Defend the Trinity

I don’t understand the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. I have been reading Rubenstein’s fascinating When Jesus Became God, which makes it clear that the Trinitarian idea arose as a response to Arianism, three hundred years after Jesus’s crucifixion.

One the one hand, it is considered heresy to say that “Jesus is God” (bumper stickers notwithstanding, this was the basic belief that made Sabellianism and Monophysitism heretical). On the other hand, it is heresy to say that there is more than one God, as the Arians (somewhat unjustly) were said to have believed.

So which is it? Is there one God, or three? If there is no distinction between the persons of the Trinity, then you are guilty of Sabellianism. If there is a distinction between them, then you are a polytheist, an Arian, or suchlike.

As far as I understand it, orthodox Christianity says that God is both one and three, and the way in which each of these is true is a mystery. That’s basically an admission that the doctrine is incoherent.

I know there are many very intelligent Christians on the SDMB. Can someone explain this to me without doing violence to logic?

Sabellians/Modalists weren’t heretical for saying “Jesus is God” but for saying “Jesus is God the Father”. (Modern Modalists are the Oneness/Jesus Only/ Apostolic/United Pentecostals.) Arians (best represented today by Jehovah’s Witnesses & other groups based on Charles Taze Russell’s teachings) teach there is One Creator God, the Father, and a second “god”, the Son, through whom the Father creates all else by His Divine Energy (the Spirit).

Do you want a Biblical defense of the Trinity or a logical defense?

This is not quite true. The essence of Orthodox Christology is that Jesus is God and man at the same time. Monophysitism denies the humanity of Christ, while maintaining His divinity.

I will attempt an explanation of the Orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. This is not a defense (i.e. why we believe this is true), but simply what we believe.

The Orthodox position is that the Trinity is three hypostases with one ousia. “Ousia” can be translated as “substance” or “existence”; it is the abstract nature of something. “Hypostasis” is “subsistence”, “person”, or a particular instance of an ousia. As an example, there is a common human “substance”, “humanity” as viewed in the abstract. Each one of us is a hypostasis of that ousia, an individual instance of it.

The Father, Son, and Spirit are all separate hypostases, but share a common substance. Furthermore, the Son and the Spirit both derive Their existence from the Father; the Son by begetting, the Spirit by procession. Although They are derived from the Father, they are equal, separate Hypostases, and always have been; there never was a time when They did not exist along with the Father. Orthodox Christians believe that there is a difference between begetting and proceeding, as that has been revealed to the Church, but the exact manner in which they differ is a mystery.

A brief quote from St. John Damascene’s An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith is a bit more detailed:

(from Book 1, Chapter 8,

Sabellianism denied that each member of the Trinity was a separate hypostasis, saying instead They are modes of a single hypostasis. Arianism denied that the Son and the Father have the same ousia, saying rather that the Son’s ousia was like the Fathers, but not identical.

Thanks for clearing up my muddled explanation of the issues and the various heresies.

Taking yBeayf’s explanation as a starting point: The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (HS) are three distinct individuals (hypostases), having the same substance (ousia) of divinity, right? If they are distinct in the same way that different human individuals are distinct instances of Humanity (the ousia), then it seems that we have three gods, with their common substance being Divinity or God-ness.

So “God” and “God the Father” are different?

Also, how does orthodoxy defend a doctrine that is based on two terms which appear nowhere in the Bible?

The analogy with human individuals only goes so far. The three persons of the Trinity are not only united in substance, but also in purpose, will, thought, action, and so forth. All members of the Trinity have their origin in the Father, who is the fount of the Trinity. The Son is the Logos (reason, principle of order) of the Father, and the Spirit is the energizing principle or force of the Father. Each of the members of the Trinity dwells within the other two, so They are inseparably united while still maintaining Their individuality.

Depending on context, “God” can mean either the Father or the Godhead taken as a whole (as in “Jesus is God”). God the Father and God the Son are separate hypostases; They are both equally God, but are not equivalent. Sabellianism denied the separate hypostases of the Trinity, proclaiming that God the Father and God the Son were the same hypostasis.

Eastern Orthodox (and Roman Catholics) hold that the Bible is a product of the Church, and derives its authority therefrom. Hence we are not too concerned that every term, practice, or concept be explicitly stated in the Bible. The Bible is true because it concords with what the Church teaches, not the other way around.

I do not feel that the Trinity was “invented” at Nicaea. Rather, the heresies being promulgated forced the Church to look at the incongruity of what it had taught: Per the Shema, inherited from Judaism, God is One, accept no inferior substitutes. Jesus prayed to One God, whom He called His Father. But Jesus is not merely a man but also God incarnate, walking among us, dying for our salvation, and rising that we too might have new life in Him. And He sent the Holy Spirit as God working within us individually, and clearly distinct from both Him and His Father. Yet somehow all three of these entities are One God.

