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In the tradition, it is constantly affirmed that the Trinity is an article of faith. Unlike certain objects of faith, such as the existence of God, the Trinity can only be proved definitively through Divine revelation as is found in Sacred Scripture. We cannot know such a reality through our own reason alone in creation. As Peter Lombard confesses, “a sufficient knowledge of the Trinity cannot and could not be had by a contemplation of creatures, without the revelation of doctrine or inner inspiration.” (Sent., Bk. 1, Dist. 3, Chap. 1.9)
Yet, many theologians have posited “footprints” of the Trinity. That is, in that creation is made by the Holy and Undivided Trinity, this pattern of Trinity and Unity is found in nature in certain “footprints,” which, as Lombard says, is “a small one.”
St. Augustine is famous among such theologians, dedicating large portions of his work De Trinitate, Bk. 6, to showing these footprints found throughout nature. This is picked up by Lombard in his Sentences, Bk. 1, Distinction 3. A shining example of such theology is found in Distinction 3, Question 5 of the Commentary on the Sentences by Antonius Andreas and in St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, Prima Pars, Q.45, A.7.
Traces vs. Images of the Trinity in Creation
First, we must discuss what we mean by a “footprint.” In classical definitions of the term, this was synonymous with a “trace,” but I will enlarge the reference to contain the idea of an “image.” The difference between a trace and an image has to do with whether the form of the thing is being represented or the causality of the thing.
For an image, St. Thomas Aquinas uses the example “as fire generated represents fire generating; and a statue of Mercury represents Mercury; and this is called the representation of image” (ST.I.Q45.A7.C). An image represents the thing represented in a far greater degree and is thus properly said to “represent.”
A trace on the other hand is said, improperly, to represent a thing to a lesser degree. A trace, in popular vernacular, is a “sign” of a thing’s existence or causality. For example, if I walked into mass on Sunday and smelled incense, I could rightly infer that a thurible swung by a thurifer caused this. The smell of the incense is not in a proper sense a “representation” of a thurible, but is only a trace of its action, as St. Thomas says “a trace shows that someone has passed by but not who it is.”
Andreas uses the example of a horse and its hoofprint, “If I see the footprint of a horse in the ground, I argue that a horse has been there; not however that this or that particular horse has but absolutely that some horse has; and even this could be wrong, because the foot could have been cut off from the whole horse, etc” (Com. on Sent., Bk. 1, Dist. 3, Q. 5, 8).
Image Found in Man
Regarding the image of the Trinity, it is found only in man. Following St. Augustine through Lombard, this is found in the “acts of the intellect and will.” The Father is as the mind, which begets knowledge, i.e., the Word. From the mind through knowledge comes love which is referred back to the mind. This love is the Holy Spirit.
This image of the mind knowing and knowing itself, producing knowledge, loving and loving itself, producing love through knowledge, is the most perfect image of the Trinity in creation.
Trace Found in all Creatures
Now, the trace of the Trinity in creation is a bit different. This doctrine is originally found in St. Augustine, formulated by Lombard, and brought to its telos through the Medieval Scholastics.
This trace has its basis in the metaphysical unity of a thing. The substance of a thing “represents the cause and principle,” and so is as the Father who is “principle from no principle.” (Physics 1.6). The substance is the metaphysical source, cause, and anchor of the thing from which all of the other metaphysical parts proceed.
The form of a thing is from the substance and acts as the “image” of the substance. Therefore, it “represents the Word as the form of the thing made by art is from the conception of the craftsman” (ST.I.Q45.A7.C.3).
Further, there is a certain order between the principle of a thing (substance) and the individuation of a thing (its form), and therefore the Holy Spirit is represented.
Both the trace and the image of the Trinity in creation are based upon the Trinity as creator of both, as Andreas succinctly describes, “any creature at all is said to be referred back to God in three respects: as an example back to its exemplar cause, as a product back to the producing cause, and as a thing ordered back to its final cause; and all three respects are parts of a footprint” (Com. on Sent., Bk. 1, Dist. 3, Q. 5, 9).
“How can there be a Trace if we Affirm that we can’t know the Trinity in Creation?”
It is a fundamental proposition in Catholic theology that the Trinity is an article of faith, not known through reason absolutely or sufficiently, but revealed in Sacred Scripture. So, how can we say that there are traces of the Trinity in creation if this is true?
St. Thomas deals with this objection directly (ST.I.Q32.A1.Rep2). He answers by making a two-fold distinction. First, something can be proved by reason as providing a “sufficient proof” of its existence, such as are found in the proofs for the existence of God. Second, something can be proved by reason as providing a confirmation for a previously held belief.
It is in the second way that these “traces of the Trinity in creation” are used in theology. They provide supporting evidence for the consistency of the dogma of the Trinity, not something which on its own can convince an unbeliever of the Trinity, apart from Sacred Scripture.
In conclusion, Catholic theology, following St. Augustine, as interpreted by Lombard, has always affirmed that there are traces of the Trinity found in creation. This is seen across the various schools of Catholic thought (as we saw both in St. Thomas Aquinas and in Andreas, a Scotist). There is both a trace, found in the metaphysics of a thing, and an image found in our soul. This is not a sufficient proof of the existence of the Trinity, but provides supporting argumentation for the dogma accepted de fide.