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Three In One


Disbelief and Ignorance

The doctrine of the Trinity is the central tenet of the Catholic Religion and yet is arguably the least understood and most ignored. Typically, it is given a notional assent. At worst it is dismissed as mumbo jumbo; the words of the Quincumque Vult being perverted to "the whole darn thing incomprehensible". This is very sad. I believe that the doctrine (though a mystery) is not as difficult to make sense of as is generally thought. I also think that it is of crucial practical importance!

In passing I should remark that saying something is a mystery does not mean that it is:

It means that it is impossible to fully understand it, and that the rational account which one can give begs other questions and that no easy answers are currently available to these questions. This is the status of every theory in physics, it is not surprising that the same is true of the central theory of theology.

The doctrine is not about how God reveals Himself to us. It is not about God's agency in the created order. Sadly, it is often presented as being one or other of these, even by pius priests from Catholic pulpits. These are different versions of the heresy of modalism, in which a Monadic (simply single and "point like") God either is perceived from differing points of view, or acts in diverse ways or modes, which are then improperly raised to the status of substantial being. The doctrine of the Trinity is rather about God-in-HimSelves: I ask you to bear with the strange language, for the time being.

Obviously, the nature of God has direct implications for how God might be expected to act. Moreover our experience of God's activity might be expected to give us some limited insight into the Divine Being. However, the doctrine of the Trinity is not based on such human experience but rather on direct and specific gracious revelation. Revelation with a purpose.

The Athanasian Creed

Whoever wishes to be saved must, above all else, hold to the Catholic Faith. Whoever does not keep this faith pure will certainly perish forever.

Now this is the Catholic faith: We worship one God in three persons and three persons in one God, without mixing the persons nor dividing the essence. For each person: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, is distinct, but the deity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one, equal in glory and coeternal in majesty.

What the Father is, so is the Son, and so is the Holy Spirit.
The Father is uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated;
The Father is eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal;
Any yet they are not three who are eternal, but there is One who is eternal,
just as they are not three who are uncreated,
nor three who are infinite,
but there is One who is uncreated and One who is infinite.
In the same way the Father is almighty, the Son is almighty, and the Holy Spirit is almighty;
And yet they are not three who are almighty, but there is One who is almighty.
So the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God;
And yet they are not three gods, but One God.
So the Father is Lord, the Son is Lord, the Holy Spirit is Lord;
yet they are not three lords, but One Lord.
For just as Catholic truth compels us to confess each person individually to be God and Lord,
so the Catholic faith forbids us to speak of three gods or three lords.

The Father is neither made not created, nor begotten of anyone.
The Son is neither made nor created, but is begotten of the Father alone.
The Holy Spirit is neither made nor created nor begotten, but proceeds from the Father.

So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Spirit, not three Spirits.
Within this Trinity none comes before or after; none is greater or inferior, but all three persons are coequal and coeternal, so that in every way, as stated before, all three persons are to be worshiped as One God, and One God worshiped as three persons.
Whoever wishes to be saved must have this conviction of the Trinity. It is furthermore necessary for eternal salvation truly to believe that our Lord Jesus Christ also took on human flesh.

Now this is the Catholic faith: We believe and confess, that our Lord Jesus Christ, is both God and Man.

He is God, eternally begotten from the nature of the Father,
and he is man, born in time from the nature of his mother,
fully God, fully man, with rational soul and human flesh.
Equal to the Father, as to his deity, less than the Father, as to his humanity;
and though he is both God and Man, Christ is not two persons but one.
One, not by changing the deity into flesh, but by taking the humanity into God;
one, indeed, not by mixture of the natures, but by unity in one person;
for just as the reasonable soul and flesh are one human being,
so God and man are one Christ.
Who suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, rose the third day from the dead. He ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty, and from there he will come to judge the living and the dead. At his coming all people will rise again with their bodies to answer for their works. Those who have done good will enter eternal life, but those who have done evil will go into everlasting fire.

This is the Catholic Faith. Whoever does not faithfully and firmly believe this cannot be saved.

Language of Dispute

First some terminology. Language has been a source of great difficulty and much disputation and ill-natured argument in this field. It should become obvious why. The main problem has been with the concept of  "sub-stance or under-standing". The orthodox in East and West agreed that there was a Threeness as well as a Oneness about God. They also agreed that in one sense the Oneness was prior to the Threeness. They did not agree on much else! The West tended to condemn the East as being "tri-theists", the East tended to condemn the West as being "modalists".

The Western View

The Western account of the matter roughly went as follows.

The Eastern View

The Eastern account of the same reality roughly went as follows. This confusion gave rise to the following conflict.

Why does any of this matter?

