Lesson 1: The Trinity and the Major Heresies

The basic explanation of the mystery of the Holy Trinity goes like this: Since there is only one God, so that there cannot be many gods as there are many men or animals, nevertheless there are three in God -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit, really distinct from each other, who are that one God in real identity. But since that by which something is constituted in a certain order of beings is called its essence or substance or nature, while the subject of an intellectual nature distinct from others is called a person, in the formulas of faith or creeds the mystery is explained as follows: In God there is one essence or nature, and three persons, or God is one in nature, and triune in persons.

The word "trinity," which is not found in the Bible, first appeared in the 2nd century and means in a collective sense "three persons in one essence." It was first used by Theophilus of Antioch in Greek; the Latin "Trinitas" was first used by Tertullian (ca. 220).

There is an immense difference between God and any creature, no matter how noble and elevated. When we ponder over the infinity, power and majesty of God Almighty we are tempted to say that, in comparison with him, man is nothing. In one sense that is true, but at the same time we must not forget that creatures, even though weak and changeable, have an inherent goodness and dignity conferred on them by a beautiful, loving God.

For Catholic Christians who want to know more about God it is not sufficient to stop the investigation once the existence and nature of the divinity have been established. This is done philosophically in Metaphysics; it is done theologically in the first treatise in dogmatic theology which is called De Deo Uno or The Unicity of God. The reason for this is that we know, through the revelation of Jesus Christ, that in God there is a loving community of Persons -- Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Thus, in this course we will consider the mystery of the Holy Trinity which is the central or basic mystery of the Christian faith.

The Catholic faith can be summarized as faith in the Trinity -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Entrance into the Church is brought about for all of us by our Baptism "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." Each Mass is started by invoking the three divine Persons. When we walk into any Catholic church we bless ourselves with holy water in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Most adult Catholics will have noted that the prayers of the liturgy are, for the most part, directed to the Father, through the intercession of the Son, and in the unity of the Holy Spirit.

When the Church speaks about the Holy Trinity she uses precise words whose meaning has been determined by various Councils and documents in the course of history. Here I will explain in terms of dogmatic theology the Catholic doctrine relative to the Most Holy Trinity. I will try to clarify for you the basic words which always appear in discussions about the Trinity, such as substance, procession, relation, person, circumincession, mission and indwelling.

It seems that very few sermons, at least good ones, are preached on the Trinity and not much is written about it in Catholic publications. This is certainly odd, especially if one considers that belief in the Trinity is absolutely fundamental to the whole Christian religion. Why do preachers and writers tend to shy away from the subject? I am not sure of the answer to that question. It may be due to the complexity of the subject and to the fact that speculative theology over the centuries used some difficult philosophical concepts and arguments in the attempt to clarify the mystery. Of course, what we are dealing with here is the revelation given by Jesus to his Church (and stated in the New Testament) that there is a threeness in God to which he gives the names -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

We all know that there are mysteries at the heart of the Christian faith. The most basic of all mysteries is that of the Holy Trinity. By definition, a "mystery" is a reality or truth that is "hidden." Hidden from what? It is hidden from the knowledge and understanding of the human mind.

In Catholic theology there are at least three absolute mysteries. They are the Trinity, the Incarnation, and Divine Grace or the Supernatural. By an "absolute mystery" is meant one that totally surpasses the capacity of the created mind. Thus, the Trinity is an absolute mystery in the sense that even the blessed in heaven, including the Blessed Virgin Mary and the angels, do not completely understand it. Nor will they ever totally grasp it for all eternity. It simply exceeds the power of the created intelligence.

Just because the Trinity is an absolute mystery, it does not follow that we cannot know anything about it. As a matter of fact, we know quite a bit about the Trinity. It is a mystery, however, that can be known only as the result of revelation. The human mind, reflecting on the beauty and power of nature, could never arrive at the tri-personal inner life of God. Thus, it is only through the revelation of Jesus Christ that we know about the intimate relation between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In the Old Testament there are a few hints about this truth; in the New Testament it is fully revealed by God's only begotten Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Here I will attempt to spell out what the Church teaches about this great truth

Most Catholics have heard about the theological writings of St. Thomas Aquinas; we will be making many references to them in this course. Someone has said that his major work, the Summa Theologica, is a meditation on the Holy Trinity -- How all things proceed from the Father and return to him.

The Major Heresies

Historically, the Church's elaborated doctrine about the Trinity developed by the meditation of the saints on the Bible, especially the Gospels and St. Paul. This reflection gave rise to many errors which the Church rejected in the early Councils and in the various decrees of the Successor of St. Peter, the Pope in Rome.

Heresies and errors about the Trinity can be classified in the following way: 1) the unity of the divine nature is denied so that you have some form of tritheism, that is, three gods joined together is some kind of moral unity.

2) Or, a real trinity of persons is denied. This comes in two forms: a) Monarchianism or Modalism: those holding these positions deny a real personal distinction between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They say that there is only a "rational distinction" between them, or they call them "modes."

b) Subordinationism: those holding this position deny implicitly or explicitly the true divinity of the Second and Third Persons, who are creatures and are subordinated to the first person who alone is really God.

These errors come from the difficulty of the mystery of the Trinity and from the confusion between nature and person. They are also related to false ideas about God deriving from the doctrines of the Stoics and Neo-Platonists about the aeons and the emanations from God. The Gnostics tried to adapt these ideas to Christian dogma. And of course, errors made here about the inner nature of God affect one's view of who Jesus Christ is and so have an impact on Christology.

Monarchianism takes two forms: a) Adoptionist Monarchianism which says that Christ was a mere man, but was adopted by God as his Son at his Baptism in the Jordan; b) Modalist Monarchianism which says that there is only one Person in God who manifests himself variously as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So these names, for them, all refer to the one Person in God -- they are synonyms for the one Person in God. A chief proponent of this was Sabellius about 220 A.D. Thus, it is often called Sabellianism.

Subordinationism accepts three Persons in God, but denies the consubstantiality of the Son and the Holy Spirit with the Father, and therefore their true divinity. They are exalted creatures produced by the First Person. One view says that the Father created the Son, and the Son created the Holy Spirit. The main proponents of this view were the priest Arius and his followers in the 4th century; the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., the first ecumenical council, was called to combat this error. Those who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit in the second half of the 4th century were called Macedonians after Bishop Macedonius who was deposed in 360.

Tritheism means that one holds that there are three gods. Those who were accused of this were Roscelin of Compiegne (+ about 1120), Gilbert of Poitiers (+1154), and Abbot Joachim of Fiore (+1202).

Reading Assignment

The faith of the Church in the Trinity is expressed in the early creeds of the Church. Read them. You will find them in Denzinger [D] (and later editions such as Denzinger-Schoenmetzer [DS], Enchiridion Symbolorum Defintionum et Declarationum). Read carefully the following creeds: Apostles Creed (D 6), Nicene Creed (D 54), Nicene-Constantinople Creed (D 86), Athanasian Creed (D 39-40), Creed of the Council of Trent (D 994). 

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 232-267.

In the New Catholic Encyclopedia, or in a comparable theological dictionary, read the articles on the major heresies, especially Monarchianism and Subordinationism.

Writing Assignment

Write an essay of about 1000 words on either one of the early creeds, or on the major heresies of Monarchianism and Subordinationism.


Get a copy, if you can, of St. Augustine's De Trinitate, and read Book I, about 40 pages in length.


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