Imagining the Trinity

Fr. Edlefsen's Trinity Sunday Column
June 11, 2017

The saintly friar had a shaved head, a long scraggly beard and a course, gray, burlap habit.   He was standing in a gym full of teenagers.  He held up a butane flamethrower and tripped the piezo igniter.  Flames spewed out of the nozzle.   I was wondering if he checked with the liability gurus before using this prop.  In any event, he got away with it.   The device blasted out fire as he explained to the youths that the Trinity is sort of like this.   I could see what he was getting at.   But I, an onlooking seminarian, wasn’t convinced.  He went on to say that the gas was like the Father, the igniter was like the Son, and the flame was like the Holy Spirit.  I admired his manly metaphor.  Though the gimmick was memorable, I am not sure it was helpful.  If fact, it was so memorable that I forgot everything else he said.  I can picture it now.  Three years later, one of the youths who saw this performance goes off to college and takes Religious Studies 101 at a secular university. Frustrated with the agnostic professor’s dismissal of the Trinity, the zealous student assertively explains to the professor and the class that the Trinity is like a Bunsen burner.  After feeling the skeptical stares of his peers and the cynical retorts of the professor, the student has his own little crisis of faith.


There are problems with most imaginative explanations of the Trinity, such as this one.   I am not going spell out the Trinitarian heresies, diagnosed by the early Church, implied by the flamethrower.  Suffice it to say that man made devices make dubious props when teaching Trinity lessons.  Why?  God doesn’t have parts.  Nor is He changed from one thing to another by a Mediator, a piezo igniter of sorts.  Nor does He have any incidental ways of operating.  He doesn’t have part time jobs, hobbies, handy skills or amusing tricks that He’s really good at.  He doesn’t turn on an off, and He can’t be ignited.  He doesn’t fry things to a crisp or incinerate objects in his way.  He doesn’t boil crabs.  When the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost, and when people receive the Sacrament of Confirmation, He doesn’t do anything remotely akin to either butane or a flamethrower.


God does not have parts.  He has Persons. Three Persons, to be exact.  He is one “substance” – i.e. one God – who is “immutable” (which means He doesn’t change from one thing to another, like ignited butane).  “The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church” (#48) gives a straightforward explanation of the Trinity in these points:


  • The Church expresses her trinitarian faith by professing a belief in the oneness of God in whom there are three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
  • The three divine Persons are only one God because each of them equally possesses the fullness of the one and indivisible divine nature.
  • They are really distinct from each other by reason of the relations which place them in correspondence to each other.
  • The Father generates the Son; the Son is generated by the Father; the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.


The early Church settled on these points in the 4th century.   For example, that’s why we say in the Creed that the Son is “consubstantial” with the Father.   We could also say that Holy Spirit is “consubstantial” with the Father and the Son.  Some people may wonder what “consubstantial” means.  After all, it’s not coffee talk.  As a parishioner in Vermont said to his priest, “Why did they change the Creed to say ‘consubstantial?’ Everyone knows that it’s now Istanbul.”  “Consubstantial” means “of” or “with” one substance.   It’s a way of saying that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are “one God.”  The Creed says that that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son” and “with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified,” which is another way of saying that the Holy Spirit is “consubstantial” with the Father and the Son.   In short, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one God, and the word “consubstantial” supposedly makes this conceivable to the human mind.  Or, at least it did in the 4th century.


I heard a non-Christian theologian once say in opposition to the Trinity, “One is not three, and three is not one.”  Well, that doesn’t quite deliver a knockout punch to the Trinity.   Both this theologian and the flame throwing friar were making the same mistaken assumptions:  that God has parts.  To say that “One is not three, and three is not one” is true when talking about physical things that have a solid mass or chemical compounds, like flamethrowers or butane.   But the “One is not three” argument doesn’t hold when talking about an “immutable” spirit, like God.   If we say the One God has three Persons, rather than three parts, then we’re beginning to get the idea.  It may be helpful, but also a bit inaccurate, to say that “three Persons” means that there are “three relationships” in God.    In fact, St. Thomas Aquinas says that the three Persons actuate “five notions” or “notional acts,” four of which are “relationships” in the Trinity.  Four relationships in the Trinity?  Hmmm….  


