THE HOLY TRINITY: MYSTERY OF MYSTERIES
St. Bonaventure tells us that philosophy ends where theology begins. By this he means that the study of what exists: being, concludes with the recognition of the existence of God from whom all other being comes via creation and to whom the entire created universe is destined as to a goal. But God differs from his creation as the measureless or infinite differs from and transcends the measurable or finite. God then is infinite by nature, immense, majestic, eternal, unchangeable and simply first, existence itself. And for this reason what it means to be infinite by nature is beyond the range of our reason. To be a theologian for us means to have access to the study of God via a more perfect source and more perfect mode of knowing: revelation and faith. Without such revelation and faith we could never know what it means concretely to be infinite in nature or divine; or know in what consists the happiness which is our goal in life, or how to attain it. The questions of the rich young man in the Gospel (cf. Mt 19: 16 ff.) reflect just this concern. Theology in the strict sense begins therefore with the study of God as he is in himself, and on the basis of this study all the rest of creation as this may fit into the divine plan of salvation for men and angels.
Has such a revelation been given us? The answer is yes, in part in the Old Testament and fully with the Incarnation of Our Lord and Savior, the Son of God become the Son of Mary. Who recognizes Jesus by faith as the Son of God recognizes God the Father: there cannot be a Son without a Father, yet there is but one God. Nor could the unity of Father and Son from all eternity and their co-equality be recognized without acknowledging the Holy Spirit who is their bond of love from all eternity and by whom in time the Son is virginally conceived by Mary. Yet the unity of Father and Son in the Spirit is that of one God. In effect the three divine Persons are really distinct as are all persons, but perfectly distinct without being separate and outside each other. Each is identical with the one divine nature without ceasing to be really distinct as persons related to each other in the unity and communion of that all good nature. In a word: the infinite God is one because triune and triune because one.
This is the mystery of mysteries, one whose existence we cannot demonstrate and even when revealed can only be understood in part and then never by ceasing to believe and critiquing every insight by a proposition known only by faith in this life. From the very beginning of the Gospel at the Annunciation (cf. Lk 1: 26-38), from the very beginning of theological reflection (cf. Jn 1: 1-34) the mystery of the Trinity has been explicitly set forth as center of the good news and ground of its elucidation, as it has been basis for living faith in the Incarnation in anticipation of the promised bliss of heaven (cf. Mt 28: 19-20). It is this doctrine which has been given dogmatic formulation by the Church, especially in the Councils of Nicea I (325 AD) and Constantinople I (381 AD), and publicly professed every Sunday at Mass in the Creed.
The core of the difficulty in accepting the doctrine of the Trinity as credible, as not a total contradiction in terms, can be simply summarized: how can three things (the divine Persons) be identical with the same thing (the infinite divine nature) and not be really simply one. Across the centuries Unitarians (known also as Sabellians, Modalists in past ages) on the basis of this objection claim God is simply one, the persons being mere different names for an impersonal life force. At the opposite extreme polytheists on the basis of the same objection claim the three divine persons are there gods. The fact is Catholic theologians, for instance like St. Augustine in his study On the Trinity and Bl. Cardinal John H. Newman in his Grammar of Assent, show how on the basis of processions and subsistent relations of the divine Persons the Trinity is not a contradiction in terms. But neither can it be understood apart from revelations which are non-demonstrable.
In a word, considerations such as those based on an analysis of knowing in terms of “begetting a word”: the Son who is a word or image (idea in Greek) of the Father is that precisely because in knowing himself the Father begets a word who is his image, do so not because our prior grasp of what it means to know enables us to perceive the Trinity, but only because in believing the revelation of God culminating in the Incarnation we come to understand fully what it means to know. Similarly we often hear explanations based on the character of perfect love as generous giving, what in past times was love described as self-diffusive. But that such generosity as naturally known by us requires that the Father beget a Son and the Father and the Son love each other as one in loving the Holy Spirit, depends first on believing the Trinity and continuing to believe as we begin to realize in part what it means to love and to love perfectly.
