In January & February, I posted a series of articles that (hopefully) defined some common “church talk” terms in non-jargon fashion: “sin”, “holiness”, “righteousness”, “atonement”, “grace”, “justification”, “sanctification”, “born again”, “saved”, and “repentance”. This week, I want to add to that list a distinctly Christian term, yet one you won’t find actually mentioned by that name in the Bible – the Trinity. Nevertheless, the concept is throughout the Bible, and “in the confession of the Trinity throbs the heart of the Christian religion”. The Trinity is the name given to the completely unique three-in-one relationship demonstrated by God. The idea that God is one, and yet three (God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit) is at the core of Christianity, but what exactly does that mean? Are Muslims right when they say we are polytheists worshiping three gods? Are skeptics right when they say one of our core beliefs is self-contradictory? No. Now let’s dig into why not.
- The Trinity, or Tri-unity, is the idea of “plurality in unity”, that God is three distinct persons united in a Being having one nature or essence: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity describes three “Whos” in one “What”.
- A being’s nature or essence is what it is at its core without incidentals. For example, having blond hair is not essential to a human being, but having human DNA is. Nick Vujicic, the man born without arms or legs (and pretty amazing guy), is still obviously human despite not having the limbs typical of most humans. That’s because these are not what makes us human.
- “Personhood is traditionally understood as one who has intellect, feelings, and will.” Alternatively, a person can be defined philosophically as “a self-conscious or rational being”. William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland use the concept of “imago Dei” (that humans are created in the image of God), to explain that when we use terms like “person” to describe God, it’s not that we are trying to say how God is like us, but rather how we derive our nature from God. They put it this way: “Human beings do not bear God’s image in virtue of their animal bodies, which they have in common with other members of the biosphere. Rather, in being persons they uniquely reflect God’s nature. God Himself is personal, and inasmuch as we are persons we reflect Him.“ Part of the difficulty in understanding the Trinity is that our uniform experience is that one person correlates to exactly one human being. We have no experience with how 3 persons would correlate to 1 being.
Though there have been many attempts to explain the concept with different analogies, it’s important to remember that every analogy breaks down when the object under study is truly like nothing else. In fact, several common analogies actually explain competing ideas about God that are definitely not the Christian view. We’ll look at some of those in with related objections.
- Muslims look at the Trinity and think we are polytheistic (believers in multiple gods). However, the Trinity is not 3 gods (this would be tritheism), but rather one God in three divine persons. The Godhead is 3 personalities operating in perfect union, but only 1 essence.
- Another common misconception is that God is one Being taking on different roles (or modes), as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at different times. This is actually an old heretical view called modalism that says that God took on different modes as our Father from eternity past, then as our Savior as Jesus, and then as the Holy Spirit after Jesus ascended. A common illustration of the Trinity – that God is like water in that it can exist in solid (ice), liquid (water) and gas (steam) – is actually an example of modalism. While it’s still H2O in each case, it isn’t water, ice, and steam at the same time. It has to stop being one to change form to the others. Similarly, the example of how a man can be a son, a husband, and a father at the same time also falls victim to this error (the modes may be simultaneous in this case, but they are exhibited by only one person instead of three). However, each member of the Godhead is equal in being (i.e. fully God) at the same time, while differing relationally from each other.
- The law of noncontradiction explains that a statement can’t be true and false in the same sense at the same time. When skeptics claim the Trinity is a contradiction, they are forgetting the “same sense” part of that law of logic. To say that God was 1 person and 3 persons, or 1 essence and 3 essences at the same time would be a contradiction. The correct term would be that this is a paradox (a statement that appears contradictory at first, but proves not to be on closer examination), or a mystery (something we simply don’t understand fully yet, like the wave-particle duality of light).
In closing, in the Trinity, we find mystery and awe for One truly beyond our finite understanding, yet who reveals Himself sufficiently for us to grasp in small ways the scale of our Creator’s nature. We find a foundation for our own dignity as humans. Yet we also find a reason for humility in remembrance of our own limited understanding. The more we grasp this, the more we are driven to worship – to give God the honor, respect, and adoration only He deserves. I leave you with these words from theologian Wayne Grudem on the matter: “Because the existence of three persons in one God is something beyond our understanding, Christian theology has come to use the word person to speak of these differences in relationship, not because we fully understand what is meant by the word person when referring to the Trinity, but rather so that we might say something rather than nothing.”
 Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God, p. 281, as quoted in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2000), p. 247.
 Norm Geisler, Systematic Theology in One Volume (Bethany House, Minneapolis, 2011), p. 540-1.
 “Person”, www.dictionary.com, definition 5 (Philosophy), accessed 10/25/2015.
