Home > Uncategorized > Insufficient views of the Trinity

Insufficient views of the Trinity

I showed yesterday that Christians are not monotheists because we are trinitarians; we are trinitarians because we are monotheists.  If we cease to be monotheists, we cease to be Christians.  The doctrine of the Trinity is merely a way to remain monotheists while also including Jesus and the Holy Spirit in the godhead while retaining their distinctions.  In other words, the Trinity is important because it helps us be Biblical.

Unfortunately most people aren’t biblical when they think about the Trinity.  That’s why a lot of bad analogies are floating around out there in Christian circles.  Here are a few that are insufficient for talking about the Trinity:

1. Water can take on three states: solid (ice), liquid (water), and gas (steam); thus, water, it is said, is three-in-one.  The problem with this analogy is that it is a modalistic explanation.  It is the same water in each case.  Modalists believe that Jesus actually is the Father; it was the Father Himself who became incarnate in the person of Jesus.

2. I am a single person, yet I am a father, a husband, and a son.  Thus I am three-in-one.  But again, this is just another version of modalism.  Jesus is not the Father in a different role; He is actually a different person.

3.   A shamrock has three leaves but is a single shamrock.  VeggieTales used this one in their retelling of the St. Patrick story.  Actually, this is probably the best of the three analogies.  It preserves the distinctions between the persons while making it clear that they are the same substance.  But it does not maintain their unity.  Jesus said, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.”  But seeing one leaf of a shamrock is not the same as seeing another.  The Father, Son, and Spirit somehow mutually indwell one another.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. October 11, 2008 at 7:12 am

    I responded to your comments on my recent related post. Thanks for the interaction. Glad to see your back!

    Bryan L

  2. October 11, 2008 at 10:21 am


    Your last three posts on the Trinity have been a blessing to me.


  3. October 12, 2008 at 7:35 am

    Bryan, thanks for your comments. I am enjoying this.

    JK, I am glad to hear that. Thanks for reading. I hope I can keep it going!

  4. October 12, 2008 at 10:45 am

    Ryan: Yeah, good to see you’re back to blogging! I’ll have to update my feeds. The shamrock analogy fails in that it makes each person only a part of the whole. We’d never say that the Father was only part God or that the Son or Spirit were only one third of God. But you are quite correct about all the bad analogies floating around.

  5. October 12, 2008 at 10:56 am

    I think if you are going to come up with an effective analogy for the trinity it would have to be something mechanical. That is you have a mechanical object that has three interacting parts that are completely in sync with each other and dependent on each other. When they are all present and working together they make the one mechanical object and if any of the parts were missing the mechanical object fails to be/function.

    Is there any reason why this analogy wouldn’t work Nick? Do you know of any who have explored this type of analogy?

    Bryan L

  6. October 12, 2008 at 11:29 am

    Bryan: It breaks down for basically the same reason that the shamrock analogy does, i.e., “parts” make up the “whole.” With the Trinity each person is 100% God and not 33.3% God. They each possess completely whatever it is that makes God God. And I don’t know how that works so I won’t try to explain it.

    If I was forced to use any one analogy then I’d go with “time” but I have to go out to lunch right now so I’ll come back later and explain why.

  7. October 12, 2008 at 11:47 am

    That’s confusing. I think it is a little different than shamrock analogy especially since it illustrates the parts interacting with each other to make the whole. But what do I know I’m not a Trinity expert.

    So are you saying that each person of the Trinity is 100% the Trinity or 100% the Godhead?

    It seems there needs to be a distinction between the whole which makes up the one and the individuals or persons that together make the whole.

    See this is why I don’t like Trinitarian theology. It makes no sense!! I can’t figure out how people looked at all the evidence and then fashioned the doctrine in such a way that seems to defy logic and reason : )

    Bryan L

  8. October 12, 2008 at 1:50 pm

    Bryan: Alright, I’m back. The problem is still the same with regard to the “parts,” but that’s really a whole (no pun intended) discussion on the simplicity of God. But I’d say it like this (for lack of better terminology): Each person owns 100% of the deity stock.

    Regarding distinctions, let’s look at this from a Westen trinitarian perspective for a second. You have the divine ousia which is the whole, i.e., the unity part of the Trinity. Then you have the persons, which are the tri- part of the Trinity. Each person is not a part that makes up the whole, but rather each person possesses the whole equally and fully.

