Revealing God’s Triunity
We Begin Where God Began
The Shma, Judaism’s signature prayer, presents God as triune, one family of three divine persons! God sets apart its extraordinary importance with the opening words “Hear O Israel!” The Shma says: “Adonai [my Lords] Eloheinu [our Gods] Adonai [my Lords] ekhad [one]” Deut 6:4. These words are plurals. God is saying one in three. If he had meant one not three, he would have said yakhid, the Hebrew word for an absolute unity. But he said ekhad, the Hebrew word for a compound unity.
“As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” Jn 20:21. We generally use God‘s words to teach his lessons when we can. However, Maimonides, in his Thirteen Principles of Faith, implicitly recognized that ekhad could be used to support God as a Holy Trinity. God’s Shma said ekhad [compound unity], but Maimonides substituted yakhid, [absolute unity]. If a sage of Maimonides stature believed that ekhad supports the Holy Trinity, so should every Jew who reveres his teaching.
If our friend asks further, we may quote from the Athanasian Creed (below), § 21-23:
The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made nor created, but begotten. The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding. Yet each is fully God. Not part of God. The Father contains within him the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Son contains within him the Father and the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit contains within him the Father and the Son.
If he inquires still further, we may invite him to read all of the Athanasian Creed (below), and the dogma (further below).
The Athanasian Creed
The Athanasian Creed consists of 44 statements. It summarizes, § 266 “Now this is the Catholic faith: We worship one God in the Trinity and the Trinity in unity, without either confusing the persons or dividing the substance; for the person of the Father is one, the Son‘s is another, the Holy Spirit‘s another; but the Godhead of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is one, their glory equal, their majesty coeternal.”
The Athanasian Creed was originally credited to St. Athanasius. EWTN and New Advent’s Catholic Encyclopedia point out that we currently believe the Athanasian Creed was penned by one of several other Catholic theologians of worldwide reputation. But, as New Advent points out out, “From a dogmatic standpoint, the merely historical question of the authorship of the Creed, or of the time it made its appearance, is of secondary consideration. The fact alone that it is approved by the Church as expressing its mind on the fundamental truths with which it deals, is all we need to know.”
3. And the Catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;
4. Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.
11. And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal.
12. As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensible, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible.
13. So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty.
14. And yet they are not three almighties, but one almighty.
16. And yet they are not three Gods, but one God.
18. And yet they are not three Lords but one Lord.
19. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord;
20. So are we forbidden by the Catholic religion to say; There are three Gods or three Lords.
21. The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten.
22. The Son is of the Father alone; not made nor created, but begotten.
25. And in this Trinity none is afore or after another; none is greater or less than another.
26. But the whole three persons are coeternal, and coequal.
27. So that in all things, as aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.
28. He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.
The Dogma of the Holy Trinity
§ 253 The Trinity is One. We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons, the consubstantial Trinity. The divine persons do not share the one divinity among themselves but each of them is God whole and entire: The Father is that which the Son is, the Son that which the Father is, the Father and the Son that which the Holy Spirit is, i.e. by nature one God. In the words of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), “Each of the persons is that supreme reality, viz., the divine substance, essence or nature.”
§ 254 The divine persons are really distinct from one another. God is one but not solitary. Father, Son, Holy Spirit are not simply names designating modalities of the divine being, for they are really distinct from one another: He is not the Father who is the Son, nor is the Son he who is the Father, nor is the Holy Spirit he who is the Father or the Son. They are distinct from one another in their relations of origin: It is the Father who generates, the Son who is begotten, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds. The divine Unity is Triune.
§ 255 The divine persons are relative to one another. Because it does not divide the divine unity, the real distinction of the persons from one another resides solely in the relationships which relate them to one another: In the relational names of the persons the Father is related to the Son, the Son to the Father, and the Holy Spirit to both. While they are called three persons in view of their relations, we believe in one nature or substance. Indeed everything (in them) is one where there is no opposition of relationship. Because of that unity the Father is wholly in the Son and wholly in the Holy Spirit; the Son is wholly in the Father and wholly in the Holy Spirit the Holy Spirit is wholly in the Father and wholly in the Son.
