Sunday, May 20, 2018

Defining the Trinity

Historically, there are different models of the Trinity and Incarnation. Since I so often defend the Trinity and the Incarnation, I'll outline my own position. This is what I think Scripture teaches, with a few philosophical elucidations to clarify what I mean. 

I'm not going to defend my position in this post because I've done that on many other occasions. I'm just stating my own understanding of the doctrines, to provide a frame of reference. 

In his classic article, Warfield has a compact, one-sentence definition of the Trinity:

There is one only and true God, but in the unity of the Godhead there are three coeternal and coequal Persons, the same in substance but distinct in subsistence.

Here's my own statement:

I. The Trinity

1. There is one God

I'm using "God" in a categorical sense. In a class by itself.

"One" is a relative term. "One" implies a contrast with more than one of something. What's the point of contrast? In biblical theism, pagan polytheism is the point of contrast. There is "one God" compared to that. 

The concept of a heathen deity was the concept of a physical, humanoid being who comes into existence and may pass out of existence. Finite in knowledge and power. Often territorial gods (e.g. Hades, Poseidon).

2. The one God consists of three persons

By "person" I mean an individual with a mind or consciousness, and first-person viewpoint. Each member of the Godhead has a first-person viewpoint. An indexical property. 

3. Each person of the Godhead is fully and equally divine. 

By "divine" I mean having all the divine attributes

4. Each person of the Godhead is inderivative

5. Father, Son, and Spirit are eternally distinct from each other. 

That's why the Son can become Incarnate without Incarnating the Father or the Spirit. 

6. Does God have one mind or three minds? In a sense, both.

To take a weaker comparison, suppose you had three individuals with complete telepathic access to each other's minds. There'd be three minds, but in another respect there'd be a "hive mind" or group consciousness.

However, Trinitarian psychology is deeper than that. It's not one mind over and above three minds. Rather, each mind is contained in the other two. To take another comparison, suppose you have two mirrors facing each other and reflecting each other. The righthand mirror contains an image of the left-hand mirror while the lefthand mirror contains an image of the righthand mirror. You could reconstruct each mirror image from the opposing mirror image. 

In one respect that's two images, while in another respect that's the same image. Due to chirality, the mutual reflections are isometric, yet irreducibly distinct. 

7. Although the Trinity is inevitably and ineluctably mysterious to some degree, that's not unique to the Trinity, but has common parallels. As one philosopher observes:

The Trinity...poses a number of intriguing logical difficulties akin to those suggested by the identity of spatio-temporal objects through time and across worlds, puzzle cases of personal identity, and problems of identity and constitution. Philosophical discussions of the Trinity have suggested solutions to the Trinity puzzle comparable to solutions proposed to these classic identity puzzles. 

II. The Incarnation

i) In the person of the Son, God assumed a rational human soul and body. The Incarnation is a union between the timeless, incorporeal Son, a mind in time, and a body in space. A union between different individualized natures, analogous to Cartesian/substance dualism (although souls exist in time whereas the mind of the Son exists outside of time). 

The relation is asymmetrical. To paraphrase Aquinas, the Incarnation entailed no change in the Son, but only in the nature newly assumed into the preexistent Son. The eternal Son became Incarnate through union with a human soul and body. Now a union is a relation. And relations newly said of God with respect to creatures do not imply a change on God's side, but on the creature's side by relating in a new way to God.

ii) The union produced a complex person. In a sense, Jesus has a human mind and a divine mind, but the relation is asymmetrical. The divine mind knows everything the human mind knows, while the human mind, in addition to its natural human understanding, only knows what the divine mind shares with it. The divine mind controls the human mind. 

iii) Since human nature already has communicable divine attributes, divine and human natures are sufficiently compatible to make a divine Incarnation possible. Likewise, human minds originate in God's concept of human minds, so the idea of human minds is already contained in the Godhead. 


  1. I understand you perfectly, but where does the Bible use the word "God" to refer to the three persons as a collective whole? It seems that the word "God" is primarily given to the Father, and sometimes to the Son, but never to all three at the same time (i.e. using the term "God" to signify more than one person of the Trinity at once).

    1. My argument wasn't predicated on that usage.

    2. The bible doesn't contain the word bible. So what.

      You are doing a stabdard muslim trick of saying "where does the bible say God is 3 in one"? Well God doesnt have to fit into your neat little linguistic box.

      In Matthew 28:19 we clearly have the trinity as Jesus conflates Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

    3. Well, whatever argument I'm talking about... that's not the point. I want to use language in a similar fashion as you guys, but if the word "God" is never used in the way you guys use it, how is it justified? It's not like the word "trinity"... that's a concept. The Word "God" is in the Bible, and you guys seem to use it differently than the Bible and that concerns me.

    4. i) The Bible is fairly indifferent to what names people use in referring to the Deity. After all, Theos and El/Elohim are names of pagan origin.

      For that matter, Scripture doesn't say "God" or "Lord". Those are English synonyms or substitutes. This is a fairly neutral issue that missionaries and Bible translators routinely deal with. There's no obligation to imitate biblical usage. Otherwise, we'd be using Greek and Hebrew titles for God.

      Mind you, there are situations in which that's fine, viz. Yahweh (although the pronunciation is disputed).

      In Isa 54:5 and Jer 31:32, Scripture even trades on the Baal double entendre, in a bit of polemical theology, where Yahweh is the true Baal to Israel.

      In Scripture, the issue isn't so much *how* the Deity is referred to but *what* Deity is referred to. What's the concept that stands behind that verbal token?

      ii) If Scripture implies that each Person (Father, Son, and Spirit) is individually divine, then it's appropriate to use a general divine designation when referring to all three. That's simply a matter of logic.

  2. Er no. Try Elohim. You seem to have limited knowledge of how the word God is used in the bible.

  3. I am toying with an idea. The threeness of God is internal. They see each other as persons. To us, however, they are one, in a way analogous to the way a family is one (though imperfectly, because of sin).

    The oneness is based on unity of desire. There is no conflict whatsoever. For all intents and purposes, to mankind, God is one. However, they are three, numerically. Yet, "socially", they are one.

  4. I applaud this - getting off one's heresy-hunting high horse in order to stick one's own neck out, saying how one understands some unclear and controversial traditions. Stay tuned for a blog post on this.

  5. "Now a union is a relation. And relations newly said of God with respect to creatures do not imply a change on God's side, but on the creature's side by relating in a new way to God."

    But isn't there a sense in which on God relates in a new way to a creature, implying a change on God's part too? So, for example, going from not-Creator to Creator?

    1. If God is timeless, then there's no change in relation to God. God is not on a timeline where the Incarnation is later than the Exodus, which is later than creation, which is later than pre-creation, in relation to God.