Getting the Trinity Wrong (And Right!)

“Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic faith. … 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 Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Spirit.”

These ancient words of the Athanasian Creed present us with the mystery we celebrate today on Trinity Sunday: that we believe in One God in Three Divine Persons. This is a great mystery and surpasses human ability to comprehend or explain. Given this great difficulty in comprehending the mystery, the Most Holy Trinity lends itself perhaps more to negative explanation – getting closer to an understanding of what the Trinity is by understanding what it is not. Throughout the centuries, and especially in the first centuries of the Church’s life, many people tried to explain the Trinity and got it wrong. Today, I propose that we learn from their example.

One way that people have gotten it wrong over the years is the use of bad analogies. Analogies can be helpful for understanding things, but in the case of the Trinity, they usually cause more confusion. One analogy that people have tried to use is that of water. Water can exist either as liquid (water), gas (steam), or as a solid (ice), depending on its temperature. And yet, they are all water! Kind of like the Trinity, right? Well, no. This is the ancient heresy of modalism. God does not show Himself in three different ways as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The three Persons are actually distinct from each other through their relations with each other. Liquid water does not generate steam, but the Father does generate the Son, and the two of them together generate the Spirit.

So if the three Persons are distinct, then how about the analogy of the three leaf clover? With apologies to all the Irishmen here, that is another bad analogy. This is the heresy of partialism, which maintains that the three Persons are separate from each other. The three parts of the clover are not of the same substance as the others, like we profess each Sunday in the Nicene Creed, that Christ is “consubstantial with the Father.” (By the way, there is no evidence that St. Patrick actually used a three leaf clover to explain the Trinity.)

Another analogy could be that of the sun. The sun, scientists would point out, is a star, light, and intense heat all together. That would seem to line up well with the Father as the origin of the Godhead, Christ as the light of the world, and the Holy Spirit as the fire that brings God’s love to us. Well, not so fast. The problem with this analogy is that light and heat are created by the sun rather than being identical with it. This is the ancient heresy of Arianism, which holds that Christ and the Holy Spirit are creations of the Father, not on the same level of divinity as Him. On the contrary, the Athanasian Creed tells us that all three Persons are equal in glory and coeternal in majesty. The Son and the Holy Spirit were not created but exist from all time with the Father.
(You can find a more humorous version of this in a YouTube video titled, “St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies.”

This last heresy – Arianism – is related to a whole host of other heresies that fail to regard Christ as divine. One of them, called Nestorianism, holds that there is a difference between the human person, Jesus of Nazareth, and the second person of the Most Holy Trinity. This heresy denies the doctrine of the Incarnation. The Catholic faith teaches us, though, that the second person of the Trinity – God the Son – actually became a man. Another related heresy called Adoptionism holds that Jesus was such a great man that God chose Him to be a part of the godhead (similar to the Greek myth of Hercules). This would mean that the Trinity came to being in time, but this is not the case either. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have existed from all time. God always has been and always will be a Trinity. When God created at the beginning of time, that was the Trinity. When God sent the Israelites free from Egypt, that too was the Trinity.

So why, then, does all this matter? Why does it matter that people got it wrong? For two thousand years, the Church has been teaching the same truth. Heresies – false teachings about the nature of the Trinity and countless other teachings too – have come and gone, but the Church’s true faith has stood. Nowadays, we can look back with amusement on the false theories like Nestorianism, Arianism, and Adoptionism, but in those days it was not so easy. People literally gave their lives for the truth about the Trinity during times of confusion and persecution.

Such was the case for St. Athanasius, traditionally considered the author of the quote I read at the beginning of this sermon. Over the 45 years that he was bishop of Alexandria, he spent 17 of them in five different exiles, expelled from his diocese because the Roman emperors had gone over to Arianism (that heresy that denies that Christ is truly God). Through it all, he remained faithful to the truth that Christ is both truly man and truly God, that the Trinity is one in unity and still three undivided, coeternal persons.

Hopefully, one day far from now, generations to come will be able to look back with amusement at the bizarre heresies the world has produced today (like teaching children to choose their own gender, which is really happening in many parts of the United States). But for now, being amused is not an option. Every one of us needs to be prepared to defend the Faith that we profess by growing in knowledge and committing ourselves to ongoing formation in the Faith.

To do so, we must be willing to trust the Church. St. Athanasius did not endure 17 years of exile simply because he knew that he was right about Christ being truly God, a sort of standing up for whatever he felt was right. Rather, Athanasius knew that this was the truth that had been handed down from Christ Himself through His body, the Church. The lesson we can learn from so many attempts to understand the Trinity that ended in failure is to trust the Church, which faithfully teaches the truth about God through the centuries. Heresy is an unwillingness to recognize a mystery – either about God or about ourselves – an unwillingness to receive the truth and instead to come up with our own clever ways of understanding, “what feels right to me.”

When we grow in our knowledge of the true Faith we are able to grow in our love of God. It is impossible to love someone that we do not know. True love of God leads to a snowball effect, where coming to know God moves us to greater love of Him, and this greater love leads us to a greater desire to know Him, and greater knowledge continues to lead to greater love.

When we allow the Church to guide us into a greater love and knowledge of the Lord, then we can come to understand more and more of the awesome reality of a God who is both one in unity and three in person, equal in glory and coeternal in majesty.

The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist