The Blessed Trinity
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This article is divided as follows:
I. Dogma of the Trinity;
II. Proof of the Doctrine from Scripture;
III. Proof of the Doctrine from Tradition;
IV. The Trinity as a Mystery;
V. The Doctrine as Interpreted in Greek Theology;
VI. The Doctrine as Interpreted in Latin Theology.
I. THE DOGMA OF THE TRINITY
The Trinity is the term employed to signify the central doctrine of the Christian religion -- the truth that in the unity of the Godhead there are Three Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, these Three Persons being truly distinct one from another.
Thus, in the words of the Athanasian Creed : "the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, and yet there are not three Gods but one God." In this Trinity of Persons the Son is begotten of the Father by an eternal generation, and the Holy Spirit proceeds by an eternal procession from the Father and the Son. Yet, notwithstanding this difference as to origin, the Persons are co-eternal and co-equal: all alike are uncreated and omnipotent. This, the Church teaches, is the revelation regarding God's nature which Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came upon earth to deliver to the world: and which she proposes to man as the foundation of her whole dogmatic system.
In Scripture there is as yet no single term by which the Three Divine Persons are denoted together. The word trias (of which the Latin trinitas is a translation) is first found in Theophilus of Antioch about A.D. 180. He speaks of "the Trinity of God [the Father], His Word and His Wisdom ("Ad. Autol.", II, 15). The term may, of course, have been in use before his time. Afterwards it appears in its Latin form of trinitas in Tertullian ("De pud." c. xxi). In the next century the word is in general use. It is found in many passages of Origen ("In Ps. xvii", 15). The first creed in which it appears is that of Origen's pupil, Gregory Thaumaturgus. In his Ekthesis tes pisteos composed between 260 and 270, he writes:There is therefore nothing created, nothing subject to another in the Trinity: nor is there anything that has been added as though it once had not existed, but had entered afterwards: therefore the Father has never been without the Son, nor the Son without the Spirit : and this same Trinity is immutable and unalterable forever (P. G., X, 986).
It is manifest that a dogma so mysterious presupposes a Divine revelation . When the fact of revelation, understood in its full sense as the speech of God to man, is no longer admitted, the rejection of the doctrine follows as a necessary consequence. For this reason it has no place in the Liberal Protestantism of today. The writers of this school contend that the doctrine of the Trinity, as professed by the Church, is not contained in the New Testament, but that it was first formulated in the second century and received final approbation in the fourth, as the result of the Arian and Macedonian controversies. In view of this assertion it is necessary to consider in some detail the evidence afforded by Holy Scripture . Attempts have been made recently to apply the more extreme theories of comparative religion to the doctrine of the Trinity, and to account for it by an imaginary law of nature compelling men to group the objects of their worship in threes. It seems needless to give more than a reference to these extravagant views, which serious thinkers of every school reject as destitute of foundation.
II. PROOF OF DOCTRINE FROM SCRIPTURE A. New Testament
The evidence from the Gospels culminates in the baptismal commission of Matthew 28:20 . It is manifest from the narratives of the Evangelists that Christ only made the great truth known to the Twelve step by step.
First He taught them to recognize in Himself the Eternal Son of God. When His ministry was drawing to a close, He promised that the Father would send another Divine Person, the Holy Spirit, in His place. Finally after His resurrection, He revealed the doctrine in explicit terms, bidding them "go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost " ( Matthew 28:18 ). The force of this passage is decisive. That "the Father" and "the Son" are distinct Persons follows from the terms themselves, which are mutually exclusive. The mention of the Holy Spirit in the same series, the names being connected one with the other by the conjunctions "and . . . and" is evidence that we have here a Third Person co-ordinate with the Father and the Son, and excludes altogether the supposition that the Apostles understood the Holy Spirit not as a distinct Person, but as God viewed in His action on creatures.
The phrase "in the name" ( eis to onoma ) affirms alike the Godhead of the Persons and their unity of nature. Among the Jews and in the Apostolic Church the Divine name was representative of God. He who had a right to use it was invested with vast authority: for he wielded the supernatural powers of Him whose name he employed. It is incredible that the phrase "in the name" should be here employed, were not all the Persons mentioned equally Divine. Moreover, the use of the singular, "name," and not the plural, shows that these Three Persons are that One Omnipotent God in whom the Apostles believed. Indeed the unity of God is so fundamental a tenet alike of the Hebrew and of the Christian religion, and is affirmed in such countless passages of the Old and New Testaments, that any explanation inconsistent with this doctrine would be altogether inadmissible.
