The dogma of the Holy Trinity is a gift from God to man: it is God’s self-disclosure communicating the reality of his inner life of love.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
31 May 2018
It’s probably safe to say that nearly every Christian knows of the Holy Trinity: the eternal Godhead: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. That God is Tripersonal is the foundational doctrine of the Christian faith. The Catholic Church has professed the reality of the Trinity for two-thousand years. The word Trinity is derived from the Latin, Trinitas, which means “triad” (a group of three).
The dogma of the Holy Trinity is based on God’s self-disclosure of the secret of his interior life of loving, perfect communion, and is a matter of public divine revelation held in the Tradition of the Catholic Church and written in Sacred Scripture—albeit the word “Trinity” is absent from the Bible. Man could not conceive of this beautiful mystery by the powers of reason alone. It had to be revealed, which says a great deal of the love God holds for his children. The Creator has revealed his innermost and hidden life of supreme love and relationship as one of a Trinity of Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
God is not solitary; no, he is a plurality of three distinct persons who each totally possess one divine nature. The three divine persons do not share one nature. They own it. It is theirs, totally and completely.
Should we try to learn more about this wonderful mystery of the inner life of God? Should we try to understand it better? Yes! God has revealed this precious secret about himself out of love for humankind. It is unfortunate that there is a rather prevalent and inconsiderate habit of not thinking too deeply about the Trinity. True, the dogma can seem dauntingly confusing. It is ultimately a strict mystery. Hence, some feel it is better to simply accept it on faith and leave it alone as if, utilizing a fideistic approach, reason can have nothing to do with it. However, faith and theology build on reason; they do not begin without it nor ever do they discard it.
To love God is to seek to know him deeply. What lover would neglect knowledge of the Lover? It is God who has revealed himself to us; what does it say of us if we willfully disregard the study of the Trinity? It is much like approaching the door to a special, secret, treasure-filled room that God has himself unlocked for our own sake; yet, rather than open this door, we shrug our shoulders and disinterestedly move on.
The Trinity is, of course, a mystery which is beyond reason—not against it—and thus remains outside of full human comprehension due to the finitude of man’s intellect. But that is not reason enough to ignore this beautiful secret about God’s inner life of communion and infinite love. To gain even some dim light on the mystery of the Trinity is far better than dismissing the whole matter.
Let Us Open The Door—Even If Only Slightly
Let’s briefly explore the Triune God. True, this is a great and fascinating mystery on which an entire book could be written. Thus our goal here is simply to shed some light and clear up a few misconceptions. First, there are many symbols used in order to help us visualize the Trinity. For instance, we have all seen three circles merged together, three leaves of the same plant, or three folds of one blanket. Unfortunately, all of these provide no help whatsoever. It is necessary to purge these visual symbols from our minds and begin from another starting point—from reason based on divine revelation. We have to think in a way that leaves the imagination behind since it is only good at reproducing pictorial representations of material objects. Picture thinking is unfruitful. The Trinity cannot be understood that way.
Let’s begin with a brief definition of the dogma of the Trinity: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three distinct divine persons who are one God.
Immediately an apparent problem arises. How can there be such a thing as three persons who are all one God? If we count the Father as one, the Son as another, and the Holy Spirit as another, that adds up to three. But we say there is only one God. As Frank Sheed points out, people often protest that our Christian arithmetic is all wrong. Three does not equal one. It equals three. The question is, however, not a matter of arithmetic. In order to crack open the door and attain a glimpse of the treasure of revelation about the Trinity, it is necessary to make some distinctions.
First, when we speak of a person it is necessary to define what the person is as well as who the person is.¹ For instance, if we see John walking by, and we ask, “What is he?” the answer is that he is a human being; i.e., John’s nature is human. Our nature is what we can do. It defines our abilities and limitations. Our nature is the “what” of who we are. As an aspect of our nature, we possess an intellect and a will.
Let’s now ask, “Who is this man we see?” The answer is “John.” Who we are speaks to the person. Further, we can only ask “Who is he?” of a person; that is, it would be rather insane to look at a rock and ask, “Who is he?” A rock is a being, a creature, a created thing, but there is no “Who” to it. Its nature is rock. It possesses no personhood. So it is easy to see there are beings that are not persons.
Let’s take the subject of “being” a little further. A person, such as John, is a being (human being) who is also a person. Further, there are many human beings who are each individual persons. Is it conceivable that there could be such a thing as a being who is three persons? That, in fact, is the essence of the dogma of the Trinity: one being who is God in three divine persons. Note that, however, the three divine persons who are God are distinct (not separate) persons. It would be incorrect to say that the Father and the Son are individual persons because to do so inappropriately implies an element of division or separateness. Note too, that the analogy we are here using of human persons falls far short of expressing the relationship of the three divine persons and their nature as God. There’s an infinite difference between God and humanity.
In order to expand on our examination above of the distinction between the nature and the person of a being, let us turn our gaze to God the Father. What is the Father? He is God. We know him as the Creator of all that is visible and invisible, as we proclaim in the Nicene Creed. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). The nature and essence of the Father is God. Because the nature of the Father is God, he can do all that God can do. He possesses limitless, unrestricted power and knowledge. In fact, God is knowledge, God is Truth. God says of himself to Moses, “I am who I am” (Gen. 3:14) God is Life; God is Love; God is mercy and justice, et cetera. Yet when we ask, “Who is this God?” we answer, “The Father.” God the Father is a person—a person who is Creator and who loves us and is our Father. What the Father is, is God; who this God is as person, is Father.
The Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, is generated by the Father: “eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father,” as we profess in the Nicene Creed. It is important to bear in mind that the Son is NOT created, but rather is co-eternal, co-equal and consubstantial (of the same substance) with the Father. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1). The eternal Word of God is the Son of God.
