The Trinity? It is Complicated
Marcel Domergue S.J.
1. We are familiar with God as Father and as Son. Why must there be a third person? Why must there be the Holy Spirit? It is hard to figure this one out. One God and Three Persons…what does this mean?
2. It is an error to say that we supplement our lives when we relate with Nature and with other people. It is like saying that “first” we exist and “then” we enter into relationships. In fact, when we eat and breathe we take from what come from outside. Food and air are brought to us. We cannot say that “first” we eat and breathe, and “then” we supplement these with food and air.
3. What about ideas and tastes, information and interests? They come also from somewhere else: our parents, friends, teachers, etc. We are “crossroads” or “meeting points” of so many currents of events and situations. Many things happen and each of us are meeting points of these. To exist is, at the same time to be in relationship. We cannot say that “first” we exist and “then” we enter into relationships. Look at our birth. It is a result of the relationship between a man and a woman. We start the development of our humanity with our parents, and then slowly we meet others and we grow and develop.
4. Although each of us is unique, we depend on others and we are inter-connected with others. Our faith tells us that the reason for this is because we are created in the image and likeness of God whose basic “substance” is relationship and inter-connection.
No Two without Three
5. As ancient as the 13th century, Saint Thomas Aquinas was already saying that the Three persons in God form a “subsisting relationship”. Sounds abstract? What the saint was saying is that the basis of existence of Father, Son and Spirit is relationship. The Father cannot be Father without Son. Son cannot be Son without Father. The Spirit links both of them.
6. Where do these ideas come from? Also, why do we have to speak of Three, why not just Two? Why add the Spirit in the picture? Well, we rely on the Holy Scriptures—the Bible. And the Bible tells us that the Three are involved in “mission” or in “sending”. We read that Jesus, in the Bible, speaks of “he who the Father sends” or “another defender, the Paraclete” or “the power from above”.
7. The Bible tells us that the Father sends the Son. The Father and the Son send the Spirit. So we have an idea of who God is. There is a lot of “sending” involved.
8. The New Testament talks a lot about the Three. Among many accounts, the baptism accounts express the presence of the Three. Two cannot express the perfection of love. If there are just Two, then there is a narcissistic face-to-face relationship. It is necessary to open up to the Third.
9. Theology, based on the Bible, tells us that the Spirit “proceeds” from the Father and the Son. Also the Spirit is, at times, creator too. The Spirit is presented as the movement of the Father to the Son, the Son to the Father. Thanks to the Spirit, one moves to the other. If, for us, we get confused thinking of the Spirit, it is because the Spirit is also in us. The Spirit is God in us.
10. Father, Son and Spirit are all found in the Bible. We might easily relate to the Father and Son because their relationship resembles our experiences of fatherhood and son-hood. But actually there is also a big difference. Saint Denys would propose that we consider God’s Fatherhood in three ways. a. God is, indeed, Father. b. But God is also not Father in the human way. c. God is Father in an “eminent” or “superior” way.
God is life, sharing, movement
11. When we think of Father or even Son we might have images of bearded men. What about the Spirit? We might think of breath, wind, dove, tongue of fire, oil, etc. It is not easy—not as easy as when we think of men with long beards. Let us say that Spirit is the figure of God-in-movement. God moves towards becoming human and moves towards death on the cross. We are also put on the move when we receive the Spirit. We move in the Paschal life. Through the Spirit God is within us. We are moved by the Spirit.
12. But why speak of “persons”? Why say Three “persons”? This might lead to a misunderstanding that there are three gods. No. The term “Three Persons in One God” must help us see that God is not about three functions or that there are three viewpoints about God. No. God is actually relationship—sharing. St. Ignatius of Antioch would say that God, rather than “One”, is “Union” (Letter to Tralliens X,1). In other words, the “substance” of God is love and life—it is relationship and sharing.
13. We need to make more precision with the word “person” here. Person takes place only when there is relationship—when there is link and union with others. The Trinity is Unity. We have become images and likeness of this—we exist only in this way, as relationship. This explains why life is given the basic command—the command of all commands: love. Love unites without destroying uniqueness. In fact, love magnifies each of us.