The supernatural appearance at the baptism of Christ is often cited as an explicit revelation of Trinitarian doctrine, given at the very commencement of the Ministry. This, it seems to us, is a mistake. The Evangelists, it is true, see in it a manifestation of the Three Divine Persons. Yet, apart from Christ's subsequent teaching, the dogmatic meaning of the scene would hardly have been understood. Moreover, the Gospel narratives appear to signify that none but Christ and the Baptist were privileged to see the Mystic Dove, and hear the words attesting the Divine sonship of the Messias.
Besides these passages there are many others in the Gospels which refer to one or other of the Three Persons in particular and clearly express the separate personality and Divinity of each. In regard to the First Person it will not be necessary to give special citations: those which declare that Jesus Christ is God the Son, affirm thereby also the separate personality of the Father. The Divinity of Christ is amply attested not merely by St. John, but by the Synoptists. As this point is treated elsewhere (see JESUS CHRIST ), it will be sufficient here to enumerate a few of the more important messages from the Synoptists, in which Christ bears witness to His Divine Nature.
- He declares that He will come to be the judge of all men ( Matthew 25:31 ). In Jewish theology the judgment of the world was a distinctively Divine, and not a Messianic, prerogative.
- In the parable of the wicked husbandmen, He describes Himself as the son of the householder, while the Prophets, one and all, are represented as the servants ( Matthew 21:33 sqq. ).
- He is the Lord of Angels, who execute His command ( Matthew 24:31 ).
- He approves the confession of Peter when he recognizes Him, not as Messias -- a step long since taken by all the Apostles -- but explicitly as the Son of God : and He declares the knowledge due to a special revelation from the Father ( Matthew 16:16-17 ).
- Finally, before Caiphas He not merely declares Himself to be the Messias, but in reply to a second and distinct question affirms His claim to be the Son of God. He is instantly declared by the high priest to be guilty of blasphemy, an offense which could not have been attached to the claim to be simply the Messias ( Luke 22:66-71 ).
St. John's testimony is yet more explicit than that of the Synoptists. He expressly asserts that the very purpose of his Gospel is to establish the Divinity of Jesus Christ ( John 20:31 ). In the prologue he identifies Him with the Word, the only-begotten of the Father, Who from all eternity exists with God, Who is God ( John 1:1-18 ). The immanence of the Son in the Father and of the Father in the Son is declared in Christ's words to St. Philip: "Do you not believe, that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me?" ( 14:10 ), and in other passages no less explicit ( 14:7 ; 16:15 ; 17:21 ). The oneness of Their power and Their action is affirmed: "Whatever he [the Father] does, the Son also does in like manner" ( 5:19 , cf. 10:38 ); and to the Son no less than to the Father belongs the Divine attribute of conferring life on whom He will ( 5:21 ). In 10:29 , Christ expressly teaches His unity of essence with the Father: "That which my Father hath given me, is greater than all . . . I and the Father are one." The words, "That which my Father hath given me," can, having regard to the context, have no other meaning than the Divine Name, possessed in its fullness by the Son as by the Father.
Rationalist critics lay great stress upon the text: "The Father is greater than I" ( 14:28 ). They argue that this suffices to establish that the author of the Gospel held subordinationist views, and they expound in this sense certain texts in which the Son declares His dependence on the Father ( 5:19 ; 8:28 ). In point of fact the doctrine of the Incarnation involves that, in regard of His Human Nature, the Son should be less than the Father. No argument against Catholic doctrine can, therefore, be drawn from this text. So too, the passages referring to the dependence of the Son upon the Father do but express what is essential to Trinitarian dogma, namely, that the Father is the supreme source from Whom the Divine Nature and perfections flow to the Son. (On the essential difference between St. John's doctrine as to the Person of Christ and the Logos doctrine of the Alexandrine Philo, to which many Rationalists have attempted to trace it, see L OGOS .)