The Dogma of the Trinity was a way to use Greek forms and categories to make sense out of how these four disparate ideas can be made commensurate. And that is all it is. If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of hypostases and ousia, find your own way to rationalize it. Somehow, God does it.

BTW, as a minor hijack of information for yBeayf, Monophysitism as a heresy holding that Jesus was solely God “wearing a human body” is now extinct. The Oriental Orthodox (Copts, Syrian Jacobites, and Armenians) hold a distinct doctrine called miaphysitism, defined for me on another message board:

<continuing hijack>
I’m aware that many are now saying that the Orientals were Orthodox all along, but I (and a lot of others) still have reservations. Part of the problem is that by refusing to state that Christ is in two natures, but rather is of two natures, the Orientals don’t have a clear way of distinguishing Christ’s humanity from His divinity. Furthermore, they still refuse to accept Chalcedon, and consider Pope St. Leo a heretic, while the Eastern Orthodox aren’t quite convinced yet that Dioscoros and Severos (among others) weren’t heretics. While “strong” monophysitism (Christ is only divine, with no humanity) may be extinct, from the Eastern POV the Orientals may still be believing in a semi-monophysitism of sorts. It will probably require a general council to sort out.

As for the example given you, a response would be that it may be impossible to hit the iron without hitting the fire and vice versa, but there is no “ironfire” nature. The iron and the fire, though they are inseparably united in a single object, maintain their unique attributes and natures. In the same way, Christ has two natures inseparably united in a single hypostasis. To say that He has one nature that is both divine and human, from the Orthodox perspective, at best implies muddled thinking and at worst confuses their attributes, destroys the humanity, or changes the divinity.

Something else that needs to be considered is the differences between the Western Church and the Eastern Church’s thinking on the Trinity… I don’t have my notes with me at the moment, but I will post again when I do.


hey, I just had an epiphany as to the explaination of how God is made up of three distinct things yet still retains Her “self.”

given that God is made up of: father, son, and the holy ghost. Maybe their union is like (to borrow from freud) our union of: Id, Ego, and Superego. Each separate thing is undoubtably us (all of our Id’s, ego’s, and superego’s are truely unique to us alone, like our DNA) and when each is combined it forms us as a whole. Each separate conscienceness works toward the same goals, yet retains its origionality in its unique ways of reaching our (what we precieve is our free will) goals.
What I am trying to say is that maybe the Father, Son, and Holy ghost are greater versions of our Id, Ego, and Superego which, when conjoined, form God or ourselves respectively.

I see it as a simple point of logic. Either the three are distinct entities, or they are a single entity. Christian language veers from one to the other in order to avoid the positions that Christians themselves have excluded. “One entity” is the modalist heresy, “three entities” is polytheism. Having left themselves no logical alternative, they declare it a mystery.

Here you are saying that the members are different aspects of God. This sounds like the modalist heresy.

But if they are not equivalent then there are two gods. Here’s where the language veers into polytheism. The only way I can make sense of it is to posit that, whatever they say, Christians actually believe in four gods. The top god is God, aka the Godhead. The Father, Son, and HS are three avatars of God.

Thanks, that helps a lot. I was raised Protestant, where the Bible is the ultimate arbiter. Is it then possible for doctrine to contradict Scripture? Or how do you explain verses like Mark 13:32 : “But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”? Especially since you say the Persons are “united … in purpose, will, thought, action, and so forth.”

Is it safe to assume that the Trinity can be accurately described and/or understood? - Perhaps it isn’t a case of ‘Either this or that’, but in fact some other thing that, depending on how you look at it, somewhat resembles ‘this’ and also somewhat resembles ‘that’.

All analogies are inadequate.

I think doomguppie’s Freudian analogy of Id, Ego & Superego is quite close. If we are creted in God’s Image- each person had internal dialogues & also an umpire over those dialogues, thus three internal personal aspects. I would not be totally uncomfortable replacing “person” with “aspect” in Trinity discussion.

Essentially, the Trinity doctrine is not just about how God relates to us (Creating Father, Saving Son, Indwelling Spirit) but how God relates to Godself. God fully eternally knows and loves Godself- that Self-Knowledge is the Logos, the Son, and that Self-Love is the Pneuma, the Spirit/Breath. Even as the Sun always emits light & heat (if it did not, it would cease to be the Sun & just be a dying star), God always relates to Godself in full Knowledge & Love, thus the Father always begets the Son & processes the Spirit. (Roman Catholic & most Reformed churches would add that the Father & the Son together process the Spirit, Eastern Orthodoxy maintains the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father alone. I see both sides.)

