Substance, Person, and Nature: Trying to Understand the Triune God

(This is another entry in things I want to make sure my daughter knows at her confirmation – my little way to be more a part of this great event in her life.)

One of the most challenging aspects of Christianity is to accept and try to understand the nature of the Trinity and of Jesus himself. We hear “one God, three persons” and “both human and divine”, and if we really think about those concepts it is easy to descend into confusion and even doubt.

At one level, its like asking a color-blind person to understand color. It can’t be done. As created, temporal beings, how can we understand the uncreated and eternal? But that’s ok, because there are many examples of truths in nature which the human mind is incapable of grasping intuitively. For instance, in physics, there is a concept called “wave-particle duality”. Electrons and other particles are both waves and particles, depending on how they are looked at and which experiments are run. There is no way to picture that. We can, however, develop an understanding of what it means and what the implications are based on the science behind the concept.

Likewise, we can understand the meaning and implications of the nature of Christ and the Trinity without being able to picture it in our minds, but we have to look at the theology behind it.

In Pope Benedict’s book Jesus of Nazareth, the former Pontiff goes into detail regarding these concepts in a way that gave me understanding I hadn’t had before, and I wanted to share and summarize that here. This understanding revolves around the concepts of substance, person, nature, and will.

Substance

Substance is essence. It is being. Substance cannot be divided up. A family can be thought of as a substance. If a baby is born, it is still the same family. If a member dies, you aren’t left with half a family. It is still the same family. If a few members of the family attend an event, we consider the family to have attended.

God is one substance. This substance, we learn in scripture, is love.

Person

A person is a who. It is an identity that can communicate. Remember that God is love. God is also internal and unchanging. For God to have been love prior to creating any other beings, what did He love? He must have loved within his one substance, because nothing else existed. In order to have love, then, the substance that was God must consist of multiple persons capable of loving and communicating with each other. Otherwise God could not be love. We find in the Bible that there are three persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Furthermore, since God is indivisible (one substance), then each person must be fully God. But they are all different persons that can communicate with each other. It is the love for each other that define the persons.

Nature
Nature is a set of attributes that a being has. For instance, I am a father. That is my nature. I am also a husband. That is also my nature. I never stop being either one. These two natures can coexist in me because they are aligned. God has made them compatible.

Jesus has two natures: human and divine. He never stops being human, and he never stops being divine. He is not half human and half divine. He is fully human and fully divine. Just as I am not half father and half husband.

Will
God has a divine will. Jesus is God, so He has that divine will. But human beings have human will. If human beings have human will, and Jesus is fully human, then he must have human will. But how can he have two wills? How can he ever make a decision?

Pope Benedict XVI finds a clue to the answer in Christ’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemene. In that prayer, Jesus prays “not my will but yours be done”. His human will prays for deliverance, his divine will wants only to serve the Father. Pope Benedict says,

Jesus’ human nature is not amputated through union with the Logos; it remain complete. And the will is part of human nature. This irreducible duality of human and divine willing in Jesus must not, however, be understood to imply the schizophrenia of a dual personality. Nature and person must be seen in the mode of existence proper to each. In other words: in Jesus the “natural will” of the human nature is present, but there is only one “personal will”, which draw the “natural will” into itself. And this is possible without annihilating the specifically human element, because the human will, as created by God, is ordered to the divine will. In becoming attuned to the divine will, it experiences its fulfillment, not its annihilation.

So Jesus has perfectly aligned his human will with his divine will. They work in concert.

If we want to unite ourselves with God, something which we must do to be in Heaven, then we must align our wills perfectly with God’s will (preferably in this life, otherwise we’ll be doing it the hard way in Purgatory). We call this alignment of wills holiness. Pope Benedict goes on to say,

Human will, by virtue of its creation, tends toward synergy with the divine will, but through sin, opposition takes the place of synergy: man, whose will attains fulfillment through becoming attuned to God’s will, now has the sense that his freedom is compromised by God’s will. He regards consenting to God’ will, not as an opportunity to become fully himself, but as a threat to his freedom against which he rebels.

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