In regard to the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity , the passages which can be cited from the Synoptists as attesting His distinct personality are few. The words of Gabriel ( Luke 1:35 ), having regard to the use of the term, "the Spirit," in the Old Testament , to signify God as operative in His creatures, can hardly be said to contain a definite revelation of the doctrine. For the same reason it is dubious whether Christ's warning to the Pharisees as regards blasphemy against the Holy Spirit ( Matthew 12:31 ) can be brought forward as proof. But in Luke 12:12 , "The Holy Ghost shall teach you in the same hour what you must say" ( Matthew 10:20 , and Luke 24:49 ), His personality is clearly implied. These passages, taken in connection with Matthew 28:19 , postulate the existence of such teaching as we find in the discourses in the Cenacle reported by St. John ( 14 , 15 , 16 ). We have in these chapters the necessary preparation for the baptismal commission. In them the Apostles are instructed not only as the personality of the Spirit, but as to His office towards the Church. His work is to teach whatsoever He shall hear ( 16:13 ) to bring back their minds the teaching of Christ ( 14:26 ), to convince the world of sin ( 16:8 ). It is evident that, were the Spirit not a Person, Christ could not have spoken of His presence with the Apostles as comparable to His own presence with them ( 14:16 ). Again, were He not a Divine Person it could not have been expedient for the Apostles that Christ should leave them, and the Paraclete take His place ( 16:7 ). Moreover, notwithstanding the neuter form of the word ( pneuma ), the pronoun used in His regard is the masculine ekeinos . The distinction of the Holy Spirit from the Father and from the Son is involved in the express statements that He proceeds from the Father and is sent by the Son ( 15:26 ; cf. 14:16 , 14:26 ). Nevertheless, He is one with Them: His presence with the Disciples is at the same time the presence of the Son ( 14:17-18 ), while the presence of the Son is the presence of the Father ( 14:23 ).
In the remaining New Testament writings numerous passages attest how clear and definite was the belief of the Apostolic Church in the three Divine Persons. In certain texts the coordination of Father, Son, and Spirit leaves no possible doubt as to the meaning of the writer. Thus in 2 Corinthians 13:13 , St. Paul writes: "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the charity of God, and the communication of the Holy Ghost be with you all." Here the construction shows that the Apostle is speaking of three distinct Persons. Moreover, since the names God and Holy Ghost are alike Divine names, it follows that Jesus Christ is also regarded as a Divine Person. So also, in 1 Corinthians 12:4-11 : "There are diversities of graces, but the same Spirit ; and there are diversities of ministries, but the same Lord: and there are diversities of operations, but the same God, who worketh all [of them] in all [ persons ]." (Cf. also Ephesians 4:4-6 ; 1 Peter 1:2-3 )
But apart from passages such as these, where there is express mention of the Three Persons, the teaching of the New Testament regarding Christ and the Holy Spirit is free from all ambiguity. In regard to Christ, the Apostles employ modes of speech which, to men brought up in the Hebrew faith, necessarily signified belief in His Divinity. Such, for instance, is the use of the Doxology in reference to Him. The Doxology, "To Him be glory for ever and ever" (cf. 1 Chronicles 16:38 ; 29:11 ; Psalm 103:31 ; 28:2 ), is an expression of praise offered to God alone. In the New Testament we find it addressed not alone to God the Father, but to Jesus Christ ( 2 Timothy 4:18 ; 2 Peter 3:18 ; Revelation 1:6 ; Hebrews 13:20-21 ), and to God the Father and Christ in conjunction ( Revelations 5:13 , 7:10 ).