 Genesis 1:26-27, NASB.
 William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (IVP Academic, Downer’s Grove, 2003), p.609.
 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2000), p. 254-5.
4 thoughts on “Translating Christianese, Part 7”
I like your explanation and discussion, here. I would hesitate, though, to call the modalism view ‘heretical.’ Heresy is a strong word implying a lack of true faith in God…or error so serious as to be considered outside the body of Christ.
I’ve known many true believers who have understood The Holy Trinity to be three separate expressions or manifestations of the one God. While I disagree with their perspective, I certainly would not label them as heretics.
If a full understanding of The Holy Trinity was a requirement to becoming a child of God, we would all be excluded.
Good post, Jason!
Thanks Joe! I really appreciate your taking the time to read and comment. Yeah, I can understand the aversion to labeling something as heresy. That can be a rather loaded word. Church leaders have at times been too free in handing out the term. And yet, if you look up Sabellianism (the traditional name for modalism, after its originator, a priest named Sabellius), you find it defined as “an early 3rd century trinitarian heresy”. [Stanley Grenz, et al, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms] Norman Geisler also calls it the “Sabellian heresy” in his Systematic Theology. Wayne Grudem points out in his chapter on the Trinity in his Systematic Theology book that the United Pentecostal Church is the one denomination within Protestantism that is modalistic in their doctrinal statement. But then he adds a footnote saying that “because of its denial of the 3 distinct persons in God, the denomination should not be considered evangelical, and it is doubtful whether it should be considered genuinely Christian at all.” Strong words, certainly. But then Justin Holcomb’s book Know the Heretics devotes an entire chapter to Sabellius and modalism.
So despite the sense of “heresy” being a drastic term, it nevertheless appears to be the term used historically (and currently in theological references) to describe this view. We have to ask why that is. The word heresy comes from the Greek hairesis, meaning a “self-chosen opinion”, and Holcomb defines a heretic as “someone who has compromised an essential doctrine and lost sight of who God really is, usually by oversimplification… [making] a choice to deviate from traditional teaching in favor of one’s own insights.” [Holcomb, Know the Heretics, p. 11] Grenz’s theological dictionary similarly defines heresy as “any teaching rejected by the Christian community as contrary to Scripture”. Based on those definitions, I would say a person could have saving faith in Christ while still believing some heretical views (i.e. contrary to Scripture). Growing as a Christian should involve Bible study, and prayer, and discipleship under those more mature in the faith, such that any unscriptural views we might have are corrected and brought in line with God’s Word. But I would say that a true believer might nevertheless have some wrong beliefs that have historically been described as heresy. Sabellius himself was a priest trying to protect the faith from the influence of polytheism around the church, which was a good thing. But the problem was that he went too far and denied the divine Persons described in the Bible. This raised serious problems related to the eternal love of God, the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, and how Jesus can intercede for us as the “one mediator between God and man”. Ultimately, while heresy has a lot of connotations that go with it (burning at the stake, etc), it is modalism’s denial of the Trinity that gets it labeled a heresy. And the charge of heresy is intended to delineate between orthodoxy (right belief) and heterodoxy (other belief), and protect believers from falling prey to “destructive heresies” as Peter called them.
Yes, thankfully, God doesn’t require us to fully understand His nature (as if we could this side of Heaven!) to save us. But still, we seek to know Him more, and to make Him known to others more clearly. As Holcomb put it, “Modalism gains ground less because it is strongly advocated than because of apathy.” Apathy on the part of believers not willing to learn, and on us fellow brothers and sisters not willing to teach, to make disciples. It’s incumbent on us who know the truth to share, lovingly and respectfully, with those in error, whether inside or outside the family of God, so that may come to know Him better and grow into all He has planned for them. We have a sober responsibility, but also what an exciting opportunity! 🙂
Yes, I agree with all you have stated.
And, yet, I remain adverse to the use of terms such as ‘heresy’ or ‘cult’ in regard to genuine believers who may have a differing understanding of The Holy Trinity.
I remember once, many years ago, watching a segment of The John Ankerburg Show in which John Ankerburg and Walter Ralston Martin teamed up to debate a United Pentecostal Preacher on the Doctrine of the Trinity.
Several things stand out in my mind from that show. First, there was no doubt that Ankerberg and Martin were much better educated than the UPC preacher. There was also no doubt that they were much better debators and had put together much more reasoned arguments. They were clear on what they believed and why they believed it and were clear in expressing their perspective, making frequent reference to specific terms used in the original Hebrew and Greek languages.
From a standpoint of who won the debate, there was no doubt. The UPC preacher was totally out of his league, relying on repeating mantras of doctrine based on the understanding he had been taught.
