Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Trinity

To be honest, the Trinity is not something I’ve thought a lot about. Making the sign of the cross is about as Trinitarian as my thinking gets. It’s not that I had a problem with the Trinity. I think I just put it in the too hard basket. The Trinity is a hard concept to get your head around. It’s easy to say I believe in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the one Godhead. It’s a bit harder to understand how that actually works or what it means.

And I think, honestly, how it ‘works’ may almost be a bit beyond us. We’re too likely to think of it in human terms. In ‘The Shack’, the members of the Trinity were presented as three different characters, in human form. It was one of the reasons why I didn’t like ‘The Shack’. Although we can think of Jesus as a human, the Father and the Holy Spirit are not. We can’t imagine three different human people sitting up in Heaven and having tea together. Somehow one, but somehow different. And yet if we do not think of them in human terms, how do we think of them?

I like to visualise things. I also like to use metaphors. But when it comes to God, our imagery and metaphors will never be completely adequate. We are using earthly concepts to describe Heavenly realities. That’s a bit like trying to describe colours to someone who has been blind from birth. Nothing on earth, nothing in our understanding, can fully explain God.

But when it comes to the Trinity, I can’t even think of a metaphor. I know that people in the past have used things from earth to try and describe the Trinity. St Patrick’s three-leaf clover for example or Augustine’s idea of the human mind as the Trinity, divided into memory, intellect and will. However, these metaphors don’t really get me any closer to understanding it. They can point towards the reality, but they don’t really explain it in any meaningful way.

One approach that does help me get a little bit closer to appreciating the Trinity is to split it up into three distinct persons and imagine what they would be like in isolation, separated from the Trinity. God the Father may be seen as a very distant God, unconcerned with the world. Jesus may be seen simply as a prophet, providing us with a good moral example. The Holy Spirit may be seen as a warm, fuzzy spirituality and that’s about it.

But it is when we see all three as part of the one Godhead that we can better appreciate who God is. Father, Son and Holy Spirit do not stand alone, even though we might think of them occasionally as if they did. God the Father is not just an absent God, but he sent his Son to reconcile us to Him and he sends the Holy Spirit to work in the world today. Jesus was not just a prophet, but God, sent by the Father to redeem us. The Holy Spirit is not just a disconnected spirituality, but a real person, sent by the Father and the Son to accomplish their purposes.

I still cannot visualise it. I still can’t point to anything in the world and say the Trinity is like that. But to think about how the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all part of the one Godhead, relating to each other and connected to each other, helps me better appreciate each one. It is also by reflecting on all three persons of the Trinity that I better appreciate who God is, what He has done and what He is doing.

(Image details: Holy Trinity. The Icon from the Church of Laying Our Lady’s Holy Robe from the village of Borodava near Ferapontov Monastery. 16th century. From Wikimedia Commons.)


  1. Dear Liz,

    The best metaphor for the Most Holy Trinity I ever heard was: water, steam and ice.

    They are all of the same essence, yet separate. Yet when combined can quite easily become one. And can become either three.

    The two best 'pieces' I have read on the Trinity are:

    1. The Preface of the Most Holy Trinity (from the 1962 Roman Missal [or any Missal predating it]).

    2. Blessed Dom Marmion's explanation of it in 'Christ, The Life of the Soul'.

    David ...

  2. Hi David,

    I have read the water, steam and ice explanation, either on your blog or your comments, before. To me, it still doesn't seem to quite explain it, but that may be because I don't understand the Trinity properly.

    It seems to suggest that God takes on different modes of being, rather than being three distinct persons. When water becomes ice, it ceases to be water. The same when it becomes steam. And when the three are all joined together, they're just water. Not water, ice and steam together.

    So in other words, the question this raises for me is, when Jesus went to join his Father, did he stop being Jesus? Or is he still a distinct person within the Godhead?

    However, it is a good explanation. And maybe I have a wrong understanding of the Trinity, which is why I have difficulties with it.

    I have a lot of books on Christianity. And there's probably not a single big Christian topic that I don't have at least one book on. I was thinking just then I don't have one single book on the Trinity. The only reason I'm thinking about it now is because it was part of my uni readings.


  3. Dear Liz,

    Christ said two things that ring clear in my head.

    He said.

    I and the Father are one.

    The Father is greater than I.

    To fully comprehend these two seemingly contradictory statements, you need an infusion of the Holy Ghost.

    They make perfect sense to me due to the hypostatic union.

    Studying theology at a university is not going to explain such things to you. Only true Catholic seminaries, monasteries and convents have a real grasp on these things. Primarily because people who join such institutions, give up their will. They give up their reason, and constant rationalisation of the faith. Faith is infused from above. It is not an academic pursuit. It has to be lived. And that solid faith that cannnot be disturbed which you seek? You will never find it at a modern university, because the people (lectures, professors, whatever they call themselves, are not truly men of God. They are academics).

    Hard core faith is the reward for souls who give up everything, including academic pursuits.

    If God wants to, He can infuse my soul with all knowledge of the mysteries of God. But as St Paul says, what does it profit me, if I speak with the tongues of angels but have not charity.

    Charity is giving.

    I would love nothing more in this life to sit and write for the rest of my life, but I know one thing. I am a lot wiser man for choosing to labour with my hands for a living.

    As St Teresa of Avila said, "I would rather speak to God than about Him."

    All that being written, continue with your studies, because, as St Teresa of Avila forgot to mention, it is better to speak about God than ignore Him or forget about Him completely.

    What she said has to be taken into context. She was speaking to people in religious life. She was probably sick to the teeth of them. As Fr Barrielle said, "She was a woman with balls."

    David ...
    David ...

  4. Hi David,

    In something I was reading for uni the other day, I came across one of my favourite statements I have ever read in a book. It was Thomas a Kempis - I would far rather feel contrition than be able to define it. Of course, I had read it before, because I read that book on your recommendation. I was so excited at seeing that sentece there, that I read it out to my son. Who just looked at me with one of his 'Mum's acting crazy again' looks.

    Just because someone is an academic does not mean they are not truly a man or woman of God. Many people who want to teach or study theology do so from their love of God. And from what I've seen so far, most of the people studying theology are just as concerned with living their faith as they are with studying it.

    I don't have a problem in accepting those two statements of Christ. And I don't have a problem believing in the Trinity. It's just when I'm trying to explain it or think about it in earthly terms that I run into problems.

    But I personally think that is always the case when we are speaking about God. God is always beyond our complete understanding. You do have to reach a stage where you just accept things on faith. Instead of trying to explain it all.

    But there is one thing that I think it's important for anyone who studies theology to remember. Faith is not the same as knowledge. You can spend a lifetime learning about faith, but still not have faith. Reading and studying theology doesn't make you a Christian. So when you say faith has to be lived, I completely agree with you.

    I study theology because that's what I like doing. And it's either that or waste a lifetime dancing around the lounge room to Bon Jovi songs with my children.


  5. Great post on a very difficult to understand concept!



Bookmark and Share

Blog Patrol