The Revelation of the Trinity

Trinitarian faith rests on receiving God's revelation within salvation history. This means that we have to consider what the revelatory action of the Trinity is, before we can begin a theological reflection on the Trinitarian mystery. In making this first step with St Thomas, we will have already entered upon an important theological reflection about our knowledge of the Trinity.


St Thomas explains in the first article of the Summa Theologiae that the philosophical sciences, which provide knowledge of God through human reason, are not sufficient for human salvation. Salvation requires a sacred doctrine (sacra doctrina), in which God is known through revelation. The necessity (necessarium) of this doctrine is founded on the end of human life:

man is directed to God, as to an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason: The eye hath not seen, O God, besides Thee, what things Thou hast prepared for them that love (Isa. 56.4). But the end must first be known by men who are to direct their thoughts and actions to the end. Hence it was necessary for the salvation of man that certain truths which exceed human reason should be made known to him by divine reve-lation.1

The 'necessity' which is in question here is not conceived as an absolute necessity which imposes itself on God himself, as if God had to reveal himself—God is free and his self-revelation is gratuitous—but as a necessity relative to the end which is sought.2 Since God freely wishes that humanity be saved, God also wills the means required to that end: the revelation which makes known to man his transcendent end, from beyond our natural

2 Cf. ST III, q. 46, a. 1; on the distinction between absolute and relative necessity ( necessitas ex suppositione finis), see J.-P. Torrell, Le Christ en ses mysteres: La vie et l'oeuvre de Jesus selon St Thomas d'Aquin, vol. 2, Paris, 1999, pp. 310-322.

resources. St Thomas puts this same reason first when he explains the 'necessity' of the revelation of the Trinity:

There are two reasons why the knowledge of the divine persons was necessary for us. It was necessary for the right idea of creation. The fact of saying that God made all things by His Word excludes the error of those who say that God produced things by necessity. When we say that in Him there is a procession of love, we show that God produced things not because He needed them, but on account of the love of His own goodness____In another way, and chiefly, the knowledge of the divine persons was necessary so that we may think rightly concerning the salvation of the human race, accomplished by the Incarnate Son, and by the gift of the Holy Spirit.3

Trinitarian faith is required for a firm grasp on God's creative activity, and, by extension, on the whole of God's activity in the world (in other words, the exercise of divine providence). Knowledge of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, that is, of the Word and of Love, give the best perspective on the gratuity and freedom of creation: so we cannot understand creation well without receiving knowledge of the Trinitarian mystery. Philosophical reflection on creation can appreciate that God's creative activity is free, since it can work out that God does not act without wisdom or volition; but it is Trinitarian faith which gives us God's deep personhood. Moreover, the Trinitarian character of creation lays the foundation of that Trinitarian reality which is salvation. The Trinitarian mode of divine action is not restricted to salvation: one and the same God creates and saves us through his Trinitarian action.

St Thomas effectively makes the soteriological dimension of Trinitarian doctrine its primary dimension (principalius). This soteriological dimension concerns the action of the persons, and, more precisely, our knowledge of the divine persons, given by revelation. That faith in Christ which brings about salvation is inseparable from faith in the Trinity:

It is not possible to believe explicitly in the mystery of Christ, without faith in the Trinity, since the mystery of Christ includes that the Son of God took flesh; that he renewed the world through the grace of the Holy Spirit; and again, that he was conceived by the Holy Spirit.4

To grasp the salvation which is accomplished through the mysteries of the incarnate Son, one also has to know by faith the mystery of the Trinity. This soteriological dimension does not imply either that Trinitarian doctrine should be reduced to its 'practical' aspects, or that St Thomas limited his investigations to what today is called the 'economic Trinity'. In effect, to know who the 'Word', or the 'Son', is, and to know who 'Love', or the 'Holy Spirit', is, it is necessary to consider the persons in their relations and subsistence at the

heart of the eternal Trinity. It is on this basis that Christian theology is able to illuminate the economy of salvation: understanding creation and salvation requires knowledge of the divine persons, and it is this knowledge which revelation offers.5 And it is this knowledge that Trinitarian theology endeavours to disclose.

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