The Unity of the Trinity

Trinity Sunday—Year A

My favorite professor at seminary was a young, married, Catholic layman named Dr. Perry Cahall. He taught us several courses but his Church History class stands out in my mind. I took away two big insights from Church History.

First, in every age, century after century, it seemed like the Catholic Church was circling the drain, about to go down the tubes for good. There were Roman persecutions, Gnostic and Arian Heresies, barbarian invasions, Islamic conquests, Protestant rebellions, atheist revolutions, fascist and communist totalitarianisms. And yet, the Church endures because God is with her. Remembering this has been a reassuring consolation for me in the past, in our present circumstances, and will be in the future.

The second major insight was how heresies clarify the Church’s teachings. When some sect or movement would arise teaching some new heresy this would prompt a Church Council to more clearly define what we believe as Christians. Error prompts the profession of truth. This was especially so in our profession of the Holy Trinity.

Dr. Cahall is a pretty mild guy, so one of his most memorable lectures stands out in my mind. He said, “Gentlemen, if some day you are ordained and on Trinity Sunday you get into the pulpit and say, ‘The Trinity is a mystery and there’s nothing we can really say about it,’ I’ll hunt you down like the dogs you are.” Why? Because as the Catechism says, “The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in himself. It is therefore the source of all the other mysteries of faith, the light that enlightens them. It is the most fundamental and essential teaching in the hierarchy of the truths of faith. The whole history of salvation is identical with the history of the way and the means by which the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, reveals himself to men and reconciles and unites with himself those who turn away from sin.” Well, I don’t want to be a dog, so I’m not going to just going to tell you “it’s a mystery.

So what are some of the things we can we say with certainty about the Most Holy Trinity? In the words of the Athanasian Creed, this is what the Catholic Faith teaches:

We worship one God in the Trinity and the Trinity in unity.
Neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the substance.
For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, another of the Holy Spirit.
But the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit have one divinity, equal glory, and co-eternal majesty.
What the Father is, the Son is, and the Holy Spirit is.
The Father is uncreated, the Son is uncreated, and the Holy Spirit is uncreated.
The Father is boundless, the Son is boundless, and the Holy Spirit is boundless.
The Father is eternal, the Son is eternal, and the Holy Spirit is eternal.
Nevertheless, there are not three eternal beings, but one eternal being.
So there are not three uncreated beings, nor three boundless beings, but one uncreated being and one boundless being.
Likewise, the Father is omnipotent (that is, all-powerful), the Son is omnipotent, the Holy Spirit is omnipotent.
Yet there are not three omnipotent beings, but one omnipotent being.
Thus the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God.
However, there are not three gods, but one God.
The Father is Lord, the Son is Lord, and the Holy Spirit is Lord.
However, there are not three lords, but one Lord.
For as we are obliged by Christian truth to acknowledge every Person singly to be God and Lord, so too are we forbidden by the Catholic religion to say that there are three Gods or Lords.
The Father was not made, nor created, nor generated by anyone.
The Son is not made, nor created, but begotten by the Father alone.
The Holy Spirit is not made, nor created, nor generated, but proceeds from the Father and the Son.
There is, then, one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three sons; one Holy Spirit, not three holy spirits.
In this Trinity, there is nothing before or after, nothing greater or less. The entire three Persons are co-eternal and coequal with one another.
So that in all things… the Unity is to be worshiped in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity.

How does the Church come to know such things? We learned them through Jesus Christ. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” Jesus teaches there is one God, and that the Father and he are one, and that whoever has seen Jesus himself has seen the Father. He accepts Doubting Thomas declaring him “My Lord and my God,” and yet relates to his Father God as another person. When Jesus prays aloud in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me,” he is not talking to himself, he’s not pretending or putting on a show for the apostles. The Lord Jesus is the Father’s only-begotten Son and reveals the mystery of the Trinity to us.

God is not a solitary individual, but a loving communion of persons – less like a hermit and more like a family. God is three who know, three who love, three who will and act. The divine persons each work uniquely and together, yet the Father did not die on the Cross, the Holy Spirit did not become man, and the Son did not descend as a dove or tongues of fire. However, each divine person’s works are done in harmonious concert with the others’. We have one “Father from whom all things are, and one Lord Jesus Christ through whom all things are, and one Holy Spirit in whom all things are.” We are made in the image and likeness of God not merely because we posses existence, intellect, freewill, and lordship over creation, but because we live to our fullest in loving communion with others.

St. Paul writes to “brothers and sisters, rejoice. Mend your ways, encourage one another, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss.” I am pleased that we are beginning the (likely gradual) return to fully gathering at Sunday Mass. Though we can do good apart, it is best for us to be together. I am also praying for our larger society’s coming together as a community of communities. Strife, violence, and destruction are not the path to unity. If Almighty God had wanted to destroy us all he could have, but “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” True unity will come in the likeness of the Trinity. This is the life of Heaven that holy community can begin to know on earth. All of us are called to share in the life of the Holy Trinity, here and now into forever.

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