§ 256 St. Gregory of Nazianzus, also called “the Theologian”, entrusts this summary of Trinitarian faith to the catechumens of Constantinople: “Above all guard for me this great deposit of faith for which I live and fight, which I want to take with me as a companion, and which makes me bear all evils and despise all pleasures: I mean the profession of faith in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. I entrust it to you today. By it I am soon going to plunge you into water and raise you up from it. I give it to you as the companion and patron of your whole life. I give you but one divinity and power, existing one in three, and containing the three in a distinct way. Divinity without disparity of substance or nature, without superior degree that raises up or inferior degree that casts down … the infinite co-naturality of three infinites. Each person considered in himself is entirely God … the three considered together … I have not even begun to think of unity when the Trinity bathes me in its splendor. I have not even begun to think of the Trinity when unity grasps me.”
Into the Deep
To savor the flavor of Pope Leo XIII’s and St. John Paul II’s observations on the Holy Trinity, Second Exodus suggests: Pope Leo XIII’s Divinum Illud Munus, 1897, on the Holy Spirit, addresses the Holy Trinity most especially at § 3, but also at 2, 4, 9. St. John Paul II’s Dominum et Vivificantem, 1986, on the Holy Spirit, addresses the Holy Trinity at § 9, 11, 12, 17, 39, 45, 48, 58, 66, 67. John Paul’s Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 2003, addresses the Holy Trinity at § 8, 16, 30, 43, 50, 60.
Clarifying Our Perspective
What is a Mystery
A mystery is a divinely revealed truth whose very possibility before it is revealed cannot be rationally conceived.
After a mystery is revealed its inner essence is incomprehensible. It cannot be fully understood by the finite mind because it is a manifestation of God, who is infinite and therefore beyond the complete grasp of a created intellect.
A mystery is incomprehensible, but it is intelligible. One of the primary duties of a believer is, through prayer, study, and experience, to grow in faith, to develop an understanding of what God has revealed.
The Central Mystery
§ 234 “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 most central mystery in the hierarchy of truths! God loves us so much that he has revealed to us more than we can understand. But, because we love God so much, we try valiantly to understand as best we can. If we get the Dogma of the Holy Trinity right, it will lead us to the rest of “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” Jude 3. If we misunderstand, we will encounter confusion further along the road.
Some Catholics, pressed by tough questions, say, “It’s a mystery, beyond our understanding.” However, in Catholic teaching, a mystery is not unknowable but incomprehensible, a secret truth or plan hidden from the common knowledge of men.
§ 237 God reveals mysteries to us. Rabbi Yeshua speaks of mysteries of the kingdom of God Mt 13:11; Mk 4:11; Lk 8:10 which he disclosed to his shlikhim but not to the crowds who heard them only in parables, “So that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand” Mk 4:12. God always has reasons for revealing to some but not to others, though we may not understand them at the time.
Jews had prayed the Shma since Moses’ time, but our Father emphasized one God, to break their adherence to Egypt’s many false gods. Jews say the Shma is the basis for their belief in one God as opposed to one triune God. Later, fulfilling Isaiah’s Prophecy, some Jews did not follow Rabbi Yeshua.
By comparison, the Ten Commandments can be discerned in our unaided reason. Imagine a community of ten men and ten women. Each man has to constantly defend his woman against the other nine who would like to take her. Eventually, the men will agree on a law, “You shall not commit adultery.”
Often we are tempted to explain the Holy Trinity by an analogy. Rabbi Yeshua’s analogies Mt 11:16; 13:24; 18:23; 22:2; 25:1 work because he presents them as parables. However, God who is not created is unlike anything in his creation, so human analogies can’t work.
Our one God is three distinct persons § 254. Modalism is the false belief, proposed by Sabellius, that God is one person who has revealed himself in three modes of existence. But St. Irenaeus taught, “He is a simple, uncompounded Being, without diverse members” (Against Heresies, 2:13:3, AD 189). Pope Callistus I excommunicated Sabellius for his heresy in AD 220.
Some people still offer modalist explanations of the Holy Trinity. A popular but wrong idea is that the Holy Trinity is like a man who is at once a son, a father, and an uncle, but that man is one man with three titles. Still another is that the Holy Trinity is like water, which can exist as ice, liquid, or steam. But the three divine Persons of the Holy Trinity coexist, the different forms of water do not coexist. Water is not ice and liquid at the same time (when ice melts each molecule is either ice or water at any given moment).
Sometimes, when this is pointed out, people overcompensate by emphasizing God’s oneness. However, that still forces every analogy to explain God’s triunity by proposing parts. For instance, some will say that the Holy Trinity is like a three-leaf clover. If we look at its three leaves it is three, but if we look at the plant alone it is one. The explanation remains tangled in the modalist heresy.
I Believe in God the Father
§ 198 Our profession of faith begins with God, for God is the First and the Last, The beginning and the end of everything. the Credo begins with God the Father, for the Father is the first divine person of the Most Holy Trinity; our Creed begins with the creation of heaven and earth, for creation is the beginning and the foundation of all God’s works.
I Believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth
I Believe in God
§ 199 “I believe in God”: this first affirmation of the Apostles’ Creed is also the most fundamental. the whole Creed speaks of God, and when it also speaks of man and of the world it does so in relation to God. the other articles of the Creed all depend on the first, just as the remaining Commandments make the first explicit. the other articles help us to know God better as he revealed himself progressively to men. The faithful first profess their belief in God.
I. I Believe in One God
§ 200 These are the words with which the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed begins. The confession of God’s oneness, which has its roots in the divine revelation of the Old Covenant, is inseparable from the profession of God’s existence and is equally fundamental. God is unique; there is only one God: The Christian faith confesses that God is one in nature, substance and essence.
§ 201 To Israel, his chosen, God revealed himself as the only One: “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God is one LORD; and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Through the prophets, God calls Israel and all nations to turn to him, the one and only God: “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. … To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear. ‘Only in the LORD, it shall be said of me, are righteousness and strength.’”
§ 202 Jesus himself affirms that God is the one Lord whom you must love with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. At the same time Jesus gives us to understand that he himself is the Lord. To confess that Jesus is Lord is distinctive of Christian faith. This is not contrary to belief in the One God. Nor does believing in the Holy Spirit as Lord and giver of life introduce any division into the One God:
We firmly believe and confess without reservation that there is only one true God, eternal infinite (immensus) and unchangeable, incomprehensible, almighty and ineffable, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit; three persons indeed, but one essence, substance or nature entirely simple.
II. God Reveals His Name
§ 203 God revealed himself to his people Israel by making his name known to them. A name expresses a person’s essence and identity and the meaning of this person’s life. God has a name; he is not an anonymous force. To disclose one’s name is to make oneself known to others; in a way it is to hand oneself over by becoming accessible, capable of being known more intimately and addressed personally.
§ 204 God revealed himself progressively and under different names to his people, but the revelation that proved to be the fundamental one for both the Old and the New Covenants was the revelation of the divine name to Moses in the theophany of the burning bush, on the threshold of the Exodus and of the covenant on Sinai.
The living God
§ 205 God calls Moses from the midst of a bush that bums without being consumed: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” God is the God of the fathers, the One who had called and guided the patriarchs in their wanderings. He is the faithful and compassionate God who remembers them and his promises; he comes to free their descendants from slavery. He is the God who, from beyond space and time, can do this and wills to do it, the God who will put his almighty power to work for this plan.
“I Am who I Am”
Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you’, and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, I AM WHO I AM.” and he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘’ AM has sent me to you’ … this is my name for ever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.”
§ 206 In revealing his mysterious name, YHWH (“I AM HE WHO IS,” “I AM WHO AM” or “I AM WHO I AM”), God says who he is and by what name he is to be called. This divine name is mysterious just as God is mystery. It is at once a name revealed and something like the refusal of a name, and hence it better expresses God as what he is — infinitely above everything that we can understand or say: he is the “hidden ,” his name is ineffable, and he is the God who makes himself close to men.
§ 207 By revealing his name God at the same time reveals his faithfulness which is from everlasting to everlasting, valid for the past (“I am the God of your father”), as for the future (“I will be with you”). God, who reveals his name as “I AM,” reveals himself as the God who is always there, present to his people in order to save them.
§ 208 Faced with God’s fascinating and mysterious presence, man discovers his own insignificance. Before the burning bush, Moses takes off his sandals and veils his face in the presence of God’s holiness. Before the glory of the thrice-holy God, Isaiah cries out: “Woe is me! I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips.” Before the divine signs wrought by Jesus, Peter exclaims: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” But because God is holy, he can forgive the man who realizes that he is a sinner before him: “I will not execute my fierce anger … for I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst.” The apostle John says likewise: “We shall … reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.”
§ 209 Out of respect for the holiness of God, the people of Israel do not pronounce his name. In the reading of Sacred Scripture, the revealed name (YHWH) is replaced by the divine title “LORD” (in Hebrew Adonai, in Greek Kyrios). It is under this title that the divinity of Jesus will be acclaimed: “Jesus is LORD.”
“A God merciful and gracious”
§ 210 After Israel’s sin, when the people had turned away from God to worship the golden calf, God hears Moses’ prayer of intercession and agrees to walk in the midst of an unfaithful people, thus demonstrating his love. When Moses asks to see his glory, God responds “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you my name ‘the LORD’ [YHWH].” Then the LORD passes before Moses and proclaims, “YHWH, YHWH, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness”; Moses then confesses that the LORD is a forgiving God.
