It is not uncommon for critics of Christianity to dismiss the tri-unity of God as an irrational concept. The intemperate Robert Ingersoll, for example, once mocked:
“According to the celestial multiplication table, once one is three, and three times one is one, and according to heavenly subtraction if we take two from three, three are left. … Nothing ever was, nothing ever can be more perfectly idiotic and absurd than the dogma of the Trinity.”2
Unfortunately, even Christians are sometimes tempted to view the Trinity as something that is irrational or ‘beyond logic’, yet which must be affirmed anyway. Hence, the humorous aphorism: “The Trinity—try to understand it and you’ll lose your mind; try to deny it and you’ll lose your soul!”3
However, far from being a nonsensical notion or a source of confusion, the Trinity is a profound and edifying truth. It is a mind-stretching notion, to be sure. But the idea of a tri-personal God is a perfectly coherent concept that illuminates God’s nature, withstands attacks, and even helps to resolve otherwise intractable biblical and philosophical puzzles.
Christians affirm the Trinity based on the Bible’s teaching—not on later-developed tradition—and Scripture speaks with a clear and consistent voice. The Bible depicts God as a single, unique being, who is simultaneously three distinct and fully divine persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is no contradiction in this definition, because God is one and three in different senses. Christians have never taught that three persons are somehow one person, or that three gods are one God. That would be a contradiction.
Rather, God is one essence or substance, yet He has three centers of self-consciousness. It has been said that God is one ‘what’ but three ‘whos’. In the God of Scripture, we have a beautiful balance of unity and diversity.
Aiming at the wrong target
Ignoring these careful distinctions, however, non-Christians frequently misrepresent the Trinity in their attempts to refute it. The Qur’an, for example, warns: “Do not say ‘Three’; … Allah is but one God” (Surah 4:171). This is obviously meant to denounce the Trinity. But the Trinity is not an affirmation of three gods. Christians are monotheists. So when the Qur’an insists that there are no other “deities besides Allah” (Surah 5:116), this is irrelevant. Christians and Muslims agree that there is only one God. What they disagree about is the inner nature of the one true God. Is He one person (Unitarian) or three persons (Trinitarian)?
Once the doctrine of the Trinity is understood properly, it cannot be dismissed so easily. Admittedly, we can’t fully wrap our minds around the Trinity since we are finite creatures trying to understand an infinite God. God is unique (Isaiah 46:5), and nothing else in our experience is parallel to Him.
In fact, the various analogies people have offered tend to illustrate heresies better than they do the actual Trinity. For example, water (one substance) taking three forms (solid, liquid, gas) illustrates the heresy of modalism, because a body of water exists in only one mode at a time and cannot be in all three states simultaneously, whereas God is simultaneously Father, Son, and Spirit.
But why should anyone dismiss the Trinity just because the concept is difficult to illustrate, or even fathom? It is a rational truth, revealed in Scripture, and therefore we can apprehend it even if we can’t exhaustively comprehend it.
Surprised by truth
Theology is not the only field in which truth can turn out to be more complex than was initially supposed. For instance, when young students first learn about negative numbers, they may struggle to understand how something can be less than zero. If a student begins with a stack of coins and removes them one by one, subtraction is no longer possible after the collection has been reduced to zero. One cannot go any lower! However, once a young person is old enough to get a bank account, negative numbers suddenly begin to make perfect, frustrating sense!4
Similarly, however counterintuitive the Trinity might be, certain scientific truths are equally so. Notice how even atheistic evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin—an unlikely source of support—actually defends the Trinity against those who would hastily dismiss it as irrational.
“What seems absurd depends on one’s prejudice. Carl Sagan accepts, as I do, the duality of light, which is at the same time wave and particle, but he thinks that the consubstantiality of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost puts the mystery of the Holy Trinity ‘in deep trouble.’ Two’s company, but three’s a crowd.”5
If certain features of this world such as light, subatomic phenomena, and relativistic effects defy our expectations and strain our minds, how much more should the transcendent Creator of this world?
