Christian Distinctives:

The Trinity (I)

Modified: Jan 15, 2002

Outline of our StudyThis series of discussions will follow this basic structure:
The Athanasian creed gives a summary of the early Church's teaching on the Trinity :
We worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons nor dividing the substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost; but the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one, the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal. The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten; the Son is of the Father alone, not made, nor created, but begotten; the Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son, neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.
With this statement (and its precursors and subsequent attempts at refinement), the Church attempted to articulate an incredibly complex body of data and concepts into a rule of faith--a conceptual guideline to keep the faithful within the bounds of revealed information about God.

There are many such formulations, with complex terminology and philosophical systems, and ALL of them function as declarations, not explanations.

The data in Scripture is very, very clear: there are three individuals in the Bible who may be called YHWH without error and without blasphemy, who interact with one another and with us. These three individuals affirm, however, that there is only ONE GOD.

As one can imagine from the above, this belief has been a source of MUCH controversy, much discussion, much polemic, much error, much confusion, and many skeptical attacks.

So, let me start with my basic understanding of what the concept of "Trinity" is.

In simplest terms, it is that there are three Persons who can accurately be called 'the One God'. The early church would convene 'thinktanks' (e.g. councils, although some of them were apparently more akin to political circuses!) to come up with better notions, and ended up with "three Persons in one essence", and by this they meant "three Persons in one Being".

"Orthodoxy" maintains this definition. I feel a little uncomfortable with the notions of 'being' and 'essence'--relative to 'person'--so I prefer the notion of 'unit'. So I get "three Persons in one ultimate unit".

A couple of points about this. First, the adjective 'ultimate' is the 'god-word' in this definition. If I had 15,000 persons, each of which was 'ultimate', I would still only have ONE ULTIMATE. (This is the somewhat obtuse philosophical discussion about not being able to have multiple 'ultimates' because then the principle which distinguishes them is MORE ULTIMATE--a nonsensical phrase. For example, this is the objection to ethical dualism--if good and evil are both ultimate, then they are THE SAME--but we KNOW they are NOT and the distinction between them MUST be the 'REAL' ultimate. But I REALLY don't want to get into that now! But I will come back to some of the philosophical/theological issues at the end of these discussions.)

So the notion basically says that ALL the 'things' I find that can appropriately and accurately be called "God" or "Ultimate", are 'one in essence' ALREADY--by DEFINITION of 'ultimacy'.

The second point is this: I am not sure we could ever really understand how the "persons" and the "essence/unit" are related--especially in GOD! We don't understand these things in HUMANS, much less God. But then again, we probably don't have to.

And, to be QUITE FRANK, I would expect a "God" to be a bit more complex than everything He created! I would expect SOME overlap, perhaps, say in the notion of 'personality' but for me to say that God COULD NOT have three interior Persons would be VERY intellectually presumptuous (especially for a mortal creature of only 5'10"!) To say that a God who could speak a universe into existence HAS TO BE no more complex in His nature that humans are would be GROUNDLESS speculation of the most ludicrous sort! I think Feuerbach would call it 'making God in OUR image'!

Interestingly enough, many of the attacks of this understanding are aimed at the philosophical terms used in the early church councils, as they tried to piece together the statements of scripture into a non-contradictory whole. The attacks on the source data (i.e. the scriptural elements from which the doctrine is constructed ) are generally focused on the deity of Jesus Christ and the personality of the Holy Spirit. And, there is a general attack on the way the Church handled the matter, politically and organizationally, in the first centuries of its existence, as well.


Although there have been attempts to justify (via natural theology or logic) a three-in-one structure in God, most of these seem a bit specious. Such a bizarre notion of deity (with its attendant possibilities of blasphemy) MUST be a revealed truth and NOT a simple product of human reasoning or logic. [We will obviously NEED reasoning and logic to process the revealed statements, but we will have to use this faculty in a non-normative sense--it CANNOT be allowed to decide what can and cannot be true.]

What this means for our study is that any data for the trinity will need to come from Scripture, and generally accepted readings at that. We may use outside sources (e.g. Rabbinx, Qumran, Jewish pseudoepigrapha) to document how some interpreted those passages, but our honesty and exegetical care must be focused on the Text itself.