St Bonaventure in his Conferences on the Hexaemeron, conference 11, has given us a very handy catalogue of different types of partial explanations of what this mystery of mysteries is all about. He divides these into two categories. The first he calls “proper” explanations, based on perfections found both in God and in those creatures which are personal. In finite persons, such as ourselves, such perfections as knowledge and love are limited, but as perfections knowledge and love may also be infinite, without limitation. What this means, however, is only evident when first we believe in the mystery of the Godhead: one spiritual nature because three persons and three persons because one spiritual nature; perfect distinct personhood and perfect communion, without separation or being without each other. In this sense the structure of our souls is a partial reflection of the Trinity: one soul, yet three formally distinct powers, memory, intellect and will, each the full expression in its own way of the simple spiritual power of the soul. There is, however, one major difference: in the Trinity the three powers are identical with the one nature, but explain up to a point how the three Persons come to be really distinct.
Some in the past and today like to speak “properly” of the Trinity as a super family, as a kind of perfect society, in which the father represents God the Father, the wife God the Holy Spirit and the child God the Son. Nowhere is this so true as in the Holy Family where the Child of children is literally the Son of God, the Virgin Mother is spouse of the Holy Spirit by whom this Child is virginally conceived and St. Joseph represents the heavenly Father. These reflections can be helpful, but it must be remembered that it is not the family which is reflected in the Trinity or “properly” found there, such as knowledge and love. Rather, vice versa some aspects of the Trinity are reflected, and only partially at that, in the family and other forms of human society. In other respects there are major differences. A far better way to approach the so-called “social dimensions” of the Trinity is by way of incorporation into the Church, the Body of Christ, the second divine Person and the consequent sharing in the life of the triune God as St. Peter in his second letter, chapter one, verse four mentions. One can also relate the Trinitarian dimension of incorporation into the Church as Body of Christ to the invocation of the Trinity in the formula of Baptism required since the beginning of the Church (cf. Mt 28: 19-20).
The other kind of partial explanation, like that of the family, is the metaphorical. There are many such metaphorical explanations, called such because the reflections of the Trinity in most creatures other than the spiritual or personal creature are not formally as such found in God, but only in some mysterious “eminent” way which transcends as St. Bonaventure says the reflection in the creature. The Irish shamrock is one of these. Here are others listed by St. Bonaventure, such as examples from diffusion to illustrate the eternal generation of the Son: splendor from light (splendor diffused by light, yet lacking equality with light); heat from fire (diffused, but lacking intimacy); a river from its source (diffused, yet with parts, not simply and totally diffused at once as with the begetting of the Word by the Father); rain from a cloud (diffusion not of whole at once, but drop by drop). Today psychological rather than physical examples of such diffusion are preferred, yet not without telling differences, such as lack of simultaneity, eternity, totality without loss of personal distinction. These examples are weak reflections, but they do serve to call our attention to characteristics of the divine processions and subsisting personal relations absolutely unique and impossible to recognize except by believing.
What is the importance of study of the Trinity? According to St. Bonaventure there is no study so important and fruitful as that of theology, because it is this study which enables us to recognize our dignity and images and likenesses of God and how we can come to that bliss beyond anything we can even imagine as possible. More precisely, theology is impossible unless we can know God first as starting point of understanding all else outside of God. And this God is concretely the one and triune God. Many will object today in a world governed by pragmatism and utilitarianism: what is good and true is what is good and true and useful to me. God is irrelevant to a world come of age. It is this mentality: only what is useful to my self-promotion is good, which the Holy Father Benedict XVI described as the tyranny of relativism. True joy consists in enjoying goodness itself: the triune God, for its own sake as God loves each of us, so much so that the Father sent his only-begotten, dearly beloved Son to be one of us and a propitiation for our sins. Such joy, unlike pragmatic indulgence of self-interest and lust, is inexhaustible and is the reason the obligatory character of observing the commandments of God as forms of love is not repression, but freedom. That is why even today in many nations to say thanks to one who loves me first, I say “much obliged.” The mode we study meditate on the mystery of the Trinity, the more we shall find ourselves, even here below, even in the midst of suffering, at peace with a peace which exceeds all understanding. We shall find how true what St. Augustine in his Confessions says: our hearts are restless until they rest in God, because for this they were made: to praise the eternal, triune God.