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Thinking About the Trinity: One What and Three Whos

Christians should use their reasoning to further reflect upon God’s revealed truths. The ancient church father Augustine called this process “faith seeking understanding.”

The doctrine of the Trinity is an essential Christian doctrine that allows the creature to peer ever so slightly into the window of God’s infinite nature and personhood. The Trinity may also be the most distinctive of all Christian teachings, setting Christianity apart from all other religions, including other monotheistic religions (such as Judaism and Islam). Because the Christian vision of God is unique, mysterious, and inscrutable to the finite mind, it is often misunderstood and misrepresented. This article will briefly explore what historic Christianity teaches concerning the Trinity by summarizing the doctrine’s most salient points, and by responding to some critical questions concerning its origin, intelligibility, coherence, and importance.

The Historic Christian Doctrine of the Trinity

The Athanasian Creed, the longest and most philosophical of the ancient ecumenical creeds, enunciates the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity in the following manner:

That we worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity, neither blending their persons nor dividing their essence. For the person of the Father is a distinct person, the person of the Son is another, and that of the Holy Spirit still another. But the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one, their glory equal, their majesty coeternal….

Thus the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God. Yet there are not three gods; there is but one God.

Thus the Father is Lord, the Son is Lord, the Holy Spirit is Lord. Yet there are not three lords; there is but one Lord.

Just as Christian truth compels us to confess each person individually as both God and Lord, so catholic religion forbids us to say that there are three gods or lords….1 

The word “trinity” means “tri-unity” (three in one), thus conveying the revealed truth that there is plurality within the unity of God’s nature (one God in three persons). The doctrine of the Trinity should properly be understood within the broader context of the Christian theistic view of God.2 The God unveiled in the Bible and later expressed in the historic creeds and confessions of Christendom is the one sovereign and majestic Lord. Historic Christianity thus affirms belief in one infinitely perfect, eternal, and personal (or superpersonal) God, the transcendent Creator and sovereign Sustainer of the universe. This one God is Triune, existing eternally and simultaneously as three distinct and distinguishable persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All three persons in the Godhead, or Divine Being, share equally and completely the one divine nature, and are therefore the same God, coequal in attributes, nature, and glory.

God has revealed Himself as one in essence or substance (being), but three in subsistence (personhood). In terms of what God is (essence), God is one; in terms of who God is (subsistence), God is three. Philosophically speaking, God is therefore “one What” and “three Whos.” To put it in the negative, it is not three different gods (tritheism), for that would divide the essence. Rather it is only one God (monotheism). And it is not one single solitary person (monarchianism, modalism), for that would blend or confound the persons. Rather it is three distinct and distinguishable persons (triune).

Ten Essential Points about the Trinity

The following ten points convey essential information about the Trinity, and will help one think through the most important elements concerning the doctrine.3

1. There exists only one God (one divine essence or being). Trinitarianism is a unique type of monotheism, and the underlying truth of monotheism is grounded in the Old and New Testament Scriptures. Orthodox Trinitarianism therefore rejects polytheism in general and tritheism in particular for they divide the divine essence.

2. The three persons of the Godhead are each fully divine, all sharing equally and fully the one divine essence (God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit). The deity of these three persons is also grounded in the Old and New Testament Scriptures.

3. The three persons of the Trinity should not be understood as three “parts” of God. Each person is fully divine and equally possesses all of God’s being.

4. The term “person” in reference to the Trinity should not be understood to refer to a separate entity or being, for this would divide the divine essence.

5. Unlike all finite creatures, God possesses plurality of personhood within His one infinite being. This is one example of the theological principle known as the Creator-creature distinction.

6. The members of the Trinity are qualitatively equal in attributes, nature, and glory. While Scripture reveals a subordination among the divine persons in terms of position or role (e.g., the Son submits to the Father, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son), there exists absolutely no subordination (inferiority) of essence or nature. The persons are therefore equal in being, but subordinate only in role or position.

7. The members of the Trinity are both eternally and simultaneously distinct as three persons. In other words, the Godhead has forever been, is now, and will forever subsist as three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. None of the persons came into being or became divine at a given moment in time. Orthodox Trinitarianism therefore rejects all forms of Arianism (that makes the Son a creature and often denies the Holy Spirit’s personality and deity).

8. The three members of the Godhead are distinct persons and can be distinguished from each other (e.g., the Father is not the Son, the Father is not the Holy Spirit, and the Son is not the Holy Spirit). Orthodox Trinitarianism therefore rejects all forms of modalism (that blends or confounds the persons by defining them as mere modes of existence).

