Chapter 6 – Three Persons in One Nature
It is true that the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity is a mystery, and that we can know it only by faith. God has revealed certain things about Himself, we accept the fact that He has done so, but find in ourselves no particular inclination to follow it up. God has told us that He is three persons in one Divine nature, and we say "quite so," and proceed to think of other matters: last week's Retreat or next week's Confession or Lent or Lourdes or the Church's social teaching or foreign missions. All these are vital things, but compared with God Himself, they are as nothing: and the Trinity is God Himself. For the doctrine of the Trinity is the innermost life of God, His profoundest secret. He did not have to reveal it to us. We could have been saved without knowing that ultimate truth. He revealed it to us because He loves men and so wants not only to be served by them, but truly known by them. It is the surest mark of love to want to be known. The revelation of the Trinity was in one sense a more certain proof even than Calvary that God loves men.
How did we reach this curious travesty of the supreme truth about God? The short statement of the doctrine is, as we have all heard all our lives, that there are three PERSONS in one NATURE. But if we attach no meaning to the word PERSON, and no meaning to the word NATURE, then both the nouns have dropped out of our definition, and we are left only with the numbers three and one, and get along as best we can with these. Let us agree that there may be more in the mind of the believer than he manages to get said, but it does him no positive harm provided he does not look at it too closely; but it sheds no light in his own soul: and his statement of it, when he is driven to make a statement, might very well extinguish such flickering as there may be in others.
Let us come now to a consideration of the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity to see what light there is in it for us, being utterly confident that had there been no light for us, God would not have revealed it to us. The doctrine may be set out in four statements:
In the one Divine Nature, there are three Persons,
the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
The Father is not the Son,
the Son is not the Holy Spirit,
the Holy Spirit is not the Father:
no one of the Persons is either of the others.
The Father is God,
the Son is God,
the Holy Spirit is God.
There are not three Gods but one God.
We have seen that the imagination cannot help here. Comparisons drawn from the material universe are a hindrance and no help. For that the intellect must go on alone. And for the intellect, the way into the mystery lies, as we have already suggested, in the meaning of the words PERSON and NATURE. We are not saying three persons in one person, or three natures in one nature; we are saying three persons in one nature. It is for us to see what person is and what nature is, and then to consider what meaning there can be in a nature totally possessed by three distinct persons.
It is a decisive stage of our advance into theology to get some grasp of the meaning of nature and the meaning of person. We begin with ourselves. Such a phrase as "my nature" suggests that there is a person, I, who possesses a nature. The person could not exist without his nature, but there is some distinction all the same; for it is the person who possesses the nature and not the other way.
One distinction we see instantly.
NATURE answers the question - WHAT we are;
PERSON answers the question - WHO we are.
Every being has a nature, but not every being is a person: only rational beings are persons. We could not properly ask of a stone or a potato or an oyster, Who is it?
By our nature, then, we are WHAT WE ARE. It follows that by our nature we do what we do: for every being acts according to what it is. Applying this to ourselves we come upon another distinction between person and nature. We find that there are many things, countless things, we can do. We can laugh and cry and walk and talk and sleep and think and love. All these and other things we can do because as men we have a nature that makes them possible. A snake could do only one of them – sleep. A stone could do none of them. NATURE, then, is to be seen not only as what we are, but as THE SOURCE OF WHAT WE DO. But although my nature is the source of all my actions, although my nature decides what kind of operations are possible for me, it is not my nature that does them:
I DO THEM,
I - THE PERSON.
Both person and nature may be considered as sources of action, but in a different sense. The person is that which does the actions, the NATURE IS that by virtue of which the actions are done, or better THAT FROM WHICH THE ACTIONS ARE DRAWN. We can express the distinction in all sorts of ways. We can say that it is our NATURE to do certain things, but that WE do them. We can say that WE operate in or according to our NATURE. In the light of this we see why the philosophers speak of a person as the center of attribution in a rational nature: whatever is done in a rational nature or suffered in a rational nature or any way experienced in a rational nature is done or suffered or experienced by the person whose nature it is.
There is a reality in us by which we are WHAT we are: and there is a reality in us by which we are WHO we are. But as to whether these are two really distinct realities, or two levels of one reality, or related in some other way, we cannot see deep enough into ourselves to know with any sureness. There is an obvious difference between beings of whom you can say only WHAT they are, and the higher beings of whom you can say WHO they are as well. But in these latter - even in ourselves of whom we have a good deal of experience - we see only darkly as to the distinction between the WHAT and the WHO. Of our nature in its root reality we have only a shadowy notion, and of our self a notion more shadowy still. If someone - for want of something better to say - says: "Tell me about yourself", we can tell her the qualities we have or the things we have done; but of the SELF that has the qualities and has done the things we cannot tell her anything. We cannot bring it under her gaze. Indeed, we cannot easily or continuously bring it under our own. As we turn our mind inward to look at the thing, we call I, we know that there is something there, but we cannot get it into any focus: it does not submit to being looked at very closely. Both as to the nature that we ourselves have and the person that we ourselves are, we are more in darkness than light. But at least we HAVE certain things clear: nature says what we are, person says who we are; nature is the source of our operations, person does them.
