Explaining the Trinity

June 20, 2014 | 30 comments

My article for the July-August issue Catholic Answers Magazine, “Defending the Trinity,” contains a serious error. In a passage about the “generative” and “spirative” processions in the Trinity, I wrote, “The Father and the Son actively spirate the Holy Spirit.” To clarify the word spirate, our editor added, Aquinas's word; it means roughly to beget.”

Unfortunately, I did not get to see it until it was in print. But in fact, St. Thomas Aquinas went to great lengths, as did the Council of Lyons in A.D. 1274, to distinguish between the unique “begetting” of the Son and the unique “spirating” of the Holy Spirit.

The error will be corrected in the following issue, but it did bring to the fore the need to draw this distinction as sharply as possible. And it is in that spirit that I now present pertinent parts of the upcoming article that will hopefully not only clarify this point but also help you to be better able to explain and defend the truth of the Trinity, which the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls, in paragraph 261, "the central mystery of the Christian faith and of Christian life."

Explaining the Trinity

Recently, I had an extensive discussion with a Muslim about the Trinity. His problem with the Trinity was not so much with biblical texts, and obviously so, because he did not accept the Bible in the form it is in today as the word of God. Though I must say that he was remarkably interested in looking at what the New Testament had to say about the topic.

His main problem was conceptual. And I find this to be generally the case with folks who reject the Trinity. They either think Christians are claiming there are three Gods (which is what my Muslim friend actually believed to be so), or that we are teaching something that is a logical contradiction, e.g., 3=1, and 1=3.

Neither is true, of course. But if we are going to help these people to understand, I find, a little background information is essential in order to establish a conceptual foundation for discussion.

Processions and Relations in God

In Catholic theology, we understand the persons of the Blessed Trinity subsisting within the inner life of God to be truly distinct relationally, but not as a matter of essence, or nature. Each of the three persons in the godhead possesses the same eternal and infinite divine nature; thus, they are the one, true God in essence or nature, not “three Gods.” Yet, they are truly distinct in their relations to each other.

In order to understand the concept of person in God, we have to understand its foundation in the processions and relations within the inner life of God. And the Council of Florence, AD 1338-1445, can help us in this regard.

The Council’s definitions concerning the Trinity are really as easy as one, two, three… four. It taught there is one nature in God, and that there are two processions, three persons, and four relations that constitute the Blessed Trinity. The Son “proceeds” from the Father, and the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” These are the two processions in God. And these are foundational to the four relations that constitute the three persons in God. These are those four eternal relations in God:

1. The Father actively and eternally generates the Son, constituting the person of God, the Father. 

2. The Son is passively generated of the Father, which constitutes the person of the Son.

3. The Father and the Son actively spirate the Holy Spirit in the one relation within the inner life of God that does not constitute a person. It does not do so because the Father and Son are already constituted as persons in relation to each other in the first two relations. This is why CCC 240 teaches, “[The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity] is Son only in relation to his Father.”

4. The Holy Spirit is passively spirated of the Father and the Son, constituting the person of the Holy Spirit.

We should take note of the distinction between the "generative" procession that consititutes the Son, and the "spirative" procession that constitutes the Holy Spirit. As St. Thomas Aquinas explains, and Scripture reveals, the Son is uniquely "begotten" of the Father (cf. John 3:16; 1:18). He is also said to proceed from the Father as "the Word" in John 1:1. This "generative" procession is one of "begetting," but not in the same way a dog "begets" a dog, or a human being "begets" a human being. This is an intellectual "begetting," and fittingly so, as a "word" proceeds from the knower while, at the same time remaining in the knower. Thus, this procession or begetting of the Son occurs within the inner life of God. There are not "two beings" involved; rather, two persons relationally distinct, while ever-remaining one in being.

The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, but not in a generative sense; rather, in a spiration. "Spiration" comes from the Latin word for "spirit" or "breath." Jesus "breathed on them, and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit..." (John 20:22). Scripture reveals the Holy Spirit as pertaining to "God's love [that] has been poured into our hearts" in Romans 5:5, and as flowing out of and identified with the reciprocating love of the Father for the Son and the Son for the Father (John 15:26; Rev. 22:1-2). Thus, the Holy Spirit's procession is not intellecual and generative, but has its origin in God's will and in the ultimate act of the will, which is love.

As an infinite act of love between the Father and Son, this "act" is so perfect and infinite that "it" becomes (not in time, of course, but eternally) a "He" in the third person of the Blessed Trinity. This revelation of God's love personified is the foundation from which Scripture could reveal to us that "God is love" (I John 4:8).

God is not revealed to "be" love in any other religion in the world other than Christianity because in order for there to be love, there must be a beloved. From all eternity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have poured themselves out into each other in an infinite act of love, which we, as Christians, are called to experience through faith and the sacraments by which we are lifted up into that very love of God itself (Romans 5:1-5).

It is the love of God that binds us, heals us, and makes us children of God (I John 4:7; Matt. 5:44-45). Thus, how fitting it is that the Holy Spirit is depicted in Revelation 22:1-2, as a river of life flowing out from the Father and the Son and bringing life to all by way of bringing life to the very "tree of life" that is the source of eternal life in the the Book of Revelation (Rev. 22:19).

Back to the Relations in God

Biblically speaking, we see each of the persons in God revealed as relationally distinct and yet absolutely one in nature in manifold texts. For example, consider John 17:5, where our Lord prays on Holy Thursday:

… and now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory which I had with you before the world was made.

