In today’s feedback article, Dr Jonathan Sarfati responds to various readers concerning the doctrine of the Trinity. These include is God made of parts, good analogies versus fallacious ones, the personality of the Holy Spirit, how the early Church including Tertullian realized that the Bible taught the Trinity, what “God is one” means. The original questions were directed at various articles on the web, and this article collates them into one place that is easily searchable.
Danika T., United Kingdom [Commenting on Has the ‘God particle’ been found?]
Three fundamental particles! Amazing! It’s a great time to be alive. We are fortunate that God has determined to allow us to know more of his majesty.
I also couldn’t help but be reminded that the Creator God is an entity comprised also of three parts!
Thank you for your comments. Just a few notes of caution.
For in him [Christ] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,
However, Jesus is not the Father or the Holy Spirit—see also the ancient Trinity diagram.
Also, I would be cautious about using triads in nature, such as solid-liquid-gas, three dimensions, past/present/future as any proof of the Trinity (not that you were doing that). After all, if God were a ‘Binity’ there would be plenty of duals in nature to ‘point’ to Binitarianism (space/time, matter/energy, wave-particle duality, positive/negative charge, and particle-antiparticle pair production). Also, if God were a Quadrunity, the Four Gospels are one parallel that would come to mind, as would the four dimensions of Relativistic spacetime, the four fundamental forces of nature, and the four gauge bosons as per the article on the Higgs Boson.
While all analogies are weak in some way, some are counterproductive. One I’ve seen (not from you) is The Trinity is like a man who is simultaneously a father to his children, son to his parents, and husband to his wife. But this is more like modalism, aka the Sabellian heresy (taught by “Oneness” groups today). This says that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are merely different ways that God relates to His creation, not the distinct Persons that the Bible teaches about (see A biblical defence of the Trinity).
I can suggest another analogy with the Trinity, which goes back to the Church Fathers, and is suggested by the book of Hebrews. Christ was not created but is coeternal with God the Father, but the Father is nonetheless the ‘begetter’ of the Son. The book of Hebrews provides some ideas for analogies, although by their nature, no analogies are perfect:
The sun analogy also reflects the true Trinitarian doctrine—ontological equality and functional subordination—rather than a caricature which many anti-Trinitarians paint. The Father is the source of the Son, as the sun is of light. But one eternal attribute of the Father is that He begets the Son (also that the Holy Spirit proceeds from Him), just as there is no point having the sun without light or heat. That is, the Father has always existed, and He has always ‘shone’ with the light of Jesus, and radiated the ‘heat’ of the Spirit. Note that many of purported disproofs by anti-Trinitarians support the functional subordination that we accept.
Also, the Greek word translated exact representation in the Hebrews verse is χαρακτήρ (charakter), and means “the exact expression (the image) of any person or thing, marked likeness, precise reproduction in every respect, i.e facsimile.” In one sense, it is a 2-D projection of the 3-D person, e.g. the image of the Roman Emperor on a coin. A photograph is another example, where light reflected from the (3-D) image is focused and intersects a (2-D) plane. Similarly, a sphere is 3-D, but its projection on 2-D flatland is a circle. The circle has all the fullness of the sphere in the 2-D space. So applied to the Godhead, if the Son is the light (John 8:12, 9:5), then we can say that Jesus in His Incarnation was the projection of this light into the plane of humanity—so all the fullness of God was localized in His human presence (Colossians 2:9).
This analogy is reflected in the classic Nicene Creed of AD 325:
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made.
Sam W., Kenya [commenting on Who really is the God of Genesis?]:
This is a good read, very informative. It would be good to include who originated the concept of Trinity, Tertullian, and why. The church father wanted to illustrate the unique (and complex) relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each maintaining their individuality but each distinct in function. This would assist the reader further understand this concept. Once more it is a good read.
We are glad you liked the article. We can’t cover everything, but indeed, the originator of the Trinity is usually considered to be Tertullian (AD c. 160 – c. 225).