9. God’s “oneness” and “threeness” are in different respects. In other words, the way in which God is one (essence) is different from the way God is three (subsistence). Christian theologians and philosophers through the centuries have argued that it is crucial to distinguish between God’s essence on one hand, and God’s subsistence on the other.

10.The way in which God is one does not violate the way in which God is three, and vice versa.

With these essential points in mind, let us now consider four important questions about the doctrine of the Trinity.

Four Critical Questions About The Trinity

1. Since the word “Trinity” doesn’t appear anywhere in the Bible, did the early church simply invent the doctrine out of thin air?

Linguistically, the term “trinity” comes from the Latin “trinitas.” This term was used by the church father Tertullian (c. A.D. 160-230) who wrote about “a trinity of one divinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” While it is true that the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity progressively developed in church history, that doesn’t mean that the church invented the doctrine without reference to the Bible. Some are troubled that the word “trinity” doesn’t appear anywhere in the Bible. But while the term is not contained in the Bible, this in no way invalidates it as a biblical doctrine. First of all, many important terms are not contained in the Bible. For example, the word “Bible” is not contained in the Bible. But while the actual word “trinity” doesn’t appear in the Bible, the doctrine is clearly revealed in Scripture. The following is a brief summary of the biblical basis for the doctrine of the Trinity. There are literally hundreds of passages that can be marshaled to support the Trinity doctrine.4

The biblical doctrine of the Trinity can be expressed in five propositions:

a) There is one, and only one, God (Deut. 4:35, 39; 6:4; Isa. 43:10; 44:6-8; 2 Tim. 2:5; James 2:19).

b) The person of the Father is God (Col. 1:2-3; 2 Pet. 1:17).

c) The person of the Son is God (John 1:1; 5:17; 8:58; 10:30; 20:28; Phil. 2:6; Col. 2:9; Tit. 2:13; Heb. 1:8; 2 Pet.1:1).

d) The person of the Holy Spirit is God (Gen. 1:2; John 14:26; Acts 5:3-4; 13:2,4; 28:25; Rom. 8:11; Eph. 4:30).

e) The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinguishable persons: (Matt. 28:19; Luke 3:22; John 15:26; 16:13-15; 2 Cor. 13:14).

The logical inference from these five biblical propositions is as follows. If there is only one God, and the three distinguishable persons are all called God, then the three persons must be the one God. The doctrine of the Trinity was not invented out of thin air by the church at the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325) or at any other time. What really happened was that the fathers of the church saw the doctrine of the Trinity as a necessary inference from Scripture. The doctrine developed in the early church because of the overwhelming scriptural evidence supporting both the deity of Jesus Christ and the deity of the Holy Spirit. Evangelical theologian Alister E. McGrath explains:

The doctrine of the Trinity can be regarded as the outcome of a process of sustained and critical reflection on the pattern of divine activity revealed in Scripture, and continued in Christian experience. This is not to say that Scripture contains a doctrine of the Trinity; rather, Scripture bears witness to a God who demands to be understood in a Trinitarian manner…. Historically, it is possible to argue that the doctrine of the Trinity is closely linked with the development of the doctrine of the divinity of Christ.…The starting point for Christian reflections on the Trinity is, as we have seen, the New Testament witness to the presence and activity of God in Christ and through the Spirit.5

While no formal or dogmatic statement appears in the Bible concerning the Trinity, the truths that produce the doctrine find their origin uniquely in the pages of Holy Scripture. The language and context of the four following passages give clear indication that the apostles were well aware that their traditional Jewish monotheism had to be qualified to include the reality of three divine persons.

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit …” (Matt. 28:19, NIV)

“May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” (2 Cor. 13:14, NIV)

“As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’” (Matt. 3:16-17, NIV)

“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to God’s elect … chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood.” (1 Pet. 1:1-2, NIV)

These passages place the Son and the Holy Spirit on an equal level with the Father, and are open to explicit Trinitarian interpretation.