Notice, before the creation, the Son was “with” the Father. Also, the Son addressing the Father and himself in an “I/thou” relationship is unmistakable. We have distinct persons here. “Father” and “Son” reveal a generative relationship as well. Yet, this relationship between two persons clearly has no beginning in time because it existed before the creation, from all eternity. Thus, the relational distinction is real, and personal, but as far as nature is concerned, Jesus’ words from John 10:30 come to mind: “I and the Father are one,” in that they each possess the same infinite nature.

The Holy Spirit is also seen to be relationally distinct from both the Father and the Son in Scripture inasmuch as both the Father and the Son are seen as “sending” “him.”

But when the Counselor comes (the Holy Spirit), whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness of me… (John 15:26).

… he will guide you into all truth (John 16:13).

Thus, the relational distinction is real, and personal, but the Holy Spirit, like the eternal Son, is revealed to be God inasmuch as he is revealed to be omniscient. “He will guide you into all truth.” In fact, I Cor. 2:10 also reveals the Holy Spirit to be omnicient when it says, "... no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God." He speaks as God in texts of Scripture like Hebrews 3:7-11: 10:15-18. Thus, the Holy Spirit is revealed in Scripture to possess the same infinite and divine nature as does the Father and the Son.

The Anthropological Analogy

Analogy is the theologian’s best friend in explaining the mysteries of the Faith. And when it comes to the Trinity, there are many analogies to choose from. We will explore just two of them here that I have found helpful. In fact, it was these very two analogies that helped my Muslim friend to say the idea of the Trinity “made sense” to him, even though he wasn’t ready to leave his Muslim faith… at least, not yet.

From his famous and classic Confessions, Bk. 13, Ch. 11, St. Augustine writes:

I speak of these three: to be, to know, and to will. For I am, and I know, and I will: I am a knowing and a willing being, and I know that I am and that I will, and I will to be and to know. Therefore, in these three, let him who can do so perceive how inseparable a life there is, one life and one mind and one essence, and finally how inseparable a distinction there is, and yet there is a distinction. Surely a man stands face to face with himself. Let him take heed of himself, and look there, and tell me. But when he has discovered any of these and is ready to speak, let him not think that he has found that immutable being which is above all these, which is immutably, and knows immutably, and wills immutably.

In order to appreciate Augustine’s words, we must begin with three essential and foundational truths that undergird them. Without these, his words will fall on deaf ears.

1. We believe in one, true God, YAHWEH, who is absolute being, absolute perfection, and absolutely simple. Our belief in the Trinity does not mean God is three, or any other number of Gods.

2. Humankind is created “in [God’s] image and likeness” (cf. Gen. 1:26). From the context of Genesis 1, we know this “image and likeness” does not pertain to the body of man because God has no body. Indeed the divine nature cannot be bodily or material because there can be no potency in God as there is inherent in bodies, so this “image and likeness” must be referring to our higher faculties or operations of intellect and will.

3. It follows, then, that God is rational. He too is both intellectual and volitional.

These simple truths serve as the foundation for what I call St. Augustine’s anthropological analogy that can help us to understand better the great mystery of the Trinity:

In God we see the Father—the “being one” and first principal of life in the Godhead—the Son—the “knowing one”—the Word who proceeds from the Father—and the Holy Spirit—the “willing one”—the bond of love between the Father and Son who proceeds as love from the Father and Son. These “three” do not “equal” one if we are trying to say 3=1 mathematically. These three are distinct realities, relationally speaking, just as my own being, knowing, and willing are three distinct realities in me. Yet, in both God and man these three relationally distinct realities subsist in one being.

As St. Augustine points out, we can never know God or understand God completely through this or any analogy, but it can help us to understand how you can have relational distinctions within one being. And we can see this is reasonable.

The weakness inherent here—there are weaknesses in all analogies with reference to God—is that our knowing, being, and willing are not each infinite and co-extensive as the persons of God are. They subsist in one being in us, but they are not persons.

The Analogy of the Family

The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us another analogy wherein we can see the reasonableness of the Trinity by helping us to see the possibility of distinct persons who possess the same nature. CCC 2205 provides:

The Christian family is a communion of persons, a sign and image of the communion of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit.

When we think of a family, we can see how a father, mother, and child can be distinct persons and yet possess the same nature (human), just as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct persons who each possess the same nature (divine).

The weakness, of course, is that in God each person possesses the one infinite and immutable divine nature, and is therefore, one being. Our analogous family consists of three beings. Again, no analogy is perfect.

But in the end, if we combine our two analogies, we can at least see both how there can be three relationally distinct realities subsisting within one being in the anthropological analogy, and how there can be three relationally distinct persons who share the same nature in the analogy of the family.

If you enjoyed this snippet, let me recommend to you that you read the unedited version of my article on "Defending the Trinity" at my personal blog here at TimStaples.com.


Tim Staples is Director of Apologetics and Evangelization here at Catholic Answers, but he was not always Catholic. Tim was raised a Southern Baptist. Although he fell away from the faith of his childhood, Tim came back to faith in Christ during his late teen years through the witness of Christian...

Comments by Catholic.com Members

#1  Steven Way - Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio

I like to use the sun analogy. In the sun analogy for the Holy Trinity, the sun above symbolizes God the Father ("Our Father who art in Heaven"), the light of the sun symbolizes Jesus Christ who came into the world as the light (John 9:5), and the heat from the sun symbolizes the Holy Spirit which fits with how the Holy Spirit is compared to fire (Acts 2:3).