An instructive work is Creeds, Councils and Christ: Did the early Christians misrepresent Jesus? (updated 2009) by Gerald Bray, professor at Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He explains that Tertullian, a lawyer and Christian apologist, realized that the Bible taught that God made a covenant with Israel. And on God’s side, there were actually three signatories: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Now in Roman law, the word for party to a legal action was persona. From this, Tertullian summarized the biblical teaching as tres Personae, una Substantia (three Persons, one Substance).
Bear always in mind that this is the rule of faith which I profess; by it I testify that the Father, and the Son, and the Spirit are inseparable from each other, and so will you know in what sense this is said. Now, observe, my assertion is that the Father is one, and the Son one, and the Spirit one, and that They are distinct from Each Other.
Praxeas was a heretic who taught a modalistic view like that of modern ‘Oneness’ groups: that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were all the same Person in different modes. Tertullian convincingly demonstrates the error with Scripture, while Praxeas’ few Scriptures alleged to support that view are shown to do the opposite.
Actually, a little before Tertullian, Theophilus of Antioch (AD 115–181) wrote in an apologetic work to the learned pagan magistrate Autolycus. In a commentary on the fourth day of creation, Theophilus asserted that the previous three days were literal days before the sun, and “types of the Trinity, of God, and His Word, and His wisdom.” (To Autolycus 2:15, AD 181).
There are plenty of other church leaders who affirmed the teachings of the Trinity, especially the Deity of Christ. For example:
There is only one physician, who is both flesh and spirit, born and unborn, God in man, true life in death, both from Mary and from God, first subject to suffering and then beyond it, Jesus Christ our Lord. (Ignatius to the Ephesians 7:2)
Consequently all magic and every kind of spell were dissolved, the ignorance so characteristic of wickedness vanished, and the ancient kingdom was abolished, when God appeared in human form to bring the newness of eternal life … (Ignatius to the Ephesians 19:2)
I glorify Jesus Christ, the God who made you so wise, for I observed that you are established in an unshakable faith, having been nailed, as it were, to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ in both body and spirit, and firmly established in love by the blood of Christ … (Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans 1:1)
Look for Him who is above all time, eternal and invisible, yet who became visible for our sakes; impalpable and impassible, yet who became passible on our account; and who in every kind of way suffered for our sakes (Ignatius, Letter to Polycarp 3:2)
I bid you farewell always in our God Jesus Christ; may you remain in him, in the unity and care of God. (Ignatius, Letter to Polycarp 8:3)
[Update, 14 February 2015: see The Early Church & the Deity of Christ (Reprise) by Nathan Busenitz (off-site).]
B. L., United States [commenting on Who really is the God of Genesis?]:
If the Holy Spirit is actually a “third” party in the God Family instead of the power emanating from the Father and the Word, then the Holy Spirit is the Father of Jesus Christ. Jesus must have been mistaken in calling God his father!
Also, why does Paul extend greetings of “grace and peace” to the Romans, Corinthians, etc. from the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ but not the Holy Spirit? Paul would be showing contempt for the Holy Spirit by failing to include it in the greeting if it were.
The trinity is just another example of paganism in the Christian religion.
The first statement is false: the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary so she would conceive Jesus (Luke 1:35). As shown in The Incarnation: Why did God become Man?, this meant adding human nature to the divine nature that the Son already possessed from eternity. As Tertullian pointed out in Against Praxeas (see above):
Besides, the flesh is not God, so that it could not have been said concerning it, That Holy Thing shall be called the Son of God, but only that Divine Being who was born in the flesh, of whom the psalm also says, Since God became man in the midst of it, and established it by the will of the Father. Now what Divine Person was born in it? The Word, and the Spirit which became incarnate with the Word by the will of the Father. The Word, therefore, is incarnate; and this must be the point of our inquiry: How the Word became flesh—whether it was by having been transfigured, as it were, in the flesh, or by having really clothed Himself in flesh. Certainly it was by a real clothing of Himself in flesh. …
Of them Jesus consists—Man, of the flesh; of the Spirit, God—and the angel designated Him as the Son of God, Luke 1:35 in respect of that nature, in which He was Spirit, reserving for the flesh the appellation Son of Man. In like manner, again, the apostle calls Him the Mediator between God and Men, 1 Timothy 2:5 and so affirmed His participation of both substances.
