Perfect Love Requires Three – Unlocking the Mystery of The Trinity

The Simple Catholic Snapshots:
  • There is only One God
  • God is LoveTrinity
  • A Lover needs a Beloved, therefore there are at least two Persons in One God
  • Love is Perfected when it is Given in Complete Self-Sacrifice
  • God’s Love is Perfect
  • Therefore, there are Three Persons in One God, Each Giving Perfect Self-Giving Love to the Others

 

The Simple Catholic Truth:

Perhaps no other dogma is so fundamental to Christianity, yet remains such a profound mystery as the Holy Trinity. Scripture is clear, there is one God. Scripture is also clear that God is revealed to us as God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. But how can this be? How can 1 equal 3?

Brilliant philosophers and theologians have been debating the Trinity for two thousand years trying to define God’s nature and pinning down what exactly is meant by a “person.” These writings are interesting at times, challenging to be sure, but for now I’ll just use the term “person” without getting bogged down in defining it. In this post, however, I’m would like to look at just one narrow aspect of the Trinity and that is: “Why Three?” Why is it necessary that God revealed himself as three persons? [1] Why not one? Why not four or more? I will present these ideas as plainly as possible but will also include a sequence of graphics as learning tools.

To get started, recall that Holy Scripture reveals that there is only one God. I’ll retain the familiar Christian terminology and refer to this God as a person that we call ‘Father’. We will graphically represent the person as a circle, and the name of this person is Father as shown below.

Father

Ok, so far so good. Using this graphic as a reminder, we now have One God and One person (called Father).

Next, we find in Scripture (1 Jn 4:8) an additional revelation that God is Love. St. Augustine reasoned correctly that every Lover must necessarily have a Beloved. In other words, if a person is Love, then there must be another person to participate in that Love. We can now update our graphic to match our evolving understanding of God.

FatherLoveSon2

In this diagram we now have the second person needed to participate in and fulfill the Loving nature of the Father. We refer to this second person as the ‘Son’, or more specifically Jesus Christ. Scripture tells us that the Son shares the nature of God the Father (e.g. eternal, Loving, all powerful etc.) and is therefore also God. We now have One God and Two Persons (called Father and Son).

But Scripture also refers to another aspect of God that is called the Holy Spirit. We now must reconcile the existence of the Holy Spirit with our understanding of God as represented by the above diagram. St Augustine tries to include the Holy Spirit at this point by suggesting that the Holy Spirit is in fact the Love between the Father and Son. I have updated the diagram to include his idea:

FatherSon

But take a careful look at the above diagram. Yes, the person of the Father and the person of the Son exist in proper loving relationship, and the Holy Spirit is included, but here the Holy Spirit is not a person. In this version of understanding, the Holy Spirit is an artifact of the relationship between Father and Son and not a co-equal person as the Bible indicates. Something is still missing.

The step the resolves this dilemma gets a little tricky but stay with me and it will make some sense when we finish. Richard of St. Victor suggests that in the loving relationship between Father and Son shown above, the Love between the Father and Son is not perfect because that Love is not an act of complete self-giving. In other words, the Love of the Father to the Son can not be returned in kind by the Son to the Father. If this dual, two-way nature of love were true, the Father would be ‘getting something in return’ and this violates the idea of perfect self-giving Love. The only solution to this logical dilemma is for the Father to will (for the good of the Son) that the Son have a loving relationship with another. This of course requires a third person that we refer to as the Holy Spirit and is shown (partially) in the diagram below:

FatherSonHolySpirit

Take note that the Love from Father to Son is now perfected by the Love of Son to another (Holy Spirit). Since God is Love and God is perfect Love, His love must be perfected in this manner which includes a third person.

A few quick comments are absolutely necessary before the diagram is completed. We must understand that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are equal persons, are equally eternal, sharing equally the same nature as ‘God’. In the above set of diagrams, I showed a sequence that started with the Father, then to the Son and then to the Holy Spirit but we only used this sequence for initial simplicity. In actuality, the Love of any of the Persons of God towards the other Persons is equal, simultaneous and interdependent. This leads us to the final version of the diagram which I believe best represents an understanding (although still imperfect) of the Trinity based on the idea that the essence of God is perfect self-giving Love.

Trinity

Here we see that the Holy Trinity is One God yet Three Persons formed together and united by perfect inseparable Love. The Holy Trinity is logically necessary because of the perfect self-giving nature of God. In other words, perfect Love requires three!

Of course, the explanation above is lacking. No group of words or diagrams can adequately describe God.  cross-clip-art-ncBXEy7cAThe Trinity remains a mystery and will be so until He completes the final revelation. In the mean time, try to see God as three Persons of perfect Love.
When we see God in this light, the entire Gospel message including the sacrifice the Cross becomes more clear. We have no greater example of total self-giving Love than the Trinity.