Get ready.  I am going to amuse you with a four-point, chewed-down explanation of Aquinas’ “four relationships” in the Trinity, which could just as well be a blurb in “The Onion”:


  • Relation #1: Paternity.  It’s the Father fathering the Son. 
  • Relation #2: Filiation.  It’s the Son being generated by the Father (i.e. the Son being a son of the Father).
  • Relation #3: Active Spiration.  It’s the Father loving the Son and the Son loving the Father, by which the Holy Spirit does his holy spiriting.
  • Relation #4: Passive Spiration.  It’s the Holy Spirit being holy spirited because He proceeds from the Father loving the Son and the Son loving the Father.  


In case you’re itching to know what the other “notional act” is – you know, the one that isn’t a “relationship” – it’s this:  “Innascibility” (my spell check isn’t buying this word).   In case the word “innascibility” doesn’t clear anything up for you, I’ll state it plainly:  It means that the Father doesn’t come from anyone else.  He is neither generated nor begotten. He doesn’t proceed at all.   It would be like ESPN asking the Heisman Trophy winner “Who would you like to thank?” and he says, “Nobody.  I did it all by myself.”  The Father “comes from” Himself.  Greek Christians say that the Father is the “Principle without Principle.”   It’s the “I AM WHO AM” thing.


You can’t figure out the Trinity and drink scotch at the same time.   Pepsi would be better.  If you find this explanation a bit much, don’t worry.   There’s another way to look at this:  The Byzantine Option.   Just fill a room with icons, candles and lots of incense, take a shot of ouzo, and chalk it up to Mystery. 


Perhaps the best way to describe the Trinity is just to say, “God is love” (1 John 4:8).   The One God is a loving community of three Persons.   If “God is love,” if love is “of the essence” in God (and not just a part-time job), then He must be a community Persons.  If “God is love,” then He was “loving” even before He made the world.  God didn’t make the world because He was lonely.   A lonely God would only be plausible if He was one Person.   He made the world because “He is Love,” which is another way of saying that God is a communion of Persons who wants to share Himself with us.  In short, God is a parish.


The Trinity is the most intimate thing that Jesus revealed to us about God.  His parting shot to his Apostles, before his Ascension, was “Go and baptize all peoples in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).  Note that the “Name” is singular, implying one God.   He doesn’t say “Baptize in the Names of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”   Rather, He says, “Baptize in the Name of the….”   Not only do we baptize in the Name of the three Person of the Trinity, but we also pray in that Name. We begin prayers with the Sign of the Cross saying, “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”    Eastern Rite (or Byzantine) prayers often begin with what they call the Trisagion (Thrice Holy):  “Holy God, Holy Might One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us.”  It’s the same invocation we make in the Divine Mercy chaplet.   How beautiful this is!  Eastern Rite monks often begin liturgies with, “Glory to you, O Holy Trinity: Consubstantial, Indivisible and Life-giving!”  When I make a retreat at the Monastery of Bethlehem in the Catskills, I’m always uplifted and joyed when the nuns intone their sung prayers with that invocation.   It reminds me of the prophet Isaiah’s vision of God, in which the angels call to one another, “Holy, Holy, Holy”:  

“I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne…. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying.  And they were calling to one another:  ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory’” (Isaiah 6: 1-4).

When God said, “Let us make man in our image and likeness” (Genesis 1:26), He wasn’t lonely.  God spoke of Himself as “us.”   We humans are made in the “image and likeness” of God’s “us.”  That’s why we don’t want to be lonely.  We want to be together.  That’s the Trinity’s “image” in our hearts.   Charity and purity are about being more like the Trinity.   Loving others is about being like the Trinity.   Creation hangs together because of the Trinity.   God calls us to participate in this Love.    At the Last Supper, Jesus made this prayer to the Father:   “I pray… that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20-21).