There are two specific presuppositional errors which must be avoided as well: religious presuppositions and philosophical presuppositions.

Religious presuppositions may be illustrated from modern non-Christian Jewry and from Islam. Both of these groups ASSUME that a God CANNOT have multiple centers of consciousness in Himself. In other words, God MUST BE LIKE a HUMAN! The seasoned OT reader will notice that this is plain and simple DIRECT VIOLATION of the Decalogue (among other passages):

Deut 5:8-9 (Exodus 20:4): You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God.
What could be plainer than Isaiah 40:18:
To whom, then, will you compare God? What image will you compare him to?
and Isaiah 46.5:
"To whom will you compare me or count me equal? To whom will you liken me that we may be compared?

To worship a God reduced to the structure of a human person is idolatry--the very thing the Muslim and non-Christian Jew accuses the Judeo-Christian of! Let us not mince words about this. If the OT scriptures confront us with some kind of plural-personality within the name YHWH, and if the Jew/Muslim explains away those scriptures and substitutes "a God made in the image of man" for the REAL God, then idolatry and blasphemy are the only appropriate descriptions for that. It is not faithfulness or covenant loyalty to YHWH to take an arbitrary and unfounded definition of oneness and let that man-made definition be the ultimate authority over Holy Writ! That is not faithfulness--it is presumption.

If it is folly to take a mystery of God and go BEYOND IT (a common Judeo-Christian error in this area), it is an EQUAL folly to take a mystery of God and "cut it down to size" into something understandable on the bed of Procrustes.

I challenge the Muslim and non-Christian Jew to consider this carefully, and to approach these OT passages with an open mind and heart, asking the Eternal One for wisdom and honesty.

The second major presupposition-type that we have to deal with is philosophical. We MUST be careful what metaphysics we bring with us to these texts (and we probably ALL bring some such assumptions with us). Notions of "person", "agent", "attribute", "essence", etc. are notoriously slippery, and can (and has!) smuggled significant philosophical baggage into the discussion.

We might profitably at this point differentiate between a Nicene/Athanasian doctrine of the trinity (involving technical terms like being, hypostasis, essence, etc.) and the 'raw' list of assertions made by scripture teaching SOME KIND of 'trinitarianism'. The Nicene doctrine of the trinity is a theological complex of statements and relationships between those statements, which attempts to do the 'best job of explaining' (1) the 'raw' list of biblical statements; (2) Christian experience, both personal and corporate; and (3) 'how' that situation could obtain.

The 'raw' list of biblical assertions (the fruit of basic exegetical work) would include (we will do considerable drill-down on these during our study):

1. John 1 - "The Word was WITH God and the Word was GOD" - a VERY simple statement of pure-and-simple plurality-in-unity.

2. This Word (i.e. Jesus Christ) prayed to the Father in heaven. (numerous places)

3. This Jesus would send the Holy Spirit from the Father in heaven, after his departure from earth. (John 14-17)

4. This Spirit could be grieved (Ephs 4) and lied to (Acts 5), and made sovereign decisions (I Cor 12:11 etc.)

5. These three are listed co-equally and co-ordinately in the baptismal formula (Matt 28) and the Benediction (2 Cor 13:14).

6. Old Testament passages repeatedly demonstrate that the Angel of YHWH 'was' YHWH and 'was with YHWH'; and that the Spirit of YHWH 'was' YHWH and 'was with YHWH'.

7. Old Testament passages repeatedly describe a messianic figure that is super-human, super-angelic (agreed to even by non-Christian rabbinic writings), and is even called YHWH in a few verses.

Even a cursory examination of the above biblical teachings will yield an imprecise, but nevertheless complex 'system' of generalizations: (1) there are 3 individuals that can be called YHWH/God by the scripture; (2) these 3 individuals are distinct from one another; (3) these three individuals are all co-operatively involved in the history of creation/redemption. These three statements together are the basic understanding of 'Trinity'.