June 20, 2014 at 6:44 pm PST
#2  Ed X - Morris, Illinois


June 21, 2014 at 6:40 am PST
#3  Christopher Travis - Huntsville, Alabama

I have a question/comment about how to explain the Trinity, and I may be way wrong on this. When Muslims have asked me about the Trinity and I tried to explain it in terms they might understand so I put it this way... are we not one as humans yet we consist of two parts? One part is our body, the flesh, and the other part is our soul, our spirit (that is capable of living on even without our bodies when we die). These two parts make us one, so in essence our nature consists of two parts, that can be seperate yet make us one. God takes this a step further because He has three natures that make Him one. And He is capable of separating these three natures just as He is capable of separating our two natures. I will probably get corrected on this but I'm always looking for ways to explain things in simple an understandable terms.

June 21, 2014 at 8:54 pm PST
#4  kenneth winsmann - katy, Texas

Tim Staples,

I have long searched for a Roman Catholic to answer the attacks on the Roman Catholic conception of the Trinity by William Lane Craig. I wonder if you might give it your best shot?

"Is Thomistic Anti-Social Trinitarianism viable? Thomas’ doctrine of the Trinity is doubtless inconsistent with his doctrine of divine simplicity. Intuitively, it seems obvious that a being which is absolutely without composition and transcends all distinctions cannot have real relations subsisting within it, much less be three distinct persons. More specifically, Aquinas’ contention that each of the three persons has the same divine essence entails, given divine simplicity, that each person just is that essence. But if two things are identical with some third thing, they are identical with each other. Therefore, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit cannot be distinct persons or relations. Since this unwelcome conclusion arises, not so much from Aquinas’ Trinitarian doctrine, as from the doctrine of divine simplicity, and since we have already found reason to call that doctrine seriously into question, let us ask whether Thomas’ account of Anti-Social Trinitarianism is viable once freed of the constraints of the simplicity doctrine.

It seems not. Without begging the question in favor of Social Trinitarianism, it can safely be said that on no reasonable understanding of “person” can a person be equated with a relation. Relations do not cause things, know truths, or love people in the way the Bible says God does. Moreover, to think that the intentional objects of God’s knowing Himself and loving Himself constitute in any sense really distinct persons is wholly implausible. Even if God the Father were a person, and not a mere relation, there is no reason, even in Aquinas’ own metaphysical system, why the Father as understood and loved by Himself would be different persons. The distinction involved here is merely that between oneself as subject (“I”) and as object (“me”). There is no more reason to think that the individual designated by “I”, “me”, and “myself” constitute a plurality of persons in God’s case than in any human being’s case. Anti-Social Trinitarianism seems to reduce to classical Modalism.

Suppose the Anti-Social Trinitarian insists that in God’s case, the subsistent relations within God really do constitute distinct persons in a sufficiently robust sense. Then two problems present themselves. First, there arises an infinite regress of persons in the Godhead. If God as understood really is a distinct person, called the Son, then the Son, like the Father, must also understand Himself and love Himself. There are thereby generated two further persons of the Godhead, who, in turn, can also consider themselves as intentional objects of their knowledge and will, thereby generating further persons, ad infinitum. We wind up with a fractal-like infinite series of Trinities within Trinities in the Godhead. Aquinas actually considers this objection, and his answer is that “just as the Word is not another god, so neither is He another intellect; consequently, not another act of understanding; hence, not another word (Scg 4.13.2). This answer only reinforces the previous impression of Modalism, for the Son’s intellect and act of understanding just are the Father’s intellect and act of understanding; the Son’s understanding Himself is identical with the Father’s understanding Himself. The Son seems but a name given to the Father’s “me.” Second, one person does not exist in another person. On Aquinas’ view the Son or Word remains in the Father (4.11.180). While we can make sense of a relation’s existing in a person, it seems unintelligible to say that one person exists in another person. (Two persons’ inhabiting the same body is obviously not a counter-example.) Classic Trinitarian doctrine affirms that more than one person may exist in one being, but persons are not the sort of entity that exists in another person. It is true that the classic doctrine involves a perichoreisis (circumcessio) or mutual indwelling of the three persons in one another which is often enunciated as each person’s existing in the others. But this may be understood in terms of complete harmony of will and action, of mutual love, and full knowledge of one another with respect to the persons of the Godhead; beyond that it remains obscure what could be literally meant by one person’s being in another person. Again, we seem forced to conclude that the subsisting relations posited by the Anti-Social Trinitarian do not rise to the standard of personhood."

Read more: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/a-formulation-and-defense-of-the-doctrine-of-the-trinity#ixzz35R79w9Bd

Please help if you have the time

June 22, 2014 at 9:14 pm PST
#5  Ged Narvaez - Daraga, Albay

To increase what our others have thought.
We (Catholics) will teach, what The Church teach.
The one faith, is not own any one's faith. But the One faith of the One Church.

1 PRV 8:22-31

Thus says the wisdom of God (emphasis):
"The LORD possessed me, the beginning of his ways,
the forerunner of his prodigies of long ago;
from of old I was poured forth,
at the first, before the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no fountains or springs of water;
before the mountains were settled into place,
before the hills, I was brought forth;
while as yet the earth and fields were not made,
nor the first clods of the world.
"When the Lord established the heavens I (emphasis I, person) was there,
when he marked out the vault over the face of the deep;
when he made firm the skies above,
when he fixed fast the foundations of the earth;
when he set for the sea its limit,
so that the waters should not transgress his command;
then was I beside him as his craftsman,
and I was his delight day by day,
playing before him all the while,
playing on the surface of his earth;
and I found delight in the human race."

{Yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. 1 Cor 8:6}

PS 8:4-5, 6-7, 8-9
When I behold your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars which you set in place —
What is man that you should be mindful of him,
or the son of man that you should care for him?:(emphasis, incarnation revealed the person God before beginning. And Jesus is The son of man and Is Son of God (see more of NT))
You have made him little less than the angels,
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him rule over the works of your hands,
putting all things under his feet:
All sheep and oxen,
yes, and the beasts of the field,
The birds of the air, the fishes of the sea,
and whatever swims the paths of the seas.

What He did not yet let us see of Him or what He did not yet revealed of Him, we would not know of Him. But when He revealed He is Emmanuel, He does not lack consideration even before the beginning

ROM 5:1-5
Jesus said to his disciples:
"I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.
But when he comes, the Spirit of truth,
he will guide you to all truth.
He will not speak on his own,
but he (emphasis) will speak what he hears,
and will declare to you the things that are coming.
He will glorify me,
because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you.
Everything that the Father has is mine (emphasis, The divine persons do not share the one divinity among themselves but each of them is God whole and entire );
for this reason I told you that he will take from what is mine
and declare it to you (emphasis, speak, declare and glorify of God)."

*There is Only One God. *Revealed 3 Divine Persons * Jesus is God and Word became Flesh and dwelt among us and the Word is God*Jesus was baptised (revealing the three persons)* The Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus supporting He Who is.* The transfiguration of Jesus (The voice of the Father and the spirit in the form of cloud -also shown in OT)* Holy Spirit is God and Giver/Breath of life*I (Jesus) and the Father are One (Nature/Essence God) -Unity* Holy Truine God

God alone Is. God is "He who is."
I am the LORD, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God. I will strengthen you, though you have not acknowledged me. Isaiah 45:5
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, 'I AM has sent me to you'. . . this is my name for ever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations (emphasis)."Exodus 3:13-15

Craig may be smart. But he is far from what Catholic is, when He had chosen so to apart. Craig cannot represent what the Church teaches (orthodoxy of faith) and Craig misconstrued (used hazy terms).

"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" (Athanasian Creed: DS 75; ND 16).

June 23, 2014 at 6:20 am PST
#6  Tim Staples - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger


When you say, "... the doctrine of the Trinity is doubtless inconsistent with (St. Thomas's) doctrine of divine simplicity. Intuitively, it seems obvious that a being which is absolutely without composition and transcends all distinctions cannot have real relations subsisting within it, much less be three distinct persons," this betrays a faulty understanding of terms.

Simplicity does not mean a lack of distinctions. It basically means there are no parts (yes, so there is no "composition" in the sense of being "composed" of parts), no potencies, and no change. Even though we cannot fully comprehend this because we have to use analogy when discussing who God is, from things that are less than God, we can see how a human soul is simple in nature as well. Not absolutely simple as God is, but simple. For example, as I pointed out in my post, I am, I know, and I will, but there is not "part" of my soul that exists, part that knows, and part that wills. They are really distinct, but they exist as simple realities in one substance. They are not infinite and co-extensive as in God, but I can at least see how there can be three relationally distinct realities that subsist in one being without there being a composition of "parts."

Similarly, you say "each of the three persons has the same divine essence," which is true, but then you say, "But if two things are identical with some third thing, they are identical with each other." That is a straw man. Having the same essence does not mean they are "identical." As I said in my post, my wife and my son Timmy possess the same essence or nature that I do (they are just as "human" as I am), but that does not mean they are identical with me. They are distinct persons with the same nature that I have. Therefore, when you then say, "... the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit cannot be distinct persons or relations," you are wrong.

You then say, "... no reasonable understanding of 'person' can... be equated with a relation." It is not that "person" = "relation." That is, again, a misunderstanding. It is constitutive of, not equivalent to. You have to distinguish what kind of relation you are talking about in order to get at the person. There are 4 relations within the inner life of God. Thomas is not saying that all three persons are identical because they are constituted by their relations. They are not identical because of the fact that there are distinct relations that constitute them. They are not "mere relations" as you later say.

You then say, "Relations do not cause things, know truths, or love people in the way the Bible says God does." This gets us to another misunderstanding you have here. When we say "persons" in God, we are not speaking of "persons" in the same way we speak of angelic or human "persons." We have to equivocate, of necessity, when we speak of God. St. Thomas is not saying there are three intellects, wills, and beings in God. That would be absurd. And heresy, I might add. There is one intellect, one will, and one being in God. This is why St. Thomas says the Word is the one, infinite act of the knowing of God and the Holy Spirit is the one infinite act of the loving of God. When God "creates," outside of himself, it is the one being that creates. When he "knows," "loves," etc. outside of himself, it is the one being that "knows," "loves," etc. The relations we speak of that constitute the Blessed Trinity subsist within the inner life of God.

Back to my anthropological analogy. I know there are three relationally distinct realities of "being, knowing, and willing" within myself, but when "I" speak of my actual "being" or "knowing" or "willing," I am not speaking of "parts" of me. I am speaking of "me" as one being. Analogously, in God, though radically different than me because God's "being" "knowing" and "willing" are each infinite and co-extensive with each other, so much so that they are revealed to be "persons," they too are really distinct, but subsist in one being.

When you say, "to think that the intentional objects of God’s knowing Himself and loving Himself constitute in any sense really distinct persons is wholly implausible," this is because you have already defined away the possibility by equating "human" person with "divine" person. You have to understand what Aquinas and the Church define "person" in God to mean.

