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The Trinity and the Nature of Love | Fr. Christopher Rengers | From the November 2007 issue of Homiletic & Pastoral Review

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It is only through revelation that we have come to know that God is one and three. To understand the doctrine completely is beyond human ability. But to explore the Holy Trinity by appealing to reason and human experience is very worthwhile.

In fact, the Trinity, as the struggles of the first centuries of Christianity show, must be discussed in order to define who Jesus is and why Mary may be called Mother of God. Our most common Christian gesture and the words that go with it in the Sign of the Cross turn our thoughts to the Trinity. This simple practice presents us with contrasting mysteries, bringing together suffering, mortal human nature and unchangeable, eternal divine nature. The tracing of the cross points to painful death while the words point to the source of all life, the Holy Trinity.

Prayerful contemplation, discussion and exploration have a continuing purpose. The fullness of all life, creativity and power that is in the Trinity provides ever-expanding horizons for contemplation, thought and incorporation in helpful, practical ways into human life. Two "explorers" almost a millennium apart offer viewpoints of unique interest. They are the little-known Richard of St. Victor and our present Holy Father, Benedict XVI. The latter's work An Introduction to Christianity [1] appeared originally in German in 1968, and is not magisterial teaching. It is rather the product of a profound philosopher and theologian. It delves into the ultimate nature of reality in the Trinity and the ultimate meaning of person.

The chapter "Belief in the Triune God" makes a helpful comparison between the nature of matter as now conceived in physics and the nature of substance and relation in the Trinity. The phrase quoted to explain the structure of matter as "parcels of waves" brings the comparison into focus.

The phrase is open to criticism in regard to physics, "but it remains an exciting simile for the actualitas divina, for the fact that God is absolutely 'in act' (and not 'in potency'), and for the idea that the densest being—God—can subsist only in a multitude of relations, which are not substances but simply 'waves,' and therein form a perfect unity and also the fullness of being" (p. 175).

The position of the observer has much to do with what he will discover. The question the observer asks will have an effect on the answer. The physicist doesn't approach everything as though it had to be matter. Nor does he approach everything as though it had to be motion. He looks at the total reality from two viewpoints. One is that things are made of matter, the second that everything is arranged according to motion or "waves." It is necessary to think in complementarities, whether in physics or in the theology and philosophy of the Trinity.

So in approaching the Trinity we consider it according to substance and according to relationship. The two together taken complementarily will give the complete reality that is the Holy Trinity. The relatededness cannot be considered as an accident of the substance. Putting the two together expresses the reality that is defined as one God and three divine Persons. "Not only unity is divine; plurality, too, is something primordial and has its inner ground in God himself. ...It corresponds to the creative fullness of God, who himself stands above plurality and unity, encompassing both" (pp. 178-179).

Faith enters into the observer's viewpoint

What is said so far concerns chiefly the area of logic and philosophy. But the Christian has a re-enforced position. It comes from the gift of faith. The Christian too is an observer, but his vantage point brings in the powerful beam of faith to shine on the total reality of the Holy Trinity.

Pascal's famous argument of the wager is highly praised. The argument has "an almost uncanny clarity and an acuteness verging on the unbearable" (p. 176). The man of no faith is, after a series of questioning, finally driven into the corner of accepting or rejecting belief. The punch line is in the final advice to a man of no faith: "You want to cure yourself of unbelief and you ask for a remedy? Take a lesson from those who were earlier racked by doubts like yourself.... Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, by taking holy water, by having Masses said and so on. This will bring you quite naturally to believe and will stupefy you." Stupefy is here explained as returning to the openness of a child, not hindered by pride of intellect. "On this basis, Brunschvieg can say in Pascal's sense, 'Nothing is in more conformity with reason than the disavowal of reason'" (pp. 176-177).

What does "person" mean?