God is Love

It matters because of the profound practical significance of the doctrine. The central revelation of Christianity is, I contend, the apparently simple statement "God is Love". This sets Christianity apart from all other religions. No other religion can dare say this. Christianity can only say it, coherently, in and through and because of the doctrine of the Trinity. A strictly monad-theistic religion cannot say this. Judaism and Islam cannot say this: though the Judaism of the later Wisdom literature and of Jesus' day was moving rapidly towards the realization that it simply had to! The reason is that love, in the completeness of its meaning, requires an object as well as a subject: and a worthy object at that!

Love is the movement or attraction of a subject to its proper good, benefit, sustenance or fulfilment. The only suitable object of God's Love is God; but then the subject and object seem to be the same, and there can be no motion or attraction; no communication; no giving and receiving: no relationship. Hence a monadic deity could not properly love itself, because there is no separation of object and subject. It could only "value" or "esteem" itself (as in "value your neighbour as you value your-self").

By contrast, a monad-theistic religion that sees the deity primarily as loving has great difficulty in keeping its divinity truly divine; because the loving nature of the deity requires something outside itself: as an object to love. Without that object the deity cannot love. Such a god would be utterly lonely without a creation to love. The creation would be necessary to the fulfilment of the divine being. Hence the deity becomes dependent for the central character of its being upon the created order, and is not truly transcendent and cannot be outside time or eternal. Only the kind of arrangement we find in the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity upholds the Oneness of God together with the notion that "God is Love".

A True Modalism

The doctrine of  the Trinity paints quite a different, much richer, picture of God. The three Understandings in God are different, but consistent: diverse but coherent. They are like three harmonics struck on a single guitar string: three modes (in a mathematical physics sense), three activities within a single movement, always working together to a common end and purpose but in different fields or dimensions. They are of equal status and nobility, so are fit objects of each other's fulfilment. They each posses the Divine Being fully, and are intimately entwined about and throughout each other in a timeless total sharing and intercourse of action. They know of each other, recognize each other, and repeat to each other the eternal song of joy "I AM". Only the notion that within the Oneness of God is a vibrant and ecstatic Threeness allows the Christian to proclaim "God is Love!", and to mean by this also that Love is God: love in all its forms from disinterested charity (if this exists) to the most torrid erotic passion.
"The one God in whom Israel believes, on the other hand, loves with a personal love. His love, moreover, is an elective love: among all the nations he chooses Israel and loves her - but he does so precisely with a view to healing the whole human race. God loves, and his love may certainly be called eros, yet it is also totally agape." [Benedict XVI "Deus Caritas Est"]
I also suspect that it matters because there are implications for Theoretical Physics, but that is another story, and one that I am very unclear about.

An Attempted Resolution

The first issue dividing East and West is "which came first; the substance or the being?" (I jest). In other words, does the One Being of God give rise to the Three Persons, or do the Three Persons (or some sub-set of them) give rise to the One Being? I have said that there was a general agreement that the Oneness of God was "prior" to the Threeness, so it might seem that this was not an issue. However, it is not so simple. The way in which it was agreed that the Oneness was prior was that it was more important to say that God was One than that God was Three. Given that the "isness" (being, ousia) is undoubtedly one, to say that the Threeness is more important (or is more anything) than the Oneness is a non-starter. Hence, the agreement is perhaps superficial: more a means to avoid the issue than confront and resolve it.

It must be recalled that the West became very suspicious that the East had really descended from monotheism to worshipping three gods, and that the East became very suspicious that the West had become Sabellian (modalist) in its belief.

The Sound of Silence

I believe that the clue to resolving this dilemma is in the bald statement "God is Love". Note that "is" speaks of the One Divine Being and "Love" speaks of the relationships between the understandings (persons) in God. This suggests that the Divine Being is identical with the relatedness of the Divine Understandings.

"What God is", is "what God does": which is Love.

This is what St Thomas teaches when he says that God's being is unconstrained activity. For God: "to be" and "to do" are the same verb. Hence one can say that all that God is, is Love: and all that the Father, Son and Spirit are and posses and share is the love that they have for each other. There is then no "physical" guitar string: the only "matter" that vibrates (I speak by analogy) is the "energy" of the modal vibrations themselves, as in Einstein's mass-energy equivalence. If the string stood still it would not be at all. Its only being is its motion.

If God did not love HimSelves, He would not be at all.

God's only being is love

In this picture it is absurd to try and say that the One Being under-pins and supports and makes real the Three Understandings without immediately adding that it is the inter-action of the Three Understandings that gives rise to and originate the One Being. The circle is closed, and neither being nor understanding is possible without the other. This is how things ought to be, given that God is outside time. All notions of beforeness and ordering and strict priority are suspect in connection with the Divinity.