Not less convincing is the use of the title Lord ( Kyrios ). This term represents the Hebrew Adonai , just as God ( Theos ) represents Elohim . The two are equally Divine names (cf. 1 Corinthians 8:4 ). In the Apostolic writings Theos may almost be said to be treated as a proper name of God the Father, and Kyrios of the Son (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 12:5-6 ); in only a few passages do we find Kyrios used of the Father ( 1 Corinthians 3:5 ; 7:17 ) or Theos of Christ. The Apostles from time to time apply to Christ passages of the Old Testament in which Kyrios is used, for example, 1 Corinthians 10:9 ( Numbers 21:7 ), Hebrews 1:10-12 ( Psalm 101:26-28 ); and they use such expressions as "the fear of the Lord" ( Acts 9:31 ; 2 Corinthians 5:11 ; Ephesians 5:21 ), "call upon the name of the Lord," indifferently of God the Father and of Christ ( Acts 2:21 ; 9:14 ; Romans 10:13 ). The profession that " Jesus is the Lord" ( Kyrion Iesoun , Romans 10:9 ; Kyrios Iesous , 1 Corinthians 12:3 ) is the acknowledgment of Jesus as Jahweh. The texts in which St. Paul affirms that in Christ dwells the plenitude of the Godhead ( Colossians 2:9 ), that before His Incarnation He possessed the essential nature of God ( Philemon 2:6 ), that He "is over all things, God blessed for ever" ( Romans 9:5 ) tell us nothing that is not implied in many other passages of his Epistles.School or Church closed? - Here's FREE help!
The doctrine as to the Holy Spirit is equally clear. That His distinct personality was fully recognized is shown by many passages. Thus He reveals His commands to the Church's ministers : "As they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Ghost said to them: Separate me Saul and Barnabas . . ." ( Acts 13:2 ). He directs the missionary journey of the Apostles : "They attempted to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus suffered them not" ( Acts 16:7 ; cf. Acts 5:3 ; 15:28 ; Romans 15:30 ). Divine attributes are affirmed of Him.
- He possesses omniscience and reveals to the Church mysteries known only to God ( 1 Corinthians 2:10 );
- it is He who distributes charismata ( 1 Corinthians 12:11 );
- He is the giver of supernatural life ( 2 Corinthians 3:8 );
- He dwells in the Church and in the souls of individual men, as in His temple ( Romans 8:9-11 ; 1 Corinthians 3:16 , 6:19 ).
- The work of justification and sanctification is attributed to Him ( 1 Corinthians 6:11 ; Romans 15:16 ), just as in other passages the same operations are attributed to Christ ( 1 Corinthians 1:2 ; Galatians 2:17 ).
To sum up: the various elements of the Trinitarian doctrine are all expressly taught in the New Testament. The Divinity of the Three Persons is asserted or implied in passages too numerous to count. The unity of essence is not merely postulated by the strict monotheism of men nurtured in the religion of Israel, to whom "subordinate deities" would have been unthinkable; but it is, as we have seen, involved in the baptismal commission of Matthew 28:19 , and, in regard to the Father and the Son, expressly asserted in John 10:38 . That the Persons are co-eternal and coequal is a mere corollary from this. In regard to the Divine processions, the doctrine of the first procession is contained in the very terms Father and Son : the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and Son is taught in the discourse of the Lord reported by St. John ( 14-17 ) (see H OLY G HOST ).B. Old Testament
The early Fathers were persuaded that indications of the doctrine of the Trinity must exist in the Old Testament and they found such indications in not a few passages. Many of them not merely believed that the Prophets had testified of it, they held that it had been made known even to the Patriarchs. They regarded it as certain that the Divine messenger of Genesis 16:7 , 16:18 , 21:17 , 31:11 ; Exodus 3:2 , was God the Son ; for reasons to be mentioned below (III. B.) they considered it evident that God the Father could not have thus manifested Himself (cf. Justin, "Dial.", 60; Irenaeus, "Adv. haer.", IV, xx, 7-11; Tertullian, "Adv. Prax.", 15-16; Theophilus, "Ad Autol.", ii, 22; Novat., "De Trin.", 18, 25, etc.). They held that, when the inspired writers speak of "the Spirit of the Lord", the reference was to the Third Person of the Trinity; and one or two (Irenaeus, "Adv. haer.", II, xxx, 9; Theophilus, "Ad. Aut.", II, 15; Hippolytus, "Con. Noet.", 10) interpret the hypostatic Wisdom of the Sapiential books, not, with St. Paul, of the Son ( Hebrews 1:3 ; cf. Wisdom 7:25-26 ), but of the Holy Spirit. But in others of the Fathers is found what would appear to be the sounder view, that no distinct intimation of the doctrine was given under the Old Covenant. (Cf. Gregory Nazianzen, "Or. theol.", v, 26; Epiphanius, "Ancor." 73, "Haer.", 74; Basil, "Adv. Eunom.", II, 22; Cyril of Alexandria, "In Joan.", xii, 20.)
