Tag Archives: Person

Translating Christianese, Part 7

Trinity ShieldIn 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”.[1] 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.

Definition

  • 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”.[2]
  • 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.”[2] Alternatively, a person can be defined philosophically as “a self-conscious or rational being”.[3] William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland use the concept of “imago Dei” (that humans are created in the image of God),[4] 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.“[5] 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.

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.[6]
  • 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.”[6]


[1] Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God, p. 281, as quoted in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2000), p. 247.
[2] Norm Geisler, Systematic Theology in One Volume (Bethany House, Minneapolis, 2011), p. 540-1.
[3] “Person”, www.dictionary.com, definition 5 (Philosophy), accessed 10/25/2015.
[4] Genesis 1:26-27, NASB.
[5] William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (IVP Academic, Downer’s Grove, 2003), p.609.
[6] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2000), p. 254-5.