December 14, 2012

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Year of Faith: The central mystery of our faith

John F. FinkThe dogma of the Holy Trinity is not only a mystery, it is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. We profess our faith in the Trinity every time we make the Sign of the Cross.

Since it is the central mystery of our faith—the most fundamental and essential teaching in the hierarchy of the truths of faith and the source of all the other mysteries of faith—we should not take it for granted.

Doctrines that depend upon the proper understanding of the Trinity were the subject of the earliest Church councils, and even today the Catholic and Orthodox Churches disagree over one aspect of the doctrine.

The dogma states that there is only one God, but that he is three persons—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—sharing one divine nature. The three persons are co-equal, co-eternal and consubstantial, that is, they share the same substance.

When we make the Sign of the Cross, we do so in the “name” of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, not the “names,” because there is only one God.

Most Catholics undoubtedly accept the dogma of the Trinity without fully understanding the theology behind it. But for the record, the three persons in the Trinity are differentiated from one another by virtue of their relationships. Thus, the Father begets the Son, and then the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.

This did not happen at some time in history, but eternally. Otherwise, there would have been a time when the Son and the Holy Spirit did not exist, and that’s impossible since they are God.

This mystery was unknown throughout the time of the Old Testament. God revealed it to us in its fullness only after the Incarnation of his Son and with the sending of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. The earliest Christian writings acknowledged this dogma and it soon became part of the eucharistic liturgy.

The first ecumenical council at Nicaea in 325 taught that the Son of God, who became human, was “consubstantial” with the Father. The second council at

Constantinople in 381 kept that expression when it formulated what is now known as the Nicene Creed, and said that Jesus Christ was “the only begotten Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father.”

That same council taught that the Holy Spirit is “the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father.” Later, the Western Church changed that to say that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” This is the source of disagreement with the Orthodox Churches. They insist that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son.

The Catholic Church’s wording emphasizes that all three persons are one substance while the Eastern tradition emphasizes that the three persons are separate and distinct.

However, the Catholic Church also teaches that the divine persons are really distinct from one another, but that this distinctiveness resides solely in their relationships to one another. †

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