B294 De sancta Trinitate Sermo i


St. Vincent Ferrer, O.P. Sermon for Trinity Sunday (1)


John 3 Douay trans.

9 Nicodemus answered, and said to him: How can these things be done? 10 Jesus answered, and said to him: Art thou a master in Israel, and knowest not these things? 11 Amen, amen I say to thee, that we speak what we know, and we testify what we have seen, and you receive not our testimony.


"How can these things be done? "(Jn 3:9).


This question is in the gospel today, but the solution is in John cc. 11 and 14 When our master Jesus Christ taught his disciples and he spoke to them wonderfully [miranda] of the divine persons, and he said these words about the Father, "In my Father's house there are many mansions," (Jn 14:2). Hearing this Philip said to Christ, "Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us." (v.8) Christ answered Philip: "He who sees me sees the Father also," (v.8). From which account it is clear that the master Jesus Christ corrected the questioning Philip saying, "Why do you ask, 'Show us the Father'?" (v.9)


Philip, by speaking these words to Christ his master, raises the question: "Whether a disciple who hears the master speaking of things difficult to say and understand, can ask such a question of his teacher without being reprimanded, and when and why this might happen?


It must be said that there are three conditions, which St. John sets forth. The first case or first condition is when the lesson of the master is beyond the capacity of the human intellect, that is when it exceeds human reason. This is the case in John chapter 3, where he says that Christ, our teacher, speaking to Nicodemus, among other things, says to him, "Amen, amen I say to you, unless a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God," (Jn 3:3). See the teaching and discipline of Christ. This teaching exceeds the natural genius of man or of the intellect, because for a man already old to be born again, that he enter the womb of his mother, is beyond human understanding. Therefore Nicodemus was not able to understand this teaching, and posed a question about it and asked him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb, and be born again?" (v.4). And then the teacher Jesus Christ explained to him that there were two births. One from the womb of your mother. The other in baptism and the Holy Spirit. In this second way, he who wishes to see the kingdom of God can be born again.


The second case or condition is when the lesson of the master is contrary to general or usual experience, that is, when it exceeds all custom and vision. This case St. John states in chapter 6, where Christ teaching his disciples, among other things, said, "I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever; and the bread that I will give, is my flesh," (Jn 6:51-52). Behold, the teaching of Christ. This teaching exceeds all ordinary experience, that a man would give his flesh to others to eat and nourish them. This is never seen, or approved, or heard of. Therefore those unwilling to accept this teaching argued among themselves, and forming a question asked: "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" (v. 53). And then the master explained to them how he was the Son of God, true God and man, and how the bread would be converted into his flesh, and the wine into his blood, under the appearance of wine, and how this food indeed confers eternal life to those using it. A similar opinion in John, ch. 7, explains that when Jesus himself was teaching in the temple, the Jews knowing that he never had been a master nor had he studied, and he was teaching the wonders of sacred scripture, seeing this to be against the general custom of men and experience, they asked in amazement and said, "How does this man know scripture, having never learned?" (Jn 7:15). Jesus, however, solving this question for them, said, "My doctrine is not mine, but of him that sent me. If any man do the will of him; he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself. He who speaks of himself, seeks his own glory," (Jn 7:16-18).


The third case is when the lesson of the teacher is contrary to the commandment or counsel of sacred scripture, and this is when it goes beyond divine revelation. This case St. John explains in ch. 7, where he says that our teacher Jesus Christ, speaking and teaching to the Jews, among other things, said to them that he, the Son of Man, was the true Messiah, and he had to be raised up and hung on a cross. See the teaching of Christ. This reading seemed to the Jews to contradict and exceed divine revelation and sacred scripture. Since indeed sacred scripture says the Christ or Messiah or the Son of Man would never die, and Christ said and taught that he would die on the cross, he seemed to teach contrary to sacred scripture. And so the Jews not daring to seize him asked the question: "We have heard out of the law, that the Christ abides for ever; and how do you say: The Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?" (Jn 12:34). And then Christ explained to them how he was able to die according to his humanity, but he would live in eternity according to his divinity. So, the third case.


