Three in One, and One in Three

By the Rev. Darren Miner

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Bible Readings

Today is Trinity Sunday, and this principal feast is a bit of an anomaly. For it doesn’t commemorate an event or a person, but a doctrine, namely, the doctrine of the Trinity. Stating the doctrine of the Trinity is simple enough: “We believe on one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Understanding the doctrine of the Trinity, however, is not so simple. You don’t need a degree in mathematics to see the fundamental paradox: we Christians say that we believe in one God; but when asked the Name of our God, we enumerate three separate persons, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

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A fuller statement of the doctrine may be found in the Athanasian Creed. It states: “We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father is uncreated, the Son is uncreated, and the Holy Spirit is uncreated. The Father is incomprehensible, the Son is incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit is incomprehensible.” (To which one might add, this whole Creed is incomprehensible!)

Despite the aforementioned incomprehensibility, it still behooves us to try to understand the nature of the God we love. After all, Holy Scripture commands that we love God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind. This is the primary reason for trying to wrap our heads around the triune nature of the Godhead.

But there is a second reason: because this doctrine shapes our worship. In our faith tradition, almost every prayer is addressed to the Father through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit.

A third reason for trying to understand the Trinity is even more practical. We are made in the image of the Triune God. The clear implication is that we are called to live a Trinitarian way of life and to model the Church on the interrelations among the persons of the Trinity.

Now, the doctrine of the Trinity has been criticized as a made-up doctrine, manufactured by theologians with nothing better to do. Not so! It arose organically out of the study of Scripture and lived experience. On the one hand, theBible says: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God; the Lord is One.” On the other hand, the early Church encountered that very same God in the person of Jesus Christ and in the Spirit that Christians found active within themselves and in their community.

For centuries, Christians struggled to make sense of the paradox that God is both one and three, and various attempts were made to explain it. Some explanations veered too far in the direction of the oneness of God, denying the divinity of the Son and the personhood of the Spirit. Other explanations veered too far in the opposite direction, proclaiming that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three separate gods. The explanation that the majority of Christians found the least unsatisfactory is this: God is one divine being, existing in three persons (three centers of conscious selfhood) that share a single will. The Father is the fountainhead of divinity. The Son is eternally begotten of the Father, whereas the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. When asked what the difference was between being “begotten of” the Father and “proceeding from” the Father, the great theologian St. John of Damascus admitted that he had no idea. So don’t expect me to try to explain it!

Sometimes, it helps to use an analogy to understand a difficult teaching. And I would love to be able to give you a foolproof analogy for the Trinity. But such analogies have a tendency to fail at some point. St. Patrick famously likened the Trinity to a three-leaf clover. But this analogy wrongly implies that each person of the Trinity is only one-third of God. This is the heresy of partialism. Some early theologians compared the Trinity to water, which can be found in nature in three states: ice, liquid, and vapor. But this analogy implies that there is really only one Divine Person, who appears to the world in three different forms. This is the heresy of modalism. Lastly, Orthodox theologians are fond of comparing the Trinity to three blazing torches held so that the flames combine and intermingle, being almost indistinguishable from a single flame. But even this appealing analogy fails to capture the distinct relations among the three persons.

As I stated earlier, we are called to love God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind. Likewise, we should try to know God with all heart and with all our soul and with all our mind—realizing all the while that God is not fully knowable. With that in mind, if you are interested in pursuing the study of the Trinity (and I hope you are), I would be happy to recommend a book or two.

Let me end by telling you a legend about St. Augustine of Hippo that you might find comforting as you ponder the mystery of the Holy Trinity:

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One day, the saint was walking on the beach contemplating a full and complete explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity that he was attempting to write. And he came across a little boy with a seashell, ladling water from the ocean into a small hole he had dug in the sand. Augustine asked the boy what he was doing. The boy answered, “I’m emptying the sea into this little hole.” Augustine exclaimed, “But that little hole is far too small to hold the entire ocean!” The little boy looked up at him and said, “Likewise, your mind is too small to contain a full understanding of the Trinity!” The boy immediately vanished, leaving the astonished Augustine standing alone on the beach.

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