Opening the Word: Three in one

Several years ago I got into a verbal row about the Most Blessed Trinity. Jehovah’s Witnesses were making a sweep of our neighborhood, and I decided to hear what they had to say. The two who came to our house were husband and wife. As soon as I volunteered that I was Catholic, the wife launched into a rather vigorous attack on the Catholic Church for having the heretical audacity, in her opinion, of “making up” the doctrine of the Trinity. She was eager to show me passages in the Bible that “clearly” rejected what she believed was an absurd — nay, evil! — belief. 

I was certainly familiar with the wife’s hostile approach to Catholicism. As a fundamentalist, I had taken the same scorched-earth approach when dealing with Catholics. So, I knew there were some significant problems with her “Scripture alone”-styled argument.She apparently thought that belief in a Triune God — three divine Persons, one in nature — was created out of thin air, without any substantive basis, for the purposes of misleading the unwashed masses. She was convinced that the motives of Catholic councils, such as the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325, were both morally and theologically bankrupt. But what was this opinion based on? Historical research? Theological study? 

In order to find the answer, I asked, “Why are you appealing to a Catholic book to attack the Catholic Church?” Whatever did I mean, they asked, by that ? I pointed out how puzzling it was that they ardently renounced a doctrine — the Trinity — defended and defined at the ecumenical Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople (A.D. 381), while appealing to a canon, the New Testament, whose exact contents were not officially defined until after those councils. And when they were defined, it was by Catholic bishops at Catholic councils, and guided by the Holy Spirit. 

The truth about how the doctrine of the Trinity was articulated was both clearer and more complex than the two Jehovah’s Witnesses understood. It was clear, for instance, that the early Christians believed in one God, the God of Abraham, Jacob and Moses. But they also believed that Jesus Christ was God, and they knew very well that Jesus promised the Holy Spirit, as we hear in today’s Gospel: “But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth.” But if the problem was clear, how can three persons be the same God? Grappling with that theological mystery was challenging, fraught with dangers.  

The most famous danger came from Arianism, the belief taught by a priest, Arius, who believed that the Son was a lesser god begotten at some point in time and thus not possessing the same eternal nature as the Father. This is a form of polytheism; it is, in essence, what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe.  

Arianism was strongly condemned at the Council of Nicaea, which taught the equality of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, declaring that the Son was “Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in being with the Father.” The Athanasian Creed, named after St. Athanasius, the great champion of Nicaea, says, “Now the Catholic faith is this: that we worship the one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the substance…”  

The Church, then, believes in the Trinity because of divine revelation, found in Scripture and Tradition, and because of the actions of the Holy Spirit, who guides to all truth. 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.