The answer is clear, to the question in which it is asked when might a disciple dare place a question to the teacher about the lesson without recrimination. It is clear then in three cases. First, if the master was saying something which exceeded the natural capacity of man and understanding. Second, if he was saying something contrary to ordinary natural experience. Third, if he was saying something which exceeded the revealed counsel contained in sacred scripture, especially if it imposes on the disciples something to believe in or hold to. In these situations a disciple justly and without recrimination can form and ask a question of the teacher, "How can this happen?"


Truly St. John, the greatest in holy scripture, who is taught and tutored by Christ and his counsel and zeal for paradise, because through the mystery of the Trinity he and his teaching is approved. He, indeed, is such a great and admirable teacher, among other wondrous questions and teachings, states and says in 1 John, ch. 5, "And there are three that give testimony on earth: the spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three are one," (1 Jn 5:8).


This teaching seems to meet the aforesaid conditions. First it exceeds the understanding, reason and genius of man. Which is clear because according to our reason it seems that whatever thing that are distinct, are distinct in their nature. For example, in all kinds of creatures, heaven and earth are distinct, because heaven has the nature and form which is incorruptible, and earth, corruptible, and so corruptible and incorruptible are distinct. So by nature two stars in the heavens are distinct, like the sun and moon, although they are incorruptible, nevertheless they are distinct in place and magnitude and brightness. Even angels, by nature and essence are distinct, like a rock and a tree, are distinct by nature, a goat and a lion. Two men are distinct by their souls, because one is the soul of Peter and another is the soul of Matthias, and another is the soul of George. Thus it is that wherever we find in created things the distinction of persons, we always find the distinction of essences and natures. Therefore, that we say that in the divinity there are three distinct persons, and not distinct by essence, or substance or by nature, exceeds reason.


If indeed the sons of Israel were not able to look on the face of Moses because of the brightness of his visage as is found in Exodus 34, because he had seen the essence of God and of the Trinity of persons, how can we attend to and touch upon the entirely sublime Trinity? How indeed is someone able to understand that the unity is trinity, and trinity is unity, when all numbers are distinct by nature and species, that they not be two equals? Because threes exceed twos and fours, threes, etc. How therefore can we grasp that the Father and Son and Holy Spirit are three persons, and undivided in substance, nature and essence? Human reason cannot grasp it. Therefore it exceeds reason. Thus St. Bernard says in his sermon on the Holy and Inaccessible Trinity: "To inquire of the Trinity is perverse curiosity; to hold and believe as the church teaches, is faith and security. See it as it is. It is happiness." And because of this we read St. Augustine cautiously [reprehensum], who wished to explain this mystery to reason. We read about the time when he was composing the books On the Trinity. Check the story in our next sermon [Trinity Sermon ii, The boy at at the seashore.] Therefore it is clear that it exceeds human genius.


Second it exceeds all experience and models. This is clear from the Apostle [St. Paul] to the Romans, ch. 1, and according to Dionysius, On the Heavenly Hierarchy. What we know of invisible and celestial realities, we perceive through the visible, only in visible and created things. Clearly it is the opposite with this mystery Although we prove or rather declare this mystery of the most blessed Trinity through examples and similarities, nevertheless they all fall short. It's clear when an example is brought forward. It is said that in the apple there are three, namely, smell, flavor and color, and nevertheless it is only one. So in the Blessed Trinity there are Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and nevertheless there is just one God. This example if looked at closely and well, is more against, than for. For of those three, none is first. Neither the color is the apple, nor the smell is the apple, nor the flavor is the apple. But in the Trinity, the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. It is the same in other examples. All fall short of a perfect proof and explanation of this sublime mystery, which is that God is one and three. So we read about this in 4 Esdras, ch. 4, that when Esdras was marveling over some secrets of God and wished to understand, the angel said to him, "Go, weigh for me the weight of fire, or measure for me a measure of wind, or call back for me the day that is past," (4 Ezra 4:5), as if to say "You cannot comprehend these earthly things, how can you now comprehend celestial?" It is clear then that it exceeds all experience. About this see St. Thomas I, q.32, a. 1, where he elegantly shows that it is impossible through natural reason to arrive at an understanding of the Trinity of divine persons. And that he who tries to prove the Trinity of divine persons by reason, in two ways derogates from faith. See the reference above [to St. Thomas].


