It is the foundational belief of every Christian that God is a Trinity of Persons. In fact, that is the very definition of Christianity. It comes to us from our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, who said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you...” [St. Matthew 28:18-20].
The doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation and the capstone of our faith. It is the guardian of orthodoxy in the Church; it is the essence of effective preaching; it is the guarantor of proper teaching. In fact, the ancient Church accorded so much importance to a correct understanding of the Trinity that the bishops met together to define the Holy Trinity even before they addressed the issue of which books would be included in the New Testament. It is so foundational that we can honestly say that all errors – all heresies – result from the neglect or misunderstanding of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
So what does it actually teach us about God?
The doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that God is transcendent over the universe. It teaches us that God is in all things; it does not teach us that all things are God, which is incorrect and a heresy. The doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that although God is accessible to all, He is above all and beyond all. He is not some kind of “higher self,” nor is he a “deeper consciousness.” He is not an oracle or a disembodied ghostly spirit. God stands above the universe, even as He pervades it. He exercises His own judgment. He has the right to do as He pleases. The doctrine of the Trinity reveals how God could create the universe, and yet be able to speak and make Himself known within it.
In order for God to create the universe, He must be conscious. Certainly an unconscious being could not undertake a deliberate act. Consciousness requires the ability to contrast between “me” and “not me.” Before the creation of the universe, there was nothing that was not God; therefore a god who is simply one person could never achieve consciousness. Such a god would not be able to create the universe, and could not make himself known nor speak within it.
We can understand something of this idea of “consciousness” in our own human relationships, because we are aware of ourselves through our relationships with others. Our own self-consciousness begins in our relationship with our parents, and the consciousness we have about ourselves develops within the various relationships we have – including our relationship with God. This is why, in those rare cases of feral children – children who have been abandoned and raised in the wild by animals – they have the consciousness of animals. They are, of course, human in that they have souls, but their consciousness is stunted because they have not been able to have a normal relationship with other human beings.
This truth is found supremely in the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, and it shows something of the fact that we are created in God’s image. The three Persons have a relationship of love, forming the “consciousness” of God; indeed, this love is because of the three united states of consciousness. The Persons of the Trinity are completely One in substance, essence, and will, but each Person in the Trinity perceives the others as both “me” and “not me.” This is why we say the Father is not the Son, nor is the Son the Holy Spirit – and yet, all are God, in a relationship of unity and love. This unity and love means that God is eternally self-conscious and so is capable of deliberate acts.
The doctrine of the Trinity reveals the divine relationship within the Godhead, when we hear Jesus, one Person of the Trinity, calling Himself the Son of another Person of the Trinity, whom He termed His Father, and the third Person, whom He called the Holy Spirit. In this way, He revealed that the relationship among the three Divine Persons is one of perfect love, of mutual submission, and of a unity of will.
The doctrine of the Trinity reveals why God saves us and sustains us and to brings us into His glory. As the three Persons live in a relationship of love, so God wants to bring us into that same relationship of love. And because of that, even though we are made by God, God has infinitely more interest in us than a potter has in the pots he makes. God is not satisfied with displaying the good pots and discarding the defective ones; rather, He keeps them all, because God loves us all. God has a paternal interest in us that goes far beyond the physical making of us. He actually works to save us from the fate of being mere things. God wants to perfect us, so that we can live with Him in His glory. Our destiny is not to exist in some obscure corner as an object, but to live in an eternal fellowship with God, sharing in His divine relationship of love.
The doctrine of the Trinity reveals how God can be transcendent and eternal, and yet how He can enter into time and space in the Person of Jesus Christ. It explains how God can relate to us personally, on our own terms, but without abdicating the operation of the universe.
The doctrine of the Trinity explains how God can be transcendent and eternal, and yet dwell within us and empower us. It explains how God can be in all things, but not of any one thing; it explains why we find God within us, when at the same time He is above us and beyond us. It explains how the Church can be a human institution, and yet at the same time divine; how it can carry out God’s divine Will, even as it demonstrates our imperfections.
The doctrine of the Trinity explains how a priest can fruitfully celebrate the sacraments and preach the Word in spite of his personal sinfulness, a reminder that God communicates His wisdom through foolish men.
Try as we might to fully understand and explain, the reality of the Trinity is imperfectly expressed in any and all human terms. For example, we sometimes hear from the “politically correct” a reference to the Trinity as “Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer,” but that does not describe the essence of the Trinity as it is revealed by Jesus, the incarnate God. Those terms tell us what God does, but it does not tell us who He is. To ascribe only one function to a particular Person of the Trinity leads to heresy.
We can ask, who is the Creator? Is it the Father who spoke the eternal Word, or is it the Word through whom all things were made, or is it the Spirit who moved upon the waters? The answer is: all three. We cannot divide God.
We can ask, who is the Redeemer? Is it the Father who sent the Son, or is it the Son who died and rose again, or is it the Spirit who gives us faith and repentance? The answer is: all three. We cannot divide God.
We can ask, who is the Sustainer? Is it the Father who supplies our needs, or is it the Son who advocates our cause, or is it the Spirit who dwells within us? The answer is: all three. We cannot divide God.
Why should the Creator take an interest in His creation? Why does the Redeemer save us? Why should the Sustainer preserve us beyond mere physical existence? This faulty human formula invented by those who wish to avoid the traditional terms because they judge words such as “Father” and “Son” as being not inclusive, does nothing other than reveal some of the functions of God. It does not describe His divine nature, or His divine motivation, or His eternal plan. It does not reveal God’s love, nor does it explain whether or why God transforms us into whom He intends us to be. In fact, the more people try to be “politically correct” when referring to God, the more their efforts remain “this-worldly,” with no hope for anything beyond the here-and-now.
Therefore, it is necessary for us to proclaim that God is the Father of Mary’s baby; and that God is that baby, the Son of Mary; and that God is the Spirit who conceived that baby in Mary’s virgin womb. Those are facts of history, and in those facts we find that God is love.
Perhaps after all the philosophy, and after all the formulae, and after all the wondering about how three can be one, and one can be three, perhaps this best explains the Holy Trinity: God, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, loves us, and adopts us, and makes us His witnesses in this world. And why? So that we can know Him, and be in a relationship of love with Him, and live with Him eternally in Heaven.
Almighty and everlasting God, who hast given unto us thy servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of the Divine Majesty to worship the Unity: We beseech thee that thou wouldest keep us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to see thee in thy one and eternal glory, O Father; who with the Son and the Holy Spirit livest and reignest, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.