June 18-19, 2011
“The Triune God”
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Few of us share the early church's enthusiasm for philosophy. We also show little patience for theology that can't be expressed by a single proof text or that which cannot be immediately applied. So discussions of the Trinity, and the Athanasian Creed, often garner some frustration if not open anger.
Even so, the Church in her wisdom asks us, at least today, to explore something of the incomprehensible doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Error in this doctrine is easy and dangerous. Inquiry is difficult. It requires no little mental energy. But at the same time, there is also a promise, for alongside the doctrine of God becoming Man in order to suffer for our salvation, and the distinction between the Law and the Gospel, no other discovery of truth is more rewarding. If you will do the mental work required by the Athanasian Creed, in faith, you will be rewarded with the joy of knowing something about God's intimacy and love that reaches out to you and seeks to join you to Himself. For the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is simply the doctrine of God's love for Himself and for you.
What is the Trinity? God is one. Yet this one God is three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Everything else that is said in this regard is simply to maintain the truth of those seemingly incompatible sentences: God is One and God is three persons. The Catholic Faith is this: “we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity.”
But there is one other thing that always comes along. The doctrine is not satisfied simply with the three-in-oneness of God. Notice this from the Athanasian Creed: “Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation that we also believe faithfully in the Incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ, for the right faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man.” You might notice this same emphasis in the Apostles' and the Nicene Creeds. We confess the three Persons of the One God, and we confess, in particular, and with great emphasis, the character of the Second Person's two natures, that is, that God has become Man for us, that our Savior is both true God and true Man.
The Council of Nicea in 325 was especially crucial for our understanding of the Trinity. The Council rejected the heresy of Arianism, which taught that Jesus was not fully God, but that He was created by the Father. The subsequent Council of Constantinople in 381 solidified this confession and handed down to us what we now recite, Sunday after Sunday, in the Nicene Creed.1 There we confess that Jesus Christ is “begotten of the Father before all the ages, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made.” All that to say: “He is God.” And then we say, “who for us men and for our salvation cam down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary and was made man.” Which is to say, “He is Man.”
These two things, the Threefold Personality of the One God and the Incarnation of the Second Person, go hand-in-hand. You cannot understand, or confess, the Holy Trinity apart from the God-Man Jesus Christ, crucified and raised. Nor can you understand, or confess, Jesus as Lord apart from the Father and the Spirit. Because the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is the doctrine of God's Love and God loves us in the Son.
Now, some noted Theologians, St. Patrick included, have sought to find a reflection of God's threefold unity in nature. The created always reflects something of the Creator. Some of this reflection is revealed in the Scriptures. Plants that die in sending their seeds to the ground to later come forth and bear a hundred-fold harvest show something of the passage from the death to life and how Our Lord lays down His life for our life. But where this reflection is not revealed, it is speculative. St. Patrick's use of the clover to show something of the Trinity is a noble attempt to find a mnemonic device for catechesis. But it breaks down quickly. So also the use of three phases of water, liquid, solid, and gas. The water analogy hints at the idea that God is not really three Persons, but simply comes to us in different modes. Yet He is three distinct Persons. He is not changing masks. The Son is not the Father, etc. Another popular attempt is to compare the Trinity to an apple or an eggs. The idea is skin, meat, and core, or shell, whites, and yolk. But like unto shamrocks, this breaks apart because neither the yolks and whites nor the core and skin are actually the same substance, and the Father and the Son and the Spirit are the same substance.
The best analogy is that of human relationships. It is the best because it is based upon God's self-description: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The distinction between the Persons is internal, the way they relate to one another. The Son is begotten of the Father from whom the Spirit proceeds. We can push it in this way, the Father is the Lover. He loves the Son, who is His Beloved. Their Love for each other and the Spirit, the Spirit Himself, proceeds from them. The problem with this analogy is that in our fallen state we only know imperfect fathers, sons, and lovers, and among ourselves we do not know completely selfless and giving love.
But if we take it a bit further, it does bring some light and comfort. For St. John writes that God is Love. The Son is sent by the Father into the world to love the world, to bring His Holy Spirit to humanity. This is how the Father loves the world: He sends His Beloved who bestows His Spirit from the cross. Whoever is born again of water and the Spirit receives eternal life, is reconciled to Him. The Son has taken up our cause, joined Himself to our flesh, not only to redeem us from sin, but also to open up heaven. He does not leave us in Eden's restored paradise. He takes higher, to His Father, to heaven. And He sends His Holy Spirit to testify of Him, to create faith, to pray for us, and to dwell in us as His new Temples. The Father Himself loves us in the Son and also hears our prayers. He is good. His mercy endures forever. He is Love, and He loves you.
The Trinity was not lonely. He did not need someone to love. Nonetheless, He created us in perfect love, to be recipients of His love. Our proper place in this universe is as God's own beloved children. That is always what we were meant to be, what we were created for. And when we failed, when we chose our own evil way, when we rejected His love, then He reached out with more love to make us His again. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, have sought to make you His, to bring you into this mystery of selfless and giving love. He has done so in waters of Holy Baptism where He put His three-fold Name upon you. He speaks to you in the Spirit-breathed Words of Jesus from the Father. And He feeds you with the Divine and Human Natures of Christ's Holy Body and Blood, given and shed for you, to forgive sins, to reconcile to the Father, to bestow the Holy Spirit, to consummate your marriage to the Son.
The Holy Trinity is not an abstraction. God has flesh, in the Man Jesus Christ, and through Him, by the Spirit, you have access to the Father. We do not hold this doctrine because it is self-evident or logically sound, or because we love philosophy. We hold it because God has revealed Himself to us in this way. This is who Love is, and what He gives to us: God in Three Persons, the Son in our Flesh, our Savior.
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.