 

 

[1] The ideas in this post are derived in part from the writings of a 12th century theologian, Richard of St. Victor (died A.D. 1173.) In his classic work De Trinitate, Richard explores the mystery of this Christian dogma using a systematic reasoned approach blended with classic philosophy.

11 thoughts on “Perfect Love Requires Three – Unlocking the Mystery of The Trinity”

  1. Although this analogy also has flaws, it helps me to think of the Trinity in terms of a computer. One computer with the Central Processing Unit as God, the Graphical User Interface as Jesus and the Operating System as the Holy Spirit.

    1. MAM,
      I’m glad your computer analogy helps to shed some light on the mystery of the Trinity. As you say all analogies can be helpful but can also be misleading.
      In your computer analogy, I think the flaws are serious. One of the fundamental aspects of the Trinity is that Father, Son and HS all share the same divine nature. Each ‘person’ is hence God. [An additional characteristic of God is that God has no parts and can not be divided.]
      In the computer analogy, the three persons of the Trinity are the CPU, GUI and OS respectively and as such are different parts. They have different characteristics and different functions. To me this seems a serious violation of the fundamental aspects of God that I mentioned above.
      Thanks for your input!
      Tom

  2. I liked your explanation of the Holy Trinity. I was wondering if you could shed light on John 16:7 “Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. “

    1. Hello Thomas (great name by the way),
      I’m glad you enjoyed the post on the Trinity. The idea presented here is not for everyone, but lets face it, the Trinity will continue to be a mystery. However, I thought this idea was interesting food for thought.

      Re Jn 16:7 : I’m not sure what your difficulty on that verse is or what you mean by shed some light but here are my two cents worth. If this doesn’t answer your question then please reply and we’ll continue the discussion.

      In the Gospel of John, Jesus has explained that he is soon going away. Both Peter (Jn 13:36) and John (Jn 14:5) earlier asked about where he was going, but didn’t press the question. That said, it is clear that they both were trouble by the prospect of Jesus’ impending departure.
      It seems to me that in Jn 16:7 Jesus is reassuring the disciples that they won’t be left alone and in fact greater blessings will come when the Holy Spirit comes to dwell with them. When that happens, their sorrow will be turned to joy.

      Take for example this commentary regarding what the grace of the Holy Spirit will deliver:
      ” To dispel their sorrow, He announces to them a consoling truth, which would dissipate their erroneous ideas regarding His departure, and the bereavement it would cause them, which, as emanating from Him, they should believe. This truth was, that far from being an evil, as regards them, His departure, on the contrary, would be to them a source of blessings.
      “For, if I go not, the Paraclete.” This sweet Comforter, so often promised you, to console you and teach you all truth—“will not come.” My departure by death, and by glorification in the bosom of My Father, is a necessary condition for the coming of this Paraclete—a necessary step to wean My followers from too much attachment to Me personally, and thus render them fit for the reception of the Holy Spirit, and the full participation in the blessings of His coming.
      “But, if I go, I will send Him to you.” This shows the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Son as well as from the Father; and also the distinction of persons. The person sending is distinct from the person sent. ” (1)
      (1) MacEvilly, J. (1902). An Exposition of the Gospel of St. John (p. 303). Dublin; New York: M. H. Gill & Son; Benziger Brothers.

      or this commentary that emphasizes these passages as a further disclosure of the Holy Spirit as part of the Trinity:

      “The Holy Ghost is the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity. Our Lord calls Him “another Paraclete”, who would, in His own stead, enlighten, sanctify, strengthen and comfort the apostles and those who came after them, till the end of all things. This shows us that the Holy Ghost must be a Divine Person, distinct from the Father and from the Son. We have just read our Lord’s words: “The Father will send Him in My Name”; and in another passage He speaks of “the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth, whom I will send you from the Father”. The Holy Ghost is, therefore, the Spirit of the Father and the Son, who proceeds from all eternity from the Father and the Son, and who in time was sent by the Father and the Son. ” (2)
      (2) Knecht, F. J. (1910). A Practical Commentary on Holy Scripture (p. 646). London; St. Louis, MO: B. Herder.

      Hope this helps…

      1. Thanks for taking the time to reply. Specifically, I was wondering why did Jesus need to go before the Holy Spirit could descend? Why couldn’t both be present simultaneously?

  3. Thomas,
    I’m not sure I can really answer your question.
    I don’t know why God has revealed His plan to be: Creation > Christ > Holy Spirit. I only know that is the truth as it has been revealed to me in the Scripture and the Tradition of the Church.

