Three is a magic number

SOME MATHEMATICAL THOUGHTS ON THE NUMBER OF THE TRINITY

So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God. (From Quicunque Vult, commonly known as the Creed of St Athanasius)

The mystical number of the Trinity is all around us. We live in a three- dimensional world; it has breadth, depth and height. When I was a mathematics undergraduate, one of our lecturers explained why this was so. If we had only two dimensions then we would have at most, four interconnected brain cells, which would mean that we would not be intelligent enough to contemplate this question. On the other hand if we lived in a four-dimensional world then there would be no such thing as knots in strings; we would be very accident-prone because we wouldn’t be able to do up our shoelaces!

The Trinity is often represented by an equilateral triangle – a three-sided shape with sides of equal length. Indeed it is a very robust shape. For those of you who have Meccano sets, try constructing one out of girders and then do the same for a square or any shape with more sides. The triangle is the only shape, which cannot collapse!

A three-legged stool never wobbles, unlike a four-legged chair or table if standing on an unstable floor. The authority of the Church is grounded on the ‘tripod’ of Scripture, Tradition and Reason, as attributed to the 16th century theologian Richard Hooker; ignoring one of these authorities or introducing others can only place a destabilising influence on our faith.

The vessel of molten sea made by Hiram the bronze-worker for King Solomon (1 Kings 23:7) had a circumference three times its diameter. We now know the ratio between these dimensions as Pi, which is a very long number, although a little bit more than three! I don’t have space to write it down in full here, but to the first 30 decimal places it is 3.141592653589793238462643383279… There are in fact circumstances in which this ratio does not apply, though we would have to go back millions of years to the creation of the Universe to witness it; a topic coincidentally covered by my PhD thesis.

The number three appears throughout the scriptures. Abraham was visited by three angels (Genesis 8:1-15): an image often used to represent the Trinity in Eastern iconography. Then there are the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity (1 Cor 13:13). The Magi presented three gifts to our Lord, incarnate (Matt 2:1-12) … so truly three is a magic number!

Jonathan Wilson

Originally published in St Wilfrid’s Network Parish Magazine; June 2011

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