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Epiphany : a theological introduction to Catholicism

by Aidan Nichols O.P.

Chapter 5: The Trinity

This chapter, though it has for its subject the deepest and most glorious mystery of the Christian religion, will be, paradoxically, nearly the briefest in the book. This is because this whole study is meant to be permeated by Trinitarian thinking and its source, the Trinitarian reality.

In the Old Testament

The experience of Israel contains some adumbrations, or foreshadowings, of the later Trinitarian faith of the Church. For the Hebrew Bible had spoken of the Spirit of the Lord, as also of God's Wisdom and Word. The Spirit shows the selective initiative that characterizes personal, as distinct from impersonal, acting. Less clear is whether he relates to the Lord himself as a person, but there are some indications that he was so hypostatized for a short period in late Judaism. To the Wisdom of God the biblical writers ascribed both prophetic inspiration and the achievements of reason. Sent from the divine throne, this Wisdom interpenetrates, while not superseding, the human spirit. Both the Old Testament and its Aramaic paraphrases, the Targums, speak of the Word of God as participating in the creation of the world and the guidance of God's people hypostatizing, in both, God's power of fulfilling his commands. For the Jewish philosopher Philo, Wisdom and Word are identified, and seen as the mediator between God and the human world.

"Read dogmatically rather than exegetically, that is to say in light of both the New Testament and later doctrinal development, the Jewish Scriptures betray a revelatory climate that lends itself to what is to come."[1]

But it is from the teaching and im­pact of Jesus that the doctrine of the Trinity takes its true rise.

In the Life of Jesus

If Jesus is the founder of Christianity, the center of his own relationship with God lies nonetheless in his sense of his source: the One he called on as Abba, "dear Father" (Mark 14:36). Those around him realized that this relation was unique. Not only did they offer Jesus a kind of discipleship granted to no other Jewish prophet or holy man. They also realized that, though themselves devout Jews, they could not, in comparison with the prayer of Jesus, be said to pray at all. That is implied by the request, "Master, teach us to pray," (Lk 11:1) which prompts the giving of the Lord's Prayer. Jesus' chosen address for God was novel in Jewish devotion, and its Aramaic keyword was left by Christian reverence as the exclusive preserve of Jesus himself. Listening in to the prayer of Jesus, we find an extraordinary sense of intimacy with God, combined with an awareness that he stood in a unique relation of sonship to God as Father. The disciples' appeal to the Father was only possible because of their relation to Jesus.

God was to Jesus what he was not to anyone else. This is the origin of Jesus' grasp of his mission, as most certainly it is the heart of his message. The preaching of Jesus has its principal content in the kingdom of his Father, and his divine love and mercy. The mode in which the kingdom is proclaimed consists in its being made accessible by the parables of the Son parables both spoken and enacted, both words of Jesus and his deeds. Only the unique Son has the right of access to this kingdom, but he mediates such access as sheer gift to the disciples.

"No one knows the Father but the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him" (Matt 11:27; Luke 10:22).

In this striking saying from the Synoptic tradition, Jesus expresses his awareness of being, in a singular way, the recipient and mediator of the knowledge of God. The saying points us on, therefore, to the Gospel of John, and the faith of the Church as expressed in the early councils. From this consciousness of being the only Son of the God he alone knew as Father, the specifically Christian doctrine of God faith in the Holy Trinity takes its rise.

For, in dependence on this sense of God as Father, Jesus was also aware of a unique endowment of the Spirit of God. The Spirit, whose outpouring Jewish tradition considered a mark of the "fullness of time," the imminent consummation of history, was conceived as the agent of union between God and the world. This Spirit Jesus knew as a power working in him, and coursing through him to others. In his ministry of healing, his preaching, and, in and through these, his capacity to draw others into his own relation with the Father, he could see the singular way he possessed the Spirit of God, and the Spirit possessed him. The Spirit was the power of the Abba prayer, uniting him to the Father in a union of love. The Spirit was also the power that enabled him to draw within the ambit of that prayer the disciples, whom he taught to say, "Our Father."

