One of the least discussed teachings of Christianity is the Blessed Trinity. One reason for this is that the Dogma of the Trinity is a mystery, and people don’t seem to understand just what we mean when we say that something is a mystery. People tend to think a mystery is something about which we can know nothing. Yet, this couldn’t be further from the truth!
Lately I have been reading Frank J. Sheed’s book Theology and Sanity. A good friend of mine told me years ago that Theology and Sanity is probably Frank Sheed’s greatest work. If you’ve ever read anything by Frank J. Sheed you realize just what such a comment means. As it turns out, my friend was right. Theology and Sanity has to be one of the best books I have ever read. One of the things that makes it so good is that Sheed takes such a commonsense look at the Trinity.
The Trinity, though a mystery, must be treated in a commonsense way, if we are to understand anything about it. First and foremost, we must remember that the Blessed Trinity is a mystery. We are finite beings, and God is infinite. When we talk about the Trinity, we are talking about the infinite God’s very essence. When we talk about the infinite God, we are talking about something we can not fully understand. This is because we are finite. Anything we say about God will not, technically-speaking, be accurate. Yet, it is better to speak about God, than not. If we never speak of God, then we will never learn anything about Him. So we must accept the inaccuracy of anything we say about God; while understanding that we still can catch a glimpse, as it were, of God Himself.
As I have said, the Trinity is a mystery. We should not, however, allow this fact keep us from trying to understand God better. God loves, and He will reward any true attempt to know and love Him better. With that said, let us begin our study of the Trinity. (Note that this will not be an exhaustive examination. We shall be able only to skim the surface of the Trinity here.)
The first problem many people run into when studying the Trinity (Sheed tells us) is that they approach it as mathematical problem. How can there be three Persons, but only one God? That is a mathematical impossibility, isn’t it? Three does not equal one. So there is either one God, or there are three Gods. You can’t have it both ways. There is a severe flaw in this type of thinking.
The basic problem, as Sheed tells us, is that the Trinity is not a mathematical problem. It isn’t that there are three Gods, or only one God. There is only one God, but in God there three Persons. The reason people become so confused is because they do not understand the difference between nature and personhood.
A nature is what someone is. For instance, I am a human. I have a human nature. This is what makes me a human. All other human beings have a human nature as well. Yet, their human nature differs from my own. We do not share an identical nature.
A person is who someone is. I am David Joseph Pollard. What exactly makes me who I am-the essence of personhood-is something no one can determine. What is it that makes me distinctly me, as opposed to being someone else. Since we humans are finite beings, we are subject to change in regards to our attributes. I can change everything about my physical appearance. I could be involved in a horrible accident and suffer severe brain damage. Yet, despite these changes to my attributes, I would still be me. I might not be the me people remember, but I would still be who I am. Even a name change or sex change couldn’t change that fact.
The problem is that, although every human has a human nature, each human nature differs from another. In other words, I can not think with my wife’s intellect. I can not love with her love. Yet, we both can think and love. In other words, two different humans can not share identical natures. Yet, this isn’t true of God.
In the Trinity we have three distinct Persons sharing one and the same Divine Nature. This idea taxes the understanding. Yet, our inability to grasp this concept fully does not negate the truth of this concept. A Divine Nature is perfect. Because divinity requires that one be infinite, that one must possess all good qualities infinitely. So anyone possessing a Divine Nature will be, by default, God. All three Persons possess this Divine Nature, so they are all God.
Human reason can not come to the knowledge of the Trinity on it own. This is a mystery so wonderful that it can not be grasped by the human mind. For knowledge of the Trinity, we must rely on God’s revelation. There is, however, a certain logic to the Trinity.
In the Trinity, the Divine Nature is not really shared by the three Persons. It is possessed fully by the three Persons. Each Person is completely God, while retaining their unique Personhood. Let us examine this a little more.
God the Father is God. God the Son is God. God the Holy Spirit is God. The Father, however, is not the Son or the Holy Spirit. The Son is not the Father or the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not the Father or the Son. All three, however, are God.
When we contemplate ourselves, we form an idea in our minds of ourselves. This “other self” is real simply as a concept. As soon as our mind begins to contemplate something else, this image of ourselves disappears. This was not the case with God the Father.
He is so perfect that, when He contemplated Himself, another person was brought into being. Not that the Son came after the Father. Human language has no real accurate to describe what happened. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit always existed. They existed out of sheer necessity. God has no past or future. He is eternal presence. This being the case, all three Persons of the Blessed Trinity always existed. But as humans, we are finite. In order to even talk about the Trinity we have to use finite words. Our description of how the Trinity came to be will be very imperfect, but we must talk about it. The Trinity is a unique teaching of Christianity. We must do the best we can in understanding it. So bear with me as I imperfectly describe the Trinity as I have come to understand it.
So God the Father contemplated, and is contemplating, Himself. Thus, God the Son came into being, and is coming into being. God’s thought of Himself is so powerful that it doesn’t just beget an image. He actually begat a whole other Person. Such is the power of God.
At the same time God the Father begat God the Son from mere contemplation, God the Son and God the Father began to love each other. The actual terminology originally used in the Bible to describe the Holy Spirit is “God breathed”. Think of two lovers who are very deeply in love. At times, humans can fall so deeply in love that they will let out a sigh. They “breathe” their love for each other. The same happened with God the Father and God the Son. This is why the Bible describes a “strong wind” blowing through the room where the Apostles were hiding at Pentecost. God is so full of love that He breathes it.
This what happened between God the Father and God the Son. They loved each other, and love each other, so much that this love was breathed, and is breathed. This breathing of love between the first two Persons of the Trinity is so powerful that, from this breathing of love, proceeds another Person. This is the Holy Spirit. The Greek word for “spirit” is “pneuma”. This word actually meant “breathe” in ancient Greek.
So it is that there are three distinct Persons who fully possess one and the same Divine Nature. This description of the Holy Trinity is imperfect, as any description of the Trinity and how It came to be must be. It also is far from exhaustive. Yet, it is my hope that this description has helped you, dear reader, to understand the Dogma of the Blessed Trinity a little better.
Peace in Christ,
David J. Pollard
American Catholic Solidarity