Tag Archives: the Trinity

The Filioque Controversy

“Filoque” is Latin for “and the Son” and refers to the part of the Nicene Creed wherein Christians declare the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” The Orthodox—along with Eastern Catholic Churches—do not recite this part of the Creed. More important for our purpose, many among the Orthodox reject the theology of the filioque as well. This, of course, is where the problem starts.

The objections from the Orthodox can basically be broken down into three categories. First, the claim is made that the filioque is a novelty of the ninth century that contradicted the original and definitive Nicene Creed as it was declared by the Council of Constantinople (AD 381). Second, it is claimed, the filioque denies the Father as the first “principle” (Greek, arche) or “source” of the life of the Godhead, and in so doing contradicts a constitutive element of the nature of the Blessed Trinity. And thirdly, it is believed to contradict the plain words of Jesus in John 15:26:

But when the Counselor comes … even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me.

Jesus here declares the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, not from the Father and the Son.

The Catholic Answer:

The Catholic Church has always acknowledged the Creed of I Constantinople (AD 381) since Pope St. Leo I ratified both the Council and the Symbol (the Creed) in AD 451. The addition of the filioque is a development of the Creed that in no way contradicts the earlier version any more than the development and subsequent change of the Creed between the time of the Council of Nicea (AD 325) and I Constantinople represented a corruption of the Creed then. Moreover, the Catholic Church actually agrees with the Orthodox that the Father is the first origin of the divine life of the Trinity. CCC 245-248 explains:

The apostolic faith concerning the Spirit was confessed by the second ecumenical council at Constantinople (381): “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father.” By this confession, the Church recognizes the Father as “the source and origin of the whole divinity”. But the eternal origin of the Spirit is not unconnected with the Son’s origin… he is not called the Spirit of the Father alone,… but the Spirit of both the Father and the Son…
The Council of Florence in 1438 explains: “The Holy Spirit is eternally from Father and Son; He has his nature and subsistence at once (simul) from the Father and the Son [filioque]. He proceeds eternally from both as from one principle and through one spiration. . . .

The affirmation of the filioque does not appear in the Creed confessed in 381 at Constantinople. But Pope St. Leo I, following an ancient Latin and Alexandrian tradition, had already confessed it dogmatically in 447 (Quam Laudabiliter) even before Rome, in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon, came to recognize and receive the Symbol of 381. The use of this formula in the Creed was gradually admitted into the Latin liturgy (between the eighth and eleventh centuries)…

At the outset the Eastern tradition expresses the Father’s character as first origin of the Spirit… The Western tradition expresses first the consubstantial communion between Father and Son, by saying that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (filioque)… This legitimate complementarity, provided it does not become rigid, does not affect the identity of faith in the reality of the same mystery confessed.
A Protestant-Orthodox Parallel

Some among the Orthodox who are “rigid” on this point are reminiscent of Protestants who cling to verses of Scripture that say justification is “by faith” while refusing to acknowledge other texts that just as clearly say justification involves “works,” or “obedience,” “perseverance,” etc. They are right when they say justification is by faith; they are wrong when they insist upon a “faith alone” that excludes works as being part of the process of justification in any sense.

The Catholic Church could allow for a belief in “faith alone” as long as it would not place hope and charity in opposition to faith, and as long as it would teach perseverance in that faith, hope, and charity—in good works performed in Christ—as necessary for final justification or salvation. A “faith alone” theology, for example, that places faith in opposition to works done apart from Christ, or before entering into Christ, would not contradict the Catholic Faith.

Analogously, the Orthodox are right when they insist the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father as first principle of the divine life of the Trinity, and the Catholic Church has always agreed. They are wrong if they, along with the originators of the schism, create the novelty of ek tou monou tou Patrou, which is Greek for “from the Father alone” in that “rigid” sense contrary to the ancient theological understanding of both the Creed and our Trinitarian theology in both the East and West. Similar to the Protestant controversy concerning sola fide, the Church would not even have a problem with ek tou monou tou Patrou as long as that phrase would not be interpreted as denying the Son’s essential role in the procession of the Person of the Holy Spirit. More on that below:

One way to aid in understanding the filioque is to think about the eternal relations within the Godhead that constitute the persons of the Trinity as an eternal and intimate dialogue of love. The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity is referred to in John 1:1 as “the Word” of the Father who is therefore “generated” by the Father (John 1:18), and yet he is also revealed to have been “with” the Father enjoying this eternal and loving “dialogue,” or communion of persons, from all eternity in John 17:5. The Holy Spirit is that dialogue or communion of love between the Father and Son that is so perfect and infinite that “it” constitutes another person; “it” becomes a “he.” It is the Father who initiates the “dialogue” as “first origin” of life and love in the Godhead. But without the Son, there is no dialogue. Thus, without both the Father and the Son there is no procession of the Person of the Holy Spirit; The Holy Spirit proceeds as the fruit of this loving communion between the Father and the Son, initiated by the Father alone.

The Eastern concept of the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father through the Son is another legitimate way of getting at the idea of the Son’s essential involvement in the procession of the Holy Spirit. In fact, there are some among Orthodox leaders who today acknowledge the essential agreement between Catholics and the Orthodox. Eastern Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware is one of these. He has actually changed his mind on the matter:

Qualifying the firm position taken when I wrote [my book] The Orthodox Church twenty years ago, I now believe, after further study, that the problem is more in the area of semantics and different emphases than in any basic doctrinal differences (Speech to a Symposium on the Trinity: Rose Hill College, Aiken, South Carolina, May, 1995).

What Does the Bible Say?