FriendRob- Yes, there is a difference between saying “Jesus is God” and “Jesus is God the Father”. The Son, who is fully Deity, incarnated as Jesus, guided by the Father & empowered by the Spirit. BUT the Father & the Spirit did not incarnate as Jesus. John 1:1 literally makes the distinction “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was towards the God and the Word was God” (or "the Word was with the Deity [the Father] and the Word was Deity [by nature shared the nature of Deity with the Father]).

Your positing of God Beyond Our Knowing, with the Trinity as three Avatars of God, may not be too far off the mark. I seem to recall Protestant theologian Paul Tillich had a similar conception. The “Tree of Life” of the Ten Divine Sephiroth of the Jewish Kabbalah also reflects this. Above & beyond the First Sephir (Emanation/Sphere) is Ein Soph (“No Bound” God Infinite) which manifests as Kether (the 1st of the Sephiroth, “the Crown”, which corresponds with the Father) which then flows out in two directions 'Hokmah (2nd S, “Wisdom”, corresponding to the Logos/the Son) and Binah (3rd S, “Understanding”, corresponding to the Spirit). From this Triad of Kether, 'Hokmah & Binah flow the other seven Sephiroth. So much for the claim that there is no Divine Trinity in Judaism (altho it then could also be argued there is a Divine Decemvirate G).

Think of water, H[sub]2[/sub]0 and its three phases: solid, liquid and gas.

H[sub]2[/sub]0 as a solid (ice), has much different properties than H[sub]2[/sub]0 in its form as liquid water or water vapor. You can hold ice in your hand, it shatters, it does not conform to the container that holds it. Ice is different from liquid water and water vapor in form,function and property yet it is still made of the same substance, H[sub]2[/sub]0.

Similarly, liquid water and water vapor are different in form and function from the other two. Is liquid water the same as ice? If you say yes, then you need to explain why they act, look and feel differently. If you say no, then you need to explain why they both consist of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom but still differ. If you say yes and no, then you’ve got your bases covered. Yes they are the same at the molecular level, however they have different form, function and properties depending on temperature.

I don’t see the Trinity being any different than the phases of water. Except for the whole controlling the universe thing. Much like the Illuminati, but with more documentation and a bigger fan base.

The point where the analogy breaks down (and don’t take this as a criticism - all analogies break down if you poke them hard enough) is that the water (all of it) would have to exist in all three states simultaneously.

The modalist heresy stated that God was one individual who manifested in different forms. Orthodox Trinitarianism states that God is three individuals, who obviously have different roles, but are equally God and still maintain their individuality. The Son became man, not the Father or the Holy Spirit.

Actually, the source of the Godhead is the Father. The Son and the Spirit, though They are distinct individuals, derive Their existence from Him. But since all the members share a common substance, will, knowledge, etc. we say there is one God, not three gods. The Father and the Son are equivalent in their Godhood, but are different individuals (although not in the same way you or I are individuals, because of the sharing of attributes mentioned above).

A better way to say it is that scripture cannot contradict doctrine. The writings that make up scripture were declared scripture because they agree with what the Church believes.

As for the verse you mentioned, Orthodox commentators have come up with a few different interpretations, only two of which I remember offhand (I can check when I get home to see what the others are, if there are any). One is that Christ was displaying the depths of His humility, such that in His humanity He did not know what He knew in His divinity. The other interpretation I have heard is that since the Son derives His existence from the Father, the Son does not know the day and the hour in and of Himself, but only by virtue of the fact that He knows everything the Father knows.

I don’t think that three phases of water are a good analogy (although it fits when looking at the point on a pressure/temperature diagram where the three phases meet).

But what about this scientific analogy: The wave/particle duality. Is it a wave? Is it a particle? Both and neither in its exclusivity. What you see depends how you look at it, and which aspects you consider. And solely on that, because both is there, at the same time. The aspects are merely isolated by your looking at them. Not necessarily actively, but the different aspects can be observed, deliberately or by chance, independently, and cause effects that are more, or less, characteristic for one specific aspect.

As for how God can be three… Well, if one assumes that in God, everything is possible, how could God not be three? Applying logic really misses the point, I think.

The wave/particle duality is indeed quite a useful analogy, in fact, would anyone object to a definition of the Trinity that presents god as being neither three persons, nor one entity, but is actually some entirely other class of phenomenon that just happens to behave and appear in every way as one entity AND ALSO behave and appear in every way as three persons (at least within the scope of our universe).

Aside from the unfalsifiability of such a suggestion (which doesn’t appear to be a factor in this discussion), does the above present any particular problems?