2. Isn’t the Trinity a mysterious, unintelligible doctrine, and therefore an absurdity?

As creatures, human beings will never, not even in the next world, know and understand God as God understands Himself. And while the Trinity doctrine is to some degree mysterious and ultimately incomprehensible to the finite mind, that doesn’t mean that we can’t speak of the doctrine in a meaningful way, or that it is an absurdity. The Trinity is certainly meaningful and understandable as a teaching, but it simply cannot be fully fathomed by human beings. While we will never fully comprehend the Trinity, our imperfect analogies do provide some meaningful insight into the nature of God. And certainly our reasoned and careful inferences drawn from Scripture about God are meaningful and understandable, even though they are not ultimately comprehensive. Christian theologian and apologist Robert M. Bowman, Jr. provides a helpful clarification:

To say that the Trinity cannot be understood likewise is imprecise, or at least open to misinterpretation. Trinitarian theologians do not mean to imply that the Trinity is unintelligible nonsense. Rather, the point they are making is that the Trinity cannot be fully fathomed, or comprehended, by the finite mind of a man. There is a difference between gaining a basically correct understanding of something and having a complete, comprehensive, all-embracing, perfect understanding of it. The way many other theologians would express this difference is to say that the Trinity can be understood, or “apprehended,” but not “comprehended.”6

The difficulty that human beings have in encountering the Trinity doctrine is that God is in certain respects different from anything in the created order. For example, the teaching that one being subsists as three distinct persons is completely counter to all human experience. This is, of course, the difficulty with human analogies of the Trinity — God is in some respects wholly other. However, the question is whether human beings will accept God as He actually reveals Himself to be, mystery included, or only settle for a being they think they can fully comprehend. Of course if the human mind can comprehend God, can he be much of a God? As C.S. Lewis points out, some concepts of God are easier than others: “If Christianity was something we were making up, of course we could make it easier. But it isn’t. We can’t compete, in simplicity, with people who are inventing religions. How could we? We’re dealing with fact. Of course anyone can be simple if he has no facts to bother about!”7

3. Isn’t the Trinity a logical contradiction?

The law of non-contradiction, the foundational principle for all logical thinking, asserts that two contradictory statements cannot both be true at the same time and in the same respect (A cannot equal A and non-A). This law can take a metaphysical cast indicating what is or is not: “Nothing can both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect.” This same law can also take an epistemological cast, indicating what is true or false: “A statement cannot be both true and false at the same time and in the same respect.”8 A contradiction in logic reflects a very specific relationship. Two statements are contradictory if they negate or deny each other. Contradictory statements have opposite truth value: exactly one statement is true; the other statement is false.

Skeptics often claim the Trinity is a contradiction in two ways. Some critics of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity assert that it violates the law of non-contradiction on the ground that the doctrine claims that God is one and not one, and that God is three and not three. This criticism is a straw man argument, however, for orthodox Trinitarianism does not assert that God is one and not one, three and not three. Rather the Trinity doctrine asserts that the way God is one (essence), He is not three. And the way that God is three (subsistence), He is not one. Trinitarians assert that one must distinguish God’s essence on one hand and God’s subsistence on the other. God is one in a different respect than the way He is three, and three in a different respect than the way He is one. Thus the Trinity is not a formal contradiction.

Other critics claim that the formulation of the Trinity does indeed involve a contradiction. They argue the following: Since the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, and since the Father is not the Son, the Father is not the Holy Spirit and the Son is not the Holy Spirit; then the result is that each person is simultaneously God and not God. This is, they reason, a violation of the law of non-contradiction.

This evaluation of the Trinitarian formulation is equally a straw man argument, for again it fails to recognize the essence/subsistence distinction. The members of the Trinity all share equally the one divine nature and are thus the one God. However, the relational distinctions in the Godhead (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) do not in any way subtract from each individual person’s possession of the divine nature. Thus the three persons are distinct from each other, but they nevertheless remain fully and equally God. How one Being can simultaneously be three persons is an unfathomable mystery, but it is not a formal contradiction.

This logical tension may be alleviated if one recognizes what is known as the “predication/identity distinction.”9 To say that “Jesus Christ is God” is to predicate the divine nature to Jesus Christ which is an attribute of being that He shares equally and fully with the Father and the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, to say “Jesus Christ is God the Son” is to make an identity claim; namely, that the person of Jesus of Nazareth is the same (identical) person as God the Son, the second person of the Trinity. It is not contradictory to attribute deity to all three members of the Trinity (predication), while simultaneously asserting that they possess distinct personal identities: Father, Son, Holy Spirit (identity). Often misunderstandings can be cleared up if Christians take great care in formulating and articulating the Trinity doctrine.

