On the Trinity

November 22nd, 2007

Yesterday I was at the STR blog reading a post about Mitt Romney. In the comment section, a former Mormon named Steve was objecting to the use of the word “cult”, and lashed out with a comment about the Trinity. He asked some reasonable questions…But they revealed a basic misunderstanding that was pretty predictable, given his background. (Though in fairness, I remember asking the same questions when was growing up.) Because his background separates the persons of the Trinity more than the Bible allows, he thinks we combine them more than the Bible allows. He doesn’t realize the distinctions that we recognize.

I’ve recently listened to some great material on the subject, so I was able to recommend some resources. If you have any interest in getting a better understanding of the Trinity, you can read this post and look into those resources. I’m going to post his comment, along with my answers (slightly edited):

“For any Christian conservative to support Mitt Romney is to fly in the face of scripture.”

No, but it may fly in the face of YOUR interpretation of scripture and your precious Nicean creed. I was raised Mormon, so maybe I’m a just a little biased, but the Mormon idea of three separate beings makes a lot more sense than the trinity. Jesus prayed to himself? Jesus asked, why have I forsaken myself? When he was baptized he looked down from the heavens at himself?

These questions you ask are understandable. But they reveal that part of the reason the Trinity seems irrational to you is that you do not know what is the actual doctrine of the Trinity. (That’s not an insult; many American Christians are just as unclear about it.) The answer to those questions is no, no, and no. Jesus was not praying to Himself, because Jesus is not the same as the Father. The Father is not the same as the Spirit. The Spirit is not the same as the Son. The Trinity is one God, and you seem to understand that. But the Trinity is three separate “persons”, and that’s where you’re going wrong.

[Edited to add: I should have said “distinct persons”, not “separate persons”. See the comment section.]

What you’re describing seems to be closer to an unorthodox view called “modalism”, in which God reveals Himself in different ways (modes) at different times. Sometime He shows Himself to us as the Father, and other times as the Son, and other times as the Holy Spirit. (You can Google or Wikipedia modalism for more info.) In that view, all three are really the same. That doesn’t do justice to the distinctions between the Persons of the Trinity, as you realized.

So what does “persons” mean? I recently listened to an excellent series of broadcasts on the subject. They’re from a show called Theology Unplugged, with Reclaiming the Mind Ministries. They had 11 episodes on the subject of the Trinity. Each episode is 30 minutes. I’m not asking you to listen to them all, but I hope you’ll at least give it a try. The shows are quite pleasant to listen to, and they do a great job of presenting things in an accessible way. (Part of what they do is discuss how the ideas developed in the history of the church. They do it partly through role-playing–one of the hosts pretends to be an early church father, giving his suggestion for how to understand what the Bible says about Jesus and the Father and the Holy Spirit. Then the other hosts discuss his suggestion with him, explaining why that idea wasn’t accepted. It’s pretty effective, I think.)

Let me repeat, the questions you were asking were good questions. They were the kinds of questions that early Christians were asking when they developed our present articulation of what the Trinity is. They were precisely the kinds of questions that led to the development of our present understanding!

You were right. Jesus prayed to the Father. The Father looked down from heaven and said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” The Bible is clear that the Father, Son, and Spirit are distinct. But Bible is also clear about their unity–that the Father is God, that the Son is God, that the Spirit is God, that they are all distinct, and that there is only one God. There is distinction, and there is oneness. It’s hard, and probably no one fully understands it. We use philosophical-sounding terms like “being”, or “essence”, or the Greek “hypostases” or “ontos”–but we’re using them in our struggle to describe the oneness that we see clearly taught in Scripture.

Now, you probably question how clear the Bible is about the oneness, about them each being God. That’s the important question. So, ask that question and probe our basis for saying it–but please do so with an open mind, and a willingness to seriously explore the possibility that the church actually has correctly understood God’s word on the subject all these years.

If you want a book, a good resource for further study would be The Forgotten Trinity, by James R White, a smallish book written for lay people.

You can also get some more in-depth arguments from the same people who make Theology Unplugged. They also have something called The Theology Program, which is an academic study program for lay people in the basics of the Christian faith. All the sessions are available for free audio or video download. The radio show and the coursework have a fair amount of overlap in what they cover; the radio show is more informal and conversational, while the courses are more lecture-oriented and tightly focused. One of the six courses is called Trinitarianism. (It’s not entirely about the Trinity specifically–there are 10 sessions on different theological and philosophical aspects of God.)

Session 7 is on the historical development of the doctrine of the Trinity, and session 8 is a Biblical defense of the doctrine. If you want to understand why we say what we do about the Trinity, both will help you.

5 Responses to “On the Trinity”

  1. Just FYI, the persons are not separate, but distinct. Separation would imply three gods. 😉

  2. Tim says:

    Ack, good catch. Thanks, Perry. I’ve added a correction.

  3. Tim,

    Apart from being mistaken, the LDS get hung up on the term separate and think that you are saying the same thing as they are. Notice

    “A literal reading of the New Testament points to God and Jesus Christ , His Son , being separate , divine beings , united in purpose. . To whom was Jesus praying in Gethsemane, and Who was speaking to Him and his apostles on the Mount of Transfiguration?” http://mormonsarechristian.blogspot.com/

  4. Tim says:

    Something like “the Trinity is three separate ‘persons'”, taken by itself, would indeed be fertile grounds for that kind of mistaken notion that we’re saying the same thing. But let’s be careful; simply using the word “distinct” instead of “separate” isn’t enough to fix the problem. It’s a good correction, but I doubt it’s enough to get the job done in terms of communicating to someone caught up in non-Trinitarianism.

    I would guess that someone like Steve would get hung up on that point regardless of which term we use–unless we’re careful also to emphasize the unity (in more than “purpose”) revealed in Scripture, understood since the time of the apostles, and clearly articulated at Nicaea. That’s what I was trying to do in this post. However short of my goal I may have fallen, I don’t think an LDS could read the following and come away thinking we’re saying the same thing:

    “The Bible is clear that the Father, Son, and Spirit are distinct. But Bible is also clear about their unity–that the Father is God, that the Son is God, that the Spirit is God, that they are all distinct, and that there is only one God.”

    Incidentally, if you have any recommendations for additional resources discussing the Nicene category of “persons”, it would be welcome. For what I’m trying to do in this post, something relatively accessible to the layman would be good, if you happen to know of something that would fit the bill.

  5. There are lots of very good monographs on the Nicene period, most are through Oxford univeristy press. On persons specifically is a little scholarly monograph Gregory of Nyssa and the Concept of Divine Persons, by Turcescu. Khalid Anatolios bk on Athanasius: The Coherence of his Thought, is very good. Both works have plenty of bibliography to keep you busy.