In the Paschal Mystery

What was thus implicit in the public ministry of Jesus became explicit at the first Easter, with its host of attendant visionary and charismatic experiences. In the resurrection appearances of Jesus, and the Pentecost experiences of the Spirit, the absence from the empty tomb in the Easter garden is grasped as a Trinitarian presence. The resurrection is the manifestation of Jesus' renewed presence and activity as truly the Son of the Father in the power of the Spirit. It also entails the full breaking through of the power of that Spirit (now named indifferently the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ) into this world, so as to draw others into a share in the Son's relation to the Father. As Paul writes, at that moment Christ was "manifested as Son of God in power with the Spirit of holiness" (Rom 1:4). In the light of this supreme event of human history, the first disciples saw more clearly how the mutual implication of the Father and the Spirit in the person of Jesus had been a reality of his earlier life. The incidents of the baptism and the transfiguration were recollected as Trinitarian "epiphanies" events that imaged the unique relation of the Son to the Father and the Spirit. In the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, such recuperative memory extends to the birth of Jesus. Finally, in the Gospel of John, the evangelist affirms this divine dimension of Jesus' life as being present from the beginning. The Son was always in relation to the Father and the Spirit, even in that eternity to which nothing can be prior. The Son and the Spirit, even in that eternity to which nothing can be prior. The Son and Spirit, these irreplaceable bearers of the disclosure of the Father, themselves belong from before all worlds to the realm of the uncreated, where God is all in all.

The dialogue between Father and Son is, in the Holy Spirit, a dialogue of of love. The intimate trust in the Father which Jesus expresses in sayings recorded in the Synoptic tradition is translated by John, very reasonably, into the language of shared knowledge and love; this may even reflect an esoteric teaching given discreetly by Jesus to the inner circle of his disciples. Jesus' tender, yet unbreakable, confidence in the Father found most poignantly in Luke's record of his dying prayer on the cross, "Father into your hands I commend my spirit" (24:46: the Jewish child's night prayer) has as its necessary precondition the loving knowledge of the Father claimed by the Christ of John. Similarly, the self-giving obedience to the Father's will shown by the Jesus of the Synoptics, that sense of "Thy will be done" contained in the little Greek word dei (it must be so), John renders in an idiom of total surrender and receptivity by Son to Father.

Should these words not be the very words of Jesus, they are not for all that a theological imposition. Rather are they an elucidation, a drawing out of what was tacit in what was said: the ipsissima vox within the ipsissima verba of the Lord. Only a really ripe reflection could enable the immediate disciples to grasp the mystery of Jesus' identity (which they sensed from the first in his presence) in its full implications. As the English Benedictine theologian B. C. Butler wrote, the actual Jesus of history may well have been more Johannine than appears in the Synoptic tradition.[2] We understand, often, only in retrospect.

Verba or vox, the Son enjoys his unique relation of knowledge and love with the Father because he is the perfect recipient of the Father's own self-giving goodness. He is the one mirror in which this goodness is not distorted.

The Homoousion of the Son

These reflections on New Testament Christology bring us within reach of the epoch-making teaching of the Council of Nicaea (325) that the Father and the Son are homoousion, "of the same being." The Creed produced by that council, which eventually commanded and unified the mind of the Church, secured the gospel against distortions, grounding the Church unambiguously in the self-revelation of the Father through Jesus Christ his Son and in one Spirit (whose own divinity would not, however, be effectively confessed until the Council of Constantinople, in 381). All were agreed that the Father is the source, fons et origo, of the divinity: it is to the Father that the Son is turned, in the most complete obedience and receptivity. But and here,was the clarified perception of Nicene orthodoxy, owing so much, as it did, to Athanasius so total is this receptivity on the Son's part that he must be the fullness of the Father's life, as received and exercised. For many, it took a long time to grasp the difference between, on the one hand, subordination, inferiority, or even, as in the Alexandrian heresiarch Arius, the merely creaturely mediation of further creation­views of the Son that the Church finally rejected and on the other hand, sheerest receptivity. Jesus can be the bearer in history of the good news of the Father and his kingdom because in eternity the Son is the recipient of the Father's total self-gift. Were this not so, the Son could not divinize us; he could not bring us salvation. This concern for the reality of salvation prompted Athanasius's defense of the Son's divinity in his treatise On the Synods:

Since he is the deifying and enlightening power of the Father, in whom all things are deified and quickened, he is not alien in essence from the Father, but coessential. For by partaking of him we partake of the Father; and that because the Word is the Father's own. Whereas if he were himself also divine by participation, rather than receiving from the Father his essential Godhead and imagehood, then he would not deify for he would be one of those things that are deified. It is impossible that he who merely possesses by participation should impart of that partaking to others, since what he has is not his own but the Giver's.[3]

Father and Son define each other in coeternal deity. As Son, Jesus exists solely from the Godness of the Father. He is, as the Nicene­Constantinopolitan Creed puts it, "God from God, Light from Light." The intrinsic generosity of the divine nature comes to fruition in and as Father and Son, differentiating itself in a movement whereby each possesses in fullness the being, ousia, of God.