Some of these, however, admitted that a knowledge of the mystery was granted to the Prophets and saints of the Old Dispensation (Epiphanius, "Haer.", viii, 5; Cyril of Alexandria, "Con. Julian.," I). It may be readily conceded that the way is prepared for the revelation in some of the prophecies. The names Emmanuel ( Isaiah 7:14 ) and God the Mighty ( Isaiah 9:6 ) affirmed of the Messias make mention of the Divine Nature of the promised deliverer. Yet it seems that the Gospel revelation was needed to render the full meaning of the passages clear. Even these exalted titles did not lead the Jews to recognize that the Saviour to come was to be none other than God Himself. The Septuagint translators do not even venture to render the words God the Mighty literally, but give us, in their place, "the angel of great counsel."
A still higher stage of preparation is found in the doctrine of the Sapiential books regarding the Divine Wisdom. In Proverbs 8 , Wisdom appears personified, and in a manner which suggests that the sacred author was not employing a mere metaphor, but had before his mind a real person (cf. verses 22, 23 ). Similar teaching occurs in Ecclesiasticus 24 , in a discourse which Wisdom is declared to utter in "the assembly of the Most High", i.e. in the presence of the angels. This phrase certainly supposes Wisdom to be conceived as person. The nature of the personality is left obscure; but we are told that the whole earth is Wisdom's Kingdom, that she finds her delight in all the works of God, but that Israel is in a special manner her portion and her inheritance ( Ecclesiasticus 24:8-13 ).
In the Book of the Wisdom of Solomon we find a still further advance. Here Wisdom is clearly distinguished from Jehovah : "She is . . . a certain pure emanation of the glory of the almighty God. . .the brightness of eternal light, and the unspotted mirror of God's majesty, and the image of his goodness " ( Wisdom 7:25-26 . Cf. Hebrews 1:3 ). She is, moreover, described as "the worker of all things" ( panton technitis , 7:21), an expression indicating that the creation is in some manner attributable to her. Yet in later Judaism this exalted doctrine suffered eclipse, and seems to have passed into oblivion. Nor indeed can it be said that the passage, even though it manifests some knowledge of a second personality in the Godhead, constitutes a revelation of the Trinity. For nowhere in the Old Testament do we find any clear indication of a Third Person. Mention is often made of the Spirit of the Lord , but there is nothing to show that the Spirit was viewed as distinct from Jahweh Himself. The term is always employed to signify God considered in His working, whether in the universe or in the soul of man. The matter seems to be correctly summed up by Epiphanius, when he says: "The One Godhead is above all declared by Moses, and the twofold personality (of Father and Son ) is strenuously asserted by the Prophets. The Trinity is made known by the Gospel" ("Haer.", lxxiv).
III. PROOF OF THE DOCTRINE FROM TRADITION A. The Church Fathers
In this section we shall show that the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity has from the earliest times been taught by the Catholic Church and professed by her members. As none deny this for any period subsequent to the Arian and Macedonian controversies, it will be sufficient if we here consider the faith of the first four centuries only. An argument of very great weight is provided in the liturgical forms of the Church. The highest probative force must necessarily attach to these, since they express not the private opinion of a single individual, but the public belief of the whole body of the faithful. Nor can it be objected that the notions of Christians on the subject were vague and confused, and that their liturgical forms reflect this frame of mind. On such a point vagueness was impossible. Any Christian might be called on to seal with his blood his belief that there is but One God. The answer of Saint Maximus (c. A.D. 250) to the command of the proconsul that he should sacrifice to the gods, "I offer no sacrifice save to the One True God," is typical of many such replies in the Acts of the martyrs. It is out of the question to suppose that men who were prepared to give their lives on behalf of this fundamental truth were in point of fact in so great confusion in regard to it that they were unaware whether their creed was monotheistic, ditheistic, or tritheistic. Moreover, we know that their instruction regarding the doctrines of their religion was solid. The writers of that age bear witness that even the unlettered were thoroughly familiar with the truths of faith (cf. Justin, "Apol.", I, 60; Irenaeus, "Adv. haer.", III, iv, n. 2).
