On the Trinity

Saturday, May 03, 2003



Here is post that the conservatives may enjoy. Out here in cyberland, we Catholics and other Christians are often questioned on the Trinity. The questions tend to fall in different categories. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, Oneness Pentecostals and so forth tend to want to know where the Trinity is supported by Scripture. Then there are those who are simply more interested in trying to apprehend the basic idea that there are three persons in one God. Finally, there are simply Catholics out here who want to grow in their faith.

My fellow progressive Catholics will likely want to fault me for "proof-texting" with the Scriptures. I accept this critique to some extent, especially in demonstrating that the doctrine of the Trinity may have been implicit in the Old Testament. In the New Testament passages I will site, I believe that an exegetical reading can lead to rudimentary Trinitarian belief.

My response to the charge of "proof-texting" is that Scripture is layered with meaning, and while I may not be providing the literal sense most likely intended by the author in each and every text below, the Church has always accepted that an infinite God can pour more than one meaning in the pages of Scripture. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (see paragraph 117) points out that there are allegorical, moral, and anagogic meanings in Scripture. Furthermore, the reading of the texts in history forms a Sacred Tradition as doctrines are defined through the successors of the Apostles using their magisterium. So long as we are not directly contradicting the literal meaning intended by the author, these layers of meaning are acceptable. In this sense, demonstrating that the Trinity is implicit in Scripture is adequate to meet the charge that it is not in Scripture at all.

So, without further ado, let’s reflect a bit on the Trinity.

In speaking of the Trinity, we are discussing a mystery. However, to call something a mystery does not mean we cannot gain any understanding of the issue. Nor does it mean that something is simply hard to understand. Nor does it mean that a concept is irrational.

Rather, a mystery is something like love, freedom, or infinity. We apprehend mystery without ever fully comprehending mystery. Indeed, if we could comprehend the mystery of God, we would have to be infinite ourselves. Mystery invites us to explore infinite depths and horizons, but we catch glimmers of the whole, and these glimmers prevent becoming lost. Mystery is a concept that we apprehend and can explore all our lives, constantly gaining new understanding as we meditate upon it further. It is like a multifaceted gem that appears different with each angle of light striking it.

In speaking about the mystery of the Trinity, we need to define our terms a bit in order to be sure we understand the mystery in the same sense communicated person to person through the tradtion of the Church. There are 4 essential terms:

1) Being = Substance, nature, or essence. This term answers the question "What?"

2) Person = An identity formed and completed on the basis of a relationship. This term answers the question "Who?"

3) Will = The Church uses a greek word, "phystis" meaning 'principle of action' or 'will'.

4) Subsistent being = this is a little hard to describe, but it is a nature that rest upon another nature. Sort of like white subsist as a being on the deeper being of paper.

In God, there is one "Being" and one "will". Yet, there are three persons. How can this be?

To my father, I am the person of son. That's WHO I am to him. To my wife, I am the person of husband. Yet, I am not husband to my father, nor son to my spouse. I am two persons in one being, and I have one will.

There is absolutely no inherent logical contradiction in the language of the Trinity, because there is no confusion of philosophical categories. Where people see an apparent contradiction, it is usually because they confuse the term “person” with the term “being”.

The Trinity is three persons revealed to humanity. God the Father is the transcendent one who watches over us and protects us, as any good father would. The Word is the human face of God, the divine as human, and the human as divine walking among us as a brother. The Spirit is God dwelling within us. In this sense, each “person” of the Trinity is a mode of God’s self revelation to humanity – but we will need to avoid modalism, as I will demonstrate further below.

Catholic theology, based on the Bible, goes a bit further than modalism. God is beyond our comprehension, and the doctrine of the Trinity is a constant reminder of this. In what I have said above, I have described who God is for us. However, the doctrine of the Trinity also says who God is in himself.

The New Testament clearly points out five essential truths (when explaining this to Muslims, I use the analogy of the five pillars):

1. There is one God:
2. The Father is God.
3. Jesus is God.
4. The Holy Spirit is God.
5. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are eternally distinct.