In fact, not only does the doctrine of the Trinity withstand attacks; it also allows us to make sense of God’s love. The Bible says that “God is love” (1 John 4:8), and love is an essential aspect of His nature. But, before creation, when God was completely alone, how could He have been loving? Nobody else existed who could be the object of God’s love.
Until he created, a Unitarian god would only have himself to love. But self-love is not genuine love. By definition, love is directed outward, away from oneself and toward another. Therefore, such a god would be unable to love until he created—surely an imperfection unworthy of the true God.
By contrast, we know that the God of Scripture has exhibited love from eternity past because the members of the Trinity have always been devoted to one another. The Bible tells us that the Father loved the Son “before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24).
The surpassing value of the Trinity is also apparent from the fact that the heart of Christian faith—the Gospel itself—is incomprehensible without it. All three members of the Trinity are involved in accomplishing the work of salvation (Romans 8:11; 1 Corinthians 6:11; 2 Corinthians 1:21–22, Galatians 4:4–6; Ephesians 1:3–14; 2:18; Hebrews 9:14). For this to be true, all three persons must be divine, since God insists that He alone is Saviour (Isaiah 43:11; Hosea 13:4) and that salvation is entirely “the gift of God,” lest anyone boast (Ephesians 2:8–9).
Each member of the Trinity plays a distinct role in the work of salvation—roles which testify to their divine status. For example, only the Son became incarnate, but the New Testament presents this to believers as an example of humility, because it was from a position of being “in the form of God,” that the Son took “the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:3–8; cf. 2 Corinthians 8:9). Likewise, only the Son died on the cross, making propitiation for the sins of the world (1 John 2:2). But, had Jesus been a finite creature, he could not have borne God’s infinite wrath or paid the world’s debt. Only the God-man was equal to the task.
Indeed, the New Testament is replete with similar examples, indicating that the Gospel is Trinitarian from start to finish.
While the Trinity may be a challenging doctrine, it is also an exceedingly valuable one. Rather than an embarrassment for Christians, the Trinity is a rational, biblical, and insightful truth—one that clarifies who God is, and how He accomplished our salvation.
“But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4–7).
Praise God from whom all blessings flow!
References and notes
This article was partly inspired by Koukl, G., The Trinity: A Solution, Not a Problem Part 1, Solid Ground, November/December 2015, str.org. Return to text.
Ingersoll, R.G., The Works of Robert Ingersoll, Vol. IV (in 12 volumes): Lectures, Cosimo Books, New York, NY, 2009 (Lectures was originally published in 1900), p. 267. Return to text.
Sanders, F., Who Said “The Trinity: Try to Understand It, and You’ll Lose Your Mind”? The Scriptorium Daily, 29 August 2009, scriptoriumdaily.com/who-said-the-trinity-try-to-understand-it-and-youll-lose-your-mind. Return to text.
I am indebted to Dr Jason Lisle for this illustration. Return to text.
Lewontin, R.C., Billions and Billions of Demons, (Review of The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan, 1997), The New York Review of Books, 9 January 1997, nybooks.com. Return to text.
This article was partly inspired by Koukl, G., The Trinity: A Solution, Not a Problem Part 1, Solid Ground, November/December 2015, str.org.
Ingersoll, R.G., The Works of Robert Ingersoll, Vol. IV (in 12 volumes): Lectures, Cosimo Books, New York, NY, 2009 (Lectures was originally published in 1900), p. 267.
Sanders, F., Who Said “The Trinity: Try to Understand It, and You’ll Lose Your Mind”? The Scriptorium Daily, 29 August 2009, scriptoriumdaily.com/who-said-the-trinity-try-to-understand-it-and-youll-lose-your-mind.
I am indebted to Dr Jason Lisle for this illustration.
Lewontin, R.C., Billions and Billions of Demons, (Review of The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan, 1997), The New York Review of Books, 9 January 1997, nybooks.com.
The analogy with H2O may not be perfect, but it does work, because at the Triple Point (0.01 degC at 6.11657 mbar vapour partial pressure) all three "modes" can exist at the same time. Any tiny variation of these conditions can result in conversion to only one of the modes.
