Across the board, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity seems to be one of the most misunderstood concepts in all religious studies. Jews don’t understand it. Atheists don’t understand it. Mormons don’t understand it. Muslims don’t understand it. Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t understand it. Even a lot of Christians don’t understand it and, when pressed, will appeal to analogies or models that are technically heretical.
It’s been called contradictory, polytheism, and paganism, yet the Church has understood the concept to be at the very heart of orthodoxy since the days of the apostles, even if they (the church) couldn’t articulate it or explain it.
As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, a faith system – in order to be valid – must be internally coherent, which means that fundamental concepts must be shown to be logically valid. Christianity does not get a free pass on this, so it would seem reasonable to put my money where my mouth is and attempt to show how the most disputed doctrine of Christianity does not invalidate itself. I don’t pretend to do this on my own or to take credit for any of this information. I stand on the shoulders of giants. It took centuries of study and debate before a workable concept that was faithful to scripture could be fleshed out with some literal blows being exchanged in the process, and still the concept is rejected at face value by many as a convoluted mess.
First, I want to look at a common but silly objection that is often lobbed out as some sort of proverbial mic drop. That objection is the fact that the word “trinity” is not found anywhere in the New Testament. Strictly speaking, this is true. The word “Trinity” comes from tri-unity and both roots “tri-” and “uni-” are Latin in origin while the New Testament was written in Greek. However, to appeal to a lack of a specific word in scripture to invalidate a concept is a particularly short-sighted and naïve approach to theology. We don’t see the words “omnipotent”, “omniscient” or “self-existent” in the bible, but that doesn’t mean that God is none of those things. Similarly, we can say the bible teaches that “everyone has sinned and needs Jesus in order for those sins to be forgiven if they want to go to heaven”. Such a statement would be true even though such exact phrasing is found nowhere in the bible.
Such is the case with the Trinity. The word “trinity” itself is not something explicitly taught in scripture, but rather it is a one-word summary of a concept that we do see in scripture. It is a solution, not a problem.
Islam has a similar concept in its own doctrine of the complete oneness of God, which is more nuanced and far reaching than the simple assertion that there is only one god. That doctrine is referred to as tawhid, but this word is itself not found anywhere in the Quran. It is something that arose later as theological issues were formulated and unpacked. The fact that the word tawhid is not found in the Quran is as irrelevant to the coherence of Islam as the fact that the word “trinity” being absent from the New Testament is to the coherence of Christianity. It’s just a non-issue. What is important is the concept that the word summarizes and whether that concept and its implications are logically valid and consistent with scripture.
What The Trinity Is Not
Tri-theism: The belief in three separate and distinct beings who are each a god. This flies directly in the face of numerous passages in the Old and New Testaments that clearly state that there is only one god. Any orthodox Christian would flatly deny such a position. Side note: This is one of the primary reasons why informed Christians do not accept Mormons as “just another denomination”. The Mormon concept of the Godhead explicitly affirms three separate beings who are each themselves a god.
Modalism: The belief that there is one being called God that reveals himself or acts in three different roles or modes. Modalists claim that God acted as Yahweh (God the Father) in the Old Testament, as Jesus during the Incarnation, and as the Holy Spirit following the ascension until now. This position is also rejected by orthodox Christians because it does not sufficiently explain passages where Jesus seems to be under the authority of the Father and the Spirit under the authority of Jesus (John 15:26, 16:5,7,13-14). Furthermore, in Gethsemane Jesus prayed, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Matthew 26:42; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42) which seems to clearly indicate two distinct wills in play.