Jesus Christ, God Who Comes Near
Marcel Domergue S.J.
A return to the Gospel
1. Christians are accused of pretending to know the truth. They are accused of their dogmatism. The Gospel is not, however, a series of answers. It is rather the “good news” about an encounter between God and the human person, and an encounter among human persons. Let us return to the Gospel.
2. Why is the gospel story—and the Christian faith in general—so unacceptable to some very serious and responsible people? This rejection is an unhappy result of what happened in history. Many Christians have given the name of Christ “anti-gospel” meanings. So things have emerged, like authoritarianism, pretension to monopolize knowledge of the truth, exclusivism, etc. Christianity has become known for these.
3. This is a challenge for us. Maybe we need to return to the basics. Let us start all over again. Let us return to the Gospel and see its state of birth before the complications of history and culture arose. This is not the way of receiving from fixed tradition imposed on us and has become obligatory to our faith.
4. Where do we find the Good News in its birth form? The quick answer may be to read the New Testament and read about the words of Jesus. Maybe we can look at how Jesus behaved and see how we can do the same. This looks ok. But the four gospels are really about the birth of the Good News in a culture of long ago. They may tell us about the Good News and how it took place at that time. But they might not tell us much about how it can take place in our world today.
5. Of course the stories there give words and images that transmit an original experience. But this is secondary. We can even study the culture behind the written texts and see what the texts mean. The Good News, however, is really underneath the written texts. If Jesus came today he would not be saying the same words nor will he be doing the same gestures.
6. The Good News is, first of all, about an encounter. The Good News is born in a world where there are persons who risk showing who they really are. The Good News is born when there are persons who overcome their antagonisms and they try to live in harmony with each other. It is not a harmony against other people, like that we see in political and international pacts. Rather it is harmony “for”. It is a harmony that can spread throughout and be shared so that finally we can truly understand each other. It is a humble birth. But it is serious. The Good News produces itself, like when electrodes touch and an electric spark arises. The Good News is the way persons come near each other and reconcile.
7. The Good News is not a series of “questions and answers”. It is mutual presence; it is encounter. It is impossible to fully estimate and predict what will arise from this encounter. The gospel texts are stories of an encounter. Someone, a man named Jesus, was encountered. It happened over 2,000 years ago in the 1st century of Palestine. It is an encounter so meaningful and so fundamental—it is an encounter between God and humanity. It has become the source of encounter among persons.
8. Who is Jesus? To answer this, let us first say who he is not. So, who is he not? Jesus is someone who does not have obstacles in encountering others.
9. Jesus of Nazareth is not a “personal institution”. In the Letter to the Hebrews we read, “If he were here, he would not be a priest” (8/4). Jesus did not carry anything institutional in him. The Letter to the Hebrews continues to say that what priests do is only an imitation—a “shadow and copy”—of what is real.
10. Jesus is here and now, today. How? If he comes visibly, will he be sitting on a throne? Will he be sitting on an Episcopal throne? Perhaps we will find him, instead, in a poor neighborhood telling the voiceless and the marginalized, “the kingdom is in your midst”. He would be telling them how wonderful it is to welcome the kingdom.
11. The Kingdom? Let us keep in mind that it is about the life of harmony and mutual understanding. Jesus would not be part of the club of Pharisees. No, he would not be member of such. He would be a “free-lancer” and we would not be able to classify him.
12. Jesus is the figure of an Absolute Liberty. In the gospels we read about people who wonder, “Who is he?” We read that he would be speaking. But he would not be speaking like giving a professional speech—like the speech of a lawyer. Jesus would not place his words under the authority of others—as professionals would. He would speak under the authority in himself. “Come and see”. What speaks in Jesus is what gives witness to him. There are his “works” which are the works of God—they are works of Love. Jesus does not hide behind authorities to authenticate his message. He refers to scriptures, and he does this to absorb the scriptures. But instead of looking at the scriptures to see how he can justify his words and actions, he would instead say, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk.4/21).