Your second argument is just an argument from silence. The role of the Holy Spirit is largely to point people to Christ, not to Himself. It is folly to use such arguments and ignore the clear teachings of the personality of the Holy Spirit. For example, “the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them,’” (Acts 13:2), which shows the Holy Spirit referring to Himself in the first person.
Your third argument is the reverse of the truth. The early church was adamant that the true teachings must be derived from the Bible; we can see this copiously demonstrated by Tertullian, for example. And they fought strongly against pagan philosophies. Indeed, as Gerald Bray noted in Creeds, Councils and Christ (see above), “it looks strongly as if Platonism was refashioned to meet the challenge of Christianity, not the other way round.”
Wayne T., Australia, [commenting on Who really is the God of Genesis?]:
It is good that you qualified that Genesis ch. 1 does not specifically nominate a Trinity, nor does Scripture refer to the deity as “persons”, except in Job 13:8 where there is a reproof if one is to secretly accept persons. Whenever “person” is used in reference to deity, the Greek renders this word as “Substance”. If God is not a numerical “One”, why is it declared in Isaiah “thus saith the Lord, the Holy One of Israel” or “I am God and there is no God beside me”. If it had been possible to know the Son apart from the Father when Phillip asked Jesus, “Lord show us the Father and it sufficeth us,” Jesus would have done so. On the contrary he reproofed Phillip by stating “Have I been so long time with you,and yet has though not known me.” …
Jonathan Sarfati responds:
Here, as above, I will confine myself mainly to Tertullian’s Against Praxeas and Gerald Bray’s Creeds, Councils, and Christ.
You assert that the oneness of God must be understood in an absolute unity rather than a composite unity (see The Hebrew language and Messianic prophecies). And Tom Wright pointed out, “there is no suggestion that “monotheism” or praying the Shema, had anything to do with the numerical analysis of the inner being of Israel’s god himself,” (more at The Incarnation: Why did God become Man?). In fact, to show that “there is nothing new under the sun”, Tertullian also noted the dogmatism of those who thought that belief in one God entailed belief in one Person in the Godhead:
this heresy, which supposes itself to possess the pure truth, in thinking that one cannot believe in One Only God in any other way than by saying that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are the very selfsame Person. As if in this way also one were not All, in that All are of One, by unity (that is) of substance; while the mystery of the dispensation is still guarded, which distributes the Unity into a Trinity, placing in their order the three Persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost: three, however, not in condition, but in degree; not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in aspect; yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power, inasmuch as He is one God, from whom these degrees and forms and aspects are reckoned, under the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. How they are susceptible of number without division, will be shown as our treatise proceeds.
Your other claim is based on something lost in the translations between Greek and Latin. Tertullian defined the Trinity as three Personae and one Substantia. As pointed out below, persona in Roman Law was a party to a legal contract. But a hyper-literal translation to Greek results in πρόσωπον prosōpon, which means “mask”. Thus the Greek church misunderstood the Latin usage, and originally thought that the Latin Church taught modalism: that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are merely modes (masks) of God not distinct centres of consciousness.
And the Greek Church formulated the Trinity as three hypostases (singular hypostasis ὑπόστᾰσις) and one oὐσία ousia. But a hyper-literal translation to Latin results in substantia—both sub and hypo mean “below”. Yet this is a misunderstanding, because in Greek theological usage, hypostasis meant a quasi-personification of attributes proper to a deity. Indeed, as you inadvertently note, it was used in the Greek New Testament to mean “person”.
