We’ve all the heard one about the three-lobed shamrock and the Trinity.
But it turns out that God’s triune nature is imprinted on all creatures, according to two of the greatest doctors of the Church in the 1200s—St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure.
In the Summa Theologica, Aquinas says that all creatures with an intellect and a will reflect the Trinity:
For the Son proceeds as the word of the intellect; and the Holy Ghost proceeds as love of the will. Therefore in rational creatures, possessing intellect and will, there is found the representation of the Trinity by way of image, inasmuch as there is found in them the word conceived, and the love proceeding.
Aquinas on the image of the Trinity in creation
Aquinas here is standing on the foundation laid by St. Augustine in his masterpiece, De Trinitate. Augustine proposes that we can understand the Trinity by way of analogy with ourselves. By looking within, we can see the image of God reflected, which can become a means of knowing God. Augustine understands the Son as proceeding from God as His self-understanding, or Word, to use the biblical term as Aquinas does. The Holy Spirit is the mutual love shared between the Father and the Son. (Love is associated with the will because love is willing the good of the other.) To the extent that we have an intellect and will, then we reflect this Trinity.
But the Trinity is reflected in the rest of creation as well, according to Aquinas:
But in all creatures there is found the trace of the Trinity, inasmuch as in every creature are found some things which are necessarily reduced to the divine Persons as to their cause.
To the extent that any creature exists in its own being, it mirrors the Father, Aquinas says. Likewise, creatures represent the Word—God’s image or self-understanding of Himself—by having form. A bear has the form of a bear and not a cat. A tree has the form of a tree and not grass.
Finally, the relationships of species to one another is a reflection of the Holy Spirit. Within the triune God, the Holy Spirit is God’s will for His own goodness, the shared love between the Father and the Son. Outside of God, in His creation, the many relationships among species are also a product of God’s will. In this way, the relational nature of creatures is a reflection of the Holy Spirit, according to Aquinas. (Read his original explanation here.)
St. Bonaventure’s three causes
In his Breviloquium, St. Bonaventure, who overlapped Aquinas from the 1220s to 1270s, also saw the Trinity reflected in a series of threes among creation. One key way he saw this was in God being a threefold cause of creatures—efficient, exemplary, and final cause.
Put simply, the efficient cause is what we normally think of as a cause. The carpenter is the cause of the table being built. The chemist is the cause of the explosion. The author is the cause of his book.
But the ancients and medieval thinkers thought of causes in much broader terms. In addition to efficient causes they identified other types of causes. One type is the exemplary cause, also known as a formal cause. This is the cause that makes something what it really is. In the case of the carpenter and the table it might be the blueprint. For the chemical explosion it would be the recipe the chemist followed. And, for the author of the book, it might be the outline or idea behind the book.
In the case of creation, we have God as the efficient cause, bringing creatures into being. But He also is the formal cause in that He also drew up the blueprint for all creatures.
The third cause is the final cause, the purpose for which something is caused. The table is made for family dinners. The chemical explosion might be to entertain an audience or discover some new compound. The book is meant for an audience. In the case of creation, it is meant for goodness, as God declared in Genesis.
Like Aquinas, Bonaventure sees the Trinity reflected everywhere. “These, as vestiges of the Creator, are found in all creatures, whether corporeal, spiritual, or composites of both,” he writes, referring to the three causes and their effects.
For Bonaventure, these vestiges are like clues which leads us back to our source, God:
This is the reason for what we have said. In order that there be perfect order and repose in things, all of them must be led back to one principle, which has to be the first so that it might grant rest to other things, and which must be most perfect so that it might perfect all the others.
Aquinas also concludes that “we are able to arrive at a knowledge of the Trinity of the divine persons from creatures.” Again, this insight goes back to Augustine who said that the image of the Trinity within us—in our memory, our intellect’s understanding, and our will’s capacity for love, shows us the pathway to God. To paraphrase Augustine, we find our way to God, by remembering, understanding, and loving Him.
Thus, according to Aquinas and Bonaventure, God’s ‘fingerprints’ so to speak are all over the threefold structure of creation—in the way creation was caused to the intellect and will we possess to the existence, form, and relationships that we find at all levels of creation. Invisible He might be, but God’s handiwork is everywhere we look.