Three ‘Persons’ in the Trinity?

Speaking of “three Persons” in the Blessed Trinity can be misleading

We should avoid calling God “a person”. But does this not conflict with belief in the Trinity, as some people think?

“You say God is not a person. What about your Christian faith in the Trinity? Don’t you believe there are three persons in God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit?” Instead of God just being one person, he is THREE!”

Yes, Christians believe that there is one God who has revealed himself/herself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We know God as Father in his sovereignty, as Son in his self-communication in the incarnation, and as Holy Spirit in his self-communication to us in our daily life. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three “Persons” in one God.

What we have to remember is the fact that the use of the term “person” in the context of the Trinity is unique, not to say idiosyncratic. It does not mean “person” in the way in which we use the term today. When we speak of a “person” today, we refer to an individual who can independently think, decide and act. If there were three persons like this in God, there would in fact be three Gods. But Christian doctrine, as laid down in early Church Councils, firmly holds that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one God. They have one intelligence, one will, and one combined external action, if we may use such human terms about God. Father, Son and Spirit possess one divine nature and are not distinct in anything else except their mutual relationship to each other.

The use of the term “person” in the Trinity was introduced by the Greek Fathers of the Church as an equivalent of hypostasis, subsistence. What they were trying to express is that somehow, though God is one, he/she/it is not solitary. Within the one God there are mutual relationships, different faces as it were that reflect one another.

In human language this is sometimes expressed as the Father reflecting on himself and thus giving birth to the Son, and Father and Son reflecting on their mutual love which becomes the Holy Spirit. Since we are talking about God’s deepest essence, we are dealing with first-class mystery and human terms will always remain inadequate.

Christian belief in the Trinity emphasises the conviction that God is personal. In God’s self revelation to us, in the incarnation and continued presence of God’s Spirit we experience a glimpse of enormous depths of relationships and love in God. In however small a way, we share in the richness of these relationships in God by our awareness of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in God (see: T.O’BRIEN, Living in Personal Relationship with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, London 1990).

But the term `person’ is not a fortunate turn of phrase when we speak of the Trinity today.

The word person, because of the manner in which it is understood today, will almost automatically be misunderstood in the trinitarian formula. It will need to be extensively explained. Whenever possible, it is better to use the terminology we find in Scripture (see: K.RAHNER, `The Trinity’ in Sacramentum Mundi, London 1971, vol.12; Schriften zur Theologie, Tübingen 1980 , vol.13, pp. 129-147.).

If I may sum up the meaning of our Christian belief in the Trinity in non-theological terms, it comes to this. God, cosmic Mind and uncreated Love, is so intensely personal that we experience him/her as caring parent, intimate brother/sister and inner spark in us, all at the same time. The personal dimensions in God are inexhaustible.

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CREDITS

The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.

View the following film on the meaning of incarnation