John 14:26:

But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things…

John 15:26:

But when the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me.

The Father “sends” the Holy Spirit? And you even have the very words of our Lord stating the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father.” No doubt a surface reading of these texts seems to contradict the Catholic position. But we must be careful not to lift texts out of context and absolutize them.

As I said above, the Catholic Church agrees that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. She objects to a “rigid” version of “proceeds from the Father alone.” The Holy Spirit is sent by and proceeds from the Father to be sure. But notice, in John 15:26, Jesus says he will “send” the Holy Spirit just as he also says the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father.” Moreover, in John 16:7, Jesus goes on to say:

Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I go not away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you (emphasis added).

And as the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out in paragraph 1137:

… finally it (referring to Rev. 22:1) presents “the river of the water of life… flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb,” one of the most beautiful symbols of the Holy Spirit.

Indeed, the Bible is very plain in Revelation 22:1:

Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the lamb…

Here we have the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son. The Catechism also references Rev. 21:6 and John 4:10-14, which make very clear that this “water of life” is a reference to the Holy Spirit. If you also add John 7:37-39 recalling that it was St. John who wrote both John’s gospel and the book of Revelation under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, there can be no doubt what—or who—this “water of life” refers to as proceeding from the Father and the Son:

… “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me as the Scripture has said, “Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.” Now this he said about the Spirit…

A Matter of Semantics

In the final analysis, the words of Cool Hand Luke come to mind when we consider the filioque controversy: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” From the outset of the controversy in the ninth century, a large portion of the problem has been the failure of Greek and Latin minds to understand each other. Let me explain:

When the Greeks spoke of the “procession” of the Holy Spirit, they had in mind the Greek word, ekporeusis, the term, in fact, used in John 15:26 cited above, when Jesus said the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father.” This term refers to the essential and “first” origin of the Holy Spirit, which the Greeks are right, is from the Father alone. It is the teaching of all Christians, East and West, that the Father is the soul monarch, or source (Gr. arche) of the entire Godhead. Greek has another term, proienai, which is used among the Greek fathers for the Son’s role involving not the “first” origin of the Holy Spirit; rather, the procession of the Person of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son that in no way denies the Father as first principle of life on the Godhead.

Unfortunately, the Latins used procedit (“proceeds”) from the Vulgate translation of John 15:26 that has a more general meaning that can incorporate either ekporeusis or proienai in Greek. The Latins emphasized a meaning akin to proienai.

Thus, the Latins never intended to deny the sole monarchy of the Father, while some in the East seemed not to be able to understand the Western concept of “procedit.”

Add to this the problem of the Greek word arche (“beginning,” or “source”) translated into Latin as principio (“beginning,” or “principle”) and we have more trouble. For the Greeks, there cannot be two “sources” or “causes” (arche) of the divine life of God. And the Latin fathers agree. But following St. Augustine, the Latin fathers and theologians would speak of the Father as Principium Impricipatum (an “unbegun beginning”) and the Son as Principium Principiatum (a “begun beginning”) allowing them to harmonize the truth that both the Father and the Son are the single principle (principio) of the procession of the Person of the Holy Spirit while never denying the uniqueness of the Father as “principle without principle.”

The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father as principle, and, through the latter’s timeless gift to the Son, from the Father and the Son in communion (St. Augustine, De Trinitate, XV, 25, 47).

To the Greek “a begun beginning” made no sense (welcome to the mystery!). And for some, this was tantamount to the creation of two Gods; hence, they went so far as to declare Catholic baptisms invalid!

This quickly became much more than semantics!

The key, I think, to understanding between East and West is to understand the Holy Spirit to proceed ek monou tou patrou because the Father is the true arche (source) of the entire life of the Trinity. The Greeks are right here. It is only when we speak of the procession (proienai) of the Person of the Holy Spirit “after” the initiation of the divine life that alone belongs to the Father that we can speak of the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son (filioque). The Latins are correct as well.

Ask the Fathers – They Know

Far from rejecting the theology of the filioque, many fathers of the Church—both East and West—clearly taught it. In the West, we have Tertullian, St. Hilary of Poitiers, St. Ambrose, and St. Augustine, all teaching the theology of the filioque anywhere from 600 to 800+ years before the final Orthodox schism in AD 1054. These fathers are clearly “Catholic” in their understanding.

Most importantly for our Orthodox friends, many Eastern fathers taught the filioque as well. For example, we have Didymus the Blind (The Holy Spirit, 37: AD 380). He is an Eastern father and was head of the famous Catechetical School of Alexandria. He was blind from the age of four, yet absolutely brilliant. He was one of St. Jerome’s teachers and, in fact, St. Jerome accused St. Ambrose of plagiarism because he used Didymus’ work so extensively in his own work titled, On the Holy Spirit, where St. Ambrose teaches the filioque as well. Could this be a case of an ancient Eastern father teaching a Western father the theology of the filioque? Perhaps. But most importantly, listen to the clear words of Didymus:

“Of mine he shall receive.” (Quoting John 16:15) Just as we have understood discussions, therefore, about the incorporeal natures, so too it is now to be recognized that the Holy Spirit receives from the Son that which He was of His own nature, and not as one substance giving and another receiving, but as signifying one substance. So too the Son is said to receive from the Father the very things given Him by the Father, nor has the Holy Spirit any other substance than that given Him by the Son. And on that account we do affirm those propositions according to which we believe that in the Trinity the nature of the Holy Spirit is the same as that of the Father and the Son.

