Trinity Sunday is a special day each year when Christians are called to especially dwell on that great mystery of the Christian faith: the Trinity. There is only one God, but that one God has revealed himself to us as eternally existing as three distinct, co-equal, co-eternal persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
The doctrine of the Trinity is arguably the most important doctrine of the Church, since it is regarding the very nature of God. It’s also one of the most confusing and misunderstood. So Trinity Sunday is a great time for priests to clear up misconceptions among their flock.
So please don’t add to the confusion by accidentally preaching heresy!
I have been disappointed more than once since joining the Catholic Church 5 years ago to hear Trinitarian heresies preached from the pulpit by well-meaning clergy on Trinity Sunday.
While there are many ways to go wrong with the Trinity, here are 5 common heresies to make sure you avoid.
Heresy #1) Denying the personhood of the Holy Spirit
I once heard a clergyman preach that the Trinity was “two whos and a what.” Actually, the Trinity is three whos: the Holy Spirit is a person just as much as the Father and Son. He is not a “force,” and he is not simply “God’s actions in the world.” He is a full and distinct person.
This is easy to forget since his name isn’t as personal as “Father” and “Son,” and he is often represented with non-personal things, such as the dove. All the more reason it’s important that priests don’t add to this confusion.
Heresy #2) Modalism
Modalism is an ancient trinitarian heresy which said that the three persons of the Trinity are just three modes or masks that God switches between. Sometimes God is in Father mode, sometimes he switches to Son mode, and other times he’s in Holy Spirit mode – but he’s only in one mode at a time.
This is usually preached accidentally when the teacher compares the Trinity to a person having multiple roles. A man may act as one person’s employee, the teacher says, another person’s husband, and another person’s father.
This certainly simplifies things, but it’s also wrong: the orthodox teaching is that all three persons of the Trinity exist eternally and concurrently. The persons are not just different jobs or forms God has.
Heresy #3) The God of the Old Testament is just the Father
The Son and the Holy Spirit are revealed most clearly in the New Testament, but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t around before that. The three persons of the Trinity, including the Son and the Holy Spirit, exist eternally and act together in perfect harmony.
That means that the God revealed in the Old Testament is the same God who was Incarnated in the person of Jesus. The God whose words and actions are recorded in the Old Testament is the same God who, after assuming a human nature, preached the Sermon on the Mount.
[See also: 11 of the Best #ThingsJesusNeverSaid]
Heresy #4) Tritheism
Just as it’s important to emphasize the three persons, it’s also imperative to make it clear that Catholics only believe there is one God. Indeed, the first line of the Creed is, “We believe in one God…”
Be careful in your language. The three persons of the Trinity are divine, but they are not three Gods. Rather, they share the same divine substance (or, as the Creed says about the Father and Son, are “consubstantial”).
Three persons, one divine substance. That’s language approved by the Church.
Heresy #5) Dropping or altering gendered language
Divine revelation never refers to God as “Mother, Daughter, and Spirit.” And while it can be accurate, Scripture also doesn’t give us the formula “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.” Scripture gives God’s name as “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
Yes, the first person of the Trinity is named in Scripture (by Jesus no less!) as “Father.” Though motherly language is occasionally used to describe God, he is never given the name “Mother.” The Second person of the Trinity is called “Son,” and in assuming a human nature was a man.
Of course, God as God has no gender (though God as a human in Jesus does). But in addition to the fact that these terms were revealed by God himself to describe himself, this language has important theological meaning as well.
God is Father in his relationship to creation, since God created the world apart from himself (similar to how a human father is involved in the procreation of his children). The feminine principle, on the other hand, is receptive, and so is identified with creation (“Mother Earth”) and the Church (“Mother Church”).
There’s more that could be said here, but suffice it to say that God knew what he was doing when he described himself with male language. So let’s just stick with that.
So what should you preach?
One of the greatest articulations of the doctrine of the Trinity is the Athanasian Creed. Though named after the great 4th century defender of Trinitarian orthodoxy and hero of the faith St. Athanasius, most scholars today believe the creed was written a few centuries after his death. But regardless of who wrote it, it is a clear and thorough profession of the faith approved and used by the Church for more than a millenium.
Here it is:
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 Essence of the Father; begotten before the worlds; and Man, of the 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 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.