Author: Venerable Fr. John Hardon, S.J. | Source: Fr. Hardon Archives
Blogger’s note: Since today we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord and that’s the first Trinitarian theophany or manifestation of God, I thought this article was apropos. Enjoy.
The mystery of the Holy Trinity is the most fundamental of our faith. On it everything else depends and from it everything else derives. Hence the Church’s constant concern to safeguard the revealed truth that God is One in nature and Three in Persons.
In order to do some justice to this sublime subject, we shall look only briefly at the heretical positions that at various periods of the Church’s history challenged the revealed Trinitarian faith. Our principal intention is to see in sequence the development of the doctrine, with emphasis on how the Church’s authority has contributed to the progress in understanding the plurality of persons in the one true God.
There is also great value in seeing some of the implications of the doctrine for our personal and social lives, since the mystery was most extensively revealed by Christ during the same discourse at the Last Supper when He taught us the “New Commandment” by which we are to love one another as He has been loving us.
There is a certain logic in the adversative positions assumed by those who called into question one or another aspect of the Trinity. Not surprisingly the human mind has wrestled with what God revealed about Himself in His inner Trinitarian existence. And depending on the willingness to recognize its limitations, the intellect has been enlightened by what God says about His mysterious being.
Thus we have, on the one hand, such extensive treatises as St. Augustine’s De Trinitate that show how perfectly compatible is the mystery of the Triune God with the deepest reaches of human intelligence. Indeed, the better the Trinity is understood, the more the human mind expands its horizons and the better it understands the world that the Trinity has created.
At the same time, we have the spectacle of another phenomenon. Minds that are not fully docile to the faith have, in greater or less measure, resisted the unquestioning acceptance of the Trinity. From apostolic times to the present, they have struggled with themselves and in their misguided effort to “explain” the mystery have only rationalized their own ideas of what the mystery should be.
For the sake of convenience, we can capsulize the leading anti-Trinitarian teachings of Christian history. Although given here somewhat chronologically, they are all very current because one or another, or a combination of several, may be found in contemporary writings in nominally Christian sources. There is no such thing as an antiquated doctrinal error, as correspondingly there is no such thing as an entirely new heresy. Error has its own remarkable consistency.
By the end of the first century, certain Judaizing Christians lapsed into a pre-Christian notion of God. According to them God is simply unipersonal. Such were the Corinthians and the Ebionites.
Within the next hundred years these theories were systemized into what has since become known as Monarchianism, i.e., monos = one + archein = to rule, which postulates only one person in God. In practice, however, Monarchianism affected certain positions regarding the nature and person of Christ; and these were the ones that finally had to be countered by the Church’s Magisterium.
If there is only one person in God, then the Son of God did not become man except as the embodiment of an adopted son of God. According to the Adoptionists, Christ was a mere man, though miraculously conceived of the Virgin Mary. At Christ’s baptism, He was endowed by the Father with extraordinary power and was then specially adopted by God as son. Among others, the best known Adoptionist was Paul of Samosata.
Another group of Monarchians took the view that Christ was divine. But then it was the Father who became incarnate, who suffered and died for the salvation of the world. Those favoring this idea were called Patripassionists, which literally means “Father-sufferers,” meaning that Christ was only symbolically the son of God, since it was the Father Himself who became man. On this hypothesis, of course, the Father, too, is only symbolically Father, since He does not have a natural Son.
The best known Patripassionist was Sabellius, who gave his name to a still popular Christological heresy, Sabellianism. According to Sabellius, there is in God only one hypostasis (person) but three prosopa, literally “masks” or “roles” that the unipersonal God assumes. These three roles correspond to the three modes or ways that God manifests Himself to the world. Hence another name for this theory is Modalism.
In the Modalist system, God manifests Himself, in the sense of reveals Himself, as the Father in creation, as the Son in redemption, and as the Holy Spirit in sanctification. There are not really three distinct persons in God but only three ways of considering God from the effects He has produced in the world.
Unlike the foregoing, Subordinationism admits there are three persons in God but denies that the second and third persons are consubstantial with the Father. Therefore it denies their true divinity. There have been different forms of Subordinationism, and they are still very much alive, though not all easily recognizable as Trinitarian errors in which the mind tries to comprehend how one single infinitely perfect divine nature can be three distinct persons, each equally and completely God.
The Arians, named after the Alexandrian priest Arius, held that the Logos or Word of God does not exist from eternity. Consequently there could not have been a generation of the Son from the Father but only by the Father. The Son is a creature of the Father and to that extent a “son of God.” He came into existence from nothing, having been willed by the Father, although as “the first born of all creation,” the Son came into the world before anything else was created.
The Semi-Arians tried to avoid the extreme of saying that Christ was totally different from the Father by conceding that He was similar to or like the Father, hence the name Homoi-ousians, i.e., homoios = like = ousia = nature, by which they are technically called.
There was lastly the group of Macedonians, named after Bishop Macedonius (deposed in 360 AD), who extended the notion of subordination to the Holy Spirit, who was claimed not to be divine but a creature. They were willing to admit that the Holy Spirit was a ministering angel of God.
At the other extreme to saying there was only one person in God was the heresy that held (and holds) there are really three gods. Certain names stand out.
According to John Philoponus (565 AD), nature and person are to be identified, or, in his language ousia = hypostasis. There are then three persons in God who are three individuals of the Godhead, just as we would speak of three human beings and say there are three individuals of the species man. Thus instead of admitting a numerical unity of the divine nature among the three persons in God, this theory postulates only a specific unity, i.e., one species but not one numerical existence.
In the theory of Roscelin (1120 AD), a Nominalist, only the individual is real. So the three persons in God are actually three separate realities. St. Anselm wrote extensively against this error.
Gilbert of Poitiers (1154 AD) said there is a real difference between God and the Divinity. As a result there would be a quaternity, i.e., three persons and the Godhead.
Abbot Joachim of Fiore (1202 AD) claimed that there is only a collective unity of the three persons in God, to form the kind of community we have among human beings, i.e., a gathering of like-minded persons joined together by their freedom to work together on a common enterprise. Joachim of Fiore is also known in doctrinal history as the one who projected the idea of three stages in Christian history. Stage One was the Age of the Father, through Old Testament times; Stage Two was the Age of the Second Person, the Son, which lasted from the time of the Incarnation to the Middle Ages; Stage Three began about the time of Abbot Joachim and will continue to the end of the world, as the Age of the Holy Spirit.
Anton Guenther (1873) was deeply infected with Hegelian pantheism and proclaimed a new Trinity. Guenther said that the Absolute freely determined Itself three successive times in an evolutionary process of development as thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. So the divine substance is trebled.
The original Reformers affirmed the Trinity without qualification. Thus Luther and Calvin, and the sixteenth century confessions of Protestant faith uniformly attested to the Trinity of Persons in God. But the subjectivism of the Protestant principles paved the way to a gradual attrition of the faith, so that rationalism has made deep inroads into the denominations. The most common form of this rationalism takes the three persons in God as only three personifications of the divine attributes, e.g., divine power is personified by the Father, divine wisdom by the Son, and divine goodness by the Holy Spirit.
In this context, we may define rationalism as that system of thought that claims that the human mind cannot hold with certainty what it cannot understand. Since the Trinity cannot be fully understood, it cannot therefore be held to be certain.