In the beginning

Column: John’s Gospel critical to our understanding of Trinity

by Father Mike Stubbs

The excitement of a sporting event can whip up fans into a frenzy. Tempers can flare. A game can erupt in violence. A riot can break out.

For example, at a soccer game in Italy between Catania and Palermo on Feb. 2, 2007, a riot led to the death of a police officer and to dozens of other people being injured. On Sept. 15, 2008, a riot broke out during a soccer game in the Congo, and ended up causing the deaths of 13 people.

In the early church, Christians sometimes became so worked up over a religious controversy that they rioted in the streets, in riots similar to those after these soccer games. A theological disagreement could result in mayhem.

Frequently, the issue under debate involved the nature of Jesus Christ. Was he really a human being, or only apparently so? Was he also divine, or was he only a superior human being? As Christians explored these questions, they took up sides. The losing sides ended up being called the Christological heresies.

Arianism, one of the most important heresies in the early church, denied the divinity of Jesus Christ, but held, instead, that he was the greatest of all creatures, a kind of superior angel. For a time during the fourth century, this opinion enjoyed the support of the Roman emperors and threatened to overtake the Christian world. Fierce riots broke out between Arian Christians and the Orthodox, who maintained that Jesus Christ was divine — in the words of the creed: “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father.”

A statement in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jn 14:23-29, figured prominently in that dispute: “The Father is greater than I.” The Arians argued that these words reflected the idea that God the Father had created Jesus. The Creator is greater than the creature.

In response, the Orthodox Christians countered that the Son originated from the Father, was sent from the Father, and obeyed the Father in all things. In that sense, the Father was greater than the Son. At the same time, the Son possessed the same nature as the Father. Otherwise, how could he be Son? As the creed states: “Begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father.”

The Orthodox Christians also pointed to another saying of Jesus which we heard recently as the Gospel reading of April 25: “The Father and I are one” (Jn 10:30). How can we reconcile the earlier statement — “The Father is greater than I” — with this statement? By this second statement, Jesus emphasizes the fundamental unity between him and God the Father, a unity which nonetheless does not detract from his unique identity as Son. In other words, Jesus and the Father are inseparable, but Jesus and the Father are not the same person. That is still another heresy: Modalism.

As you can see, the Gospel of John played an important role in shaping our understanding of Jesus’ nature and his relationship with God the Father and the Holy Spirit. It contributed much to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. We will celebrate that mystery soon, on Trinity Sunday.

About the author

Fr. Mike Stubbs

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