Note that my use of the word "modal" is far removed from its Sabellian application. For a Sabellian, God is a simple unity: with multiple aspects or appearances or external actions. For me, God is the One Love of Three Divine Understandings, whose three distinct but consonant activities are internal to the Single Divine Constitution.

The Filioque

The guitar string analogy helps further when it comes to discussing the vexed problem of the "filioque". This is the running sore of the Great Schism that split the Church in 1054. The fathers of Niceae-Constantinople authored a creed which stated that Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father [Jn 15:26]. Later the word filioque "and the son" was added in the West (against the opposition of at least one pope!) without the East being consulted. This was clearly wrong process, it smacks of conceit and a lack of charity at the very least. The East quite reasonably took exception to this and has typically condemned the change as heretical. The objection is made that the Father alone should be seen as the fount of all being (note the Eastern tendency to make the Divine Hypostases prior to the Divine Ousia) and that to say that Holy Spirit proceeds also from the Son makes the Son a secondary source of being, which is wrong.

On the string theory analogy, this contention is specious. The fundamental frequency (The Father) is just that: fundamental [1]. The second harmonic (The Son) results from the fundamental note acting upon itself [1+1]; just as standard Trinitarian theology stipulates. The third harmonic (Holy Spirit) can either be construed as originating in a double self action of the fundamental on itself [1+1+1] or as the action of the fundamental on the second harmonic (and vice-versa) both [1+(1+1)] and [(1+1)+1]. In the case of a real guitar string, all three processes are real, distinguishable and active together; to start arguing about which is the one correct account is to debase the richness of reality.

Any manner of interpreting or defending the "filioque" which attempts to make the Son a source of Being in competition to the Father is wrong, just as the East insists. Yet, ironically, the whole tendency of the East to make the Divine Understandings prior to the Divine Being would suggest an account of the inner life of God in which the Three Divine Persons equally substantiate the One Divine Nature. So I suspect that the issue is not truly to do with the Father as the unique source of the Divine Being; but rather as the fundamental Understanding in God, which is quite different.

It should be noted that some kind of resolution of the controversy was achieved at the Second Council of Lyon, at which it was agreed by East and West that:

"In faithful and devout profession we declare that the Holy Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father and the Son, not as from two beginnings, but from one beginning, not from two breathings, but from one breathing."
Of course, Understanding, Consciousness and Person are indefinitely more complex and obscure concepts than vibrations on a string. Nevertheless, I believe that there is a clear mapping between traditional Trinitarian theological concepts and the modal and harmonic analogy that I have sketched. It should always be remembered that we have no clear idea of what we are talking when we speak of Divine Persons and Divine Love. We always work by analogy. We can do nothing else.

The reason that the Catholic has a conviction that the analogies (s)he uses are not fundamentally misleading is that (s)he believes also in the doctrine of the Incarnation: that the second Understanding in God was united to a human nature; that without giving up His divinity, He humbled Himself to participate in the Form of Man; that He experiencing the finitude and vulnerability of His Creation; and that in meeting with Him, his friends met the Father [Jn 14:8-11].

Inclusive Language

Some people use feminine language of God in order to synchretically introduce New Age or pagan associations with "The Goddess" into Christian theology. This is to be deplored without reservation. However, I don't believe that gender is very important or that it is any more present in God than is "green-ness". Hence I don't have much of an objection to people calling the First Person of the Trinity "God the Mother". After all, God's love for Israel is likened to that of a mother for her child. I have no objection to Holy Spirit being referred to as female. After all, "spirit" is neuter in Greek and feminine in Hebrew. A number of holy men and women have habitually talked of Jesus - who is undoubtedly male - in feminine terms. Still, I personally prefer to abide by Jesus' use of "Father" when referring to the First Person of the Blessed Trinity.

Gender aspecific terminology is another matter entirely. Apart from use of

attempts at genderless reference to the Persons of the Trinity tend to be theologically dangerous. For example, the trinity of Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier is especially deadly: It is true that each person has a "lead role" in every divine activity within the cosmos, but it is false that any person can ever act alone. Because a person acts via his/her nature, and the Nature of God is One, the three persons always act in concord and in concert: both in and as the one Divine Act of Love. The inner life of God is its own justification and does not require or aspire after any purpose other than its self-sufficiency. The Three recognize and love each other for what they are: as mutual possessors and contributors to the Divine Being. The traditional language of Father, Son and Spirit authentically (though inadequately) reflects the intrinsic relations that both distinguish apart and bind together the three persons.