At a phenomenological level, all we really need to note is that there are three distinct 'others' that we encounter in the biblical record. These 'others' engage us in 'personal ways'--intellectually, volitionally, emotionally. It is NOT a 'philosophical system' to call these 'others' consciousnesses--for we encounter them, at the level of phenomena, as those "with whom we have to do"--relating and giving ALL APPEARANCES as 'persons'.

Confusion over terms like 'substance' and 'subsistence' cannot be allow to obscure this PLAIN and RAW data of scripture. We may 'throw out' the Trinitarian creedal statements of the Early Church Councils, but we CANNOT dismiss the overwhelming biblical data so easily. We will have to do 'something' with these passages and biblical statements--if we intend to honor the revealing God.

The Issue of Theophany (i.e Manifestation of God)

One of the first (and more difficult) issues that will arise in this study concerns the Theophanies (i.e. manifestations of God in history). When the One God reveals Himself in history as the Angel of YHWH, and as the Spirit of God, why do we believe those are 'different persons' and not just God the Father manifesting Himself AS THOSE ROLES?

The main criterion will be if the passage indicates some type of personal 'interaction' between the manifestation-in-question and the God of Heaven. If, for example, YHWH in heaven speaks to the Angel or speaks to His Spirit, then that constitutes basic support for a 'plural persons' position. [A single-person position would not be able to account for such a statement.]

Additionally, we will look for 'control' passages--texts in which a pure non-personal manifestation occurs, then compare that control to more questionable passages.

The Issue of Progressive Revelation

For some reason, God revealed His truth in history, in progressively more detail and expansiveness over time. There were aspects of His revelation that were NOT available to Abraham that WERE available to Moses. Likewise, there may be truths that were available ONLY to NT writers, and NOT to the OT writers--in keeping with this principle.

In other words, just because it comes to explication in the NT doesn't mean it can be thrown out as being incorrect. Granted, it may not have much persuasive 'power' to those only accepting the OT, but it is certainly not out of line with how God does things.

The reality of progressive revelation is obvious EVEN TO those who only accept the OT. It is highly unlikely that Moses was 'briefed' by God on Malachi's prophecy that YHWH would come to His temple someday(!)...esp. since there was no temple (nor talk of a temple) in Moses time. This prophecy was a LATER revelation of God to Israel. The birthplace of the Messiah in Micah 5.2 was probably not known to Abraham.

This point should be very clear, without multiplying examples. The truth of progressive revelation is obvious EVEN in the OT; so it should not be a priori rejected when it comes to the OT-NT relationship.

The relevance of this principle to our existing study is simple. EVEN IF we could not find 'proof' of the Trinity in the OT, that would IN ITSELF, NOT be a reason to discard it--IF the NT was very, very clear on the issue.

Now, it might be HELPFUL if the OT had 'hints' or 'ambiguities' in it that would ALLOW us to 'suspect' that the Trinity was true, but it would be VERY HELPFUL if the OT was rather explicit about some level of plurality in the One God, which plurality might be made more articulate in the NT under the force of progressive revelation.

The Methodology of the Research/Study

First, we build the 'rival' theories of the Godhead: polytheism, trinitarianism, Unitarianism (including Muslim and non-Christian Jewish belief).

Second, we make 'retro-dictions' from these theories--we make predictions as to what we would Find and Not-Find in Holy Writ IF that particular theory were correct.

Third, we compare scripture to those predictions, noting agreements, disagreements, and the relative strengths of those agreements/disagreements.

Finally, we assess the above for the 'best one', state the summary, and identify any 'unresolved' problems.

The Rival Hypotheses.

POLYTHEISM. There are multiple individuals that can appropriately be called 'God' (in the fullest sense of the word), and these individuals have no essential/ontological identity. They may be 'made of the same god-stuff' but they don't share the same 'batch of the stuff'. They are numerically distinct. If one of them 'ceased' to exist, the others' existences would not be automatically 'terminated' as well.

If POLYTHEISM were true, what kinds of statements would we expect in Scripture (assuming that we were supposed to worship all of these Gods as Israel's 'God')?

