Another step to bringing clarity to the issue of what the Trinity is not.

This has to do with the essence of God. When we talk about God’s essence, we are speaking of the “stuff” that God is made up of (not made of!). It is often referred to in philosophical language as the “ontos” of God. In the fourth century, at the Council of Nicea, this was referred to as the “ousia” as Christ was declared to be of the same ouisa (homo-ousia), rather than sharing an essence that is merely like or similar to the Father. Christ shares in the exact same ousia, ontos, essence, or “stuff” as the father.

It is important to note that this sharing is an absolute unity (God is one), so as to avoid the temptation to divide the same ontos into three parts. In other words, this is not what the Trinity is:


Notice the difference from what I posted yesterday.


See the difference? I cannot overstate how important this is. The first chart is tritheism. The second is Trinitarianism.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    21 replies to "Another Illustration of the Trinity"

    • Dan

      I see your point. They are not three in one…they are ONE. Good examples! Thanks!

    • Jay

      LOTS of good stuff in these two posts.

      Let’s test an illustration I have used before. I gleaned it from reading Edwards’ “Essay on the Trinity” who may have taken his ideas from Anselm. My illustration:

      You hold up a styrofoam cup. The Cup is the person of God the Father.

      You hold up another identical styrofoam cup. The Second Cup is the person of Jesus, the Son. (Edwards explains Jesus as the personification of the glorious vision God has of Himself…in this sense he is both eternal and begotten)

      You connect the two cups with a string. This marks the person of the Holy Spirit. (Edwards explains the HS, as the communicative Love that exists between the Father and Son.)

      SO your left with One Object (a two cup telephone). With three parts.

      I’m a heretic aren’t I?

    • Mike S

      This would be a good time for Michael to post on Gregory Palamas’ essence and energies of God. It is impossible to know God in His essence (in Greek, ουσία) but we relate to Him in His energies (in Greek, ενέργειαι).

    • Josh Mann

      I tried to make a chart to illustrate the Trinity once….just once. It didn’t take long to realize every chart contains some flaw as it relates to the historical doctrine.

    • Paul

      I believe it was Berkhof who gave the definition: One divine essence with three eternal distinctions.

      I cannot recommend highly enough Michael Rea and Jeffery Brower’s Understanding the Trinity. (note: PDF download)

    • Eddie

      Actually none of the charts are exactly correct, if you ask me.

      What you need is three separate circles. In circle 1 is another, smaller circle with the title: deity1. Circle 1 represents God the Father only. Circle 2 would have the same inner circle titled deity2, and the Son would be represented by this second circle. Same for the HS (deity3).

      Since the members of the Trinity do not share the same immaterial nature, I put deity1,2,3. Their natures are separated just as any three of ours are. But, our natures differ from each others in all our attributes (love, kindness, mercy, hatred, lust, etc.). The members of the Trinity do not have natures that vary in degree or attribute from each other.

      The Trinity does not pull from a common deity source/nature, but each member has a separate divine nature, equal in attributes to the other two members. The Father’s love, mercy, justice, etc. is IDENTICAL in all respects and degrees to that of the Son’s and HS’s, but the Father’s nature is not the same nature as the Son’s, as if they somehow are borrowing the same nature from each other. This is not where the “God is one” idea is located.

      The “oneness” of God is the Big Box you put all three circles (each circle having its sub-circle) in, known as the Godhead or Trinity.

      The ONLY reason this is not 3 separate Gods (Beings) is because the natures (pl.) of the members of the Godhead are equal in all respects. Each has infinite and eternal attributes.

      Hence, this is why we should say that the Trinity is made up of 3 beings, each with their own nature, but each nature being identical to the others with reference to all the attributes (love, mercy, omnipotence, etc.).

      The Father does not possess the Son’s nature. THIS is where I depart from orthodoxy.

      With this model, the second member of the Trinity was able to come to earth and, mysteriously, become separated from the Father and HS for three hours on Friday. This is the mystery of the suffering of Christ. Having been in the presence of the HS and Father for “all of eternity past,” Christ was separated from both the Father and HS for three hours on the Cross. As a songwriter said, I scarce can take it in.

      Bear in mind, that I do not hold that Jesus was “fully” human as you and I are fully human. Jesus was “without sin”; that is, he was not encumbered with a human sinful nature. He was tempted to sin then as he is now… to no avail.

      I can challenge Jesus — right now — to come down from his throne and lust for something here on earth, just as someone could have done that when he walked the earth. But such temptations are of no interest to deity.

    • Dr_Mike

      How ’bout an individual suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID, previously known as Multiple Personality Disorder).

