Monday, January 20, 2014

The Doctrine of the Trinity in 800 Words

I was asked a few months ago by The Record, the newspaper for the Archdiocese of Louisville to write a 'teaching editorial' on the doctrine of the Trinity and the implications of this doctrine for everyday life.  

My limit was 800 words.

Below is the piece I wrote.  Those familiar with my blog will see that I've repurposed some ideas I've expressed elsewhere on here.

I called my brief essay, "The Trinity and Being Church".  Your feedback is, as always, very welcome.

The idea that God exists as Trinity, as three persons in one essence, lies at the heart of our Catholic faith.  Yet this central doctrine is one of the most complicated beliefs in Christianity, and arguably, the least understood.  Despite the fact that we are all baptized in the name of the Trinity, we don’t always know what to make of the doctrine of the Trinity.

A mystery the Trinity surely is, and I won’t here pretend that I comprehend this mystery fully.  ‘For now we see in a mirror, dimly,’ as St Paul reminds us (1 Cor 13:12).  But our ancestors in the faith didn’t formulate the doctrine of the Trinity because they wanted to be intentionally difficult, as if they wanted to play a grand theological joke for posterity.  Rather, the doctrine of the Trinity formed out of concrete experiences of the Divine, experiences that shaped the kind of language our ancestors used to express their understanding of God.

And over the centuries great theologians like Augustine, Athanasius, Thomas Aquinas, Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, and Thérèse of Liseaux have endeavored to come to terms with the implications of God’s triune existence not only for our understanding of God and our relationship with God, but for our understanding of how we are to exist one with another.

Peel back all the complicated Trinitarian language of consubstantiality, persons, essence, hypostases, and ousia, important though that language is.  To say that God is Trinity is simply to say that God exists, eternally, as a community of love.  It is to say that God exists eternally giving God’s self within God’s self, that God exists as an eternal embrace of self-giving and generous love where each person of the Trinity gives the totality of themselves to one another in a dance of love so complete and generous that threeness comes to equal oneness.

This is what it means to believe that, as St. John says in his first epistle, ‘God is love’ (1 Jn 4:8).  God exists as love.  God, in God’s very essence, exists and has always existed as an eternal community of love, and it is God’s very existence as eternally loving that explains why the created order came to be, and particularly, why God gave the gift of God’s very self to us in the Incarnation, when God became human.  We know that God exists as love because that is how God lived on earth.  Jesus’ example of a totally generous and self-giving love, a love that led him to the cross, reveals to us that love is at the heart of who God is.

This understanding of God as a community as generous love is vitally important for understanding how we are to relate to others, both within the church and outside the church.

The Trinity, I want to suggest, not only shows what it means to say God is love.  The Trinity also provides an icon that vividly shows us how we are to live in community.  If God in God’s essence exists in community, and if we are created in the image and likeness of God, then we too are created to exist in community with one another.  We were not created to live lives of isolation, focused solely on our own well-being to the neglect of the welfare of others.  We were created for one another, to exist relationally just as God exists relationally.  We are, in other words, most fully ourselves, most fully human, when we exist in the kind of community that God is as Trinity.

I don't, however, want to speak here only in terms of abstracts, for there are concrete implications that should be spelled out.  A church that imitates God's Trinitarian life is a church characterized by unity in multiplicity, in which people of various life experiences, perspectives, and temperaments love and embrace one another regardless of the differences that may exist.  It is a church in which each person becomes fully known by the others, in which each person - including our bishops and priests - makes themselves fully open to becoming known, in which each person is willing to be totally vulnerable and open.

It is a church in which persons knows their own and each other's strengths and weaknesses, joys and hardships, character qualities as well as character foibles, and is fully - fully - embraced and accepted and helped and cherished and loved as they are.  It is a church of radical equality in which, regardless of wealth, expertise, abilities, gender, sexual orientation, or race, each person is understood to be absolutely pivotal to the community's life.

May God grant us the grace to become and exist as the Love that God is essentially.

Image from Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Hi again, Greg.

    Nicely done post.

    I will say, however, that it strikes me as odd that can one write about the nature of the Trinity (even in 800 words or less) without mentioning that the Trinity has been specifically revealed to us by Jesus Christ as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” (Remove these personal names from St. Augustine’s de Trinitate, for example, and you have nothing left.)

