The Incomprehensible Love of the Holy Trinity

Vicente Requena, Holy Trinity (16th c.)
Vicente Requena, Holy Trinity (16th c.)

This Sunday is Trinity Sunday. Do you know what’s a good analogy for the Trinity? Nothing. God is so far beyond our ability to comprehend Him, much less to express His inner nature in human speech, that all of our attempts to do so fall miserably short.

Worse, we can get too comfortable with our analogies and images, and think that we’ve finally captured Him. It’s a subtle form of idolatry: instead of a golden calf, we’ve caught Him in a neat analogy or mental image. The history of the Church is filled with Trinitarian heresies, because the Trinity is easier to misunderstand that it is to understand.

That’s not to say that analogies and mental images can’t help, because while we can’t comprehend God, we know something about Him, because He has chosen to reveal Himself to us. When we say that God is Three Persons in One Substance, we don’t understand that Mystery fully, but we’re not just saying meaningless nonsense, either.

And it’s important that we strive to understand what we can about the Trinity. Why? Because we’re talking about the inner life of God. Our whole reason for existing is to know, love, and serve God in this world, so that we can be happy with Him in Heaven. And God has revealed Himself to us precisely so that we can know Him, even though we can never fully comprehend Him.

Here are the pieces of the puzzle that God gives us. Scripture reveals:

  • that God the Father is God;
  • that God the Son, Jesus Christ, is God;
  • that the Holy Spirit is God;
  • that these Three are Three distinct Persons; and yet that they are not three separate Gods.
  • There is only one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
  • But the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each fully God: it’s not as if they’re each 1/3rd of God.

Theologians throughout history have tried to put these pieces together, but it’s not easy. Here are a few keys to help.

First, the Trinity consists of Three Persons in One Substance. That’s the same as saying Three Persons sharing One Nature. So what’s the difference between a “Person” and a “Nature”? Basically, a person is who you are, and a nature is what you are. There’s much more that can be said on this point, but that’s the basic reality. There are Three “Who’s” in the Trinity, but only One “What.”

Second, don’t use overly physical imagery to understand God. If I give you my car, I don’t have my car anymore. But if I share my idea with you, you gain something without me losing anything. Scripture speaks of Christ as the Word of God, and we should take that seriously: God the Father eternally speaks the Word, and He “breathes out” the Holy Spirit through the Son, but He doesn’t lose any of His divinity. That’s how we can speak of each Person being fully God without needing to divide divinity into thirds.

Third, remember that God is love. Love is always bigger than one person: it’s giving yourself to another. And God does this perfectly: the Father pours out His love in begetting the Son, giving the Son everything that the Father has. Jesus says as much in this Sunday’s Gospel: “Everything that the Father has is mine.” He lovingly receives the Father’s substance without the Father loses His substance. And the fruit of this love between the Father and the Son is the Holy Spirit.

It’s this love that overflows for us and it’s this love that saves us upon the Cross. The Fourth Lateran Council explains that the Three Persons of the Trinity share both “a unity of identity in nature,” and “a union of love in grace.” We don’t share the nature of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: we are not God. But radically, we are invited to share in the union of love in grace, to let the Trinity live in our hearts, to participate in the life of God. That’s not just flowery language: that’s what the Christian life is all about.

Trinity Sunday celebrates a Mystery hard to understand, and impossible to fully comprehend, but the central reality of our faith nevertheless. It’s a reminder that God is love, Lover and Beloved, and that He invites us to participate in this eternal life of love.

6 Comments

  1. The distinction between Person and Nature is extremely important. I think it highlights one of the big issues with the miaphysite Churches – they profess that Christ the Second Person has One Nature that is both human and divine. But if Christ possesses this “blended nature” then he has a different nature than both the Father and Holy Spirit, and therefore cannot be of the same “kind” of thing as the other two Persons.

    The best discussion of this issue I have seen is St Thomas’ in Question 2 of the Third Part of the Summa, in which he connects the concept of “nature” with “nativity,” or the idea of being born of something. So the Person of Christ was born both of the Virgin Mary and “born of the Father before all ages,” thereby inheriting the “nature” of each.

    On another note, it seems so strange now that these kinds of rather arcane disputes characterized the life of the early Church, when in our own time we are more focused on the very natural and common issues of living the moral life and the meaning of marriage.

  2. Actuarius,

    Perhaps the reason why the Trinitarian and Christological controversies were such raging disturbances in the early Church was because the young Faith had to compete with the older and more entrenched pagan philosophies then existing. In those days, people were really into philosophy. The Christian God had to be presented as one that is not philosophically absurd. After all, it was pagan philosophy that contemplated on such lofty ideas as Truth, Justice, Goodness, and Beauty. That’s probably why the early Christians made sure they nailed down their definitions, axioms, and logic right. They knew it was their philosophy that fulfilled the highest aspirations of pagan philosophy.

    In contrast to our age, we now have atheists like Richard Dawkins or Lawrence Krauss who get to assert the most philosophically absurd claims, and yet their listeners loudly hoot and clap hands in adulation, instead of cringing in shame. We no longer live in an age where people believed in such things as objective truth, justice, goodness, or beauty. With each passing day, our culture becomes more aggressive in denying all these lofty ideas. This is why in trying to live a moral life these days, we now must explain why we have to, when in past ages no one had to explain why.

  3. I remember sitting in my high school physics class in 197….well….anyway our teacher was cool and brought out gadgets and one day there was a steel box on a projector cart thingy. We were discussing the nature of light that day. He went over to the box, that was plugged into the wall outlet and flipped a switch. From where i was sitting across the room a small red light apearred on the side of the box and another red dot was noticed on the wall next to me. Hmmm….then with great fanfare he got two chalk board erasers (someone tell Joe what a chalk board is ) and he smacked ’em together between the red spots and the red beam appeared . A laser. Now as I left school that day I got ‘ta think that God the Father was the red light manifestation coming out of the box and God the Son was the red spot on the wall and the Holy Spirit was made visible to be the beam between them. Three lights one energy. I skidded by in pysics and got “C’s” in religion class.

  4. My ‘analogy’ is water. It can be solid – ice. It can be vapor. It can be liquid. All three can exist at the same moment (look up the ‘triple point’ of water). But the same molecule of water cannot be liquid and ice and vapor at the same moment. However, God is not restrained by or subject to the limits of time, space, or matter.

    Another ‘analogy’ comes from mathematics: 1 x 1 x 1 = 1.

    Of course, these are imperfect analogies as we are trying to describe a Perfect Mystery.

  5. Joe,

    Concerning the statement, “the fruit of the love between the Father and the Son *is* the Holy Spirit.”

    The Orthodox would take issue with that statement because it seems to “subject” the Holy Spirit to the Father + Son, making Him less than the other Two, like He’s a “bi-product.” They saw the filioque clause to the creed as “knocking down the Holy Spirit a few steps” (that phrase was how an Orthodox sister-in-Christ iterated it.)

    What would be the Catholic reply to this notion? Thanks,
    John

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