In preparation for Trinity Sunday, we will dedicate several posts this week to this central mystery of the faith. First considering more theoretical questions about the Trinity, we will conclude with two articles on the relation of the Trinity to man as his salvation.
St. Gregory of Nazianzus has proposed this dogma for our belief: “Above all guard for me this great deposit of faith for which I live and fight, which I want to take with me as a companion, and which makes me bear all evils and despise all pleasures: I mean the profession of faith in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. I entrust it to you today. By it I am soon going to plunge you into water and raise you up from it. I give it to you as the companion and patron of your whole life. I give you but one divinity and power, existing one in three, and containing the three in a distinct way. Divinity without disparity of substance or nature, without superior degree that raises up or inferior degree that casts down. . . the infinite co-naturality of three infinites. Each person considered in himself is entirely God. . . the three considered together. . . I have not even begun to think of unity when the Trinity bathes me in its splendour. I have not even begun to think of the Trinity when unity grasps me. . .” (Oratio 40,41; CCC 256)
The eternal processions of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
“The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in himself. It is therefore the source of all the other mysteries of faith, the light that enlightens them.” (CCC 234)
From all eternity the Father generates the Son and the Son is generated by the Father, and there is no time when the Father was without his Son or the Son without his Father. Likewise, the Holy Spirit from all eternity proceeds from the Father and from the Son as from a common principle – though, he proceeds principally from the Father, he proceeds also from and through the Son (since the Father has given all things to the Son, the Son has also that the Holy Spirit proceeds eternally from him).
And, of all three persons, we must admit that there was no time when he was not: There was no time when the Father was not the Father of the Son, and there was no time when the Son was not. Moreover, neither was there a time when the Holy Spirit was not the Spirit of the Father and of the Son. Rather, from all eternity the three persons are one.
When we say that the Father generates the Son and that the Father and the Son together as one principle spirate the Holy Spirit, we speak of the eternal processions of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. The Son proceeds from the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and from the Son. Hence, the Father is “the source and origin of the whole divinity.” (Council of Toledo VI)
The eternal processions are necessary in a way far greater than anything else can be said to be necessary. In a way far greater even than that necessity by which one plus one must equal two, we say that the eternal processions of the Son and of the Holy Spirit are necessary. These processions are simply and absolutely necessary as being the cause and source of all necessity which can possibly exist among creatures. It is simply and absolutely impossible that there should be no Holy Spirit or no Son. It is simply and absolutely impossible that there should be no Trinity.
However, though it is absolutely necessary that God be the Trinity and that there be the eternal processions, this necessity does not bind the Father. It is not as though the Father were bound by an external necessity to generate the Son. Nor can we possibly think that the Father and the Son are constrained by an external necessity to spirate the Holy Spirit. Rather, it is the very person and nature of the Father which is the necessity of the Son. Likewise, it is the very persons and the nature of the Father and the Son which is the necessity of the Holy Spirit.
Thus, although the eternal processions are simply and absolutely necessary, they are also free – for there is no external constrain or compulsion which drives the Father to generate his Son. Freedom and necessity are united in perfect harmony and, though we claim that the Father generates the Son per naturam (by nature) rather than per volutatem (by will), we also insist that the eternal processions are simply and absolutely free as being entirely free from any constraint (either by external compulsion or natural limitation). In the Most Holy Trinity, necessity and love are united, such that what is most necessary is also most loved.
The procession of creatures
The procession of creatures in the act of creation, however, is per voluntatem (by will). There is nothing in the nature of God which requires that he create the universe. Indeed, the act of creation does not add any absolute goodness to existence – for the good of God himself is utterly and entirely infinite. The goodness of God is more infinite even that a mathematical infinity; since it is possible to add to a mathematical infinity, but it is not possible to add anything to the goodness of God.
No, creation does not and cannot add anything to the glory of God – rather, the goodness of creation is a participation in the infinite goodness of the Trinity. On this account, it is clear that there is no absolute necessity in creatures – God did not have to create the world, but he chose to do so per voluntatem (by will).
This is the essential difference between the procession of creatures and the processions of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: Creatures come from God by his willing it and not by nature, but the Son and the Holy Spirit proceed by nature rather than by will. This division between created and uncreated being, between God and creatures, is the greatest of chasms – short only of that chasm between being and non-being.
The Father does not choose to generate the Son (though he is free in this generation), but the Trinity does choose to create and sustain the world. “We believe that God created the world according to his wisdom. It is not the product of any necessity whatever, nor of blind fate or chance. We believe that it proceeds from God’s free will; he wanted to make his creatures share in his being, wisdom, and goodness.” (CCC 295)
The temporal processions of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
That man might come into the glory of God, the Father sent his own Son for our salvation and the Spirit of his Son for our sanctification. The missions of the Son and of the Holy Spirit into the world are the temporal processions – and these are both visible (i.e. the Incarnation of the Eternal Word and the Descent of the Holy Spirit) and invisible (i.e. the gift of sanctifying grace).
The temporal processions of the Son and of the Holy Spirit are not necessary nor are they per naturam, but are per voluntatem. The Father generates the Son per naturam, but the Holy Trinity sends the Son into the world per voluntatem. The Father and the Son spirate the Holy Spirit per naturam, but the Holy Trinity sends the Holy Spirit into the hearts of believers per voluntatem. There is no necessity in the temporal processions, for God did not have to redeem us.
Moreover, even granting that the Trinity loves man and desires to redeem man (by a desire which is born of the divine will and not of nature), it was not necessary that man should be redeemed by the temporal processions of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. God could have redeemed man through other means – and there was no absolute need for him to reveal the Most Holy Trinity in this life (though salvation itself must be the vision of the Trinity).
Finally, even granting that the Lord should choose (per volutatem) to redeem man by means of incarnation, it is possible that any or all of the persons of the Trinity could become incarnate in one or multiple human natures. The Father or the Holy Spirit could have become incrnate. The Son could have become incarnate in more than one human nature. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit could have all become incarnate in the same human nature, or in multiple human natures.
Though it is certainly particularly fitting that God should redeem man in the manner he has (i.e. through the Incarnation of the Son), it is possible that this redemption be accomplished in innumerable other ways which far exceed the imagination of man.
Necessity and freedom, and the Most Holy Trinity
Consider how great is the love of God by which he loves himself! This love is simply and absolutely necessary, and is the eternal processions of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Consider also how great is the love of God by which he loves the world! This love is not necessary but proceeds from the divine will, and is the procession of creatures.
Finally, consider how great is the love of God by which he has redeemed men! This love is not necessary but proceeds from the divine will, and is the temporal processions of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.