Consider an infinitely deep well of life giving water. One can draw water from deeper and deeper in the well, but one will never plumb the depths of it. A doctrinal Mystery like the Holy Trinity is similar. One can grow in an intellectual and experiential understanding of such a mystery, but we will never, on this side of eternity, plumb the depths of it. Moreover, our intellectual experience – our “knowing” – can serve our “loving”. That is, an intellectual understanding of the Holy Trinity, as paltry as it may be, can lead us to love God more deeply. So let’s consider the Holy Trinity.
Statement of Doctrine
The “Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church” offers this concise expression the Church’s belief in the Holy Trinity:
“The Church expresses her Trinitarian faith by professing a belief in the oneness of God in whom there are three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The three divine Persons are only one God because each of them equally possesses the fullness of the one and indivisible divine nature. They are really distinct from each other by reason of the relations which place them in correspondence to each other. The Father generates the Son; the Son is generated by the Father; the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.” Compendium 481
The nineteenth century Catholic theologian, Frank Sheed, the founder of the first Catholic Evidence Guild, once wrote,
“There is but one divine nature, one divine mind, one divine will. The three Persons each use the one mind to know with, the one will to love with. For there is but one absolute divine nature. Thus there are not three Gods, but one God. The Christian revelation cannot allow the faintest derogation from pure monotheism. The three Persons then, are not separate. But they are distinct.“2
Indeed, the Compendium continues:
“Inseparable in their one substance, the three divine Persons are also inseparable in their activity. The Trinity has one operation, sole and the same. In this one divine action, however, each Person is present according to the mode which is proper to him in the Trinity.” Compendium 491
Many people accuse the Church of believing in three gods, and it is not difficult to see how this doctrinal expression could be misinterpreted if one adopts the common meanings of the words “person”, “nature”, and “distinct”. After all, I am a “person” and you are a “person”. You have attributes that I lack, and I have attributes that you lack, so we are distinct from each other. But there’s a difference with a divine Person. A divine Person, by the Church’s definition, posesses a divine nature that has all perfection; a divine Person lacks nothing. So the three divine Persons are not distinct from each other in the sense that they each possess attributes that the others lack. That is why the Church claims that they are “distinct from each other by reason of the relations” between them. And let’s be careful about using the word “possess”. You may say that I as a person possess some truth, but a divine Person is truth. You may say that I as a person possess some good, but a divine Person is Goodness. And you may say that I as a person am sometimes loving, but God is love. There is an existential difference between a Divine person and a human person and how each “possesses” its nature.
Let’s look into how the Persons of the Trinity could be distinct then. St. Anselm, writing in his Proslogium8, speculated that the second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Son, was the “Word” or the self-expression of the Father. Since this self-expression or self-image is perfect truth, lacking nothing, it possesses the Nature of God. St. Anselm further states that the Holy Spirit is the love between the Father and the Son. This love is perfect, lacking nothing, and thus possesses the Nature of God.
We also distinguish the three Persons of the Holy Trinity because the Sacred Scriptures do. Moreover, when all of the scriptures are taken into account, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity fits the scriptural data very well. Here is a list – certainly not exhaustive – of scriptural verses that are often used to argue for the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. All scriptural texts are from the Revised Standard Version (RSV)7.
Hints in the Old Testament
- God speaking of himself in the plural form:
- Gen. 1:26 “Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness...”
- Gen. 3:22 “Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us...”
- Gen. 11:7 “Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language...”
- the prophesies of a divine messiah
- Isaiah 9:6 “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called ‘Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.‘”
- Isaiah 7:14 “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Imman’u-el.(“God is with us.”)”
- Psalm 109(110):1 “The LORD says to my lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool.‘”
- the personification of divine wisdom
- Proverbs 8:22-31 “…When he established the heavens, I was there…“
- Wisdom 7:21-25 “And now I understand everything, hidden or visible, for Wisdom, the designer of all things, has instructed me…For Wisdom is quicker to move than any motion; she is so pure, she pervades and permeates all things. She is a breath of the power of God, pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; so nothing impure can find its way into her.“
- Wisdom 8:1-8 “…Strongly she reaches from one end of the world to the other and she governs the whole world for its good…She enhances her noble birth by sharing God’s life, for the Master of All has always loved her. Indeed, she shares the secrets of God’s knowledge, and she chooses what he will do….”
