Above is my homily for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity! This was a doctrine that faced a lot of resistance from a varieties of heresies in the Early Church, but was ultimately solidified by several ecumenical councils. Below, you will find a little diagram I created to point out some common Trinitarian heresies and the erroneous understandings of God that are behind them.
|Modalism (Sabellianism)||Taught that the three persons of the Trinity as different forms or “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.||Condemned by Tertullian in Adversus Praxeam as well as in the Councils of Nicaea, Constantinople I and Constantinople II.|
|Arianism||Taught that Christ was the first and greatest of God’s creatures but denied his fully divine status. Taught that Christ was created, and thus a status lower than the Father. Macedonianism was essentially the same teaching about the Holy Spirit.||Truly one of the greatest struggles of the Early Church. Condemned by the First Council of Nicaea in 325, yielding the Nicaean Creed. Macedonianism was condemned at the First Council of Constantinople.|
|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 couldn’t find a specific council, but trust me, it’s condemned!|
|Tritheism||Taught that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are 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.|
|Docetism||Taught that Jesus Christ was 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)||Condemned at many of the first ecumenical councils.|
|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 way.||The founder (Theodotus of Byzantium) was excommunicated by Pope Victor I and the heresy was condemned at the Synod of Antioch in 268.|
|Nestorianism||Taught that Jesus Christ was a conjuction between the flesh and the Word, a human person joined with a divine person.||Condemned at the First Council of Ephesus in 431 and again at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.|
So where does that leave us? There’s a lot here about what we don’t believe. What about what we do believe as Catholic Christians? Here’s the text of the Athanasian Creed, written by the great St. Athanasius and presented to Pope Julius I as he was returning from exile.
Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled; without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Ghost uncreated. The Father unlimited; the Son unlimited; and the Holy Ghost unlimited. The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal. As also there are not three uncreated; nor three infinites, but one uncreated; and one infinite. So likewise the Father is Almighty; the Son Almighty; and the Holy Ghost Almighty. And yet they are not three Almighties; but one Almighty. 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. So likewise the Father is Lord; the Son Lord; and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not three Lords; but one Lord. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity; to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord; So are we forbidden by the catholic religion; to say, There are three Gods, or three Lords. The Father is made of none; neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created; but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten; but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another. But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as aforesaid; the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity.
Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation; that he also believe faithfully the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right Faith is, that we believe and confess; that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; God, of the Substance [Essence] of the Father; begotten before the worlds; and Man, of the Substance [Essence] of his Mother, born in the world. Perfect God; and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father as touching his Manhood. Who although he is God and Man; yet he is not two, but one Christ. One; not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by assumption of the Manhood by God. One altogether; not by confusion of Substance [Essence]; but by unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man; so God and Man is one Christ; Who suffered for our salvation; descended into hell; rose again the third day from the dead. He ascended into heaven, he sitteth on the right hand of the God the Father Almighty, from whence he will come to judge the living and the dead. At whose coming all men will rise again with their bodies; And shall give account for their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire. This is the catholic faith; which except a man believe truly and firmly, he cannot be saved.
Did you get all that? Not to worry, because we also have the “Shield of Athanasius” or the “Shield of the Trinity” to explain at least the first paragraph of the creed written above. It’s simple, but incredibly important, and worth memorizing!