The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the “central mystery of [our] faith” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 234). It is therefore the most fundamental. If we get it wrong, then everything else gets obscured or perverted.
The Catechism summarizes the Trinity in this way:
We do not confess three Gods but one God in three persons, the “consubstantial Trinity.” The divine persons do not share the one divinity among themselves but each of them is God whole and entire. . . . In the words of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), “Each of the persons is that supreme reality, viz., the divine substance, essence or nature” (CCC 253).
While this description is succinct and precise, it can be overwhelming for lay people who are not used to technical terms such as consubstantial or essence. They might resort to one of the following inferior ways of sharing the truth of the Holy Trinity that we should all work hard to avoid.
1. “It’s a mystery. Stop trying to understand and just believe.”
When they are pressed with tough questions about how God can be three persons or how each member of the Trinity can fully be God, some Christians resort to an unfortunate tactic. They throw up their hands and say, “It’s a mystery!” They don’t bother to explain any of the tough questions, and sometimes they accuse people of lacking humility when those people try to accurately describe the Trinity. Isn’t trying to define the nature of the infinite and unique Trinitarian God an impossible task? Aren’t we trying to “drink up the ocean in a tea cup” by trying to fit God inside of our tiny, finite minds?
A mystery, it has been said, is not something that is unknowable; it is something that is incomprehensible. I know that pi is the ratio of a circle’s diameter to its circumference, but I don’t comprehend, and can never comprehend, the full value of pi, since it possesses an infinite amount of numbers after its decimal point. Likewise, I can know God is all-knowing, but I can’t fully comprehend what it’s like to be all-knowing.
The Church teaches that the mysteries of our faith, unlike the value of pi, are those things human beings cannot come to know through reason alone (CCC 237). In that sense the mysteries of the faith are not like the “mystery” of the Bermuda triangle or the “mystery” of the value of pi, both of which merely represent a gap in human knowledge that can be filled with diligent research. The mysteries of faith must be revealed to mankind in order for us to know them.
The First Vatican Council taught that while man can, by reason alone, come to know God exists, man cannot know that God is a Trinity of three persons or that the Eucharist is the substance of Christ’s body under the form of bread and wine. If God had not revealed these truths to mankind, we would still be in ignorance of them, which is why they are sacred mysteries of the Faith.
Also, just because we cannot fully understand something doesn’t mean that we cannot understand errors about that thing. For example, Jesus Christ is the most mysterious person who ever lived, because he was fully God and fully man (just try fully understanding what that’s like!). The Catechism even admits, “Many things about Jesus of interest to human curiosity do not figure in the Gospels. Almost nothing is said about his hidden life at Nazareth, and even a great part of his public life is not recounted” (CCC 514).
Simply put, there is a lot about Jesus of Nazareth that is mysterious, and we can’t presume to know more (such as what Jesus looked like) than what has been revealed for us. But correcting someone who says that Jesus was a woman, or that Jesus wasn’t a Jew, does not reveal a lack of humility; it reveals a sense of fidelity to those truths about Jesus we can know through historical investigation or by what the Church has revealed to us.
Since the Trinity is the most fundamental and essential teaching in the “hierarchy of the truths of faith” (CCC 90), we ought to stamp out errors wherever we find them. Unfortunately, these errors usually come about when Catholics with good intentions try to create an analogy to help nonbelievers, or those who need catechesis, to understand the Trinity.
The problem with using analogies to explain the Trinity is that God is the most unique being in existence. In fact, many theologians will tell you it’s not quite correct to call God a being but rather he is the being, or the reason anything exists at all. Because God is so unique, any analogy we use will inevitably fall short. The Catechism states, “God transcends all creatures. . . . Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God” (CCC 42).
While these analogies can be helpful for children, when they are pressed too far they lead to conclusions the Church has deemed heretical.
2. “The Trinity is like how a man can be a Son, a Father, and an uncle at the same time. He’s one and three at the same time, just as God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at the same time.”
Nope. This analogy commits the heresy of modalism. Modalism is the false belief that God is one person who has revealed himself in three forms or modes. Modalism is also called Sabellianism after Sabellius, an ancient theologian whom Pope Callixtus I excommunicated in A.D. 220.
Modalists were heavily influenced by Greek philosophy, which taught that God was an ultimate one, or act of unity. While this was a big improvement over Greek polytheism that posited a pantheon of gods who fought each other, it goes too far when it denies that God can be three relationally distinct persons in one being.
Returning to the bad analogy that leads to modalism, though a man may be a son, father, and uncle, he is not three persons as God is but one person who has three titles.
Another popular but false analogy is the following: The Trinity is like how water can be ice, liquid, and steam. This again commits the heresy of modalism. God does not go through three different states. The Persons of the Holy Trinity coexist; the different forms water may take cannot. Water cannot be ice, liquid, and steam at the same time. It may be between two stages such as when ice is melting, but this isn’t coexisting, it’s transforming.
Another analogy—attributed to Sabellius—that lives on today is that of the sun. The Father is the sun, while the Son and Holy Spirit are the light and heat created by the Father. But this analogy also smacks of modalism, because the star is simply present under different forms.
Or it can be seen to express Arianism, which is the heretical view that the Father is superior to the Son and Holy Spirit by being a different and “higher” divine substance than the latter two. In the sun analogy, the light and heat are passive byproducts of the sun and are not true equals in the way that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share equally and completely in the divine nature.
Another heretical byproduct of sabelliansm is patripassianism (try saying that three times fast!): God exists as one “mode” and merely puts on the mask or role of “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit.” But this would mean that when the Son suffered on the cross, the Father also suffered on the cross (though he was wearing the mask or mode of being the son).