You then say: "Even if God the Father were a person, and not a mere relation, there is no reason, even in Aquinas’ own metaphysical system, why the Father as understood and loved by Himself would be different persons." We are not talking about mathematics here. We must begin, as St. Thomas does, with the fact that God is revealed in Scripture to be three persons in one God. Check out my personal blog at www.timstaples.com for more on this (my post is called "Defending the Trinity"). We then see how that revelation is reasonable when we consider God in his inner life would indeed and know and love himself infinitely from all eternity. Our relational understanding then begins from there. His knowing would be distinct from his loving while subsisting within God's inner life, etc.

You then say, "There is no more reason to think that the individual designated by “I”, “me”, and “myself” constitute a plurality of persons in God’s case than in any human being’s case... (this) seems to reduce to classical Modalism." This is false because it does not take into consideration the fact that God's being, knowing, and willing are each infinite and necessarily co-extensive; thus, the circumincessions of the Blessed Trinity. I was before I knew, and I will to know what I don't. In God, there are none of these potencies. Each of the three relationally distinct realities ("persons") in God are infinite and complete. Thus, you cannot equate human persons with the divine persons. You have to use analogy here as does the Church and St. Thomas.

You then say if the relations within God's inner life really do constitute persons then "there arises an infinite regress of persons in the Godhead." This is not so because you are defining the "person" in God as if each has an intellect and will. They do not. "Person" in God is not the same as a "human" person.

This is not modalism because Thomas is not saying "the Father is the Son." The Son is the knowing of the Father that is relationally distinct from the Father, yet subsisting within the Father. The relation is really distinct, but "personal" because of the fact that it is infinite and complete. This is not modalism.

When you say "The Son seems but a name given to the Father's 'me,'" this again, is a misunderstanding. When Colossians 1:15 says Christ is the "image" ("icon," in Greek) of the Father, this does not mean the Father is looking in the mirror and sees himself. In fact, that text goes on to say that the "he" (person) that is the image of the Father both created all things (verse 16) and died on the cross (verse 20). Same "he." The "Word" of God, the Father, or "image" of God, the Father, goes out from God, the Father, remains in God, the Father, but is also relationally distinct from him. That is what is revealed in Scripture and we can see that it is reasonable when we consider the nature of the Word that is distinct from a person, remains in a person, and yet really does go out from a person and can be known as such.

The "Son" would be "but a name given to the Fathers 'me'" if we were not talking about God's act of knowing. But we are. God's act of knowing is not the same as mine. It is infinitely perfect and complete, and thus constitutes a distinct person.

You then say, "it is unintelligible to say that one person exists in another person," but you give no real reasons why this is so. You say "persons are not the sort of thing that exists in another person." Why not? The Holy Spirit is a person and he dwells in me. We have cases of demonic beings dwelling within human persons. These are not perfect analogies, but analogies never are. In God, the persons dwell perfectly within one another in a way that is not possible to be duplicated because they each possess the same divine nature. There is nothing inherently unreasonable about this.

You say "subsisting relations... do not rise to the standard of personhood," but you've given no real reasons why this is so.

June 24, 2014 at 6:33 am PST
#7  Tim Staples - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger


You don't want to use an analogy that consists of "parts" because there are no "parts" in God. This is why the two analogies I used in my post work best.

You really get into trouble when you say "[God] has three natures that make Him one." God only has one nature.

I appreciate your attempt to "explain things in simple and understandable terms," but we have to careful to maintain orthodoxy. And I know that is why you are asking your question. And I appreciate that as well.

June 24, 2014 at 6:42 am PST
#8  kenneth winsmann - katy, Texas

Tim Staples,

Thank you so much for the response! I do want to point out that those were not *my* objections but William Lane Craigs objections. I am no where near as advanced as you and him are on this topic (or any other for that matter!). I sent that same passage from his work to numerous catholic apologists and Thomist professors... you were the ONLY ONE who gave a response. Thanks so much I appreciate your time.

June 25, 2014 at 10:57 pm PST
#9  Christopher Travis - Huntsville, Alabama

Tim, thank you for your reply. Although I do know God is one nature, I can see how explaining things the way I did can make it seem like God has parts instead of one nature. When the next opportunity to discuss the Trinity with a Muslim arises, I will make sure I use the proper analogies. Thanks, and God bless.

June 26, 2014 at 1:59 am PST
#10  Tim Staples - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Hey Kenneth,

I realized these were Craig's arguments, but I was under the impression you had made them your own. My mistake, but I am glad my responses were helpful to you. Hopefully, Dr. Craig will come to see the truth as well.

June 26, 2014 at 7:56 am PST
#11  Romano Galassi - West Covina, California

Hey Tim,

I have another angle on explaining the Blessed Trinity that maybe you can help me see if this works.

The 1st time the Blessed Trinity was revealed in the New Testament was in Luke 1:35 "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also the Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God."

It would be very difficult to explain the Blessed Trinity with out Our Lady being mentioned because the 3 persons are mentioned in relations to her. The 3 persons represents (for lack of a better word) the 3 closest relationships that a man/men can have with a woman which are father, son and husband (spouse). This I think is the essence of who the Blessed Trinity really is. This wasn't fully revealed in the Old Testament because our lady wasn't born yet. Of course this will need to be fleshed out a bit more but the basic idea is there... What do you think?

Romano from Covina

BTW are you going to be giving any talk in the Covina area?

