Nothing new under the sun – old heresies resurface

They may conjure up images of medieval witch trials and whatnot, but heresies are really nothing to get into a fuzz about. Well, the specific heresies may be, but the fact that the Church calls certain beliefs and opinion heretical should not. A heresy is nothing more complicated than a teaching that undermines the faith in a grave enough manner that supporting, promoting or following it has a serious penalty as a consequence. And that because such a heresy endangers the souls of the faithful.

One such heresy that I came across today* has several names, but most people who know it, will know it as modalism or Sabellianism. A short definition would be that modalism holds that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are merely three ways, or modes, in which God has revealed Himself to people.

Why is this a heresy? Why can’t the Father, Son and Holy Spirit not be three forms in which God interacts with us? Well, for starters, it would make His own existence, as we have come to know it, a fake. Countless times do we read in the Gospels how Jesus prays to His Father. If both were just roles played by the one God, why would He do that? In the Prologue of the Gospel of John we read that the Word was God and was with God. The Word of God is Jesus, the Son, but why, if the Son and the Father are the same, would John tell us that the one was with the other? In Genesis, we read about the spirit of God hovering over the deep. Not God, but His Spirit. Why would God play a role before an empty deep?

There is one God in three Persons. These three Persons are not the same. They are separate and unique, but they are all equally God. This is a mystery of our faith, which means that it is something that goes beyond our understanding. It is good that some things are beyond our ken, because God is not limited to the understanding of his creatures. If He were, He would be limited. A two-dimensional creature has no way of understanding three or even four dimensions. We have no way of understanding or even imagining the five, six or more dimension that scientists say exist. And we have no way of grasping the Trinity, but that has no bearing on its reality.

Is the Trinity unlikely? Perhaps. But it is what God has taught us, through Jesus’ prayers, and through the work of the Holy Spirit.

In articles 253 to 255, the Catechism of the Catholic Church delves into the Trinity. It has this to say [emphasis mine, notes removed for ease of reading]:

253 The Trinity is One. We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons, the “consubstantial Trinity”. The divine persons do not share the one divinity among themselves but each of them is God whole and entire: “The Father is that which the Son is, the Son that which the Father is, the Father and the Son that which the Holy Spirit is, i.e. by nature one God.” In the words of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), “Each of the persons is that supreme reality, viz., the divine substance, essence or nature.”

254 The divine persons are really distinct from one another. “God is one but not solitary.” “Father”, “Son”, “Holy Spirit” are not simply names designating modalities of the divine being, for they are really distinct from one another: “He is not the Father who is the Son, nor is the Son he who is the Father, nor is the Holy Spirit he who is the Father or the Son.” They are distinct from one another in their relations of origin: “It is the Father who generates, the Son who is begotten, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds.” The divine Unity is Triune.

255 The divine persons are relative to one another. Because it does not divide the divine unity, the real distinction of the persons from one another resides solely in the relationships which relate them to one another: “In the relational names of the persons the Father is related to the Son, the Son to the Father, and the Holy Spirit to both. While they are called three persons in view of their relations, we believe in one nature or substance.” Indeed “everything (in them) is one where there is no opposition of relationship.” “Because of that unity the Father is wholly in the Son and wholly in the Holy Spirit; the Son is wholly in the Father and wholly in the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit is wholly in the Father and wholly in the Son.”

But who’s to say that what the Church teaches through the Catechism is right? That belief, that trust in the dogmatic teachings of the Church flows directly from th words of Jesus and the belief in the Holy Spirit who guides us. If we express faith in His words to St. Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven: whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19), and in the Holy Spirit of Pentecost, we must als have faith in the Church that Christ established upon Peter, and the faith that she safeguards and communicates.

God is Triune: one Being in three Persons. This we know through Scripture, the Word of God, and the teachings of the Church of Christ. To say otherwise is a denial of God as He is. God does not pretend. He is who He says He is.  He is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, who are all true Persons, not phantasms or roles He plays before us. Because He takes us seriously, He reveals Himself to us as He is.

*The source linked to above is a Dutch text, a reflection given by lay Dominican Leo de Jong on Trinity Sunday, at the nominally Catholic church ‘Het Steiger’ in Rotterdam. In this reflection, Mr. de Jong denounces our understanding of the Trinity as three separate divine Persons as nonsense. Instead, he says, these persons are three forms in which Gods allows Himself to be known. This misleading teaching, presented as profound knowledge, is in reality a centuries-old heresy.

For a further Biblical explanation of the Trinity, go here.