"As soon as one under­stands the divine ousia as self-giving love, one perceives something of the Father and the Son. Total love giving itself, yearning for an object to be given to, for a subject in which to inhere: this is the Father. Total love received, given, expressed and therefore expressive: this is the Son."[4]

In the light of the homoousion it is possible to see what is truly distinctive in the New Testament knowledge of God. By contrast with Judaism and its stress on the unnameability of God, the Christian faith is concerned with God as he has named himself in Jesus Christ, incarnating in him his own Word, so that in Christ we know God as he is in his own inner being. The incarnate Word is the principle of all revealed knowledge of God, of what he has done and continues to do in the universe, as understood by faith.

The effect of this is to redraw, in the first place, the outlines of a doctrine of God, "Creator of all things, visible and invisible." The Fatherhood of God, revealed in the Son, determines how we are to understand God as the almighty Creator (not the other way round). It is because God is inherently productive in his own being that he is also the Creator. God is the ultimate fountain of being only as he is, from all eternity, the Father of the Son.

In the second place, the Nicene doctrine also speaks of Christ himself. Athanasius brought this teaching to its sharpest focus in his account of Christ as the incarnate correlate of that ultimate origin that God is in his triune being as Creator. The Lord's humanity taken from the Virgin Mary is the "economic" or salvation-historical form which the divine Origin has assumed in the personal stooping down of the eternal Son, as he enters creation, to actualize within it the providential activity of the almighty Father. While the Arians appealed to Proverbs 8:22 in its Greek translation, "the Lord created me a beginning of his ways for his works," in order to justify their view of the Son as the creaturely instrument of the rest of creation, Athanasius used the same text to serve his teaching that, in his human nature, Jesus was created as the new foundation for God's providential and redemptive operations toward us. The Son, through whom all creatures are made, deliberately became man "in the form of a servant" (Phil 2:7) so as to carry out God's saving and renewing work in our regard. Christ is thus the basis of a new beginning in the creation and the archetypal pattern of God's gracious provision for it. If the Arians searched the Scriptures for any and every passage indicating the creatureliness, human weakness, mortality and subordinate, indeed, servile, condition of Jesus, all in complete contrast to the transcendent Godhead of the Father,

Athanasius took the same texts in order to show that it was precisely in this condition of a servant that the everlasting Son came among us, becoming one of us, and one with us, so as to be our Savior. Thus Athanasius was able to articulate simultaneously two truths about the Son. First, in his humanity he is the creaturely form that the divine saving economy has taken among us: the way that leads human beings to the Father. Second, in his divinity, as the divine principle in this creaturely economic form, he is the Head of all creation, the principle in whose terms we are to understand all the works of God.

Homoousion is then, rightly, one of the key terms and crucial proclamations of Catholicism, vital to the Creed which, Sunday by Sunday at the Eucharistic assembly, all Catholic Christians profess. In its insistence that, though eternally distinct, the Father and the Son are the same being, it rules out at once unitarianism and polytheism (and their moderated patristic versions, Sabellianism and Arianism). Furthermore, since what God is in himself, and what he is in the incarnate Son are one and the same, God is identical with the content of his own revelation, and so we have access to the Father through the Son (and, as the Council of Constantinople will add, in its tacit affirmation of a second, pneumatological homoousion, "in the Spirit"). The homoousion guards the great truth that, in the incarnation, the everlasting, transcendent God has revealed his own self to us, and is, indeed, fully identical with that self-revelation in Christ. The gospel could not be the gospel without this affirmation. There is no unknown God behind Jesus Christ, but only he who has made himself known in the Son's incarnate person as he who is. Nor is this simply a matter of the revelation of the being of God. The actions of Jesus Christ are thus recognized as really and truly divine activity. Only if the actions of Jesus Christ are God's own acts "for us men and for our salvation," do they possess absolute finality and ultimate validity for all human beings. For such attributes belong necessarily to actions which only the Creator of the world can perform.

The Homoousion of the Spirit

What place in this dialogue of love should be given to the Spirit? In the Hebrew Bible, and in the later Wisdom literature, there is already talk of the Spirit of the Lord, the Creator Spirit who gives life and breath to all that lives, yet remains gloriously above the whole development of nature and guides it. The same Spirit is said to animate every human being both in his or her ensouledness, as a living being, in this created order, and in the future life, that of the glorified soul, the risen body and also to empower particular individuals in more spectacular ways, as with the judges, or the prophets, called as they were to fulfill high profile roles among the Israelite people of God. The specifically Christian doctrine of the Holy Spirit, however, as with the entire doctrine of God, must await the era of the New Testament. If it was the Son of God who became incarnate (not the Father, not the Spirit), it is only through the Son that we have knowledge of the Spirit, as of the Father. Our understanding in faith of the Holy Spirit must be controlled, therefore, by our knowledge of the Son.