Now at first sight it might seem that this examination of the meaning of person and nature has not got us far towards an understanding of the Blessed Trinity. For although we have been led to see a distinction between person and nature in us, it seems clearer than ever that one nature can be possessed and operated in only by one person. By a tremendous stretch we can just barely glimpse the possibility of one person having more than one nature, opening up to him more than one field of operation. But the intellect feels baffled at the reverse concept of one nature being totally possessed, by more than one person. Admitting ourselves baffled by the notion of three persons in the one nature of God is an entirely honorable admission of our own limitation. Arguing that because in man the relation of one nature to one person is invariable, therefore that must be the relation in God, is a defect in our thinking. It is indeed an example of the tendency to make God in the image of man, which we have already seen hurled in accusation at the Christian belief in God.
Man is made in the image and likeness of God, therefore it is certain that man resembles God. Yet we can never argue with certainty from an image to the original of the image. A statue may be an extremely good statue of a man. But we could not argue that the man must be a very rigid man because the statue is very rigid. The statue IS rigid, not because the man is rigid, but because stone is rigid. So, with any quality you may observe in an image: the question arises whether that quality is there because the original was like that or because the material of which the image is made is like that. When we learn anything about man, the question always arises whether man is like that because God is like that, or because that is the best that can be done in reproducing the likeness of God in a being created of nothing. Put quite simply, we have always to allow for the necessary scaling down of the infinite in its finite likeness.
Apply this to the question of one person and one nature that we find in man. Is this relation of one to one due to something in the nature of being, or simply to something in the nature of finite being? Even of our own finite natures it might be rash to affirm that the only possible relation is one person to one nature. But of an infinite nature, we have no experience at all. If God tells us that His own infinite nature is totally possessed by three persons, we can have no grounds for doubting the statement, although we may find it almost immeasurably difficult to make any meaning of it. There is no difficulty in accepting it as true, the difficulty lies in SEEING WHAT IT MEANS. There is no point in having it revealed to us; a revelation that is only darkness is a kind of contradiction in terms.
The one infinite nature is totally possessed by three distinct persons. Here we must be quite accurate: the three persons are distinct, but not separate; and they do not share the Divine Nature, but each possesses it totally.
At this first beginning of our exploration of the supreme truth about God, it is worth pausing a moment to consider the virtue of ACCURACY. There is a feeling that it is a very suitable virtue for mathematicians and scientists, but cramping if applied to operations more specifically human. It is in particular disrepute as applied to religion. But in fact, accuracy is in every field the key to beauty: beauty has no greater enemy than rough approximation. Had Cleopatra's nose been one eighth of an inch longer, the fate of the Roman Empire and so of the world would have been changed: an eighth of an inch is not a lot: a lover, you would think, would not bother with such close calculation; but her nose was for Mark Antony the precise length for beauty. It is so in music, it is so in everything: beauty and accuracy run together, and where accuracy does not run, beauty limps.
Returning to the point at which this digression started: we must not say three separate persons, but THREE DISTINCT PERSONS, because although they are distinct, that is to say, no one of them is either of the others. Yet they cannot be separated, for each is what He is by the total possession of the one same nature: apart from that one same nature, no one of the three persons could exist at all. And we must not use any phrase that suggests that the three persons SHARE THE DIVINE NATURE. For we have seen that in the Infinite there is utter simplicity, there are no parts, therefore no possibility of sharing. The infinite divine nature can be possessed only in its totality. In the words of the Fourth Council of the Lateran:
There are THREE PERSONS, indeed,
Summarizing thus far, we may state the doctrine in this way: the Father possesses the whole nature of God as His Own, the Son possesses the whole nature of God as His Own, the Holy Spirit possesses the whole nature of God as His Own. Thus, since the nature of any being decides what the being is, each person is God, wholly and therefore equally with the others. Further, the nature decides what the person can do: therefore, each of the three persons who thus totally possess the Divine Nature can do all the things that go with being God.
All this we find in the Missal, in the preface for the Most Holy Trinity:
Father Almighty, eternal God:
Who with thy only begotten Son and the Holy Spirit,
art one God, one Lord:
not in the singleness of one person,
but in the trinity of one substance.
Whatever we believe, on Thy revelation, of Thy glory,
we hold the same of the Son, the same of the Holy Spirit,
without any difference to separate them.
So that in the affirmation of the true and eternal Godhead,
we adore distinction in the Persons,
oneness in the Essence,
equality in majesty.
Let us return to the question that in our model dialogue above produced so much incoherence from the believer. The question why, if each of the three persons is wholly God, there are not three Gods? The reason we cannot say three Gods becomes clear if we consider what is meant by the parallel phrase, "Three men". That would mean three distinct persons, each possessing a human nature. But note, although their natures would be similar, each would have his own. The first man could not think with the second man's intellect, but only with his own; the second man could not love with the third's will, but only with his own. The phrase " three men " would mean three distinct persons, each with his own separate human nature, his own separate equipment as man; the phrase "three Gods" would mean three distinct persons, each with his own separate Divine Nature, his own separate equipment as God. But in the Blessed Trinity this is not so. The three persons are God, not by the possession of equal and similar natures, but by the possession of one single nature; they do in fact what our three men could not do, know with the same intellect and love with the same will.
They are three Persons,
but they are not Three Gods,
they are One God.