Let’s look at each pillar Scripturally:

There is only one God:
· “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.” {Deuteronomy 6:4}
· “Indeed, even though there are so-called gods in heaven and on earth (there are, to be sure, many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is one God, the Father, through whom all things exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things are and through whom we exist.” {1 Corinthians 8:5-6}
· “I am the Lord and there is no other, there is no God besides me. It is I who arm you, though you know me not, so that toward the rising of the sun people may know that there is none besides me. I am the Lord, there is no other; I form the light, and create the darkness, I make well being and create woe; I the Lord do all these things.” {Isaiah 45:5-6}
· “But’ Moses said to God, ‘when I go to the Isrealites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you” if they ask me, “What is his name?” what am I to tell them?’ God replied, ‘I am who am.’ Then he added , ‘This is what you shall tell the Isrealites: I AM sent me to you.” {Exodus 3:13-14}
· “I, the Lord, am you God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery. You shall have no other gods besides me.” {Exodus 20:2}

The Father is God.
· “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you who by the power of God are safeguarded through faith, to a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the final time.” {1 Peter 1:3-5}
· “You should not be working for perishable food, but for food that remains untp life eternal, food which the Son of Man will give you; it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” {John 6:27}
· “In truth and love, then, we shall have grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son.” {2 John 1:3}

Jesus is God.
· “Of the angels he says: “He makes his angels winds and ministers of a fiery flame”; but of the Son: “Your throne, O God, stands forever and ever; and a righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom.” {Hebrews 1:7-8}
· “So the Jews said to him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old and you have seen Abraham?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be I AM.” {John 8:57-58 – This is a direct reference to God’s name in Isaiah 43: 25 of the Greek Septuagint version of the Old testament}
· “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” {John 1:1}
· “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.” {John 1:14}
· “Then he (Jesus) said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.’ Thomas answered and said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!” {John 20:27-28}
· “Do not be afraid. I am the first and the last, the one who lives. I once was dead, but now I am alive forever and ever. I hold the keys to death and the netherworld.” {Revelation 1:17-18 – This passage clearly refers to God’s name as the first and last in Isaiah 44: 6}
· “Behold, I am coming soon. I bring with me the recompense I will give to each according to his deeds. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” {Revelation 22:12-13}

The Holy Spirit is God
· “But Peter said, ‘Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart so that you lied to the Holy Spirit and retained a part of the price of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain yours? And when it was sold, was it still not under your control? Why did you contrive this deed? You have lied not to human beings, but to God.” {Acts 5:3-4}
· “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” {2 Corinthians 3:17}

The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are eternally distinct.
· Jesus prays to the Father: “In the days when he was in the flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, declared by God high priest according to the order of Melchizedek” {Hebrews 5:7-10}
· The Father sends Jesus: When Jesus had said this, he raised his eyes to heaven and said, "Father, the hour has come. Give glory to your son, so that your son may glorify you, just as you gave him authority over all people, so that he may give eternal life to all you gave him. Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ. {John 17: 1-3}
· The Father sends the Spirit: “When the Advocate comes whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth that proceeds from the Father, he will testify to me.” {John 15:26}
· Jesus is lead by the Spirit: “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.”
· Jesus is conceived by the Spirit: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.” {Matthew 1: 20}
Jesus sends the Spirit: “Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the holy Spirit” {John 20: 21-22}
The Father answers Jesus’ prayers: “And Jesus raised his eyes and said, "Father, I thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me; but because of the crowd here I have said this, that they may believe that you sent me." {John 11: 41-42}

The Trinity is alluded to explicitly in New Testament Scripture:

“I have told you this while I am with you. The Advocate, the Holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name – he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” {John 14:25-26}

“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” {Matthew 28:19 – note the singular ‘name’ for the three persons of the Trinity}

“After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also was baptized and was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with whom I am well pleased.” {Luke 3:21-22}

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” {2 Corinthians 13:13}

“But you, beloved, build yourselves up in your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit. Keep yourselves in the love of God and wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.” {Jude 1:20-21}

The Trinity is implied in the Old Testament:
“The Lord appeared to Abraham by the terebinth of Mamre, as he sat in the entrance of his tent, while the day was growing hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing nearby.” {Genesis 18:1-2}

“Then God said, ‘Let us make humanity in our image, after our likeness.” {Genesis 1:26}

“The Lord said to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand till I make your enemies your foot-stool” {Psalm 110:1}

“Where can I go from your Spirit? From your presence, where can I flee?” {Psalm 139:7}

“A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me. Cast me not from your presence, and your Holy Spirit take not from me.” {Psalm 51:12-13}

I can provide a couple more Bible verses to support each of these "pillars" if you'd like. The actual word "Trinity" is not in the Bible, and is simply a way of codifying what the Bible teaches about God in a single word or concept. These verses are good to know if you're talking to a Mormon, Oneness Pentecostal, Jehovah's Witness, or Muslim, etc...

