HOLY TRINITY: The Trinitarian Meaning Of “God Is Love,” by Milton Walsh

The Trinitarian Meaning Of

From Into All Truth

Let us consider first the deceptively simple statement, “God is love,” (1 John 4:8).  When Moses stood before the burning bush, God revealed his name: “I Am Who I Am,” (Exodus 3:14).  The name is mysterious – as the Catechism teaches, it is at once a name revealed and something like the refusal of a name – and thus expresses how God is infinitely beyond our understanding, and yet draws near to us.  The revelation to Moses affirms the truth that God alone IS: that is, being is God’s very nature.  Everything that exists is contingent upon God; creatures receive their being from God; he alone is his very being.  (Understood in the light of the name revealed to Moses on Sinai, the frequent, “I am,” assertions made by Jesus in John’s Gospel are audacious and, were he not the Son of God, would be blasphemous.)

God also described himself in another way in this theophany: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” (Exodus 3:6).  God speaks of himself in relation to Moses and his ancestors: he is not only the God who is; he is the God who loves.  The purpose of his revelation was not to give Moses a lesson in metaphysics, but to send him to free the Israelites from slavery.  Throughout the Old Testament, God reveals himself as loving, faithful, steadfast, and just.  It is on the basis of these attributes that God enters into covenants with his people.  However, to profess that “God is love” means much more than “God is loving” – but it is only with the revelation of the mystery of the Trinity that we begin to comprehend the deeper significance of the assertion that God is love.

Like the Jewish faith from which it grew, Christianity affirms that God is one.  But, in the words of an early Creed, “God is one but not solitary.” (Fides Damasi)  The oneness of God is a communion of love.  The sending of the Son and the Holy Spirit have revealed to us that God’s very being is relational – the eternal love between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

It is customary to associate different aspects of God’s work with specific persons of the Trinity (e.g., creation to the Father, redemption to the Son, sanctification to the Holy Spirit).  This is known as “appropriation.”  However, it is essential to bear in mind a point made in the Catechism: “The whole divine economy is the common work of the three divine persons.  For as the Trinity has only one and the same nature, so too does it have only one and the same operation: ‘The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are not three principles of creation but one principle.'”  Saint Gregory of Nyssa affirmed that no divine actions are attributable to one divine person alone; Augustine’s teaching in this regard found expression in a medieval axiom that became central to subsequent Catholic theology: “All the actions of the Trinity outside itself [ad extra] are not divisible.”

Love never exists in the abstract: it is always love for someone or something.  We love many things, but we recognize that there is mutuality in the love shared between men because of our common nature.  The second creation account in Genesis captures this reality in an imaginative way: God creates Adam and then makes all kinds of birds and beasts, but none of them is a fitting companion for the man.  Then God creates Eve from the side of Adam, who exclaims: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” (Genesis 2:23).  Like nature is the foundation of mutual love.  What is true for creatures is true for the Creator: since God the Father is infinite in his perfections, the only fitting recipient of his love is a person who shares those divine perfections.  The Son receives infinite love from the Father, and returns infinite love to the Father; and this love is the Holy Spirit.  God’s very nature is relational: for God, to be is to be in communion.

The revelation that the one God is a communion of love underscores the freedom of his creative power.  God did not bring the universe into existence because he needed an object for his affections.  God freely created to share his love and goodness, so that creatures could share in the divine life.  In the poetic image of Saint Thomas Aquinas, “Creatures came into existence when the key of love opened his hand.” Creation is marked by its trinitarian origin.  The opening verses of the Bible tell us that when God made the heavens and the Earth, the Spirit of God was moving over the waters and that it was by his word that God created.  As it was through his word and his Spirit that the Father brought the universe into being, so it is through the Spirit and the Son that creation returns to the Father.  When we say, “God is love,” we are proclaiming that the very nature of God’s being is to give and receive love, and that we who have become “partakers of the divine nature,” (2 Peter 1:4), are invited into that communion of love.

 

 

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