Fr. Mac Stewart
I read my first Sherlock Holmes novel this week, The Hound of the Baskervilles. It’s the tale of an old fictional English family which had been thought for centuries to be cursed by a monstrous, fire-breathing hound from hell. Sir Charles Baskerville, the most recent baron of the family estate, had lately appeared to fall sadly afoul of this old curse, as the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death suggested that the demonic hound was his undoing; and now his heir, the young Sir Henry, was no doubt in great peril from the same curse of the canine.
But Sherlock Holmes had no truck with these supernatural explanations for the mysterious circumstances of Sir Charles’s death, and the novel proceeds to show how Holmes and his faithful Dr. Watson gradually and steadily unravel the mystery.
The hound, it turns out, was no Cerberus up from Hades, just an unusually large bloodhound-mastiff mix, with a cleverly devised paste of Phosphorus spread over his mouth for the special pyrotechnic effects, and the death of Sir Charles was not the result of an ancient curse but rather the cunning design of a long-lost evil nephew bent on winning the Baskerville estate for himself.
Holmes concludes in his retrospection with what I suspect is a common refrain in all his stories: “the case has now been so entirely cleared up that I am not aware that there is anything which has remained a secret to us” (p. 761).
This is a mystery novel. It’s quick and entertaining reading precisely because it carries you along with an interesting uncertainty. There are all kinds of stray pieces of evidence that Watson and Holmes pick up as they trace the case — the man with the beard in the coach; the missing boots; the strange anonymous letter of warning to Sir Henry pieced together from newspaper clippings — and the reader hangs on in suspense to discover what it all means, how it’s all going to fit together in the end.
But after the suspense reaches its climax, the murderous cousin unmasked and Sir Henry rescued from his devious plots, the puzzle is solved. The reader is shown how all the pieces fit together. No detail is left unexplained. No mystery remains. You close the book, you say, “That was entertaining,” and then you move on and go do the dishes. The uncertainty has passed, and so the interest passes also, until you pick up the next Sherlock Holmes story.
When we say that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is a mystery, we don’t mean that it is an interesting uncertainty. We don’t mean that a problem has presented itself with a lot of stray pieces of suggestive evidence here and there, and that like Sherlock Holmes we need to set about solving the problem, piecing the puzzle together, unraveling the mystery so that at the end of the day we can close the book and say, “Ah, yes, well that’s all settled,” and move on with our lives.
When Christians call the Holy Trinity a mystery, what we mean is not that it is an interesting uncertainty, but that it is an incomprehensible certainty. There is one God in three persons and three persons in one God: that is a truth more certain than that I am standing in front of you right now. The basis of your knowledge that I’m in front of you is that your senses are telling you so — you hear me talk; you see me gesture. The basis of your knowledge that God is Trinity is that God has told you so, in Scripture, in sacrament, and in your heart, and that you have said “I believe.” Your senses may deceive you, but there is no more certain ground of truth than God’s word received in faith.
This certain truth of the Holy Trinity is also incomprehensible. What exactly do we mean, though, when we say it is incomprehensible? The first thing we don’t mean is that, because it’s incomprehensible, we shouldn’t think about it. We speak sometimes in life about “insoluble problems,” by which we usually mean that we shouldn’t bother pay them much attention, having resigned ourselves to there being no good answer.
Christians don’t believe the Trinity is an “insoluble problem,” one that would be a waste of time to reflect on, because we don’t believe it is a problem to be solved at all. To call it incomprehensible is not to suggest that there is nothing that can be said about it. There is actually quite a bit that we can fruitfully ask and say about this doctrine. Why, for instance, do we think that God has in fact told us that this is who he is? Where does it come from?
Scholars of religion with an axe to grind against orthodox Christianity will often tell you that it was a late doctrine, fabricated at the instigation of the Emperor Constantine three centuries after Christ to squash political dissenters. But that narrative doesn’t hold up against any serious reading of the New Testament, or for that matter of Church history. It’s true that the full-fledged and explicit identification of the one God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit occurs in only a few places in the New Testament — very significant places, it should be said, like the risen Lord’s instructions on how the apostles were to baptize new Christians.
