Other Ancient Heresies

It seems to me that if you want to commit heresy, the surest and easiest way is to try to explain the Trinity.

The catechism in CCC2089 defines heresy as “the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same.”

There are many heresies regarding the nature of God and the Trinity the Church has battled over the centuries.  Having grown up with the legend of St. Patrick and the analogy of the shamrock to try to explain the Trinity, I enjoy this brief clip of “St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies” from a group called “Lutheran Satire.”  The Lutherans are very solid in their Trinitarian theology, and I hope you enjoy the clip.


It seems we are always tempted to try to explain things in terms we can relate to.  The best advice I could ever give you regarding the Trinity is simply to not try.  Just don’t.  The Trinity is a supernatural truth given to us by divine revelation.  Any natural world analogy will not only fall short, it will without fail lead our thinking in a way that will deny some truth of the Trinity.  Every time.  So just do not do it.  And here are some examples.

I already posted about the 4th century heresy of Arianism that taught that Christ was not divine or of the same substance as the Father, but rather was the first and greatest of God’s creation.  A common analogy often used to try to describe the Trinity is that it is like a star, the light, and the heat.  This example falls right into the heresy of Arianism.  The light and the heat do not exist in their own right but rather are totally dependent upon the star itself and are a product of its essence.  The Son and the Spirit are not dependent upon the Father for their existence and they equally share in the Divine essence.

Then there’s the heresy known as “partialism.”  This taught that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit together are components, or “parts” of the one God.  This leads to a belief that each of the persons of the Trinity is only “part” God and they only become fully God when they come together.  Common analogies you can hear that will land you into partialism are the example of the three leaf clover, the three wheels of a tricycle, or the three parts of an egg (shell, yolk, and white).  Each of these examples portrays one of the three as a “part” of the whole, and you only have the “whole” when all three are together.  That denies one of the great mysteries of the Trinitarian dogma – that “The divine persons do not share the one divinity among themselves but each of them is God whole and entire” (CCC253).

There’s also the heresy of “modalism.”  This taught that the three persons of the Trinity are really different “modes” of God.  The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not believed to be three distinct persons, but instead different “modes” or expressions of one person.  God expressed himself to us as Father in the Old Testament, as Son during the life of Christ on earth, and as the Holy Spirit now.  One person showing himself to us in three different ways.  A common analogy that falls into the heresy of modalism is the water analogy whereby sometimes water is a liquid, a solid or a gas.  A drop of water moves between those different modes of being.  Or the way that the same man can be a husband, a father and employee.  These examples do not express the truth of three distinct persons but one person acting in three different roles.  Oneness Pentecostals have a modalist belief in the nature of God.

“Tritheism” confesses the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three independent beings who are three distinct gods.  A god by committee in a sense.  A common analogy that would express tritheism is the analogy of a family – a father, a mother and a child.  It is true that here you see three distinct persons, but they do not share the same essence or substance that would make them one being – they are three separate beings.  Another problem with this analogy is that the parents in that example precede and are responsible for the creation of the child.  The existence of no person of the Trinity is dependent upon the other two.

Instead of speaking of the Trinity in the Scriptural terms of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, some people have a tendency to instead refer to God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.  This can also fall into Tritheism, because it tends to separate the persons by the work they do.  While we can typically think of the Father as Creator for example, Genesis 1:2 tells us at the time of creation “the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters” and John 1:3 tells us of Christ that “all things were made through him.”  The persons cannot be separated according to their works without separating their very essence.  In addition, praying to God as “Creator” removes the intimacy that Jesus gives us in teaching us to pray to God as “our Father,” and moves our relationship to him from one of child to that of creature.

The belief of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day saints (sometimes referred to as Mormon) closely resembles Tritheism.  You can read more about that here if you’re interested:


The catechism reminds us that first and foremost, the Trinity is a mystery.

CCC237 The Trinity is a mystery of faith in the strict sense, one of the “mysteries that are hidden in God, which can never be known unless they are revealed by God”.  To be sure, God has left traces of his Trinitarian being in his work of creation and in his Revelation throughout the Old Testament.  But his inmost Being as Holy Trinity is a mystery that is inaccessible to reason alone or even to Israel’s faith before the Incarnation of God’s Son and the sending of the Holy Spirit. 

Rather than try to bring this mystery into the natural world to make it “understandable,” we are much better off to accept what St. John Chrysostom said – “A comprehended god is no god.”  May we forget trying to explain the Trinity with analogies and instead simply step into the mystery of our God and the community of love He is.

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s