One of the remarkable things about the Catholic Church is that it is able to produce a 581-page compendium of doctrine when Jesus didn't teach much in the way of doctrine. He lived a life and, through his words and actions, gave us glimpses into the nature of God. But he didn't give us a structure of doctrine or of morality.
But does that mean that the catechism is a human fabrication, mere opinions loosely related to the life and teachings of Christ? The Catholic answer to that is a definite "no." We maintain that the doctrines we propound today are the result of 2,000 years of collective reflection and judgment on what is contained in Scriptures. And we have the guarantee of Scripture itself that the church is "the pillar and bulwark of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:15).
When, for example, someone stated an opinion about the nature of God which seemed to be a new insight, the church reflected on that opinion in the light of Scripture to determine its truth. Sometimes, an erroneous opinion helped the church clarify its own point of view. The result was a new doctrine.
Perhaps this is most evident with the doctrine of the Trinity.
There are few direct references in Scripture to God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit and there is no reference to God as three persons sharing one divine nature. This understanding was developed in response to a fourth century preacher named Arius.
Arius taught that Jesus was not God, but was created by God. Jesus did not exist from eternity, but although he was perfect, was created at a certain point in time. Arius' followers also maintained that the Holy Spirit was of lesser importance than either the Father or the Son, that he was God's servant.
This outlook was influential enough that the church called the Council of Nicea to deal with it. The final result was the Nicene Creed, an elaboration on the earlier Apostles' Creed, which was intended to dispel the Arian heresy.
Jesus, the church noted, had proclaimed his identity with God in statements such as "The Father and I are One" (John 10:30). Indeed, it was precisely these sorts of statements — blasphemy to the Jews — that spurred the Jewish leaders' determination to kill Jesus. Jesus' claim to be one with the Father was not a peripheral part of his ministry; it was the very core of his identity. Ultimately, one cannot say that Jesus was a good moral teacher, but not divine. Either admit that Jesus is one with the Father or denounce him as a mad fool.
As for the Holy Spirit, many New Testament passages testify to the Spirit's equality with the Father and the Son. Jesus' last words to his disciples, for example, were to "make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19).
The church also rejected another heresy. Sabellius made the opposite mistake of Arius. Instead of downgrading Jesus, Sabellius denied that any distinction exists between the Father and the Son. The church again turned to Scripture and found Jesus saying, "I testify on my own behalf and the Father who sent me testifies on my behalf" (John 8:18).
Out of this process of reflection, the church came to speak of a God who is One, but composed of three distinct persons. It came to understand God not as a solitary God who has no experience of intimacy, but as a community of persons for whom love is the prime reality. This love is so boundless that it overflows into creation.
The church maintains that it is impossible to believe in the mystery of Christ — the Word made Flesh — without also believing the doctrine of the Trinity. And other doctrines, particularly those of grace and eternal life as our sharing in the life of God, are also incomprehensible unless we believe in God as Trinity.
Moreover, the doctrine of the Trinity has much to offer our war-like and wounded society. We suffer from a precarious quality to even the most intimate interpersonal relations, a dog-eat-dog ethic in economic life and a determination not to submit to any being greater than oneself. The harmony and love within the Trinity make it the perfect model for any human community, but especially for one rooted in rugged individualism. In particular, we have the example of Christ who "emptied himself, . . . humbled himself and became obedient" (Philippians 2:6-8).
But our efforts to imitate the Trinity in our families and other human communities are — as important as those efforts are — but a shadow of the more brilliant reality to which we are called. For we are made not just to be like God, but to share in his life. Through grace and in eternal life, we become God's adopted children, sharers in the very life of the Trinity. What precisely this means we now have but the faintest glimpses. But we do have Jesus' promise: "Those who love me will keep my word and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them" (John 14:23).
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