Hear, O Israel: the Lord your God is one Lord.
This is one of the most important verses in the Old Testament. It’s a short, in-your-face statement summarising what made the Jewish people stand out in world history. At a time when all other cultures and religions believed that there were many gods, the Jewish people knew that there was in fact only one God, whom they called the Lord.
Now here is St Paul, writing nearly 800 years later:
For us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 8:6
Do you see any similarities between Paul and Deuteronomy? Paul is deliberately using the same words as Deuteronomy’s statement that there is only one God – but this time, he’s using them to tell us that the Lord God is both God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
How can the one God be the Father and Jesus Christ? But Paul has got even more to say:
The Lord is the Spirit.
2 Corinthians 3:17
Paul is taking these two names, ‘God’ and ‘Lord’, which Deuteronomy uses to tell us that there is one God – and he’s applying them three ways: to God the Father, to the Lord Jesus Christ, and to the Spirit.
Is Paul contradicting himself here? He clearly doesn’t think so. Paul is telling us that there is only one God, like Deuteronomy says – but that God is, at the same time, Father, Son (Jesus) and Spirit.
This is the key difference between how God reveals himself in the Old Testament versus how God reveals himself in the New Testament.
In the Old Testament, God reveals that he is one God.
In the New Testament, God reveals that he is one God, and three Persons.
God is not contradicting himself but adding something new to our understanding of him – and that something new is what we call the mystery of the Trinity.
Don’t tell me you weren’t expecting pictures! This one says, ‘The Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, the Spirit is not the Father; the Father is God, the Son is God, the Spirit is God.’
Thinking about the Trinity
Last time we looked at the creation account in the Book of Genesis. This is what Genesis 2 tells us about our creation:
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”
We thought about what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God. Then I asked a tricky question: Why does God say our image, rather than my image?
In the second century AD, the Christian theologian Origen said that this line from Genesis is one of the first clues that God would go on to reveal himself as the Trinity.
Origen telling his non-Christian friends that if they ask him one more time to explain the Trinity he’s going to crack.
At the time of Origen there was a huge debate over how to speak about God. How can human language make sense of God being both one and three? Over the centuries, two different ways of looking at the Trinity developed: the immanent way and the economic way.
There’s a party...
Imagine that you’re walking past somebody’s house. The curtains are open downstairs and when you look through the window, you can see that there’s a party going on. You don’t recognise the people inside, and nobody comes outside to say hello to you. But you can see a group of three people all standing in the window, all talking with each other. Even though they’re not talking to you, from watching how they interact with each other you learn something about their personalities and what they are like.
This is like the immanent Trinity. Immanent means the ‘inner workings’ of the Trinity. It’s thinking about the Trinity in terms of how the three different persons of the Trinity – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit – relate to and interact with each other, like the three partyguests.
Have a look at these passages about the Trinity from Scripture.
‘The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing.’ John 5:20
[Jesus said], ‘The Spirit of truth... will glorify me.’ John 16: 13-14
‘God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart.’ John 1:17
What can we learn about the Trinity from these passages of Scripture?
The Son and the Father love each other
The Spirit glorifies (praises and sheds light on) the Son
The Father and the Son are united in their love
And we're all invited!
Imagine that as you’re watching the party through the window, suddenly the door opens and two of the three party guests come out. They tell you they’ve been sent out by the party host because he wants you to get to know him. What’s more, they’ve been asked to bring you back inside the house so that you can join the party too.
This is like the economic Trinity.
No, not that kind of economic. Economy is from the Greek word meaning ‘plan’ - and here it means God’s plan for our salvation. God’s plan is that we come to know him through the Son, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit at work in the world around us. They are sent out into the world, to reveal who God is to us and to bring us to eternal life.
This is the destiny he has planned out for humanity from before all time. The Son and the Spirit have been sent out into the world, like those party guests, to bring everybody to the party.
By ‘bring everybody to the party’ I mean ‘save everybody from their sins and bring them to eternal life in Heaven’, obviously.
Here's another set of statements about the Trinity from Scripture.
‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ John 3:17
‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’ John 17:25-26
‘The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.’ John 14:26
What do we learn about the Trinity from these passages of Scripture?
The Father sent the Son, Jesus, into the world to bring salvation
The Son reveals the love of the Father to humanity
The Spirit keeps the teachings of Jesus alive in us
What one word do we find in each of these passages?
Send my Son... Father, you have sent me... the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send...
The Son and the Spirit have been sent into the world by the Father. We call this the mission of the Son and the Holy Spirit: ‘mission’ literally means they have been sent out.
The Catechism teaches that the missions of the Son and the Spirit are linked:
CCC 689 When the Father sends his Word, he always sends his Breath. In their joint mission, the Son and the Holy Spirit are distinct but inseparable. To be sure, it is Christ who is seen, the visible image of the invisible God, but it is the Spirit who reveals him.
Why does it matter?
Why do we need to know about the Trinity, anyway? It’s probably one of the most strange and confusing parts of our Christian faith, and it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with our normal lives. So what’s the point of thinking about the Trinity? What does the mystery of the Trinity tell us?
Another stained glass explanation of the Trinity. They’re like Church Sparknotes. (Ed: What's a spark note?!)
Last time we looked at three Church teachings on how we know we’re made in the image of God: one from Gaudium et Spes, and two from the Catechism. Let’s look at them again:
Gaudium et Spes 12 God did not create man as a solitary, for from the beginning "male and female he created them". Their companionship produces the primary form of interpersonal communion. For by his innermost nature man is a social being, and unless he relates himself to others he can neither live nor develop his potential.
CCC 355 Man occupies a unique place in creation: he is "in the image of God"... God established him in his friendship.
CCC 357 He alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God's own life. He is capable of... entering into communion with other persons.
What do these three statements have in common? They tell us that we are in the image of God because we are capable of love, friendship and communion. How do we know that? Because the immanent Trinity tells us that God himself is a communion of love.
The immanent Trinity reveals that our need for communion is a deep part of who we are as creatures made in God’s image and likeness. We find this love and communion with our friends and family, but ultimately, we find it through eternal life with God himself in Heaven. So next time your teacher asks you why you won’t stop talking to your friends in class, tell them it’s because you are made in the image and likeness of God who is a communion of love... (Ed: But out of respect for the teacher and those around you trying to learn, stop talking...)
Jesus descending, courtesy of one of my favouriteCatholic artists, Marko Rupnik.
The economic Trinity tells us how we’re going to get there.
The reason it’s possible for us to become part of this eternal life of love and communion is because God has revealed himself to us in human history. He has sent his Son and his Spirit in a joint mission to carry out his plan for our salvation. The Son and the Spirit act in human history to reveal God to us and bring us to eternal life with him.
What’s the key difference between how God reveals himself in the Old Testament and how he reveals himself in the New?
What is the immanent Trinity, and what is a passage from Scripture that reveals it to us?
What is the economic Trinity, and what is a passage from Scripture that reveals it to us?
Which two persons of the Trinity have a ‘joint mission’?
Read chapter 17 of the Gospel of John. What links can you find between how Jesus describes his and the Holy Spirit’s missions, and what we learnt last time about our human ability to know and to love?
Origen found a ‘clue’ that God would eventually reveal himself as Trinity in Genesis 1. The story of Abraham in Genesis 18 is also seen as an Old Testament foreshadowing of the Trinity. Can you work out why?
The Gospel passages in this post are all from the Gospel of John. Can you find any passages in the other three Gospels - Matthew, Mark, and Luke – about the Trinity?
Of the passages that you have found, can you work out if they reveal the economic Trinity or the immanent Trinity?
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'Till next time... God bless!