Third it seems to exceed the divine mystery revealed in the law on God's part, which he gave to the people of God. So God says, Deut. 6: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one." (Ex 6:4) Therefore God, it seems, posits unity and not trinity. The same St. Paul who was "caught up to the third heaven" (2 Cor 12:2) and heard the hidden things of God, in 1 Cor 8, says the same, "For although there be that are called gods, either in heaven or on earth (for there be gods many, and lords many); Yet to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we unto him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him," (1 Cor 8:5-6). It seems that Paul posits unity in divinity and not trinity. And because these two, namely Moses and Paul who while living, here saw the divine essence, that the argument should be conceded to them, and none other, as Augustine. They posit unity in divinity [divinis], it seems, and not trinity. Therefore to posit trinity seems against both the old and the new law, and consequently against the divine revealed mystery. The same is posited also in [Canon Law], the commandment to believe, expressly in: Extravagantes, De summs trinitate, et fide catholica, ch. 1. Therefore rightly and without repercussions, according to the aforesaid triple conditions etc.


We who hear St. John's lesson, that "there are three who give testimony in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost," (1 Jn 5:7), can form and state the question presumed in the words of the theme: How can this happen that in the divinity we believe there to be unity in essence and trinity in persons? And this, it seems, is contrary to human reason and true understanding. If you believe, you shall see. If you believe as one here on the way [during your lifetime], you shall see there as a comprehender [in the vision of heaven]. If you believe on earth, you shall see in heaven. In which words St. John solves three questions, which we can ask of him.


First, if it is subtly difficult [subtilitate difficilis]

Second, if its infallibly true, [veritate infallibilis]

Third if it is attainable by understanding [scibilitate attingibilis].




He responds that such can happen certainly and conditionally: If you believe, you shall see. The first and second question, namely that this sacrament of the Trinity and the most sublime mystery is wonderfully subtly difficult and certainly infallibly true, St. John shows, in Apocalypse 5, where he says he saw "a book written within and without, sealed with seven seals. And I saw a strong angel, proclaiming with a loud voice: Who is worthy to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof? And no man was able, neither in heaven, nor on earth, nor under the earth, to open the book," (Rev 5:1-4). And behold, "a Lamb standing as it were slain, having [seven horns and] seven eyes" (v.6) in great power rose up and opened the seven seals of the book. And then four animals and twenty-four ancients who were present blessed God and gave him glory and honor. Though that book St. John understood the sacrament of the Trinity and the mystery of all the secrets contained and written, within and without, and of the invisible things which are in the heaven within, and of the visible things which are outside, marked with all properties and perfections in a more excellent manner. For the perfections which are in every visible and invisible thing, in a more excellent way are in the Holy Trinity. About this see St. Thomas I, q. 4, a.2. There he points out how all perfections of things are in God.


The book was sealed with seven seals because this sacrament and mystery of the Trinity has been closed [clausum est] with seven secrets. Only Christ as the slain Lamb can open it. Because no one but Christ the Lamb who suffered on the cross according to his humanity, is most pefectly worthy to reveal it, because he has seven eyes of the knowledge of all perfections. Just as indeed by Christ opening the seven seals we are taught the secrets, so we declare and open them to you.


1. The first seal is the secret, namely that in this mystery of the Trinity there are three persons, not by nature distinct, but by relation, and one person is not the other. And nevertheless there is but one nature and substance and essence, so that there are three divine persons, but God is just one, and each is God. Which if true it is clear because so says St. John, 5, ch. 1 canonical [epistle], "And there are three who give testimony in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost. And these three are one,"(1 Jn 5:7) and this the church confirms, Extra. de sum. tri et fi ca. c Firmiter credimus. This is especially wonderful. And how? Would it not be wonderful, referring to Peter, James and John if we would say that there are three human persons and nevertheless there are not three men, but just one man, that it might be said, Peter is a man, James is a man, John is a man, and that there be one man and not three men, and that in them there are not three souls, but just one soul. Truly it would be wonderful. So that in a proposition about the Holy Trinity there is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, there are three divine persons, and nevertheless there are not three gods but just one God.