    After the creation and fall, mankind was in a real mess. It took the Incarnate Son of God to descend to earth and through the ultimate sacrifice of a man/God, or God/man if you prefer, the entire human race could be saved. That entire process of atonement is such a mind-boggling mystery that I won’t even get into that at this time. However, once Jesus completed His Divine mission on earth, it was also revealed that the work of God was not complete. [This in no way suggests that Jesus’ role on the cross was insufficient.]
    In Gods own way, he planned to provide for us the Holy Spirit after Christ. Through the HS we would, across all ages, be strengthened to understand the plan of the Father, and the Son, and to act according to that plan. The Gifts of the HS are intended to produce the fruits of the HS which ultimate saves all of mankind.
    Was Jesus’ role on earth perfect – yes!!! But, that was not the end of God’s plan. The HS is needed in our lives to change us, to infuse our fallen nature with the divine nature of God so that we actually change in nature. We become as St. Peter says, ‘partakers of the divine nature’.

    Jesus lets us know in Jn 16:7 that part of God’s plan was to send the HS. Thank God!…I need all the help He provides.
    I don’t know why this is the order of God’s plan, but I do know that it is HIS plan. Therefore, I look for the HS in my life – the Advocate, the Sanctifier. The HS is the continuation and consummation of God’s plan.

    Blessings
    Tom

    1. Thanks Tom, for taking the time to explain this most profound of all the mysteries. God Bless you, your family and your work.

  4. GOD IS LOVE: UNDERSTANDING WHY THAT MEANS GOD IS TRINITY

    (1) God’s all-goodness entails the possession of perfect love.

    (2) Perfect love requires the existence of three divine persons within the being God and the equality of such persons.

    (3) The idea of three persons within the being God arises necessarily from the fact that love is inherently relational.

    (a) Love is seeking the real good for oneself and for another. It involves three things: self-respect (self-love), giving and receiving (mutual love), and sharing (communal love).

    (b) For self-respect or self-love to exist, an “I-self” relationship and therefore one person must exist.

    (c) For giving and receiving or mutual love to exist, an “I-thou” relationship and therefore two persons must exist.

    (d) For sharing or communal love to exist, an “I-them” relationship and therefore three persons must exist.

    (e) A fourth person within the being God is not necessary as the “I-them” relationship is already established through the existence of merely three persons. Ockham’s razor indicates you do not multiply entities without necessary. The existence of three persons and no more is what is necessary to explain the existence of perfect love within the being God.

    (4) The idea of these three persons being equally divine arises necessarily from the fact that, in their perfection and fullness, the relationships of love are relationships of equality.

    (a) Only a divine person could possess an infinite self-respect.

    (b) Only divine persons could give and receive an infinite love.

    (c) Only divine persons could share an infinite love.

    (d) All this love would be instantaneous, literally happening in no time at all.

    To the child’s question “what was God doing before the creation of the heavens and the earth?”, the philosophically wise, trinitarian monotheistic parent’s answer is as simple as it is profound: “loving”.

    1. Hi Rob,
      Thanks for sharing your very thorough comments. I believe we agree in principle that the Trinity is based on the idea that mysteriously, God is love.
      I do have a couple of responses:
      1) In item (1) above, you said that God ‘possesses’ perfect love. I somewhat disagree in the sense that God does not possess love, rather, Scripture tells us that love is something that defines God’s essence (1 Jn 4:8).
      2) I absolutely agree with your (3) the love is relational. That is the core of the argument in my original blog.
      3) Your item (3a) above seems very Thomistic in that he theorized that love of self is the basis of love of others. In other words, St. Thomas Aquinas held that the very love of self inclines one to the love of others and that rather than love of self being opposed to love of others they are essentially complimentary. He held that the love of self finds its fulfillment precisely in the love of others. Not being one to disagree with this brilliant man, I feel this position is somewhat distracting. Aquinas is most often quoted as defining love as ‘to will the good of the other for the sake of the other’. With this definition, we more easily see that love is completely self giving, not to be confused with the possibility of getting something in return or loving self in an ego sort of way.
      Now, I agree that fully fleshed out, the theology of God as love does include the inclusion of self love as you and Thomas described. However, to keep it simple, I think the topic is better served with the notion that love is simply the will of the good of the other for their sake only.
      4) You use the self love idea of (3a) as the basis to conclude in (3b) that one person must exist. IMHO, the first person, i.e. the lover if you will, is self evident.
      5) I agree that once you have a lover, you must have a loved one, hence the need for a second person. This is your conclusion also in (3c).
      6) The difficulty often comes from explaining why there are three persons in the Trinity. In your item (3d) you seem to be begging the question. You state that sharing or communal love is a requirement, but Why can’t you have have sharing love with only two? If I recall correctly, Augustine stated that the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, was the love between the Father and the Son. To me this is problematic since that seems to make the Holy Spirit a little different than either of the other two persons.
      7) I agree with the essence of your (4) above. As noted, my exception might be with the emphasis of the idea of self love (4a).
      8) I love your final response to the child’s question. We can scratch our heads and debate this great mystery about God, but in the end it doesn’t need to be more complicated than – God loves.

