The doctrine of the Holy Trinity appears at first sight to be contrary to
reason, but it is not really so.
Reason is always to be treated with the greatest respect, because it is the possession of reason that makes us human beings.
God has given us reason that we may understand His truth.
Logic the science and art of reasoning is therefore not to be neglected,
but we must recognize the limits of its usefulness.
The more certain we are about our premises,
the more secure we can be that our conclusions are right.
The great thinkers of the Middle Ages,
whom we call the Schoolmen, and of whom St. Thomas Aquinas was the chief,
had the greatest confidence in logic.
But their reasoning does not always convince us because,
now that our knowledge is so much greater,
we cannot be so sure as they were that their premises were correct.
When we are discussing things that are completely within our knowledge,
such as mathematical figures that we have made ourselves,
we can use logic with security.
When we are thinking out the nature of the organization of the Church and other human affairs,
we shall be wise to be strictly logical as long as we make allowance for the irrational element in human nature.
But when we come to Divine mysteries, which we can only partly understand,
our premises must be expressed in symbolic language because finite minds cannot fully understand the Infinite.
There is a well-known legend that St. Augustine of Hippo,
while he was planning his great work on the Holy Trinity, was once walking on the seashore
when he saw a boy carrying water from the sea and pouring it into a hole which he had dug in the sand.
"What are you doing?" said the bishop.
"Emptying the sea into this hole."
"But how can you empty the sea into that little hole?"
"And how can you", said the boy (who was an angel in disguise),
"understand the doctrine of the Holy Trinity with your finite human mind?"
There are truths that must be stated literally, such as mathematical truths.
There are also truths that can only be stated symbolically, and the Christian mysteries are of that kind.
Even truths about human nature cannot be fully stated in a formula, much less the truths about God.
Formulas and dogmas have their use,
which is to exclude error,
but we must not use them as premises in a logical process or syllogism.
It is the mark of the heretic to ignore this.
Nearly every heresy is a one-sided and exaggerated expression of some truth.
The heretic sees one side of truth very clearly indeed and refuses to believe that there are other sides.
He takes a statement that is symbolic, treats it as if it were a literal fact,
and proceeds to build an argument upon it as if he knew all about it.
In doing this he makes two mistakes:
he ignores the element of mystery in every religious truth,
and he takes no account of other aspects of the truth.
For the most profound truths take the form of an "antinomy" and have two sides that cannot be fully reconciled by reason.
Thus Sabellius, insisting on the truth that God is One,
ignored the passages of Scripture which tell us
that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are distinct enough to be able to love another.
Paul of Samosata, while recognizing that the Father and the Son are separate,
ignored the essential difference between the Creator and His creatures.
Arius asked how the Son could be as old as the Father,
ignoring the fact that the words Father and Son are used symbolically,
and not in exactly the same sense as that in which they are used of human beings.
Many people regard the doctrine of the Holy Trinity as a kind of mathematical
They cannot see how God can be One and also Three.
The answer to this objection is that God is not Three in the same way that
He is One.
To believe Him to be One and Three in the same way would be contrary to reason,
and the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not contrary to reason because our reason is given by the Holy Trinity.
St. Patrick, according to the famous legend, answered this objection raised by the Irish chiefs
by pointing to the threefold leaf of the shamrock (clover),
and explaining that it is three in one sense, and one in another.
Second, the word "Person" is often misunderstood.
"Person" is a Latin translation of the Greek hypostasis.
It is used in a technical sense and does not mean "individual".
As Dr. Prestige puts it, "God is a single objective Being in three objects of presentation.
He is one object in Himself and three objects to Himself."
Or we may say more simply that as seen and thought, He is Three,
as seeing and thinking, He is One.
[G. L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought, p. 301.]
It is necessary that we should hold precisely this belief for the following reasons:
God is Love.
Love belongs to His essential being.
He could not be Love unless He had within His being an object for His love.
It is true that a belief in Two Persons ("Binitarianism" as it is sometimes called) might satisfy this requirement.
But God has told us that He is Three, not Two.
God is fundamentally a Society as well as a Being.
The fact that man is a social animal is only a reflection of the Divine life.
Self-sacrifice is the highest action of man because God Himself is continually offering Himself to Himself.
Each of the Three Persons offers Himself eternally to the other Two.
The fundamental doctrines of the Incarnation and the Atonement depend on
the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
We believe that the Word became flesh (St. John 1.14) and that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5.8).
But neither belief has any value unless we also believe that He who became flesh and died for us is really God.
Finally, something must be said about the "economic Trinity" the
Trinity in relation to us.
["Economic" here means "in relation to mankind" as opposed to "in Himself".]
God the Son entered into time when He became man that He might redeem us.
God the Holy Ghost entered into time when He descended upon the Apostles at Pentecost.
So we say that the Father, in relation to us, is the Creator, the Son the Redeemer, the Holy Ghost the Sanctifier.
But this difference of function in relation to us represents a certain difference in eternal being of the Three Divine Persons.
It would be Sabellian to say that the difference between Them was only in Their relation to us.
The economic Trinity represents the essential Trinity.