Certainly it is wonderful. "How can these things be done? "(Jn 3:9). The seal was closed, but it is opened. For these things can happen. Which is clear through an example from nature.


From an external spring, from the flow there emerges one pond and there are three pools of water, and nevertheless there are not three waters, but one water in nature. Similarly from the Father comes the Son and from both the Holy Spirit, and there are three divine persons but only one God. And it is true to say that the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God. But nevertheless there are not three gods, but just one God. Behold the first seal opened by the Lamb, Christ.


2. The second seal is that one divine person, although it is not the other, nevertheless is in the other. Which is clear, for Christ said to Philip as is found in John 14, "Believe you not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me?" (Jn 14:11). And the church confirms this with the title and chapter cited above, Firmiter credimus. Would it not be wonderful that Peter is not Paul, and Paul is not John, and nevertheless Peter is in Paul, and Paul in John? It would be truly marvelous. So in the proposal. In the mystery of the Trinity the Father is not the Son, nor the Son the Holy Spirit, and nevertheless the Father is in the Son and the Son in the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit in the Father and the Son.


Certainly it is wonderful. "How can these things be done? "(Jn 3:9). The seal was closed, but it is opened. But if it is wonderful, nevertheless it is possible, nor is it doubtful, because it is possible that this happen. That however it is such, Christ who is the Lamb, shows, through this example.


For in nature we posit that there be three men, many, loving each other mutually, namely Peter, Paul and John. The heart of Peter is not that of Paul, nor the heart of Paul that of John, but there are three hearts. But because they love each other mutually, the heart of one is in the heart of the other. And so what the one wants the other wants. For Augustine says that the spirit or heart is more where it loves, that where it lives. And Christ confirms this in Matthew ch. 6: "For where your treasure is, there is your heart also," (Mt 6:21). And nevertheless it is clear that the treasure is not the heart, nor the heart the treasure, and nevertheless the treasure is in the heart, and the heart in the treasure. And so it is written in 1 Jn 4: "And he who abides in love, abides in God, and God in him," (v.16) And so it is clear that the Father is in the Son and the Son in the Father, and the Holy Spirit in the Father and the Son. About this St. Thomas I, q. 42, a.5 where he says in the body of the article, that in the Father and the Son "There are three points of consideration as regards the Father and the Son; the essence, the relation, and the origin; and according to each, the Son and the Father are in each other." and vice versa. And the same judgment holds for the Holy Spirit as for the Father and the Son.


3. The third seal and secret is that, of these three persons, one is ingenerable [ingenerabilis], namely the Father, the other begotten, the third breathed forth [spirata]. The first is from no one, the second is from the first, and the third is from the first and second. And that this be true is shown by Athanasius who says, " For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit." And later it is stated, " The Father is made of none, neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone, not made, nor created, but begotten. The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son, neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding." Note the whole. And this the church confirms, in the title and chapter cited.


This is wonderful. And would it not be wonderful, that some man would beget and not be begotten, and that he would beget and would generate without a woman? Certainly so, and that there would be a man whom a man had produced, and produced without a woman, and that he would be produced and not begotten? Truly it would be wonderful. So to our point. For God the Father was not generated, nor is from anyone. About this see St. Thomas I, q. 33. God the Son from God the Father has been generated, and generated without a mother, in speaking of his eternal generation, and the Holy Spirit from God the Father and God the Son is breathed forth [spiratus est] and proceeding, without a woman, and nevertheless was not generated.


This is exceedingly wonderful. "How can these things be done? "(Jn 3:9). The seal was closed, but it is opened. And if it is wonderful, nevertheless it is possible, not doubtful, because it can happen. That it has happened, Christ, who is the Lamb, shows through this example from nature.