§ 211 The divine name, “I Am” or “He Is,” expresses God’s faithfulness: Despite the faithlessness of men’s sin and the punishment it deserves, he keeps “steadfast love for thousands.” By going so far as to give up his own Son for us, God reveals that he is “rich in mercy.” By giving his life to free us from sin, Jesus reveals that he himself bears the divine name: “When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will realize that “I AM.”
God alone IS
§ 212 Over the centuries, Israel’s faith was able to manifest and deepen realization of the riches contained in the revelation of the divine name. God is unique; there are no other gods besides him.
He transcends the world and history. He made heaven and earth: “They will perish, but you endure; they will all wear out like a garment … but you are the same, and your years have no end.”
In God there is no variation or shadow due to change. God is HE WHO IS, from everlasting to everlasting, and as such remains ever faithful to himself and to his promises.
§ 213 The revelation of the ineffable name I AM WHO AM contains then the truth that God alone IS. the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, and following it the Church’s Tradition, understood the divine name in this sense: God is the fullness of Being and of every perfection, without origin and without end. All creatures receive all that they are and have from him; but he alone is his very being, and he is of himself everything that he is.
III. God, He Who Is, is Truth and Love
§ 214 God, “HE WHO IS,” revealed himself to Israel as the one “abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” These two terms express summarily the riches of the divine name. In all his works God displays, not only his kindness, goodness, grace and steadfast love, but also his trustworthiness, constancy, faithfulness and truth. “I give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness.” He is the Truth, for “God is light and in him there is no darkness;” “God is love,” as the apostle John teaches.
God is Truth
§ 215 “The sum of your word is truth; and every one of your righteous ordinances endures forever.” “And now, O LORD God, you are God, and your words are true;” this is why God’s promises always come true. God is Truth itself, whose words cannot deceive. This is why one can abandon oneself in full trust to the truth and faithfulness of his word in all things. The beginning of sin and of man’s fall was due to a lie of the tempter who induced doubt of God’s word, kindness and faithfulness.
§ 216 God’s truth is his wisdom, which commands the whole created order and governs the world. God, who alone made heaven and earth, can alone impart true knowledge of every created thing in relation to himself.
§ 217 God is also truthful when he reveals himself — the teaching that comes from God is “true instruction.” When he sends his Son into the world it will be “to bear witness to the truth.” “We know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, to know him who is true.”
God is Love
§ 218 In the course of its history, Israel was able to discover that God had only one reason to reveal himself to them, a single motive for choosing them from among all peoples as his special possession: his sheer gratuitous love. And thanks to the prophets Israel understood that it was again out of love that God never stopped saving them and pardoning their unfaithfulness and sins.
§ 219 God’s love for Israel is compared to a father’s love for his son. His love for his people is stronger than a mother’s for her children. God loves his people more than a bridegroom his beloved; his love will be victorious over even the worst infidelities and will extend to his most precious gift: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”
§ 220 God’s love is everlasting.” “For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you.” Through Jeremiah, God declares to his people, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.”
§ 221 But St. John goes even further when he affirms that, “God is love.” God’s very being is love. By sending his only Son and the Spirit of Love in the fullness of time, God has revealed his innermost secret: God himself is an eternal exchange of love, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and he has destined us to share in that exchange.
IV. The Implications of Faith in One God
§ 222 Believing in God, the only One, and loving him with all our being has enormous consequences for our whole life.
§ 223 It means coming to know God’s greatness and majesty: “Behold, God is great, and we know him not.” Therefore, we must “serve God first.”
§ 224 It means living in thanksgiving: If God is the only One, everything we are and have comes from him: “What have you that you did not receive?” “What shall I render to the LORD for all his bounty to me?”
§ 225 It means knowing the unity and true dignity of all men: Everyone is made in the image and likeness of God.
§ 226 It means making good use of created things: faith in God, the only One, leads us to use everything that is not God only insofar as it brings us closer to him, and to detach ourselves from it insofar as it turns us away from him:
- My Lord and my God, take from me everything that distances me from you.
- My Lord and my God, give me everything that brings me closer to you
- My Lord and my God, detach me from myself to give my all to you.
§ 227 It means trusting God in every circumstance, even in adversity. A prayer of St. Teresa of Jesus wonderfully expresses this trust:
Let nothing trouble you Let nothing frighten you Everything passes / God never changes Patience / Obtains all Whoever has God / Wants for nothing God alone is enough.