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  • Writer's pictureFr. Scott Haynes

Errors in Understanding the Trinity

Fr. Scott A. Haynes

“The three Persons are distinct from one another;

a soul must be very pure and refined to understand this.”

St. Teresa of Avila


Our faith’s foundation is the Holy Trinity. It underpins everything about who we are as Christians. That God is One in nature, but Three in Person, is a truth to which we must firmly and forever cling. Holy Mother Church is insistent to preserve the revealed truth that God is One in nature and Three in Person.

It is a concept that is hard for our minds to grasp. Yet, why should we be surprised at our struggle to comprehend the mystery of the Blessed Trinity—God, who is infinitely higher than us—when a worm cannot know the nature of man? Despite our lowliness, God reveals Himself to us—who are made in His image and likeness—that we may come to see God face to face in the Beatific Vision.

The Trinity is a divine mystery that will require man’s contemplation into eternity. Just as a man cannot wrap his arms around the globe, so too man cannot fully grasp God. While we know little of the immensity of our Triune God, we do what has been revealed in Scripture and what God has shown us in nature. In the pursuit of truth, many thinkers have driven off the path of truth. Let us then consider the various heretical perspectives that challenged the revealed Trinitarian faith throughout Church history.


The positions of those who oppose the theology of the Trinity make sense, because they attempt to bring down what is mysterious to what is knowable. The Trinitarian nature of God is puzzling to our human intellect, so we must approach this subject with intellectual humility. We must be ready to face the limitations of our minds.

Because God has revealed the essential truth of the mystery of the Trinity in the Sacred Scriptures, we must be open to the Word of God, which forms our minds to know divine truth. As St. Augustine’s De Trinitate teaches, the mystery of the Triune God is consistent with human intelligence. The more the Trinity is grasped, the more the intellect expands and understands the Trinity’s world.

Besides Christian thinkers who have struggled to come to an understanding of the Trinity, non-believers have also rationalized their own views of the mystery in their erroneous attempts to “explain” it. For simplicity, we can summarize Christian history’s leading anti-Trinitarian views. Although listed chronologically, they are all current because various sects still purport these false teachings. There are no old doctrinal errors or new heresies. Error is remarkably consistent.


By the end of the first century, some Judaizing Christians, such as the Corinthians and Ebionites, believing God to be unipersonal. This monarchianism (monos = one + archein = to govern) postulates just one person in God. If God is one person, then the Son of God became man as an adopted son. Adoptionists, such as Paul of Samosata, believed Christ was a mere man, miraculously conceived by Mary. The Father gave Christ great power and adopted Him as son at His baptism.

Monarchians believed Christ was divine. In their theology, they posit that the Father became human and suffered and died for the world’s salvation. Patripassionists, or “Father-sufferers,” believed that Christ was only symbolically the Son of God since the Father became man. Since He has no natural Son, the Father is just figuratively Father under their theological hypothesis.

Sabellius, who founded Sabellianism, was the most famous Patripassionist. Sabellius believed that God had one hypostasis (person) but three prosopa (masks or roles). These roles represent God’s three modes of manifestation. This theory is called Modalism. For instance, to compare the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to water, which can be liquid, ice and steam, would mean that the Father morphs into the Son and the Son into the Holy Spirit. As a formal heresy, Modalism was condemned at the Council of Constantinople in 381. A similar theological mistake is to portray God as the Creator (Father), the Redeemer (Son), and the Sanctifier (Holy Spirit), as if they were divided in their actions. In this erroneous view of theology, they look at God through His worldly impact, not as three unique persons.


Subordinationism accepts that God is three Divine Persons but denies that the second and third are consubstantial with the Father. It negates their divinity. Subordinationism is still alive, but not all kinds are immediately identifiable as Trinitarian mistakes in which the intellect struggles to understand how one infinitely flawless divine nature is each equally and perfectly God, yet Three in Person.