Adam proceeds from no man, because he was the first man. Eve from Adam alone, Abel from Adam and Eve together. These three have humanity, because each was human, and nevertheless no one from no one, namely Adam, and another from one, namely Eve, and another from two, namely Abel from Adam and Eve. Thus the proposition. Just as Adam had humanity and did not have it from someone else, so God the Father has divinity from no one. Just as Eve had humanity from one man, from Adam without a woman, so the Son of God had and has divinity from God the Father alone, without a wife. No wonder that just as the Son of God is generated from a mother with respect to humanity, without a man and father, so with respect to the divinity he is begotten from the Father without a mother. And just as a man, Abel, had humanity from two, from Adam and Eve, so the Holy Spirit had and has divinity from the Father and the Son equally.


4. The fourth seal is, that although God the Father generates and generated from eternity God the Son, nevertheless neither the Father is prior to the Son, nor the Son posterior to the Father, but they are coeternal. That this happens such, Athanasius shows saying, "And in this Trinity nothing is prior or posterior, nothing more or less. But all three persons are co-eternal to each other and co-equal," (Cf Athanasian Creed). And this also is confirmed by the title and chapter previously cited. This is exceedingly wonderful. Would it not be wonderful if Adam had not preceded Abel, and that the architect would not be prior than the house built by him? It would be wonderful. So in the proposition I say that God the Father begets the Son and that the Son would not be younger.


Certainly it is wonderful. "How can these things be done? "(Jn 3:9). The seal was closed, but it is opened. Although it is wonderful, nevertheless it is possible, nor should it be doubtful. Because this can happen. That it was so, Christ shows through an example, thus.


From the sun a ray comes out, and from the ray proceeds splendor. Same for a candle if it is lit. So in the proposal, from God the Father, like from the sun, a ray comes out God, the Son, and from God the Father and the Son, God the Holy Spirit comes out, like splendor, because God the Father from eternity generated the Son, and God the Father and God the Son from eternity spirate the Holy Spirit. And consequently all three were eternal. About this see St. Thomas I, q.42, a.2 There he says in the beginning of the body of the article that it is necessary to say the Son is co-eternal to the Father, which he there elegantly proves. The same judgment is of the Holy Spirit, because from his principle, namely from the Father and Son he necessarily is co-eternal.


5. The fifth seal is the secret that everything which the Father has he gives to the Son and nevertheless he keeps it all for himself. And everything which the Father and the Son have they give to the Holy Sprit, and keep everything for themselves. That this be true the Master of the Sentences declares Bk I and Athanasius cited above. And it is exceedingly wonderful And how? Would it not be wonderful that I, having ten florins and give them all to the church, and keep the same, so that truly it would be given and truly kept? So in the proposal, because God the Father gives all his perfections to the Son and simultaneously keeps them all. And both give the same to the Holy Spirit and keep the same for themselves.


Certainly it is wonderful. "How can these things be done? "(Jn 3:9). The seal was closed, but it is opened. But although it is wonderful, nevertheless it is possible, nor doubtful, because these can happen. That however it is so, Christ explains through an example from nature.


A master gives all his knowledge to the bachelor, and keeps it all to himself, because by giving it he is not deprived of it, and both give the whole to a student, and both keep everything for themselves. So in the proposition, God the Father wills and knows all, and gives all to the Son, and keeps it all for himself, and he is not deprived of those things, and the Father and Son communicate all to the Holy Spirit, and keep it for themselves.


6. The sixth seal is that all power [posse], all will [velle], and so with the other perfections which the Father has, the Son has, and also the Holy Spirit has, and nevertheless God the Father can generate the Son, because God the Son cannot do this nor the Holy Spirit. And also the Father and Son can spirate the Holy Spirit other than themselves in person and nevertheless the Holy Spirit cannot do this. That it happens so, the Master of the Sentences points out and confirms as previously [cited].


This is wonderful. "How can these things be done? "(Jn 3:9). The seal was closed, but it is opened. But although it is wonderful, nevertheless it is possible, nor doubtable, because these things can happen. Which is clear.