We also have St. Epiphanius of Salamis (The Man Well-Anchored, 8; 75 AD 374). He is another Eastern Father who taught the theology of the filioque. St. Jerome called him “a pentaglot” because of his thorough knowledge of Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, Coptic and Latin. He was Bishop of modern Salamis, then Cyprus at Constantia:

For the Only-begotten Himself calls [the Holy Spirit] “the Spirit of the Father,” and says of Him that “He proceeds from the Father,” and “will receive of mine,” so that He is reckoned as not being foreign to the Father nor to the Son, but is of their same substance, of the same Godhead; He is Spirit divine… of God, and He is God. For He is Spirit of God, Spirit of the Father, and Spirit of the Son, not by some kind of synthesis, like soul and body in us, but in the midst of Father and Son, of the Father and of the Son, a third by appellation…

The Father always existed and the Son always existed, and the Spirit breathes from the Father and the Son; and neither is the Son created nor is the Spirit created…

St. Cyril of Alexandria (Treasury of the Holy and Consubstantial Trinity, Thesis 34, AD 425), another Eastern Father, says perhaps even more plainly:

Since the Holy Spirit when He is in us effects our being conformed to God, and He actually proceeds from Father and Son, it is abundantly clear that he is of the divine essence, in it of essence and proceeding from it.

There are many more fathers we could cite, but our conclusion here should be apparent: From an historical perspective, a “rigid” Orthodox position is untenable. To say that these great fathers of the Church representing both East and West were all wrong would be unwise at the very least.

Genitive of Relation (or “Origin”)

One important way Scripture reveals the “origin” of the Holy Spirit is when it refers to the Holy Spirit as “the Spirit of the Father.” Consider Matthew 10:19-20:

When they deliver you up, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.

This phrase “the Spirit of your Father” uses a very common linguistic tool in Greek grammar: “the genitive of relation.” Another example of this usage is found in Luke 6 in the listing of the apostles multiple times in order to identify the father of some of the apostles. We’ll just look at one example here from Luke 6:15. Notice, St. James is referred to as “James of Alphaeus.” This is another case of “the genitive of relation” revealing Alphaeus to be James’s father. In the same way, and in many places in Scripture, the Holy Spirit is also shown to have His origin not only from the Father, but also from the Son.

But you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if the Spirit of God really dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him (Romans 8:9).

The prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired about this salvation; they inquired what person or time was indicated by the Spirit of Christ within them when predicting the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glory (I Peter 1:10-11).

Notice, in Romans 8:9, “the Spirit of God (the Father)” is then referred to as “the Spirit of Christ” in the same verse! There can hardly be a doubt, biblically speaking, that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.

The Man-God – Jesus Christ

How many of you have been reading the newspaper on a Saturday morning when the doorbell rings. Answering the door, you discover two very nicely dressed young men with briefcases, Bibles, and copies of the Watchtower Magazine. If you invited them into your home and dialogued with them for any length of time, you probably encountered a heavy dose of what is considered to be the distinguishing tenet of the Jehovah’s Witness religion: Their belief that Jesus Christ is not God. He was God’s first and most perfect creation and God’s agent in creating the universe, but he was not God. And after he became incarnate, he was simply a man.

John 14:28:

You heard me say to you, “I go away, and I will come to you.” If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I go to the Father; for the Father is greater than I.

This is one of the most popular verses used by Jehovah’s Witnesses to prove their points. In a dialogue with a Witness, he may well begin his assault on Catholic Christology with this verse. “Catholics claim Jesus is equal with God? Jesus seems to disagree here in John 14:28?”

There are actually two legitimately Catholic and biblical ways of approaching this text. First, we could note that one person being “greater” than another does not necessarily mean he is ontologically or essentially greater than the other like a man is essentially greater than a monkey. Greatness can refer to one person functioning in a greater way quantitatively. Matthew 11:11 tells us there has never “risen among [men] a greater than John the Baptist: yet he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Because John is “greater” than other humans, is he something more than human?

Likewise, because the text says those in heaven are greater than even John, are they essentially different from John? No, all involved in the text are essentially human. Men may be said to be greater or lesser pertaining to their degree of blessedness. In a similar way, the Father can be said to be “greater” than the Son pertaining to their eternal relation within the inner life of God, but not as to their essence. “Everything that belongs to the Father, except being Father, the Son has also eternally from the Father, from whom he is eternally born …” (CCC para. 246).

A second way of looking at this text is to recognize Jesus is speaking as fully human, or from his human experience. And this makes sense because in the very same verse of John 14:28, Jesus had just said, “You heard me say to you, ‘I go away, and I will come to you…” speaking of his death and resurrection. Thus, it would be entirely appropriate for Christ to say as man, “the Father is greater than [he is],” while as God, he is “equal with God” (cf. Phil. 2:5; John 5:18; John 1:1-3, etc.).

John 17:3

And this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.

Jesus cannot be God if the Father is “the only true God,” can he?

Well, yes he can.

The fact that Jesus refers to the Father as “the only true God” does not mean Jesus Christ cannot also be “the only true God,” and the Holy Spirit cannot also be “the only true God.” The distinctions between the three persons of the Blessed Trinity are ones of relation, not essence. Each of the three persons is ”the only true God.” They are absolutely one in nature.

Thus, Jesus does not deny he is God in John 17:3. He simply refers to his Father “the one true God.” We Catholics certainly believe the Father is God.

John 20:17

Jesus said to [Mary Magdalene], “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

The question is asked: “How can the Father be ‘his God’ if he is God?” The answer is biblically clear. John 1:14 tells us “the Word was made flesh.” God became man! Jesus is both God and man. Here, he speaks as man and as man he is dependent upon the grace of God (see John 1:14-16) in order to fulfill the supernatural end to which his human nature is called (see Luke 2:51-52; Heb. 5:8-9; 2:10-11). He calls the Father his God because he is his God whom Christ worships, prays to, and needs in his fully human nature just as we do.

