The teaching on the Holy Trinity is an excellent example of what the Church calls “the development of doctrine.”
This is the idea that while the Apostles received the faith from Christ, in the time they had in their three years with Him as disciples, and in the special period between the Resurrection and Ascension, they would not be capable of grasping everything in complete detail.
As a good teacher, God is mindful of our historical nature and of our limited capacity to receive the fullness of revelation. As the great Catholic theologian Hans Urs Von Balthazar wrote, “The highest and most wonderful truths, though communicated to the world once and for all by inspired teachers, could not be comprehended all at once by the recipients, but, as being received and transmitted by minds not inspired and through media which were human, have required only long time and deeper thought for their full elucidation.”
So, to be clear, that while it is a commonplace observation that the word “trinity” does not appear in Holy Scripture, the trinity itself is in abundant evidence in our Bible; that while the first Christians did not have the Nicene Creed, and wouldn’t for four centuries, their prayers, preserved for us in ancient manuscripts and other documents that tell us how and what they prayed, show us that they believed in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as each being fully God, and together being God.
Insofar as we find evidence of dissent from this, it is in the documents of defunct Christian communities of the past that faded and died as they fell away from the truth of the Trinity.
So, our belief in the Trinity is not simply a matter of theological taste or a product of human cleverness; rather it is the inspired development of language to clarify in our minds something the Church has always known but finds difficult to articulate. The giving of language to something so strange and wonderful allows us to accept it in our limited intellects, but also defend it from those who refuse to enter the mystery but demand that our faith be rational in a merely human way.
We do this work of development principally and authoritatively as a Church through what is called the conciliar process – the whole of the Church meets through its bishops and great theologians in Councils such as Vatican II to address pressing questions and looming challenges. This recalls the first council of Jerusalem when the infant Church gathered with saints Peter and Paul to settle matters and so allow the Church to move on in obedience to Christ’s mandate.
We ask the Spirit to guide us into a better understanding of the Truth. We work from what we know with as much certainty as is possible, and try to find the language and philosophical concepts that will make it possible to grasp enough of what is ultimately incomprehensible so that we can find our way into the mystery of God and know Him better.
For those who are apt to think that theology is little more than an intellectual game taken too seriously, I would warn you against dismissing it as such. The nature of God is not a trivial matter in one’s understanding of the world, and of one’s self. It’s central, it’s fundamental, and the answer is not always obvious to everyone at all times.
The trinity was not always universally accepted. This teaching was challenged and almost overthrown in the fourth century. The great heresy known as Arianism was defeated through Church councils starting with Nicaea in 325 AD and ending with Constantinople in 381 AD as the Trinity came to be defined and the language describing it refined. This process gave us the Nicene Creed; we often refer to what Christianity is today as “the Nicene Faith.”
It was a titanic struggle that saw riots and street brawling, persecutions, faithful orthodox bishops being banished, forced from office; a Roman emperor converted to the heresy and actively campaigned to overturn the Church’s understanding of God as given to it by Christ.
And why? because their ideas about who Jesus was, and what the Spirit is, made more sense from a human perspective: God could only be one, unique thing, not three. So, they had to demote Christ and the Holy Spirit as being derivative of God, but nonetheless very special. The Arians argued that they still believed that Christ is God, and the Spirit is God, but just a little less God-ish than the Father-Creator. They couldn’t grasp that if anything or anyone is a little less than God, well then, they aren’t God.
The Church had confessed that Jesus Christ is God, and the Holy Spirit is God from its earliest days. So, while that ancient confession doesn’t make human sense, those are the facts; and those who defended the Apostolic faith argued along a familiar line you’ll hear today: you are entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts.
Our theological duty today is to accept things as they truly are, not according to human desires. We cannot bend reality to fiction, and insist the contradictions and inconsistencies don’t exist. This isn’t about being coldly logical or legalistic; but about consistency, and rationality, and order predicated, not on power and coercion, but on love and compassionate care.
At one point in the generations-long struggle, the Arian heresy enjoyed widespread majority support among the hierarchy, the political leadership and the laity. Thank God for the holdouts who slowly chipped away at the underlying stupidity of this idea. They rightly pointed out how the whole of Christian theology simply collapses if Jesus is not the incarnation of God but rather God’s special creation. The sacrifice on the cross becomes nonsensical, and indeed, does then appear barbarous and cruel. That’s not God up there, but rather His unfortunate underling—if that is not God up there, then God doesn’t have “skin in the game” as it were, and so remains a distant and cold divinity.
When Jesus speaks, He is then just a messenger, perhaps something of a special hybrid between an archangel and Elijah, but nonetheless, just another messenger. So, when St. Thomas famously fell to his knees before the resurrected Jesus and said, “My Lord and my God” according to Arianism, he was mistaken.
One can only speculate what would have become of Christianity had the Arians won. I suspect that it would not have endured beyond a few more generations, the Roman emperors growing bored with Christ and moving onto some new religion; the people, finding the teaching increasingly incoherent, would have drifted away anyhow.
Today in the Church we get a lot of agitation for changing its teaching without much consideration for the matter of authority, the need for a proper conciliar process instead of these regional synods that think we can have widely diverging teaching and still call ourselves “catholic”; the absolute value of communion, the understanding of what development of doctrine is versus wholesale change that revolts against established teaching.
Some of what we hear in defense of this defiance of established teaching is that it is all being done in the spirit of Vatican II – and that itself is telling.
That council ended more than fifty years ago, its documents published and then the subject of ongoing interpretation. That need to interpret and apply the council’s decisions has been the basis for a lot of the revolutionary dissent we see. As Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI never tired of arguing as pontiff and when a cardinal, the Church is to interpret a council’s decisions in continuity with the greater tradition of the Church, with the decisions of previous councils. It has no warrant for overturning and contradicting what came before.
He also argued that councils have a limited function, and not as so many seem to believe, that they bequeath some new spirit of revolution. The so-called “spirit of Vatican II” seems to be one that regards the council as really never having closed; that it settled nothing, but opened all things up for constant, never-ending discussion and dispute. This makes the Church less a place of prayer and communion and more a noisy talking shop, a place of never ending discussion, dispute, and dissension.
When still Cardinal Ratzinger, he commented on the key difference between the concepts of the Church as council and the Church as communion. He wrote,
The Church is not a council. A council happens in the Church but it is not the Church. A council serves the Church but not vice versa…. A council discusses and decides but then comes to an end. The Church, however, is not there to discuss the gospel but to live it.
The spirit that animates so much of what we see, what is tearing apart not just the Church, but our national communities, our families, our civilization, is not the Holy Spirit, but something malevolent. It sows chaos and creates confusion in the minds of the young and alienates the old, the faithful and the faithless are become lost sheep, astray and prey to wolves. It steers us all toward a life that is rootless, always unsettled, ever restless, and in constant conflicts. This is a descent into what the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes called, “the war of all against all;” what he regarded as humanity’s natural state once authority is removed.
Hobbes, as an atheist, saw the answer to this threatened chaos in government. I think he was rather naïve. Look at many western governments and they aid and abet in this dissolution of community, the destruction of family and faith, sound economy and civil discourse. We see leaders endorsing identity politics, buying into critical race theory and releasing the toxin of it into every department and agency all for the sake of short term political gain. So, government is not the antidote, it will not stop us from making life once again, in Hobbes words, “nasty, brutish and short.”
As Catholics, we can show leadership by our trinitarian faith that takes as its model the triune God. We live as individuals and as a community, bound together by love, acting together in harmony even as we enjoy our individuality. In living out the sacraments, especially that of the Eucharist that calls each one of us into communion; but also, in our family life which sees father and mother and child mirroring the divine life of the God known in three persons; in our baptismal promises to be a threefold servant to each other: priest, prophet and king—a means by which we are mutually sanctified, educated in God’s Word, and led into the ways of righteousness.
The gift of divine revelation requires time to be received and to unfold. The teaching of the Trinity shows us that. New historical circumstances and new controversies will cause the same truth to be expressed in different terms, or an implicit idea to be explicated and unfolded. Human beings still have a great deal to learn. I pray we have enough time to learn it; or learn enough so to be truly led by the Spirit of God, and so, be the sons and daughters of God we are called to be.