For an example is given, that the king of Castile has a noble city, and has the complete power of selling, or giving, or alienating it, and he gives it with all his power and dominion to the king of Aragon, and he transfers dominion, in this given case all the dominion and power [posse] which the king of Castile had in this city the king of Aragon has, and nevertheless the king of Castile has power, which he can give him, not only to the king of England, France etc. even also to the king of Aragon. And nevertheless this king of Aragon having been given what he can give to the kings of France and England, not however of Aragon, because it is his, therefore he cannot give it to himself. So in the proposition God the Father gives his whole power and will to the Son, and the Father and Son to the Holy Spirit, and whatever the Father can do and wills, the Son can do and wills, and whatever both will and can do, the Holy Spirit can do and wills. And nevertheless God the Father can generate God the Son, yet God the Son cannot generate God the Son, and God the Father and God the Son can and will to produce the Holy Spirit, and nevertheless the Holy Spirit neither wills nor can produce the Holy Spirit. Behold the sixth seal opened by Christ. About this see St. Thomas I, q 42, a. 6. There he concludes and proves, that the Son is equal to the Father in power and the Holy Spirit to both, by which nevertheless, notwithstanding it does not follow, that he says the same, the Father can generate, therefore the Son. The reason for which he assigns in the solution to the third argument above (I, q 42, a 6, ad 3m.).


7. The seventh seal is that the Father is omnipotent, and nevertheless does not have the power to be generated. The Son is omnipotent and nevertheless does not have the power to generate. And the Holy Spirit is omnipotent, and nevertheless does not have the power to generate or produce the Holy Spirit. And both [uterque] of them are omnipotent, and neither has the power to call back the previous day, nor to make a violated virgin to not have been violated, as Thomas says I, q. 25, a. 4 in the body of the article, and in the responses to the objections. That this truly happens, Athanasius points out, about the aforesaid generation and spiration. And the Master of the Sentences cited above. And the church confirms in the title and chapter previously cited. This is very wonderful. And how can this happen? Would it not be wonderful if it is said, Aristotle had all knowledge and nevertheless he did not know geometry or arithmetic.


Certainly it would be wonderful. "How can these things be done? "(Jn 3:9). The seal was closed, but it is opened. But if it is wonderful, nevertheless it is doable, and not doubtable. Because these things can happen. That however it be so, is clear through an example.


Suppose that there was a master in theology, very great and perfect. Can he teach theology to a rock? Certainly not. But this is not because of his defect, but of the rock. Is he able to teach it to a child lying in a crib? Certainly not. It is not from a defect on his part, but of the child. So it is in the proposal, God the Father etc. nor the Son, etc, can make it that call back yesterday, etc. [revocent diem praeteritum] etc. But this is not from the impotency of God, but of the thing itself, because such a thing not is doable. Nevertheless God is called omnipotent, as if able to do everything, because he can do all that is possible, etc.


Behold the seventh seal opened, and consequently all seven.




The third solution, namely, of the third question is this, that this sacred mystery of the Trinity is knowable and graspable conditionally, "If you believe, you will see." Which St. Augustine shows saying, "That to faith which is in this life, succeeds bright vision in heaven, and to hope, comprehension or grasp, and to charity, fruition. If therefore you wish to see in heaven, we believe in this life, because if you believe, you shall see. But since faith deals with invisible [realities] for according to Augustine, "Faith is to believe what you do not see," how do we believe what we do not see? How can this happen? To this Augustine replies in his book On faith of invisible things, and he shows through two examples, that we believe and do not see.


The first is this. Do you say that this shoemaker is your father? And if it is asked of you, "Did you seen him beget you?" You will reply, "No." If therefore you believe your visible father, whom you see, you should believe your invisible Father, whom you do not see.


A second example from St. Augustine. You are sick. You consult a doctor for yourself, so you can get a certain medicine and you will be cured. Have you seen yourself cured? You reply, "No." Why do you say that the medicine helps? You say, "Because the doctor says so." And why do you believe the doctor? You reply: "Because he read it in the books of Avicenna or of such and such a doctor." And if it is asked, "Do you know that?" You reply, "No. But I hear and so I believe." Therefore you believe what you do not see. Believe therefore so that you might see: "For if you believe you shall see." What now you see by faith in this life, you shall then clearly see face to face in glory. To which, may he lead us, who lives in the perfect Trinity, etc.