During Jesus' ministry, the Spirit is the power of the Father's presence overflowing from Jesus to others. The largest number of New Testament references to the Holy Spirit fall, however, in the period of the resurrection and ascension, the immediate prelude to the time of the Church, when the dialogue of love between visible Son and invisible Father will no longer be conducted on the earth's surface, in our space and time. For both Paul and John it is the Holy Spirit who carries forward the dialogue of Father and Son so as to incorporate within it the disciples of Jesus, the Father's adopted sons and daughters. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, as the Creator of communion between the Son and his disciples, and between the Son and the Father. In the Pauline letters, the Spirit gives the Church all those gifts that Christ willed for his community not only charismatic and hierarchical gifts, impulses to prophesy and preach, but also the more fundamental realities of the new covenant: wisdom and holiness, charity, new life, and new freedom both here and hereafter. Above all (and here Paul shares the Johannine understanding), the Spirit makes us children of God (Rom 8:12-17; Gal 4:6), enabling us to stand in the Son's own relation to the Father.

Those who are bearers of the Spirit of God are led to the Word (that is, to the Son) but the Son takes them and presents them to the Father, and the Father confers incorruptibility. So without the Spirit there is no seeing the Word of God, and without the Son there is no approaching the Father. For the Son is knowledge of the Father, and knowledge of the Son is through the Holy Spirit. But the Son, according to the Father's good pleasure, administers the Spirit charismatically, as the Father wills, to those whom he wills.[5]

The last five clauses of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed depended originally on the affirmation of belief in the Holy Spirit. They describe the Holy Spirit in action. First he fills the Church which becomes therefore one, holy, and Catholic, and is preserved in the apostolic preaching. Second, he gives efficacy and power to the sacraments which, accordingly, become ways in which we commune with "holy realities," the communio sanctorum. Third, he bestows justifying grace: entry into God's covenant in Christ with humanity, thanks to baptism (what the Creed calls the "forgiveness of sins"). Fourth, he guarantees full personal immortality ("the resurrection of the body"). Fifth, he also gives his warrant to eternal life, an abiding share in the divine life itself ("life everlasting"). Thus the sanctification lost in Adam and regained in Christ consists in recovering our conformity with the Son and Father through the Holy Spirit.

[The Son] truly bestows the Holy Spirit on the souls of believers, sending him to dwell there, and, through him and in him reforms them to their pristine condition namely, into himself, into his likeness through sanctification. And so in this way he calls us back to the archetype of the image, namely the "character" of the Father. For that character, expressive of a true and perfect likeness, is the Son. But the pure and natural likeness of the Son is the Spirit to whom we also being configured by sanctification are refigured into the very form of God [6]

Owing to the unity of action of Word and Spirit in the work of redemption, it is not surprising that in the earliest centuries the doctrine of the Spirit remained comparatively undeveloped. But this situation could not last. Once again, as the First Council of Constantinople made clear in its confession of the divinity of the Spirit, the extender of the love-relation of Father and Son to others must himself belong to the realm of the uncreated. In any case, even for the Old Testament, God's Word and Spirit are presented as not less than God, though, admittedly, they are not yet seen as in relation to God, while in the New Testament, just as God's Word is related to God as Son to Father, so the Holy Spirit is presented as being from the Father, and from the Son. We can say that, as Jesus' sending by the Father and his prayer to the Father disclose economically his eternal relation to the Father, so the Spirit's sending by Father and Son and the prayer he prays in us (Rom 8:26ff.) reveal his eternal relationship to Father and Son. Though the New Testament speaks of the Holy Spirit in personal terms he is the "other Paraclete" of John 14-16 and his divinity seems taken for granted (1 Cor 2:10-11; 3:16), it took the Pneumatomachian (Spirit­slaying) heresy of the patristic period to irritate the Church into producing the pearl of this doctrine.

Athanasius, having already appealed in the course of his defense of the Son's divinity to what an agent of divine salvation must be, made the same move, in relation to both salvation and creation, on behalf of the Holy Spirit.