13. Jesus presents himself with such freedom towards everyone. He is the beginning—the beginning from where emerges a new way of being human. Jesus is so free he does not put in chains the freedom of those who listen to him. He does not say, “You should believe in this or that”. Instead he says, “Believe in me, believe in God”. He does not say, “Believe that God exists”. Rather he would say, “Lose yourself in God and follow me”. Everything depends on the freedom of whoever listens to him: “if you want…if you want”. He proposes…and he does not propose a system of truths. In the case of Jesus, he proposes his very own self—his very own person. “The truth? It is me”.
Expel the forces of division.
14. If truth is a person, it is not enough to have convictions. We cannot enclose a person in a box or on a prison of concepts. There is one episode in Luke and Mark that is curious. It is given in Lk.9/49-50 and in Mk.9/38-40. We read that the disciples try to stop someone expelling demons in the name of Jesus. Why? Because that person is not a member of the group of disciples. Jesus disapproves. “Do not stop him,” he says, “who is not against us is with us”. This statement actually can go very far. Jesus invites us to build a world where everyone is “with”. Whoever refuses to be “against” and whoever expels the forces of division is already “with”. This “with” concerns all human and it cannot have exclusion in the name of Jesus.
God, the Father of Jesus
From Bernard Sesboüé S.J.
1. In the New Testament the image of God is a caring God towards the human person. To express this care the preferred word in the New Testament is “Father”. God is Father. There is a strong presentation of God as Father and the human person as child of the Father. The image of friend and bridegroom of the human person is given in Jesus Christ.
2. But wait. We might feel that the image of God as Father is something hard to accept. Do we not sometimes feel a rejection toward this image? The image is so marked by negative meaning that we like to reject. Let us take some examples.
3. Modern psychology has unveiled the doubt and confusion in the relationship father-and-child. Freud has even captured the image of the son wanting to “kill” the father in order to move on in life. Look at our own experiences within the family and we will notice the difficulties involved: possessiveness of the parents, the abuse of parental authority, the downplaying of the father towards the son who cannot comply with the father’s ideals, etc. In some of our societies we even hear of news about parents abandoning their families. In fact, within society we also experience “paternaism” and “condescension”. (Paternalism is experienced when a professional assumes he/she always knows better than the client). So the tendency in us and in some of our societies is to be free from the father or from authorities. The image of Father is not well received. So, it may be difficult to see how God is Father. Yet, we shall try.
When Jesus speaks of God
4. What does Jesus say about God whom he calls as Father? The God that Jesus speaks of is the God of the Old Testament. He is the God Creator, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Moses and the prophets (see Mt.12/26 Mk.1/44 7/10). This God is the “wholly Other” who is radically different from the human person. There is nothing of “flesh and blood” in this God. What God thinks and does is not what the human person thinks and does.
5. This can be a powerful God of which Jesus says, “You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Most Powerful” (Mk.14/62). The New testament does not hesitate to give God the tles used in the Old Testament: “Master”, “Lord”, “King” and “Judge”. He sits up in heaven. He is all knowing, he even knows more than the Son (see Mk.13/32).
6. This explains why God knows what is going on inside our hearts. When we pray we do not need a lot of words because God already knows what we need (see Mt.6/7-8). God can see our secrets (see Mt.6/4.6.18). He is full of goodwill for us (see Lk.12/6-7). Remember when Jesus is called “good master”, how does he respond? “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (Mk.10/18). The goodness and concern of God is confirmed in the forgiveness of sins (see Lk.11/4). This God saves (see Mk.13/13). He is also the one who reveals to the little ones and not to the wise and intelligent (see Mt.11/25-26).
7. Like the God if Israel, the God of Jesus is a faithful God. But he is also disturbing. In the parable of the vineyard workers he gives the same salary to those who have worked for less than an hour and to those who have worked under the burden and heat of the whole day (see Mt.20/1-15). In the name of generosity, God does not follow the rule of “pay according to the hour”. God is a God who wants us to love our enemies (see Mt.5/44-45). This is a contradiction to the practice in the Old Testament. It is also a contradiction to the usual reaction of a person hurt by someone else. Are we not surprised by the call to love those who make us suffer and miserable? Yet this God who tells us to forgive is the one who does it.