      Such an individual has three distinct personalities and yet all have the same essence, i.e., a common brain with the same, shared neuropathways. It could also be that each distinct personality is aware of the others, shares the same values, purposes, experiences, etc., and that the three personalities relate to one another.

      Not that God suffers from DID, but I think it is a close and perhaps even viable illustration.

      Or maybe I – or one of I – are missing something.

      (For the record, I didn’t say that: I did.)

    • Jim W.

      “I cannot overstate how important this is. The first chart is tritheism. The second is Trinitarianism.”

      Maybe you can and are.

      I understand its importance for understanding the nature of the Trinity but how important is it to understand that nature for the individual believer? I’m not sure about that. I really don’t know.

      I can’t but help and think that God did not see fit to have the apostles or Christ himself explain the Trinity, but simply gave evidence of it. Even then it was done without ever really being the focus of any single passage of Scripture. It took the Church roughly 300 years to come to an agreement as to how to define the Trinity and even then there were many who did not agree. So how important is it for Christians to understand?

      Early gentile converts were almost certainly coming out of a environment of polytheism so their natural inclination would have been toward Chart 1. So, if understanding the doctrine was critically important I would have thought that the apostles would have spent some of their time writing to counteract that idea. However, I don’t see that in the Bible. The early church fathers don’t seem to have concerned themselves with this idea much either. So I’m just not sure how important it really is.

    • C Michael Patton


      I am not saying that an understanding of the Trinity is what is important (as no one can understand), but a proper belief about the Trinity is.

      Why is it important for the average believer? It is the difference between polytheism and monotheism. Don’t you think that this is important?

    • bethyada

      Michael, I am interested that you have been teaching kids this stuff. I would be most interested in getting a copy of your talk, outline or powerpoint presentation you used.

      I realise that you run the theology program which you sell, and if it is part of this, that is fine. But if you don’t mind sharing, are you able to upload this? (Or even email it to me? [email protected])

    • EricW

      What impact and effect does understanding that God is a Trinity have on your faith and praxis?

      Knowing that God is a Trinity, what impact and effect does gaining a better understanding of the Trinity have on your faith and praxis?

      FWIW, it was shortly into our exposure to and participation in the Orthodox Church that I was struck with the impression of how little the developed doctrine of the Trinity seemed to matter in terms of practical or faith or worship purposes in much of Evangelical/Charismatic/Non-Denominational Protestantism (in which I had previously spent 25+ years), and, conversely, how central and essential it was to everything the Orthodox Church taught, thought and did.

    • Mike B.

      I am not sure that talking about “essence” really clears things up, particularly because it is so difficult to define what “essence” is. You say that it is the stuff that God is made up of. I think the point is to say that it is the stuff that makes God God and not anything else, and that Jesus shares in this. But this still doesn’t make them one God. All you are saying is that they are idential, like twins. Two Gods (three including the Spirit), equal in standing and in composition. But this does not make them one being.

      I’m not arguing for tritheism. I’m just playing devil’s advocate here. I’m saying that perhaps talking about “essence” isn’t such a salient factor as you suggest.

      I’m am curious. Have you read Richard Bauckham’s work on Christology? I’ve found it to be very interesting and helpful, and perhaps a good alternative to some more traditional ways of talking about the trinity.

    • Jim W.


      Yes I think correct belief on the Trinity is important, just not sure how much.

      Again, I don’t see Christ, the apostles or the early church fathers stressing a correct view of the Trinity in their writings. How would you explain this lack of teaching on the subject if it is so important?

    • steve martin

      “I am not saying that an understanding of the Trinity is what is important (as no one can understand), but a proper belief about the Trinity is.”

      Amen, CMP!

    • Wayne Brooks

      I have used the connection of us being created in God’s image, “Let Us Make Man In Our Image”, as the man being Body, Soul & Spirit as God is Spirit, Soul & Body. Is this wrong and if so, in what way. I feel no explaination is totally right. Therefore the mystery of God.

    • Jeffrey

      What always bothered me about the Trinity is it’s implications to thinking through other theological concepts. How should this sentence be completed: “Theological claim X doesn’t make sense not matter how you look at it, therefore …” In the context of the Trinity, it has to be “therefore it’s a mystery.” The Trinity is a A = B, B = C, and yet A does not equal C.

      But in other contexts, the idea that something “doesn’t make sense” is seen as proof that it’s false. And in those contexts, it just seems so irrefutably logical. For instance:

      “God chose us not based on foreknowledge of our choices. The causal difference between the saved and the unsaved is what God chose and not what we choose to believe. But man is responsible because the causal difference is what people choose because every man is born with the potential to choose either way.”