The Alexandrian priest Arius founded the Arians, who believed the Logos or Word of God does not exist eternally. Thus, only the Father could have generated the Son. As “the first born of all creation,” the Son is a creature of the Father and a “son of God.” He was willed by the Father to exist from nothing. The beguiling image of the Trinity as sun, light and heat is the heresy of Arianism, depicting the Son and Holy Spirit as creatures of the Father. The Semi-Arians termed themselves Homoi-ousians (homios = like = ousia = nature) to avoid claiming that Christ was completely different from the Father. Finally, the Macedonians, called after Bishop Macedonius (deposed in 360 AD), extended the idea of subjection to the Holy Spirit, who they said was a creation. They accepted that the Holy Spirit was a God-sent angel.


The heresy of three gods was the opposite of the one-person God view. Notable names among this group include John Philoponus (565 AD) and Roscelin (1120 AD). Roscelin was a nominalist. He believed only individuals exist. He held the three Persons of the Trinity are three distinct realities. St. Anselm vigorously opposed this fallacy.

Gilbert of Poitiers (1154 AD) said God and Divinity are distinct. A quaternity—three Persons plus the Godhead—would result. Abbot Joachim of Fiore (1202 AD) believed in a collective unity of the three persons in God—a gathering of like-minded people free to work together on a common endeavor. Doctrinal history credits Joachim of Fiore with proposing three Christian stages. Stage One was the Age of the Father, through Old Testament times; Stage Two was the Age of the Second Person, the Son, from the Incarnation to the Middle Ages; and Stage Three, the Age of the Holy Spirit, began about Abbot Joachim and will continue until the end of the world. Hegelian pantheist Anton Guenther (1873) declared a new Trinity. The Absolute freely determined Itself three times in an evolutionary process of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, according to Guenther. The divine substance triples.


Original Reformers unqualifiedly affirmed the Trinity. Luther, Calvin, and Protestant confessions of the sixteenth century all affirmed the Trinity, as do many non-Catholic Christians to this day. However, in various places an intellectual subjectivism led to a slow attrition of faith in various sects, allowing theories of rationalism to theological errors.

One of the common forms of this rationalism heard today is that the Father personifies divine might, the Son divine wisdom, and the Holy Spirit divine goodness. Rationalists believe the mind cannot hold what it does not understand. The Trinity is unknowable, hence, in their theological system, it cannot be certain.


In 259 AD, Pope St. Dionysius publicly denounced Sabellius and Marcion. This document laid the groundwork for the Church’s later teaching, particularly in Christological councils. Before ecumenical councils convened to defend the faith, the successors of St. Peter defended and explained the Trinity’s revealed mystery. A few passages from the pope’s message demonstrate the Church’s tenacity and certainty about the Trinity:

· “Sabellius’ blasphemy is that the Son is the Father, and the Father the Son. These men somehow teach there are three gods since they divine the sacred unity into three different hypostases completely separate from one another.”

· “The teaching of the foolish Marcion who divides and separates the one God into three principles is a teaching from the devil, not the teaching of those who truly follow Christ and who are content with the teachings of the Savior.”

At the Council of Nicea (325 AD), Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, was declared to be consubstantial with the Father. The term homo-ousios became the designated term for expressing the truth that God is of one substance, being of the same nature. While the Council of Nicea’s teaching was clear, not everyone accepted it. Thus, in 382 AD, Pope St. Damasus held a council in Rome to review the principal errors circulating in his time. Speculators, especially in the Near East, insisted on exploring and justifying the Trinity. The Tome of Damasus is a compilation of twenty-four anathemas condemning heretical statements about the Trinity, of which these are a few samples:

· “If anyone denies that the Father is eternal, that the Son is eternal, and that the Holy Spirit is eternal: he is a heretic.”

· “If anyone says that the Son made flesh was not in heaven with the Father while He was on earth: he is a heretic.”

· “If anyone denies that the Holy Spirit has all power and knows all things, and is everywhere, just as the Father and the Son: he is a heretic.”

The Eleventh Synod of Toledo (675 AD) gave us the Church’s most explicit teaching on the Blessed Trinity. In light of the still-pervasive errors floating about today, it is an important document for our theological study. Since the Koranic allegation that Christians were idolaters because they worshiped Christ as God was the main target of Moslem hostility to Christianity, the teaching of the Eleventh Synod of Toledo is useful to examine how Christ’s faithful answer Moslem Unitarianism. The complete text of the doctrine taught at the Synod of Toledo contains over 2,000 words. A few lines will demonstrate the tone:

· “We confess and we believe that the holy and indescribable Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one only God in His nature, a single substance, a single nature, a single majesty and power.”

