This post attempts to lay a simple foundation for defining the Doctrine of the Trinity in a way that allows me to accede to an acceptable level of intellectual assent. As my knowledge grows, I would hope to expand on this foundation.
The Doctrine of the Trinity has always been a very difficult concept to grasp. Indeed, I would imagine that its perceived complexity is, in many instances, used as an argument against it. But is it that complex and difficult to understand? Certainly on the face of it, it would seem extremely illogical, a mathematical conundrum – 3 is 1 and 1 is 3, add to this the fact that Christianity is a monotheistic religion, believing there to be only one God – “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!” (Deut. 6:4), professing a tri-personal god then, seems to be a logical contradiction in a Christian sense?
My personal belief structure has always seen the need to make logical sense of a concept or thought, to proffer proof of its veracity, allowing me the option of providing an acceptable level of intellectual assent; the higher I can raise that level, the stronger my faith in that concept can become. This ‘process’ helps lead me to an ever strengthening commitment to my convictions; and it is at this point that I can begin to embrace faith.
Belief in the Trinity is central to and the most important concept of Christianity and it is with this background that I approach the concept of the Divine Trinity, the core of Christian belief and of salvific theology.
This post does not purport to address all and every question on the Trinity, far from it. However, let me share some of my concerns regarding the Doctrine of the Trinity, the questions and worries which have come up while contemplating this difficult subject.
1. Contravention of the law of non-contradiction: the doctrine appears to endorse the thought that God is one but also three. Simply put, one cannot be both one and not one at the same time!
2. A belief in three: is this not just polytheism? This would certainly seem to be the view of those holding differing or antagonistic views toward Trinitarian Christianity.
3. It is understood that God is transcendent, He exists above and outside the realm of His creation. Man can or is able only to make sense of that which exists within the sphere of his existence, his rationality. That which is outside of his existential domain remains a mystery (an unknowable knowledge). When hypothesizing on something for which there is no grounding in what can or could be known, then that which man tries to understand becomes a ‘mystery’. This is how I see God; He is outside the realm of my existence and consequently my ability to apply human rationality is limited! Nevertheless, I must try and comprehend – it is an innate need! The logical fallacy I am concerned with here has to do with ‘An appeal to faith’ – how do I justify belief that, on the face of it, appears to be irrational?
4. Were there no truth or understanding to be derived from the revelation of the Trinity, how then has its concept, its dogma survived the test of time? How has it energized and lifted Christian humanity over the centuries without being drummed out as just another heretical belief. After all, did not the learned theologians of the church expel so many other incorrect beliefs? Witness Arianism, Monism etc. Surely something which, prima facie, appears to be a total contradiction to accepted belief, would have suffered a similar fate at the hands of those eminent theologians – wouldn’t it? Or is there something more to be said of Trinitarian doctrine? Are we actually able to rationalize this doctrine within the ambit of our understanding?
5. Karl Rahner proposed an anti Neo-Scholastic interpretation of the immanent and economical Trinity – that the one equals the other and vice versa, his ‘grundaxiom’. This is problematic for me as this implies that God is NOT outside of His creation, is reliant on His creation for His existence or properties; I find it difficult to agree with this theory as, how can one be both immanent and transcendent at the same time? Is this not again, a typical contravention of the law of non-contradiction?
6. If there is serious doubt over Trinitarian Doctrine, then it would bring into serious question the salvific actions of God. Denial of the Trinity denies the very divinity of the Christ and the logical consequence is that man is not saved. This goes to the very core of Christian belief and must be answered.
I would suppose that these enquiries barely scratch the surface of that knowledge revealed in Christ – Deus revelatus; I am sure that there are many other questions and opinions which also require elucidation however, for now, these will serve as the foundational seeds for my first foray into the enigma that is the Trinity.
Frank Sheed in his book Theology for Beginners, asks “God is a living God. But what does His life consist of?” This rather insouciant remark has, I think, some deep underlying meaning which helps shed light on the Trinitarian concept, after all God is all knowing love – utterly and entirely. Who then does He love in His eternal existence – Man? Certainly but through Christ, God reveals His love within the Trinity, a love of three persons within one divine nature – an eternal and absolute love. Man is finite and as Sheed says, ‘Finite creatures are no adequate object for infinite love – we cannot comprehend it, we cannot return it’ (Sheed, Theology for Beginners, pp. 31-32) God certainly does love man, His creation but why, in His wisdom and compassion, does He reveal the true nature of His innermost being when, in our finitude, its significance and worth is beyond our ability to comprehend. After all, God does not mock, nor take lightly His revelation to man – there is always purpose to His revelations. But what is that purpose? It is to reveal the love, the all-conquering love which exists within God; to show us the love which awaits us when we accept the salvation given us by Christ, by God.