Since all has come to be through the Word, you rightly think that the Son is no creature. Now is it not a blasphemy, then, that you describe as a creature the Spirit in whom the Father, by the Word, consummates and renews all things? ... He who unites the creature to the Word cannot himself be numbered among creatures; he who confers filiation by adop­tion cannot be a stranger to the Son.... Just as the grace accorded [us] comes from the Father by the Son, so there can be no communion in that gift on our part except in the Holy Spirit: it is through participation in him that we have the charity of the Father, the grace of the Son and the communion of the Spirit himself.[7]

So the Holy Spirit, like the Son, must be from the being of God a being now enriched by its passage (as it were; no time is involved) to self-affirmation as Father and Son, and so self-enabled to express itself indefinitely further, in creation and redemption. For the divine works of creation and redemption, though deriving from the being and will of the whole Trinity, do so by originating from the Father, being mediated through the Son, and fully achieved only in the Holy Spirit.

As the One who completes the work of salvation, the Holy Spirit is the vital principle of the people of God, the soul of the Church. He is the eschatological power which impels the Church, and through her all history, towards the fulfillment of the creation.

This does not mean, however, that the Spirit is a corporatist power, indifferent to individual persons. Augustine, who most stressed that the Holy Spirit is appropriately given as God's most intimate self­communication to his redeemed people (since it is his role in the Holy Trinity to be the gift of Father and Son to each other), also found in the constitution of each individual human person an analogy for the triune God. There are, Augustine thought, only two fundamental acts of spiritual existence: knowledge and love; it is the latter that we must associate with the Spirit if he truly is in his hypostatic being the mutual love of Father and Son. Just as the Creator Spirit crowns the divine act of our creation by bringing us into existence as possible centers of loving responsiveness to the Father, so our redemption is the actualization of this possibility, thanks to the "second gift" of that Spirit, his filling us with grace as the Spirit of the Son.

In the theology of the Western Church, reflection on the person of the Spirit has carried down the ages the insight that the primary model for our understanding of the Holy Trinity and its action must be caritative, a sustained reference to the pattern of love. The Spirit is God's "bond of love," vinculum amoris, the love of the Father resting on the Son, and at once returned by him to the Father and turned outwards, for the sake of those who will be sons and daughters in the Son, filii in Filio. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are love originated, love received, and love in action, the everlasting self-differentiation of the God of love. Wherever the writings of Augustine were treasured, this was not forgotten-as for instance in the twelfth-century Scottish theologian and mystic Richard of St. Victor.

For Richard, the Trinitarian persons are amans, dilectus, and co­dilectus, the lover, the beloved, and the co-beloved. Richard sees the dilectio, love, which the Father is, as given to a dilectus, or well-beloved, the Son. Since it cannot rest on him without ceasing to give itself, it also flows into a co-dilectus, who is loved in common by Father and Son, and constitutes love's channel to the human beings who receive the God of revelation by faith. The relation between love given (the Father) and love received (the Son) is eternally fruitful, its fruitfulness consisting in a new personal life, the Spirit, bearing the same fruitfulness forward into the world.

The Holy Spirit, then, has his being from the Father. But the form of that being is shaped by the relation of the Father and the Son. The self-giving of the Father and the receptivity of the Son condition the existence of the Spirit, and stamp his activity towards ourselves with its characteristic hallmarks, namely, the power to recreate love where it has died or become sterile (charity) and the ability to respond to this recreative power set liberatingly within our minds and hearts (faith) and to persevere in so doing (hope). The Spirit of the Father rests on the Son, as the Greek Fathers insist; but the Father is who he is only as Father-of-the-Son, and so the Spirit is who he is through the Son, or even, as the Latin Fathers affirm, from the Son. Theologians and philosophers, mystics and poets may, from time to time, try out other vocabularies for the being of the triune God, but the language of love, based on the New Testament, sums up their deepest common conviction. The vocabulary of theological ontology, found in the dogmatic definition of Trinitarian belief, is there to guard this more "familiar" (indeed nuptial) language of the Church's inner life as bride of Christ.

One Being in Three Persons

The vocabulary of ousia (being) and hypostasis (person) in which the dogma of the triune God is couched sometimes arouses objections on account of its Hellenic, philosophical origin. But these terms underwent a semantic shift as the Church turned them to her use. They must be understood in the light of the gospel to whose service they were pressed. They now express the truth that God is, in the internal relations of his transcendent being, the very same Father, Son, and Holy Spirit which he shows himself to be in his revealing and saving activity in space and time. Ousia (what the triune persons share) now refers to being not simply as that which is, but to what it is in respect of its internal reality, while hypostasis (that reality, three of which possess the divine ousia) refers to being not just in its independent subsistence but in its objective distinctiveness too. In the Church's teaching, moreover, these terms have an essentially personal meaning: the "of the same being" of Father, Son, and Spirit, refers to personal relations within the one being of God. The three are consubstantial, yet distinct from one another indeed, hypostatically so. The great Doctors of the Cappadocian Church of the fourth century Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, and Gregory of Nyssa stressed the irreducibility of the hypostatic order to that of essence. God as personal being may exceed his own nature. The hypostatic existence of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit admits the possibility of divine actions in which God might freely assume (for instance) a fully human existence while remaining God (i.e., One whose nature remains completely transcendent). At the same time the essential eloquence and dynamism of the divine being, as revealed in the processions from the Father of Son and Spirit, made it possible for Athanasius to speak of the totally interpenetrating or co­indwelling character of the persons' relations, later called the doctrine of the divine circumincession or coinherence.