    And you should read James Anderson’s book Paradox in Christian Theology (all the more so since you’re into philosophy right now). He argues that while it “seems” to defy logic and reason the contradiction is only “apparent” and Christians may be justified in believing in “apparent” contradictions. Also, I’d suggest that if we could understand everything about God then that would make us greater than him… who wants that?

  9. October 12, 2008 at 4:42 pm


    You said:
    “But I’d say it like this (for lack of better terminology): Each person owns 100% of the deity stock.”

    Deity stock? IS that like a basic substance. In the regular world it would be comparable to plastic or metal or glasss? So part of the reason the analogy fails is because the different parts could be conceivably made up of different material substances? If that is the case what if you could say that each part was made of the same substance?

    you said:
    “Each person is not a part that makes up the whole, but rather each person possesses the whole equally and fully.”

    What does that mean? Again does that mean that Jesus is 100% the Trinity/Godhead?

    And what does it mean to contrast the “Tri-part of the Trinity” with the “the unity part of the Trinity”? If there is a unity part of the trinity but the Trinity has no parts then how does the “Tri-part of the Trinity” contrast with the unity part?

    I’ll put the book on my list. Thanks for the recommendation.

    What if it does defy logic though and for a good reason, because it’s illogical (I’m not saying it is but what if)? What if we created this problem, and not God, with the way we chose to organize the Biblical data and formulate the doctrine? I mean you are saying “but rather each person possesses the whole equally and fully.” How do we get that from the Bible? This seems to be going beyond what the Bible explicitly says. It’s trying to figure out how to organize the Biblical data and extract something unsaid but the only thing it seems we can come up with makes no sense and appears to have no analogy.

    Bryan L

  10. October 12, 2008 at 5:05 pm

    Bryan: Three = Persons, One = Substance/Essence (= God/Deity), hence Tri-Unity (Trinity). Jesus is 100% God because he fully possesses the one substance (= deity). But he is not 100% the Trinity because he is only the Son and not the Father or the Spirit. Make sense?

    The tri-‘part’ simply refers to the Persons, the unity-‘part’ to the substance/essence. I wasn’t using ‘part’ there to suggest that God was composed of ‘parts’ in the same way that I was saying that shamrocks and machines were.

    And it’s not really going beyond what the Bible says since the Bible attests to the deity of the Father, Son, and Spirit. None of the three are presented as being a lesser God because none is presented as a creature. Again, that Creator/creature distinction is important. And as long as we maintain the disinction between ontology and personhood then there is no actual contradiction even if there seems to be an apparent one. And of course there’s no analogy to God, he’s God! There’s only one…

  11. October 12, 2008 at 6:21 pm

    It seems that throughout this discussion when we use the word God there are multiple meaning based on the different contexts and sometimes these meanings get mixed up or confused because they are not clearly differentiated and it’s hard not to hold the other meanings of God in mind when you see the word.

    For instance it seems one meaning of “God” is deity (which I guess is the substance/essence). And another meaning of God is the Trinity made up of the three persons who are all 100% deity but the meaning of God is not the same in these different usages.

    If this is so would it be possible to be a little more precise in the language to help avoid confusion and make things a bit more clear (for me at least) and maybe just try to avoid the word “God” if at all possible (I know that sounds crazy)?

    The word “God” just seems too generic in the discussion to avoid confusion and if there are other words that are more precise that convey the same idea that we’re trying to get across I think it would be better to use those words/terms instead.

    Does that make sense? I’m writing this in a rush so it might not (or it might seem to mean something else).

    BTW I’m not baiting you this time : ) I am actually really confused over this issue and am finding myself increasing frustrated. Thanks for the help and dialog.

    Bryan L

  12. October 12, 2008 at 9:04 pm

    I composed a comment a few hours ago that just got eaten by WordPress because I temporarily lost my connection and pressed “submit comment” without realizing it. When I came back there were three more comments. I’m just tryin to keep up here, much less follow the comment threads for the comments I left on your blogs.

    I’m not even sure where to start.