The problem of translation, as Bray notes, was solved in the 4th century. Basil (a noted creationist theologian) realized that what the Greek church meant by hypostasis, the Latin church meant by persona, so they really believed the same thing.
In my view, a recent article that might help is Infinity through dark glasses. This points out, among other things, that infinite subsets can be as ‘numerous’ as the superset (and there are degrees of “infinity”), as Cantor showed.
It’s complicated, but Cantor showed that although the set of rational numbers contain many members that the set of natural (counting) numbers does not contain, they can be matched in a one-to-one correspondence. Similarly, the set of even numbers, a subset of the set of natural numbers, can also be matched one-to-one. So all these sets, although one is a subset and the other a superset of natural numbers, are classed as “countable infinity”. This is sometimes assigned the cardinality “aleph-null” (ℵ0); aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet). (Also, the set of real numbers cannot be matched into a one-to-one correspondence with the natural numbers, as he showed with his “diagonalization proof”. Thus this has a higher degree of infinity, “uncountable infinity”, which has the higher cardinality 2ℵ0 or “beth-one” (beth ב is the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet), identical to “aleph-one” (ℵ1) only if the continuum hypothesis is true).
Analogies are always to be used with caution, including this one. But I think that Cantor’s analysis of the concept of infinity can be useful understanding that Jesus could be an infinite ‘subset’ of God without losing any of His infinite attributes.
JS: In Jesus Christ our Creator: A biblical defence of the Trinity, I point out:John 17:3 where our Lord tells us that, when praying to the Father, that He is the only true God, and our Lord was sent by Him.Some Objections to the Trinity Answered … Jesus is called ‘the firstborn of every creature’ (Colossians 1:15). However, in Jewish imagery, ‘firstborn’ means ‘having the rights and special privileges belonging to the eldest child’. It refers to pre-eminence in rank more than to priority in time. This can be shown in passages where the term ‘firstborn’ is used of the pre-eminent son who was not the eldest, e.g. Psalm 89:27, where David is called ‘firstborn’ although he was actually the youngest son. ‘Firstborn’ does not mean ‘first created’; the Greek for the latter is protoktisis, while firstborn is prototokos. In fact, the verses after Colossians 1:15 show that Christ Himself is the creator of all things.
Shaun Doyle has answered this in Simplified sardine arguments and ‘sacking’ heretics: Do either have a place?:PM: 1 Cor. 8:6 … one God, and … one Lord Jesus.Regarding … John 17:3, it doesn’t support Unitarianism. Your [the critic Mr Doyle was responding to] understanding of John 17:3 commits the fallacy of denying the antecedent (See Loving God with all your mind: logic and creation, and this commentary on John 17:3 for more details). John also indicates that Jesus, as God’s Word, is intrinsic to the identity of the one true God (John 1:1, 5:23, 8:58–59, 10:30–39, 20:28). If John 17:3 supports Unitarianism, then John contradicted himself, and made Jesus contradict himself. However, the Father is described as the “one true God” to contrast him not with Jesus but with false gods. Moreover, since Jesus included himself in the definition of “eternal life”, he made himself the only full and true representative of God, and an object of faith in the same breath as “the one true God”. Interpreted within John’s Gospel, that defines Jesus as God’s eternal and intrinsic Word, who is God and with God.
JS: In Defending vital doctrines and the deity of Christ, it is shown that this is powerful evidence for the Deity of Christ:PM: 1 Cor. 15:28. then the Son also be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.Also there is 1 Cor. 8:6:‘Yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.’Here, Paul is applying the famous Shema of Deut. 6:4 ‘Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD.’ Paul has used the key phrase ‘one Lord’ and applied it to Jesus Christ, thus including Jesus in the divine identity! Also, phrases like ‘of’ or ‘by whom all things’ are typical Jewish formulations that express God’s relationship to creation. This is in line with the Jewish concept of Wisdom, God’s attribute, as God’s tool for creation. Yet this still retains monotheism by including Jesus within the divine identity.