Paganism: It is often claimed that the concept of the Trinity was borrowed from contemporary pagan religions and later declared to be official (this seems a popular trend in recent years: taking something – anything – that Christians hold dear and claiming it has pagan roots). Historically, that is simply false. The concept of the Trinity arose over the course of the first four hundred years of the church as they tried to reconcile seemingly contradictory passages in scripture. At no point were pagan factors in play. Given the cultural and historical context, this is a pretty silly claim. The first of the Trinitarian controversies that would culminate in the Council of Nicea in 325 came on the heels of one of the worst periods of persecution that the early church experienced. Pagan Roman emperors had been sending Christians to be torn apart by animals in the arena, torched, crucified, and all other horrific forms of execution in a desperate attempt to stamp out the movement once and for all. Why then, only a handful of years after the Emperor Constantine gave Christianity a legal pass, would the early church suddenly decide to adopt pagan concepts and influences? It just doesn’t make sense. The Trinity is a Christian doctrine formulated by informed and devout Christians in an attempt to reconcile passages of Christian scriptures.
What The Trinity Is
The first key to understanding the concept of the Trinity is to make the distinction between person and being. A being is a thing that exists, an entity. Pretty much everything you see around you on a daily basis fits this category: tables and chairs, plants and animals, houses, mountains, grasshoppers, backpacks and cars. However, the vast majority of these things are not persons. Table and chairs do not have any sort of consciousness or will. Cars and computers have gotten incredibly advanced in recent years, but cannot be said to be sentient in any way, regardless of what the latest sci-fi movie says. They do not “think” or emote. They simply are. In contrast, humans are certainly persons in every sense of the word. We act and think of our own volition (not strictly according to pre-installed programming like computers), we have opinions and emotions, we can learn and change or refuse to do any of those things.
By making this distinction, we can see that personhood and being are not identical. To further distinguish these, we can see that personhood is not identical to life and, though personhood requires life, life does not require personhood. A plant, for instance, is undoubtedly a living creature that grows, breathes, eats, can get sick and die. However, contrary to what some fringe ideologies may assert, we have no reason to believe that a flower, a tree, or a blade of grass is a person with thoughts or emotions. They are alive, but they are not personal the way a human is personal. There seems to be a debatable gray area here when it comes to the higher animals like dogs, cats, etc. Each of these clearly has emotions and consciousness above and beyond that of lower living organisms like bacteria, but still lack many of the faculties of abstract reasoning and language that belongs strictly to humans. That said, I do not think that higher animals pose a challenge to this concept. They are either persons less endowed with the mental faculties that humans have or they are not. In either case, we have enough examples on either side to see that these concepts are not identical.
Being, therefore, is not identical to personhood, and neither is there necessarily a one-to-one relationship between them. A table is a non-living being with a personhood count of zero. A tree is a living being with a personhood count of zero. A human is a living being with a personhood count of one. The Christian position summarized by the doctrine of the Trinity is that God is a living being with a personhood count of three, and we call those persons Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
One of the first objections that we may see to this concept is that we have no previous analog that we can look to and say “it’s like this”, but that’s not necessarily a problem. All we need to see is that the Trinity does not posit one god who is simultaneously three gods, or one person who is simultaneously three persons. Those definitions would be contradictory and therefore incoherent. Instead, the Trinity is one being eternally existing in three persons – or centers of consciousness – and we call that being God, which is not a contradiction.
But Is It Biblical?
As I’ve said above, the concept of the trinity was not simply a pagan insertion or a nonsensical invention by Johnny-come-lately church patriarchs. Rather, it was formulated as an attempt to reconcile the many verses in the bible that could not be reinterpreted yet seemed contradictory. So, what exactly was is that the church fathers saw that necessitated such a formulation? What they saw were these points:
The Father is God:
I’m not going to defend this because I don’t know of any group that disputes it.
Jesus is God:
The Holy Spirit is God:
Jesus is not the Father, The Spirit is not the Father, Jesus is not the Spirit
There is only one god:
All of the pieces are there (much more can be said on any of these points, but I’ve only included to clearest for the sake of time) and it was the challenge of reconciling these pieces into a larger coherent whole that the early church was tasked with in the face of heretical groups who would err to one side or another, either by denying the deity of Christ or the Spirit, or by folding them all into one person.
The doctrine of the Trinity may be difficult, but looked at objectively it is not insurmountable and neither is it inherently flawed or contradictory. As a result, Christianity stands (at least on this point) the test of internal coherence, leaving those who reject it on that basis in the dark.
Writer, artist, lay theologian, student of comparative religion.