8. This God is the God who has sent Jesus. Let us look at this.
God, the Father of Men and Women
9. When Jesus speaks, the place of God the Father has a very high value. He is God who is so related with the human person. Jesus invites his disciples to pray by calling God “Our Father” (see Mt.6 Lk11/2). Jesus speaks to his disciples by saying that “Your Father is in heaven” (Mt.5/45 Lk.6/36 & 11/13). Thus , presented through the disciples of Jesus, there is a relationship of father-child between God and the human person.
10. The paternity of God is also expressed in parables that show the relationship of father and son. The famous one is that of the so-called “parable of the prodigal son”. The younger son leaves and spends all his money in waste. Repenting, he returns to his father. His father blows a big feast. The elder son who thinks he remains faithful is disappointed. He is, in fact, always welcome to the feast. Jesus makes use of the parable to give explanation for his attitude of willing to mix with sinners. Jesus is like saying, “I do with sinners what God does with them, and it scandalizes others”.
11. There is also another parable involving two sons and a father. The father asks them to work. The first one says “yes” but does not go to work, and the second one says “no” but goes anyway. The parable is an invitation to conversion.
12. These parables show the paternal relationship of God with people in the course of the history of salvation. They are, in fact, in the line of the insights of the Old Testament. They make more concrete those insights.
13. Jesus is sent by God to show men and women about the true love of God who is Father to them.
God, the Father of Jesus
14. Jesus claims a very unique relationship with God by calling him a “my Father”. This is more than the adoption we have with God. Look at one statement that Jesus makes. “Father, Lord of heaven and earth, I praise you because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned and revealed them to simple people. Yes, Father, this is what pleased you. My Father has entrusted everything to me. No one knows the Son except the Father. No one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Mt.11/25-27). The statement reveals how Jesus relates to God. It is such a direct and intimate relationship. It reveals how Jesus is so familiar with God. We see here the “behavior of a son” to his father. As the saying goes, “like father, like son”. The father and the son know each other so well. It is such an intimacy that others do not share. This is why Jesus could say, “My Father and your Father” (Jn.20/17) to imply that his relationship with the Father is so different from our relationship with him.
15. Jesus calls his Father “Abba”—“papa”. At the time of agony before the crucifixion Jesus says to his Father, “Papa, everything is possible for you, take this cup away” (Mk.14/36). This way of calling God is extremely strange and new. The call “Abba” is the typical way by Jesus talks to his Father. Within the world of Judaism, Jesus is the only one who dares call God as “Abba”, showing how intimate he is with the Father.
16. All this would not make sense without the attitude of Jesus towards his Father. Jesus takes the attitude of Son towards his father. Jesus shows to us who the Father is by showing us how to be son to the Father. Jesus loves in full communion with his Father. His prayer is a breathing of a son. He loves the Father and he is willing to obey the Father in his mission all the way. He obeys not as a fearing slave but as a beloved child.
God, the Father of the Crucified
17. The mission of Jesus leads him to the cross. At the end of the route of the mission, God becomes the Father of the crucified. This is a mystery. Jesus reaches a point when he complains with a cry that his Father abandons him. Yet, his attitude as a child does not lie. In his manner of dying, Jesus shows to us how far the power of God reaches. The almighty God in the Old Testament becomes the powerless God in the New Testament. God, in the life of Jesus, is not “paternalistic”. Jesus is not a victim of paternalism. Jesus simply accomplishes his mission received from the Father. This attitude of a son to the father is so clear in Jesus, it is an attitude he brings with him all the way to the cross.
18. The notion of “Father” here takes a new meaning. Through the attitude of Jesus as Son to the Father, we discover that to see Jesus is to see the Father! “Philip asked him, ‘Lord, show us the Father and that is enough’. Jesus said to him, ‘…Philip, whoever sees me sees the Father” (Jn.14/8-9). “Like father, like son”, as the expression goes. What Jesus reveals is the humanity of God. God turns our to be the powerless one. As one Protestant Theologian (J. Moltmann) would say, God is Crucified.
