Every time we make the sign of the Cross we make an invocation of the Holy Trinity: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Those who grew up as Catholics, or in other religious communities with an orthodox understanding of this Triune nature of God, may take this doctrine for granted and not comprehend the extent to which it has historically been assaulted and still is attacked today.
In many cases those who attack the doctrine do so without ever really understanding what the Church teaches about it to begin with – they are attacking some caricature or misrepresentation of the doctrine of the Trinity. I know that because I was a Jehovah’s Witness for 38 years and I learned to pounce ferociously on the doctrine of the Trinity with arguments that were all based upon the Watchtower’s false depiction of the doctrine in substance and origin.
It was very rare to meet any Christian, Catholic or otherwise, who could answer my objections to the Trinity doctrine. One reason for this is that most people think it takes special learning in theology to handle these objections. However, theology should not frighten us or be seen as an esoteric pursuit beyond the capacity of the average Catholic. Basically “theology” means the study of God and coming to know God is something the Church has done, is doing, and will continue to do in an institutional sense, but it is also something every Christian is doing in an ongoing way. There is no question of doing it; the question is whether or not we are doing it well. The Church doing theology has led to the development of Christian doctrine and specific to this discussion, has led to the development of the doctrine of the Trinity.
Christian doctrine develops.
This surprises some people, who yet accept easily that other bodies of human knowledge develop. In fact all bodies of human knowledge develop. The development of doctrine is not the same thing as the invention of new teachings; it is rather a deeper penetration of understanding. There are tests to distinguish a legitimate development from a deviation (heresy). And by the way, that doctrine develops and that there are tests, is itself doctrine.
Christian doctrine develops in response to challenges, questions, and experience
We can see Christian doctrine developing already during the brief New Testament period. The early Church was expecting the imminent “end of the world” but their experience, their continuation through history, was already causing their eschatological doctrine to develop. Compare 1Thess. 5th with Phil. 1st to see that development within the pages of Scripture.
We can also see this in our living memory. In the 20th century, the Church has confronted historical criticism as a challenge to the “inerrancy” of Scripture. This has prompted further development of the doctrine regarding the inspiration of Scripture.
The Development of the Christian doctrine of God
We can expect of the Christian doctrine of God, then, that it has developed. First it developed out of — but without deviating from — Jewish monotheism. Secondly it developed out of the Church’s need to process the appearance, claims, and living apostolic experience of Christ.
Some parts of the Christian doctrine of God are evident to reason. As an example let’s consider five logical options for the nature of God given that God is either finite or infinite and that God is either personal or impersonal.
1. God could be finite and impersonal. God would be a mere object, like a chair, or a flower. No one claims such a god and no one ever has. Even idolaters think their idols represent a personal being.
2. God could be finite and personal. The ancient Greeks and modern Mormons both subscribe to this option. (Mormons claim that God is “infinite” but posit many such “infinite” beings, hence redefining “infinite” to mean finite.)
The problems with this option are that you need a god big enough to explain the universe, and a finite god just doesn’t cut it. The Greeks and many other peoples solved this problem by positing different gods for different elements or spheres. Mormons have various gods for different planets.
3. God could be infinite and impersonal. This is the concept subscribed to by Pantheists; Buddhists; some Hindus; some New Agers; Spinoza.
The main problem with this conception of God is the question of the origin and purpose (telos) of personality. Everyone recognizes that a person is something greater than a non-person. If the origin of persons lies in the non-personal, we are left with the question of how persons came into being from that which is less than personal. Buddhism solves this problem by making personal existence a mere illusion. Some philosophers try to solve the problem by reductionism – attempting to reduce what is personal to the non-personal through a biological mechanism. There are theories of “emergence”: the idea that if mechanical or biological systems become complex enough, personality emerges from them. These theories drive a lot of research into “artificial intelligence.”
