What the Holy Trinity is NOT

This is the first of a series of posts about heresies. I figured we should start big: the Holy Trinity…one of the greatest mysteries of our faith, which can never be fully understood by our small human minds. Through divine revelation, we can say a few things about what the Trinity is, but it seems we can say even more about what it is not thanks to a number of heresies officially condemned by the Church.

This post is not exhaustive by any means, and if you don’t see a heresy that you expected, I may be saving it for the next post: “What Jesus is NOT.”

So, without further ado, here is what the Holy Trinity is NOT:

– One person. An ancient heresy called Sabellianism or Modalism claimed that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were different “modes” of one divine person. Its proponent, Sabellius, was condemned by Pope St. Callistus I in the third century. However, belief in only one person of God still exists today, notably among Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Three gods. This one is a modern-day belief held by the various sects of Mormonism. They believe that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three separate gods. For this reason, Catholics do not regard Mormon baptisms as valid.

Created. A number of heresies claimed that one or more of the persons of the Trinity are not co-eternal or co-equal, but were created by another. For example, the Macedonians denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit, saying that it was a creation that served the Father and Son. The beliefs of the Macedonians were condemned by the First Council of Constantinople. For this reason, the following addition was made to the Nicene Creed: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father [and the Son], Who with the Father and the Son is equally worshiped and glorified, Who has spoken through the prophets.”

God divided into three equal parts. By this, I mean that the Father is not 1/3 of God and neither is the Son or the Holy Spirit. The Father is fully God, the Son is fully God, and the Spirit is fully God. And yet there are not three gods but one God. Starting to understand why this is called a Mystery?


So… what can we say about the Trinity? Well, let’s take a look at a section of the Athanasian Creed, a favorite of mine because of its blunt detail. (Emphasis mine.)

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.

In summary:

  • One God in three Persons
  • Coequal, coeternal, almighty, Lord
  • Father = not created nor begotten
  • Son = not made nor created, but begotten of the Father
  • Holy Spirit (Ghost) = not made nor created nor begotten, but proceeding from the Father and the Son

Confused yet? Good. In the words of St. Augustine, “We are talking about God. What wonder is it that you do not understand? If you do understand, then it is not God.”

The Shield of the Trinity

For a funny video about St. Patrick and heresies see St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies. (The video was made by Lutherans but since we both believe in the Trinity, it’s all still valid.)

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