The Triune God: Father, Son & Holy Spirit

The universal catechism asserts that the most pressing revelation given by God is the truth of the Trinity. If the belief in one God signifies the foundation for “natural” religion, it is the understanding of this one God as a Trinity of Persons that makes possible “supernatural” religion. This, along with the mediation of Christ, is what distinguishes Christianity from Judaism. Nevertheless, both are true religions established by almighty God.

God has one divine nature but he is three divine Persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  These Persons are distinct and not to be confused. In no way is this to be seen as a challenge to monotheism. The tension between unity and the triune revelation constitutes a profound mystery. We seek to understand it but we believe despite having to scratch our heads— all because our Savior stipulates it is so.

Given that they all possess the same divine nature or essence, the many perfections of the deity must apply to each of the three Persons. God as a Trinity exists from all eternity. Some of the false religions distort or reject the classic understanding of the Trinity. While there is a slow movement toward increased orthodoxy, the Mormons or Latter Day Saints actually fall prey to the heresy of polytheism— viewing God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit as three gods.  Others like the Unitarians go to the other extreme and acknowledge that God is one but deny the Trinity altogether. 

While there is nothing else really like the Trinity, we can come to an enhanced appreciation by the use of analogy and by looking at the elements of multiplicity and unity in created things, especially in human beings. Every man and woman is composed of a body and a soul. The human being is not more one than the other. The body is mortal but it informs the soul. The soul animates the body. A body without a soul is a corpse, not an integral person. A soul without a body is a ghost and thus is also incomplete.  The soul itself is particular to each person and yet that soul possesses faculties of understanding (mind) and will. More than thinking meat, even memory or awareness of self is preserved in the soul. Further, while the human being shares much with the animal kingdom and with vegetative life, he is elevated above both by his rationality.  Again, we see something of a three-in-one.  

God reveals himself so that we might better know him, even if we are still clawing at the surface of the divine mystery. He does this so that we might enter into a more intimate relationship with him. It is difficult or impossible to love what one does not know. God knows us and loves us. He wants us to know and to love him in return.

A synonym for loving God, given the posture of the creature to the Creator, is “adoration.”  While on earth, we enter into that which is the eternal operation of heaven. The fact that we cannot exhaust the divine mystery should not be a stumbling block.  Little children know little about the world or the congress of men, however they can love, show affection and trust their parents.  There are many things in science which we seek to know but which still evade our grasp. We do not despair but seek to understand what we can and to grow in our appreciation of the truth.  The philosophers could reason to the existence of one God but the fact of the Trinity remains beyond their grasp. In any case, this truth is not unreasonable and is ultimately revealed by God.  Mystery cannot be equated with that which would be nonsense or contradictory.

Appealing to an analogy of the human mind and will, we can find some small insight into the Trinity.  God perfectly knows himself and all that he has created. This divine knowing is perfect or infinite.  We express what little we know with many words. God by contrast knows everything and by definition such perfect omniscience must be simple or singular, what the Scriptures call “the Word.”  The Word is with God and the Word is God.  God knowing himself effects or generates from all eternity an inward Word. Our words cannot subsist of themselves as they are the mere ruminations of creatures. Like us, they are here today and gone tomorrow. Everything is passing. This is not the case for almighty God. There is nothing accidental with God.  There is no potency and all his perfections are beyond measure. The divine self-comprehension or Word is both distinct and immediately identified with the divine nature. We call this Word the Son as it will be through this Word that God will enter his creation, reveal himself and redeem humanity. The Father generates the Son from all eternity. God perfectly knows himself.  There is nothing transient in this inner knowing— the Father and the Son exist from all eternity— indeed, God as God stands outside of time which is an element of his creation.

It must be further argued that God the Father loves himself as generated in the living Word and that this living Word or the Son returns this love. There is nothing chronological about this operation. It is immediate and permanent. Again, there is no accidental or transient quality to the inner life of the Trinity.  Human love is precious but sometimes capricious. This divine Love is infinite, perfect and subsisting of itself— identified with the divine nature and yet distinct from both the Father and the Son. This divine act proceeds or is generated by both the Father and the Son. We call him the Holy Spirit.

God knows himself as a subject and an object. He both loves himself and is loved by himself.  The Trinity is understood within these varying points of reference. However, take analogies too far and we would fall into error. As Aquinas might point out, all our efforts at understanding are only so much straw for the fire. One who would appreciate the revelation of God and theological reflection must approach such questions from the posture of a sublime humility.   

About Father Joe

Father Joe Jenkins I am the pastor of Holy Family Church and a Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC.
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