As far as a human being is concerned, a person is an individual, rational, responsible substance. Relationship to others is something added. Our usual concept of "person" is anthropological. This concept, of course, makes difficulties when thinking of the divine "Persons." In them "person" is not an individual substance, but is a co-element of their total reality. The apt phrase, parcels of waves, to express the structure of matter as a grouping of certain motions or "waves," helps in grasping this fact. In God the substance and the "waves," or relatedness, are both necessary on an equal basis for conveying the proper notion of the total reality that is God, three and one, the Holy Trinity.

The relationship "stands beside the substance as an equally primordial form of being....The 'three Persons' who exist in God are the reality of word and love in their attachment to each other. They are not substances, personalities in the modern sense, but the relatedness whose pure actuality ('parcel of waves'!) does not impair the unity of the highest being but fills it out" (p. 183).

"St. Augustine once enshrined this idea in the following formula: He is not called Father in reference to himself but only in relation to the Son; seen by himself he is simply God. Here the decisive point comes beautifully to light. 'Father' is purely a concept of relationship. Only in being for the other is he Father. In his own being in himself he is simply God. Person is the pure relation of being related, nothing else. Relationship is not something extra added to the person, as it is with us; it only exists at all as relatedness. (p. 183)

"Let us listen once again to St. Augustine: In God there are no accidents, only substance and relation. Therein lies concealed a revolution in man's view of the world: the sole dominion of thinking in terms of substance is ended; relation is discovered as an equally valid primordial mode of reality" (p. 184).

Trinity doctrine is most practical

It has been said that saints and great contemplatives end up giving more and more attention to the Holy Trinity. This does not mean that they are up in the ozone of a spirituality detached from ordinary human life. It means the contrary. To understand that relatedness does not destroy but adds to unity, and indeed is necessary for perfect unity, has practical conclusions for human life. Fullness of human life too flows from relatedness, and will be more pleasing and perfect the more the person's self-giving and other-receiving proceed from love.

In the Trinity self-giving and other-receiving is of course perfect and so unity is perfect. But Jesus has called all his followers to imitate that oneness. In his sublime prayer at the Last Supper (John 17), he prayed first for the Apostles and then specifically for all they would in turn invite to follow him: "Yet not for these only do I pray, but for those who through their word are to believe in me, that all may be one, even as thou, Father, in me and in thee; that they may also be one in us, that the world may believe that thou hast sent me" (20-21).

Before his priestly prayer Jesus had made clear that the great demand for unity made on them could be fulfilled only by the coming of the Third Person of the Trinity. Jesus would send him. But again, even the Advocate who would teach all truth, call to mind all that Jesus had said, and tell them what they were not yet strong enough to hear, would be acting in a "from" and "toward" mode. "Many things yet I have to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when he, the Spirit of truth has come, he will teach you all the truth. For he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he will hear, he will speak, and the things that are to come he will declare to you" (John 16:12-13).

The first relatedness Jesus calls for is with him. This has great meaning for ecumenical efforts. "To John, being a Christian means being like the Son, becoming a son; that is, not standing on one's own and in oneself, but living completely open in the 'from' and 'toward'" (p. 187). The reflections on the Trinity have shown us "that Christian unity is first of all unity with Christ, which becomes possible where insistence on one's own individuality ceases and is replaced by pure unreserved being 'from' and 'for'" (p. 187).

The concluding sentence of the chapter on the Trinity sums up: "Just when we seem to have reaching the extreme limit of theory, the extreme of practicality comes into view: talking about God discloses what man is; the most paradoxical approach is at the same time the most illuminating and helpful one" (p. 190).

Richard of St. Victor

St. Bonaventure places Richard of St. Victor among the masters of contemplation. Dante salutes him as "in contemplation more than human." Little is known of his early life. He came perhaps from Scotland and entered the Abbey of St. Victor on the bank of the Seine outside the walls of Paris in the early 1150s. During the last decade and a half of his life he was first sub-prior and then prior of the monastery till his death in 1173.

His hope as prior to teach a solid mystical theology as the interior basis for good community relations provides reason enough for Richard's writing on the Trinity. Moreover, the Canons recited daily the Athanasian Creed, which is a detailed profession of faith in the Holy Trinity.