In William Young’s popular novel “The Shack,” the Trinity is illustrated through three people. The Father is an African-American woman named “Papa,” the Son is a Middle Eastern carpenter, and the Holy Spirit is a mysterious Asian woman. At one point Papa says to the main character that at the crucifixion “he and Jesus were there together,” and Papa even has scars just like Jesus (pp. 95-96). However, the Church teaches that God is impassible and that nothing human beings do can cause God to literally suffer like us. Jesus was capable of suffering on the cross only because he assumed a human nature and possessed a human body.
Basically, the main problem with modalism is that it denies that God is three distinct persons. The Catechism states, “’Father,’ ‘Son,’ ‘Holy Spirit’ are not simply names designating modalities of the divine being, for they are really distinct from one another”(CCC 254). What you are left with is a confusing monotheism where God merely pretends to be three different persons instead of actually being three different persons. Unfortunately, in order to correct this error some analogies overcompensate. This leads to our next bad analogy.
3. “The Trinity is like an egg: yoke, albumen, and shell. The three elements form one egg just as the three members of the Trinity comprise one God.”
This commits (or could at least lead one to believe it commits) the heresy of saying God is composed of three parts and that those parts make up one God. But God has no parts, as the late-second-century Church Father Irenaeus affirmed: “[God] is simple, not composed of parts, without structure, altogether like and equal to himself alone. He is all mind, all spirit, all thought, all intelligence, all reason . . . all light, all fountain of every good, and this is the manner in which the religious and the pious are accustomed to speak of God” (Against Heresies 2:13:3 [A.D. 189]).
The key here is understanding that we don’t believe in three persons who when united become God but in three persons who possess the same divine nature. ”The Father is that which the Son is, the Son that which the Father is, the Father and the Son that which the Holy Spirit is, i.e., by nature one God” ( Council of Toledo XI (675): DS 530:26).
Three good ways to explain the Holy Trinity
Though it can be tempting to use an analogy to help our children understand who God is, in my experience with youngsters, analogies almost always muddy the waters. And since it’s better that our children not fully understand who God is than have a false understanding of him, I tend to stay away from them. The closest I get to “dumbing it down” for my kids is by 1) a simple conversation about being, person, and nature; 2) a simple diagram; and 3) the Athanasian Creed.
First, here’s how I start the conversation with my one of my children.
Me: Liam, what is a person?
Liam: I dunno.
Me: A person is someone who can potentially say “I.” Is a statue a person?
Liam: Because it can’t say anything. It’s not alive.
Me: But a statue, like the one in the front yard, is real, right? It’s not make-believe like a dragon.
Liam: Of course.
Me: So anything that’s real is a being. So there are some beings, like statues, which are not persons, right?
Me: What about you, are you a person?
Me: Okay. So a statue is a being with zero persons. You are a being who is one person. God is a being who is three persons. Make sense?
Liam: Not really.
Since my son is only five years old, I’m happy I can at least get him to the foot of this theological mountain before he tries for the summit when he’s a little older. I’d rather have that than have him jump off a theological cliff by embracing a mistaken view of the Holy Trinity.
The key terms
Just remember that when you have conversations about the Trinity, the most important distinction you can make is between beings, persons, and natures. A being is a unified substance that exists. A person is an “I,” or individual self. Think of God as one being that is composed of three “I’s” or three persons, each of whom is fully God. The famous “Trinity shield” pictured above can help illustrate this concept. Frank Sheed wrote:
The newcomer to this sort of thinking must be prepared to work hard here. It is a decisive stage of our advance into theology to get some grasp of the meaning of nature and the meaning of person. Fortunately, the first stage of our search goes easily enough. We begin with ourselves. Such a phrase as “my nature” suggests that there is a person, I, who possesses a nature. The person could not exist without his nature, but there is some distinction all the same; for it is the person who possesses the nature and not the other way round.
One distinction we see instantly. Nature answers the question of what we are; person answers the question of who we are. Every being has a nature; of every being we may properly ask, “What is it?” But not every being is a person: only rational beings are persons. We could not properly ask of a stone or a potato or an oyster, “Who is it?” (Theology and Sanity, p. 92).
When we examine the Trinity, we can ask of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who they are. The Father is the creator, the Son is the redeemer, and the Holy Spirit is the sanctifier. The Church teaches that the Son was eternally begotten by the Father. The Father has always been the Father and the Son has always been the Son. The Holy Spirit proceeds from both the father and the Son. Though they differ in their roles, it does not follow that the members of the Trinity differ in what they are. When we ask what the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are, the answer is always the same. The Father is God. The Son is God. The Holy Spirit is God. Not a god. Each is God.
Critics may say God can’t be three Gods, and they are right. But if there can be beings composed of zero persons, and beings composed of one person, why can’t there be a being composed of three persons? To say God can’t be more than one person is to put a human limit upon divine omnipotence. If God is all-powerful, there is no reason he can’t enter into his creation or exist as the perfect cooperation of three equally divine persons.
Also, if God is love (1 John 4:8, 16) then love does not exist in a vacuum. Love involves fully giving oneself to the beloved. If God existed as love for all eternity, then there must have been someone to receive his love. Otherwise, God’s love would be imperfect, because it would not be willing the good of another person.
Furthermore, just as the love of husband and wife creates a new person, the eternal love shared between the Father and Son is itself an eternal person—the Holy Spirit, who enlivens the hearts of believers to understand the mystery of God’s love and share it with the rest of the world.