The application of the term person here deserves special mention. What are the three who are involved in the circumincession of mutual love and knowledge in the divine Trinity? We know who they are: Father, Son, and Spirit, but what is the genre of being to whom these three possessors of the single divine reality belong? The classic answer of the Fathers, East and West, persons, and if we ask what a person might be in this unique context, we shall find no better answer than that of Thomas Aquinas: subsistent relationship. The term is coined for its transcendent object, but it remains rooted in the finite realm, in our own experience.

For ourselves too our relationships are, to a degree, constitutive of who we are. There can of course be no functioning human mind in this world without a biological substrate of body, especially of brain. And bodies are individual. Nor could I speak of "my own relationships" unless the mind is individual also. Nevertheless, the laws of subjectivity are neither material nor simply mental, and, by their Diktat, I can only become more myself by allowing myself to be constituted by another. This is the seeming paradox of all human love. In Shakespeare's words:

So they lov'd, as love in twain
Had the essence but in one;
Two distincts, division none;
Number there in love was slain

We can distinguish, then, between individuality and personhood. In us, personhood requires individual existence as its base. However, to be a person is not to be an isolated monad but, on the contrary, to find oneself increasingly defined by others. Augustine had already seen this. Persons are ad invicem, "turned towards one another," not ad semetipsum, "turned toward self." When Aquinas refers to the Trinity as subsistent relationship, he means that in Father, Son, and Spirit this process of becoming constituted in what one is by the relationships one has reaches its full term; or, rather, this process in human beings has its source and archetype in God. What in us is a process or series of intermittent events, is in them an archetypal and eternal event.

In their case there is no individuality, no way of specifying the persons which does not consist in pointing to a relationship. The Son points with all he is to the Father. He exists within this pointing, itself eternally expressed by the Spirit, the bond of the love of Father and Son and the channel of its outflow.

Augustine's ruminations on the divine image in the human being are intended to throw light on this uncreated mystery by drawing our attention to a created case where a triad of vital processes are mutually self-implicating. When the human mind activates the self-presence of the person and, in Augustine's term, "remembers" itself, this act of self-minding (to use a Scottish speech-form) generates a mental word of self-understanding whereby I say explicitly "me" from which intimately conjoined acts there issues a third that unites both in a novel fashion as the person affirms or wills the "self" he or she remembers and understands.

Yet no monadic individual can represent the fruitfulness of the divine One, and in book 14 of De Trinitate Augustine accordingly allows his own analogy to crumble. The truth of self-memory, self-under­standing, and self-love cannot be had till all these acts are referred to God, for the self is grounded in God who is "interior intimo meo." In the template of Augustine's teaching, the schema of Bible and Fathers, the only proper way for an image to find its exemplar is to realize its likeness. By letting these acts be self-directed, indeed, every person falls, defacing the Godly image. The true self is ever open to God. By closing itself to God, the "I" centered on its own ego loses its real self­possession, all its coherence, and tumbles downwards and outwards, scattering itself in fragments. The one-in-three of human personality cannot be redeemed without the saving, historical intervention of the divine one-in-three of whose mystery its own constitution is a faint echo.

The remedy for this state of affairs is the divine missions, and particularly the sending of the Son in the flesh. For as man fell and the image was fragmented by downward and outward movement from the inner and upper citadel of the mind to the outer and lower reaches of the senses and their appetites, so he can only be raised up, and the image restored, by a reverse movement inward and upward; the restoration must start with the flesh. It must start with the humiliation, to the spiritual mind (the Platonist in Augustine felt this far more keenly than we may do), of having to believe in the flesh of Christ, in the incarnation of the eternal Word, and his death on the Cross.[9]

The Eternal Trinity in Time

The nexus of the Trinitarian relationships is known to us because, in history, it was projected in and through the concrete circumstances of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the Spirit-anointed humanity assumed by the Son. More especially, it is the crucifixion, as the sign par excellence of these relations, that we hail as the supreme icon of the Holy Trinity.