4. God could be infinite and personal simple unity. Islam and Jehovah’s Witnesses both make this claim about the nature of God. (JWs claim that God is “infinite” but limited to a particular location, neither omnipresent nor omniscient hence redefining “infinite” to mean finite.)
One of the problems with this view of God is that God cannot reveal who He is apart from creation. For example, He cannot be “love” because he could not love without creation. Jehovah’s Witnesses will say, because it is in the Bible, that “God is love.” But their concept is of a God who is dependent upon creation to have somebody to love. At the same time, creation does not reveal a God who is simple unity, because we do not see just one of anything in the universe.
5. God is infinite and personal unity-in-diversity. This God is love; He creates out of complete free and gracious generosity because He is complete in Himself, not needing His creation to be anything or to express anything. This is the sublime orthodox Christian understanding of God. This God is revealed in creation, through His dealings with human beings in history, and through the Incarnation.
God has revealed Himself
In history, God prepared the human family for this revelation of Himself. The pinnacle of the preparation was the Jewish religion. It seems that a lot of Old Testament history is made up of God drumming into the heads of the Israelites that the various idol gods of the nations were unrealities, or as St. Paul would later have it, demons (1 Cor 10: 20), and that He is the only true God. Although, even so, Jewish scripture contained many “hints” of the unity-in-diversity of God (Gen. 1: 26; 11: 7, 19: 18-24; Ps. 110: 1; Is. 6: 1-3; Zech. 3: 1,2).
God also prepared the human family for revelation of Himself through the Hellenization of the Jews. The Diaspora was no accident (Duet 32: 8). The Church would need the language of Greek philosophy to express herself about Christ. Regarding St. John’s use of the Greek term “Logos” in John 1:1, Romano Guardini wrote: “In order that this conception of the Logos, idea and source of all ideas, stand ready to serve sacred Christology, Greek thought labored for six centuries” (The Lord, p. 538).
Once Christ came on the scene, the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, had to steer a course through various proffered explanations of Jesus Christ. Remember our earlier point that Christian doctrine develops in response to challenges, questions, and experience. Here are explanations of Christ (challenges to the received apostolic teaching) rejected by the Church:
- An ordinary human being with some extraordinary abilities. (Modern liberals)
- An ordinary human being whom God adopted as “Son”, giving him special powers. (Adoptionist)
- An angel/man.
- A created “God.”(Arians)
- Possessing merely the appearance of a human body. (Docetist)
- A man with a divine mind. (Appollinarian)
- Jesus has only one nature. (Monophysite)
- Mary is not the “mother of God”. (Nestorian)
And here are some explanations of the Godhead rejected by the Church:
- Jesus is of another nature or substance than God the Father. (Arian)
- The Holy Spirit is merely God’s impersonal power.
- God manifests in three modes. (Monarchian modalist)
- The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three Gods. (Tritheist)
Christian doctrine is a tapestry; if you pull one thread out you unravel the whole thing. The Church had to maintain and unify these points:
- There is one God.
- The full deity of Jesus Christ.
- The full humanity of Jesus Christ.
- The deity and personality of the Holy Spirit
Various Church councils took up the challenges:
- 325 AD Council of Nicaea – anathematized Arianism and adopted Nicene Creed
- 381 AD Council of Constantinople – condemned Appollonarius
- 431 AD Council of Ephesus – condemned Nestorius
- 451 AD Council of Chalcedon – condemned Monophysitism and adopted the “Chalcedonian Definition”
The Christian doctrine of God says:
There is one personal God whose unique nature it is to be each and all of the following: self-existent; eternal; infinite; omnipresent; omnipotent; omniscient; immutable.
This one God is eternally three divine Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, co-equal, co-eternal, and consubstantial.
This God is the Creator of all that is and is, therefore, each and all of the following in relation to Creation: Lifegiver, Sustainer; King; Lawgiver; Judge; Redeemer; Sanctifier.The acts of God in Creation and Redemption are the work of the Holy Trinity.
