What could be harder to understand with our minds than God Himself? Yet, He it is we are called to know and to bring others to knowledge of Him. When God introduces Himself in Scripture, He uses plain words: to Moses he says, “I Am who I Am” and to the disciples Jesus says to baptize, “…in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” As plain as this language is, we still cannot make sense of it.
In his sermon, “The Mystery of the Holy Trinity,” Blessed Newman says that we should not be surprised that these words are confusing, for so is the mystery itself. If we struggle with the words, it must be because we can only grasp at the reality of God. How humble a place we find ourselves in! But Newman tells us not to despair, for even if we cannot explain the mystery, we can at least state what we know as clearly as possible. This is Newman’s intention – to state the mystery clearly, “…impressing on our mind what [sic] it is that the Catholic Church means to assert, and as making it a matter of real faith and apprehension, and not a mere assemblage of words.”
When we study the Trinity, we must always begin with the One and move to the Three, Newman says. First, this is the way Scripture reveals the nature of God to us. In Genesis we hear that God created the heavens and the earth and in Deuteronomy 6:4 that “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!” Second, if we begin with the three, we would “give false notions of the nature of that One.” So, then, what can we say about the One? Newman explains:
“God is one in the simplest and strictest sense…as truly one as any individual soul or spirit is one; nay, infinitely more truly so, because all creatures are imperfect, and He has all perfection. In Him there are no parts or passions, nothing inchoate or incomplete, nothing by communication, nothing of quality, nothing which admits of increase, nothing common to others. He is separate from all things, and whole, and perfect, and simple, and like Himself and none else…”
Without an earthly example, this is impossible to comprehend. At best we see in God separate qualities or attributes – wisdom, love, strength – but in reality there is no division in Him. He is so merciful that He even uses our imperfect understanding to describe Himself: “He deigns in mercy to us to speak of Himself…[as if] He could be angry, who is not touched by evil; or could repent, in whom there is no variableness; or had eyes, or arms, or breath, who is a Spirit…” Newman explains.
What we know about the One, and even what we don’t know, actually leads us to greater understanding of the Three. Newman offers two “illustrations,” and he is very careful to use that word, for these examples are not parallels to the Trinity (as that would be heretical), but they do serve to throw light on the nature of the Trinity.
We will examine these illustrations in part 2, but for now it is good to pause before the mystery of God as One. We cannot picture God’s infinite simplicity and perfection, but this should only cause us to wonder at this awesome God we serve. Now we pray with Newman, that with God’s help we may “sanctify our knowledge, and to impress it on our hearts, as well as to store it in our understandings!”