June 26, 2014 at 10:19 am PST
#12  kenneth winsmann - katy, Texas


No sir, Mr. Staples. I learned my lesson last time on your "Do Muslims worship the same God" blog. I will no longer be questioning the magesteriums judgment and will just content myself with being catholic AND enjoying it :)

That argument from Craig was not an opinion that I had adopted but an argument that I had no idea how to respond to! I've got a much better idea now! Thanks again.

PS- I have a blog that is in dialog with several hard headed protestants (I've moved the focus away from rad-tradism since our last convo) and we would all love to have you make an appearance if you ever have spare time (I'm sure you have plenty of that!). God bless. You guys are always so helpful.


June 26, 2014 at 12:06 pm PST
#13  Tim Staples - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Hey Romano,

I don't have anything scheduled right now in Covina. But stay posted!

The Trinity was not revealed through Mary; rather, it was revealed in and through Jesus Christ. The Father is Father in the fullest sense only in relation to the Son. And the Father and Son uniquely spirate the Holy Spirit, as I said in my post. Mary and the saints merely participate in the filial relationship that Jesus has with his Father through grace and power of the Holy Spirit.

There is truth to what you say inasmuch as Jesus would not have been born without Mary's yes. So there is no doubt that Mary has a uniquely pivotal role, among human persons, in this revelation. But we have to be careful here. When you say, "The Father, Son and Holy Spirit" are "Father, Son, and Spouse," that is true in relation to Mary, but not within the eternal relations of the Godhead. The Holy Spirit is not "Spouse" within the inner life of the Trinity. "He" is revealed to be a "he" in Scripture (see John 16:7;13, etc.). We don't want to go down the road of saying "Jesus has two mommies."

June 26, 2014 at 2:17 pm PST
#14  Romano Galassi - West Covina, California

Hey Tim,

Thanks for the response. When I say spouse I didn't mean the spouse like the spouse in the interior life the Blessed Trinity making him the mommy of Jesus. What I meant was that Our Lady is the daughter to the Father, the Mother to the Son and Spouse of the Spirit. She is the only person that fits this description. This interrelationship with her is what I believe to be the closest relationships that a man can have with a woman, being his daughter, mother and spouse. (Not implying that God is a man). And yes, Jesus was the 1st to reveal the Blessed Trinity through His teachings, but in Luke 1, it seems that this is the 1st instance where all 3 persons of the Blessed Trinity are mentioned in the same event.

Another thought is that, this is a higher level of existence and we get a glimpse of that in our world through our observations of time(past, present, future), dimension(length, width, height), matter(solid, liquid, gas). It doesn't mean that God has 3 phases but it shows how 3 can be one (I had a lot of discussions about this with my Muslim friends...)

Anyway thanks for your response and looking forward to seeing you the next time you're in town.

June 27, 2014 at 11:24 am PST
#15  Jimmy Roane - Allen, Texas

Tim, you gave it your best shot. Analogia entis is inescapable in this regards. Now, work on this: And God created Man in his image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. (Gen. 1:27) Does that mean that God is also a she?

July 5, 2014 at 7:26 am PST
#16  Ged Narvaez - Daraga, Albay

By no means.

(De Quant. Animae ii) that the likeness of God is found in the soul's incorruptibility; for corruptible and incorruptible are differences of universal beings. But likeness may be considered in another way, as signifying the expression and perfection of the image. In this sense Damascene says (De Fide Orth. ii, 12) that the image implies "an intelligent being, endowed with free-will and self-movement, whereas likeness implies a likeness of power, as far as this may be possible in man." In the same sense "likeness" is said to belong to "the love of virtue": for there is no virtue without love of virtue.
-Summa Theologica
www.newadvent.org is helpful

July 5, 2014 at 8:49 am PST
#17  Tim Staples - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

I agree with Ged. The "image and likeness" has nothing to do with our bodies. The animals created before men had bodies, and were male and female, but they were not created in his image and likeness. What separates man from the "beasts" is his spiritual soul, intellect and will. And both men and women possess this. This is what makes us human and created in God's image and likeness.

God is not male or female, meaning he does not have genitals. He is pure spirit. There can be no potency in him, no motion from potency to act. He is pure act. Thus, he cannot be "male" or "female." He is "father," but in an "unheard of sense" of which we can only see via analogy when we consider human fatherhood.

check out CCC 239-240.

July 6, 2014 at 5:08 pm PST
#18  Michael Rogala - Chicago, Illinois

"God is not male or female, meaning he does not have genitals" . . . so Timmy is "he" a eunuch? Western civilization seems to be the only culture that is fixated on whether God is male or female. Many African languages use a gender neutral term for God. Much more helpful.

Also, as intriguing a mental exercise is to try an explain the Trinity, I never found it to be of foremost concern with those facing death or any kind of tragedy, loss, abuse or alienation.

Perhaps one might reconsider Hans Kung's take: "If we can't explain it (the doctrine of the Trinity--note word 'doctrine') any better than we have for the past 2000 years, maybe we should consider getting rid of it."

August 11, 2014 at 2:23 pm PST
#19  Matthew Seymour - Long Beach, California

No human person understands the Trinity. The only One who understands the Trinity in Fullness and Truth is God Himself - Our Good Lord Jesus Christ.

August 13, 2014 at 9:16 am PST
#20  Tim Staples - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger


In response to your #19:

God is not "a enuch" because he is neither male nor female. A "Eunuch" is a male who has been castrated.

God is neither male nor female. He is "father" as no one else is "father" (see CCC 239-240). So it would be incorrect to use a "gender neutral term for God," because that would lose sight of one of the central purposes for in the Incarnation - to reveal God as he is from all eternity as "Father," Son and Holy Spirit (see John 17 and Jesus' great high priestly prayer on the night before he was to suffer).