      Whether or not this is an accurate description of Calvinism/Arminianism even with the insertion of the word “causal” is beside the point. (Is it hypercalvinism/semi-Pelaginaism? If so, the point stands.) The two statements contradict so both sides effortlessly see that one or both must be false. Even though it would quite conveniently be consistent with every verse on salvation even when taken at face value. Or at least “consistent” in the sense that verses about how A = B, B = C, and A is not equal to C are consistent.

      But once you’ve thrown out “looking like a logical inconsistency even under closer inspection” as a valid means for determining if something is a logical inconsistency, you’ve opened the door to throwing out reason whenever it leads to a position that you either don’t like, or is inconsistent with your theology. All it takes is the word “mystery.”

      Theology’s treatment of reason is like a judge who legitimately backs up his judgments with evidence half the time, and the other half admits openly that the judgment is despite the evidence. This isn’t a partial acceptance of evidence. This is a complete rejection of evidence.

    • mbaker

      Jeffrey said:

      “Theology’s treatment of reason is like a judge who legitimately backs up his judgments with evidence half the time, and the other half admits openly that the judgment is despite the evidence. This isn’t a partial acceptance of evidence. This is a complete rejection of evidence.”

      I believe your own treatment of reason is a little off there, or possibly your math, lol.

      Certainly there are many gray areas of theology, to be specific: things which the Bible doesn’t explicitly call by name, or completely explain in detail. However, there is certainly a good case for a triune God, who exists in three separate and distinct persons, yet who is also one, something which is well documented in the Bible, by whatever name we choose to call it.

      Because we don’t completely understand it, I hardly think we can dismiss it simply by saying theology, in and of of itself is half right, half wrong, and draw the conclusion that one cancels the other out. Using that premise, we could just as well well make the argument that the evidence presented at a trial would be cancelled out by either the prosecution or the defense being half right or half wrong. Both are probably a little bit of both. Yet, sound theology demands a verdict, and in reaching it, we draw conclusions based on acting upon the best available information we have, not on what we don’t. That is, until we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt otherwise.

    • Joe

      Many scholars say there are problems proving the Bible really endorsed a Trinity.

      1) Of course, it never used the word.

      2) The Trinity note, includes Father, Son, Holy Spirit; but not directly oddly enough, “God.” No doubt we think its implied behind all three. But perhaps the apparent omission was deliberate; as many Christians try to slip by the Old Testament “God,” in favor of the New Testament, Jesus’ “father,” himself as “son,” and the “advocate” or some say, spirit. But if so, then the Trinity is Marcionism, Gnosticism, by the back door.

      3) Then too, though at times Jesus and the father are “one,” other times Jesus strongly defers to his father. Suggesting a hierarchy.

      4) Jesus asks his father why he abandoned him; suggesting not a perfect unity at all.

      5) Etc.. See many other, much better online resources, questioning the validity of the concept of the Trinity.

      6) Some think, outside the framework of the Bible, that the “father” might often refer to Jesus’ own actual human father at times, Joseph in heaven; or the father of the Jews, Abraham. Or some other biological father. Since Mary was pregnant when she was betrothed to Joseph.

    • Cory Howell

      I am finding this whole discussion of the Trinity fascinating. It occurs to me that this ongoing argument is precisely the reason why so many Christians were horribly offended by The Shack, while others said it was an admirable attempt. The thing is, orthodox Christians have a heck of a time describing the Trinity, even though most of them agree that it is an important doctrine. As Michael said (in his earlier post), as soon as you say “I’ve got it!” you’ve probably actually settled on one or the other heresy. Is it any wonder that the author of The Shack was almost immediately excoriated as a heretic?

      “O magnum mysterium,” as the old Latin hymn goes. (Actually, that hymn is about the mystery of the Incarnation, but the Incarnation is part and parcel of the mystery of the Trinity, isn’t it?)

    • Eddie mishoe

      Something occurred to me as I was reading mbaker’s statement:

      “However, there is certainly a good case for a triune God, who exists in three separate and distinct persons, yet who is also one, something which is well documented in the Bible, by whatever name we choose to call it.”

      When we use the word “yet” in the proposition that God exists in 3 separate and distinct persons, YET…

      I say get rid of this YET or BUT idea and use AND.

      So that you end up with something like: The Godhead has 3 separate and distinct persons, AND these persons comprise one Godhead.

      The problem comes when we try to use the terminology of “one God” apart from its complex biblical development. God is ‘one,’ but so was Adam and Eve. If you use the phrase “God is one” be sure to unpack what that means.

      To say that “God is one YET three” is to commit a fallacy known as equivocation. You are using the number ‘three’ in a numerical sense, while using ‘one’ in a relational sense (as Adam and Eve were one).

    • Eliot

      The images are not showing up anymore!

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