But the more important point is that the whole New Testament shows the story of salvation to have a trinitarian shape to it. When the angel Gabriel was sent by God the Father to announce to Mary that she would bear God the Son, he explained how it would be so by saying that God the Holy Spirit would come upon her (Luke 1:35). When God the Son was baptized in the River Jordan, God the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove as God the Father proclaimed him his well-beloved (Matthew 3:17). When Christ, God’s Son, stood in the synagogue at Nazareth he said that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him because the Lord God had sent him to preach good news to the poor (Luke 4:18), and when he prayed he did so “rejoicing” in the Holy Spirit, addressing the one he called “Abba, Father” (Luke 10:21).
God from all eternity is the perfect love that subsists between the Father and the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit. That’s what we mean when we say, with the apostle John, that “God is Love” (1 John 4:8). God is a perfect communion of persons, so profoundly intimate to one another as to be essentially inseparable. But what’s at stake with this doctrine is not just having the right idea about God — though we minimize having the right ideas about God to our peril.
What’s also at stake is the very nature of the word salvation, the character of that eternal life that God sent his Son to give us. Salvation does not just mean “going to heaven when you die,” nor simply getting all your problems solved, all your ailments healed. Salvation means to be drawn into this communion of perfect love that God himself is. “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, whereby we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Gal. 4:6).
The mystery of salvation is that we can come to speak to God as his Son speaks. We can come to love God as he loves God, to enjoy God as he enjoys God, because God the Holy Spirit lives and moves inside of us. “The Spirit blows where he wills, and you hear the sound of him, but you do not know whence he comes or whither he goes” (John 3:8). That is to say, the Spirit helps us in our weakness, and prays with sighs too deep for words (Rom. 8:26), moving inside of us even without our full awareness or comprehension to carry us into the Father’s eternal embrace.
All of this is at least thinkable. But it’s more than that, too. It’s the good news that we call the gospel. It’s what you and I were made for, what makes us fully human, fully alive. There is a deeper incomprehensibility to this mystery, the precise sense in which the Trinity is incomprehensible, which is that although God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost are each identical with the one divine nature, they are not identical with each other (a proposition which seems to violate the transitive property).
Christian theologians down the ages have proposed all kinds of ways to untie that particular knot — distinctions between substance and relations and so forth — and there is a place for that kind of intellectual rigor. It helps clear away people’s objections to the faith on logical grounds and it’s a part of loving God with our minds as Jesus told us to.
But the important thing for us is to realize that even this incomprehensibility is good news too, because it reminds us that we can never master divinity. What a letdown it would be if God were just another puzzle that we’ll sort out if we just keep reading. When you’re reading about Sherlock Holmes, once you know the answers, you close the book.
But when you worship the Holy Trinity, the more you come to know him, the deeper into the book you go. God is not just another puzzle to be solved, a secret to be uncovered, a curious case that we’ll eventually figure out and can file away. God is the unimaginably Other, the Holy One of Israel, the Lord of hosts before whom the flaming six-winged seraphim veil their faces in awe and wonder, to gaze upon whom is to fall down as though dead. He is a mystery. That means his beauty is so radiant, his truth is so sure, and his goodness is so sweet, that we can never come to its end. All we can do is fall down and worship.
And that’s where we’ve come to, today, the end of the first half of the Christian year. With the whole story of salvation open before us, we pause now at the place where it all will one day lead us, to the heavenly throne of the King, where with the angels we cry “Holy, Holy, Holy … heaven and earth are full of thy glory.” And so to that great King, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be ascribed, as is most justly due, all honor, glory, majesty, and might, now, henceforth, and forevermore.
The Rev. Mac Stewart, a priest of the Diocese of North Carolina, is studying for a doctorate in historical theology at the Catholic University of America.