Trinity, Holy, Controversies on
TRINITY, HOLY, CONTROVERSIES ON
The controversies that occasioned the early Councils stemmed partly from the difficulty of the subject—the Trinity and Christology—and partly from the lack of an accepted terminology. Today the catechism states that in God there are three Persons and one nature, and that in Jesus Christ there is one Person and two natures. This answer is the fruit of vast theological reflection. The Scriptures speak of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and record that the Word became flesh, but never use the terms "person," "nature," or "substance." When the first ages of faith had passed, answers had to be found for such questions as: Are the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit distinct persons? Is the Son God? Is the Holy Spirit God? Is Jesus Christ God? Is He man? Is He a human person? How are the relations of nature and person to be expressed?
Terminology. In regard to terminology, the problem was to find Greek words for person and nature that would express the Christian doctrine of three Persons and one nature in God, one Person and two natures in Christ. Greek philosophy knew nothing of a rational nature that was not a person, and the Greek words ousia, physis, and hypostasis could and did mean either nature or person. When cyril of alexandria spoke of "one physis of the Incarnate Word" he meant "one Person of the Incarnate Word," but his statement could be taken in Antioch to mean "in the Incarnate Word there is only one nature" (see monophysitism). There were similar difficulties about ousia and hypostasis. There were heretics, such as Sabellius and Arius, who denied Christian truths; but there were well-meaning bishops, priests, and people who unconsciously furthered heresy because they were genuinely confused about words.
A word formed from ousia played a key role in the first four Councils. The word was homoousios (of the same nature or substance). The Council of Nicaea (325) defined against Arius that the Son is homoousios Patri (of the same substance as the Father), but many bishops who would die for the belief that the Son is God abhorred the term homoousios because it conveyed to them the Monarchian heresy that the Son is the same Person as the Father. This misunderstanding plagued the Church for 50 years after Nicaea.
The passionate and even violent defense of their beliefs by Christian leaders may appear excessive in the 20th century, but it must be seen in its setting. Account must be taken not only of the fundamental doctrines involved, but of the more robust manners of the age and of the fact that first-class minds, often with immense resources of wealth and influence, were debating most abstruse areas of doctrine and at the same time were committed to maintaining the prestige of great sees.
Errors in regard to the Trinity took the form of (1) denying the real distinction of Persons (Monarchianism, Anti-Trinitarianism, and Unitarianism); (2) denying the divinity of the Second or Third Person (subordinationism); or (3) denying the unity of the divine nature (Tritheism). Early controversy concerned chiefly the first two.
Monarchianism. For Christians, committed as monotheists to holding the unity (monarchia ) of God, the teaching of Scripture (Jn 10.30; 14.9–11, 16 ff.; Rom 9.5; Phil 2.6 ff.; 2 Peter 1.1) on a Person equal in power and glory to the Father posed a problem from the beginning. The heresy of the Judaizers, underrating the dignity of Christ and the efficacy of His Redemption, contained the seeds of Subordinationism. Toward the end of the second century, the Gnostic theory of partly divine aeons to bridge the gap between God and creatures, to which St. Irenaeus opposed the traditional teaching of the Church handed down from the Apostles, caused a reaction in favor of an extreme form of Monotheism that resulted in Monarchianism—the denial of the Son's distinct personality.
The teaching and philosophizing of the apologists on the Trinity, although orthodox, was often vague and couched in language that later standards would reject. It was not as clear to them as to their successors (and to Rome, cf. the letter of Pope Dionysius to Dionysius of Alexandria, 260) that equality of Son and Father had to be or could be maintained; that divinity does not admit of degrees; and that if the Word is divine, distinct, and begotten of the Father, He must be equal to the Father and His generation must be eternal.
origen, in spite of his formulation of the eternal generation of the Son, tended to Subordinationism, and others, too, used ambiguous terms in combating Monarchianism. To defend the equality and consubstantiality of Father and Son and to profess the Son's eternal generation seemed to make the refutation of Monarchianism well-nigh impossible; for how then were Father and Son to be distinguished? The Monarchians made the unity of God and the divinity of the Word their starting point, and as they could not deny either, they denied the distinct personality of the Son. To their opponents it seemed easier to deny the equality and consubstantiality of Father and Son at a time when the implications of divinity, eternal generation, and the Incarnation had not been fully worked out.
tertullian furnished a solution (Adv. Praxeam )— trinity of Persons, unity of nature—but appears to tend to Subordinationism in holding that they differ gradu et forma and that while the Father is the entire substance, the Son is derivatio totius et portio. dionysius of alexandria, in opposing Monarchianism (Sabellianism), exceeded orthodoxy and exposed himself to the charge of teaching Ditheism. Pope Dionysius intervened (262) and in a letter of "epoch-making significance" (Scheeben) condemned Sabellianism, Tritheism, and Subordinationism, while reproving Dionysius for his statement of doctrine. Dionysius readily submitted and pointed out that he had used ποίημα of the Son not in the sense of a created but of self-existent (against Sabellianism) being.
