Threefold Love: Reflections on the Trinity and the Love of God
Updated: Dec 11, 2020
In On the Trinity, Augustine grapples with the difficulty of explaining the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. He runs through various analogies, seeking one that best expresses the concept of one God in Three Persons. At one point Augustine turns to love as a potential analogy. He writes “Behold, I who seek this, when I love something, there are three, I and what I love and the love itself. Indeed, I don’t love love unless I love loving, for there is no love where nothing is loved. Therefore there are three, the loving one and what is loved and love.” Love, as Augustine describes it, looks like the illustration below.
The idea of love presupposes that there is someone who loves and an object of that love. Augustine identifies the love that travels between the lover (subject) and the loved one (object) as a third part of love. These three are present whenever there is love and if one is missing, love is not love.
Many times, love is returned by the object that is being loved. The degree to which love is returned naturally depends on the capacity of the object to love. A diamond may be loved, but it is incapable of loving. Dogs and cats return affection to their owners. Humans, however, are the only creatures capable of fully returning human love. (Human love is also riskier because humans are free to not return love.) Thus the beloved returns love and the lover becomes the beloved and the beloved the lover. Back and forth it goes in ceaseless alternation.
For the original lover there is a continual sending out of love and a continual returning of love. For the original beloved, there is the love that is received and returned, which comes back in a never ending feedback loop. It is a circular system, a self-contained exchange of love looking something like this:
This diagram is a very simplified form of something that is more complicated in real life. Real love travels in fits and starts; sometimes one party loves for a long time without a return of love. And lovers seldom exist in a vacuum, isolated from others capable of giving and receiving love. The nearest it approaches to reality is in a couple who are so in love that they are oblivious to everything outside of each other. Their love is so strong that they are only conscious of each other and their love, which comes to take on a life of its own.
Augustine’s use of love as a means of representing the Trinity resonates with the statement from 1 John 4:8 that God is love. One way of understanding this statement is to focus on God’s loving acts: God’s creation of us, the sending of his Son to die for us, his forgiveness of our sins, and his material provision. The Bible is full of demonstrations of God’s love for us, which in turn is our motivation for loving him and others (see 1 Jn. 4:19 and 4:11). A diagram of God’s love understood in this way (excluding others) would look like this:
God is the lover and humanity is the one he loves. The love that travels from him to us are his loving acts to us. We return God’s love as worship, adoration, and obedience. God is love might as well be stated as God is loving.
While this interpretation is true, I want to press the idea that God is love further. The above model is anthropocentric (human focused), centered on us and all that God does for us. How do we understand God is love from a God centered perspective? According to Scripture, humans have not always existed. Our existence is a drop in a bucket compared to God’s existence in eternity. What did God love before we were created? Was God still love when human beings didn’t exist. This is a serious problem when viewed from the human perspective because if at some point God did not love, it is possible that he will cease to love in the future.
There are a few possible explanations. One is that since God dwells outside of time, he has always loved humanity; humans have always been present to God because all time is present to him. We might also say that God loved humanity in his mind before we existed in the material world. The weakness of these explanations is that they make God dependent on us for his being Love. If God is Love, God needs us to be God. These explanations even suggest that we merit God’s love because it is only through us that he can love. Put more formally, love from this perspective becomes a contingent attribute of God rather than an essential attribute. God’s existence as love depends on something he created rather than on who he is in and of himself.
At this point, one might throw out the suggestion, “Why can’t God love himself like in the diagram below?”
Here God is a monad, a point from which love comes and returns. This, I think, is the view that is required by a strict monotheistic understanding of God which include love as one of God’s essential attributes. This answer reasonably assumes that God’s self-love is not corrupting. In humans, excessive love for self corrupts and alienates us from others. God, on the other hand, is wholly worthy to be loved and loved absolutely.
Someone striving for the absolute unity of God, however, may find a problem with this diagram. It depicts something going out from God and returning to him, making love a sort of divine emanation. If God is absolutely singular, God’s essential attributes cannot include anything that goes out from God. Love has to be “internal” or contained within God for it to be essential from this point of view. God may still be love if his love is contained within the monad, but it wouldn’t resemble anything like human love. The difference between God’s love and human love in this case would not be like the difference between English and a language we hadn’t heard before; it would be like the difference between English and something that we don’t recognize as a language. Love would not be love in any way we could possibly understand.
A triune view of God proposes another explanation. To explain it I first want to modify Augustine’s use of love as an analogy for the Trinity, an analogy that he himself goes on to make more complex. The main problem, in my opinion, with the love triad is that two members are clearly persons, while the third is not a person. “The love itself” or the “love” is a thing or force rather than a person. Since popular conceptions of the Trinity often downplay the personhood of the Holy Spirit, the triad has the potential to perpetuate this view. Nevertheless, I think the analogy is helpful and offer a modified view which is roughly based on the shield of the trinity.
Here the model is less like romantic love and more like an ideal community. The Father loves the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Son loves the Father and the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit loves the Father and the Son. It is circular since the Father loves the Son who loves the Holy Spirit who loves the Father. Love travels between them and through them in a complex dance. For example, one might say that the love with which the Holy Spirit loves the Father comes from the Father’s love for the Spirit and the love of the Father coming through the Son’s love of the Spirit. Love doubles and triples by being passed around, yet it is always one Love, endlessly shared for all eternity. When we say God is love, we recall this three-personed exchange of love in the single word love.
It is by no means a perfect diagram. Every analogy of the Trinity breaks down. We are two-dimensional people trying to describe a three-dimensional reality. Visualizing something that is abstract, like love, also has its dangers. Namely, we can confuse the visual model for the real thing. Nevertheless, models are essential for learning—imagine learning about atoms without the Bohr model or the quantum model. A good student will remember that these are only models and will let them go when needed. Although we need models and analogies to talk about the Trinity, it would be foolish to believe that a model of the Trinity is God.
As I reach the end of this essay, one may point out that this tidy diagram, which is sufficient in itself, leaves out us humans. That is much the point. God doesn’t need us. We are not necessary to God. God was, is, and will be Lovewithout end, regardless of whether humans are present. Instead, God made humans out of unnecessary grace, an overflowing of love from the love that exists between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When God loves us and we love him in return (we only do so with the love with which he loves us) we are drawn into this Trinity which is Love, an interchange of love that has no beginning and no end. Because it has been going on for all eternity, we don’t have to fear that it will end. Because God is Love, we don’t have to fear that He will cease to love because then He would cease to be God. Our inclusion is only a matter of our participation in this Love. We did not earn it, nor are we necessary to it, yet we are invited all the same.