As CCC 239 says there are two essential truths revealed in the revelation of God as "Father." 1. That God is the "transcendent authority and first origin (cause) of all things. 2. He loves with the tender love of a parent.

The Father revelation is also crucial in order to distinguish the creator from creation. The feminine represents the creation, while "father" as transcendent authority represents the fact that God is not part of creation. He is the creator. (There is more, but I'll leave it here)

As far as the Trinity being an "intriguing... mental exercise," but that you "never found it to be of foremost concern with those facing death or any kind of tragedy, loss, abuse or alienation." I beg to differ. Knowing God is absolutely crucial in those situations. As Jesus said, "This is eternal life, to know thee (the Father), the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent." Knowing God is extremely important in every aspect of our lives, especially when we are facing tragedies.

That statement is akin to saying, "It doesn't really matter if you know who your wife is, as long as you're married. Whether you talk to her, get to know her, etc. That's all just superfluous, right?"

And finally, Hans Kung could not be more wrong. We cannot "get rid of" the dogma (not doctrine, by they way, "dogma") of the Trinity any more than we could "get rid of" Scripture, the Mass, the Eucharist, or any other thing pertaining to the dogmas of our Faith. But then again, Hans Kung never really demonstrated even a most basic understanding of the Catholic Christian Faith. He's not a good source to turn to here.

August 13, 2014 at 12:15 pm PST
#21  Tim Staples - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger


In response to your #20:

Be careful not to slip into a fideistic understanding here. While it is true no one will ever understand the mystery of the Trinity with a complete and full understanding outside of the Persons of the Blessed Trinity, that does not mean that we cannot know what God has revealed to us through his Church about the Trinity.

Thus, there is a wealth of knowledge and understanding to be had that is crucial for us in studying the dogma of the Trinity.

And I must add as well that even though the dogma of the Trinity is supra-rational (above our ability to fully comprehend), there is nothing about it that is irrational. Thus, any error concerning the Trinity, like with all dogma, can be traced back to an error in reason.

August 13, 2014 at 12:19 pm PST
#22  Matthew Seymour - Long Beach, California

Tim, I'm not going to argue with you.

Have I lied? Have I told an untruth? Please tell me where...

I cannot find falsehood in what I have said.

August 13, 2014 at 12:48 pm PST
#23  Matthew Seymour - Long Beach, California

The Trinity cannot be understood by mankind, with discernment of the Spirit.

The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit understand the Trinity perfectly, because they are the Trinity.

Fallen beings, humans and angels alike, do not understand the Trinity. And they cannot unless it is revealed to them by the Father.

August 13, 2014 at 12:51 pm PST
#24  Matthew Seymour - Long Beach, California

My initial sentence in #24 is a typo... it should read "The Trinity cannot be understood by mankind, WITHOUT discernment of the Spirit."

August 13, 2014 at 12:52 pm PST
#25  Matthew Seymour - Long Beach, California

My dear friend Timothy, please respond to my private message. Not here, I'm done arguing.

Pray and consider what I have said. I trust that the Dearly Beloved Lord Jesus Christ will guide us all into the Fullness of Truth and Faith, as He intended.

In Love with Christ,

August 13, 2014 at 12:57 pm PST
#26  Michael Rogala - Chicago, Illinois

Well actually Timmy, Hans Kung has a lot more credibility than you will ever have. You really are quite the lightweight.

As to what people facing abuse, horrors, loss, or death concern themselves with, you couldn't be more in error, but that seems to be the nature of your being . . . errata. It is absolutely pellucid that you have never been intimately involved in the lives of others in dire straits. Otherwise you would never make an asinine remark like that. You need to get real or you are going to choke on all that dreck you are spouting. . . take a CPE internship . . . then you will find the Presence of Christ and maybe even wonder where is the presence of God in certain situations.

As to gender neutral terms . . . many people of other cultures don't seem to have the problem that you have. In fact you might read some of the extracts of Cardinal Sin or Rahner's transcendental existentialism, or Yves Congar. Quite informative, not to mention theologians . . . well received in the Vatican like Pagels, Fiorenza, Yee, etc. You might also read one of the great Doctor of the Church . . . Theresa of Avila. Yep, she's a Doctor of the Church.

Then there is this bit of doggerel ". . . though the dogma of the Trinity is supra-rational (above our ability to fully comprehend), there is nothing about it that is irrational. Thus, any error concerning the Trinity, like with all dogma, can be traced back to an error in reason."

Well Timmy, something is supra-rational, as you say then of course we wouldn't be able to detect an error, now would we. And for sure we couldn't detect an error in reason either.

Were you aware that St. Thomas Aquinas was an apologist? Yes, he was. He carried on a dialectic with Muslim philosophers and theologians. Both Thomas and the Muslims had a common "language" in Aristotle . . . who until Thomas came along, was not particularly favored by the Church.

Well, I've got to tell you, Timmy, you guys have Aquinas spinning in his grave . . . all 300 pounds of him. The great Doctor of the Church, doesn't like you loosely using the title of "apologist".

August 13, 2014 at 7:11 pm PST
#27  Tim Staples - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger


In answer to your #27:

As far as my "credibility" goes, I leave that to others to determine. But I do agree with you that I am "quite the lightweight." I try to better myself every day, but I know I have a long way to go. I appreciate your criticism.

