According to the website, Catholic Culture, the Blessed Trinity is “the fundamental dogma on which everything in Christianity is based.” And yet the Trinity is considered a mystery. “No mortal can fully fathom this sublime truth.” (Pius Parsch)
Now if this does not sound like a recipe for disaster, I don’t know what would: a Theory of Everything (because that’s what Christianity is) based on an axiom (dogma) that by its very nature no one can ever possibly understand. Beautiful!
No wonder the churches are empty these days! And yet, the concept of Trinity is absolutely fundamental to our understanding of Being.
According to the doctrine of Trinity, there is one God (monotheism) but three Divine Persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirt. This is not to say that God is ‘made up’ of three persons or that God ‘consists’ of three persons. No, each person is God, fully and entirely.
The key to a deeper understanding of this apparent paradox lies in an analysis of the relationship among these persons. The Father begets the Son but he begets the Son outside of time. ‘Begetting’ in this context is not an event but a relation.
The Son is “begotten of the Father” but he is begotten outside of time (“before all ages”). ‘Begotten’ in this context is likewise not an event but a relation. (Nicene Creed)
The Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son…(and) with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified”. Again, procession in this atemporal context is not an event but a relation. (Nicene Creed)
The Holy Spirt is the relationship between the Father and the Son but the Holy Spirt is also worshiped and glorified along with the Father and the Son. The Holy Spirit is a Divine Person too. The life of God is the relationship among the three Divine Persons and one of those persons is the relationship itself, the Holy Spirit. The relationship relates to the persons it’s relating.
If this sounds like we’re going around in circles, it’s because that’s exactly what we’re doing. In modern terminology we would say that Trinitarian relationships are ‘recursive’: they reflect back on themselves. God’s Trinitarian life is perpetual process. In scholastic philosophy it is said that God is “causa sui” (his own cause). It is the perpetual process of Trinitarian life that makes this so.
The Father is God; the Son, though begotten, is God; and the Holy Spirit, the relationship between the Father and the Son, is also God. So begetting, being begotten and relating are all equal, primordial structures of Being. None is prior to another. None takes precedence.
Since the Father is fully and completely God and since God is the Trinitarian relationship among the Divine Persons, those persons and that relationship must somehow be immanent in the Father. Likewise, they must be immanent in the Son and in the Holy Spirit. The full essence of God must be immanent in each Divine Person and that essence is Trinity. Again, we’re going in circles…and loving it!
This is so radically different from the way we routinely understand the world that it’s not hard to see why nobody understands Trinity. In the world as we often see it, there are objects and persons and events (call them all ‘things’) and these things form relationships with one another over the course of time. One object deflects another, one person loves another, one event causes another, etc…
According to this view, at any point in time one thing could be related to a million other things; but such relationships come and go. The things themselves are what endure (Whitehead actually called them “enduring objects”). Philosophers even go so far as to call things ‘substances’ and relations ‘accidents’.
No one is very happy with this ‘common sense’ model of reality; it gives us a very one dimensional model of the world. But what can we find to take its place? Enter Trinity!
The doctrine of Trinity suggests a very different sort of reality. Here relationship is substantial too. In the life of the Trinity, there are no ‘accidents’. The relationship between Father and Son (Holy Spirit) is just as ‘substantial’ as the Father or the Son and therefore that relationship is a Divine Person in its own right. The Father and the Son do not precede the Holy Spirit. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are co-eternal.
The flat loom of substances and accidents, subjects and predicates, pales in comparison with the richness of God’s Trinitarian life.
The Father and the Son are not only connected by their relationship, they are defined by it. The Father begets the Son, primordially, outside of time. Creation is not something the Father does; it’s something the Father is. It’s the Father’s nature to beget. And since the Father is God, it is God’s nature to beget.
The Son is begotten of the Father. Being begotten is not something the Son does; it’s something the Son is. It’s the Son’s nature to be begotten. And since the Son is God, it is God’s nature to be begotten.
The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Relating is not something the Holy Spirit does; it’s something the Holy Spirit is. It’s the Holy Spirit’s nature to relate. And since the Holy Spirit is God, it is God’s nature to relate (i.e. love).
It is often said that God is love and so He is! In a more general way, God is relationship. But, in God, all relationship is love; there is no other form of relatedness. Therefore God is love and it is God’s nature to love and all of God’s relations are love.
While the history of creation is much better understood today than ever before, it is nonetheless the case that the Trinity is the template for that creation. Without the fundamental Trinitarian structure (begetting, being begotten, relating and being related), creation could not have occurred and a material cosmos could not exist.
This does not take anything away from theories like Big Bang and Bootstrapping. It simply defines the ontological preconditions for such events.
The creation of the spatiotemporal universe is an extension of the Father’s creative nature, the pattern of that universe is an extension of the Son’s begotten nature and the solidarity and creativity of that universe is an extension of the Holy Spirit’s relational nature (“The Lord, the giver of life”).
In Genesis, God the Father first creates light and then by a series of divisions and recombinations brings about the cosmos as we know it.
In the Gospel of John, the Son is described as the Logos and we learn that the Logos was with God from the beginning and is God and that “all things came to be through him and without him nothing came to be”. Logos, the Son, is the pattern for the created world. But the Son is not only the pattern; he an element in that created world too: “And the Logos became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”
In The Nicene Creed, the foundational document of ‘modern’ Christianity, we learn that the Holy Spirit is “the giver of life”. It is the relationship between the Father and the Son that is the template for the created process we call life.
Finally, in the Third Eucharistic Prayer of the Roman Catholic Mass, we pray, “…all you have created rightly gives you praise, for through your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, by the power and working of the Holy Spirit you give life to all things and make them holy.”
“…You give life to all things…” Give, not gave; all things, not some things. Creation is not an historical event; it is an ongoing, ever-present process. It is the ontological precondition of existence per se…and that never changes.
The cosmos is continually dependent on Trinity for its existence. Trinity is the template for the created world, the created world only exists in template with Trinity. Trinity is life and love and therefore life and love characterize all of creation. “…You give life to all things and make them holy.”
Historically, the doctrine of the Trinity has been a major stumbling block for many would-be believers, but it should not be so. The reverse should be the case. The doctrine of Trinity is so intellectually revolutionary, so heuristically powerful and so aesthetically compelling that it should cause even the most ardent unbeliever to say, “Whoa! Maybe I’ve missed something here.”