One Three Person God
The Scriptures clearly portray a belief in the worship of one true God alone. The belief in the existence of one God is called monotheism. Trinitarians claim they are monotheists. They insist they do not believe in three Gods/gods but in one God consisting of three persons.
The doctrine of the Trinity is most simply described as "three persons in one God" or "one God in three persons," the belief in one distinct God subsisting as three distinct persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Trinitarian theologians often refer to each of these three distinct persons as a hypostasis. Each person hypostastis has the "same being" or "same substance" which is known by the technical term homoousia. Their God is three hypostases where each hypostasis has an identical ousia (being/substance). The term "Godhead" is also sometimes used to refer to this three person being.
Another description they like to use is the term "Triune God" from "Tri" and "Unity." The word "Trinity" is actually derived from the word "tri" and "unity" and so Trinitarians use this word meaning "tri-unity" or "tri-oneness." The intent of this term is to denote the unity, or oneness, of divinity or substance of being between the three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father is not the Son and the Father is not the Holy Spirit and the Son is not the Father and is not the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit is not the Father and not the Son. Yet, all are God and all are coeternal, co-equal, co-powerful.
Trinitarians insist they are monotheistic and not henotheistic or polytheistic. They do not claim the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three Gods/gods, but one God, nor do they say they believe in three Gods/gods in one God but simply one God. These three persons constitute the one God. Trinitarians will [usually] insist God is not simply one person because, to the contrary, God is not one person but three persons and then they would be bound to say God is three persons in one person which they do not wish to do. So they also sometimes like to say that God is indeed "one being" althought God is three "persons." A term they sometimes use is "tripersonal God" where God is one tripersonal being. As such, Trinitarians do not see themselves as polytheists, or more specifically, tritheists. Rather they see themselves as monotheists who believe in a multi-personal one being God.
The doctrine of the Trinity is not explicitly taught in the Scriptures or the writings of the ante-Nicene church Fathers. Trinitarians believe their doctrine is inferred in the Scriptures and known through their process of reason from analyzing certain statements found in the Scriptures. The following illustrates the basic structure of their reasoning.
Premise 1: The Bible teaches that there is only one God.
Premise 2: The Bible teaches that there are three distinct persons called God, known as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Conclusion: The three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are the one God.
A Major Difficulty: Lack of a Standard Theological Definition and Lack of Definitions for Associated Terms
A major problem with the doctrine of the Trinity is that while it is often deemed by Trinitarians to the most important doctrine in Christendom, a clear and meaningful universal definition of the doctrine is essentially non-existent. Trinitarians usually appeal to the Nicene Creed, or the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, or the Athanasian Creed, and so on. However, none of these creeds define the Trinity in a way which clearly expresses what Trinitarians claim they believe. The Nicene creed makes no effort to define the one God as a three in one being nor does the Constantinopolitan Creed. In fact, the Anathema contained in the original Nicene Creed indicates the Father and Son are the same hypostasis where Trinitarian doctrine insists they are not the same hypostasis. In the Nicene Creed, God the Father is the Creator and Jesus is the Creator's son. And the Holy Spirit is just simply mentioned without further qualification. The Athanasian Creed makes no effort to explain the why's, how's and wherefore's of Trinitarian doctrine. This creed seems more concerned about defining what the Trinity is not rather than specifically describing what it is. It is more of a doctrinal declaration of sorts than an explanation of the doctrine. And none of these creeds even mentions some of the things which Trinitarians insist are true concerning the Triune God such as the fact they believe this one God is one "I" and one "He" nor do they explain the nature of the Hypostatic Union specifically in reference to Jesus, etc.
Additionally, the terms used in Trinitarian theology are very vaguely defined and there is a complete lack of clear and meaningful definitions for words like "person," "being," or "nature." Without having clear and meaningful definitions of these terms, which are so fundamental to the doctrine, the doctrine itself then becomes meaningless verbiage where one is expected to make numerous assumptions according to the occasion and designed to suit the doctrine. If the words "person", "being" and "nature" have no clear and meaningful definitions, and these terms are the most basic terms of the doctrine, we must ask ourselves what then, if anything, are people even talking about?
What the Trinity is Not
1. Three Gods/gods is not the Doctrine of the Trinity
Trinitarians insist the doctrine of the Trinity is not a belief in three gods (tritheism) but a belief in one God (monotheism). In other words, they deny that each of the three is a distinct god. Rather, each of the three are one distinct person of the one God, or, that the one God eternall exists, or subssists, as three distinct persons.
Note: While Trinitarians say they do not believe in tritheism, many others insist that the consequential logic of their doctrine amounts to tritheism anyway. For example, in Trinitarian doctrine, God the Father is not God the Son. God the Father is one and God the Son is another. How does one define the word "God" in the term "God the Son"? What definition will make meaningful sense? And if one took ONE pantheon of multiple gods, it would be multiple gods but one pantheon. And if one declared these gods all had the same "divine nature" and delcared this one divine nature made these gods one being, and then if one labelled that one being with the word "God", is that really any different than what Trinitrians are doing?
