THAT PEOPLE IN ancient times easily believed in the existence of an intelligent being who is different from earthly beings is reasonable enough. Because they were confronted with a universe that was beyond their grasp, they naturally posited the existence of someone from whom come what they see, hear, touch and even what they know of. But his existence was not the problem. The problem was how to discover the secrets of this intelligent being. Because it was important to get in touch with him in order to have good health, life, solution to many questions and other things which they were not capable of making or acquiring, ancient people had recourse to dreams, omens, divination, casting lots, and astrology, among others. It was thought that by these techniques, they could discover the mind of this intelligent being.
But the Christian God, our God, is not a God who hides his face from men. On the contrary, he is a God of revelation. He discloses himself and his plan of salvation to man. In communicating to man his plan to save him, God likewise reveals who he himself is to man—a Trinity. The belief that there are three persons in one God is distinctive of Christianity; other revealed religions, like Judaism and Islam, do not have this belief. In Christianity, however, it is one of the fundamental beliefs of religion; it belongs to the heart of what Christianity means. But belief is one thing; explaining the belief is another. And efforts to explain it have been less successful. Of course, traditional theology, framed in Greek categories of thinking, uses such concepts as substance, persons, hypostasis and relations to unravel the mystery. But while these make sense to one who has studied in the university, the attempt is hardly intelligible to the average modern reader who has not been schooled in scholastic theology.
In today’s Gospel (John 16:12-15), however, which forms part of Jesus’ farewell discourse at the last supper, John provides us with a dynamic approach to the Trinity, which focuses on the roles of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in the work of revelation and redemption.
In John, God does not communicate himself except through the Son. The revelation that comes from God is the Son’s sharing in the possession of the Father: “Everything that the Father has is mine” (16:15). At his disposal the Father places everything for his revelation: “The Father loves the Son and has given everything over to him” (3:35; 13:3). In John 5:19-47, the relationship between the Father and the Son is even more fully explained, and the divine power of the Son is shown in dynamic terms. The Father so commits to him life-giving power that every act of the Son is an act of the Father: “For the Father loves the Son and everything the Father does he shows him… Just as the Father raises the dead and grants life, so the Son grants life to those to whom he wishes… Just as the Father possesses life in himself, so has he granted it to the Son to have life in himself” (5:21-26). The Father bears witness to the Son especially through the works which he does through him: “These very works which I perform testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me. Moreover, the Father who sent me has himself given testimony on my behalf” (5:36b-37a). (It is for this reason that later theological dispute would assert that the Father and the Son are one in nature and in operation.)
Because the Son is the fullness of the Father’s revelation, what then is the role of the Holy Spirit in God’s communication? In saying that “I have much more to tell you” (16:12), Jesus does not mean that there will be further revelation after his resurrection. Rather, what he means is that it will be only after his rising from the dead that there will be full understanding of his revelation. And it is the role of the Holy Spirit to guide the Church to the depths and heights and the fullness of God’s revelation in Jesus: “When he comes, however, being the Spirit of Truth, he will guide you to all truth” (16:13a). The account of the early Church provides an example. An Ethiopian eunuch, a court official in charge of the entire treasury of Candace of the Ethiopians, had come on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. While returning home, sitting on the carriage, he read a passage of Isaiah, but could not grasp it. It was not until Philip, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, guided the eunuch that he was able to understand that the Suffering Servant in Isa 53:7-8 referred to Jesus (Acts 8:26-35).
The Holy Spirit does not mediate any new revelation, therefore. Instead, he merely draws on the fullness of that revelation in Jesus; what he conveys to the Church he receives from the Son: “he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:14). (In later theological reflection, this gave rise to the dispute on whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.) He interprets and applies what he receives from Jesus to each coming generation in terms of its significance for the contemporary situation in the Church: “he will speak only what he hears, and he will declare the things to come” (16:13). That is why when the Magisterium, the Church as Teacher, proposes to the faithful something on doctrine or morals, it does not enunciate a new doctrine, but only interprets for the present generation what has already been said in the Sacred Scriptures.
To conclude: when speaking of the roles of the Trinity, it has been customary to say that the Father creates, the Son redeems, and the Holy Spirit sanctifies. This probably explains why images of the Trinity portrays the Father with extended hands, with the sun, the moon and the stars behind him, as if he were in the act of creating, the Son crucified on the cross, which is the wood of redemption, and the Holy Spirit as bright dove with extended rays. Strictly speaking, however, this cannot be accepted without many nuances. Creation, for example, may be attributed to the Father, but it is clear that “all things came through [the Son]” (1:3) in the power of God’s Spirit (Gen 1:2; 2:7). The same may be said of redemption and holiness. Thus the Eucharistic Prayer III: “All life, all holiness, comes from you [Father], through your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, by the working of the Holy Spirit.” But today’s Gospel provides us with an easier way of understanding the Trinity in terms of the role of each person in God’s communication: the Father communicates to men through the Son in the Holy Spirit.*