I do think, with all due respect, that you are not understanding what I said about knowing God. I was not intending to say that when someone is suffering significantly, that's the time they are going to crack a theology book about the Trinity. What I meant was the knowledge of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is crucial to the spiritual life. As Jesus taught us in John 17:3, knowing God is central to eternal life. St. Peter tells us it is through the knowledge of God that we are strengthened in the spirit and able over overcome all manner of evil in our lives (see II Peter 1:2-4, followed by verses 5-9 that tell us faith and knowledge are not enough, we also must have other virtues in our lives).

"The nature of [my] being ... errata?" Wow!

There is not much to respond to here because so much of what you are saying is ad hominem (some of which I have taken to heart as a challenge to do better, so again, I appreciate that. I generally get more out of criticism than I do out of praise. In fact, I prefer the criticism.)

But there are a couple of things I may be able to contribute to the discussion (I could be wrong, of course). You quote as "doggerel" (really?) my stating ". . . though the dogma of the Trinity is supra-rational (above our ability to fully comprehend), there is nothing about it that is irrational. Thus, any error concerning the Trinity, like with all dogma, can be traced back to an error in reason."

You then say, "Well Timmy (I know you are calling me that as a put-down, but it actually brings back fond memories of my father who used to call me by that name) [if] something is supra-rational, as you say then of course we wouldn't be able to detect an error, now would we. And for sure we couldn't detect an error in reason either."

This is a common misconception. St. Thomas Aquinas put it this way, in the Summa Contra Gentiles, Bk. 1, Chapter 7, para. 2 and 7: (2) "That which we hold by faith as divinely revealed, therefore, cannot be contrary to our natural knowledge." (7) "... whatever arguments are brought forward against the doctrines of faith are conclusions incorrectly derived from the first and self-evident principles imbedded in nature. Such conclusions do not have the force of demonstration... And so, there exists the possibility to answer them."

According to the Common Doctor, every error concerning the faith can be traced back to an error in reason. It seems to me you have become tainted with more than a hint of fideism. I can relate because I too was so tainted as a Protestant. Then Cardinal Ratizinger's use of Romans 12:1-2 was a great help to me. St. Paul there tells us our "worship" is "reasonable" (Gr. - "logikn"). There is nothing about our faith that is contrary to reason. Grace and faith always build on nature.

I was aware that St. Thomas Aquinas was an apologist. In fact, he is one of three patron saints of apologetics the Church recognizes along with St. Justin Martyr and St. Catherine of Alexandria.

Somehow I don't think St. Thomas Aquinas "doesn't like" [me] [loosely?] using the title of apologist." He is too busy praying for me. He is my patron and one that I invoke before every presentation I give.

I do ask that you would pray for me as well. What is most important is the Faith. If I am misrepresenting the Faith, then I want to be corrected so that the purity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ would be guarded. The way I see it, I am just not important in the matter. So if you have real corrections to what I have written, I am all ears. The personal attacks, while sometimes beneficial as I've mentioned, really don't get down to the matter at hand. You obviously believe I am far beneath Hans Kung. And he is a man who is not permitted to teach as a Catholic, and denies infallible teachings of the Magisterium. If I am truly inferior to him theologically, then I would agree with you that I would have no business teaching as a Catholic.

The problem is, in all of this, you haven't actually given me a single teaching I've presented that is contrary to the Faith. I appreciate your pointing out the obvious: "[I] am a light weight." But it seems to me your should also point out my errors so that, perhaps, I can be aided in putting on a little weight.

August 15, 2014 at 6:02 pm PST
#28  Jimmy Roane - Allen, Texas

Tim, a quick question. You said in one of you comments on Baptism that baptism is the instrument by which we are saved. I am trying to reconcile that with Peter's question in Act 10:47, when the household of Cornelius spoke in tongues prior to baptism. The scripture says: "Then Peter answered: Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, who have received the Holy Ghost, as well as we?" (Douay-Rheims Bible) My question is, of course, if baptism is the instrument how then was that possible? I cannot imagine a person being filled with the Holy Ghost and not be saved. I do not wish to be argumentative, but I also have questions about the thief on the cross whom Christ told that he would be in Paradise with him that very day. No baptism here. It is not that I disagree with you, it is just that I am confused. Blessings.

August 28, 2014 at 6:13 pm PST
#29  Tim Staples - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger


Baptism is the ordinary means whereby we receive the grace of regeneration. We know this from Romans 6:3-4, Gal. 3:27, John 3:3-5, Mark 16:16, Acts 2:38, Acts 22:16, etc.

However, we also know from texts like you've presented in Acts 10 with Cornelius, and with the thief on the cross, that though we are bound by Christ's commandment to be baptized for salvation, God is not so bound. He can reach people in ways known to him alone.

Cornelius is a great example of an exception to the norm because the context is one where Peter was reluctant to baptize Gentiles. God had to give him his vision of "all manner of unclean animals" symbolizing the welcoming of Gentiles into the fold "three times" and still Peter was reluctant. There was great prejudice against Gentiles in Jewish culture. God had to pour out the Spirit upon Cornelius in order that Peter "could not withstand" God's action to bring in the Gentiles.

The thief is another exception. He obviously, could not be baptized because he was hanging on a cross. This is one text the Church has used over the centuries to demonstrate the concept of "baptism by desire." God does not ask us to do the impossible. The good thief's desire for Christ would suffice and he would receive the grace of the sacrament without actually receiving the sacrament.

However, if he would have been brought off the cross miraculously, he would then be bound by Christ's command. And if he refused baptism, he would be lost.

August 31, 2014 at 5:56 am PST

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