A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Three Cheers for the Trinity

The Trinity: the Father represented by the eye in the dome;
The Son by the crucifix directly below;
the Spirit by the dove affixed to the front of the canopy in between and 
proceeding toward the congregation.

Today is Trinity Sunday, and in its honor TOF will comment on the reasonableness of the Trinity. Now some will say that since people experience God in three ways -- in the universe, in history, and in ourselves -- it is fitting that he is in three manners. We experience God in the universe around us, from quasars to alligators to gravity and God as the source of being of all these things we call the Father. We experience God in history as a particular human being who lived at a particular time and place and taught and did certain things, and this we call the Son. And finally, we experience God in ourselves as that little GPS voice that says 'turn right in thirty feet'. LOL! That inner voice and guidance is what we call the Spirit.

Now none of this addresses the substance/person issue, and since every person we meet is an individual substance it is difficult to grasp the logical possibility that it might not be so for every substance. (A substance, or ousia, is a whole thing, not the modern chemical notion. Thus, TOF is a substance, with a substantial form.) Logically, you cannot have one person composed of three substances; but it might be possible for three persons to be a single substance.

TOF the trinity
An analogy might be this: TOF is TOF the father as he acts toward his children; TOF the son as he acts toward his own father; and TOF the lover as he acts toward the Incomparable Marge. Each of these perceives a different person even though there is a single TOF.

It's only an analogy, and so incomplete, but if we up the whole thing by a notch, it provides a handle of sorts.

A more intellective approach is given by Aquinas (as you knew it would be). God, considered as Prime Mover, is the source of being of all powers, including the intellect and will of rational beings. Since one cannot give what he does not have, there must be something in God that is analogous to intellect and will. God both Knows and Desires (and is therefore something analogous to a rational being). The proper object of the intellect is the True, and of the will, the Good. In particular, God knows himself and, since God is supremely good, He also desires himself. That gives us two and only two predicates as regards rational being.

As the Subject of both Predicates, we call God the Father.

The product of the intellect is a conception and this conception is expressed in words. As the Object of Knowing, we call God the Word, the only-conceived and by analogy the Son.

The product of the will is a desire for the Good and this desire is expressed by the will proceeding out from the lover to the beloved. As the Object of the Desiring, we call God the Spirit and say that he "proceeds" from the Father.

(This is why the Son is "conceived" and the Spirit "proceeds.")

Now since God is simple and not compounded of parts, as Aquinas demonstrated earlier in his treatise, and since he is knowing himself and desiring himself these three must be all one self. (A second analogy: the term persona originally referred to the masks worn by actors, and so the Persons can be thought of as 'the masks of God.' Again, imperfect and potentially misleading.) Since God is purely actual, as Aquinas showed earlier, there is no potentiality in God and so none of the three lack anything possessed by the other two. (That would make then three distinct beings, not simply three distinct persons, or hypostases.) But while they are the same thing (identitas secundum rem), they are not the same in thing and concept (identitas secundum rem et rationem). And that is as deep into the mystery as we can drill.

In particular, since the Father and Son are one, the Spirit logically proceeds from the Father and the Son. But since the Eastern Church was battling a particular heresy (Sabellianism, by which the Son was conceived by the Father but the Spirit proceeded from the Son), she rejected this formulation. One sometimes hears that the Greek church started with the Persons and tried to figure out the One whereas the Latins started with the One and tried to figure out the Persons. In addition, the pagan philosopher Plotinus also concluded that God had three hypostases, the One, the Intellect, and the Soul. These are discussed here, here, and here.

For Aquinas' arguments, see Summa theologica, here, #27-43

or in more detail, Summa contra gentiles, here, #1-#26

and in precis form in the Compendium theologica, here, #28 et seq.


  1. I thought, per Frank Sheed, that the "three masks" thing was a heresy; I forget which one. The one that said there's not three distinct Persons, just three ways we perceive God/three ways he looks to us, but is really the same under those masks. So that would mean only one "self" in God, but there are three selves, three who can say "I". At least, if the self is the "who," but maybe I'm misreading you.

    1. That's why it's only an imperfect analogy.

    2. It sometimes seems to me that most heresies about the Trinity have risen from folks forgetting analogies are just that and nothing more. St. Patrick's shamrock analogy taken strictly would be heretical (since God is not divided into parts), as would the analogy between snow, water, and steam used by Fr. De Smet (I think this would be called Modalism). God being unique, no perfect analogy is possible.

  2. Now Neapolitan ice cream would be a better image of the Trinity than a shamrock, because the distinction of flavors is more pronounced, yet all sharing the substance of ice cream.

  3. Now Neapolitan ice cream would be a better image of the Trinity than a shamrock, because the distinction of flavors is more pronounced, yet all sharing the substance of ice cream.

  4. i told my daughter it was like 3 aspects of a book: the face, the short end and the long end, 3 things but 1 as well.

  5. Awww, Patrick, that's modalism ...

  6. Awww, Patrick, that's modalism ...

  7. When I was going through RCIA 16 years ago, the teacher was not amused when I said "The Dad, The Kid and The Spook".

    I guess my weird sense of humor was not appreciated, although another guy in the class did chuckle.

    1. I always heard "Pops, Junior, and the Spook".