For the most part, every evangelical Christian who finally studies the doctrine of the Trinity (. . . and I mean, really digs deep to understand it for the first time) finds out that they unwittingly hold to one of the dreaded heretical views about God. Normally, we either find out that we are modalists, believing God is one God who shows himself in three different ways, or tritheists, believing in one species called “God” who exists in three separate eternal offsprings.

I see this all the time. For twenty years I have taught my course on Trinitarianism dozens of times. I have seen the confused looks on people’s faces as I gently inform them that their understanding of the Trinity is inadequate. More importantly, I break the news that all their coveted illustrations that they were weened upon only served to lead them into a theologically dark place. Yes, that is right: the egg (one egg, three parts), the man (one man, who is a father, son, and brother), and the water (one element that can exist in three forms, liquid, steam, and ice) illustrations all express heretical views of the Trinity.

What is the definition of the Trinity? I’m glad you asked. What I am about to tell you is the coup d’etat of theology, the mother of all descriptions, the pinnacle definition which will evidence your forthcoming theological prowess. Here it is (and imagine Carl Orff’s O Fortuna being played as I reveal this):

The Trinity: One God (undivided essence) who eternally exists in three persons—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—all of whom are fully God, all of whom are equal.

Then I tell my students to be careful not to try to ever illustrate by analogies. It is beyond comparison. The best we can do is use this graphic, understanding that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, but they are not each other.

God is one what, and three whos.

The Problem with Our Definition of the Trinity

However, we need to be careful that we don’t endear our definition here as the Holy Shrine of all definitions. (Let me tell you a theological insider’s secret): [whisper voice] It’s not. It’s just the best we have.

Sometimes I think we believe that God himself will use this definition in eternity. (Let me tell you another secret): [whisper voice] He won’t. It’s not the best he has.

I’m not saying it is wrong; I am just saying it does not get us as far as we sometimes think it does. At best, it points us in the right direction. But there is certainly more to the story.

If history has taught us anything, we find quite a bit of limitation in human languages. For example, the word we use in English to describe the diversity in the godhead is “person.” However, this word is simply the best we have. It comes from the Latin persona. Originally, it was used for the masks that actors wore on stage. This is why the Greek-speaking East was shocked by the West’s use of this word. To them, it was equivalent to the Greek word prosopon (also used of masks) and pointed toward the heresy of modalism (believing in one God who shows himself in three ways). It was just the best we could do at the time, but theological history definitely guarded it against the nuance of a simple mask.

In history, the word person has developed much further (possibly too far). Boethius, in the 6th-century, defined persona as “an individual substance of a rational nature.” But now we have a problem with the word “substance” as that is used to describe the essence of God, not diversity! Later, John Lock describes personhood as the self-consciousness-based definition of the person as a being that “can conceive itself as itself.” Maybe, but does that really get us far enough? Are we just saying that each member of the Trinity can conceive itself as itself? And I don’t know what to do with Kant’s definition of person as “an end in itself” (but I rarely know what to do with him!).

My point is simple. We use the word “person” because this is what we have used in the West since the great Trinitarian controversies of the early church and because, frankly, it’s the best we got. We don’t use it for its precise philosophical accuracy.

Leaving the Mystery Intact

I often tell my students, “If you ever have an ‘ah-ha!’ moment with the doctrine of the Trinity, I can guarantee you, you have just crossed one of the heretical thresholds.” There is no ah-ha. There is mystery. Scriptures tell us pretty early in revelatory history, “the secret things belong to the Lord, but the things revealed belong to us” (Deut. 29:29). To be sure, the focus of this verse is on the excitement we should have concerning all that God has revealed. These are the things we can understand, comprehend, get our mind around. But there are most definitely those secret things that God is keeping close to his chest. We may not like it. We may think we can circumvent the mystery with fancy definitions and (God forbid) analogies, but the definitions we give, with all the imperfect terms that we use, are just representations of how we don’t color outside the lines we have been given. It does not mean that there is not more to the story.

I like our definition of the Trinity. It is generally safe. However, it can be over thought and made to walk on all fours. And the problem with this is that we lose the awe and wonder of the mysterious nature of God. Therefore, I hold on to it, but I hold on to it loosely.

I like what John Calvin said about all the definitions, words, and names that go into our description of our Triune God:

“Where names have not been invented rashly, we must beware lest we become chargeable with arrogance and rashness in rejecting them. I wish, indeed, that such names were buried, provided all would concur in the belief that the Father, Son, and Spirit, are one God, and yet that the Son is not the Father, nor the Spirit the Son, but that each has his particular subsistence. I am not so minutely precise as to fight furiously for mere words. For I observe, that the writers of the ancient Church, while they uniformly spoke with great reverence on these matters, neither agreed with each other, nor were always consistent with themselves.”

John Calvin Institutes, 1.13.5

So, think of our definition of the Trinity as a decent placeholder for something better that we may or may not ever be privy to. In other words, it may be the best we ever have (but I doubt it).


C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. 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. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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