please explain the Christian Holy Trinity

I don’t understand Christian theology regarding the Holy Trinity.

From what I have read (please correct me if I’m wrong), Christians (at least most Christians) believe:

  • The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one substance existing in three persons.

  • All three are eternal.

  • The Son is begotten from the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father (and possibly the Son, depending on what branch of Christianity we’re talking about.)

However, I don’t understand what several of these terms mean in this context. Specifically:

  • substance
  • persons
  • begotten
  • proceeds

What does it mean to be “one substance in three persons”? How do you “beget” something that has existed forever? What does “proceeds from the Father” mean, and how is proceeding different from being begotten or created?

Remember that we’re working this through using words devised (as Terry Pratchett says) so that apes can tell other apes where the ripe fruit is. Any language regarding God is getting very near the edge of its useability; we have no other tools for communication but words drawn from our own experience and imagination, and they don’t fit. (Theology is not unique in this. Consider that quarks have been described in terms of “flavor”… Absurd, but at least it keeps us from thinking we understand them better than we do.)

So, here’s one way I’d try to understand this. We begin by drawing the conclusion, from the New Testament, that Jesus is divine. “True God.” And yet … the same New Testament shows him praying to God, and calling God Father.

Christians wrestled with a bunch of ways to make some sense of this. Most of them didn’t work; the easiest way to summarize confusing data is to ignore some of the data points. (So: you could make sense of Jesus praying, if you said he was simply human. But then what do you do with the parts of the New Testament that show him as rather more than that?)

Where classical Christian theology came out was something like this:

Jesus is God in the same sense that God the Father is God. Not “like” God, not a lesser god, not a metaphor. And yet, there is no way within the Bible’s world of discourse to speak of multiple gods; there is one God. The clumsy language devised to wrestle with this is: “one substance.” Asserting that Jesus is no less God than God the Father is; and that there remains one God, no more.

Which is obviously confusing. So starting here, how do we grapple with the fact that the New Testament does not present Jesus as simply a mask for God? That’s where the word “person” comes in. God doesn’t put on sequential masks: “Today I’m going to be Father.” God is truly the Father. God is truly the Son. God is truly the Spirit. And when the Son prays to the Father, he isn’t talking to himself.

I do not understand how “three persons in one substance” works. That doesn’t surprise me. I thought I could understand the inner essence of God? What the language does do, as I see it, is keep us paying attention to a broader range of the New Testament data than “simpler” theological language would. You might say, the language of the Trinity keeps reminding us that we’re confused. Which (since we are) is at least some help. It’s been said “for any question, however complicated, there is a simple, clear answer. And it’s wrong.” That’s certainly true in theology. There’s a continual market for bumper-sticker definitions of God. They don’t work.

Briefly touching the rest of the language: “begotten” has Biblical roots, and also emphasizes the intimately personal connection between the Father and the Son. It differs from “created” in the same way that a child differs from a table; what is “created” is hardly even like the creator.

Now: all of this language is still an attempt to describe realities far beyond our grasp or comprehension by using words made up to identify ripe fruit. So there will clearly be points where it doesn’t fit well, or (if you push at the connotations of the words) will be obvious nonsense. That, I think, is the result we should expect – when we’re talking about God, or when we’re talking about particle physics. We’re past the edge of our perceptions, out of our depth, and trying to make the most sense we can.

Grimpen has unscrewed the inscrutable quite effectively in the post above. I think it’s important to keep in mind that, for a Christian, the terms used in describing the Trinity (a) define real concepts but (b) are of necessity metaphorical in nature. We don’t have words which specifically and explicitly mean the natures and relationships of the Persons of the Trinity, any more than we have words for the characteristics of hadrons, so we improvise by using the closest possible parallels from the “everyday world” vocabulary. The “spin, charm, and strangeness” of an Omega-minus particle are not what those terms refer to in relation to blenders, supermodels, and Boy George, but they’re useful vocabulary when regarded as metaphor. Likewise, we’re attempting to make sense out of the concepts relative to the nature of God by hanging metaphors on the quite real concepts.

Whatever the relationship between Jesus and the First Person of the Trinity is in actuality, it is not that of creature and Creator, but more akin to that between son and father, “begotten” as ontologically posterior to the Father but of the same nature, as a son is begotten by his father but sharing his human nature as opposed to the robot, go-cart, or other thing “made” by the father. And so on.

With that caution, then, the Athanasian Creed may be of interest. The list of heresies may be of interest in understanding what misinterpretations of the Trinity the Creeds were designed to guard against. (It should be noted that the link is to a “Catholic Answers” site, and lists “Protestantism” as a heresy. No offense is intended; it’s just that the site furnishes a great compilation of the early Trinitarian and Christological heresies before doing so.)

As Grimpen and Polycarp have shown, one possible approach is to decide that words are, in the cited passages, being used to try and convey ideas that evade easy or ready expression, given the limits of our comprehension and the tools we have for expressing concepts. Hence one can say that such words are akin to, but not the same as, a metaphor or an analogy, and that the words are simply the best we’ve been able to come up with to convey, express or celebrate things that are true but for which we only have imperfect means of expression. There are many sources, including websites, that do this. Here is just one example of many, which starts with this rather neat approach,

Just for completeness, may I add that one is also entitled to believe that the words don’t actually mean anything much at all, and that the reason they don’t seem to make sense is because there is no sense to be made of them. I don’t think cautious and healthy skepticism is entirely out of place or inappropriate here. Before one necessarily gets involved in wondering what a phrase means, it is as well to consider the possibility that the ‘meaning’ might be something of a wild goose chase, and that maybe the words don’t mean anything. For example, during my own very thorough indoctrination into a christ-cult, many people tried to tell me that the historical figure of Jesus was both “true man” and “true god”. Since these terms are mutually exclusive, this was tantamount to asserting both p and not p at the same time. I took the view that this was nonsense. I asked for and invited clarification or better explanation, but none was ever supplied.