    It is also not Barthian of me to question your statement that “the doctrine of the Trinity formed out of concrete experiences of the Divine, experiences that shaped the kind of language our ancestors used to express their understanding of God.” While concrete experiences of the Divine further explicate and illuminate our understanding of all things (including the Trinity), such experiences are not the source and ground of our understanding. (Don’t go Schleiermacher on me!) This belongs to Revelation, i.e., here, the words of Jesus Christ as inspired by (and preserved in Sacred Scripture by) the Holy Spirit; divine words, moreover, as interpreted by the Church founded by Christ and vivified by the Holy Spirit. And with respect to the matter at hand, that means beginning with the most explicit revelation of the Trinity we have in Scripture; that locus classicus being Christ’s commission to baptize “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” (Mt. 28).

    You are quite correct of course that the triune nature of God has concrete applications for who we are as human persons and how we should live our lives accordingly. I will suggest, however, that so long as you remain at this level of abstraction in your understanding of the Trinity (by not concretizing the relational nature of the Trinity in the manner in which that relational nature has been revealed to us, i.e., as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), so too will be its application -- including with respect to worship, sacramental practice, and indeed our very identity as made in the image and likeness of God, who, thanks to God sending the spirit of his Son into our hearts, are able to cry out, “Abba, Father!” (Gal. 4:6).

    [I take it from one of your recent tweets, you’ve been heading over to Mass at St. Louis Bertrand. A beautiful church, a wonderful parish, and -- as you mentioned -- first rate homilies. And I just noticed another tweet of yours, claiming your post is just a rip off of Augustine. Not exactly. Augustine, as well as Aquinas, preferred the psychological intra- (not inter-) subjective analogy as a way of understanding the Trinity. You seem to prefer here, whether consciously or not, the approach of Bl. John Paul II as explicated in his theology of the body. For more on this, check out Cardinal Ouellet’s first-rate book, Divine Likeness: Toward a Trinitarian Anthropology of the Family.]

    God bless,

    1. Glad to have you back Stephen! You are, of course, absolutely right to emphasize that the starting point for any Trinitarian reflection is Jesus Christ, and while I implicitly point to this, I don't make this explicit. My reference to "concrete experiences of the Divine" was, in fact, to emphasize this point. I'm wary about limiting revelation only to words. The disciples' experiences of Jesus and of the Holy Spirit encompassed far more than words. They experienced in Jesus the love of the Father and an understanding of what it could be to have God as Father too. In their reception of the Holy Spirit they came to a fuller comprehension of God's nature. I can't comprehend an understanding of revelation divorced from experience.

      As for having an abstract understanding of the Trinity, I actually think I was being more concrete than abstract here. I wasn't at all ignoring the reality of God's triune nature as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but drawing upon this truth to emphasize that community lies at the very heart of who God is, a point that Augustine makes very nicely in De Trinitate. Which is why I tweeted about ripping Augustine off :). No one has shaped my understanding of God as Trinity more than Augustine, and the links he makes between 1 John 4:8, God's triune identity, our creation in God's image and likeness, and the imaging of God in the community of the Church are ones that resonate deeply with me. I think it's a mistake to limit Augustine's trinitarian anthropology simply to the psychological analogy.

      Cardinal Ouellet's book is on my "to read" list.

      St Louis Bertrand is a stunning church aesthetically. I haven't been there for mass, but I frequently go there for the sacrament of reconciliation. The Dominican to whom I referred in my tweets came to my parish last Easter for the Triduum. Incredible.

    2. P.S. I really enjoy your responses, Stephen. You provide an incredibly close and careful reading that pushes me to be more careful myself in my writing and thought. Thank you.

    3. I always appreciate the back and forth, Greg. Thanks for your response.

      Just to be clear, however, I do not think (and nor should anyone else) that revelation can be reduced simply to words on a page. And I do not think that revelation occurs in a vacuum. Revelation always manifests itself through and in an I-Thou experience of the Divine. That is why I noted that “concrete experiences of the Divine further explicate and illuminate our understanding of all things (including the Trinity) . . .”

      The ultimate and supreme revelation of God is not found in “words, words, words” (a la Hamlet) but in the Word -- God made flesh, the person of Jesus Christ.

      Having said this, it is in the words of the Word, as preserved in the word of God that is scripture, that we find a sure source of who *the* Word is and what he, in turn, reveals about the one who sent him. (As St. Jerome famously put it, ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ.)