The Best Defense: A Good Offense

After having answered these which are some of the very best from the Jehovah’s Witness’ arsenal, it is time to go on the offensive. We have demonstrated that we agree that the Father can be said to be “greater” than the Son. We agree that the Father is the one true God, though we say the Son is as well. And we agree that in his humanity, the Son of Man would have the Father as his God. But none of these things deny Christ’s divinity. We then need to show what the Scriptures teach quite plainly. Jesus is God!

John 1:1-3

In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, and the Word was God … All things were made by him: and without him was made nothing that was made.

In this text, Jesus (the Word) is called “God” and the creator of all things that were created. Genesis 1:1 says “In the beginning God created …” Jesus is plainly said to be God!

The JW will respond by saying the Greek text actually says “… the Word was a god.” Jesus is a god, not the God because the definite article is not used before god (Gr. “theos”) when referring to Jesus.

There are three main problems with this line of reasoning. 1) In order to distinguish the subject of a given sentence, the predicate nominative in Greek does not take the definite article. The lack of article is grammatically necessary in order to know whether “the Word” or “God” is the subject in this verse. 2) The JW’s are inconsistent. They translate the word theos as Jehovah or “the God” numerous times when it does not have the article when it refers to the Father (See Matthew 5:9, 6:24, Luke 1:35, 2:40, John 1:6, 12,13, 18, Romans 1:7, 17,18 and Titus 1:1, just to name a few). And 3) Jesus is referred to as theos with the definite article many times elsewhere in Scripture. For example:

Hebrews 1:8

But to the Son [the Father] saith, “Thy throne, O God (ho theos, the article + theos) is for ever and ever.”

Jesus is not a god here. He is the God.

Titus 2:13:

Looking for the blessed hope and coming of the glory of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ (emphasis added).

Not only do we see the definite article before theos, but we see the article + the adjective great. Jesus is not only the God, he is the Great God and our Savior. The Bible is very clear that only Jehovah is both the Great God and our Savior. (See 41:4, 43:3,11, 44:6,8, 45:21, Hos. 13:4, and Luke 1:47.)

John 20:28:

Thomas answered, and said to [Jesus]: My Lord and My God.

The Greek reads the Lord (with definite art.) of me and the God (with definite art.) of me.

I was recently talking with two JW’s about this text and they disagreed with each other. One said, “Thomas said that, not the inspired writer or Jesus.” The implication being, Thomas got a little excited and exaggerated about Jesus. If this were true, it would be blasphemy. Yet, it cannot be because Jesus then blesses Thomas for his belief!

The other Witness said that Thomas referred to Jesus as Lord and then to the Father as God. The problem here is there is no evidence for this in the text. Thomas is directly addressing Jesus.

Revelation 22:6:

And the Lord God (ho kurios ho theosthe Lord the God) of the spirits of the prophets sent his angel to shew his servants the things which must be done shortly.

Who is the Lord God who sent “his angel” in this verse? The JW will say it is Jehovah. Rev. 22:16, just ten verses later, tells us who it is:

I Jesus have sent my angel, to testify to you these things in the Churches.

Jesus is “the Lord God of the spirits of the prophets!”

If you were actually conversing with a couple JW’s and you had presented these texts to them, they would probably be getting a bit ancy by now. My prediction is they would retreat to the safest ground possible. And this could lead in a number of directions, but most likely they would head to one of the most “air-tight” verses (so they think!) demonstrating Catholicism’s errors.

Revelation 3:14:

These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, who is the beginning of the creation of God.

“Jesus is the first created being before all else was created,” they will claim. “Therefore, he is definitely not God.”

Notice, the text does not say he was created. The word translated “beginning” (arche) is used in the book of Revelation to connote “the eternal source of all that is.” In Revelation 1:8, for example, “Almighty God” (Jehovah, according to JW’s) is referred to as “the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, saith the Lord God, who is, who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.” Do we want to say that Jehovah has a “beginning” because arche (“beginning”) is used to describe Him? “Arche” is here used to mean “the source of all being.”

Thus, Jesus is revealed to be the “source” of the creation of God in Rev. 3:14 because he is the creator of all things. This is confirmed again and again in the New Testament. In John 1:1-3, we are told Jesus (the Word) created “all things … and without him was made nothing that was made.” If he was created, he would have had to create himself which is impossible.

I should warn you at this point: Immediately following Revelation 3:14, Colossians 1:15-17 will normally follow:

Jesus is called the “first-born of every creature. For in him were all things created … he is before all and by him all things consist.”

Jehovah’s witnesses will say this shows Jesus is the first created being because he is “first-born of every creature.” But the problem with their reasoning is that first-born here does not refer to time, but to preeminence. The emphasis is on the fact that he is “before all and by him all things consist.” Even in its Old Testament usage, the title “first-born” is not restricted to a reference to time. The emphasis is on a place of preeminence given by a Father to his son. Isaac, Jacob, and Ephraim received the blessing of the “first-born” though they were not “first-born” in time.

Further, the text does not say Jesus was created. If St. Paul were making this point he would have then said Jesus created all “other” things in verse 16, but he did not. St. Paul says Jesus is the creator of all things. He is God. He is given the title “First-born” by his Father. But this is not in time. He is eternally begotten of the Father.