· “We acknowledge Trinity in the distinction of persons; we profess Unity because of the nature or substance. The three are one, as a nature, that is, not as person. Nevertheless, these three persons are not to be considered separable, since we believe that no one of them existed or at any time effected anything before the other, after the other, or without the other.”

The Fourth Lateran sought to defend the truth of our Catholic faith against Abbot Joachim and the Albigensian heresy. The Fourth Lateran Council established the absolute oneness of God, who is Triune, as the Albigenses were Manichaens, who believed there were two ultimate causes of the universe, one good and one evil:

· “We firmly believe and profess without qualification that there is only one true God, eternal, immense, unchangeable, incomprehensible, omnipotent, and indescribable, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; three persons but one essence and a substance or nature that is wholly simple.”

· “The Father is from no one; the Son is from the Father only; and the Holy Spirit is from both the Father and the Son equally. God has no beginning; He always is, and always will be. The Father is the progenitor, the Son is the begotten, the Holy Spirit is proceeding. They are all one substance, equally great, equally all-powerful, equally eternal. They are the one and only principle of all things – Creator of all things visible and invisible, spiritual and corporeal, who, by His almighty power, from the very beginning of time has created both orders of creatures in the same way out of nothing, the spiritual or angelic worlds and the corporeal or visible universe.”

Joachim’s wrong-headed theology professed a plurality of gods. As his mind twisted in pretzel-like contortions to explain the distinction between the persons of the Trinity, Joachim made them separate deities in his mind. Joachim had trouble conveying what happens in human generation, when something of the parent transfers to the offspring and is distinct. He misapplied the analogy, falling into error. In response, the Fourth Lateran Council employed the most precise language to argue that God is not divided because of persons:

· “The Father in eternally begetting the Son gave Him His own substance as the Son Himself testifies, “What my Father has given me is greater than all.” But it cannot be said that He gave Him part of His substance, and retained part for Himself, because the substance of the Father is indivisible, since it is altogether simple. Neither can one say that the Father transferred His own substance in generation to the Son, as though He gave it to the Son in such a way that He did not retain it for Himself; otherwise He would cease to be a substance.”

The Church at the Council of Florence (1442) found herself in a unique moment. To reunite the Church, East and West, after the schism of 1051 AD, theological clarifications were needed. The inclusion of Filioque (“and from the Son”) to the Nicene Creed was controversial in the East. The Roman Creed now said, “the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” The Church Fathers in the East believed this was tampering with a universal council. To clarify this concern, the Council of Florence, in the long Trinitarian Creed that it issued, stated as follows:

· “The Father is entirely in the Son and entirely in the Holy Spirit; the Son is entirely in the Father and entirely in the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit is entirely in the Father and entirely in the Son. None of the persons precedes any of the others in eternity, nor does any have greater immensity or greater power. From eternity, without beginning, the Son is from the Father; and from eternity and without beginning, the Holy Spirit has proceeded from the Father and the Son.”


Our belief in the Trinity is not just the most fundamental, it is also the most foundational and important creedal assent we must make. Each divine Person is God. The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are of the same substance or essence. This Trinity of Personhood is one God, not three infinities. The generation of children that come from the coming together of their parents imply a before and after generation, a producer and a produced, a cause and effect. In God our Creator, the Father eternally generates the Son. The Holy Spirit is “the Love or the Sanctity of both the Father and the Son” and proceeds from them, without being another god. God is described as Love because He possesses the object of love, an Other with whom each Person can share their wholeness. This Triune Love shows us that love joins, gives, and shares flawlessly within the Godhead.

While selflessly sharing the divine nature, the three Persons in the Trinity remain individuals. This provides several lessons for mankind. For one, we must give without losing ourselves. Calculating charity is when a person donates “not too much” because he fears his love may be too costly. Christ taught us to love others like He loves us.



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