Catholic writers state that the term ‘Trinity’ came into being in the third century, which means that when the council of three hundred bishops met at Nicaea, the doctrine had already been formulated.
Although the Nicene council came to an official decision regarding the relationship of the Father and the Son, discussions did not cease for centuries, in fact, they continue to this day.
The word ‘homoousios’, (with its English meaning of consubstantial) has proved to be so difficult and confusing that many struggles and debates have arisen through subsequent decades.
In AD444, Cyril of Alexandria gave an explanation of the word ‘consubstantial’, a statement that was confirmed by the Council of Chaldcedon in AD451. “…. We (the holy Fathers) all unanimously teach that our Lord Jesus Christ is to us one and the same Son, the self-same perfect in Godhead, the self-same perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man; the selfsame of a rational soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, the selfsame consubstantial with us according to the manhood, like us in all things, sin apart; before the ages begotten of the Father as to the Godhead, but in the last days, the selfsame, for us and for our salvation of Mary the Virgin Theotokos as to the manhood, one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten….” The Council of Chaldedon AD451.
This use of the word ‘consubstantial’ by Bishop Cyril is quite understandable as it is written, however, the use of the word in the eyes of Catholic theologians is not the same Godward as it is manward.
Another aspect that has brought confusion are the words “before the ages begotten of the Father”. To bishops at the council, this did not mean that Christ was begotten at some far distant point in eternity, but that He is “eternally begotten”, having no beginning.
A Catholic theologian put it in the following words, “The Son is ‘generated’ (or begotten) of the Father, and the word points to an asymmetrical relation between them, yet the symbol of generation is such that it maintains the unity of substance as against any language of ‘making’ and ‘creating’.” Principles of Christian Theology. Revised. John Macquarie p 193-195. Roman Catholic.
Neither party questioned that Christ was the only-begotten Son of God, but the interpretation of each separated them, for the Papacy “maintained that the ‘generation’ of Christ is from all time, so that there never was a time when the Son was not.” Ibid p195.
Arius on the other hand, taught that there was a point when He was begotten of the Father. It was this belief that the Papacy was determined to crush.
Catherine Mowry Lacugna, a modern Catholic author states, “The Son quite literally receives Sonship from the Father, and in this reception, gives back to and constitutes the Father to be what the Father is: the begetter of the Son.” God for Us – The Trinity in Christian Life p281. Ms Lacugna is quoting a theologian named Farley.
Unless we read comparative works of Catholic writers, we will misunderstand the meaning of individual authors such as Ms Lacugna. Another writer stated, “No person of the Trinity is any less God than the others; in particular, the Son and the Holy Spirit are not demigods or intermediaries, subordinate to the Father. They are all one in respect of their Godhead.” Principles of Christian Theology Ibid p192.
The Papal belief is that the Father has always been ‘the Father’, and the Son has always been ‘the Son’. Neither of them had a beginning. In this there is no denial that the Son is really a Son, but it is from all eternity, rather than a point in eternity. Their argument is that if the Son is not an actual Son, the term ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ would be pointless. Says John Macquarie, “Surely it means that the Father could not be who He is apart from the Son….” Principles of Christian Theology p195.
The Trinity Confusion
In his book Principles of Christian Theology, John Macquarie has called the Father “primordial Being”, the first Person of the Trinity. The second Person is called “expressive Being”, for He gives rise to intelligible structure in space and time. The third Person is designated “unitive Being”, for it is in the unity of the Holy Ghost that the Church in her liturgy ascribe glory to the Father and the Son. Ibid p198-201.
But not only does the Catholic Church teach that the Son had no beginning, it also teaches subordination. The Encyclopedia of Catholic Doctrine states that many Catholics fail to appreciate “the hierarchical character of the Trinity”. Ibid p683.
The following quotations explain the type of subordination believed by the Papacy.
“The Trinity is a hierarchy, or a sacred order… This is reflected, for example, in the fact that the Father always commands, sends, and gives to the Son, whereas the Son always obeys, is sent, and receives from the Father….
We can speak of the Father therefore, as the source of everything, including the Trinity itself, for He is as some of the Church Fathers pointed out, the ‘Unoriginated Origin’; He therefore enjoys priority within the Trinity which is why He is always designed as the first Person of the Trinity, and which also enables us to understand why Jesus tells us that “the Father is greater than I” John 19:28.”Encyclopedia of Catholic Doctrine p684.