Share What is Most Clear

The New Testament is very clear as to Christ’s divinity. The few verses that seem to be problematic can be easily cleared up making the way smooth for presenting the abundance of evidence for Christ’s divinity. Below is a small sampling of examples. We will not cite each text, but give you the gist of how each reveal the divinity of Christ.

Luke 12:8-9 – Matthew 13:41

In Luke 12:8-9, angels are called “angels of God” while in Matthew 13:41, they’re called ”his [Christ's] angels.” “God” and “Christ” are synonymous.

Mark 2:5-9

Jesus forgives sins by his own authority. Only Almighty God (“Jehovah”) can forgive sins (See Is. 43:25).

Matt. 25:31-46

Jesus here is depicted as judging the world, yet Scripture reveals only God can do this. Both Genesis 18:25 and Joel 3:12 claim Almighty God is the judge of the world.

John 8:58

Here Jesus refers to himself with the divine name, “I am,” as he also does in John 8:24, 28, 18:5-6 and Mark 14:62. This “I am” formula, not copulative, is a reference back to the Divine Name in Ex. 3:14: “I AM” revealed to Moses as God’s own. Jesus refers to himself as “I am” and the multitudes want to kill him because they know what he is saying (see John 8:59!).

Matthew 5:21-28

In this text, Jesus places his word on the same level as the Old Testament. “You have heard it said (he then quotes Old Covenant texts or beliefs) … but I say to you …” This is in sharp contrast to the prophets who always use a formula such as “the word of the Lord came unto me, saying …” (cf.. Jer. 1:11; Ezek. 1:3). Jesus uses his own authority and establishes the New Covenant. Only God has that kind of authority.

John 5:18 – Phil. 2:6-10

In these texts, Jesus is referred to as “equal” with God by both St. John and St. Paul. In John 5:18, St. John gives us his commentary on why the Jews wanted to kill Jesus: “Because he called God his Father making himself equal with God.”

In Phil. 2:6-10, St. Paul refers to Jesus when he was “in the form of God.” The Greek word for “form” there is morphe, which means the set of characteristics that make a thing what it is. That’s about as close as you get to saying Jesus is God. St. Paul then says Christ’s ”equality with God” was not something he clung to; rather, he emptied himself and became man, humbling himself even unto his death on the cross.

In this verse, it appears St. Paul assumes his readers already know Jesus is equal with God, the Father. He says it in passing.

Mark 2:28

In this text, Jesus declares plainly that he is “the Lord of the Sabbath.” The Sabbath is referred to as the “Sabbath of Almighty God” in both the Old and New Testaments (see Exodus 20:10; Isaiah 8:13, which is referred to in I Peter 3:15, and Joel 2:31-32, which is quoted in both Acts 2:20-21, and in Romans 10:13).

Acts 20:28

Take heed to yourselves, and to the whole flock, wherein the Holy Ghost hath placed you bishops, to rule the church of God, which he hath purchased in his own blood.

I had to cite this text so you can see the nuance. Only Jesus can be said to have bled, yet this text says “God” shed his blood. Jesus is God.

The bottom line: The New Testament makes it very clear as to Christ’s full humanity. We can agree with JW’s on this point. However, the Scriptures are equally clear as to Christ’s divinity. The choice is ours. Will we choose to believe that Jesus is Almighty God manifest in the flesh as Scripture reveals, or will we choose the alternative, which according to Jesus is “[to] die in [our] sins.” Jesus said, “Unless you believe I AM, you shall die in your sins” (John 8:24).

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Defending the Trinity

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraph 261, declares:

The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of the Christian faith and of Christian life.

Belief in the Trinity is essential for salvation and should be at the top of the list when it comes to priorities in defending the faith. Yet, many Christians—many Catholics—find themselves in over their heads when the topic of the Trinity is broached by members of various quasi-Christian sects who deny it, e.g., Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Iglesia Ni Cristo, The Way International, etc.

Beginning with Sacred Scripture as a common reference point, we are going to examine three keys to explaining and defending the Trinity.

1. Jesus is God

Most often, the first problem people have with the Trinity centers on the divinity of Christ. I have found the best way to begin is to help them see what is actually very plain in Scripture: The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. This is the essence of what we mean by “the Trinity.” And the good news is no matter who you are talking to, if they name the name of Christ, they already believe the Father is God. You’re 33% of the way there from the start!

Among the many texts of Scripture—and there are many of them—we could use to demonstrate Jesus’ divinity, I have found key texts from St. John’s Gospel to be the most effective. The reason for this, according to fathers of the Church like St. Irenaeus in the second century, and Eusebius of Caesarea, in the fourth century, is St. John wrote his gospel with an emphasis on demonstrating the errors of the fathers of Gnosticism and the heresiarch Cerinthus in particular who—among his many errors—denied the divinity of Christ (St. Ienaeus, Against Heresies, Bk. 1, ch. 26, para. 1-2; Bk. 3, ch. 11, para. 1; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Bk. 3, ch. 28). Thus, it is no surprise that right from the start, “the beloved disciple” uses the plainest of terms:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… All things were made through him, and without him was not made anything that was made (John 1:1-3).

Three points concerning this text:

1. “In the beginning was…” The Greek text here employs the imperfect form of the verb “to be.” The imperfect indicates a past on-going reality. Thus, in the beginning “the Word” had already been in existence in a “past” and on-going sense. What beginning? There’s only one. The beginning. So according to the text, the Word already existed in the beginning, meaning he had no beginning. Thus, he is God. And by the way, John 1:14 makes clear who “the Word” is, when it says, “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us…”

2. The Word—Jesus—is also referred to as the creator. Notice, all things that were created were created through him. Genesis 1:1 says “In the beginning God created…” Jesus is plainly said to be God, the Creator. This necessarily follows when we consider Isaiah 44:24 emphatically and unequivocally declares that it is God alone who is the creator:

I am the Lord, who made all things, who stretched out the heavens alone, who spread out the earth—Who was with me?