The suffering love of the Son on Calvary expresses in time the eternal self-giving which is God. Though the cross is the distinctive love-act of the Son, the whole Trinity was there engaged. The Calvary drama's protagonist was the God who, one in essence, is the Father who sends the Son to experience the passion and the Spirit to inspire and sustain that onerous offering. The cross is God's tree. The poet G. M. Hopkins wrote in a notebook: "This sacrifice ... is a consequence and shadow of the procession of the Trinity, from which mystery sacrifice takes its rise."[10] On the cross, the Son makes the Father present as love and mercy. The Father is seen in him, as he manifests himself as Son. But Christ offered himself to the Father, remarks the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, "through the eternal Spirit" (9:13). Proceeding from the Father, the Spirit directs towards the Father the sacrifice of the Son. He consumes the sacrifice with the fire of the love that unites Father and Son in the communion of the Trinity. It was, surely, by contemplation of the cross as for this reason glorious that John could sum up the Christian faith in the simplest of all creeds, "God is love" (1 John 4:8b).

By taking us through flesh-and-blood history into the mystery of God, and then back out again into time, the story of Jesus gives us not only our key to the deity, but also our project for living, our social program. The Trinitarian God disclosed in that story is the archetype of that charity, or self-giving love, which, in classical Christian ethics, must in some way inform all virtues. Even in such matters as politics, therefore, contemplation of the God of love always precedes action, if action is to be Christian and gracious, and not exhaust itself in a vain attempt to wrest transfiguration from a barren earth. The triune God of love is not only our goal in eternity. He is also our banner in time. He is both the mystical heart of Christian experience and faith's agendum for the transformation of this world.

This brings us to the deepest aspect of our relationship to the Trinity: its "inhabitation" in us.

"The complete Trinity dwells in us, the whole of that mystery which will be our vision in heaven. Let that be our cloister. . . . Throughout the whole day, let us deliver ourselves to Love: by doing the will of God, in his regard, with him, in him, for him alone."[11]

To the question, What is being lived out in me? the Catholic Christian replies by, first, acknowledging the Father as the source of one's Christian life; second, recognizing in hope that the pattern of one's life is the life and death of the Son incarnate, who attained his victorious resurrection through the Father's good pleasure; and third, affirming-and here lies the final wisdom that, thanks to the gift of the Spirit, the origin and destiny of one's life is the God who is love.

For the souls delivered to his action in their very depths, the mystical death of which St. Paul speaks. . . becomes so simple, so sweet. They think much less of the work of destruction still left to them as of plunging into the foyer of the love which burns in them and is none other than the Holy Spirit-that same love which, in the Trinity, is the bond between the Father and his Word. . . . They live, in St. John's words, "in society" with the three adorable persons. Their life is common, and that is what the contemplative life is. [12]

If such words of Elizabeth of the Trinity flow from a life of Christian discipleship at its most mystically intense, what they express is shared in lowlier ways by all the redeemed. The Trinitarian economy means that, thanks to the advent of the divine persons, we are being radically changed. Their presence to us (through baptism) is prior to any conscious psychological act we may perform, yet that presence is for the sake of our psychological transformation (for our consciousness is our existence at a higher pitch of the perfection of being). To say we are sharing in the life of the Trinity must mean that we begin to transcend the limitations endemic to our human way of knowing and loving, and it is through this transforming effect of the divine indwelling that we have access to the Trinitarian persons themselves. The Holy Trinity is the inversion, and the cure, of our corrupted consciousness, for it is at once both perfect self-knowledge and self-affection, and perfect mutual knowledge and mutual affection. All creatures are known and loved by the triune God; it is the special privilege of Christians that such love-knowledge is reciprocated by a conscious share in the life of the Trinity and the hope for a consummation of that sharing in the age to come.

The associative thinking called "appropriation" helps us to reflect about what those persons are, and what they have done for us. Most importantly, it has been the common teaching of the Church's theologians since the eighteenth century that each of the divine persons takes possession of the justified according to their personal properties. Thus, for instance, the Holy Spirit enters the lives of human beings, in the post-Pentecost economy, only for the Son and the Father: therein lies the deepest reason why his grace union with humankind, unlike that of the Son, is not hypostatic.