There is one God, in three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. An eternal and holy communion of love – a love which knows no bounds. This Trinity, this Communion was the entire message which Jesus the Christ came among us to reveal. It is beholden to us to remember the message contained in Matthew 22:36-40
A way, perhaps, to identify with the Trinity is to look at ourselves; after all are we not made in the image of God? …and God is the Trinity. Bearing in mind the Christian definition of the Trinity, God in Three Persons there is firstly a need, as there would be when rationalising humanity, to differentiate between ‘nature’ and ‘person’ (Sheed, Theology & Sanity, pp. 56-57); the ‘who’ and the ‘what’, the source of our actions and the actions themselves. It is critical to our thesis that we understand the differentiation between these two nouns – for it is by our nature that we are defined and it is by our actions that that which is our nature or essence is revealed. Actions, the verb, are the product of the ‘person’, derived from what defines that person – their ‘nature’. To paraphrase Sheed, nature is the source of our actions, person does them.
But what of that which possesses these two capacities? That almost unknowable essence we intrinsically know to be at our core but which, when introspectively examined, seems fogged and elusive.
This I would put forward, is the third part of the equation, the one which underpins or is foundational to our very existence. Sheed refers to this as our nature’s ‘root reality’; it is that essence, that reality to which ‘person’ and ‘nature’ belong and to which reality, ‘person’ and ‘nature’ are the very tools of existence – this to me is the soul, the very essence of man, the absolute reality of our existence. It is that piece of God which gives us life:
And God created man to his own image: to the image of God he created him: male and female he created them.
And the Lord God formed man of the slime of the earth: and breathed into his face the breath of life, and man became a living soul.
As creatures of God we are each created with our own distinct nature making us unique in terms of who we are.
Not dissimilar but admittedly not quite the same, contained within the mystery of the Trinity is only ONE divine nature, ONE source of divine action, one overarching ‘root reality’. There is ONE God but within that divine essence are THREE distinct persons, each equally and fully possessing of that ONE divine nature we call God. As we have seen when rationalising humanity, nature and person are two distinct qualities. Nature does not equal person so it would be incorrect to say one god equals three gods but in terms of the Trinity, it is correct to say one (God) equals one (divine nature) – that there is ONE God but three distinct elements of action within God.
So we have three divine beings capable of action, ‘the persons of the Trinity’ and that from which those actions are derived, ‘the one divine nature’, a derivation which is common to all three persons of the Trinity. That derivation is GOD.
So for me, I have re-enforced within myself the belief that there really is only ONE God, one God within whom is embraced three distinct persons: GOD the Father, GOD the Son and GOD the Holy Spirit.
§ Pope John Paul II. (2002). The Trinity’s Embrace – God’s Saving Plan (1st Edition ed., Vol. 6). Boston, Ill., USA: Pauline Books & Media.
§ Sheed, F. J. (2011). Theology & Sanity (Kindle ed.). San Francisco, California, USA: Ignatius Press.
§ Emery, G. (2011). The Trinity: An Introduction to Catholic Doctrine on the Triune God (Kindle ed.). (M. Levering, Trans.) Washington, D.C., USA: The Catholic University of America Press.
§ O’Collins, G. (1999). The Tripersonal God – Understanding & Interpreting the Trinity (1st ed.). New York, N.J., USA: Paulist Press.
§ Rahner, K. (1997). The Trinity (Milestones in Catholic Theology ed.). (C. Mowray LaCugna, Ed., & J. Donceel, Trans.) New York, N.Y., USA: The Crossroad Publishing Co.
§ St. Thomas Aquinas. (2002). Aquinas’s Shorter Suma. (C. Vollert, Trans.) Manchester, New Hampshire, USA: Sophia Institute Press.
§ Sheed, F. J. (2011). Theology for Beginners (Kindle ed.). New York, NY, USA: Angelico Press.
§ Sproul, R. C. (2011). What is the Trinity? (Kindle ed.). Sanford, FL, USA: Reformation Trust Publishing.
§ Jowers, D. W. (2004). An Exposition & Critique of Karl Rahner’s Axiom: “The Economic Trinity is the Immanent Trinity and Vice Versa”. Mid-America Journal of Theology , 15, 165-200.
§ Douay-Rheims. (n.d.). The Holy Bible. Retrieved from http://biblehub.com/genesis/2-7.htm
 Deus revelatus – “God revealed in Christ”
 Matthew 22:36-40 Authorized (King James) Version (AKJV)
 (Douay-Rheims) – Gen. 1:27
 (Douay-Rheims) – Gen. 2:7
 Council of Constantinople II, Anathema 1 (Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, 1:114)