Explanations of the Trinity
Explanations of Trinitarians of the Trinity as expressed by the Athanasian Creed (“So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; And yet they are not three Gods, but one God.”) fall into one of four categories: subordinationist, modal, distinctionist, and real. These four are described below.
Before describing them, two other groups of Trinitarians should be mentioned: acceptors and clueless. Acceptors accept, or profess to accept, the Trinity Doctrine with all its paradoxes and absurdities without any attempt to modify, explain, or understand it. The clueless have no real clue about what the Trinity Doctrine is. For the most part, they believe that by believing in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, they are believing in the Trinity Doctrine — not realizing that the Trinity Doctrine is much more. (Most Unitarians and Monotheistic Christians believe in a trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, but they reject the Trinity Doctrine.) Acceptors and the clueless account for most Trinitarians.
1. Subordinationist Trinitarians. Some Trinitarians consider that the Father alone is underived and that the Son and the Holy Spirit derive their existence from him. Thus, they are subordinate to the Father. Still, they possess all the same divine attributes that the Father possesses. In nature and every essential perfection, the Father and the Son are equal. However, because the Son came from the Father, the Father is greater than the Son. This explanation attempts to preserve the divine unity while simultaneously presenting the Son as a real person who is distinct from the Father and is equally God with all divine perfections. The only difference is that the perfections of the Son are derived from the Father, whose perfections are underived. Likewise, the same is true of the Holy Spirit. Subordinationist Trinitarians who maintain the supremacy of the Father and subordination of the Son and the Holy Spirits fall into at least two difficulties. If they really affirm the distinction, they maintain an untenable form of Unitarianism. On the other hand, by claiming the subordination of the Son and the Holy Spirit, while declaring them properly God, they encounter new difficulties if they seek to retain the common doctrine of the Trinity. The subordinationists’ concept of the Trinity is similar to that of the pre-Nicene Fathers and essentially that held by the Nicene Fathers. Although this concept was once orthodox, it is now heterodox.
2. Modal Trinitarians. One group of Trinitarians understands the word “person” in the sense of its Latin translation persona, which translates into English as, “character” or “roll.” (The Greek translation of “person” in the Trinity Doctrine is hypostasis, which means “independent existence.”) According to the modal explanation, the three persons of the Godhead are three different characters. In relation to man, these three persons denote three relationships: Creator (the Father), the Redeemer (the Son), and the Sacrificer (the Holy Spirit). These three persons may also be conceived as three attributes of God: his goodness, wisdom, and power. Basically, the modal Trinitarian explanation of the Trinity is Unitarian. This explanation is similar to that of the Sabellians, who were denounced as heretics. Needless to say, this explanation of the Trinity is unorthodox and heretical. However, it is similar to the Augustinian Trinitarianism, which is Modal Trinitarianism in disguise and upon which the Athanasian Creed is based.
3. Distinctionist Trinitarians. Another group of Trinitarians asserts that the word “person” should not be understood in the normal sense. It should be understood to mean three real distinctions in the Godhead. However, when explaining the Trinity, these Trinitarians resort back to using “person” in its proper sense. The three of the Trinity are ascribed personal attributes. Each has personal relations distinctly to himself and performs personal actions distinct from the others. For example, the Father sends the Son into the world. The Son makes the atonement for the sins of man while the Father receives the atonement. Moreover, the Son was the Logos who was with God; the Father was not. Likewise, the Son, not the Father, is the firstborn of every creation and the image of God. Furthermore, the Holy Spirt is the “Comforter” sent to the Apostles, and not the Father or the Son. Thus, in spite of their claims to the contrary, distinctionist Trinitarians, in essence, maintain that there are three divine persons, in the proper sense of the word, who are distinguished from each other. By denying that the Godhead consists of three persons, they, in effect, maintain there is one person. This one person consists of three distinctions in the divine nature, i.e., the nature of one person. Thus, distinctionist Trinitarians have one person who is God with three attributes or properties called distinctions. Therefore, distinctionist Trinitarians are modal Trinitarians in their statement of doctrine, but are real Trinitarians in their belief. In summary, they maintain three distinctions and deny three persons. Then, they reason and write as though the three persons are not three distinctions, but are really three distinct persons in the proper sense of the word. This explanation of the Trinity attempts to rescue the Trinity Doctrine from absurdities if the language used to express it is understood in their commonly accepted use. In their attempt to avoid the untenable doctrine of the Trinity, distinctionist Trinitarians create new difficulties.
4. Real Trinitarians. Real Trinitarians readily admit the existence of three equal divine minds and consequently three Gods. All the unity of God is that the three Deities are in-separately conjoined with a mutual consciousness. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are really distinct persons as are Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Thus, the three divine persons of the Godhead are really distinct beings. Real Trinitarians are the most orthodox Trinitarians and, therefore, the most orthodox Christians. However, they must avoid becoming too orthodox, for then they become tritheists.
