Among the objections to the doctrine of the Trinity raised by our Mormon brothers, some may be dealt with quickly. They say that it is nonsense, but that is certainly not true. Substantial unity is logically distinct from personal unity, and the fact that the two are isomorphic for humans does not prove that they must be so for God. That we cannot really imagine what it would mean for a single intelligent being to have three personal “centers” is true but irrelevant. All of the divine attributes are ultimately unimaginable to us, including those we think most self-explanatory–his omniscience (we cannot imagine knowledge that is not limited in being mediated by concepts) and omnipotence (we cannot imagine creating beings out of nothing, so that their entire existence is a participation in one’s own). Nevertheless, we can have some abstract idea what it means to be omnipotent, omniscient, and tripersonal.
A more serious objection, raised multiple times by Bruce Charlton, is that the doctrine is unnecessary to our relationship with God, that it does nothing practically for simple believers but create confusion. We orthodox Christians obviously do not accept this. The dogma of the Trinity we hold to have been revealed to us by God, and when God tells us something, it’s because we need to know it. In fact, the dogma of the Trinity vouchsafes for the orthodox what we think is the proper understanding of God’s greatest and most important promise to us–that through Christ He makes us His own sons. Misunderstanding the nature of God opens one to disastrous misunderstandings of this promise.
First, appreciate the audacity of this promise by seeing the ontological chasm it claims to cross. This is not like, say, Superman deciding to adopt Jimmy Olsen. Kal-El may have many superior abilities to humans, but fundamentally Kryptonians and humans are on the same ontological level, so such an adoption wouldn’t be anything special. No, this is more like me claiming that I’m going to adopt my pet fish as my beloved son.
Why would that be silly? It makes sense to say that I take very good care of my fish, helping it to attain the highest level of fishly excellence. It would even make sense–although it would be odd–to say that I love and cherish my fish. But I can’t claim to want for my fish what I would want for my son–namely the things I would want for myself: the excellence of my own human nature, virtue, honor, manhood. A son I will try to raise to my own level (or, rather, the level I aspire to). Not just for him to be well-kept like a pet, but for him to know and will as I know and will. This sort of relationship is possible because a father and son share the same nature.
So God wishes to make us, in some sense, godlike. However, this opens up another possible misunderstanding. In the case of human filiation, it is natural that a son ultimately becomes a man, at which point he is equal to and independent of his father. But God is the single source of all being, and it is absurd and impious to imagine that we shall ever–even in a future divinized state–become independent of Him and “move out of the house” as it were. It is also metaphysical nonsense to imagine divinity as a type that could have multiple instantiations.
It is an error to imagine that God will merely perfect us as humans, and it is an error to imagine that we can ever have divinity independent of Him (even if He is the one who at first gives it to us). Both errors make the same mistake of imagining that our beatitude is something other than God Himself, that He is merely a necessary means to some other fulfillment–human or “divine” (with divinity falsely considered apart from the One God). However, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church insist with one voice that God Himself is our final happiness, and not any exterior good or even any good of the body or soul.
How, though, can we become like God while still relying on God? After all, God is the “unmoved mover”; being independent and having no principles prior to Him are very fundamental divine qualities. We are not God, we are finite, because we must rely on Him for our being. So the serpent reminded Adam and Eve when he promised that to become like God, they had to break off from God and become principles unto themselves.
But the Enemy only spoke part of the truth. We are not God because we are not the source, but also because we are not entirely receptive. If a being were entirely open to God’s giving, it could receive the entirely of His being; it would be God Himself. We are finite because as receptacles of the divine inflow, we are too brittle; we can take in so very little. We are in a way like the finite real numbers, which are finite because they are situated between two infinities: positive infinity (the infinity of primacy–the infinity of the Father) and negative infinity (the infinity of perfect receptivity–the infinity of the Son). If Adam and Eve wanted to be like God, the path open to them (and to us) was the path of the Son. One sometimes hears theologians (e.g. Balthasar) saying things to the effect that we should not think of the Trinity above us and creation below, but rather that creation somehow exists in the “space” of difference opened up between the divine persons. I’m not really sure what they mean by this, or if it’s just European continental gobbledigook—but I think they might mean something like what I’ve just said.
The Holy Spirit is a more shadowy figure in the Christian life, and rightly so, since His role is to deliver God to the soul. He has no “face” of his own, as some theologians say in their usual cryptic way. Does this not seem like a humble job, the job of a messenger, the sort of thing our missionaries are supposed to be doing? We think so only because our missionaries do it in an imperfect, human way. If a being could deliver the mind of the Son Himself, with no interjections of its own biases or oversights, that being would be God Himself. Thus, three ways to appropriate divinity: source, receptacle, carrier.
The Fathers borrowed from Platonism for the very good reason that Platonism’s logic of participation provides a way to make sense of the promise of theosis. In the Platonic system, human beings are humans because they participate in the Form of Humanity. Each human being is a combination of Humanity and receptacle/potency/”being an instance of”. The Form of Humanity is itself not an instance of Humanity; if it were, that would open us up to the paradox of the “third man”. No, the Form of Humanity must be subsistent Humanity–the act of humanity without subsisting in an instance. If it were an instance, its humanity would be enclosed in itself and could have nothing to do with anybody else’s humanity.
This is very close to the theist understanding of God (first formulated, I believe, by Ibn Sina) as subsistent existence. To non-Christian theists, it would have been unclear whether subsistent existence could Itself have Its own nature without that reducing It to an instance, limited by being one nature among many. (Hence, the One is “above Being”.) The Christian scholastics, though, never doubted it. God must have a nature, because He has promised that we can partake in it. But to be subsistent existence, He must be identical to His own nature, because His essence is identical to His existence. This formulation certainly makes God more mysterious than any other being, but also makes Him more communicable.
It makes no sense for someone to share in my human nature, because my “being an instance of” has enclosed my nature in myself. If someone made a clone of me to carry out human processes just like mine, that clone would thereby have his own human nature; he would be a separate instance of humanity. With God, things are different. There are no instances of divinity. If somewhat engages in distinctly divine activity (charity), it can only mean that God Himself is dwelling in that person’s soul and acting in him.
Western theologians sometimes refer to the persons of the Trinity as “subsistent relations”. This means that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have no existence apart from the interpersonal acts that define their relationships with each other. It also means that the logic of participation can be applied to these relations–in particular, that the Sonship of Jesus Christ is something we can participate in. If Jesus were just “a Son”–an instance of sonship–rather than “the Son”, this would not be possible. Rather, the Fathers–and most splendidly in the great Apostle, Saint Paul, himself–speak of our adoption into divinity through a profound interpenetration with Jesus Christ. We are to put on Christ, to be buried and rise with Him, and He is to live in us. The identification with our Savior must be great indeed, that Christ can take upon Himself our sins, and we can take from Him His righteousness. And none of this is a game of pretend played by the Father, but rather the identification between Christ and those he saves is so strong in reality that the Father is perfectly just in imputing the righteousness of the one to the other.
Surely, you will say, God did not intend that everyone should have to think through all of this in order to be saved? Of course He didn’t. All Christians must believe that the Father is God, that the Son is God, that God Himself is our final purpose and joy, and that the Father wants to make us sons through the work of the Son, but no one is obliged to think through it any further. If one does want to think through it further, the Church has provided us with a wondrous glimpse of God’s inner life to make sure that we don’t lose our way.