Critics may question the essence/subsistence distinction, but if they are going to critique the historic doctrine of the Trinity, they must take this critical distinction into account. Christians throughout the centuries have affirmed that the Trinity may range above reason, but never against reason. As Christian theologian Geoffrey Bromiley asserts: “Rationalist objections to the Trinity break down in the fact that they insist on interpreting the Creator in terms of the creature…”10

4. Why is the doctrine of the Trinity important?

As stated earlier, the Trinity doctrine is crucially important because it reveals What and Who God is (one God in three persons). This allows Christians, though in an obviously limited way, to view the inner working of God’s nature and personhood. This doctrine allows God’s people, as the Athanasian Creed declares, to “worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity…” Christians assert that to fail to worship the Triune God is to fail to worship God.

Furthermore, the Trinity doctrine brings together in a coherent manner the great truths about God’s historical/redemptive actions in and through the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For example, the Father sends the Son into the world to offer a propitiary sacrifice on the cross that will both appease the Father’s just wrath against sin and extend the Father’s love and mercy by allowing repentant sinners to escape divine judgment. The Incarnate Son (the second person of the Trinity) is able to provide this atonement because He is both God and man (in this case “two Whats” and “one Who”). The God-man conquers death, sin, and hell through His glorious resurrection from the dead. The Holy Spirit (another Comforter) is directly responsible for the believer’s new birth in Christ through regeneration and for the life journey of sanctification. The entire plan of redemption is made possible by the three divine members of the Trinity. Thus salvation from first to last is directly connected to the doctrine of the Trinity.

Finally, as the greatest of the church fathers, St. Augustine (A.D. 354-430), explained in his monumental work De Trinitate (On The Trinity), only a God who has plurality within unity can adequately account for God being love and for the use of His divine mind. For if God is a single solitary being, then before the creation He has no one to love, and He cannot distinguish between the knower and the known (a requisite of self knowledge).11

Christians have grown to cherish the doctrine of the Trinity that sets their religion apart from all others. Through the centuries they have worshiped one God in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity. The last stanza of Reginald Heber’s hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” (1826) exemplifies this worship:

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God almighty!
All thy works shall praise thy name, in earth and sky and sea;
Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty!
God in three persons, blessed Trinity!12

Glossary of Terms

Arianism: The heretical view that Christ’s nature or essence is inferior to the Father; that Christ is a created being. A denial of the full and unqualified deity of Christ and of the Holy Spirit.

catholic: When written in lower case, it is a reference to the universal or orthodox Christian church.

essence: The necessary characteristics that make a thing what it is. In terms of God, the full nature or substance of what God is.

modalism: The heretical view that there is only one divine person who merely appears in three different forms or modes; a denial that the three members of the Trinity are distinct and distinguishable persons.

monarchianism: The view that so stressed the unity of God as to exclude God’s plurality (as three distinct persons).

monotheism: The view that there is one, and only one, God (affirmed in Trinitarianism).

ontology: The study of being.

polytheism: The view that there is more than one, or many, gods.

Straw man fallacy: An informal fallacy in which the arguer distorts or misrepresents his opponent’s argument and then attacks the distorted argument.

subsistence: From the Latin “subsistentia,” with respect to the Trinity an individual instance of a given essence.

Trinitarianism: The orthodox doctrine that God is one in essence but three in subsistence: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

tritheism: The view that there are three separate gods.

  1. Athanasian Creed, in Ecumenical Creeds and Reformed Confessions (Grand Rapids: CRC Publications, 1988), 9-10.
  2. For a discussion of the attributes of God see John Jefferson Davis, Handbook of Basic Bible Texts (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 23-39; Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 29-81.
  3. These points were influenced by Robert M. Bowman, Jr., Why You Should Believe in the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989); Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 321-42; Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), s.v. “trinitas,” 306-10; Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 226-61.
  4. See Bowman, Why You Should Believe in the Trinity, 50-51, 91-110, 114-20, 124-34.
  5. Alister E. McGrath, An Introduction to Christianity (Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell, 1997), 193-94.
  6. Bowman, Why You Should Believe in the Trinity, 16-17.
  7. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1952), 145.
  8. For a clear and insightful discussion of the formal laws of logic, see Ronald H. Nash, The Word of God and the Mind of Man (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 103-12; and Ed L. Miller, Questions That Matter, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996), 32-33.
  9. See Thomas D. Senor’s helpful discussion of this philosophical distinction in Michael J. Murray ed., Reason for the Hope Within (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 239-40.
  10. Walter A. Elwell, ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), s.v. “Trinity,” 1112.
  11. Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), s.v. “Trinity,” 736.
  12. Psalter Hymnal, Centennial Edition (Grand Rapids: CRC Publication, 1959), hymn #318, 375.