(1) Baptismal formulas
We may notice first the baptismal formula, which all acknowledge to be primitive. It has already been shown that the words as prescribed by Christ ( Matthew 28:19 ) clearly express the Godhead of the Three Persons as well as their distinction, but another consideration may here be added. Baptism, with its formal renunciation of Satan and his works, was understood to be the rejection of the idolatry of paganism and the solemn consecration of the baptised to the one true God (Tert., "De spect.", iv; Justin, "Apol.", I, iv). The act of consecration was the invocation over them of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The supposition that they regarded the Second and Third Persons as created beings, and were in fact consecrating themselves to the service of creatures, is manifestly absurd. St. Hippolytus has expressed the faith of the Church in the clearest terms: "He who descends into this laver of regeneration with faith forsakes the Evil One and engages himself to Christ, renounces the enemy and confesses that Christ is God. . . he returns from the font a son of God and a coheir of Christ. To Whom with the all holy, the good and lifegiving Spirit be glory now and always, forever and ever. Amen " ("Serm. in Theoph.", n. 10).
(2) The doxologies
The witness of the doxologies is no less striking. The form now universal, "Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost," so clearly expresses the Trinitarian dogma that the Arians found it necessary to deny that it had been in use previous to the time of Flavian of Antioch (Philostorgius, "Hist. eccl.", III, xiii).
It is true that up to the period of the Arian controversy another form, "Glory to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit," had been more common (cf. I Clement, 58, 59; Justin, "Apol.", I, 67). This latter form is indeed perfectly consistent with Trinitarian belief : it, however, expresses not the coequality of the Three Persons, but their operation in regard to man. We live in the Spirit, and through Him we are made partakers in Christ ( Galatians 5:25 ; Romans 8:9 ); and it is through Christ, as His members, that we are worthy to offer praise to God ( Hebrews 13:15 ).
But there are many passages in the ante-Nicene Fathers which show that the form, "Glory be to the Father and to the Son, and to [with] the Holy Spirit," was also in use.
- In the narrative of St. Polycarp'smartyrdom we read: "With Whom to Thee and the Holy Spirit be glory now and for the ages to come" (Mart. S. Polyc., n.14; cf. n. 22).
- Clement of Alexandria bids men "give thanks and praise to the only Father and Son, to the Son and Father with the Holy Spirit " (Paed., III, xii).
- St. Hippolytus closes his work against Noetus with the words: "To Him be glory and power with the Father and the Holy Spirit in Holy Church now and always for ever and ever. Amen " (Contra Noet., n. 18).
- Denis of Alexandria uses almost the same words: "To God the Father and to His Son Jesus Christ with the Holy Spirit be honour and glory forever and ever, Amen " (in St. Basil, "De Spiritu Sancto", xxix, n. 72).
- St. Basil further tells us that it was an immemorial custom among Christians when they lit the evening lamp to give thanks to God with prayer : Ainoumen Patera kai Gion kai Hagion Pneuma Theou ("We praise the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit of God ").
(3) Other patristic writings
The doctrine of the Trinity is formally taught in every class of ecclesiastical writing. From among the apologists we may note Justin, "Apol." I, vi; Athenagoras, "Legat: pro Christ.", n. 12. The latter tells us that Christians "are conducted to the future life by this one thing alone, that they know God and His Logos, what is the oneness of the Son with the Father, what the communion of the Father with the Son, what is the Spirit, what is the unity of these three, the Spirit, the Son, and the Father, and their distinction in unity." It would be impossible to be more explicit. And we may be sure that an apologist, writing for pagans, would weigh well the words in which he dealt with this doctrine.
Amongst polemical writers we may refer to Irenaeus, "Adv. haer.", I, xxii, IV, xx, 1-6. In these passages he rejects the Gnostic figment that the world was created by aeons who had emanated from God, but were not consubstantial with Him, and teaches the consubstantiality of the Word and the Spirit by Whom God created all things.
(4) As contrasted with heretical teachings
Yet further evidence regarding the Church's doctrine is furnished by a comparison of her teaching with that of heretical sects.
The controversy with the Sabellians in the third century proves conclusively that she would tolerate no deviation from Trinitarian doctrine. Noetus of Smyrna, the originator of the error, was condemned by a local synod, about A.D. 200. Sabellius, who propagated the same heresy at Rome c. A.D. 220, was excommunicated by St. Callistus.