A Trinitarian Monotheism

Yet for all the richness of the Church's doctrinal vision of the divine threefoldness, the faith of the Catholic Church remains a monotheism in the line of Judaism and even Islam. All in God is one save that which is indicated by the relations of opposition which define the persons. As the Quicunque vult, a Western patristic creed later ascribed to Athanasius, has it:

Thus the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God; and yet there are not three Gods, but there is one God. Thus the Father is Lord, the Son is Lord, the Holy Spirit is Lord; and yet there are not three Lords, but there is one Lord. Because just as we are obliged by Christian truth to acknowledge each person separately both God and Lord, so we are forbidden by the Catholic religion to speak of three Gods or Lords.[13]

Whether we are thinking of the divine nature (or essence), or of the unbreakable communion of the persons in their reciprocal relations which mirrors the unicity of the nature on the hypostatic level, or finally of the role of the Holy Spirit as bond of unity between the Father and the Son (which reflects, in terms of the origins of the persons, both the nature the persons embody and the communion of life they share), oneness is as typical of the Godhead as is triadicity. The Quicunque vult concludes resoundingly, therefore: "In all, things . . . both Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity must be worshipped. So the one who desires to be saved should think thus of the Trinity,"[14] for salvation would be incomplete without the immersion of human thought in saving truth.

In this "most simple and sublime . . . most devotional formulary to which Christianity has given birth," so Newman thought, "we warn first ourselves, then each other, and then all those who are within its hearing, and the hearing of the Truth, who our God is, and how we must worship him, and how vast our responsibility will be, if we know what to believe, and yet believe not."[15]

And the unity toward which concern for the divine oneness presses us is not only, as the Augustinian theologoumenon of the triune image might have it, the unity of the individual human person. It is also as the entire Catholic tradition testifies, that of the human continuum at large. The Catholic sense of the urgency of the task of uniting all human beings, all the world, is bound up with the unity of God. "Do we not have one God and one Christ and one Spirit of grace poured out upon us, one calling in Christ?"[16]

Such considerations bring us by a natural progression to the topics of the next chapters: salvation and the Church. For these can hardly be described without allusion to that divine hallmark which is unity a point urged persuasively yet in vain by Cardinal du Perron on that sovereign representative of early Stuart Anglicanism, the wise and foolish James VI and I:

God of his inestimable bounty and incomprehensible wisdom has vouchsafed to watch over us and to prepare and direct us even in this life towards that eternal happiness that it has pleased him to promise us and reserve for us in the other; and to this end he has chosen the method which best corresponds with the excellency and dignity of his nature. And since he is one, the principal of all unity, and even unity itself, instead of saving us by so many distinct and separate ways, he has obliged us to embrace the means of our salvation and its conditions in unity. "He is one," said St. Augustine (In Psalmos 101), "the Church is unity, nothing corresponds to the one save unity." That is, he was not content to win us and possess us separately as so many scattered and dispersed individuals, but willed that by the terms of that same covenant between him and ourselves we should be bound up together in a common sodety, to constitute, under the authority of his name, a sort of spiritual body, and a form of Estate and Republic. Jesus died, said St. John, "not only for the nation, but to gather together in one the children of God, that were dispersed" (John 11:52).[17]




1. W. J. Hill, The Three-Personed God: The Trinity as a Mystery of Salvation (Wahington, D.C., 1982) 5.

2. B. C. Butler, An Approach to Christianity (London, 1981) 180-213.

3. Athanasius, On the Synods 51.

4. G. H. Tavard, The Vision of the Trinity (Washington, D.C., 1981) 69.

5. Irenaeus, Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching 7.

6. Cyril of Alexandria, Dialogues on the Trinity 7.

7. Athanasius, Letters to Serapion 1.23, 25, 28.

8. W. Shakespeare, The Phoenix and the Turtle, in The Complete Works. Compact Edition, ed. S. Wells and G. Taylor (Oxford 1958), p. 782.

9. E. Hill, "Introduction,' in The Works of St. Augustine, vol. 1.5, The Trinity (Brooklyn, NY, 1990) 55.

10. C. Devlin, ed., The Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins (London, 1959) 197.

11. Ecrits spirituels d'Elisabeth de la Trinité, presentes par le R. P. Philippon, O.P. (Paris, 1949) 41.

12. Ibid., 192.

13. DH 75.

14. Ibid.

15. J. H. Newman, Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (Westminster, Md., 1973) 133.

16. 1 Clement 46.6.

17. J: D. Duperron, Réplique à la Response du Sérenissime Roy de la Grande Bretagne (1620) preface, cited in H. de Lubac, S.J., Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man (London, 1952) 235-36.

©; 1996 by The Order of St. Benedict, Inc., Collegeville, Minnesota. All rights reserved.

This version: 27th April 2010

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Fr Aidan Nichols

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