Understanding The Doctrine of the Trinity

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Introduction

One of the most often misunderstood beliefs that Christians hold is the idea of the Trinity. Christians themselves often find themselves at a loss as to how to adequately express their understanding (and many times simply express an incorrect view). This summary should help.

There are really only two ideas that must be understood to grasp the true essence of this teaching:

  • There is only one God. (Dt. 6:4; Isa. 44:6; 1 Cor. 8:6; Eph. 4:6; 1 Tim. 2:5).
  • There are three distinct persons (Ps. 45:6, 110:1; Isa 63:7-10; Zech 1:12; Mt. 3:16-17, 28:19; Lk. 23:46; 2 Cor. 13:14) who are each fully God:
    • The Father (Jn. 6:27; Rom. 1:7; Gal. 1:1)
    • The Son (Mk. 2:5; 14:61-65; Jn. 1:1-5; 8:58; 10:11; Col 1:15-17; Heb. 1:1-15; Rev. 1:17)
    • The Holy Spirit (Gen 1:2 (cf. Isa. 44:6; Isa 63:7-9; Ps. 139:7; Acts 5:3-4; 2 Cor. 13:14; Heb 9:14)

So God is plurality within unity. The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit are each persons, and are each God, but they are not each other. Neither are there three gods (polytheism), nor is there only one person who is three different expressions of God (modalism). God is one in nature (there is only one “what”), but three in person (there are three “who’s”). There is one “it,” and three “I’s.” There is one object, and three subjects. There is distinction in God without division. Because we only find one person per essence in humanity, this is difficult to grasp, but there is no contradiction in stating that one essence is shared by three persons.

This is the view of God that the Church holds, as declared in the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man, and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried, and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father. And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end.

And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father [and the Son] who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets. And we believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. And we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The Incarnation of The Son (Jesus Christ)

One person of the Trinity, Jesus, took on an additional nature at the incarnation – that of humanity. Thus, Jesus is one person with more than one nature. Again, this is not a contradiction – it is simply that in humanity we normally only see one nature per person. Further, God did not “become a man.” It is rather that God in the person of Jesus Christ added the nature of humanity to the nature of deity. The two natures are not combined, nor are they separated into two beings. Rather, they are joined in the person of Jesus Christ.

This is the view of God the Son that the Church holds, as declared in the Definition of Chalcedon:

Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us.

There seem to be all sorts of paradoxes involved with Christ being a man and God at the same time. But it must be remembered that Jesus Christ, in addition to being God, is also man – not some sort of combination. The human nature was added to the divine. Thus, what is true of human nature is true of Jesus Christ (finitude, mortality, growth, etc.), and what is true of God is true of Jesus Christ  (infinitude, immortality, unchangability, etc.), yet we are only speaking of the one divine person. Once this is understood, the paradoxes are not a problem.

Two Heresies to be Avoided

There are two heresies major involved with the three-in-one teaching of the Trinity:

Modalism

One such heresy is Modalism, the teaching that God is one essence and one person – and that this one person only manifests in different ways. Depending on what “mode” God happens to be in at a given time we assign Him different names (Father, Son, Holy Spirit).

This is not the teaching of Scripture because:

  • The Father sent the Son.
  • The Father loves the Son.
  • Christ prayed “Not my will but yours . . . ” to the Father.
  • At the baptism of Christ all three persons were separately manifested.

And none of which would have been possible if they were only one person. These are clearly relations between distinct persons, not multiple personality disorder!

Tritheism

The other extreme we want to avoid is Tritheism, the idea that there are three persons and three essences in the nature of God – for that would equate to three gods.

This is polytheism and is completely unbiblical. The Bible clearly teaches that nothing outside of God is God. He is distinct from creation. The Bible may refer to God’s emissaries (both angel and human) as “gods” with regard to their acting on His behalf, but they are not to be confused with the true God or worshiped as such (Psalm 82:6-7; Isaiah 43-45; Revelation 19:10).

Analogies

Because we cannot imagine that which does not exist in nature, the true Trinity is a very difficult concept to grasp – yet we must for the Bible teaches it. Analogies are helpful ways to express that which is difficult to grasp, some are better than others and no analogy is perfect in all its parts. Unfortunately the wrong ideas presented above are sustained even in Christian circles by way of false analogies that are sometimes used in attempts to understand the truth. Here are a few (try to see which heresy is unfortunately being supported by each):

False Analogies

Child/Parent/Sibling: You can be a child to your parents, a parent to your children, and a sibling to your sibling;  but you are only one person.
This analogy is false because God does not reveal Himself in modes of action. He is three in person – not just one who performs different roles.

Water: Water is a single substance that exists in three forms (gas, liquid, solid) and each one is distinct from the other.
This essentially falls into the same modal problem noted above. God does not have parts, for the only way to distinguish a part is to have a lack in one or another part, and God lacks nothing.

The Egg: An egg is one, and yet has three parts.
This one is way off, for no single part of an egg is the egg – the parts must be added together to form the one. God cannot be separated into parts. Each member of the Trinity is fully God.

