Ahhhh! Running out of time to write reflections on the Creed before the end of the Year of Faith! I guess I’ll have to continue the reflections AFTER the year ends. That’s not so bad, though. One should grow in Faith no matter what year it is. I’m sure it wasn’t Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s intention to have the faithful look into the Faith for one year and then abandon such pursuits. No, deepening your Faith involves a lifetime of devotions.
So let us continue where we left off. . .
“I believe in God, the Father Almighty”
Explain the Trinity. Go ahead, explain it. Having trouble? Unsure of exactly how to describe the 3-in-1 thing perfectly? The language of “three Persons, one God” is helpful, but do you ever still feel confused at the end of your reflections on the Trinity?
As Fr. Robert Barron says at the end of his discussion of the Trinity in his Catholicism TV series, “Good.”
There is a difference, a huge difference, between a discussion of God’s existence and a discussion of his oneness, and a discussion of the Trinity. The existence of God can be known through human reason, without the aid of Divine Revelation (St. Thomas, that great thinker of all things theological and philosophical, called natural beliefs like God’s existence “preambles to the Faith”). The resulting knowledge of God without Revelation isn’t perfect, for we need Revelation from God to better understand Him, but it is possible. We can see “proofs” that show that God’s existence is reasonable. This is not the case with the Trinity. Try all he wants, a pagan Greek philosopher could not come to the philosophical conclusion that God is three Persons yet one God (as a side note in speculation, perhaps the ideas of polytheism did somehow hint at this reality, and man formed multiple gods out of the truth of one God in three Persons).
The doctrine of the Trinity, though not apparent through philosophic thought, does make sense on a rational level. If God is perfect, as He would have to be, being God, then He would have to have pure Love as one of His attributes. St. John is right in noting that “God is Love” (1 John 8: 8, 16). Love is a good thing, but it cannot exist if there is not some person to receive the love, someone to receive the affection (and no, you can’t really love chocolate). You cannot love something that is not a person; love can only be shared between persons.
This is a powerful truth when applied to God. God is perfect Love, which means that He loves eternally, without beginning or end. Being eternal, He must likewise love perfectly someone eternal, another eternal person. This eternal person would have to exist from all eternity, also without beginning or end. This second person is thus also God, for God alone is eternal. This is the Second Person in God, the Son. Thus we can see it follows that God is two divine, eternal Persons.
So the Father (the First Person) loves the Son (the Second Person) from all eternity, and the Son loves the Father likewise. Their Love, then, is a third eternal existence, without beginning or end, and is therefore a Third Person, the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, in case you couldn’t see where this is going, is also God.
Now, of course, this model of the Trinity is not perfect. It is not without reason that the Church refers to the Mystery of the Trinity. This is not a Mystery in the sense that you hunt it down and try to find the answer. No, it is a mystery because it transcends our limited, human understanding. We cannot fully grasp the inner life of the Trinity, the ad intra workings of God. What we can grasp, partially, of course, are the ad extra acts of the Trinity, that is, when He works outside of Himself through creation. God has revealed Himself throughout history and in various steps. He first revealed Himself through creation, which is why we can use reason to know He exists. We can look at the created world to know that there is a God and that He loves us (we will look at God’s act of creation in the second half of this post). God further revealed Himself through His interaction with the Hebrew people. They were blessed to know God as Father. God would more fully reveal Himself through the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity in Jesus of Nazareth, who likewise revealed the Third Person of God the Holy Spirit. We do not have time now to discuss these later revelations of God, but will examine them when we look at the Son and Holy Spirit in later posts of these reflections.
“I believe in One God. . . Creator of Heaven and Earth, of all things visible and invisible.”
All of Creation depends on God, from whom all good comes. God, being perfect, did not need to create. He did so out of love. He, being infinite Being itself, is the source of existence for all of creation. God is the creator. Nothing exists that He did not create, at least indirectly (so for example, the plastic stuff all around you wasn’t DIRECTLY created by God, but He did make the materials that would eventually become the plastic).
[And no, that does not mean God creates evil. Evil is a privation, a lack of a good. God allows evil to come into the world for our benefit. We can’t know exactly how it works in this life. Evil is another one of those mysteries of Faith mentioned above. But evil isn’t God’s fault, as if He were trying to hurt us. We should stop blaming God for bad things and instead work towards correcting the bad. We should turn to Him as our model for goodness, rather than rejecting the one perfect thing in existence.]
This line from the Creed, about God creating “all things visible and invisible” went through a slight translation change in the newest translation of the Roman Missal (from 2010). The prior English translation of the Latin phrase “visibilium omnium et invisibilium” made God the creator “of all things seen and unseen.” The translation now states that God is the creator “of all things visible and invisible.” This is not some obsessive translation on the part of churchmen who have nothing better to do than think of new translations of creedal statements. It reflects a more sound concentration of the importance of God’s revelation. “Seen and unseen” implies that one could somehow physically see everything in creation (“unseen” seems to imply that the focus of our attention could be seen somehow, but just hasn’t been seen yet); “visible and invisible” puts every thing into a category of things we can sense and things we can’t.