19. “Who is this God for us to be his love, child of the earth? Who is this God who ties himself with love to be our equal? Who is this God who must find the heart of the poor? Who is this God, destitute, great, vulnerable? Who is this God, who comes to our side and walks with us? Who is this God whose heart never fades at our table? Who is this God who nobody can love if he does not love us? Who is this God who we hurt so much whenever we hurt our fellows? Who is this God for us to be his love?” (J. Servel)
The Holy Spirit: Scripturally
(Taking from Bernard Sesboue L’esprit sans visage et sans voix, Dedsclee de Brouwer, Paris 2009)
1. In the New Testament we see mention of the Holy Spirit among the other two—the Father and the Son. The three are mentioned (see 1Co12/4-6; 2Co13/13; Eph4/4-6;Mt28/19-20) separately to show that each has a specific way of acting in union with the others. So the Holy Spirit is independent of the two. Yet, if we look closely, the Holy Spirit is unlike the Father and the Son. The Father and the Son have “personalities”…they have “faces”. Jesus was a man of Nazareth who suffered, died and appeared to his disciples. He spoke about God as Father and showed that the Father had a kind of “personality”.
2. But what about the Holy Spirit? We do not read in the New Testament any reference to a “face” or “personality” of the Holy Spirit. In other words, the Holy Spirit is not addressed as a “you”. The Holy Spirit stays as a “he”. The Father and the Son are persons to enter into conversation with….but not the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is a person talked about and is not a partner in conversation.
3. There are symbols and images representing the Holy Spirit…”breath”, “dove”, “tongues of fire”. Aside from these symbols there is no description of the “face” of the Holy Spirit. Why? The Holy Spirit is presented, rather, as “in”….”in” the Father and the Son and “in” us. The Holy Spirit is symbol of life “in” us and beyond us. He is like an inner force who animates us.
4. So the Holy Spirit is given the image of a dove who descends on Jesus and whatever Jesus would then do will be in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Apostles received “tongues of fire” during the Pentecost and here we see the Holy Spirit described as someone with whom the Apostles will act. So we read a letter of the Apostles during the Jerusalem council: “‘It is the decision of the holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities” (Act.15/28). The Holy Spirit is a partner in decision making…the one who acts and decides in and with the Apostles. Just as the Holy Spirit is in the Father and in the Son the Holy Spirit is also in us.
5. Furthermore, notice that the Holy Spirit does not speak. The Father has spoken…so to the Son. But the Holy Spirit seems to speak not: “the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth. He will not speak on his own” (Jn16/13).
6. The Holy Spirit does not speak on his own but makes us speak, just as he made the prophets speak (see Heb3/7 and 10/15). The Holy Spirit inspires. We see this clearly in the Pentecost when the disciples were filled with the Spirit: “And they were all filled with the holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim” (Act2/4). Thanks to the Holy Spirit we ourselves can say Abba, Father (see Rom8/15) and we can say Jesus is Lord (1Co12/3).
7. If we seek for the Holy Spirit we see him “in” us rather than in front of us.
8. Theologians talk of the “economy” of the Trinity. The Father sends…the Son is sent by the Father… the Holy Spirit is sent by the Son from the Father. Then, another element is to consider. Already in the Old Testament the Holy Spirit has prepared the path for the Son (see Is48/16 and 41/1; see Lk.4/18). It is also true that the Son was born of the Holy Spirit. So also the Father with the Spirit sent the Son and the Father with the Son sent the Holy Spirit.
 Feminists today might react to this and say that this image of Father is too sexist. God is also Mother, for the feminists. We must respect this position too. But at this point we need to be clear that Jesus called his Father “Abba”. His revelation about God is Father, therefore “masculine”. Yet, to avoid confrontation, we can also say that the characteristic of God as merciful has feminine and maternal features. The Hebrew word for God’s “mercy” is the uterus, which is very feminine.
 If today we call God “Abba”—as in Our Father—this is thanks to Jesus teaching us to call God as “Abba”.
 We can learn a lot from this be “reviewing” our own obedience to God. Are we obeying God because we are afraid of him or because we see ourselves as his children?