      My only point on this score is that we should be vigilant in allowing revelation to shape our experiences, and not allow our experiences to misshape what we believe to be revelation. The paradigm of such receptivity is, of course, Mary’s fiat. (See also Balthasar’s short and beautiful work, “Unless You Become Like This Child.”)

      I think we agree on all this.

      Enjoy the snow.


    4. We agree entirely! Enjoy the snow yourself. I took the boys out sledding earlier this afternoon :)

  2. What if the "Trinity" has nothing whatsoever to do with the institutional structures of the church, but is instead a description of the whole bodily being of Man, both male and female?

    The drama of Jesus is the drama of human Destiny when lived in Truth. It is the story of the whole bodily being of archetypal Man (both male and female). God the Father, Jesus the Christ (the Son, Messiah, or Messenger of God the Father), and the Holy Spirit (erternally sent from the Heaven of God the Father and also sent via the sacricial and radiant Son of God the Father) are all archetypes of aspects of the whole bodily being of every man and woman.

    God the Father is the crown, the head, the brain, and also the prior All-Pervading Source Light and Life of the whole bodily being of Man.
    Jesus the Christ is the heart, the true Self (or condition of the ego), and the sacrifice or awful Way of the whole bodily being of Man.
    And the Holy Spirit is the nervous system, the Vehicle of the Messiah, the Medium of Communion with the All-Pervading, Eternal Life of the whole bodily being of Man.

    Such is also the Secret of Hapiness, of BEING Happiness, or being IN Happiness altogether.
    Such Happiness is a combination of pleasure, love, and bliss. It is all of them simultaneously. It satisfies the requirements of all three, raised to the Infinite, Perfect, most Satisfactory degree. - intrinsic pleasure in the body, love in the heart radiating in all directions, and bliss in and above the head.

    Is any of that communicating via the image of a broken tortured body nailed to a cross and wearing a crown of thorns?

    1. Dear Anonymous:

      To be succinct:

      (1) The Trinity has everything to do with the institutional structures of the Church.

      (2) If persons are imago Dei, then, yes, the communion of persons in love that is the Trinity reveals the nature and dignity on the human person: in his bodily nature, as male and female, as he is in himself and as he is in relation to others.

      (3) I’m not sure about (or can even follow) your understanding of what is revealed by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but if God is love, and He is love because he is triune (and vice versa) then, yes, the “image of a broken tortured body nailed to a cross and wearing a crown of thorns,” reveals everything. This is precisely why, as St. Paul says, “we preach Christ crucified” (I Cor. 1:23).

      God bless,

  3. Greg,
    I have had this up on my computer for several days now and I am just getting back to it. Thank you for this wonderful and very helpful essay.

    These three sentences are my takeaways: "To say that God is Trinity is simply to say that God exists, eternally, as a community of love... This is what it means to believe that, as St. John says in his first epistle, ‘God is love’ (1 Jn 4:8)... This understanding of God as a community as generous love is vitally important for understanding how we are to relate to others, both within the church and outside the church."

    In the event you have not already seen it, Fr. Robert Barron has a wonderful explanation of the Trinity (and one that is very similar to yours, although perhaps more than 800 words) in chapter 3 of his book Catholicism (accompanies the DVD series). Fr. Barron writes, "Thus far almost everything I have said about God in this chapter could be echoed by a faithful Jew or Muslim, believers in one God. So what is it, precisely, that makes the Christian doctrine of God distinctive? The answer is given every time we make the sign of the cross and invoke the three divine persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We are signaling that God is one, but not monolithically so; rather in his unity he is a communion, a family of love."

    Thanks again.

    Peace and all good.
    Twitter: @RayGlennon

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Ray. I've been meaning to pick up Fr Barron's book and DVD. Thanks again.

  4. The Trinity, like myths and ghosts, is a mystery. It demands faith. When we make the sign of the cross we are declaring our faith in God, our creator, His Son, Jesus, who died for us to have this faith and the Holy Spirit, the unseen good life force. The Trinity demands, and is, a declaration of faith in this truth.

  5. If you are interested in some new ideas on the Trinity and religious pluralism, please check out my website at It previews my book, which has not been published yet and is still a “work-in-progress.” Your constructive criticism would be very much appreciated.

    My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

    In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

    The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

    1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

    2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or "Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the "body of Christ" (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

    3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

    Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

    * The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

    ** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

    For more details, please see:

    Samuel Stuart Maynes