Richard's Book Three of the Trinity [2] is unique, however, in that it appeals to human reason to establish the necessity of three persons in God. The basis for this necessity is the perfection of love. Made in the image and likeness of God, a human being knows that love is necessary for happiness.

Through twenty-seven short chapters (pp. 371-397) Richard looks at every angle of the meaning of love and how it has to include relatedness. God could not be an absolutely alone person and be infinitely perfect, good, happy or powerful.

"Where there is fullness of all goodness, true and supreme charity cannot be lacking, for nothing is better than charity; nothing is more perfect than charity. However no one is properly said to have charity on the basis of his own private love for himself. And so it is necessary for love to be directed toward another for it to be charity. Therefore, where a plurality of persons is lacking, charity cannot exist." (p. 374)

After he has established that in God there must be a plurality, Richard of St. Victor goes on to say that the plurality must be more than two persons.

"It is necessary that each of those loved supremely and loving supremely should search with equal desire for someone who would be mutually loved and with equal concord willingly possess him. Thus you see how the perfection of charity requires a Trinity of persons, without which it is wholly unable to subsist in the integrity of its fullness. Thus, just as integral charity cannot be lacking, so also true Trinity cannot be lacking where everything that is, is altogether perfect. Therefore there is not only a duality but also true Trinity in true unity and true unity in true Trinity." (p. 385)

Richard a valuable guide

Richard of St. Victor was both an administrator and a teacher. He spoke often to the Canons in his monastery, preached to them and counseled them in private. Grover Zinn, the translator of Richard, sums up Richard's contribution in his work on the Trinity:

"In the supreme source of life, the Creator, one finds full personhood understood in terms of union and individuality; of loving, being loved and sharing love. Such a pattern suggests that in the imago Dei that is man, the reflection of this life should lead to a renewed appreciation of charity as a love lived in community with others, involving interpersonal sharing of the deepest kind." (p. 48)

It is not hard to see how meditation on the Trinity can strengthen the whole fabric of human relationships. It can help in the family, in a monastery or convent, in governmental bodies, in business, in any situation where cooperation is called for. You are most your true self, you are your best self, not when standing alone, but when aware of the primordial nature of relatedness in regard to unity. A true Christian, united with Christ, and aware from deep meditation that Christ and the Father are one, will be a person who strives humbly for unity. He knows that good human relatedness is a faint reflection of the relatedness that is essential in the divine unity.

The unique explorations of the two masters above, writing 800 years apart, arrive at the same conclusion. We might sum it up by saying that the nature of God includes a built-in relatedness. The medieval writer finds this result by examining the demands of perfect love, the modern writer by allowing his studies a double vantage point suggested by the demands of modern physics.

One simple, practical result from considering their thoughts about the Trinity, personhood and love, would be to make the Sign of the Cross in a thoughtful and deliberate manner. For priests this has application also in giving blessings, whether at the end of Mass or at other times. In this simple sign an amazing amount of mystery lies hidden. It deserves more perfection than an indefinite wave of the hand. (Perhaps a flashback to the idea of "parcels of waves" may help.) For it recalls at once the perfect sacrifice of Christ and the perfection of love that demands plurality in the Trinity.


[1] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, An Introduction to Christianity (English, 1990 & 2004, Ignatius Press, San Francisco).

[2] Richard of St. Victor, The Twelve Patriarchs, The Mystical Ark, Book Three of the Trinity (Paulist Press, New York, Ramsey, Toronto, 1979), pp. xvii & 425.

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Reverend Christopher Rengers, O.F.M. Cap., is in retirement at St. Augustine Friary in Pittsburgh, Penn. He continues to cooperate with the Workers of St. Joseph and the Queen of the Americas Guild in their endeavors to foster devotion to St. Joseph, Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Blessed Sacrament. His Marian books, Mary of the Americas and The Youngest Prophet, have been updated lately to include the canonization of St. Juan Diego and the beatification of Jacinta and Francisco of Fatima.

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