Subordinationism. In the condemnation of Monarchianism considerable progress had been made toward the formulation of the doctrine of three divine Persons distinct and equal, but early in the fourth century arius fell into the heresy of Subordinationism. He accepted, against Sabellianism, three distinct Persons, but he denied the divinity and eternal generation of the Son. The Word, he taught, is a creature made freely by the Father out of nothing; not the Son of God by nature but by adoption only; not equal to God but a being intermediary between God and creation. When his bishop, Alexander, condemned him, Arius fled to Palestine and enlisted the aid of a friend, eusebius of caesarea, who convened a council and requested Alexander to receive Arius back. The canvassing of support for and against Arius inflamed the whole East, and rioting broke out in the chief cities, eventually attracting the attention of constantine i. Meanwhile, in Antioch the bishops in council condemned Arius, and councils followed in Alexandria and Nicomedia. It was felt that an assembly of the bishops of the world—the oikoumene —an ecumenical council should be summoned, and one was convened for Nicaea, May 325.
The problem was to find a formula that would exclude Sabellianism and Arianism. Athanasius, the outstanding theologian of the Council, pressed for the word homoousios, for a definition that the Son is consubstantial with the Father. Eusebius and many bishops, some orthodox, some semi-Arian, wished for a more vague term and reacted violently against homoousios, which suggested Sabellianism to them. Athanasius won his point; the term homoousios was used for the definition and became the test word of orthodoxy. It was defined that the Son is true God, begotten of the Father and consubstantial with Him—a definition that condemned also semi-Arianism, the via media refuge of those who rejected both Arianism and homoousios, admitting only that the Son is homoiousios, like in substance to the Father.
Immediately after Nicaea bishops began to organize support for Arius, who signed a compromise formula not containing homoousios. With imperial backing a terror campaign against the defenders of Nicaea began, and a series of councils was held in the East and West at which bishops unwittingly accepted ambiguous statements of doctrine, so that St. Jerome wrote after the Council of Ariminum (359): "the world groaned and marveled to find itself Arian." A Council held in Constantinople (381) repeated homoousios, named and condemned different forms of Arianism, and affirmed that there is one divine substance in three Persons in God and that the Second Person became man.
The Council also condemned Macedonianism, the teaching of the semi-Arian bishop of Constantinople, Macedonius (deposed 360). He, it is said, extended the heresy of Subordinationism to the Holy Spirit, teaching that the Holy Spirit is a creature made by the Son. The Holy Spirit is "great," the Son "greater," and the Father "greatest." The Council defined (indirectly) the divinity of the Holy Spirit by calling Him Lord and ascribing to Him divine attributes (giving of life, adoration and glory such as are due to Father and Son, and illumination of the Prophets). Also condemned at this council was the teaching of apollinaris of laodicea that Christ had no human soul, a heresy that was later the occasion of the Councils of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451).
Tritheism. Tritheists deny God's unity and profess three essences or natures as well as three Persons in God. Their error is due to failure to distinguish between nature and person, so that to admit three Persons is to accept three divine natures.
John Philoponus (d. 565), Christian commentator on Aristotle, identified nature and person and supported Monophysitism (one nature in Christ). He taught that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct individuals of the species "God," as Peter, Paul, and John are three of the species "man," three part substances in one common abstract substance. The three Persons share a specifically same, not numerically same, nature. He refused to admit the consequence—three Gods.
roscelin of compiÈgne (d. c. 1120) taught that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct substances as three angels or three men, but are so completely in agreement of will and equal in power that they can be regarded as one. He was opposed by St. Anselm of Canterbury and his teaching was condemned at Soissons (1092).
The Abbot joachim da fiore, Calabria (d. 1202), taught that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have one essence, but in reality he denied the unity of divine nature because he conceived the oneness of the three Persons as a mere collective or generic unity, as many men are said to be a people. His teaching was condemned at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215).
Anton gÜnther (d. 1873) taught that the Absolute determined itself three times in a process of self-development, thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. The divine substance is trebled, and the three substances attracted to one another through consciousness make a formal unity. This was condemned by Pius IX (1857). Liberal Protestantism, while retaining the traditional terminology, regards the three Persons only as divine attributes, such as power, wisdom, and goodness.
See Also: adoptionism; modalism.
Bibliography: g. bardy, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., (Paris 1903—50) 15.2:1545–1702, bibliog. j. lebreton, Histoire du dogme de la Trinité, 2 v. (1927–28) v.1. a. d'alÈs, Gregorianum 3 (1922) 420–446; 497–523; Le dogme de Nicée (Paris 1926). r. arnou, Gregorianum 15 (1934) 242–254. c. hauret, Comment le "Defenseur de Nicée" a-t-il compris le dogme de Nicée? (Rome 1936). i. ortiz de urbina, El símbolo niceno (Madrid 1947). c. zedda, "La dottrina trinitaria di Lucifero di Cagliari," Divus Thomas (Piacenza 1924–) 52 (1949) 276–329.
[p. j. hamell]
"Trinity, Holy, Controversies on." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/trinity-holy-controversies
"Trinity, Holy, Controversies on." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved February 20, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/trinity-holy-controversies
Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).
Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.
Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
- Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
- In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.