The notion of the Trinity only makes sense in the light of faith as it infinitely transcends the rational grasp of the human intellect. The Church solemnly teaches that: “In God there are three Divine Persons, really distinct and equal in all things, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” The Trinity and the Incarnation are two concepts that distinguish Christianity from other world religions. We can only explain what the doctrine is but not the mystery itself. As St Thomas Aquinas says, “we cannot know what God is, but rather what He is not, we have no means for considering how God is, but rather how He is not.” That is a good way to start a discussion on the Trinity.
St Augustine struggled for some 30 years to write his book on the Trinity, and the story is told of how he went for a walk on the beach struggling to figure out the mystery. Then he saw a boy going back and forth from the sea to a hole on the shore, bringing water in a seashell to pour into the hole. When Augustine asked him what he was doing, he replied: “I’m going to empty the ocean into this hole.” “That is not possible; the whole ocean will not fit into that hole”, St. Augustine said to him. And the boy replied: “And you cannot fit the mystery of the Holy Trinity into your small brain.” Presuming that to be an angelic encounter, Augustine learnt to believe first in order to understand, and he was to subsequently declare that “if you can comprehend it, it is not God.” For Augustine, it is better to make a sincere admission of ignorance than a rash claim of knowledge. Thus, concerning Trinitarian mystery, acknowledging our ignorance helps us to follow God with the eyes of faith alone.
What does Scripture say about the Trinity? The doctrine is not explicitly spelt out in the Bible. In fact, the very word “Trinity” is not found in the Scripture. Instead, Qoheleth tells us: “As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things” (Ecclesiastes 11:5). Nevertheless, the early Christians arrived at the doctrine by applying their God-given reason to the revelations they had received in faith. Jesus spoke about the Father who sent him (the Son) and about the Holy Spirit whom he was going to send. He said that the Father had given him (the Son) everything, and he in turn had given to the Holy Spirit all that he received from the Father. So, we see the unity of purpose among the three persons of the Trinity.
We may not be able to understand the “how” of the Trinity but it is important to know the “why”. Why did God choose to reveal this mystery to us? The significance of this doctrine lies in the fact that we are made in God’s image, and so the more we learn about God the more we understand ourselves. Philosophers have it that people always try to be like the god they worship. Those who worship a warrior god tend to be warmongering; those who worship the god of pleasure tend to live for pleasure; those who worship the god of wrath tend to be vengeful; while those who truly worship the God of love tend to be loving. The one true God does not exist in solitary individualism but in a community of love and sharing. Our God is not a loner! Consequently, a Christian disciple must shun every inclination to selfishness and isolationism. Christianity is a communion of love!
Normally, God the Father is seen as the Creator, the Son as the Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit as the Sanctifier, but all these qualities are equally true of all the Three Divine Persons such that whatever each does is an action of the Trinity. Put differently, everything the Trinity does is done by Father, Son, and Spirit working in unity with one will, equal dignity, equal majesty, equal authority, and equal glory, without any subordination of one to the other. This point is strongly made by the Creed of St Athanasius that the “Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal.” One powerful image of the Trinity is that of water which exists in the form of steam, ice and rain, that is, gas, solid and liquid – but each with the same chemical properties.
Humanly speaking, we are incapable of understanding the mysteries of God except by revelation. As St Bonaventure says, “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” However, Jesus gives us the best way to understand the Trinity – love of God and love of neighbour. These two great commandments of the New Testament are the gateway to love of the One and Triune God. As St John writes, “Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16). We are called to love, especially when it does not feel good. We don’t need to be friends with others to love them; we don’t need to like others to love them; and we don’t need to be in love with others to love them. Agape love requires us to will, wish, work, and pray for the good of the other, in favourable and unfavourable circumstances. That is the best way to imitate the Trinitarian God. When Jesus says: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48), he’s only inviting us to imitate divine love and compassion. And what does our heavenly Father do? “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). Then Jesus adds: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).
Today therefore, let us not worry too much about our limited understanding of the Trinity, but rather let us join St Anselm of Canterbury in crying out: Credo utintelligam – I believe that I may understand!