Art credit: [1] Pope St. Clement Adoring the Trinity, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1737-1738.

Published by


I'm a 36-year-old lay Catholic from the diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden. I write about the Catholic Church in the Netherlands. I not only enjoy bringing selected developments to the attention of readers, but I also think that it is sometimes important to allow a wider audience to read about the state of the Church in the Netherlands. That's why a fair number of posts about that topic will be translations of Dutch articles, episcopal writings and whatever else.

4 thoughts on “Nothing new under the sun – old heresies resurface”

  1. Thanks for your thorough exposition on the Trinity.
    If you were explaining the trinity to children or to ‘modern man’, would you do it significantly differently then Leo de Jong and the image of persona’s of prosoopon which he translates as ‘roles’? These terms and the explanation as given were part of the theological development of our understanding of the Trinity and also used as such. Like you perhaps I’d be more careful to approach the Union as Mystery and leave open the suggestion God is an amorphous something with many masks. I understand why you can read a heresy or theological error in that, it’s not the intent and I think also not ‘just’. Strictly reading the spirit of the text he’s not promoting it, he’s warning for a blurring of the Mystery by looking at the persons to literally. John 14:7 for example suggests the distinction is not absolute.

    As an example I have a problem with your remark on the use of prosoopon or persona as image:
    “it would make His own existence, as we have come to know it, a fake”.
    this remark automatically turns all expositions of prosoopon, persona’s and roles with regard to the trinity into an error instead of a way of understanding the Mystery better, a theological straw man and seems to portray the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as completely seperate. Of course God is not playing the roles of Father, Son and Spirit alternately or simultanously, I agree that would make it all seem a bit inconsistent, fake or childish. But using limited and human language like this makes his existence not a fake but makes the mystery more approachable, to me at least. What words would you have used to describe your experience of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit? For example the Fire of Confirmation, the nearness of the Son in prayer.. the daily bread we receive from our Father… all distinct.. but Mysteriously One (not the same).

    Both of you describe in a different way the same faith (to my understanding). While I enjoy and appreciate a more thorough and deeper exposition – like yours – I have difficulty understanding your point of view. If you understand my concern, can you elaborate? Could it be that you take issue with his implicit proposal: if you are confused don’t forget there is an underlying unity: the Mystery, the hidden One God who reveals himself in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Not in a literal way of course.

    I also found this illustration of the Trinity using characters Patrick Stewart played:

  2. ‘Persona’ did mend ‘mask’ once, like that the word ‘dogma’ once mend ‘opinion’. But the meaning of words evolve in time. When ‘persona’ was translated in Greek, the equivalent ‘prosoopon’ had nót evolved, so they rejected that term, until it became clear what it really mend.

    So the meaning ‘mask’ or roles are definetely ruled out.

  3. “John 14:7 for example suggests the distinction is not absolute.”

    ## From John 14:

    …5 Thomas asked, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

    6 Jesus answered, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you have really known me, you will also know the Father. From now on you know him and have seen him.”

    8 Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father; that will be enough for us.”

    9 Jesus replied, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been with you all this time? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words I have spoken to you I don’t speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Trust me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or at least believe on account of the works themselves. 12 I assure you that whoever believes in me will do the works that I do. They will do even greater works than these because I am going to the Father…

    ## They are distinct Persons – but, equally, they indwell each other. The Father is wholly present in the Son & the Spirit; the Son is wholly present in the Father & the Spirit; & the Spirit is wholly present in the Father & the Son. They are not “different” Persons, but “distinct” Persons – & they are certainly not “People” LOL. God is Spirit, wholly free of matter – unlike us. And that may be part of the problem for us in thinking about what is in any case wholly & inexhaustibly a mystery. But though it is mystery, that does not mean nothing of it has been revealed to us. And because it has been revealed, most pre-eminently “in the face of Christ”, “to see Whom” (IOW, to experience Whom) “is to see the Father”, we can say a good deal about it. And this allows us to observe that some things cannot be true. So there is a most intimate Union “between” & “in” the Divine Persons – but also, no confusion of Them. If this is a paradox, faith in Christ is a nest of paradoxes. A paradox allows for mystery – mystification, by contrast, mistakes the puzzling for the mysterious.

    This Divine indwelling is something that includes Christians – they are indwelt by all Three Divine Persons:

    …15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.

    18 “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21 Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” 22 Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” 23 Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. 24 Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me….

    ## These passages make distinctions without separations or differences. And ther are many Scriptures in both Testaments that fill out the picture.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s