Isaiah 45:12 adds:

Thus says the Lord, the Holy One of Israel… I made the earth, and created man upon it; it was my hands that stretched out the heavens, and I commanded their host.

3. The text plainly says, “… and the Word was God.”

In their New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW’s) translate this as “… and the Word was a god.” Their claim is Jesus is a god, not the God because the definite article (“the”) is not used before god (Gr. “theos”) when referring to “the Word.”

There are three main problems with this line of reasoning.

1) The predicate nominative in Greek does not normally take the definite article. The definite article is used in these cases to distinguish the subject from the predicate; thus, the lack of the definite article would be grammatically expected in this verse in expressing “and the Word was God.”

2) The JW’s are inconsistent. They translate the word theos (God) as Jehovah or the God numerous times when it does not have the definite article when it refers to the Father (see Matthew 5:9, 6:24, Luke 1:35, 2:40, John 1:6, 12, 13, 18, Romans 1:7, 17, 18 and Titus 1:1, just to name a few from their “New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures”).

3) Jesus is referred to as theos with the definite article many times elsewhere in Scripture. For example:

Titus 2:13:

… awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.

Not only do we see the definite article before theos, but we see the definite article + the adjective great. Jesus is not only the God; he is the great God and our Savior. The Bible is very clear that only Yahweh is both the Great God and our Savior. (See Ps. 95:3; Is. 41:4; 43:3;11; 44:6;8; 45:21; Hos. 13:4, and Luke 1:47.)

John 20:28:

Thomas answered, and said to [Jesus]: My Lord and My God.

The Greek text reads, “… the Lord (with the definite article) of me and the God (with the definite article) of me.”

I recall talking with two Jehovah’s Witnesses about this text some time ago in my living room and they ended up disagreeing with each other as to its interpretation. One said, “Thomas said that, not John, or Jesus.” The implication being Thomas got a little excited about seeing the risen Lord and exaggerated just a smidgeon about Jesus. St. John merely recorded these words—he didn’t say he agreed with them.

This is more than a stretch when we consider Jesus then affirms Thomas’s faith in the very next verse. Would he really have done this if he knew Thomas had just committed blasphemy; i.e., if he knew Thomas had wrongly declared him to be the God of the universe, when, in fact, he was not?

The other JW in the conversation claimed Thomas referred to Jesus as Lord and then to the Father as God. But there is no evidence for this in the text. Thomas is directly addressing Jesus.

Revelation 22:6:

And the Lord, the God (Gr.—ho kurios ho theos – the Lord the God, uses the definite for both terms) of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what soon must take place.

Who is the Lord God who sent “his angel” in this verse? The New World Translation says it is Jehovah—almighty God. And that is true. But Rev. 22:16, just ten verses later, reveals to us more specifically to whom verse 6 actually refers:

I Jesus have sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, the bright morning star.

Jesus is “the Lord God of the spirits of the prophets” according to Scripture. Thus, according to the JW New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, Jesus is Jehovah!

John 5:17-18:

Before we cite the text, we need to know the context is one in which Jesus had healed a man on the Sabbath and then told him to “take up [his] palet and walk.” The Jews were incensed because he had broken the Sabbath. But notice Jesus’ response:

But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working still, and I am working.” This is why the Jews sought… to kill him, because he not only broke the Sabbath but also called God his Father, making himself equal with God.

It was not just that Jesus “called God his Father,” but it was the way in which he did so that was the deal-breaker. He said, in effect, “The Father works on the Sabbath, and so do I!” Translation: I am the Son who has the same nature as my Father and therefore the same divine power and prerogatives. “The Father works, you know, doing things like keeping the universe in existence… and so do I,” says Jesus.

And notice further, St. John does not say, “The Jews wrongly believed he called God his Father…” St. John affirms what Jesus Christ was actually doing when he “called God his Father.” He was referring to himself as being “equal with God.” Hear that, Cerinthus?

John 8:57-59:

The Jews then said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am. So they took up stones to throw at him…

In this text, Jesus refers to himself with the divine name that virtually every Jewish person in the first century would have been well acquainted with from Exodus 3:13-14:

Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the sons of Israel and say to them, “The God of your father has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them? God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” … Say to the sons of Israel, “I am has sent me to you.”

This “I AM” formula, not copulative, sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb. It is a grammatical anomaly that could hardly have been misunderstood. Thus, some of the Jews listening considered this blasphemy and picked up rocks to stone our Lord. Our Lord would use the divine name of himself in four places in St. John’s Gospel alone (see 8:24; 28; 58; 18:5-6).

John 10:30-38:

“I and the Father are one.” The Jews took up stones again to stone him… “even though you do not believe me, believe the works that you may know that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.

Once again, Jesus reveals his divinity and the Jews want to kill him. But notice his response. He knows this is difficult for the Jews to believe so he says, in effect, “I know this is hard for you, but look at the miracles I have performed. My works prove the veracity of my message.”

2. The Holy Spirit is God

I Corinthians 2:10-11:

For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what person knows a man’s thoughts except the spirit of the man which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.

St. Paul makes very clear in Romans 11:34 that no created intellect can “know the mind of the Lord.” Why? In order to “comprehend the thoughts of God,” which are infinite, one would have to possess infinite power. The fact that the Spirit of God is here revealed to uniquely comprehend “the thoughts of God” would necessarily mean that he is, in fact, God.

