Greater Communion

Trinitarian Theology

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Who is Richard of St. Victor?

Richard of St. Victor was a 12th century theologian living in Paris just before the creation of the very first university there. He, like many of his contemporaries, was deeply influenced by the writings of Augustine. Much of his time was spent participating in the liturgical life of his community: the Victorines. This was a group of canons regular founded by William of Champeaux and Hugh of St. Victor who lived in accordance with The Rule of St. Augustine. Without going into too much detail, the Victorines not only sang hymns and prayed prayers together, they also brought an intensity and ingenuity to the composition of their hymns and prayers, as well as to their theological works. Richard is most known for bringing this ingenuity to his work on the Trinity, where he sought to prove—through the contemplation of Divine love—that the Divine, though one, must also be a plurality of persons; for the highest, most integral, and fullest love requires at least, and no more than, a Trinity of persons. Richard wrote many other works as well, most of which focus on the moral and spiritual formation of his community.
The reason you’ve never heard of Richard of St. Victor is likely because of a few factors. One, he gets overshadowed by other theologians who are more well-known. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, lived a generation after Richard, and he knew of and read some of Richard’s works. A second factor is that theologians like Aquinas either didn’t know of Richard’s work on the Trinity or did know of it but didn’t make it the basis for their own articulations of the Trinity; St. Bonaventure, by contrast, seems to have been more influenced by Richard’s trinitarian theology than Aquinas. Both Aquinas and Bonaventure are more well-known than Richard, in part because of the rise of the schools and the theological controversies that ensued there; also, each has deservedly earned a prominent place in the canon of great theologians. A third factor is a more practical one: much of Richard’s work has not been translated from the Latin. Grover Zinn’s English translation of Richard’s three main works was published with Paulist Press for the Classics of Western Spirituality series in 1979. As people become more familiar with Richard, more and more are studying his theology and explicating his written work.

If God is a Trinity of Persons, and wants us to know this, why make it so impossible to understand?

If God is a Trinity of Persons, and wants us to know this, why make it so impossible to understand? Furthermore, if entrusting oneself to Jesus is all that’s necessary to inherit eternal life, isn’t belief in the Trinity and discussion about it a bit superfluous? Or, isn’t it sufficient to believe that God is a Trinity without having to understand it?
In some ways, this is the equivalent of saying, “If it’s important to know algebra, why does it have to be so impossible to understand? Furthermore, if entrusting oneself to Jesus is all that’s necessary to inherit eternal life, isn’t studying algebra a big waste of time? Or, isn’t it sufficient to believe that algebra is important without having to study it?” Granted, there are some things that are true of the study of mathematics that are disanalogous to the study of God; but nevertheless, the point to emphasize is that knowing God as Trinity requires work and effort. It is a crude sort of student who demands that algebra be reduced to arithmetic in order for him to understand it rather than work hard at raising his knowledge of things to comprehend algebra. The same is true for the Trinity. Just because it challenges the mind beyond its capacities doesn’t mean it cannot be understood nor that there is no benefit in the pursuit. In the truest sense, it requires devotion—devotion in study and devotion in prayer. Without an ardent zeal for a full understanding of things—”unless you seek Me with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength”—neither the pursuit of algebra nor the pursuit of God will deliver much.

If entrusting oneself to Jesus is all that’s necessary to inherit eternal life, then perhaps belief in the Trinity and discussion about it is superfluous, at least with respect to salvation. One could also point to history for examples when Trinitarian debate led to pointless philosophical speculation and even tragic death at the hands of well-intentioned theological factions. But if Divinity is a Trinity of persons, and Jesus is Divine, doesn’t this Trinitarian backdrop become relevant for understanding who Jesus is and what He is all about? The letters of John, for example, state that “God is love.” Does it make a difference whether we understand this love as Trinitarian? as a love between a Holy Father, Holy Son, and Holy Spirit? all of whom exist in a perfect, consummate oneness of life and love? a Divine love that—through Jesus—all of humanity is invited to participate in and enjoy forever and ever? beginning now? a love through which all things—in heaven and earth—will be transformed in accordance with? Contrary to the sentiment above, it is by focusing on the “communion”—the oneness of life and love—that all are invited to participate in through Jesus that the “reunion” that takes place in him discovers its full meaning and place!

It is, therefore, not superfluous to believe in the Trinity or discuss it. It is the substance of the Divine story made manifest in Jesus Christ. To ignore it or strip it away is to lose perhaps the most important context for understanding Jesus’ mission and movement in the world. He came that we might have life and have it abundantly. But that life is grounded in his life, a life which itself is grounded in a Trinity of persons. To accept Jesus’ invitation is, therefore, to participate in his life—a Trinitarian life—filled with an abundance that salvages the broken heart of humanity and mends it with its own, life-giving pulse; a pulse centered in a single heart shared by Father, Son, and Spirit. If there is any superfluity here—to play with the Latin etymology for ‘superfluous’ (i.e., “running over”)—it is the Divine superfluity that is so full of loving-kindness it fills up the devoted soul and makes its cup “overflow.”