Understanding God as Trinity

Today the Church commemorates Trinity Sunday. We might have heard that sermons and lectures about the Trinity usually conclude with the caution that it is beyond comprehension and that we may never be able to fully understand it.

Jun 02, 2023

The Trinity teaches us that one can never be without the other. We are not islands, we are in the world to live in God’s image: open, in need of others, and in need of helping others.” – Pope Francis (Wikimedia Commons/The Trinity by Taddeo Crivelli/J. Paul Getty Museum)

                                   Reflecting on our Sunday Readings with Edmund Chia, PhD

Trinity Sunday (A)
Readings: Exodus 34:4-6, 8-9;
2 Corinthians 13:11-13;
Gospel: John 3:16-18

Today the Church commemorates Trinity Sunday. We might have heard that sermons and lectures about the Trinity usually conclude with the caution that it is beyond comprehension and that we may never be able to fully understand it. That would be right, as the Trinity is one of the sacred mysteries of faith.

While the Trinity has to be accepted in faith, it is important that we at least try to appreciate what the doctrine of the Trinity teaches. This is all the more crucial for us Malaysians, as our Muslim neighbours are not only confused by the assertion that there are three Persons in One God, but insist that it goes against the Islamic belief in the Absolute Oneness of God (Tawhid). The Holy Qur’an teaches: And do not say, ‘Three’; desist — it is better for you. Indeed, Allah is but one God. Exalted is He above having a son (Surat An-Nisa 4:171).

As a response, Christians should affirm unequivocally that we too believe in only One God, as evidenced by the Nicene Creed which is professed every Sunday. This is, in fact, the thrust of today’s first reading. Moses brings to the Lord two tablets to replace the ones he had earlier smashed onto the Golden Calf as the Israelites had sinned against the first of the Ten Commandments “I am the LORD your God, . . . you shall not have strange Gods before Me” (Ex 20:2-3). Thus, believing in only One God is as central to the Christian faith as it is to Islam.

While adhering faithfully to the doctrine of the Oneness of God, Christians also believe that this One and Only God relates to the world as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Sometimes referred to as the economic Trinity, this teaching underscores God’s coming into the world, as today’s Gospel reminds us: “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son” (John 3:16). The doctrine of the Trinity, therefore, is about God’s Self-communication with the world and how human beings encounter the Triune God. A Trinitarian faith is premised on the belief that God entered into a relationship with humanity and is continuously and actively involved in the world as creator (Father), redeemer (Son), and sanctifier (Holy Spirit).

Numerous analogies have been used to explain what three Persons in One God means (the Greek word Hypothesis and Latin Persona signify subsistence more than our modern understanding of personhood). The more common ones compare the Trinity to H2O (which can take the form of ice, water or steam) or to the Irish shamrock (with its three-leaf clover representing faith, hope and love) or to a tree (with Jesus as the trunk connecting the roots with the branches) or to a woman (who can be daughter, wife and mother at the same time). These analogies are good in so far as they maintain that the different forms are constituted of the same substance, just as Jesus is consubstantial with the Father, as with the Holy Spirit. But they mislead if Father, Son and Holy Spirit are presented as three different modes of God’s existence or that all Three do not exist at the same time or that they are not distinct from one another.

In any case, appreciating the economic Trinity paves the way for understanding the immanent Trinity, i.e., the interior life of God. Just as God is in constant relationship with the world outside of God’s-Self (ad extra), the same is also true of God within God’s-Self (ad intra). Thus, the immanent Trinity teaches that within the Godhead, there are Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That there are three Persons in One God is not an empirical or mathematical abstraction and cannot be understood from a carnal or rational perspective. Instead, like everything else about God, it has to be perceived through the eyes of wisdom and faith and certainly not through the eyes of the flesh or of the mind.

What the doctrine teaches is that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are constantly relating with one another in a common-union, where there is mutual indwelling, the same way God is dynamically engaged with the world and all its creatures. In other words, there is an enduring and loving relationship within the Godhead, as well as between God and the created world, summed up in the teaching that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). A Trinitarian faith does not allow for God to be conceived as a stern, detached judging monarch who is uninvolved with the lives of the people.

Because human beings are made in the image of God, understanding God as Trinity, therefore, invites us to a threefold pattern of communion, with God, with one another, as well as with the cosmos. That is what today’s second reading suggests, with St Paul exhorting us to “encourage one another, agree with one another, live in peace,” before offering the Trinitarian blessing of “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor. 13:11-13).

(Originally from Kuala Lumpur, Edmund Chia has been teaching theology at Catholic Theological Union (Chicago) and Australian Catholic University (Melbourne).

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