy Fathers cast out of the hymn, as also the violent heretics who inserted these new words were cast out of the Church; we also, confirming the things which were formerly piously established by our holy Fathers, anathematize those who after this present decree allow in church this or any other addition to the most sacred hymn; but if indeed he who has transgressed is of the sacerdotal order, we command that he be deprived of his priestly dignity, but if he be a layman or monk let him be cut off.

Yet it clearly is NOT alien to piety. This is revisionism. It is reading a particular narrow view back into history and trying to present the actual diversity that existed as something which had never been present. By the end of the 7th century the Constantinopolitan use had gained the ascendancy in the Chalcedonian Church. But the council describes a situation that had never existed.

John of Damascus, writing a little after this council, expresses the same revisionism when he says,

He who restricts the Trisagion hymn to a single Person of the Holy Trinity shares in the vulgar stupidity of the Fuller, and contributes to the outrage evilly introduced by the Fuller to destroy everyone utterly.

This is manifestly false. He condemns, rather thoughtlessly, the generations of Chalcedonians who had used it in this way, as well as the generations who had used it as a Christological hymn before Chalcedon. There is, theologically, no objection to addressing the hymn to Christ, in which sense the additions are entirely appropriate. Just as there is. theologically, not objection to addressing the hymn to the Holy Trinity without the additions. But the simplistic arguments which polemics reduce us to, always require that actual history and real facts, be manipulated and subject to revisionism.

Our own Orthodox practice represents an ancient use of this hymn in a Christological sense that predates Chalcedon by more than 100 years. The practice of Constantinople is also acceptable and Orthodox. We have no need to insist on one use over the other, just as in the past there was no need to make such an absolute choice. The Trisagion is properly addressed to the Holy Trinity in one form, and to Christ in the other, and an Orthodox Christian may use either, understanding the context, without error. John of Damascus, so useful when writing on many other topics, is entirely and completely wrong when he writes about the Trisagion, and his argument has no weight at all, it is a straw man. It would be commendable for the Eastern Orthodox to formally recognise this.

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