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The Gospel of the Trinity: “God is Love”

On the Readings for The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, June 7, 2020

Detail from "Trinity" (Троица) by Andrei Rublev, c.1410 []

• Ex 34:4B-6, 8-9
• Dn 3:52, 53, 54, 55, 56
• 2 Cor 13:11-13
• Jn 3:16-18

“The divine nature,” wrote St. Thomas Aquinas, “is really and entirely identical with each of the three persons, all of whom can therefore be called one: ‘I and the Father are one’.” The quote he references is from John 10:30, one of dozens of references made in the Fourth Gospel by the Son, Jesus Christ, to the Father. The Gospel of John is, in so many ways, the Gospel of the Trinity; it is bursting with startling verses and wondrous passages about the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This is also, not surprisingly, the case with St. John’s epistles. The great French philosopher Rémi Brague, in his book, On The God of the Christians (St. Augustine’s Press, 2013), states that the basis for the Christian confession of the Trinity “is contained in a single phrase of the New Testament: ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:16).” Brague further states that “the doctrine of the Trinity is nothing else than the stubborn effort to get to the bottom of this sentence of St. John.” That may seem, at first glance, an overstatement; yet there is great profundity in the observation. Benedict XVI, in his first encyclical (“God is Love”), quoted the whole of 1 John 4:16, and then wrote, “These words … express with remarkable clarity the heart of the Christian faith: the Christian image of God and the resulting image of mankind and its destiny. In the same verse, Saint John also offers a kind of summary of the Christian life: ‘We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us’.”

Today’s Gospel reading is perhaps the best-known verse about the love of God, and it is from the Gospel of John: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life…” God is perfect and complete in and of himself, yet his perfection is not the static, cold perfection of a mathematical algorithm, nor is his completeness located merely in his power and knowledge. His perfection and completion are most deeply revealed in relationship, in the giving of himself in ways we can only begin to comprehend.

God so loved that he gave. This essential theme is set at the start of John’s Gospel: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God…” (Jn 1:12). The Triune God desires that we share in his divine life and be true children of God: “Beloved, we are God’s children now” (cf 1 Jn. 3:1-3). How does that come about? Through a new birth, carried out by the power of the Third Person of the Trinity in the sacrament of baptism: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5). Sacraments are not mere symbols, of course, but “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us” (CCC 1131). By baptism—in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit—“we are called to share in the life of the Blessed Trinity, here on earth in the obscurity of faith, and after death in eternal light” (CCC 265).

The Trinity, then, is not an abstract concept, meant to overwhelm our finite intellect. Nor should the Trinity ever be the subject of dry academic exercise. Again, God is not static, or even stoic. In the words of the French poet, Paul Claudel, “we worship a living God who acts, who breathes, who exhales his very Self.” As Moses learned, God is merciful and gracious, “slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity.” He gave, and he gives, so that we can know him and love—so that , as Jesus prayed, “they may be one, even as we are one” (Jn 17:11).

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the June 15, 2014  edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1200 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. My sermon for tomorrow is focused on God’s love. Although love seems the topic of most sermons there’s a significant difference in meaning and realization with the Trinity. It’s a mystery. Like all other divine mysteries the only rationale we can give is with your quote from John “God is love.” Aquinas like his mystical contemporary Bonaventure relates the efficient causality of God to final causality (Commentary Meta 775). The difficulty when we speak of causality is nothing can cause God to act. The question arises regarding the creation of Man. It was not caused and entirely free. Aquinas adds in the same Commentary If it were possible to attribute a cause to God in creating Man it would be love. Unlike Cardinal Kasper’s rationale it was not necessity but a pure act of Love. I would add if God is perfect in himself and complete in his happiness the rationale for creating us was that we might share his joy. To be one with Him by the presence in us of father and Son thru the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. That our joy be complete. Like a loving Father if we can attribute a cause for joy in God it would be our eternal happiness.

    • Fr. Morello writes: “Unlike Cardinal Kasper’s rationale it was NOT necessity but A PURE ACT OF LOVE.” Balthasar remarks on this free act:

      “The responses of the Old Testament and a fortiori of Islam (which remains essentially in the enclosure of the religion of Israel) are incapable of giving a satisfactory answer to the question of why Yahweh, why Allah, created a world of which he did not have need in order to be God. Only the fact [creation] is affirmed in the two religions, NOT THE WHY. The Christian response is contained in these two fundamental dogmas: that of the Trinity and that of the Incarnation” (My Work in Retrospect, Ignatius Press, 1993).

      So, we encounter the Triune Oneness whose internal nature is relational and self-donating RATHER THAN any more distant and monolithic monotheism. Enabling our openness to this self-disclosed divine nature is the human and sometimes PREDISPOSITION to wonder truly at the otherness AND the closeness of God, both.