The new translation points towards not only invisible natural forces in creation, such as gravity or even something like the wind, but also includes the spiritual world, namely angels (and demons, or angels that rejected God). Pure spirits without material bodies, angels are invisible. They appear to humans, some theologians say, by manipulating light into a form that can be visible to those to whom they are sent. Angel means “messenger,” and the angels who do interact with people do so because they have special missions from God. The three archangels, Sts. Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, are known by name because they appear in Scripture, helping God at important points of Salvation History. All people have their own guardian angel, as does every church and every country. Angels were created all at once, the Church teaches, and are not the same as souls who have died and gone to Heaven (contrary to pop cultural references). And speaking of erroneous ideas of angels, get out of your head the idea of angels as cute and fluffy babies. There is a reason that the first words angels normally say when greeting humans are “Do not be afraid.” Visitors from other planes of existence can be quite terrifying.
The Creed affirms not only the existence of angels, but of Heaven and Hell as well. The existence of both Heaven and Hell are denied rather frequently today, sometimes more frequently than God and angels. We need to remember that such eternal places exist. Heaven is a place of bliss, where the souls of the just exist in happiness with God forever. Dante’s Paradiso captures this reality beautifully. The souls in Heaven, represented by human-sized lights, swirl around God. When Dante asks one of the souls who is further away from God if that soul is jealous of those closer to God, the soul says no, because God has placed her where she belongs, and she is still in the presence of God.
Hell, also real, is eternal separation from God. The most terrifying aspect of Hell is that the people there WANT to be there. They have chosen to separate themselves from God, and God gives them what they want. Hell, as strange as it sounds, is a place of justice and love, justice because it gives the souls what they are due (separation from God because of unrepented sins), love because it gives the souls what they want. Nobody is surprised to end up in Hell. Again, Dante portrays this marvelously in his Inferno. At the center of Hell is Satan, frozen in thick sheets of ice. He remains frozen because, in his pride, the Father of Lies beats his wings, creating a freezing wind that further freezes the ice around him.
Two parables emphasize this point by two very different men. One is told by Jesus, the other by Oscar Wilde. The parable of Jesus recounts the story of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man, who would not help Lazarus, even though he saw him daily outside his house, ends up in Hell, while Lazarus ends up in Heaven. When the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers so that they might repent, Abraham responds, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them” (Luke 16:29). The rich man rejects Abraham’s offer: “No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent” (Luke 16:30). The brothers, like the rich man, have separated themselves from God, and the rich man fails to see how God might have offered the key to salvation for men like him and his brothers.
The other story is “The House of Judgment” by Oscar Wilde. In it is a man who has done pretty much everything bad that is humanly possible. He is told he has to go to Hell, but he replies he can’t because he’s spent his entire life there. When Heaven is offered to him, he rejects it because, as he says, “Because never, and in no place, have I been able to imagine it.” One cannot be with God in Heaven if he cannot build his relationship with God on earth. In what is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of sin, Hell is the only place where such a person can feel at home.
A quick word on visible creation. There is a lot of debate about whether science or religion has the key to understanding the beginning of the universe. When man pits science against God or when a man rejects reason in the face of faith, only ignorance results. Both extremes deny the other’s truth. Faith and science work together and should agree with each other. If they don’t, someone went wrong. The fights over creation vs. evolution are frequently neither scientific nor religious. Bad science ignores evidence, as many believing evolutionists do; bad religion ignores reason and Tradition, as too many creationists do.
I wrote a paper once trying to reconcile theories of human evolution with the Church’s teaching on Adam and Eve. Maybe someday I’ll publish it in some scholarly journal. One thing I found was that there was not a lot of work by Catholics in the field of evolutionary biology, particularly in reconciling the findings of the scientific community with the Church’s teaching on creation, original sin, and the origins of man. There are some notable contributions by Catholic scientists, but their works are too often ignored by both scientists and Catholics. Much is said about fitting the scientific theory of the Big Bang into the account of Genesis 1, but there has not been as much work on fitting recent genetic and biological research into the first three chapters of Genesis. My paper sought to do that, but I am not a scientist, nor am I a genius theologian. The work still needs to be done.
We Catholics must remember above all that, no matter the details of how the universe came to be as it is today, God must have started it. If the evolutionary theorists are correct, that the earth and life came to be through gradual changes, then God directed those changes, with our salvation as its goal. We must also keep in mind that often forgotten point in the debates over man’s origins: man’s ultimate goal, which is salvation in Heaven with God.
It was to regain our salvation for us after we lost it after the Fall that God became incarnate in the womb of Mary, mother of Jesus. We will reflect on what we believe about this pivotal event in human history, upon which even our dating of history hinges (even if you don’t believe in God): the Incarnation. And in looking at that crucial historical event, we will delve deep, deep into the mystery of God.
For Further Reading (or Listening)
Augustine of Hippo, On the Trinity
Catechism of the Catholic Church, Section Two, Chapter One (198–421)
Gregory of Nyssa, On the Trinity
________. On “Not Three Gods”
Gregory Thaumaturgus, Fragment from “On the Trinity”
Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity
Institute of Catholic Culture Lectures
David Brown, Science & Religion: Compatible or Combative? (especially the first talk)
Dcn. Sabatino Carnazzo, Catechism 102: The Creed
Dr. Timothy T. O’Donnell, Suffering with God: Job & the Attacks of the Evil One
Fr. Andrew Hofer, Original Sin
Fr. Paul Scalia, Credo: I Believe in God the Father
Fr. William Saunders, Alpha and Omega: God the Father, Creator of the World
Pinto, Matthew J. Did Adam and Eve Have Belly Buttons? And 199 Other Questions from Catholic Teenagers. West Chester, PA: Ascension Press, 1998, Chapters 1 & 2.
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Part I (deals with God and creation, including parts discussed in the previous post.