      Thanks again
      Blessings

      Tom

  5. Responding to your question why sharing or communal love (the I-them relationship) is not reducible or collapsible into giving and receiving (the I-thou relationship), you might find two moderns helpful.

    The first set of extracts is from J. Hill, The Three-Personed God (The Catholic University of America Press, Washington, 1982).

    “[Richard of St.Victor] notes that love is a tending to the other; by its very nature it demands the other, and in God this can only be the infinitely loveable other, i.e, another within God. If love of desire (amor concupiscentiae) demands another thing, love of friendship (amor benevolentiae) demand another person. Thus, there must be at least two who constitute the Godhead. But perfect love of friendship in fact involves a third. This is rooted in the altruistic character of pure love, which eliminates every trace of selfish satisfaction. The lover seeks a third to share the regard in which he beholds the beloved and to be regarded by the beloved as the beloved is regarded by him. Here lies unveiled the character of love as social. The Divine Society terminates at Three, since anything more would be superfluous. But this opens the way to further created societies.” (p.79)

    “Love demands plurality as a precondition for its occurrence; it does not explain this societal beingness in the first place. But goodness does- because of its self-diffusive character.” (p.79)

    “The basic principle of the Victorine- namely, that genuine love is self-transcending, and infinite love infinitely so- issues directly in two further truths. First, such love is love for another and thus always supposes at least two persons, and secondly, once such duality of love is achieved, it further consummates itself in the mutual love of a third person…Charity, then, always presupposes the personally other.” (p.227)

    “Beyond this lies the second truth: the self-transcending character of genuine love demands a third person. In the purity of its motivation it precludes every shadow of egoism, of selfish aggrandizement. But the love of two alone runs just that risk; there is the danger that selfishness, or at least complacency, in which each is sated with the love given and the love received, will prevail. Charity, in its highest reaches, breaks out of this isolation in the shared love for a third. Here, the love of two persons is not simply mutual, but coalesces into one love, ie, a common love for another that establishes them in the profoundest of unions. This reveals a penetrating insight into the altruistic character of love. The lover wishes to share with another (a third person) his own joy in the beloved, and this can only be by way of that third person’s own love for the beloved. At the same time, the generosity of love is such that the lover wishes for another who is loved by the beloved as much as he himself is.” (p.228)

    The last extract is from R.Swinburne, The Christian God (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1994).

    “In De Trinitate he [Richard of St.Victor] developed the points both that perfect love involves there being someone else to whom to be generous; and also that perfect loving involves a third individual, the loving of whom could be shared with the second….Richard also gives what are in effect two further arguments for the necessary bringing about of a third divine individual- that anyone who really loves will seek the good of the beloved both by finding someone else for him to love and (by the same act) finding someone else for him to be loved by. That demand too will be fully satisfied by three persons.” (p.190-191)

    1. Rob,

      We agree that true love requires more than just two entities, and I also think that we agree that three is the right number. However, I think we are using different terminology to describe why more than two is true.

      In your comment (3d) you stated that true love must be ‘shared’, and that therefore requires three. I agree that three is required, but have difficulty describing that need as ‘sharing’.

      You included clips from Richard of St. Victor’s De Trinitate which I also referenced in my original post. In that document it states “But perfect love of friendship in fact involves a third. [I agree] This is rooted in the altruistic character of pure love, which eliminates every trace of selfish satisfaction.”
      So we see that the essence of true love is giving, not sharing per se.
      Sharing certainly suggests giving something or some part away to another, but it also strongly implies a retention of that something, which is of benefit to the giver. If so that would negate the fundamental definition of love.

      I think a better understanding, and use of descriptive verbiage, is to describe the love of the first person so perfect that he wants the second to have it. BUT, for it to be true love, the first mysteriously must not participate. The love of the first must be totally self sacrificial toward the second. Hence, for the true love of the first to be realized perfectly, the second must have a loving relationship with a third, and the first not involved.

      I think this ‘giving’ aspect of loving is that which Richard of St. Vincent is describing, rather than the ‘sharing’ perspective.

      Of course we are quibbling about a mysterious concept using finite language. All attempts at best give us just a glimpse into that amazing nature of God.

      Take care,
      Tom

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