Creation – Genesis 1: 1, 2, 26 cp. Isaiah 44: 24; Colossians 1: 15, 16
Redemption – Note God’s progressive revelation in Isaiah:
- Israel’s plight highlights the need of all mankind for cleansing from sin – Chap 1
- God’s majestic holiness contrasted with man’s smallness and unholiness - Chap 6
- God promises to send help by means of a special child, 7: 14; a ruler, 9: 6, 7; a shoot from Jesse, 11: 10, 11; an anointed servant, 42: 1-4
- Finally God announces that He alone is the Savior and the Redeemer Chap 43-49
Christian doctrine does not say:
- That there are three Gods.
- That each divine Person is one-third of God. (God cannot be divided.)
- That one divine Person is less in nature than another. (God cannot be less than God.)
- That one divine Person is another. (The Son is not the Father, etc.)
Loving the Holy Trinity with Your Whole Mind
Jesus commanded us to love Him with our whole mind, with our whole heart, and with all our strength, and He gives us the grace to do it. Whoever fails to reach this goal has not lived his life entirely – St. Frances de Sales
There are fundamentally only two religions — true religion and false religion. True religion is the worship of the true God, while false religion is the worship of a false god. The true God is the Holy Trinity: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit; three divine Persons sharing one divine nature.
Love the Holy Trinity with your whole mind by defending this true doctrine. Learn to overcome these common objections:
- The doctrine of the Trinity is illogical; unreasonable. It makes no sense; 1+1+1=3 not 1. Even the Catholic Church calls it “a mystery.”
- The Trinity doctrine transcends reason and logic. It is not opposed to reason and logic.
- God is not a math problem, but even so, 1+1+1=3 but 1x1x1=1!
- Rejecting the Trinity makes nonsense of part of the Bible. A Unitarian view of God is not more “logical.”
- When the Church says the doctrine of the Trinity is a mystery, the Church is not saying that we don’t know anything about it! The Church is saying that it is something we could not ever have come up with on our own, by human reason; it is something that we only know because God has revealed it.
- The Trinity doctrine contradicts the Jewish concept of God.
- It is a deepened understanding, not a contradiction.
- The Trinity is a pagan concept as demonstrated by the pagan triads of gods, like the Egyptian triad of Osiris, Isis and Horus.
- Something is not untrue just because a pagan believes it. But pagan triads of gods are not anything like the Christian concept of the Triune God. The pagan triads were part of a pantheon of many gods.
- If pagan concepts are demonic deceptions, belief in the triads argues for the Trinity, because the demons would be trying to deceive humans by imitation of the truth (1Cor.10:20). If the pagan concepts are mere human intuition, belief in the triads argues for the Trinity.
- The word “Trinity” is not in the Bible. The doctrine cannot be stated without using extra-biblical terminology. The doctrine was formulated using Greek philosophical terminology therefore it originates in Greek philosophy.
- It is not wrong to use extra-biblical terminology; the word “Bible” is not in the Bible. Cults which deny the Trinity use extra-biblical terminology.
- The word “Trinity” not being in the Bible does not make the doctrine unbiblical; the concept is in the Bible and can be stated without using extra-biblical terminology.
- Early Christians used Greek terms to communicate their faith to the educated people of their day. The early Church Fathers denied that they received their doctrines from Greek philosophers. The Arians and other heretics used the same terminology.
The Catholic doctrine of the Trinity is an elevated conception of God that leads to an elevated conception of the dignity of the human person. It is the revealed truth that God, who wants us to know Him, has given to humanity and over which He has made His Church a guardian. So take up the challenges that your Catholic forbears have taken up and even died for. Believe in the Trinity; defend the doctrine of the Trinity and dive deeper in your knowledge of God.
You, O Eternal Trinity, are a deep sea, into which the more I enter the more I find, and the more I find the more I seek - Saint Catherine of Siena.
A blessed Trinity Sunday to you!
(© 2011 Mary Kochan)