It is notorious that the sect made no appeal to tradition: it found Trinitarianism in possession wherever it appeared -- at Smyrna, at Rome, in Africa, in Egypt. On the other hand, St. Hippolytus, who combats it in the "Contra Noetum," claims Apostolic tradition for the doctrine of the Catholic Church : "Let us believe, beloved brethren, in accordance with the tradition of the Apostles, that God the Word came down from heaven to the holy Virgin Mary to save man."
Somewhat later (c. A.D. 260) Denis of Alexandria found that the error was widespread in the Libyan Pentapolis, and he addressed a dogmatic letter against it to two bishops, Euphranor and Ammonius. In this, in order to emphasize the distinction between the Persons, he termed the Son poiema tou Theou and used other expressions capable of suggesting that the Son is to be reckoned among creatures. He was accused of heterodoxy to St. Dionysius of Rome, who held a council and addressed to him a letter dealing with the true Catholic doctrine on the point in question. The Bishop of Alexandria replied with a defense of his orthodoxy entitled "Elegxhos kai apologia," in which he corrected whatever had been erroneous. He expressly professes his belief in the consubstantiality of the Son, using the very term, homoousios , which afterwards became the touchstone of orthodoxy at Nicaea (P.G., XXV, 505). The story of the controversy is conclusive as to the doctrinal standard of the Church. It shows us that she was firm in rejecting on the one hand any confusion of the Persons and on the other hand any denial of their consubstantiality.
The information we possess regarding another heresy -- that of Montanus -- supplies us with further proof that the doctrine of the Trinity was the Church's teaching in A.D. 150. Tertullian affirms in the clearest terms that what he held as to the Trinity when a Catholic he still holds as a Montanist ("Adv. Prax.", II, 156); and in the same work he explicitly teaches the Divinity of the Three Persons, their distinction, the eternity of God the Son (op. cit., xxvii). Epiphanius in the same way asserts the orthodoxy of the Montanists on this subject (Haer., lxviii). Now it is not to be supposed that the Montanists had accepted any novel teaching from the Catholic Church since their secession in the middle of the second century. Hence, inasmuch as there was full agreement between the two bodies in regard to the Trinity, we have here again a clear proof that Trinitarianism was an article of faith at a time when the Apostolic tradition was far too recent for any error to have arisen on a point so vital.B. Later Controversy
Notwithstanding the force of the arguments we have just summarised, a vigorous controversy has been carried on from the end of the seventeenth century to the present day regarding the Trinitarian doctrine of the ante-Nicene Fathers. The Socinian writers of the seventeenth century (e.g. Sand, "Nucleus historiae ecclesiastic", Amsterdam, 1668) asserted that the language of the early Fathers in many passages of their works shows that they agreed not with Athanasius, but with Arius. Petavius, who was at that period engaged on his great theological work, was convinced by their arguments, and allowed that at least some of these Fathers had fallen into grave errors. On the other hand, their orthodoxy was vigorously defended by the Anglican divine Dr. George Bull ("Defensio Fidei Nicaean", Oxford, 1685) and subsequently by Bossuet, Thomassinus, and other Catholic theologians. Those who take the less favourable view assert that they teach the following points inconsistent with the post-Nicene belief of the Church :
- That the Son even as regards His Divine Nature is inferior and not equal to the Father;
- that the Son alone appeared in the theophanies of the Old Testament , inasmuchas the Father is essentially invisible, the Son, however, not so;
- that the Son is a created being;
- that the generation of the Son is not eternal, but took place in time.
(1) In proof of the assertion that many of the Fathers deny the equality of the Son with the Father, passages are cited from Justin (Apol., I, xiii, xxxii), Irenaeus (Adv. haer., III, viii, n. 3), Clement of Alexandria ("Strom." VII, ii), Hippolytus (Con. Noet., n. 14), Origen (Con. Cels., VIII, xv). Thus Irenaeus (loc. cit.) says: "He commanded, and they were created. . . Whom did He command? His Word, by whom, says the Scripture, the heavens were established. And Origen, loc. cit., says: "We declare that the Son is not migh
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