Article 31: Catechism of the Catholic Church Series
Among the first questions we ask when interviewing a man who is considering a vocation to the holy priesthood is whether he has an undergraduate degree in “Philosophy.” In fact, all candidates for the priesthood must first study philosophy before beginning their theological studies.
Some may question this pedagogy (or teaching practice) but the Church has depended on the study of philosophy and philosophical inquiry from the beginning as a prerequisite to serious theological study. This is especially the case when seeking to develop language that helps articulate and conceptualize the nature or identity of God.
The earliest names recorded who used philosophical language to explain aspects of our precious Catholic faith include: St. Justin Martyr (100-165), Tertullian (155-240), Irenaeus of Lyons (early second century-202), Clement of Alexandria (150-215), Origen (185-254), and St. Augustine (354-430). Among these, Tertullian was the first Church Father to use the term “trinitas” (Trinity) in reference to the Godhead. Later, in the fourth century, St. Augustine wrote extensively on the “trinitas,” borrowing language from the early Greek philosophers like Plato to support his arguments.
Later, in the 13th century, Dominican St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), borrows several concepts from the Greek philosopher Aristotle to help explain several theological ideas, including the Most Holy Trinity, the most difficult and mysterious aspect of God.
Paragraph 251 of the Catechism tells us that the Church had to develop its own terminology with the help of philosophical language to explain the dogma of the Most Blessed Trinity. With the help of early Church Fathers like Tertullian, as well as, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine and others, philosophical terms like “substance,” “person,” “hypostasis,” “relation,” etc., were suddenly given a “new and unprecedented meaning,” which from then on would be used to signify a most impressive mystery, “infinitely beyond all that we can humanly understand” (ccc 251).
Much earlier, in Sacred Scripture, we are introduced to the Holy Trinity through such salutations as: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (ccc 249). As well, St. John in one of his letters teaches: “There are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one” (1 Jn 5:7).
To summarize, this section of the Catechism teaches us the following:
- The Trinity is One. We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons, the “consubstantial Trinity” (ccc 253).
- The divine persons do not share the one divinity among themselves but each of them is God whole and entire: “The Father is that which the Son is, the Son is that which the Father is, the Father and the Son are that which the Holy Spirit is, i.e. by nature one God” (ccc 253).
- “The divine persons are really distinct from one another … He is not the Father who is the Son, nor is the Son he who is the Father, nor is the Holy Spirit he who is the Father or the Son” (ccc 254).
- “Because of that unity the Father is wholly in the Son and wholly in the Holy Spirit; the Son is wholly in the Father and wholly in the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit is wholly in the Father and wholly in the Son.” (ccc 255).
No matter how we try to comprehend the deep mystery of the Holy Trinity, we return to the fundamental question: Why did God choose to reveal the mystery about himself in such a complicated way?
The answer, it seems to me, is found in our own realization that the “infinite” characteristics of goodness, love, mercy and the majesty of God cannot be easily described in one-line answers. However, we get a certain insight into who God is by contemplating God as a father whose providential care is always focused on us, his children. Secondly, since God the Father reveals his only-begotten Son, we can discern God as being like a brother (in the person of Jesus) who has sacrificed himself to bring us back into the intimate home of the Father. Finally, we gradually comprehend the infinite love of God in the work of the Holy Spirit who, with the Father and the Son, dwells in us and works within us. It is this Holy Spirit who was sent by Jesus to remain with us as the Advocate who always pleads our cause: “I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate to dwell with you forever, the Spirit of truth . . .” (Jn 14:16).
In the first canonical Gospel, St. Matthew tells us what John the Baptist witnessed on the occasion of Jesus’ baptism: “… a voice from the heavens said, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’” (Mt 3:16-17). Later, Jesus says: “I and the Father are one” (Jn 10:30). Then, on the night before he died Jesus said to the Apostles, “I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate to dwell with you forever” (Jn 14:16). After his Resurrection, Jesus commanded his disciples: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19). Besides these texts there are numerous others that reveal — God is One and yet there are three Persons in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Father John G. Hillier, Ph.D., serves as Assistant Chancellor to the Bishop and the bishop’s liaison to persons with disabilities.