When real Trinitarians attempt to explain the new math of three equals one of the Trinity Doctrine, they are at high risk of crashing into the Scylla of Sabellianism or of being swept away in the Charybdis of tritheism. To keep from crashing into the rock of Sabellianism or being swept away in the whirlpool of tritheism, most obfuscate by using vague, paradoxical, incomprehensible, irrational language — just as in the Trinity Doctrine. (If the Trinity Doctrine were clear, rational, and understandable, it would need little explanation.) To avoid heresy, many Trinitarians take the coward’s way out by refusing to explain the Trinity Doctrine and claim that it is a mystery beyond comprehension, which is a strange response to a manmade doctrine. They just assert that three equals one just as the Athanasian Creed does. In essence, real Trinitarians maintain the unity of God only by declaring that the three Gods of the Godhead are inseparable and most intimately united.
As Bishop Beverage, a Trinitarian, explains the Trinity Doctrine; it is extremely sensitive to words and phrases and their order. What a normal person considers a different way of saying the same thing converts orthodoxy to heresy. He writes:
We are to consider the order of those persons in the Trinity described in the words before us, Matt, xxviii. 19. First, the Father, and then the Son, and then the Holy Ghost; every one of which is really and truly Gcd. A mystery which we are all bound to believe, but yet must have a great care how we speak of it, it being both easy and dangerous to mistake, in expressing so great a truth as this is. If we think of it, how hard it is to imagine one numerically divine nature in more than one and the same divine person? Or, three divine persons in no more than one and the same divine nature? If we speak of it, how hard it is to find out words to express it? If I say, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost be three, and every one distinctly God, it is true; but if I say, they be three, every one a distinct God, it is false. I may say, God the Father is one God, and the Son is one God, and the Holy Ghost is one God, but I cannot say, that the Father is one God, and the Son is another God, and the Holy Ghost a third God. I may say, the Father begat another who is God; yet I cannot say that he begat another God. And from the Father and the Son proceedeth another who is God; yet I cannot say, from the Father and the Son proceedeth another God. For all this while, though their nature be the same their persons are distinct; and though their persons be distinct, yet still their nature is the same. So that, though the Father, be the first person in the Godhead, the Son the second, the Holy Ghost the third, yet the Father is not the first, the Son a second, and the Holy Ghost a third God. So hard a thing is it to word so great a mystery aright; or to fit so high a truth with expression! suitable and proper to it, without going one way or another from it (Bishop Beverage’s Private Thought, Part II, p. 48-49).Explaining a manmade doctrine can be amazingly difficult. Knowing the stupidity of mankind, God would not have authored such a convoluted doctrine; He keeps His doctrines simple so that common people without doctoral degrees in theology can understand them and that are common sense.
The following illustrates the problem with the Trinity Doctrine. Ask the typical Christian if there is only one God, he will answer “yes.” If he is asked if Jesus Christ is God, he will answer “yes.” If he is asked if the Heavenly Father is God, he will answer “yes.” Then if he is asked if Jesus Christ is the Heavenly Father, he will answer “no.” Thus, he has identified two Gods: Jesus Christ and the Heavenly Father. Yet, he claims that there is only one God. Consequently, while believing in one God, the typical Christian also believes in two Gods. Such are the confusion, conflict, illogic, absurdity, and incomprehensibleness of the Trinity Doctrine.
Another illustration of the absurdity and illogic of the Trinity Doctrine is the favor Trinity proof verse: John 1:1. John 1:1 reads, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Most Christians identify “the Word” with God the Son and “God” with God the Father. If “Son” is substituted for “Word” and “Father” for “God,” John 1:1 reads, “In the beginning was the Son, and the Son was with the Father, and the Son was the Father.” Thus, the Son is the Father. Only the Trinity Doctrine can make a son be his own father. (Even Unitarians who believe in a preexisting Son and identify the Son with the Word come to the same conclusion.)
(Here are a few comments on the Holy Spirit, who is usually treated like the proverbial redheaded stepchild. How often should one pray to the Holy Spirit? [I have never heard anyone pray to him.] After all, he is one of the coequal Gods of the Godhead, the third Person of the Trinity, and, therefore, should be worthy of as much attention as God the Father and God the Son. Why does not the Holy Spirit have a throne in heaven? Moreover, why is he not even mentioned in the book that has the most words describing heaven: namely, Revelations? Poor old Holy Spirit, even the Bible neglects him and treats him like an afterthought.)
Copyright © 2018 by Thomas Coley Allen.
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