JS: As mentioned in A biblical defence of the Trinity, equality of nature does not imply equality of roles. Philippians 2:5–11 states that Jesus had equality by nature with God, but voluntarily took on the lower role of a servant. The distinction can be illustrated in the human realm by the role of the Prime Minister — he is greater than us in position, but he is still a human being like us, so is not better in nature. Indeed, Christ submitted to His mother and stepfather (Luke 2:51), although He was infinitely superior by nature.PM: God the Father, His Son—the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit work in unison and have a common purpose and separate. I’ve been trying to understand it all for some years now. I put my faith and trust in all 3.
JS: Indeed, no one said it was easy. One distinction is one God with three centres of consciousness
I cannot think of the unity without being irradiated by the Trinity: I cannot distinguish between the Trinity without being carried up to the unity.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.Actually, Justin Martyr said this before Origen:
Jesus Christ is the only proper Son who has been begotten by God, being his Word and first-begotten, and power; and, becoming man according to his will, he taught us these things for the conversion and restoration of the human race (First Apology 23, AD 151).Dr Martin’s view has been called ‘Incarnational Sonship’, and was once held by Creation magazine interviewee Dr John MacArthur. But he has publicly retracted this. The problem is: the Bible clearly tells us that God gave or sent his Son to be incarnated (John 3:16, Gal. 4:4, 1 John 4:10,14; etc.). Thus the Incarnation was not the beginning of His Sonship, but when the One who was already the Son added human nature. This is supported by the parable of the vineyard owners in Mark 12:1–12, who first killed the owner’s servants then killed the owner’s beloved son when he was sent. Jesus was clearly referring to God’s prophets and finally Himself, the Son of God. We can also know this because back in Proverbs 30:4, we are asked,
What is his name, and what is his son’s name?As stated in The Hebrew language and Messianic prophecies:
This clearly states that God does have a son, and uses the usual Hebrew word ben. And God’s name יהוה (YHVH, the LORD) had been revealed to man by this stage. But at this stage of God’s progressive revelation, no one could know the Son’s name, which is the point of the writer’s irony, “Surely you know!”Even before that, we see that it was by and through the Son that all things were created, which should be a clincher (Colossians 1:13–16, Hebrews 1:2). Similarly, the Prologue to John’s Gospel reveals that the Word/Logos/Memra is eternally with God but is also God. Just as a Word comes forth from a speaker, a Son comes forth from a Father, but with God, this coming forth is eternal—there was never a time when the Word/Son was not, as Athanasius put it. About the passage you cite, the above shows that it can’t be referring to a time where Sonship was conferred, since Jesus always had this. Rather, MacArthur concluded in his retraction:
It is now my conviction that the begetting spoken of in Psalm 2 and Hebrews 1 is not an event that takes place in time. Even though at first glance Scripture seems to employ terminology with temporal overtones (“this day have I begotten thee”), the context of Psalm 2:7 seems clearly to be a reference to the eternal decree of God. It is reasonable to conclude that the begetting spoken of there is also something that pertains to eternity rather than a point in time. The temporal language should therefore be understood as figurative, not literal.Here is a helpful page (off-site): What is the doctrine of eternal Sonship and is it biblical? PS: your analogy rests on the premise that man is tripartite or trichotomous (body/soul/spirit). Many systematic theologians, such as Wayne Grudem (Systematic Theology) and Millard Erickson (Christian Theology) and the Reformers, don’t agree. Instead, they argue that the biblical teaching is that man is bipartite or dichotomous, comprising a material aspect (body) and a non-material aspect (soul/spirit used interchangeably). CMI doesn’t have a corporate stand but I personally support a bipartite view. God bless you too.