Better Analogies

A Triangle: A Triangle is three in sides, yet it is one in shape.
Each side of the triangle is necessary for its existence, each meets the other at the angles, and no sides are distinguishable. But of course no single line is the whole triangle so this is where the analogy breaks down (as all analogies do).

Multiplication of 1: 1 x 1 x 1 = 1.
Here we see three singularities equally one. This is a good example of the essence of God (but not the persons of God which would be represented by 1 + 1 + 1).

Love: Love involves the love of the lover, the love of the loved, and the love they share.
This one is good because three “loves” must be present to have love.

Light: A stream of light is one beam yet with three distinguishable and necessary components.
A very good analogy that I deal with in detail here.

Conclusion

Any explanation of the nature of God must account for all that the Bible teaches – not explaining only one aspect (like unity) at the expense of others (like plurality). The Trinity successfully unites all that Scripture has to say about God without contradiction, and is the settled doctrine of the Church. While the Trinity itself is impossible to fully grasp with our finite minds, orthodox Christians must affirm the doctrine of the Trinity, for it is biblically and philosophically sound.

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13 thoughts on “Understanding The Doctrine of the Trinity

  1. “Further, God did not ‘become a man.”

    Ooooooooooooooooooh yes he did! 😉

    “If anyone understands the expression ‘one only Person of our Lord Jesus Christ’ in this sense: That it is the union of many hypostases [subsistences], and if he attempts thus to introduce into the mystery of Christ two hypostases [subsistences], or two Persons… let him be anathema.” Fifth Ecumenical Council, Contantinople II.

    The subsistent supra-being of God Himself became incarnate and died. Not just a Prosopon (person).

  2. Nicholas – I think we have a case of imprecision here, not heresy (at least I hope so!). This canon says nothing of whether or not God went through an essential change, and I am not introducing another person into the mix. By “God” here I was referring to God’s essential nature (i.e., “one essence with the Father”) – not “the person of Christ who is God,” which seems to be the concern here. Just as Mary can be the Mother of God without giving birth to an infinite, immovable, omnipresent being – so can the person of Jesus Christ take on an additional nature without an immutable being undergoing change.

  3. 1. But “God” is not a nature. You cannot refer to “God” and refer to a nature, or you are confusing Person and Essence. You can say that “Divinity did not become Humanity” but you cannot say that God did not become man. God is three Hypostases who share an Essence, but God’s source is not an Essence. God’s source and foundation of being is three Hypostases in relationship.

    Thus it is not heretical only to introduce a second “person” in Christ, but it is also heretical to introduce another subsistent existence, another acting principle, etc.

    2. Mary is the Mother of God because she truly gave birth to the uncircumscribable, ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible Wisdom, Word, Son and Power of God. She did not give birth to a human nature, a humanity, or a new person. And she is not Mother of God merely by virtue of a title or person shared by two subsistent existences. She is Ontos Theotokon— ontologically Mother of God.

    “And since the holy Virgin brought forth corporally God made one with flesh according to nature, for this reason we also call her Mother of God” – Council of Ephesus (Third Ecumenical Council)

  4. These sound like a lot of very confused categories. There is no “source” of an essence. To say “God is not a nature” is false at worse and vague at best. “God” is a word that means “divinity” unless you are confusing it with God’s name. Further, God is not “God via a participation in divinity” – He simply is divinity. You’re making God’s triunity of relations
    prior to divinity – but how could there be relations of non-things? And adding a person to the godhead is not a heresy? WOW. You’re going to have to provide some pretty serious support for all these assertions.

    I think the problem is that your eastern categories are not equivalent to the Western tradition and so (I hope) we are just talking past each other. These are technical terms and until we clarify them this conversation is not going to move forward. What exactly do you mean by “person” and “essence”?

  5. “You’re making God’s triunity of relations prior to divinity”

    I’m making Personhood (Hypostasis) in relationship the foundation of God, yes. If essence comes first, how do you know it exists?

    “He simply is divinity.”

    Why is God simply divinity? Does that mean that God is simply an essence? If so, What are the Persons? Are the Persons dependent on an Essence? If so, have you not introduced a fourth “source” Person into the Trinity, named God the Essence?

    “And adding a person to the godhead is not a heresy? WOW.”

    Yes it is, you misunderstood me. Sorry about that. I meant “not only is it a heresy to introduce a second person, it is also a heresy to introduce a second subsistent existence or acting principle.”.

    “What exactly do you mean by ‘person’ and ‘essence'”

    Sure. There are two definitions of Person and Essence you can work with.

    1. “Prosopon” often referred to a Persona that is dependent on an Essence that grounds that Persona’s ontology.

    2. “Hypostasis” is both Person and Subsistent Existence. This is the definition of Person that I use, but I feel like you go between both definitions when you say person. This is probably because “Persona” in Latin is much more vague.

    1. “Essence” in the heresy of modalism refers to the subsistent existence of something, what grounds its ontology. What makes the Prosopon exist. I disagree with this.