We can understand the first four “pillars” of the Trinity pretty easily, and many are tempted to stop there, seeing the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as three modes or three manifestations or three personalities of the one God. This is actually a misunderstanding called modalism.

It is impossible to fully comprehend the self-consciousness of God in statement (or pillar) number five. This statement says that the distinction in persons. Note that a distinction does not necessitate a separation in being. I can distinguish myself as husband and son without separating my nature.

The distinction of persons in God is a distinction within God himself, and not just in his mode of operating and relating with us. The identity formed and completed on the basis of relationship is formed for each person of the Trinity by their relation to one another.

I have been challenged by fellow Catholics (usually conservatives) who think of each person of the Trinity as an individual “being” and who state that the way I am defining person is not fully in accord with the Church. Let’s turn for just a moment to The Catechism of the Catholic Church to look at this issue:

251 In order to articulate the dogma of the Trinity, the Church had to develop her own terminology with the help of certain notions of philosophical origin: "substance", "person" or "hypostasis", "relation" and so on. In doing this, she did not submit the faith to human wisdom, but gave a new and unprecedented meaning to these terms, which from then on would be used to signify an ineffable mystery, "infinitely beyond all that we can humanly understand".82

252 The Church uses (I) the term "substance" (rendered also at times by "essence" or "nature" ) to designate the divine being in its unity, (II) the term "person" or "hypostasis" to designate the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the real distinction among them, and (III) the term "relation" to designate the fact that their distinction lies in the relationship of each to the others.

...and further on:

255 The divine persons are relative to one another. Because it does not divide the divine unity, the real distinction of the persons from one another resides solely in the relationships which relate them to one another: "In the relational names of the persons the Father is related to the Son, the Son to the Father, and the Holy Spirit to both. While they are called three persons in view of their relations, we believe in one nature or substance."89 Indeed "everything (in them) is one where there is no opposition of relationship."90 "Because of that unity the Father is wholly in the Son and wholly in the Holy Spirit; the Son is wholly in the Father and wholly in the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit is wholly in the Father and wholly in the Son."91

I once speculated in a dialogue with conservatives that if the Holy Spirit is the love between the Father and Son, we could argue that the Father becomes the Father in the act of eternal self emptying into the Son from the infinite being of God – eternal begetting like heat from a flame. The Son becomes incarnate in the very instant of the eternal act and creation springs out through him so that even the history of the world before Christ comes through Christ. On the cross, Christ offers himself eternally and infinitely back to the Father and the Holy Spirit spirates out of the this act of total self giving between the Father and the Son like a nuclear explosion. In a very real sense, we are all held in existence by the Holy Spirit.

We can apprehend the Trinity in Scripture, but we cannot fully comprehend it. The Trinity is a constant reminder to Christians that God is beyond full human understanding. Indeed, Scripture also reminds us of the incomprehensibility of God by applying female metaphors to the one true God, such as calling God motherly in Isaiah 66: 13 and calling the Holy Spirit “Hokmah” or “Sophia” in the books of Proverbs and Wisdom, and then applying this female image to Christ in 1 Cor 1: 24.

Yet, despite this incomprehensibility of God, there are some important truths we can glean even from the mystery of statement number five regarding the eternal distinction of persons.

The Bible tells us that we image God as male and female in our relationships. God is community in his very nature! We image God most in loving other people.

When God became flesh in Jesus Christ, he became fully human. The being of God and a human nature or being were joined as one "subsistent being" in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus had the divine will, and a human will, which were perfectly united.

As fully human, Jesus prayed to the Father, just like us. The personhood of Christ is based on the relationship to the Father as Son. But since Christ is also God in being, as well as human, we know that this is an eternal relationship.

Each person of the Trinity derives his personhood, not only in relation to humanity, but in relation to the other persons of the Trinity.

In the Bible, the persons of the Trinity relate to each other by the Father loving the Son, the Son praying to the Father, the Holy Spirit glorifying the Father and leading the Son, and both the Father and the Son sending the Spirit. These relations will always be a bit of a mystery to us.

However, these mysterious truths are most fundamentally answers to the question that Jesus asked Peter and the Twelve: "Who do you say that I am?"

The Trinity is ultimately the Catholic response to this question...

If interested in further reading, you may wish to explore Is Jesus a Human Person? or Is Jesus God?.

Peace and Blessings!


Readers may contact me at jcecil3@attglobal.net

posted by Jcecil3 6:20 AM

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