    Bryan, Robert Jenson has a great discussion on the Trinity in his Systematic Theology. He’s written a ton on the Trinity, so I’m sure there’s a lot more than I know about. But he brings up the question of how to refer to the Trinity itself – does the Trinity constitute another way of talking about God? Can we talk about God the Father, God the Son, God the Spirit, and then God the Trinity? That doesn’t make much sense. His solution, if I understand him correctly, is that the Father represents the Trinity, or in some sense, He is the Trinity. I took it to be a little like position of the King in the Old Testament: if you addressed the King, you addressed the nation He represented; and if you wanted to address the nation, you addressed the King.

    That has been helpful to me. Oftentimes we talk about things like Jesus’s relationship with God, referring to the Father. And that used to bother me, because if God is the Trinity, then how can you single out a single member as God in a different sense. I suppose it’s like Federal Headship in reformed theology, where Jesus is the Federal Head of redeemed humanity as the Second Adam.

    As for the different uses of the word “God,” I’m not sure I’m following you. The Greek Fathers often make the analogy that, just as three men are one race, so the three members of the Trinity are one God. That’s the imagery I’m drawing on for my Family analogy, which I think adds another element of unity. But the basic problem I have with it is that Race doesn’t exactly correlate with God. I want to convert the language to say that, just as three men share a common humanity, so the three members of the Trinity share a common divinity. But then that’s not any different than polytheism. We’re not any closer to an explanation of the Trinity, but I like using the term “divinity” instead of “God” when we’re talking about essence.

    Let me take another stab at an analogy of the Trinity in my next post.

  13. October 13, 2008 at 12:47 am

    Bryan: No worries. Yes, “God” is ambiguous since it can have reference to (1) The Trinity itself, (2) The divine being/essence/substance, (3) Any of the three persons individually.

    For the most part I try to be clear by putting what I mean in parentheses but if I’ve been unclear then I apologize. But if this is confusing wait until you really get into analytic philosophy! All the friggin’ syllogisms and abbreviations are enough to drive you crazy!

    Ryan: I was halfway through a long comment on Bryan’s blog yesterday when the power went out. I was thotoughly annoyed! As I understand Jenson, he says that “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is the proper name of God, and when we speak of “God” we’re speaking of the “Trinity” and not the Father alone as if the Son and Spirit were not necessary for talking about “God.”

  14. October 13, 2008 at 6:42 am

    Nick, I’m sure you’re right about Jenson, but he does talk about some way in which the Father represents the Trinity. I read a library copy, so I don’t remember exactly how he said it. As with any Trinitarian thought, it’s not enough to get the general sense of it. I’m sure it was a highly nuanced point that I have totally mangled. I’ll try to find it again and post a quote.

  15. October 13, 2008 at 2:36 pm

    Ryan: You might be absolutely right, I don’t know. I haven’t read his Systematic Theology and it’s possible that he refined or changed his thought from the time he wrote The Triune Identity which is what I had in mind.

  16. October 13, 2008 at 4:14 pm

    Thanks for trying to keep up : )
    I have volume one of Jenson’s ST books. I’ll have to check out volume 2 which I think discusses the Trinity.

    Thanks for spelling out the different usages of God. If I use the word God instead of a more precise term I’ll probably put one of the words in parenthesis.
    From what I’ve read I actually like Analytical Philosophy. I like its focus on language and the need to be precise. I think that is really helpful. Anyway…

    I wanted to make sure I am understanding what is being said about the Trinity (this will help me in seeing what is an effective analogy):

    1.) The Trinity is made up of 3 persons. Those three persons are all together One (would we say they are one being?) which is what we call the Trinity.

    2.) No one of them is the Trinity on their own. We wouldn’t say that The Son is the Trinity, so that means we make a distinction between them collectively (the Trinity) and them individually (the 3 persons).

    3.) Each of those three persons is also divine and of the same essence, which is why they together equal a collective whole (the Trinity). Correct me if there is a better word than “collective whole”.

    4.) But even though they are of the same essence they are not the same. The Son is not the Father and the Father is not the Spirit and the Spirit is not the Son. There is something that differentiates them, but it is not in their essence.

    I think I might have some other things but I’ll leave it at that right now.

    Bryan L

  17. October 14, 2008 at 7:40 pm

    Bryan, it was actually in one of the first chapters of Jenson’s first volume.

  18. October 14, 2008 at 10:11 pm

    Bryan: Yeah, you pretty much have it. I’d only add the word “person” at the end of the first sentence in #4.

    Ryan: Yeah, vol. 1 is the volume on the Trinity; vol. 2 is on the works of God.

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