Feast of the Holy Trinity


BAPTIZE THEM INTO THE NAME OF THE FATHER, THE SON AND THE HOLY SPIRIT. This formula is found among the final words addressed by Jesus to his disciples, according to Matthew's Gospel (28: 19). As he pronounced them he transmitted to his small group of followers the powers he himself had received from the Father, and promised to remain with them until the end of the world. In keeping with his customary narrative style, the evangelist does not offer explanations concerning any of these points. He seems to presume their meaning is sufficiently evident. His purpose in recording these instructions of the risen Lord was that of instructing his readers as to the nature of the Church's mission and to indicate the essentially new way of life characterizing those who accepted baptism. They entered upon a new existence, one lived in the three named here as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and sustained by the presence of the Son.

There are reasons to believe that as it stands here the formulation of the command to baptize into the name of the three is not that used by the Lord at the time. Rather, it is an elaboration intended to convey the fuller meaning of Jesus' original intent. Probably this wording was worked out in the course of establishing the liturgy of baptism, and displays a very early development in the understanding of the faith. Evidence for this view is supplied by other passages in the New Testament where there is mention of Christian baptism. Different formulae are employed to define the initiatory rite: in the name of Jesus Christ occurs twice;in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ; in the name of the Lord; in Christ Jesus; in Christ. In the Didache too, which is possibly as ancient as the Gospel of Matthew, there is found, in addition to the same formula used here in Matthew, another- in the name of the Lord. [Cf. Emerton et al. Matthew, ICC, vol. 3, 685 for references and the following discussion.] Strikingly, the formula does not speak of names, as one would expect in dealing with separate individuals; rather it uses the singular, name, though mentioning three persons. St. Justin maintains that the word name is implicit before each of the three persons. This is a possible reading; however, the more likely interpretation is that each of the three participates in the one name that is shared among equals. The text is focused on function not metaphysical truths. In keeping with rabbinical usage it means that the baptized enter into a new relation to those in whose name the sacrament is administered. At the same time, this formulation certainly creates a basis for the later Trinitarian dogma based on ontological analysis, as St. Basil and Theophylact assert.

Fr. Karl Rahner has written a most cogent and penetrating discussion of the concept of person as it applies to the Trinity. He goes so far as to say that it is misleading for modern men to speak of God as three persons, for the idea we have of person simply does not apply to the Divinity. Yet, the term is consecrated by long usage and we must make do with it. But that requires us to make a special effort to divest our self of our common view of what a person is. If we conceive of Father, Son and Spirit as three distinct centers of consciousness, each with his own intellect and will then in practice we believe in three gods. The three divine persons have but a single consciousness, a single will and intellect in which each participates in a distinct manner. There is but one divine being composed of three distinctive ways of relating to that substantial being. There is no other instance of a person existing in such a modality. God is truly One. That He is also Father, Son and Spirit does not detract from his uniqueness, but only designates the inner relatedness of each to that singular subsistent being. By repeatedly meditating on this truth and reflecting on it we can grasp something of its meaning, but will never be able to comprehend it fully. When the number three is applied to God it does not have the same significance that it has in all other applications. For God is beyond all number.

What is revealed about God is the so-called economic Trinity. This has nothing to do with finance; economy is a word taken from the Greek term oikonomia that means household administration or management, which of course includes finance. As used in theology it refers to God's action in salvation history, His actual working out of redemption. The Logos is God the Father's self-communication to our race in history. The Holy Spirit is also God communicating Himself as transcendent. If the Logos and the Spirit are merely instruments of mediation but not actually equal to the Father and one with Him, then God remains remote and in His inner reality is not communicated. Only if the mediators are themselves divine is the human person made a sharer in the life of God. But if these two are truly God, then God remains one as divine in nature. This economic trinity is a truth revealed by the New Testament and is in no way in conflict with the doctrine of the one God revealed in the Old Testament. Rather, it represents a radicalization and an elucidation of what is implied by the doctrine of monotheism.

The economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity. That is to say, the God revealed in His interventions in history is the transcendent God subsisting in three substantial modes of His one nature. This identity is not stated in this explicit formulation in the Bible. The very word Trinity is not in the inspired Scriptures. Nor does it occur in the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed, even though their three-part structure is determined by their speaking of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in turn. Tertullian, who died around 220 A.D. was the first to apply the term Trinity to God, nearly one hundred fifty years after Matthew's baptismal formula. Another two hundred years were to pass, filled with much struggle and serious conflict before the first two Ecumenical Councils formulated the implications of revelation. Belief that the Son (Nicea in 325 A.D.) and the Holy Spirit (Constantinople I in 381 A.D.) are truly God and equal to the Father in all things pertaining to the divine nature was formally affirmed and recognized by the universal Church as the legitimate understanding of what was revealed. There was a major development of dogma in the course of this long and often painful examination into the meaning of the economic Trinity. Great care was taken to assure that this unfolding of implicit content of revelation did not take an arbitrary course, but was faithful to the revelation brought by Jesus and confided to his disciples.

St. Augustine-Theologian

St. Augustine was much concerned to assimilate this dogma not only in his belief system but also in his way of living and praying. He was at pains to discover and propagate the ways in which belief in the Trinity has practical effect upon the Christian's in his thought and his manner of experiencing God and the world. As William Hill (cf. The Three-Personed God, 55 and following for these ideas) points out, St. Augustine has the practice of testing belief by experience. Since God is one in three that transcendent truth must be accessible to our perception. At a first period of his life, he sought evidence of the Trinity in the created world. Subsequently, he found traces of the Trinity in the inner life of man. The image of God in the human soul is reflected in its very structure: memory, knowledge and love of self. Augustin's concept of memory is different from our view of it; he means by this term consciousness of my self, which is preconceptual. Later on he advanced another analogue: memory, knowledge and love of God. These are but analogies of the Trinity. Since God is love, knowledge about God does not suffice to grasp his inner life. Love must lead to an ascent to union with God. He distinguishes love itself from the beloved and the lover. St. Augustine was the first to identify the Holy Spirit as love. He is persuaded that we can experience in our self the gift of a love that binds the Father to the Son. This love, which is the Holy Spirit, is focused on the Word made flesh, who is one with the Father. Though relatively weak in us, this love is the same as that which is the strong force holding the three Persons in one. To state the matter in another way, through knowing and loving the divine persons a real union is achieved with each of them in their respective roles.

Abbot William of St. Thierry

Centuries later, William of St. Thierry was to take up this topic in a spirit similar to St. Augustine, stressing the experience of union with the three persons. His analysis of the experience of union with God led to the furthering of insight into the role of the Trinity in our spiritual life. The preparation for this concrete experience of God is the desire for God. When this desire is such that it leads to contempt of self and a seeking for God in all things, not only by an appreciation of the mind, but by the dispositions of the heart, then it evolves into love and charity. When this pure love is strong it leads to unity of spirit. . A person who arrives at this state wills only what God wills, and in doing so takes on the likeness to God. William then comments in the following terms.

And this is the perfection of man, likeness to God. Not to desire to be perfect is to sin…. This is called unity of spirit not only because the Holy Spirit brings it about, or because He affects the human spirit, but because charity itself is God the Holy Spirit…. When the conscience finds itself as it were in the middle of the embrace and kiss of the Father and the Son, in some ineffable, unthinkable manner that man of God merits to become by grace, not God, but rather what God is by nature (Epistla Ad Fratres De Monte Dei, II.16 PL 184: 348, 349).

Clearly then the doctrine of the Trinity is intended to be determinative in our spiritual life. We are given knowledge of God's nature to some extent, not only to exercise our faith but also to stimulate our prayer, our contemplation and our love. It is not only in the light of glory that we can come to experience something of God's essential goodness and mysterious nature but even now here on earth. By prayer and contemplation we can enter into the mystery of God's own life communicated to us whom he makes his children.

This morning we have blessed the icons used here in chapter and in the private chapel as well as the infirmary and chapter buildings. This works of human artistry and skill are the result of a gift of nature that is enhanced by the faith of the artist in the case of sacred art. Works of sacred art such as these with our Lord himself as their subject, the one depicting him on the cross, the other in glory as the All Powerful Teacher, are sacramentals whose use are occasions of grace. The Holy Father has recently brought to the attention of the Church the place of art in the life of faith and prayer. He observes that the knowledge of faith can be enriched by artistic intuition, pointing out that the Blessed Trinity is not only love and truth but beauty as well. The Pope cites St. Macarius the Great with whose words I will close these reflections.

The soul which has been fully illumined by the unspeakable beauty of the glory shining on the countenance of Christ overflows with the Holy Spirit… it is all eye, all light, all countenance (The Way of Beauty, #6. Cf. Inside the Vatican Special Supplement May 1999, 6).

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

[abbey crest]

Abbey of the Genesee

Home Page Index Page Archive Page