2. Counting "1,2,3" is not the Doctrine of the Trinity
The doctrine of the Trinity is the belief that three persons are the one God - these three are that one being. Counting "one, two, three" at Matthew 28:19 or 2 Corinthians 13:14 does not amount to the doctrine of the Trinity. The Trinity is not simply that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit add up to three. Everyone agrees there are three entities mentioned at Matthew 28:19. The doctrine of the Trinity is much more than believing there are three; it is the belief that these three are also one being, one God.
3. Modalism is not the Doctrine of the Trinity
The doctrine of the Trinity is often confused with a view of God known as Modalism and even the most astute Trinitarians can be found inadvertently wading into Modalist waters. To many people, Modalism can appear very similar to Trinitarianism. Modalism is sometimes called "Sabellianism" and contemporary modalists usually refer to this belief system as "Oneness" or "Oneness Theology" and sometimes "Jesus only." In Trinitarianism, the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father. However, in Modalism, the Father is the Son and the Son is the Father. In Trinitarianism, God is not one person but three persons. However,in Modalism God is one person and not three persons. God is one person and that one person is Jesus and Jesus is the Father and Jesus is the Son and as such is God who manifests himself differently in these ways. In this belief system, the three distinctions of God are not personal distinctions of one being but functional distinctions one person. Hence, the distinctions of "Father," and "Son" are different functional modes of being of the same person.
4. Economic Trinitarianism is not the Doctrine of the Trinity
An "Economic Trinity" or "Economic Trinitarianism," is not the same thing as the doctrine of the Trinity. The earliest Christians understood an "economic unity" existed between God, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is simply a way of saying the three had a unity of function between them which we must understand should not be confused with a unity of substance / being. Economic unity is about doing not being. The doctrine of the Trinity is about three persons having the same being. The earliest Christians were referring to a unity of purpose, just as Christians are to have a unity of purpose with God and His Son. Trinitarian historians sometimes conveniently refer to this concept as "Economic Trinitarianism," a term which can be very misleading to the unwary reader. In the Trinitarian psyche, the term "economic trinity" is a way to pretend that such a concept is a primitive form of his own more highly developed dogma. However, this economic unity is recognized by Trinitarians and non-Trinitarians alike. An Arian, or Jehovah's Witness, or a Christadelphian, or any other non-Trinitarian, does not have any problem recognizing that a unified functional relationship exists between these three. In this sense of the word 'trinity', everyone agrees there is a "trinity" of three. And the non-trinitarian realizes this does not amount to Trinitarian dogma. Economic unity, or economic trintarianism, is about "function" and not "substance/being." It is a concept which does not emphasize "being" but "doing." Hence, the term "economic." The issue with Trinitarianism is whether or not the three constitute one being known as "God." For the Trinitarian, it is a matter of "being" God inherently (ontologically), not simply doing "God" functionally (economically). It is a question of identity and nature. For the non-Trinitarian, these three have a unified purpose and function and there is no reason seen to conclude the three should also be understood as a three in one being called "God." The non-Trinitarian recognizes the earliest Christians saw a functional relationship between the three.
5. The Doctrine of the Trinity is not equivalent to the word "Trinity"
The English word "trinity" is derived from the Latin word trinitas which simply means "threefold" to indicate a group of three related things. The Greek equivalent of the Latin word "trinitas" and English word "trinity" is trias We get our English prefix "tri" as in "tricycle," "triune," "trio," "triad," "triumvirate," and "triangle" from the same Latin prefix root "tri." Most English speakers are quite aware that "tri" simply means "three." The word "Trinity" is essentially a combination of the two words "tri" and "unity." However, the word "trinity" or "Trinity" is used in Trinitarian theology to refer to much more than the original word itself implied in ancient times. The word is now loaded with theological ideas to mean "the doctrine of the three in one God" or "the union of the three in one God" and at other times it actually means, "the three in one God" as the Catholic term "The Blessed Trinity" implies (not a blessed doctrine but the union of, or, the blessed God himself). To state it clearly, the original intent of the word "trinity" was not a word used to mean "the three in one God" until that word was later adopted by Trinitarians as a label for their "three in one God." The word "trinity" existed long before the theological doctrine of the Trinity existed and was used by the pagan world in a variety of ways. It was simply a word employed to express a related threeness in various contexts and without any theological nuances whatsoever where three entities have a common unity with one another. Trinitarians have a propensity for anachronistically reading their theologically loaded Trinitarian concepts which they have attached to the word "trinity" back into this word when it is used by some early Christians. Put another way, Trinitarians will often suggest that men using the word "trinity" were promoting the idea of "the three in one God" when in fact they used the word to only describe the economic relationship between the three entities, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that is, God, God's Son, and God's Spirit. In that sense, any non-Trinitarian completely agrees with the use of the word "trinity" as the early fathers understood that word. We have all read Matthew 28:19 in our Bibles and recognize their is a "trinity" or "trio" of related entities mentioned in that passage. There are three of them. But three does not necessarily mean the three are altogether one God. It is when the word "trinity" is theologically loaded term meaning "three persons, one God" that non-Trinitarians disagree. Put simply, we don't get to define the words used by early Christians writers however we like, especially in an anachronistic manner.
Last Update: July 5, 2011