Can you please explain the Trinity?
I always cringe a little when I get this one. First of all, there's so many different ways to go about it. My head always swims with the many possible ways I could approach the question. Secondly, how do I explain this simply? When someone asks you to explain the Trinity, they're typically not looking for an elaborate treatise on the subject. They just want the gist of it. But how do you give the gist of an inexhaustible mystery?
Since I became a DRE in 2008, the RCIA process has given several opportunities to hone my skill at explaining the unexplainable. I guess I'll have to devote the rest of my life to trying to get down to "the gist of it." For now, here is the approach that I take.
I think it's important to begin by looking at what a “mystery” is. In a theological context, a “mystery” is something revealed by God that is beyond full comprehension.
It is revealed by God: this means that it is God’s own self-discloser to us. God desired to share this aspect of Himself with us so that we might know Him better!
It is beyond full comprehension: this means that we will never completely understand the Trinity. We can definitely know certain things about it, but not everything.
At first this seems like a source of frustration, but think about it: In a world full of empty pleasures and fleeting joys, isn’t it reassuring to know that we have a God who our minds can never fully consume? We can plum the depths of our Trinitarian Lord forever and ever! He is like a bottomless wellspring, or a banquet table without end.
With that in mind, the doctrine of the Trinity is basically this: God is 3 Persons equally and fully possessive of a single divine nature. 3 Persons in 1 God. But, how can that be? 3 does not equal 1, and it’s not enough for the inquiring mind to simply “take it on faith.” There must be some way to understand this better. For me, it helps to know more about the categories involved. Notice, we are talking about “person” and “nature.” If the teaching was that God was 3 persons in 1 person, or 3 natures in 1 nature, that would be absurd. But that’s not what we’re saying. There are two different categories involved -- person and nature -- and so the interplay between them is going to be different.
Okay, but what does “person” and “nature” mean? Nature answers the question “What?”. What kind of a being am I? I am a human being. This means I have a human nature. This also means that I can only do things that are in accordance with a human nature. I can think and love and read a book ... but I can’t breathe underwater. That would be in accordance with a fish nature, and I am not a fish!
Person answers the question “Who?”. When you see an animal walking by, you don’t say, “Who is that?” because animals are not persons. “Who?” is a question that can only be answered by human beings and by God. Your personhood is also the source of what you do. That “you” inside of you, the “I” inside of me, that is my personhood. I am not the color of my skin, I am me. My human nature does not do things, I do them.
Now, we only experience nature and personhood at a 1:1 ratio. I am my own person, and I have my own unique manifestation of the human nature. This means that you can’t think with my mind, and I can’t love with your heart. But, within God, personhood and nature exist at a 3:1 ratio. If me, and you, and a third person all thought with the same mind or loved with the same heart ... that would sort of be like how the Trinity works.
When you think of it that way, then I think the Trinity begins to make a little more sense. At least, I hope it does! Note that this is only the briefest introduction. But, it is important groundwork that must be laid before one can begin a study of what God has revealed about Himself.
For more from me on the Trinity, see the following blog posts:
- On the Inner Life of the Trinity
- What Is Trinitarian Procession?
- The Father Created All Things (Oh, and So Did the Son and the Holy Spirit)
I also highly suggest F. J. Sheed's explanations of the Trinity. He was a master of granting the average layman access to the great mysteries of the faith, and I must admit that I have borrowed much of my approach to the Trinity from him. See the following works, which are available online:
- EWTN: A Map of Life, Part VIII. TRUTH: (B) THE MYSTERY OF THE TRINITY
- Google Books: Theology for Beginners, Chapters 4-6 [a short read, 23 pages]
- Katapi Bible Resource Pages: Theology and Sanity, Chapters 6-9
Finally, I must recommend these videos from Bishop Robert Barron. He too is a master at making the mysteries of our faith more accessible, while still remaining faithful to them