Yet, in watching the show, I felt no sense of elation at the victory scored on the side of truth and correct doctrine. Rather, I found myself totally empathizing with the UPC preacher…wishing I could just put my arm around him and encourage him.
Ankerburg and Martin totally steamrolled the UPC preacher. They didn’t pull any punches. They called his church a cult. They called his beliefs heresy.
Here stood a good Christian man…a true believer in Christ…one who regularly shared the gospel message with others to the best of his ability and understanding. He preached Jesus Christ crucified for our sins. He preached redemption from the kingdom of darkness through the shed blood of Jesus Christ. He preached new birth as a child of God through faith in Jesus Christ. He preached that Jesus is both God and the Son of God. He preached that Jesus is both fully God and fully Man. He preached that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and none come to the Father but by Jesus. He preached that Jesus was born of a virgin, died on a cross, was resurrected on the third day, has ascended to the Father, and will some day come again. He preached salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. He preached resurrection power. He preached sanctification through being daily conformed to the image of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. He preached the active ministry of the Holy Spirit in the daily lives of believers.
And yet…because his understanding of the Trinity differed from theirs…a topic that all theologians agree is a mystery that none of us can fully understand…these two learned theologians teamed up to verbally shred him, telling him that he was preaching a false gospel, that his doctrine was heresy, and that his church was a cult.
The man left the stage totally humiliated and discouraged…still clinging stubbornly to the beliefs he had been taught…but totally crushed in spirit…
Ankerburg and Martin were, I believe, more correct in their doctrine than the UPC preacher was. They were certainly more eloquent and more learned. But they were completely wrong in how they treated a fellow believer…a fellow minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ…and those words ‘heresy’ and ‘cult’ were used as barbs intended to cut deep…and they hit their mark.
I agree with the truths you are teaching. Please be cautious with your word choices. Words can encourage and unite…or discourage and alienate.
I appreciate you, brother! You have a good voice, here.
I understand the term has some connotations, but it nonetheless seems an accurate description of views held by believers that are contrary to Scripture. And that is an important distinction: a person has to be a believer first before they can be considered a heretic. It’s applied to those who have gone astray, not to those who never knew the truth. And this has often been the case in regards to the Trinity specifically. As Wayne Grudem puts it in his Systematic Theology (quoting Herman Bavinck), “In the confession of the trinity throbs the heart of the Christian religion: every error results from, or upon deeper reflection may be traced to, a wrong view of this doctrine.” One thing I like about Justin Holcomb’s book “Know the Heretics” is that he doesn’t demonize the people responsible for various early heresies, but rather points out that several of them were trying to defend the humanity of Christ (Arius) or the deity of Christ (Apollinarius), or some other aspect of God’s nature when they went too far the other way and erred. It’s a sobering reminder that good intentions are insufficient, and that any of us are susceptible to error when we rely too much on our own understanding in lieu of seeking God’s guidance. The UPC preacher certainly seems well-intentioned, but what do they say about certain roads being paved with good intentions?
Like you, I can empathize with the UPC preacher getting crushed. I don’t want to see anybody get crushed, whether an errant preacher or a devout atheist or anyone in between. But Paul wrote that the Scriptures were profitable for rebuking and correcting, and that will necessarily be a “tough love” sometimes. I suppose that’s the art of it, having the discernment to know when to strongly rebuke and when to gently encourage, and that’s definitely not something I can lay claim to yet. But Paul and Jesus didn’t pull any punches either in many of their encounters with errant views, so it certainly seems appropriate at times, perhaps when gentler ways might not be heeded. It’s unfortunate that the UPC preacher left the debate humiliated, but not brought to repentance. As a teacher, he is held to a higher standard, and will have to account for any errant teachings before God. Would gentler persuasion have worked then? I suppose only God knows the answer to that one.
One thing that’s interesting is the list you gave of what the UPC preacher preached. Some of those things seem to be very Trinitarian for a preacher in a specifically anti-Trinitarian church, do they not? I have to wonder if he really agrees with his church’s doctrine, or if he is equivocating on some of the more traditionally accepted terms he’s using. That said, the irony did occur to me the other day that I had used an example of theological jargon in a post specifically aimed at translating church lingo into “plain English”… Oh well. Hopefully, this dialogue afterward has helped explain both the connotations and the definition of the term “heretical” for others who might’ve had concerns about it.
I appreciate your caution about the power of words. I’ve certainly chosen poorly in the past, and I don’t want to this time. And yet, calling modalism heretical seems to be technically accurate, as best as I can determine, and is stated without malice, simply as an objective assessment of the the view’s contradiction to Scripture. Thanks again for your always thoughtful challenges that force me to “examine myself” 🙂