When I'm trying to teach someone about the Trinity, it is helpful to be able to illustrate the concept with some analogy even if it's not perfect. In the film Nuns on the Run, the Trinity is compared to a 3 leaf shamrock - ("so God is small, green and split 3 ways"). Hmm... I think I'll stick to the H2O analogy.
Keaton Halley responds
I think you see why the shamrock is problematic, but the same problem goes for the triple point. The body of water would still be divided up into parts, so that the entire body would not be simultaneously solid, liquid, and gas. But I don't think God is divisible into parts in this way (the Father is not one third of God). See Trinity: analogies and countering critics. So we just encourage people to recognize the severe limitations of these analogies.
Phil K., United States, 2 February 2017
I learned a simple outline presented by an evangelist named Phil Paino years ago that I now use to teach the Trinity with. It is simple so we can avoid improper analogies like the modal properties of water:
I) Is there a Person...
A) Called the Father? 2 Peter 1:17
B) Called the Son? 2 Peter 1:17
C) Called the Spirit? Acts 8:29 and others
II) Are each called or referenced as God?
A) the Father? 2 Peter 1:17
B) the Son? Titus 2:13
C) the Spirit? Acts 5:1-4
III) Is there only one God? Deuteronomy 6:4
There are more than 100 verses throughout Scripture to support the outline. It may be hard to comprehend, but it is definitely scriptural.
Richard G., United States, 2 February 2017
An analogy of the Trinity that seems to be more useful and less objectionable than any other is the analogy of sunlight. The Sun itself corresponds to the Father, the light to the Son (the Light of the World), and the warmth to the Holy Spirit (whose presence is likened to fire in several places in the Scriptures). All three are co-existent and consistent in continuously providing one of the most essential factors needed for supporting life. Of course, even this analogy is like any analogy, not absolutely perfect.
To me another aspect of the how the Trinity is such a blessing to us relates to our salvation. I don't believe that God could even save us if He were not a Trinity. How else could He pour His just and perfect wrath on sin, and who could bear it other than God Himself in the flesh? Sin must be judged, but without the Son, we could never bear it, or more appropriately, have it born for us.
Keaton Halley responds
Yes, I touched on this above when I wrote: "had Jesus been a finite creature, he could not have borne God’s infinite wrath or paid the world’s debt. Only the God-man was equal to the task."
James K., United States, 3 February 2017
I actually made a wooden model of the X, Y, and Z axis of 3 dimensional space marked as The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit. While we are finite beings measured by one personal dimension, God is an infinite being measured by three personal dimensions. Of course I understand that my model represents God about as well as a model of an atom represents actual atoms.
Richard L., United Arab Emirates, 3 February 2017
Towards making the Trinity be more real for ourselves, I have found it profitable--for myself, and in recommendation to others--to give detailed thankful prayer to EACH member of the Trinity, for the SPECIFIC sacrificial salvation-producing cost paid by that member of the Trinity.
God the Son, Jesus Christ:
-The physical torment leading up to and including the crucifixion.
-Bearing all of humanity's "sorrows" (Is. 53:4) in our fallen life-experiences, in full measure--with possibly more agony than our sin-hardened souls have experienced.
-Even worse, experiencing the full measure of divine wrath (from the Father) for the full measure of sin since the Fall. Custance points out that it is possible for Christ--in his divine being--to experience an eternity of this torment within those 3 hours of darkness, for each of us.
(And... Jesus was faithful in this in spite of the incredibly strong temptation to stop the torment simply by STOPPING INITIATING our continued existence, Heb. 1:3 cf Col. 1:17.)
God the Father:
-All the above, experienced vicariously re the Beloved Son.
-the EXTRA torment of sending the Beloved Son into harm's way.
-the EXTRA torment of having to personally put divine wrath upon the Beloved Son..
God the Holy Spirit:
-What the Beloved Son experienced, experienced vicariously.