One must be careful here not to be too literalistic in interpreting this text. Some might say this would eliminate the eternal Son from being understood to “comprehend the thoughts of God” because the text says “no one… except the Spirit of God” comprehends the thoughts of God. That is not St. Paul’s point at all. With this sort of interpretive principle one would also have to say God would not know the thoughts of man because St. Paul said no “person knows a man’s thoughts except the spirit of man which is in him.” Well, God is three persons, so I guess the persons of the Trinity would not know the thoughts of man?

That would be absurd!

Of course God knows the thoughts of man—he knows everything. The point here is that no human person knows the thoughts of another human person. Analogously, no person apart from the Godhead can know the thoughts of God. Only God has the power to comprehend that which is infinite. That is the point.

I Cor. 6:19:

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?

According to the Summa Theologiae, Part I, Q. 27, Art. 1, St. Thomas Aquinas says it is the prerogative of God, and God alone, to have a temple; therefore, the Holy Spirit is revealed here to be God and our bodies are his temple.

Acts 5:1-4:

But a man named Anani’as with his wife Sapphi’ra sold a piece of property, and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Anani’as, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? … You have not lied to men but to God.”

According to St. Peter, lying to the Holy Spirit is equivalent to lying to God. You do the math here.

Hebrews 3:7-11:

Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, when you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years. Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their hearts; they have not known my ways.’ As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’”

The Holy Spirit says the “fathers” of Israel put him to the test when they put God to the test in the wilderness. He says “I” was provoked. Who was provoked and put to the test in the wilderness? Who was it who “swore in my wrath, ‘They shall never enter my rest?’” Subsequent verses make clear, and the NWT concurs, by the way, that it was almighty God. Thus, the Holy Spirit is here revealed to be almighty God.

Hebrews 10:15-17:

And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,” then he adds, “I will remember their sins and their misdeeds no more.”

The inspired author cites Jeremiah 31:33-34 as prophetically saying the Lord, almighty God, would establish “his” covenant with his people when the fullness of time had come. Yet, according to this same author, the author of the prophecy was the Holy Spirit. There is no way to get around it. The Holy Spirit is revealed to be almighty God.

3. Got the Trinity?

Recently, I had an extensive discussion with a Muslim about the Trinity. His problem with the Trinity was not so much with biblical texts, and obviously so, because he did not accept the Bible in the form it is in today as the word of God. Though I will say that he was remarkably interested in looking at what the New Testament had to say about the topic.

His main problem was conceptual. And I find this to be generally the case with folks who reject the Trinity. They either think Christians are claiming there are three Gods (which is what my Muslim friend actually believed to be so), or that we are teaching something that is a logical contraction, e.g., 3=1, and 1=3.

Neither is true, of course. But if we are going to help these people to understand, I find, a little background information is essential in order to establish a conceptual foundation for discussion.

Processions and Relations in God

In Catholic theology, we understand the persons of the Blessed Trinity subsisting within the inner life of God to be truly distinct relationally, but not as a matter of essence, or nature. Each of the three persons in the godhead possesses the same eternal and infinite divine nature; thus, they are the one, true God in essence or nature, not “three Gods.” Yet, they are truly distinct in their relations to each other.

In order to understand the concept of person in God, we have to understand its foundation in the processions and relations within the inner life of God. And the Council of Florence, AD 1338-1445, can help us in this regard.

The Council’s definitions concerning the Trinity are really as easy as one, two, three… four. It taught there is one nature in God, and that there are two processions, three persons, and four relations that constitute the Blessed Trinity. The Son “proceeds” from the Father, and the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” These are the two processions in God. And these are foundational to the four relations that constitute the three persons in God. These are those four eternal relations in God:

1. The Father actively and eternally generates the Son, constituting the person of God, the Father.

2. The Son is passively generated of the Father, which constitutes the person of the Son.

3. The Father and the Son actively spirate the Holy Spirit in the one relation within the inner life of God that does not constitute a person. It does not do so because the Father and Son are already constituted as persons in relation to each other in the first two relations. This is why CCC 240 teaches, “[The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity] is Son only in relation to his Father.”

4. The Holy Spirit is passively spirated of the Father and the Son, constituting the person of the Holy Spirit.

We should take note of the distinction between the “generative” procession that consititutes the Son, and the “spirative” procession that constitutes the Holy Spirit. As St. Thomas Aquinas explains, and Scripture reveals, the Son is uniquely ”begotten” of the Father (cf. John 3:16; 1:18). He is also said to proceed from the Father as “the Word” in John 1:1. This “generative” procession is one of “begetting,” but not in the same way a dog “begets” a dog, or a human being “begets” a human being. This is an intellectual “begetting,” and fittingly so, as a “word” proceeds from the knower while, at the same time remaining in the knower. Thus, this procession or begetting of the Son occurs within the inner life of God. There are not “two beings” involved; rather, two persons relationally distinct, while ever-remaining one in being.

The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, but not in a generative sense; rather, in a spiration. “Spiration” comes from the Latin word for “spirit” or “breath.” Jesus “breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit…” (John 20:22). Scripture reveals the Holy Spirit as pertaining to “God’s love [that] has been poured into our hearts” in Romans 5:5, and as flowing out of and identified with the reciprocating love of the Father for the Son and the Son for the Father (John 15:26; Rev. 22:1-2). Thus, the Holy Spirit’s procession is not intellectual and generative, but has its origin in God’s will and in the ultimate act of the will, which is love.

As an infinite act of love between the Father and Son, this “act” is so perfect and infinite that “it” becomes (not in time, of course, but eternally) a “He” in the third person of the Blessed Trinity. This revelation of God’s love personified is the foundation from which Scripture could reveal to us that “God is love” (I John 4:8).

