Holy Trinity

It was all explained to me on a bridge in London, some thirty-nine years ago, yet I still find it an unplumbable mystery, this “Holy Trinity” of Whom Christians speak. It makes sense, it is biblically and theologically explicable to anyone sufficiently patient, and yet it is so far beyond normal human reach and comprehension that we must consider it a miracle in normal, historical terms: how people have continued to believe it.

When, in the early sixteenth century, the whole of the Western Church began to split apart, almost all of the splinter groups took away with them the trinitarian “concept.” Though it was not “rational” to the conventionally “rationalist” mind — which is reductionist to a (grievous) fault — the brethren who were separating themselves wanted to remain Christian. They realized that without this bold conception of the Trinity — inferred throughout the New Testament, and often hinted in the Old — they would cease to be Christian.

The Socinians, and others of that ilk (Arminians, Remonstrants, Unitarians and so forth), quickly demonstrated what happens to Christianity when trinitarianism is abandoned. We do not go from “three-in-one and one-in-three” to “one-in-one.” Instead, in the effort to retrieve Christ from a rapidly condensing theology, while avoiding dualism and pantheism, we go to something like “one-and-a-half in one,” or perhaps, “one-and-a-quarter in one-and-three-eighths,” bouncing back and forth off gnostic walls long before erected. It is a fascinating history, from the remoter reaches of Poland and Transylvania to points west, and through psilanthropic and ebionitic bat-flights, as quite intelligent but pathologically unwise people (like my abandoned hero, Coleridge) try to construct plausible Christologies in their own brains, with important bits missing.

Islam had long before offered the truly unitarian “option,” a heresy more natural to the East. Here the fascination is in the first century after Mohammed had transmitted some part of the Koran. (Scholarly inquiry into the actual development of the Koranic texts is suppressed today, in both East and West, with the threat of violence.)

The best minds of the Islamic conversion went right to work developing a unitarian theology, and soon discovered that if made self-consistent, it must also be incredibly boring. For it made the “otherness” of Allah too complete; so complete that it keeps batting back the question: why Mohammad? Why any prophet at all? Within that century the better Muslim minds turned all their attention instead to Shariah. Why vex themselves with truisms that keep going circular on them, when they could be indulging the far more agreeable pastime of bossing people around?

But isn’t Judaism essentially unitarian? To be sure, it is not doctrinally trinitarian, but that mysteriously plural quality, puritanically rejected in Islam, is implicit throughout Hebrew scripture, and necessary to the nature of God in His works. He is discerned by the Prophets in different aspects that a Christian recognizes as personhoods — but not as multiple gods. The “Sonship” is manifest throughout, in the chosen nature of the Israelites themselves; the Holy Spirit is constantly proceeding, behind, above, beyond the inscrutable transformation of a desert tribe into a universal expression of the divine will. God is not “one” like Moses. “I am that I am” lies unknowably beyond that, both immanent and transcendent.

Christian, and to my view, ultimately Catholic faith alone delivers to us this profound insight, of the unity of God in Three Persons. But once delivered, it reveals depths of knowledge not only of God but of ourselves. Most crucially: Love is a perpetual conversation within that “godhead,” to which we are ourselves ingathered. This is the mysterious human word to convey the infinitely divine quality that requires this “plurality” (co-equal, co-eternal, consubstantial) of ingathering.

In saying that “God is Love” we are already acknowledging a triadic “beingness of being,” as it were — a love for one to another from which Another can never be excluded. It seems to me from my weak understanding that this is echoed, too, in our human world, wherein the love of a man and a woman is sealed in the love of God, and open not merely to the biological generation of a child, but pre-existently to the love of that child — re-echoing in turn the Divine Love, which is absolute, which is not conditional.

This is all from a depth into which we cannot see, yet from which all that we can see is proceeding. We cannot know more about God than God; but can descry, in Revelation, enough about God to Love Him as our all-in-all.

Often it is said, by the glib, that there is no Doctrine of the Trinity in the Bible. This from people who either have not read the Bible, or have not understood anything they’ve read. For the Bible does not contain doctrines. It contains matter from which doctrines are construed. God does not Himself speak in doctrines, but in commands. The doctrines follow from what has been said, and are necessary to avoid misunderstanding.

And mostly they are dead obvious, as this one, forespoken in the baptismal formula of Matthew 28, to be uttered always and irreducibly: “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”