Ms Lacugna states, “Although God is revealed in Jesus Christ and the Spirit, God remains the incomprehensible Origin of everything that is. The Unoriginate Origin (Father) is not ‘sent’ and does not proceed…. God as Unoriginate Origin is the Creator, the one who establishes everything that is in relation to God. It should be evident by now that ‘Father’ is not a literal term of biology. ‘Father’ as much as ‘Mother’ indicates Origin.” God for Us p303.305. (Bracket in quotation)
By the thirteenth century, the doctrine of the Trinity “had reached the highest point of synthesis”. This has been credited to Thomas Aquinas, for within “his thinking St Thomas develops the idea of ‘subsistent relationship’…. that is a way of saying in the vocabulary of his time that the mystery of the Trinity is truly that of absolute love, of the total reciprocity of love between the Father and the Son, under the influence of the Spirit. And it is in this exchange of love that we can and should live.” How to Understand the Creed p21.
Roman Catholic Trinitarian theology can never be fully understood because it is a synthesis of paganism and Scripture, a blending of truth and error. Therefore the Trinity is called a mystery, fitting perfectly with the name given in Revelation, ‘The Mystery Babylon the Great…’ Revelation 17:5.
The words of Ms Lacugna put it well, “Ultimately, the only appropriate response to the mystery of God revealed in the economy is adoration. For these reasons we might compare the doctrine of the Trinity to an icon.” Ibid p305.
“The doctrine of the Triune God gathers up in a remarkable way the findings of our philosophical theology, and forms a close bond between an exposition, and philosophical and symbolic theology” Principles of Christian Theology p188.
During the 3rd century, it was customary in Catholic churches to sing what was called the Trisagion, or Thrice-Holy, consisting of the words, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts”. At the time of the Council of Chalcedon (AD451), it was changed to “Holy God, Holy Almighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us”. These three ‘Holies’ referred respectively to the three persons of the Trinity.
In AD477, Peter the Fuller led a procession of fellow monks through the streets loudly singing the Thrice-Holy, but with the addition “Who was crucified for us”. This unorthodox addition raised a dispute among the Catholics. On many occasions fighting ensued in the streets. “Men, women, and children poured out from all quarters; the monks with their archimandrites at the head of the raging multitude, echoed back their religious war cry.”
Eventually there was a show-down, and when the monks broke out with the Thrice-Holy (with the additional words), the orthodox monks, backed by the rabble of Constantinople, endeavoured to expel them from the church.
“There was a wild, fierce fray; the divine presence of the emperor lost its awe; he could not maintain the peace… the two factions fighting in the streets, in the churches; cities, even the holiest places, ran with blood…” Milman, Ecclesiastical History. A T Jones p201.202.
Between AD477 and 519, the dispute continued. Growing out of the addition to the Trisagion, the question was asked, “Did one of the Trinity suffer in the flesh? Or did one person of the Trinity suffer in the flesh?”
The monks of Scythia affirmed that “one of the Trinity” suffered in the flesh, and declared that to say that “one person of the Trinity suffered in the flesh” was absolute heresy. The question was brought before Pope Hormisdas who decided that to say that “one person of the Trinity suffered in the flesh” was the orthodox view; and denounced the monks as proud, arrogant, obstinate, enemies to the Church.
In AD533, the question was raised again, and Justinian became involved in the dispute; this time one set of monks argued that “if one of the Trinity did not suffer on the cross, then one of the Trinity was not born of the Virgin Mary, and therefore she ought no longer to be called the mother of God”.
Others argued, “If one of the Trinity did not suffer on the cross, then Christ who suffered was not one of the Trinity.” Justinian entered the lists against both, and declared that Mary was “truly the mother of God”, that Christ was “in the strictest sense one of the Trinity”, and that whosoever denied either the one or the other, was a heretic.
This declaration frightened the monks because they knew Justinian’s opinions on the subject of heretics were exceedingly forcible. They therefore sent off two of their number to lay the question before the bishop of Rome.
As soon as Justinian learned this, he too decided to apply to the pope, sending his confession of faith by two bishops that “one of the Trinity suffered in the flesh”. Ecclesiastical Empire. A.T. Jones. p202.203.
