The doctrine of the Trinity is one of the most difficult doctrines in all of the Christian faith; perhaps too difficult for anyone to understand. But if to know is to love, then even the doctrine of the Trinity must be one that the intellect can grasp in some small way, or else it would be utterly meaningless and without any particular relevance.
But Richard of St. Victor senses an obstacle in that most discussions of the Trinity tend to take its assertions for granted. These discussions either quote from the scriptures, argue from the creeds, or some other sort of argument from authority. He is not necessarily opposed to these types of arguments, and certainly fully agrees with what the scriptures and the creeds teach on the matter. The problem, however, is that a creedal pronouncement can be believed, but if it ends there then the mind is ultimately left out in the cold.
Richard thus understands a three-fold manner of knowing which forms its own sort of trinity of epistemology: Faith, Reason and Experience.
Faith is the entry-point, for there are some things that we must have revealed to us, since the mind simply cannot deduce all that the dogmas of the Trinity state. In this way faith is the first rung on the ladder to knowing God, for we learn what we otherwise could not.
Experience gives us a broad understanding of reality and how it operates. While it is too simplistic to state it as such, Richard’s idea of experience has some similarity to what might be known as common sense. Experience is certainly prone to error, and clearly does not reveal everything to us that can be known. But even though it is limited, experience is not therefore inherently deceptive or useless as a means of knowledge or understanding, since our most basic intuitions about ourselves and the reality we inhabit are drawn from its perceptions.
Reason works in tandem with experience but is also capable of surpassing its perceptions, having its own form of sight. Richard understands reason as capable of contemplating universals, abstracting from particular instances to discover what something is and finally have some measure of insight into being. Reason is thus the faculty by which we most resemble our Creator, and as such longs to peer into the heart of the divine nature.
With this epistemological framework, Richard will move step by step into the mystery of the Trinity. Yet at the beginning there is no discussion of processions or persons or even any sort of plurality at all; rather, the intent of Chapter One is to look into the unity of God. This may seem a strange place to start, but Richard wants to prove his case by making it harder to demonstrate. After all, talking about divine persons is easy if one has a somewhat fuzzy idea of the unity of God. Richard will have none of that, but rather brings to a fine point exactly what the unity of God entails.
Since God is the perfection of being and the source of all being, one can delineate at least two ‘modes’ of being:
An existing thing that possesses its being from eternity and out of itself
An existing thing that does not possess its being from eternity (i.e., in time) out of itself
The former, of course, is God while the latter is anything else that isn’t God. But Richard proposes that one could perhaps locate another mode of being:
An existing thing that possesses its being from eternity but not out of itself.
Since one cannot simply dismiss this option out of hand, it remains to determine if something can exist from eternity but not have its being from itself. This might seem impossible, but Richard thinks there is something to it. But before one could even begin to prove or disprove it, one would need to have a solid understanding of the unity of God.
Richard begins by taking the usual attributes that are attributed to God- things such as power, wisdom, divinity, etc.- and demonstrating how they are not actually attributes as if they could be parsed out or separated in God, but rather that in God any attribute is supreme; that is, it is what to be power, to be wisdom, etc., is in its perfection. In other words, instead of saying that God has power or God has wisdom, one must finally realize that God is the source of power, the source of wisdom so as to be power itself and wisdom itself.
And since to be power means to have the power to have all wisdom (and so on for any attribute), in the final analysis the unity of God means precisely that all of God’s ‘attributes’ coincide absolutely so that God’s power is ultimately indistinguishable from God’s wisdom or his divinity or any other attribute.
The upshot of all this is that God has any predicate not by participation, but rather by absolute identification. God is what God possesses.