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Unity and Distinction in the Eternal Communion of the Trinity

General Audience — November 27, 1985

—    One God the Trinity....

1.  One God the Trinity....

The Synod of Toledo (675) expressed the faith of the Church in the Triune God with this concise formula, in the wake of the great fourth century councils of Nicaea and Constantinople.

In our own times, Paul VI in the Credo of the People of God expressed the same faith in the words already quoted in previous catecheses: "The mutual bonds which eternally constitute the Three Persons who are each one and the same Divine Being, are the blessed inmost life of God thrice holy, infinitely beyond all that we can conceive in human measure" (L'Osservatore Romano, English edition, July 11, 1968, p. 4).

God is ineffable and incomprehensible. In his essence God is an inscrutable mystery, whose truth we have sought to illustrate in the previous catecheses. Before the Most Holy Trinity, in which is expressed the inmost life of the God of our faith, one must repeat and admit it with a still greater force of conviction. The unity of the divinity in the Trinity of Persons is indeed an ineffable and inscrutable mystery! "If you comprehend it, it is not God."

Paul VI continues in the text cited above: "We give thanks, however, to the divine goodness that very many believers can testify with us before men to the unity of God, even though they know not the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity."

Holy Church in her trinitarian faith feels united to all those who confess the one God. Faith in the Trinity does not affect the truth of the one God. Rather, it makes evident its richness, its mysterious content—God's inmost life.

This faith has its source—its only source—in the New Testament revelation. It is possible to know the truth about the Triune God only by means of this revelation. This is one of those "mysteries hidden in God which can never be known unless they are revealed by God,"—according to the First Vatican Council (Const. Dei Filius, IV).

The dogma of the Most Holy Trinity has always been considered in Christianity as a mystery—the most fundamental and inscrutable mystery. Jesus Christ himself said: "No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him" (Mt 11:27).

The First Vatican Council taught: "The divine mysteries by their nature transcend the created intellect in such a way that, while made known by revelation and accepted by faith, they remain however covered by the veil of the same faith and wrapped in a kind of obscurity as long as in this mortal life 'we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight' (2 Cor 5:6)" (Const. Dei Filius, IV).

This statement is especially valid for the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. Even after being revealed, it remains the most profound mystery of faith. The intellect by itself can neither comprehend nor penetrate it. But in a certain way the intellect enlightened by faith can grasp and explain the meaning of the dogma. Thus it can bring the mystery of the inmost life of the Triune God close to man.

The concept of "person" as distinct from that of "nature" (or essence) is shown to be particularly important and fundamental in the accomplishment of this sublime work—whether by means of the work of many theologians and first of all that of the Fathers of the Church, or by the definitions of the Councils. A person is he or she who exists as a concrete human being, as an individual possessing humanity, that is, human nature. Nature (essence) is all that whereby that which concretely exists is what it is. For example, when we speak of "human nature," we indicate what makes a human being a human being, with his essential components and properties.

Applying this distinction to God, we recognize the unity of nature, the unity of the divinity, which belongs in an absolute and exclusive way to him who exists as God. At the same time—both by the light of the intellect alone, and still more by the light of revelation—we cultivate the conviction that he is a personal God. God the Creator should appear as a personal Being, even to those who have not received the revelation of the existence of God in three Persons. The person is what is most perfect in the world [1] . One cannot but attribute this qualification to the Creator, even in regard to his infinite transcendence [2] . Precisely for this reason the non-Christian monotheistic religions understand God as a person infinitely perfect and absolutely transcendent as regards the world.

Uniting our voices with that of every other believer, let us also lift up our hearts to the living and personal God, the one God who created the world and who is the origin of all that is good, beautiful and holy. To him be praise and glory forever.

[1]   id quod est perfectissimum in tota natura: St. Thomas, Summa Theol., I, q. 29, a. 3

[2]   cf. St. Thomas, Summa Theol., I, q. 29, a. 3