Here we arrive at a question: What does it mean to say that the Son is generated from the Father? It is correct to say that only the Father is without origin. That is, the Son has as his origin the Father. Therefore we can see a type of relational hierarchy among the persons of the Trinity—note, however, that this does NOT mean that one divine person of the Trinity is somehow more powerful or glorious than the other. The Father is without origin and generates the Son, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son as from one principle (one substance—God). Note that it is incorrect to say that “first” the Father existed and “then” the Son because such a statement implies time and change in God, and there is no time or change in God. If God were to change, that would make him imperfect—something God cannot be. An imperfect God is no God at all. God is eternal and outside of time. Time, in fact, is a reality God himself has made.
So, the Son proceeds from the intellect of the Father by way of generation:
Of all examples which are adduced with a view to an explanation of the nature and manner of this eternal generation, that appears most nearly to approach the matter, which is taken from the intellectual activity of our soul, for which reason St. John calls the Son of God the ‘Word.’ For just as our spirit, knowing itself, produces a picture of itself, which theologians have called a ‘word’ so God also, in so far as can be compared to knowing Himself, generates the Eternal Word. Thus the generation of the Son from the Father is to be conceived purely as an intellectual generation or as an act of intellect.The Roman Catechism III, 9
Again, if we ask, “What is the Son?” the answer is God. The Son’s nature is God. “Who is he?” He is the Son: the Word eternally generated by the Father through whom “all things came to be” (Jn. 1:3).
The Son of God has as his nature God. The Son can do all that the Father does, think all that the Father thinks, know and love all that the Father knows and loves. For the nature of the Son defines what he is. His nature is God, therefore he possesses completely and wholly all the limitless and infinite powers of God. Jesus said of himself as the Son of God, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I Am” (Jn. 8:58). And, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given me” (Mt. 28:18). Further, “I and the Father are one” (Jn. 10:30).
Thus we can say the Father and the Son are two distinct—not separate—divine persons who are God.
The Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is the third Person of the Holy Trinity. The Holy Spirit is the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son (Nicene Creed). What is the Holy Spirit? He is God; his nature is God. Who is the third Person of the Holy Trinity? He is the Holy Spirit; he is a distinct, divine person. He is the love of the Father and Son personified.
Thus the Holy Spirit is in essence God and possesses infinite power, knowledge, love, etc.
The One whom the Father has sent into our hearts, the Spirit of his Son, is truly God. Consubstantial with the Father and the Son, the Spirit is inseparable from them, in both the inner life of the Trinity and his gift of love for the world. In adoring the Holy Trinity, life-giving, consubstantial, and indivisible, the Church’s faith also professes the distinction of persons. When the Father sends his Word, he always sends his Breath. In their joint mission, the Son and the Holy Spirit are distinct but inseparable. To be sure, it is Christ who is seen, the visible image of the invisible God, but it is the Spirit who reveals him.CCC, 689
The Holy Spirit is the fiery Love who proceeds from the Father and the Son. He is often referred to as Spirit, Giver of Life, Paraclete, Sanctifier; and Shaper of Human Hearts. It is important to understand that the Holy Spirit moves us, if we allow him, toward Christ and the Catholic Church. As the Divine Artisan who labors to complete a sacred task, the Holy Spirit unceasingly and with delicate love directs us along the path to eternal beatitude as sons and daughters of God.
We can see that it is entirely incorrect to say that in the Holy Trinity we have an example of three persons who are one person, or, in a similar manner, suggest that we have three Gods who are one God. It is inconceivable that three Persons can be one person or that three Gods can be one God.
What we have in the Trinity is three distinct persons who all have in common the one divine nature of God. Stated another way, God is Being who is three Divine Persons. All the Father has and can do, the Son can do also; all the infinite love of the Son is also possessed wholly and completely by the Father and the Holy Spirit. Where the Son is, there too is the Spirit and the Father since the persons of the Holy Trinity are inseparable. Yet, the Father is a distinct person from the Son as well as from the Holy Spirit. Thus we can rightly say of the relations in God that the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Father, and the Holy Spirit is not the Father nor the Son (principle of opposition of relations).
Now, we have explored the Holy Trinity only briefly, and, in doing so, we have often spoken of the Father as a divine person. But that does not mean he is an old man with a long grey beard who turns his head from side to side as he gazes down from heaven upon his creatures. God is pure spirit. The Father has no parts, no front or back or top or bottom. He does not take up space. So it is also with the Holy Spirit. We must not allow our usual way of thinking of a person as a material being taint our understanding of God.
Another distinction that must be made is that our Lord Jesus Christ is a divine person (the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Son of God) who possesses a glorified human body, including a human will and soul. Therefore we can draw further distinctions between Christ as a person and the Father as a person. Christ is true God and true man, but the Father is not true man. When we speak of the Son of God incarnate, we are speaking of the fact that the eternal Word assumed an individual human nature to himself, uniting it to his divine person, at a particular point in history. This he did in order to redeem us in an act of infinite love for humankind! Yet another mystery—one of profound and immeasurable love.
Father, all-powerful and ever-living God, we do well always and everywhere to give You thanks. We joyfully proclaim our faith in the mystery of Your Godhead. You have revealed Your Glory as the Glory also of Your Son and of the Holy Spirit: three Persons equal in Majesty, undivided in Splendor, yet one Lord, one God, ever to be adored in Your everlasting Glory. And so, with all the choirs of angels in heaven we proclaim Your Glory and join in their unending hymn of praise.Preface for Masses of the Holy Trinity, Roman Missal
¹ To explore the distinction between person and nature, or “who” in contrast to “what,” see: Frank Sheed. Theology and Sanity. Ignatius Press.
This post was updated on 31 May 2018.
Photo Credit: Peter Paul Rubens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.