God is not revealed to “be” love in any other religion in the world other than Christianity because in order for there to be love, there must be a beloved. From all eternity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have poured themselves out into each other in an infinite act of love, which we, as Christians, are called to experience through faith and the sacraments by which we are lifted up into that very love of God itself (Romans 5:1-5).

It is the love of God that binds us, heals us, and makes us children of God (I John 4:7; Matt. 5:44-45). Thus, how fitting it is that the Holy Spirit is depicted in Revelation 22:1-2, as a river of life flowing out from the Father and the Son and bringing life to all by way of bringing life to the very “tree of life” that is the source of eternal life in the the Book of Revelation (Rev. 22:19).

Back to the Relations in God

Scripture is a great help for us at this point. Biblically speaking, we see each of the persons in God revealed as relationally distinct and yet absolutely one in nature in manifold texts. For example, consider John 17:5, where our Lord prays on Holy Thursday:

… and now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory which I had with you before the world was made.

Notice, before the creation, the Son was “with” the Father. Also, the Son addressing the Father and himself in an “I/thou” relationship is unmistakable. We have distinct persons here. “Father” and “Son” reveal a generative relationship as well. Yet, this relationship between two persons clearly has no beginning in time because it existed before the creation, from all eternity. Thus, the relational distinction is real, and personal, but as far as nature is concerned, Jesus’ words from John 10:30 come to mind: “I and the Father are one,” in that they each possess the same infinite nature.

The Holy Spirit is also seen to be relationally distinct from both the Father and the Son in Scripture inasmuch as both the Father and the Son are seen as “sending” “him.”

But when the Counselor comes (the Holy Spirit), whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness of me… (John 15:26).

… he will guide you into all truth (John 16:13).

Thus, the relational distinction is real, and personal, but the Holy Spirit, like the eternal Son, is revealed to be God inasmuch as he is revealed to be omniscient. “He will guide you into all truth.” And as we saw above, he is elsewhere revealed even more clearly to possess the same infinite and divine nature as does the Father and the Son.

The Anthropological Analogy

Analogy is the theologian’s best friend in explaining the mysteries of the Faith. And when it comes to the Trinity, there are many analogies to choose from. We will explore just two of them here that I have found helpful. In fact, it was these very two analogies that helped my Muslim friend to say the idea of the Trinity “made sense” to him, even though he wasn’t ready to leave his Muslim faith… at least, not yet.

From his famous and classic Confessions, Bk. 13, Ch. 11, St. Augustine writes:

I speak of these three: to be, to know, and to will. For I am, and I know, and I will: I am a knowing and a willing being, and I know that I am and that I will, and I will to be and to know. Therefore, in these three, let him who can do so perceive how inseparable a life there is, one life and one mind and one essence, and finally how inseparable a distinction there is, and yet there is a distinction. Surely a man stands face to face with himself. Let him take heed of himself, and look there, and tell me. But when he has discovered any of these and is ready to speak, let him not think that he has found that immutable being which is above all these, which is immutably, and knows immutably, and wills immutably.

In order to appreciate Augustine’s words, we must begin with three essential and foundational truths that undergird them. Without these, his words will fall on deaf ears.

1. We believe in one, true God, YAHWEH, who is absolute being, absolute perfection, and absolutely simple. Our belief in the Trinity does not mean God is three, or any other number of Gods.

2. Humankind is created “in [God’s] image and likeness” (cf. Gen. 1:26). From the context of Genesis 1, we know this “image and likeness” does not pertain to the body of man because God has no body. Indeed the divine nature cannot be bodily or material because there can be no potency in God as there is inherent in bodies, so this “image and likeness” must be referring to our higher faculties or operations of intellect and will.

3. It follows, then, that God is rational. He too is both intellectual and volitional.

These simple truths serve as the foundation for what I call St. Augustine’s anthropological analogy that can help us to understand better the great mystery of the Trinity:

In God we see the Father—the “being one” and first principal of life in the Godhead—the Son—the “knowing one”—the Word who proceeds from the Father—and the Holy Spirit—the “willing one”—the bond of love between the Father and Son who proceeds as love from the Father and Son. These “three” do not “equal” one if we are trying to say 3=1 mathematically. These three are distinct realities, relationally speaking, just as my own being, knowing, and willing are three distinct realities in me. Yet, in both God and man these three relationally distinct realities subsist in one being.

As St. Augustine points out, we can never know God or understand God completely through this or any analogy, but it can help us to understand how you can have relational distinctions within one being. And we can see this is reasonable.

The weakness inherent here—there are weaknesses in all analogies with reference to God—is that our knowing, being, and willing are not each infinite and co-extensive as the persons of God are. They subsist in one being in us, but they are not persons.

The Analogy of the Family

The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us another analogy wherein we can see the reasonableness of the Trinity by helping us to see the possibility of distinct persons who possess the same nature. CCC 2205 provides:

The Christian family is a communion of persons, a sign and image of the communion of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit.

When we think of a family, we can see how a father, mother, and child can be distinct persons and yet possess the same nature (human), just as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct persons who each possess the same nature (divine).

The weakness, of course, is that in God each person possesses the one infinite and immutable divine nature, and is therefore, one being. Our analogous family consists of three beings. Again, no analogy is perfect.

But in the end, if we combine our two analogies, we can at least see both how there can be three relationally distinct realities subsisting within one being in the anthropological analogy, and how there can be three relationally distinct persons who share the same nature in the analogy of the family.

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