But, let us never imagine that the Trinity presents us with a problem of mathematics. The mystery of the Trinity is not a mystery of how he can be three in one, and one in three. That, in itself, is really not so hard to understand; and so St. Patrick used something as simple as the shamrock, one leaf that is also three leaves, to illustrate the unity of the Trinity.1 Without being mathematicians, we can understand that one may equal any number. That is not the mystery. The mystery is God, a mystery so great that the joy of eternity is growing in the knowledge of God forever, ever deepening knowledge that cannot be exhausted, for "his greatness is unsearchable." (Psalm 145:3) Infinity is too small a concept to weigh against God.
Like all revelation, the doctrine of the Trinity is filled with mystery to such an extent that we can be sure of one thing: No human mind dreamed it up. No human mind can contemplate God except by some use of created things, for the human mind is part of creation, lives in creation, and cannot leap out of that into the uncreated reality we call God. We can know God, nonetheless, because God has taken the initiative to reveal himself. And, this revelation cannot be separated from our salvation from sin and death.
The salvation which we celebrate, as God has given it to us, is historical and it is future. It is also iconic and sacramental. We must turn to readings for the Mass of Christmas on this Trinity Sunday, to grasp the point.
"God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high." (Hebrews 1:1-3)
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth." (John 1:1-14) 2
The Fathers who gathered for the second Council of Nicea knew that the heresy of the Iconoclasts was very dangerous indeed. The Iconoclasts failed to understand the difference between Christian icons and pagan idols. Christian icons are based on revelation, especially the ultimate revelation, the Incarnation: "The Word was made flesh." Pagan idols are a deception, taught by human imagination at best, by demons at worst, to lure men away from the true God. The true God is known only through the Son (John 14:6, 17:3). The Fathers at that Second Council of Nicea (787 AD) knew that if the Church rejected icons they would reject the iconic nature of revelation, the truth that the Word was made flesh. In time, they could refuse to believe in the Son, as he has been revealed through his human nature. In time, the knowledge of God could be lost, if the Iconoclasts were to prevail.
Iconoclasm had come from a new religion that had only recently appeared in human history, taught by that Antichrist name Mohamed (I John 2:18). The cruel god that his desert hordes proclaimed, as they ravaged and plundered the weak and defenseless, was the god of this Unitarianism known as Islam. This god cannot understand love, because he is not the One-Elohim of Israel, known more fully by the Church as "the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit." The doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that "God is love," as St. John put it (I John 4:8,16). But, about a god who is one and only one, through and through, with no plurality of Persons in him, we cannot speak of love; rather of an emptiness, a void in which eternity knows no compassion. G.K. Chesterton contrasted the God of revelation against the god of Islam very well:
"To us Trinitarians (if I may say it with reverence) -- to us God Himself is a society. It is indeed a fathomless mystery of theology, and even if I were theologian enough to deal with it directly, it would not be relevant to do so here. Suffice it to say here that this triple enigma is as comforting as wine and open as an English fireside; that this thing that bewilders the intellect utterly quiets the heart: but out of the desert, from the dry places and, the dreadful suns, come the cruel children of the lonely God; the real Unitarians who with scimitar in hand have laid waste the world. For it is not well for God to be alone."3
Our salvation is iconic, because to know the Son is to know the Father also. Apart from the Word made flesh we cannot know God. "But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them. For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus' sake. For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." (II Corinthians 4:3-6) We know God because we know the Son, and we know him because he is also a man.
The Word is spoken of by St. John in the Trinitarian opening of his Gospel, where God is thrice named, and where, when God is named the second time, "the Word was God." Further on we see, "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth." What did we behold, even as it was disguised in his human features? We beheld "the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." And, what we beheld in that face was compassion, such compassion as a lonely god would not have. We beheld love, the love of the Father in the love of the Son, expressed most clearly on the cross when he poured out his soul unto death to redeem fallen mankind, to save us from sin and death. And, we behold him, after death, rising again and forever keeping our own human nature within the very Godhead. The revelation of God in Jesus Christ is entwined with the revelation that God is three in one and one in three.
Our salvation, as revealed, is sacramental. It stems from the Incarnation, and depends on the death and resurrection of Christ, from which flow the power and grace that are given to us by the Holy Spirit, as he uses the means of grace through his Church. Without the atonement Christ worked for us on his cross, and by his rising again, we would have no absolution, no baptism, no Communion. Without the Holy Spirit present and active in the Church, this grace would never be imparted through the preached word and through the sacraments. For, it is the Holy Spirit, the other Comforter (παράκλητος, paraklētos), who imparts every grace that flows from the Incarnate, crucified and risen Son.
The risen Christ gave commandment to baptize "in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." (Matthew 28:19) St. Basil reminds us, in his book On the Holy Spirit, that this trinitarian Name is one Name, not three names. We do not baptize in the names, but in the name. Comparing the 17th chapter of the Gospel of John to the 28th chapter of Matthew, we see a progression. In John, before his death, he says: "Father...I have declared unto them thy name, and will declare it: that the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them." (John 17:26) And, in Matthew, the Name of God is more fully revealed when he commands the Church to baptize, by telling us the name into which we baptize. "The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit." This ultimate revelation of the name of God came from the mouth of the risen Lord Jesus Christ after he had perfected the work of our redemption, salvation and justification. (How fitting that we read the conversation between the Lord and Nicodemus on Trinity Sunday, since baptism, the new birth, is part of the revelation that God is the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost).
The correct pronunciation of the mysterious Name of God has been lost, despite fruitless efforts to figure it out. We may have an indication from the prophet Jeremiah that this loss was God's own work, a loss indeed, but to the end that we gain something greater (Jeremiah 44:26). For in place of a name that is only mystery, we have a greater revelation of a name that declares who our God is. We may not know how to pronounce the name spoken by Moses and the prophets; but, we know the God of Moses and the prophets more fully by the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. And, we have learned this name through the human life of the Son of God, his personal history of being conceived in the womb of his mother, Mary the Virgin, the Theotokos. We know his history of going about doing good, healing all who were oppressed by the devil, teaching and preaching the kingdom of God, preparing his disciples, dying for the sins of the world, rising again from the dead, ascending to the Father and pouring out the Holy Spirit. We have learned the revelation of the Trinity because God is our salvation.
1. See my article Threefold Chords about how J.S.Bach used music to present a theological demonstration of the Trinity.
2. John used the phrase "in the beginning" to remind us of Genesis, and to get behind the opening of that first book of the Bible. What we call "Genesis" is called, in Hebrew, בראשית (B'Rasheet). It is simply the first word, which we translate into English with three words: "In the beginning." John used the Greek translation that opens this same first book of the Bible in the LXX. It was popular years ago to emphasize the first four words of the English translation. "In the beginning God." But, in fact, the word for "created," ( ברא, bora) is the second word in the Hebrew text, and the word we translate as "God" (that plural word, אלהים, Elohim) is third. In the Hebrew syntax the word for "created" directly follows "In the beginning." It is the opening of John's Gospel that moves the emphasis from the work of God to God as God. The apostle goes behind the scene of Genesis 1:1 to draw our attention from creation to God. This is because the New Covenant gives the knowledge of God in greater glory.
3.From Orthodoxy, by G.K. Chesterton. (chapter VIII)