The Gay Perspective

I can't resist but end by pointing out the irony of the doctrine of the Trinity as seen by gay eyes. Please don't take what I say next too seriously.

The Trinity seems to be founded on the ecstatic love union of two "male" persons: the Father and the Son. If one takes this image seriously, it amounts to incestuous paedophilia. There is no doubt that this union is generative (and so in the origin of the meaning "sexual") in character, because from it bursts forth a third person: Holy Spirit. Whereas Islam detests the Catholic idea that the Blessed Virgin was "impregnated" by God, as demeaning to the transcendence of God, the incestuous homosexual paedophilia that the doctrine of the Trinity amounts to should really offend more!

Any orthodox  account of the inner life of God is at best highly uncongenial to the paradigm of the heterosexual nuclear family. Amusingly, the contemporary Magisterium fails to notice this and even attempts to use the doctrine of the procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son to bolster its conventional championing of "male-female complementarity" and the centrality of procreation to all authentically "self-giving" relationships. So, for example -

"Moreover, there can be no doubt that the narratives of the 'beatifying beginning of human existence' in the Genesis texts narrate not only the creation of man as the apex of the material universe, not only the creation of man as 'male and female', as a communion of persons made in the image of the Holy Trinity, but also the creation of marriage."  [Prof. W.E. May, Catholic University of America : English text of the essay in Italian, “La ‘communio personarum’ e l’atto coniugale,” in Morale Coniugale e Sacramento della Penitenza: Riflessioni sul ‘Vademecum per i Confessori, Eds. Alfonso Card. Lopez Trujillo and Francisco Gil Hellin, Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1998, pp. 135-150]
There can be no doubt that absurdities will never cease!

The Decline in Trinitarian belief

I recently received the following communication from a priest friend. I think that it "says it all":
"The three Divine Persons are much more than mere manifestations of one and the same God: they are three distinct individuals who share one and the same godhead. They are a community of Three (real persons) in One
(divine essence of Love). Nowadays it is difficult to hear anything remotely orthodox preached or written on this subject by western Christians. Most priests ignore the Trinity even on Trinity Sunday - which is, perhaps, sadly better than to speak ill or wrongly about The Triune God!

The Holy Trinity is the centre of our faith, just as the Holy Mass is the centre of our religion, and the traditional mass liturgy (of both the Roman and other western rites, and of all eastern rites) states over and over again in its wording, its rituals and its art, the Church's belief in the Triune God. The Mass is a Sacrifice, offered by the Head and members of the Church, of the Humanity of Christ joined to His Divinity, up to the Most Holy Trinity (of which Christ) is the 'Second Person' - and therefore also co-receiver of His own Sacrifice.)

After [my Trinity] Sunday Mass [homily] it was pointed out to me that most of the references to the Holy Trinity in the old rite of Mass no longer exist in the new rite, and that a Catholic familiar only with the new rite would not have understood my homily at all. The way in which we pray and worship, determines the way in which we believe. It becomes clear, when one compares the traditional Mass of the Roman Rite to the text and ceremonies of the Novus Ordo Missae, that whereas the Traditional Roman Rite is thoroughly Trinitarian in its wording, its stated intention, its orientation and its ceremonies, the New Order of Mass is not.

The fact that the Trinity is a turn off for too many modern-day Catholics, is central to the contemporary sickness of the Church. The anti-triniatrian sickness of modern Roman Rite Catholics is due foremost to this drastic change in liturgy. In the new Roman rite of Mass nearly all verbal references to the Holy Trinity have been scrapped, the triple ceremonies in honour of the Trinity abolished, the altar facing God turned around to face the people, as if prayer and sacrifice were now being offered no longer to God, but to the people. Now, when it is no longer clear to priest and people What and Whom we are worshipping, that can only bode ill for the Church and its faith.

I had a discussion today after Mass with a lady who said: 'Father, I pray to God but not to Jesus Christ, because for me He is a separate entity from God. He is just a good human moral example for us to follow, but not a God to be worshipped.' I did manage to convince her to at least pray about it and be open to what believing in the Divinity of Christ, and in the Holy Trinity. She relented, as it were, stayed for the rosary, and afterwards said that she had decided to 'give up her own ideas and give in on this question.' For how long, I do not dare say, as the opinion that Christ is not God is now so widespread.

Both the faithful and not a few priests use the New Liturgy as proof of their acquired non-belief. Belief in the life-giving Trinity is simply not explicitly declared or nurtured by the words, rituals, art and orientation of the modern liturgy. A living catholic faith can exist only where the life-giving Triune God is worshipped and communed with. I firmly believe that the change in Worship has brought about a change in faith."
[Tuesday after Trinity Sunday, 2005]

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