-the EXTRA agony--being the Trinitarian member committed to follow-through of believers--of being grieved (probably over a trillion times) by sinning believers (Eph. 4:30).
As we go through this thankful prayer process, the Trinity becomes even more precious to us--and removed from us is any remnant of thinking that this wonderful reality is a 'strange' theological concept.
Geoff C. W., Australia, 4 February 2017
I suspect that trinitarian theology has been used extensively by Satan to draw people away from the faith. I can see JW's, Mormons, Muslims (starting with Mohamed) and others encouraging conversion to their 'faith' by asking if it's possible for one to be three. If not, how then can you be a (thinking) Christian?
The success of this approach relies of course on human arrogance - if it doesn't fit with our logic, then it can't be true. But that itself is nonsense. Why should we be able to understand everything about God?
The Bible leaves no doubt that Jesus is God. God said that He alone is to be worshipped. But Jesus is worshipped - while as a human on earth (several people fell at His feet and worshipped Him), and in heaven (as is clear in Revelation). Both Jesus and the Father evidently approved of this. So Jesus must be God.
A man who was a devout Muslim and converted to Christianity, Nabeel Qureshi, said that he became convinced that God could be both one and three when he learnt that subatomic particles could be two things at once. This removed one of the main hurdles to his conversion.
Keaton Halley responds
I would prefer to revise your first sentence to say that Satan uses distortions of, or attacks on, trinitarian theology to draw people away. What you intended may be correct, but the way it's worded might be misleading. My article argues that there is nothing which should be objectionable about the doctrine, even if it might be a stumbling block to those who love darkness rather than light.
Caleb L., United States, 6 February 2017
Excellent article, Keaton! This article helps to solidify what I have studied concerning the Trinity from Scripture and other books. Dr. James White's book, "The Forgotten Trinity," is also an excellent resource that has been helpful for me in studying the Trinity. I like Ian Hodge's article on the Trinity as well: http://creation.com/images/pdfs/tj/j29_1/j29_1_88-94.pdf. In fact, the Triune God gives us the only true basis for understanding the unity and diversity in the biological world, the very facts that the evolutionary hypothesis claims to explain. Our God is one God in Three Persons, and the very creation itself reflects this unity and diversity.
Denis M., Canada, 15 February 2017
I have for years been enjoying the resources from CMI as I really enjoy science. I have also shared them with others. I think that responding to an article is not the greatest place to dive into the Bible on such an important doctrine, so please permit me to share my testimony. All my life I have only known of the Trinity. When I was about 30 years old, I did my own study on the Godhead – no study guide, books, etc, just the Scriptures alone. That journey brought me to believe that the Bible teaches that there is one God. That's it. I don't see Trinity. It was not until later that God brought me to a church that believed in One God. A friend from my previous Trinitarian church wanting to convince me of the Trinity, asked that I read the book “The Trinity: Evidence and Issues” by Dr. Robert A. Morey – as he is handing it to me, he says he has not read it himself. I later went back to him sharing that I believe that the author had made a serious error. I agreed with the author about recognizing our biases, a priori, prejudice, but to he argues that you must first accept the Trinity first and then when you study the Bible, you will see Trinity. I would not consider this a example of seeking to use “sola Scriptura.” It would be like saying you must believe evolution first, then when you study science, you will see evolution. Of course recognize one's biases but seek to look at which theory (“set of glasses”) better explains the facts. As I encouraged my friend to look through "Oneness-glasses" instead of "Trinity-glasses" , so I also encourage you.
Keaton Halley responds
As I made clear in the article, the Gospel depends on the Trinity, and so I'm very sorry to hear that you've abandoned the true Gospel. I don't know whether you've represented Dr. Morey accurately, but we have many articles on this website explaining how the doctrine is derived from Scripture, so it's absolutely false that we bring this bias with us beforehand. We've also addressed many of the arguments from various types of Unitarians, and find them wanting. Perhaps you should read the related articles and interact with them, because if you think it all comes down to prejudice you are sorely mistaken, and eternity hangs in the balance. I sincerely hope you will recognize your error and come back to the truth.