A1. The individual Gods would be given distinctive names, so we could know which one was doing what.
A2. Each of these names would be called 'God' somewhere, or ascribed the characteristics of deity in a regular fashion.
A3. There would be passages in which we would see the various Gods interact (as identified by their names).
A4. There would be commands to worship ALL of the Gods (perhaps equally).
A5. There would NOT be any EXCLUSIVE claims to deity by any one God.
A6. There would NOT be any statements endorsing (or implying) monotheism.
A7. There would Not be any prohibitions to worship of multiple Gods (but maybe against false gods).
A8. There might be passages in which humans were "corrected" for depending on the 'wrong' God for that specific situation.

UNITARIANISM. There is One individual who can appropriately be called 'God' (in the fullest sense of the word). This individual does NOT share his glory, attributes, identify with another individual (except in a derivative sense), and has NO personal relationships existing WITHIN himself.

If UNITARIANISM were true, what kinds of statements would we expect in Scripture?

B1. There would be frequent, strong, unambiguous statements of EXCLUSIVE deity by the one God.
B2. No other individuals would manifest the same powers, glory, characteristics of the one God (except those that may be sharable by creatures).
B3. No other individuals would be called "God".
B4. Manifestations of God would NOT interact with God (implying distinction within God), but only with the creation.
B5. Any literary devices involving God ("the right arm of the most High") would NOT interact with God (implying distinction within God), but only with the creation.
B6. There would be prohibitions against worship of ANYTHING OTHER THAN the one God, and perhaps rebukes of humans who tried to worship super-human (but not divine) agents.

TRINITARIANISM. There are three individuals who can appropriately be called 'God' (in the fullest sense of the word). These individuals share the numerically same attributes, glory, characteristics, 'god-stuff', but are distinct from one other in terms of the personal relationships WITHIN the one God. If one of them 'ceased' to exist, the others' existences would automatically be 'terminated' as well.

If TRINITARIANISM were true, what kinds of statements would we expect in Scripture?

C1. There would still be statements of the EXCLUSIVE deity by the one God, but the terminology used would be more ambiguous as to 'number' or even be suggestive of a plurality within the one.
C2. There would be multiple individuals, metaphors, agents that would be called "God".
C3. These Divine agents would interact with other Divine agents in the SAME passage.
C4. These multiple 'agents' would still be contrasted with FALSE gods.
C5. These multiple 'agents' would be related somehow to each other--within the unity.
C6. All of these agents would be accorded worship, prayer, unique attributions of glory.
C7. These agents would all be described in personal terms, to insure they were understood as 'real' and not simply literary devices.
C8. There would be passages in which the various agents might be 'linked' in equal roles or formulae.
C9. There would be passages in which you couldn't tell WHICH of the agents was doing the work (due to the unity).
C10. There might be different passages which attributed the SAME results to DIFFERENT agents.

It will be noted that there is considerable overlap between the statements in each of these lists. For example, Polytheism and Trinitarianism predict that the scripture will identify multiple agents as divine; unitaritarianism and trinitarianism will predict that there will be statements of 'there is only ONE God'.

But it will be the subtle differences that will determine the 'best fit'.

Consider the following implications if Trinitarianism is true:

1. The statements and creedal formulae that there is only ONE God (common to UniTx and TriniTx), will have enough specificity to eliminate false gods, but enough ambiguity to 'allow' for multiple personalities within the ONE God.

2. Statements of manifestations (common to UniTx and TriniTx) of God will include a set of events in which the manifestation of God INTERACTS with God ( in a way suggestive of separate personality) AND a set of events (with perhaps some overlap) in which the manifestation of God is CALLED 'God' (or unambiguously IDENTIFIED as divine and not simply angelic).

3. Attempts on the part of humans to worship/invoke different Divine agents will be allowed (common to PolyTx and TriniTx), AND attempts to worship superhuman/angelic beings will be denounced (common to ThriniTx and UniTx).

The next step of the study will be to locate the passages (OT first) that fall into these three categories, and examine them to see if there are any equally plausible (or better) explanations of them THAN as one of the 3 supports above. Once we have examined these, and retained the 'stubborn' ones, we will assess how strong the overall case is.

We then examine the NT in this same way, noting any additional development of the OT themes it might demonstrate.

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