Opening the Word: The Three in One

The Trinity has long been a stumbling block for those who would prefer God to be completely accessible to finite human reasoning.

In my experience, those who jest that Christians must not know that “one does not equal three” are rarely interested in the “how,” “why” and “what” of belief in the consubstantial Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The apologist and novelist Dorothy Sayers dryly noted that for many people the doctrine of the Trinity is: “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible and the whole thing incomprehensible.”

Just because something is difficult to comprehend hardly makes it worthy of ignoring. On the contrary, it should invite deeper reflection.

Another British apologist, G.K. Chesterton, observed that “the Religion of humanity,” attributed to French philosopher Auguste Comte, was a theory practiced by those “rationalists who worshipped corporate mankind as a Supreme Being.” Chesterton thought it odd that those who would dismiss the doctrine of the Trinity as “a mystical and even maniacal contradiction” would insist that people instead “adore a deity who is a hundred million persons in one God, neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.”

Such a secularist temptation involves a dubious faith placed in the supposedly innate divinity of mankind.

The Trinity is known through divine revelation. This doesn’t mean it is contrary to reason, but it goes beyond what limited human reason can comprehend.

Frank Sheed used the analogy of an endless museum to capture a theological mystery like the Trinity: one can go from room to room, encountering glorious beauty in each, and yet never run out of rooms. This analogy also helps us understand how the Trinity would develop over the centuries as it was articulated by early councils that convened to repute various heresies.

The acclaimed patristics scholar J.N.D. Kelly noted that while the New Testament does not contain creeds — that is, a fixed statement of beliefs — the basis for everything in the first creeds are found in the Bible. So, “the Trinitarian ground-plan obtrudes itself obstinately throughout” the Gospels and other New Testament writings, Kelly wrote.

Today’s Epistle is a good example of this fact.

In the opening verses of Romans 5, the Apostle Paul writes of God, the Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, suggesting an equality and relationship that points to the Trinity.

Likewise, and perhaps in an even more direct manner, Jesus spoke of the Father and Holy Spirit as divine persons with whom he shared a most intimate relationship.

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The Trinity is One. We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons…” Each is God, “whole and entire.” The real distinction between the three divine Persons “resides solely in the relationships which relate them to one another. ...” (Nos. 253-256). The Son is completely God, but he is not the Father or the Holy Spirit. As many have pointed out, we must not confuse “nature,” what someone is (man, God, etc.), with “person,” who someone is.

The Triune God offers divine life and love to those who believe in him (No. 257). The Trinity is not just a mystery to us, but also for us. 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.