Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Trinity: a Divine Unity, and a Mystery

I'm a Catholic, so I say "in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" a lot: mostly when I start praying.

Coming from a recovering English teacher, that may seem shocking.

Since it's the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: shouldn't it be "in the names of the et cetera?"

No, because I am referring to God's name: the one God; the almighty Father, his only Son, and the Holy Spirit — the Most Holy Trinity.1 (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 233)

I worship the God of Abram: God Most High, the creator of heaven and earth. (Genesis 14:18-19)

Abram's name got changed to Abraham, Abraham and his wife Sara got impatient, waiting for God's promise; three dozen centuries later, we're still dealing with that domestic disturbance; and that's another topic. Topics. (Genesis 16:1-12, Genesis 21:2-14)

Quite a bit of the Old Testament tells how Abraham's descendants finally got it through their heads that the Almighty was serious about this:
"'Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone!"
(Deuteronomy 6:4)

"Bind Them at Your Wrist...."


Taking metaphor literally isn't unique to some American Protestants, by the way. This comes a bit later in the same chapter:
"Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today.

"Drill them into your children. Speak of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest.

"Bind them at your wrist as a sign and let them be as a pendant on your forehead."
(Deuteronomy 6:6-8)
To this day, some of Abraham's descendants have tefillin strapped to their arms and heads: little boxes holding parchment scrolls inscribed with verses from the Torah. My hat's off to them for taking Deuteronomy 6:8 and 11:18 seriously.

I don't wear tefillin. I'm about as gentile as it gets, west of the Urals; and I'm pretty sure that "bind them at your wrist" was meant figuratively. On the other hand, I appreciate folks who can follow directions. And that's yet another topic.

God is One



(Detail from John Martin's "The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.")

Considering what's happened before and after Moses came back from that interview on Mount Sinai, I can understand why some folks take no chances about violating Mosaic law.

God is good, God is merciful, but God can play hardball. (May 5, 2013)

Failure to recognize that God's uniqueness may not be what set off the Sodom and Gomorrah incident: not directly, anyway. Genesis 19:13-30 cites regrettable sexual practices as the trigger — that's the version screenwriters seem to like.

But Isaiah 1:9-17 and 16:46-51 says social injustice and disregard for the poor was the issue, and Jeremiah 23:14 gives a short list of sins, including "...siding with the wicked, so that no one turns from evil...." Either way, as Moses said:
" 'Future generations, your own descendants who will rise up after you, as well as the foreigners who will come here from far-off lands, when they see the calamities of this land and the ills with which the LORD has smitten it -

"all its soil being nothing but sulphur and salt, a burnt-out waste, unsown and unfruitful, without a blade of grass, destroyed like Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which the LORD overthrew in his furious wrath - "
(Deuteronomy 29:21-22)
Most folks probably don't remember Admah, Zeboiim, and Zoara, the other cities in that pentapolis. At Lot's request, Zoara/Zoar got designated as a refuge area. (Genesis 19:22)

Anyway archeologists aren't sure where the cities of the plain were: or if they existed. That's not surprising. The Bible isn't a "history text, a science book, or a political manifesto." (USCCB)

Besides, the post-strike assessment suggests that there isn't much left to find. (March 31, 2014)
"Early the next morning Abraham went to the place where he had stood in the LORD'S presence.

"7 As he looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and the whole region of the Plain, he saw dense smoke over the land rising like fumes from a furnace."
(Genesis 19:27-28)
High-profile responses like Sodom and Gomorrah's abrupt termination, and that evacuation involving a fiery cloud described in Exodus 14:19-29, are — very few and far between.

Most of the time what happens is the sort of unpleasantness described in 2 Kings 16:2-2 Kings 19:37.

Short version: under the mismanagement of Ahaz; Hoshea, son of Elah; and Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, Abraham's children built and used altars with multiple code violations. It probably seemed like good diplomacy at the time, but didn't end well.

Eventually, descendants of Abraham and Israel got the message: "...The LORD is our God, the LORD alone!" Emphasis on "alone."

I think that helps explain why folks reacted violently when Jesus made this claim:
"24 Jesus said to them, 'Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM.'

"So they picked up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid and went out of the temple area."
(John 8:58-59)
Knowing what had happened to their ancestors when they accepted ersatz deities, forcefully rejecting someone who claimed godhood makes sense. After Jesus stopped being dead — well, that came later. (March 11, 2012)

I had something in mind for this post. Let's see. "In the name of;" Moses;  tefillin; cities of the plain, the defunct ones, not McCarthy's novels; assorted unpleasantness. Right.

Persons, Fictional and Otherwise


The Trinity isn't like Superman and Clark Kent, or Batman and Bruce Wayne, where one person has multiple identities.

The Trinity is not three Gods, either.

Do I understand how the Trinity works? No. Certainly not. I probably can't understand it. God's God, I'm not, and I'm okay with that.

I worship one God.

That's God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit — three persons, one God; a divine Unity; "...the Father who generates, the Son who is begotten, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds...." (Catechism, 253-256)

All three Persons of the Trinity showed up for our Lord's baptism, an occasion I've used when telling my kids about our faith:
"12 After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened (for him), and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove (and) coming upon him.

"And a voice came from the heavens, saying, "This is my beloved Son, 13 with whom I am well pleased.' "
(Matthew 3:16-17)
Given the sort of people my kids and are, I haven't literally drilled them on details of our faith. But I take Deuteronomy 6:7's instructions seriously, and that's yet again another topic.

"A Mystery"


The Trinity is a mystery — with 20-20 hindsight we can see hints of the Trinity in the universe and Old Testament, but we weren't going to reason it out. God had to tell us. (Catechism, 237)

That picture on the right, a "Shield of the Trinity" or "Scutum Fidei," is the best way I've found — for me, anyway — of quickly describing the Trinity.

Saint Thomas Aquinas discussed the Trinity in more detail, putting it mildly. Here's a sample:
"In its etymological sense, this word 'Trinity' seems to signify the one essence of the three persons, according as trinity may mean trine-unity. But in the strict meaning of the term it rather signifies the number of persons of one essence; and on this account we cannot say that the Father is the Trinity, as He is not three persons. Yet it does not mean the relations themselves of the Persons, but rather the number of persons related to each other; and hence it is that the word in itself does not express regard to another."
("Summa Theologica," First Part, Question 31; Saint Thomas Aquinas)
St. Thomas Aquinas is a doctor of the Church. That's a title we reserve for those with top-rate intellectual understanding, outstanding holiness — and it's an official title, not often given.

Saint Catherine of Siena died in 1380: but wasn't officially recognized as a doctor of the Church until 1970, when Pope Paul VI corrected that oversight. My opinion.

I'm not upset that it took nearly six centuries to declare the author of "The Dialogue of Divine Providence," a prolific correspondent, and one of the folks who got Gregory XI back to Rome, as a doctor of the Church.

Being part of an outfit that's two millennia old, and a student of history, I recognize that things take time: occasionally lots of time. (October 26, 2014)

It's likely enough that some folks in the 41st century will complain that an outstanding philosopher and Saint who died around 3350 wasn't officially recognized until the mid-3900s. And that's still another topic.


(Raphael-Lacoste, ''city view, Matte Painting," used w/o permission.)

More of my take on the Trinity, and guest posts:

1 Here's some of what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say about God:
"In no way is God in man's image. He is neither man nor woman. God is pure spirit in which there is no place for the difference between the sexes. But the respective 'perfections' of man and woman reflect something of the infinite perfection of God: those of a mother and those of a father and husband.241"
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 370)

" 'So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God.'532 Christ's body was glorified at the moment of his Resurrection, as proved by the new and supernatural properties it subsequently and permanently enjoys.533 But during the forty days when he eats and drinks familiarly with his disciples and teaches them about the kingdom, his glory remains veiled under the appearance of ordinary humanity.534 Jesus' final apparition ends with the irreversible entry of his humanity into divine glory, symbolized by the cloud and by heaven, where he is seated from that time forward at God's right hand.535 Only in a wholly exceptional and unique way would Jesus show himself to Paul 'as to one untimely born,' in a last apparition that established him as an apostle.536"
(Catechism, 659)

"The One whom the Father has sent into our hearts, the Spirit of his Son, is truly God.10 Consubstantial with the Father and the Son, the Spirit is inseparable from them, in both the inner life of the Trinity and his gift of love for the world. In adoring the Holy Trinity, life-giving, consubstantial, and indivisible, the Church's faith also professes the distinction of persons. When the Father sends his Word, he always sends his Breath. In their joint mission, the Son and the Holy Spirit are distinct but inseparable. To be sure, it is Christ who is seen, the visible image of the invisible God, but it is the Spirit who reveals him."
(Catechism, 689)
  • God
  • Trinity
    • As the central mystery of the faith, 232, 234, 237, 261
    • Divine economy as the common work of the three divine persons, 257-260
    • Family as image of the Trinitarian communion, 2205
    • Filioque, 246-248, 264
    • God one and three, 202
    • "Hypostasis" or person, 252
    • Liturgy as the work of, 1077-1109
    • Definition of substance, 252
    • Prayer as communion with, 2655
    • Presence of Trinity in man, 260
    • "Theology" and "economy," 236
    • Unity of the Trinity and the unity of the Church, 813
    • Divine persons in the Trinity, 252
    • Expression of the Trinity
    • Revelation of God as Trinity

2 comments:

Brigid said...

Word form problem: "and his wive Sara got"

An extra space between words: "name of;" Moses; tefillin; cities of"

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian Gill said...

Oops! Thanks! Fixed, and thanks, Brigid!

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