A word that is not mentioned in the Bible should not be used.But this is actually self-refuting. That’s because the word “Bible” is not mentioned in the Bible! As I pointed out in reply to an Islamic apologist, it’s irrelevant that the word “Trinity” is not in the Bible, because the doctrine is. Actually, the great creationist reformer and theologian John Calvin answered the same sort of complaint in his monumental Institutes of the Christian Religion, ch. 13: The unity of the divine Essence in three Persons taught, in Scripture, from the foundation of the world:
“It were better,” they say, “to confine not only our meanings but our words within the bounds of Scripture, and not scatter about foreign terms to become the future seed-beds of brawls and dissensions. In this way, men grow tired of quarrels about words; the truth is lost in altercation, and charity melts away amid hateful strife.” If they call it a foreign term, because it cannot be pointed out in Scripture in so many syllables, they certainly impose an unjust law—a law which would condemn every interpretation of Scripture that is not composed of other words of Scripture. But if by foreign they mean that which, after being idly devised, is superstitiously defended,—which tends more to strife than edification,—which is used either out of place, or with no benefit which offends pious ears by its harshness, and leads them away from the simplicity of God’s Word, I embrace their soberness with all my heart. For I think we are bound to speak of God as reverently as we are bound to think of him. As our own thoughts respecting him are foolish, so our own language respecting him is absurd. Still, however, some medium must be observed. The unerring standard both of thinking and speaking must be derived from the Scriptures: by it all the thoughts of ours minds, and the words of our mouths, should he tested. But in regard to those parts of Scripture which, to our capacities, are dark and intricate, what forbids us to explain them in clearer terms—terms, however, kept in reverent and faithful subordination to Scripture truth, used sparingly and modestly, and not without occasion? Of this we are not without many examples. When it has been proved that the Church was impelled, by the strongest necessity, to use the words Trinity and Person, will not he who still inveighs against novelty of terms be deservedly suspected of taking offence at the light of truth, and of having no other ground for his invective, than that the truth is made plain and transparent? … Where names have not been invented rashly, we must beware lest we become chargeable with arrogance and rashness in rejecting them. I wish, indeed, that such names were buried, provided all would concur in the belief that the Father, Son, and Spirit, are one God, and yet that the Son is not the Father, nor the Spirit the Son, but that each has his peculiar subsistence. I am not so minutely precise as to fight furiously for mere words. … Arius [like today’s Jehovah’s Witnesses] says that Christ is God, and then mutters that he was made and had a beginning. He says, that he is one with the Father; but secretly whispers in the ears of his party, made one, like other believers, though with special privilege. Say, he is consubstantial, and you immediately pluck the mask from this chameleon, though you add nothing to Scripture. Sabellius [like today’s Oneness groups] says that the Father, Son, and Spirit, indicate some distinction in God. Say, they are three, and he will bawl out that you are making three Gods. Say, that there is a Trinity of Persons in one Divine essence, you will only express in one word what the Scriptures say, and stop his empty prattle. Should any be so superstitiously precise as not to tolerate these terms, still do their worst, they will not be able to deny that when one is spoken of, a unity of substance must be understood, and when three in one essence, the persons in this Trinity are denoted. When this is confessed without equivocations we dwell not on words.
Jonathan Sarfati responds: Dichotomist theologian Wayne Grudem argues in response that Paul was piling up synonyms rather than delineating different parts. We also have Jesus telling us in Mark 12:30: “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” If these were all distinct parts of man, we would be pentachotomous or hexachotomous. So these lists could prove too much. But according to Grudem, Jesus was piling up synonyms to command us to love God with all our being, and Paul was telling us, whatever our immaterial part is called, he prays that God will continue to sanctify our whole being.CB: I show this verse to Jehovah witnesses whenever possible. If humans have a triune nature and are created in the image of God then our Lord certainly has a triune nature (aka Trinity).
JS: This does not actually follow logically, as shown by the analysis of all the other triad analogies in the main article. Nor does it follow from a bipartite view of man that God is not a Trinity.