The funny thing is, the definition of the Trinity isn’t anywhere spelled out in the Bible, though there are hints (“In the beginning the Word (logos) was with God and the Word was God” John 1:1). You need the Nicene Creed to get much real clarification. It’s no wonder to me that John 1:1 is thought by many to be a later redaction of the original Johanine gospel, and meant to be an anti-Gnostic. The Nicene Creed further tidies things up, another response to a crisis in the Church, stemming directly from the fact that, 300 years into it, there’s considerable disagreement about what the divinity of Christ really means.

I can’t help the temptation to view the deification of Jesus as something of Pagan pedigree, nor can I longer resist the conclusion that the present “logic” of the Trinity is anything more than the final paganized verson, decided upon by committee. The whole concept is almost painfully abstruse , and “mystery” must inevitably be resorted to if one is to gain any sense of closure on the debate.

It’s a post hoc rationalization of Christian evolution from a Jewish cult to a pan-Roman faith of it’s own. In that vast post-Hellenic stew that was the Eastern Mediterranian, lots of wild things happened between 30 and 300 AD. To try to “understand” the Trinity, as if the idea was floating around from the get-go, leads us to resort to “mystery”. It’s really no more mysterious than many other aspects of the often self-inconsistent amalgam that is the Judeo/Christian tradition. You’ll find paradoxical brain twisters in Genesis, and they keep going from there. People didn’t write the Bible all at once, nor did they so conceive of the Trinity. Its “mystery” is the consequence of that amalgamation, where concepts are recognized as difficult to reconcile, but too ingrained to omit.

You’re actually coming close to Orthodox thought with that question. Orthodox theology posits a distinction between God’s essence, and His energies. The essence of God is absolutely unknowable by humans (or indeed anything that’s not God), but the energies can be known, experienced, and interacted with by humans. We don’t know exactly what the nature of God is, but the Trinity is how He has chosen to reveal Himself, and so is the closest we can come to understanding His true nature.

Eastern Orthodoxy is also big on apophatic theology, in which God is described in negations of attributes He does not possess; i.e., God is not three gods; God is not compound; God is not limited. Any terms we use to describe God will be inadequate, so it can be less misleading to describe what He is not.

I really appreciate everyone’s contributions to this thread. One thing seems clear, that modern Christians are much more tolerant of “heretical” ideas than their intellectual ancestors, as for instance FriarTed’s post indicates.

I’m sure that statement would have been rejected by the Church Fathers!

Actually, the original intent of this verse may have been binitarian. Philo, a 1st century Jew, made a distinction
between “The God” and “God”. “The God” was the One true God, “God” was used for other
beings who were considered divine. We could say “The God” is what today we would call
“God”, while “God” we could render as “a god”. John 1:1 makes this same
distinction: “the Word was with The God and the Word was (a) god.”

Polycarp seems comfortable with heresy, too.

But I don’t want to “rationalize” it, I want an explanation that doesn’t violate
basic logic. I can only agree with Loopydude’s opinion:

However, I don’t think the input of pagan religion was as important as the influence of
Greek philosophy.
yBeayf is gamely defending the Orthodox view. But I think you, too would be
subject to charges of heresy in the olden days. :wink:

This is the “two natures” heresy, that Christ has both a divine nature and a human nature
simultaneously (rather than a single nature that is both divine and human). The problem
is you end up with a schizophrenic Christ, who both knows and doesn’t know some things.

This sounds like modalism again, the Persons of the Trinity as
aspects of God, rather than as distinct individuals.

A lot of the history of 4th-6th century Christianity was a matter more of deciding
what can’t be said about God. But so many things have been ruled out that there
is nothing left that one can logically say about God. At this point the Church says,
“Well, it’s a mystery. Don’t ask questions.” To me, that’s not acceptable.
As for the “mystery” explanation, which Mangetout and OliverH are defending,
I suppose that if there is a God, She is likely to be beyond our understanding. But
then why does the Church (or, rather, the various branches) get its panties in a
bunch about “heresy”? Why be so closed to alternate analogies, other views, other ideas
of what God/gods is/are like? To the point of riot, murder, and war, no less.

I have to admit that, as a physicist, I am intrigued by the analogy with quantum
wave-particle duality. QM is certainly an example of an area where analogies with our
everyday experience fail. But here, too, I think we end up with modalism: there is one
phenomenon, which manifests itself as particle or wave depending on the circumstances.
In this analogy the Persons would be simply different modes of revelation or of
activity of God.

I still don’t see any logical alternatives that are neither modalistic (One God who
appears to us in different aspects) or polytheistic (several Gods, either in
a hierarchy with the Father at the top, or as three emanations from the Godhead).

At any rate, I think an anthropologist encountering Christianity for the first time
would see it as polytheistic in practice. Christian worship Jesus as well as God. They
pray to Jesus as well as to God. They ask Jesus to intercede for them with God. (They
conveniently forget about the Holy Spirit, who just muddles things further. At least
in my church they did.)