      Unlike Islam which is predisposed from the start to reject such distinctions or dualities (not dualisms) as “dichotomies” and therefore pagan and “blasphemous”. While still held to be in “the image and likeness of God,” man’s likeness is NOT free either. To be free implies a second “autonomy” other than the supreme autonomy of Allah. The accurate comparison is not between the two scriptures, but between the Son of God “eternal” and incarnate, versus the Qur’an “uncreated” and delivered in Arabic. And blasphemy, versus the fatalism (like Kasper’s “necessity”?) of Shari’a Law with its tribal “executors” on earth. Mosque and state are one.

      Encroaching again on the unique Christian oasis in human history—-an oasis protected by the “two fundamental dogmas” (of Trinity and the Incarnation)—-is the DESERTIFICATION offered by a gratuitous middle-ground “pluralism” of religions. Why is this theological “climate change” so fashionable today—-are Kasper and his legion closet Muslims in red hats rather than turbans?

      • Peter quotes Balthasar above: “The responses of the Old Testament and a fortiori of Islam are incapable of giving a satisfactory answer to the question of why Yahweh, why Allah, created a world of which he did not have need in order to be God.”

        Merely stating that Gospel of trinity (Christianity) can be explained because of “two fundamental dogmas: trinity and reincarnation” seem to me to be a circular argument. Peter’s further explanation do not automatically flow just because he says so. Why do we need a “second autonomy” if God is a personal God and is Love–as Islam teaches?

        It would be appreciated if Peter could provide references–preferably just & unbiased ones–to what he means since there may not be much space here for detailed explanations. Without clear writing or referencing those who have done it, it’s very hard to follow him and others here.

        Balthasar didn’t know this but Muslims believe the ultimate reason for creation is because of God’s love of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).

        Why would that be:
        First, God gives His reason of creation: “nothing except to worship Me” (Quran 51:56)

        This mean the purpose of creation is not fulfilled except through the existence of worshipers: mankind. And the best of worshipers is Prophet Muhammad [pbuh] because he represents the epitome of worship and monotheism. He is the dearest and the most important of all creation; therefore, the ultimate purpose of creation.

        • “Balthasar didn’t know this but Muslims believe the ultimate reason for creation is because of God’s love of Prophet Muhammad”

          Balthasar didn’t know that, and neither does God.

          “This mean the purpose of creation is not fulfilled except through the existence of worshipers: mankind. And the best of worshipers is Prophet Muhammad”

          I will be as polite as I can: Bilge.

          “because he represents the epitome of worship and monotheism. He is the dearest and the most important of all creation; therefore, the ultimate purpose of creation.”

          I consider it an insult to God to say that Muhammed was the best He could do.

          It is interesting how many of the man-made (or demonically inspired) religions boil down to the founding man saying something along the lines of, “Cool! I get to sleep with as many women as I want! Or with 9-year-old girls if I feel like it!”

  2. Brague contends that the whole working out of the doctrine of the Trinity was an attempt to explain how God is love. Well, it’s possible, but I doubt it.
    It seems to me that the connection of Trinitarian doctrine with divine love is a product of later theological development, making the idea that Trinitarian doctrine arose to explain how God is love unhistorical. It arose I think, to explain how Jesus could be fully divine and a proper object of worship without violating the principle of monotheism. That is, it arose in opposition to arianist tendencies (tendencies that existed even before Arius) that would have made out Jesus to be a kind of lesser god in a new pantheon. That’s why the early apologists for the Trinity spend a lot of time trying to prove that the Persons are made of the same stuff, and are equal, and not much time talking about how loving the Persons are, which is the focus of later theology.

  3. As a catechist, I kept noticing that my different presentation topics repeatedly found their basis in the concept of the Trinity: Love.

    I think this observation is noteworthy for both catechesis and evangelization.

  4. A word on the Trinity and Love. What binds it as one God. Aquinas in an earliest of works wrote Essence and Existence. Briefly put we don’t find the cause of our human existence in what we are. God on the other hand is not the cause of his existence since he can’t be caused. He simply is. Simple pure Being.
    Consequently what he is, his Essence is identical with his Existence. The doctrine can be traced to the Prologue of the Apostle John’s Gospel. John the Gospel theologian extraordinaire also teaches God is Love. What God is, is consistent in his presence as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each Person is the same God who is Love.

    • That well may be excellent theology. But it is not, as a matter of historical fact, how we got the doctrine of the Trinity. I just read Frank Sheed’s very good article on the Trinity. I couldn’t help noticing what he DIDN’T spend a lot of time talking about.

      • All good theology finds its sources in sacred scripture. We find that in John as well as in Matthew 28:19, Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Athanasius of Alexandria followed by Cyril of Alexandria taught a Christology that affirmed a divine as well as complete human nature that resulted in the Nicene creed 325 amended at Constantinople 381 with the Filioque Clause. Christ who possesses a complete human nature must also possess a complete divine nature capable of conferring the Holy Spirit. If that is denied as it still is in the East we diminish that human nature to a receptacle of the divinity. That was cause for Cyril issuing his 11th Anathema contra Nestorius who denied communion of the Divine Presence in the flesh and blood of Jesus taken from the Blessed Virgin Mary. Our faith in the Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist is interrelated within a Trinitarian theological faith, even if not fully explicit going back to the Lord’s Supper.

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