    2. In the orthodox view, a Hypostasis HAS an Essence. Christ is divine just like the Father is. Christ is divine with the same divinity as the Father and the Holy Spirit. Christ HAS a Divine Nature. Essence is a crude way of saying “the sort of thing that God is, which is, of course, Holy, Holy, Holy”.

  6. Reply to Nicholas,

    If each hypostatsis HAS an essence, then there is something in addition to each hypostatis that accounts for each one being distinct from the other. So, it would follow that The Father is God (plus something non-God to distinguish him from the Son), the Son is God (plus something non-God to distinguish him from the Father) and so on.

    That is, the three persons cannot be distinct based upon what they have in common. So, there is something non-God (and thus non-divine) about each person. But this is contrary to the Christian Faith, which affirms that each person is wholly divine.

    Moreover, when you make the relationship prior to the essence, then each person is who they are independent of God’s nature. This is also contrary to the Christian Faith, because each person is a DIVINE person, and thus they are identical to divinity, not relationally prior.

    Finally, the questions you ask reveal a lack of understanding of how Thomistic theologians understand the Trinity. You may not agree nonetheless, but you should do some reading on Aquinas.

  7. “If each hypostatsis HAS an essence, then there is something in addition to each hypostatis that accounts for each one being distinct from the other.”

    No, because that essence they all have is the same essence.

    “When you make the relationship prior to the essence, then each person is who they are independent of God’s nature.”

    Not if you believe that the Father is God and the Hypostatic source of the Divine Essence, who begets His Word and sends His Spirit. The Father is the source of personhood, divinity, essence, the Godhead, etc. A Divine Essence is not the source of the Godhead. The Divine Essence emerges out of that relationship of the Trinity in which the Son and the Spirit come from the Father and offer themselves back to Him. “Prior” is a word I have no real attachment to.

    “Because each person is a DIVINE person, and thus they are identical to divinity”

    I’m not sure what your point is by saying this.

    “Finally, the questions you ask reveal a lack of understanding of how Thomistic theologians understand the Trinity.”

    I know how Aristotelian Modalism works. The Pseudo-Athanasian Creed explains it quite well. 😉

  8. Nicholas,

    In your reply to Doug’s question for definition for “Person” and “Essence” you defined neither.

    In place of a definition of person you inserted ‘hypostasis’ and then included ‘person’ as a constituent of that definition. But Doug is asking for a definition of the word ‘person’ … so what does ‘person’ mean as a constituent of ‘hypostasis’?

    Also, you did not define ‘essence’. You discussed a heresy and then that you disagreed with it.

    So, you need to try again. What do the words ‘person’ and ‘essence’ mean? What are their definitions?

  9. “If each hypostatsis HAS an essence, then there is something in addition to each hypostatis that accounts for each one being distinct from the other.”

    No, because that essence they all have is the same essence.

    Jason: Your reply is not to the point. Having the same essence is not sufficient for the distinction you are trying to maintain. Having the same essence is compatible with having something in addition to that essence.

    “When you make the relationship prior to the essence, then each person is who they are independent of God’s nature.”
    Not if you believe that the Father is God and the Hypostatic source of the Divine Essence, who begets His Word and sends His Spirit. The Father is the source of personhood, divinity, essence, the Godhead, etc. A Divine Essence is not the source of the Godhead. The Divine Essence emerges out of that relationship of the Trinity in which the Son and the Spirit come from the Father and offer themselves back to Him. “Prior” is a word I have no real attachment to.

    Jason: You are making my point and you don’t realize it. If the Father *as* God is the source of the Divine Essence, then the Father *is* God prior to the Divine Essence. For sources are prior to what they are the source of. Is that which is begotten and sent, distinct from the Father? Answer: yes. Is the Father begetting the Son a source of the Divine Essence? Answer: no. This is where a major disagreement lies.

    “Because each person is a DIVINE person, and thus they are identical to divinity”
    I’m not sure what your point is by saying this.
    My point in saying this is that the ‘is’ in the statement “The Father is God” is an ‘is’ of identity. Given this identity, there is no way for the Father to be the source of the Divine Essence. And to make the Father the source of Divinity (as you maintain) falsifies the ‘is’ of identity in the above statement. But falsifying the identity of Father with God is contrary to Christian doctrine.

    “Finally, the questions you ask reveal a lack of understanding of how Thomistic theologians understand the Trinity.”
    I know how Aristotelian Modalism works. The Pseudo-Athanasian Creed explains it quite well.

    Jason: This is a telling statement. Thomism is not Modalistic. It appears you are reading your Orthodox terms *into* Thomism, because Thomism, understood according to its terms and concepts, is not modalistic. This is why you need to study it more or learn Thomism according to how a Thomist understands it.

  10. Oops; I shouldn’t have began with “The Father is God”. It is true, but I should not have began with it. You are right.

    In any case, I think it was a mistake to get into a “What is essence ultimately?” debate, because Neo-Platonism and Aristotelianism both fail to answer that question effectively.

    Rather, Let’s return to the fact that Mary did in fact give birth to a Divine Being, the Logos of God, as confirmed by the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus.

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