The “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Trinitarian Formula) in the New Testament
- Luke 1:35 “And the angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.'”
- Matthew 3:16-17 “And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.'”
- John 14:16-17 “And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you.”
- Matthew 28:19 “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…”
Trinitarian References in the Epistles
- 1 Peter 1:1-2 “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappado’cia, Asia, and Bithyn’ia, chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you.”
- 2Cor. 13:14 “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
- Eph. 1:3-14 “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places…according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth….In him you also…were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, which is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.”
God the Father in the New Testament
- Matthew 5:16,48 “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven…You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
- John 1:12 “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; “
- John 5:18 “This was why the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the sabbath but also called God his Father, making himself equal with God.”
God the Son in the New Testament
- John 1:14-18 “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father…No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known. “
- Hebrews 1:2-4 “but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has obtained is more excellent than theirs.”
- Colossians 1:13-16 “He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities — all things were created through him and for him.”
God the Holy Spirit in the New Testament
- Acts 5:3 “But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land?”
- 1 Cor. 3:16 “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”
- 1 Cor. 2:10 “God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.”
A Common Objection Overcome
One common objection to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity cites John 14:28, “You heard me say to you, `I go away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I go to the Father; for the Father is greater than I..” If the Father is greater than Jesus, the objectors state, then Jesus certainly could not be Divine. Catholics can respond by saying that Jesus was referring to his human nature only when he said that the Father was greater than he.
Some Historical Heresies6
The doctrine of the Holy Trinity was articulated by the Catholic Church over time with greater and greater specificity as it was challenged. Here are some of the historical challenges to the doctrine:
- Modalism (i.e. Sabellianism, Noetianism and Patripassianism) …taught that the three persons of the Trinity as different “modes” of the Godhead. Adherants believed that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not distinct personalities, but different modes of God’s self-revelation. A typical modalist approach is to regard God as the Father in creation, the Son in redemption, and the Spirit in sanctification. In other words, God exists as Father, Son and Spirit in different eras, but never as triune. Stemming from Modalism, Patripassianism believed that the Father suffered as the Son.
- Tritheism…Tritheism confessses the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three independent divine beings; three separate gods who share the ‘same substance’. This is a common mistake because of misunderstanding of the use of the term ‘persons’ in defining the Trinity.
- Arianism …taught that the preexistent Christ was the first and greatest of God’s creatures but denied his fully divine status. The Arian controversy was of major importance in the development of Christology during the fourth century and was addressed definitely in the Nicene Creed.
- Docetism …taught that Jesus Christ as a purely divine being who only had the “appearance” of being human. Regarding his suffering, some versions taught that Jesus’ divinity abandoned or left him upon the cross while other claimed that he only appeared to suffer (much like he only appeared to be human).
- Ebionitism …taught that while Jesus was endowed with particular charismatic gifts which distinguished him from other humans but nonetheless regarded Him as a purely human figure.
- Macedonianism …that that the Holy Spirit is a created being.
- Adoptionism …taught that Jesus was born totally human and only later was “adopted” – either at his baptism or at his resurrection – by God in a special (i.e. divine) way.
- Partialism …taught that Father, Son and Holy Spirit together are components of the one God. This led them to believe that each of the persons of the Trinity is only part God, only becoming fully God when they come together.
I originally wrote this post on the now defunct http://cegguam.org.
- Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, USCCC Publishing, Washington DC, 2006, also http://www.vatican.va/archive/compendium_ccc/documents/archive_2005_compendium-ccc_en.html
- A Map of Life, By Frank Sheed, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1994
- Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, by Dr. Ludwig Ott, TAN Books and Publishers, Rockford Illinois, 1974
- A Tour of the Summa, by Msgr. Paul J. Glenn, TAN Books and Publishers, Rockford Illinois, 1978
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, DoubleDay, New York, 1995.
- Trinitarian Heresies, http://www.monergism.com/Trinitarian%20Heresies.html, retrieved July 4, 2010.
- Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Holy Bible. http://quod.lib.umich.edu/r/rsv/
- St. Anselm’s Proslogium, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/anselm-proslogium.html
- St. Augustine’s On the Holy Trinity, http://thriceholy.net/Texts/augustinef.html
- St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Question 27, http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1027.htm