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Trinity: analogies and countering critics

Published: 23 September 2012 (GMT+10)
Expanded and updated 1 November 2012
Ancient diagram of the Trinity
Ancient diagram of the Trinity; redrawn by artist Debra Bosio Riley—the chosen colours are important, because the additive primary colours of light combine to form white light (see this picture).

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.

Trinity analogies: be cautious

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.

It is not really correct to say that the three Persons of the Trinity are ‘parts’ of God—see also Is God ‘simple’? We see in Colossians 2:9:

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 Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. … But about the Son he [God] says, “Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever, and righteousness will be the scepter of your kingdom.” (Hebrews 1:3,8).
So some early church leaders gave the analogy:
  1. God the Father ~ the sun (but the sun’s very nature is to emit light—God made the sun precisely as a light-giver to earth (Genesis 1:14–19), so they are co-eternal)
  2. God the Son (wisdom/logos/memra) ~ the radiance continuously emanating from the sun. Jesus is the light of the world (John 1:9–10, 8:12, 9:5).
  3. God the Holy Spirit ~ the heat from the sun.

The sun analogy also reflects the true Trinitarian doctrine—ontological equality but also generation and procession —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 of the Son since His incarnation 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.

Trinity and the early church

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).

Tertullian explained the Trinity at length using copious biblical passages as proof that there was one God in three distinct Persons in Against Praxeas:

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:

  • Clement of Rome (AD c.96) who knew the Apostles
    Moreover, ye were all distinguished by humility, and were in no respect puffed up with pride, but yielded obedience rather than extorted it, and were more willing to give than to receive. Content with the provision which God had made for you, and carefully attending to His words, ye were inwardly filled with His doctrine, and His sufferings were before your eyes. (1 Clement 2)
    The original Greek grammar makes it clear that “His Sufferings” must be referring to God’s.
  • Ignatius (30–107), who knew the Apostles:

    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)

  • Polycarp (69–155), a student of the Apostle John:
    If then we entreat the Lord to forgive us, we ought also ourselves to forgive; for we are before the eyes of our Lord and God, and “we must all appear at the judgment-seat of Christ, and must every one give an account of himself.” Let us then serve Him in fear, and with all reverence, even as He Himself has commanded us, and as the apostles who preached the Gospel unto us, and the prophets who proclaimed beforehand the coming of the Lord. (Polycarp to the Philippians, 6)
    Jesus is the one who is called “Lord and God”, while no one else but Jesus receives the title of “Lord” in the epistle.
  • Irenaeus (120–202) a student of Polycarp:
    The Church, though dispersed through the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Savior, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father. (Against Heresies Book I, Chapter 10, Section 1)
    Here Irenaeus states clearly that Jesus is Lord, God, Savior and King, that the Holy Spirit is personal, and states that the whole church agrees. He would not have done so if he wasn’t sure that there would be no faction in the church that would disagree.
  • Justin Martyr (100–165)
    For they who affirm that the Son is the Father, are proved neither to have become acquainted with the Father, nor to know that the Father of the universe has a Son; who also, being the first-begotten Word of God, is even God. (First Apology 63:15)
    Justin Martyr says that the Father is not Jesus (so refuting the Oneness doctrine), but that Jesus is God, not “a god” as the Watchtower teaches, but in fact God, which agrees with Trinitarian doctrine. Justin surely would have been living with people who knew the Apostles because he lived in Rome and Ephesus, the same places where the Apostles lived and travelled.
  • Melito, Bishop of Sardis, affirmed Trinitarian Christology in Passover sermon AD ~170 (see Christmas and Genesis).

[Update, 14 February 2015: see The Early Church & the Deity of Christ (Reprise) by Nathan Busenitz (off-site).]

The Personality of the Holy Spirit

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.”

The Tri-une nature of God

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.

The Trinity and Infinity

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.

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