At the same time, the anathemas of the church were fortified by a civil excommunication which separated the heretics from their fellow citizens by disqualifying them from holding any public office, trust or employment.
“That these laws might not be vain, the office of ‘inquisitor of the faith’ was instituted, and it was not long before capital punishment was inflicted upon ‘heresy’.” Ibid p556.
It is also interesting that in approximately AD348, Flavianus, the patriarch of Antioch, gathered together a multitude of monks, and had them use a new public doxology for the first time, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit”. It was composed in opposition to the Arian doxology, “Glory to the Father, by the Son, in the Holy Spirit.” Sir William Whiston. Second letter concerning the Primitive Doxologies 1719 p17; Robert Roberts, Good Company Vol 111. p49. Flavian was the author of the Catholic doxology, which has become orthodox in Catholicism.
When the sign of the cross is made, the Trinitarian doxology is said, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost”.
“Nothing in the Church is begun, carried out, or completed, without the sign of the cross. It is used in innumerable blessings and ceremonials of the Church. At Mass alone it is used fifty-one times.” My Catholic Faith. Louis LaRavoie Morrow p392. (Emphasis in quotation)
Question. Why do we make the sign of the cross?
“We make the sign of the cross to express two important mysteries of the Christian religion, the Blessed Trinity and the Redemption.
1. When we say. “In the name”, we express the truth that there is only one God; when we say, “of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”, we express the truth that there are three distinct Persons in God. And when we make the form of the cross on ourselves, we express the truth that the Son of God, made man, redeemed us by His death on the cross.
By this sign we confess that we belong to the religion of the crucified Saviour. By it a Catholic makes a clear confession of faith; by it he is known.
2. By means of the sign of the cross we obtain God’s blessing and protection from dangers both spiritual and physical….” Ibid p393. (Italics in quotation)
Papal Doctrine -- Progressive
It is interesting that the Papal Church of the West was more concerned about crushing Arianism, than Modalism and Sabbelianism. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, gives the reason. In North Africa, we were “more preoccupied with the risk of subordinating the Son to the Father (that was the heresy of Arius) than with the risk of making the Trinity uniform (the heresy of Sabellius, or Modalism).” How to Understand the Creed p21. (Brackets in quotation)
In other words, they wanted to maintain the co-eternity and co-equality of Jesus with the Father, irrespective of whether the three-headed or three-faced modalistic trinity grew in ascendancy elsewhere.
However, “some Eastern theologians made the exaggerated criticism that he (Augustine) speaks more of the God of the philosophers than of the God of Jesus Christ.”
The writers of the above book say that the main aim of Catholic concern, was to “reconcile monotheism in the least inadequate way with the reality of the distinction of the persons in God: one God in three Persons…. It would certainly be wrong to think that there are three individuals in God, more or less united in love.” Ibid p21.
However, in spite of the desire to maintain monotheism and not tritheism, the Papacy has had a long and heated struggle. The paintings below certainly pictures three individual persons, giving the impression that the Roman Catholic doctrine has three gods.
In summary of the progressive papal background:
1. All who made a distinction in the nature of the Son from that of the Father, were declared to be heretics. They were declared incapable of making wills or legacies. They were relieved of their offices, had their goods confiscated, and were exiled.
2. The Western part of the Empire was more concerned about crushing Arianism than Modalism and Sabbelianism, to make it absolutely clear there was no literal subordination between the Father and the Son.
3. The Eastern part of the Empire was more concerned with crushing Modalism and Sabbelianism, to make it absolutely clear the Father was not the Son, and the Son was not the Father.
4. Artists depicted both views of the Trinity, one as three separate Beings (opposing Modalism, but becoming three Gods); another as one Being with three faces (opposing Tritheism, but heathen in its concept).
5. Catholic writers have tried to explain the Trinity, but it remains a mystery. They teach that Jesus is begotten of the Father eternally, and is yet being begotten today. No subordination.
6. At the same time, the Father is believed to be the Unoriginated Original, the source of everything. Thus He is designated the first Person of the Trinity, the One who sent Jesus and the Spirit to the earth. They do believe in a type of subordination.
7. The doctrine of the Trinity is philosophical theology, and can be explained in many different ways.