I get that the words are in some sense a metaphor, because the idea behind them is difficult to articulate in ordinary language. I don’t really expect them to mean precisely what they mean in ordinary speech. That is, I wouldn’t assume that saying the “Son was begotten from the Father” means that God had sex with a woman and a portion of his DNA combined with hers and etc. (Which is what you usually think of when told that someone “begat” someone else.) I assume it’s a metaphor for something. (Unless, as ianzin suggests, it’s actually a metaphor for nothing).

But I assumed in posting this thread that even if the language is metaphorical or inexact, there is nevertheless a clear idea behind it. That is, I would hope that Christians at least know what they mean when they say these things, rather than simply parroting back an incomprehensible phrase.

As far as I know, statements like “the Son was begotten from the Father” and “the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father” are some of the core beliefs of Christianity. It would be very disturbing indeed to learn that the practicioners of the world’s most popular religion don’t understand the meaning of their own core principles. (I’m not arguing that this is the case – if anything, I’m hoping a Christian will respond to tell me that this is not the case.)

To run with the particle physics analogy – it’s all fine and good that the property “spin” doesn’t actually mean that something is spinning in a classical sense. But physicists still have a clear idea of what the mean when they say “spin” – even if it’s difficult to articulate in everyday, non-technical language. If they used the term without knowing what it meant, then that would be a cause for concern.

Incidentally, it might be helpful if those responding to the thread would identify their own religious affiliation. I’d be interested to know which of the responses are coming from Christian believers, which are coming from non-believers, from former believers, etc.

I’ll try to write more later, but I’m short of time this afternoon. So, just a quick response.
Affiliation: I’m a Lutheran pastor (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). That could mean a variety of things; in my case, it means that I consider myself a catholic Christian, with Evangelical (or “Protestant”) commitments. My chief areas of training are in the New Testament and the writers of the early Church (first four centuries).
So: what do we mean when we say these things?
In my case, I would mean in part that I need to keep honest about the limits of my knowledge. It seems to me that most of the classical heresies about Christ have in common an unjustified clarity. We are talking about God. If you’ll excuse what may seem flippant, we do not know what we’re talking about. We cannot know what we’re talking about; it’s not just hard to describe God, we’re incapable of it.
In Lutheran terms, we sometimes make what I find a useful distinction between the deus absconditus and the deus revelatus; God as God is in God’s secret self, and God as God has been revealed to us. It is not possible for us to have anything useful to say about the “hidden God” - “deus absconditus”. We don’t know. We can’t know. We will get it wrong. What we can talk usefully about, is the “deus revelatus” - God as God has chosen to make himself known. And there, we’ve got no real basis for going beyond what God has revealed.
So I wouldn’t be inclined to think of the language of the Trinity as “incomprehensible” so much as it is tentative - and intentionally restrained. We believe that we know this much: that in Jesus, we meet God as God genuinely is toward us. There aren’t any evasions. This is God. But there remains an enormous amount about God we simply can’t responsibly say anything about.
More later, I hope, but I didn’t want to let the conversation languish.

Well said, Grimpen.

Hmm. Let’s look at the doctrine, insofar as it’s possible to say anything intelligent about it in human terms.

We start by assuming that we’re operating in the Israelite/Jewish tradition: one God, distinct from and “over” (in the authority sense) His creation; anything else is superstition, misperception, fraud, temptations from demons, etc. Said God, while He does not perform epiphanies on a daily basis, does interact meaningfully with His people, does perform the occasional miracle, inspires prophets to speak in His Name. (While I grant that many an atheist, agnostic, holder of another faith tradition, etc., may not accept this as revealed truth, I’m placing it as a “given” for purposes of this explanation. You need not buy that theology as a factual assertion about the cosmos we live in, but you need to grant it as what the Jews believed about said God and cosmos.)

Now, the Jews have had a mixed history: independent nation under Judges, independent kingdoms, conquered people under Assyria (the North) and the Neobabylonians (both kingdoms), unit in the Persian Empire, part of Alexander’s short-lived Empire and first the Ptolemaic and then Seleucid monarchies that followed, independent again under the Maccabees after a revolt against the Seleucids, under the Herodians as heirs to the Maccabees, and now an part of the Roman Empire, with a couple of Herodians hanging on to pieces of it as client kings.

Into this mess comes one Yeshua, itinerant teacher and apparently miracle worker in the classic prophetic tradition. And He stands the entire Jewish doctrine on end by insisting that the entire picture is founded on a relationship of love between God and man, between man and fellow man, not the transcendent God Most High like a Shahanshah, but an immanent Abba, Father, present and loving His creation and His people, ready to forgive and lead to new and fuller life. And the consequences? He is executed as a political criminal – but in some way is known to be alive again after His death, present to His followers. Remember that sacrifices for sin, the dying god motif, and so on are present in the mindset of the greater world surrounding this event.

(Do not strain credulity looking for ways in which this can be explained in terms of modern physics, physiology, etc. – accept it as an account of their experience. If you require to believe that they were self-deluded or otherwise in error, fine, but again, take it as a “given,” a premiss of known fact from which they worked.)

Okay. The earliest Christian creed was “Jesus is Lord.” But “Lord” is a title due only to God Almighty. One early writer summarized it as, “When we see Jesus, we see God.”

Now, recall that the Greco-Roman vocabulary doesn’t draw clear lines: god/not-god, divine/sacred/secular, etc. Tiberius could call for worshiping his genius as God; Herakles is a legendary human-turned-god. And so on.

The issue here is, How can we reconcile the idea that Jesus is God, and yet prays to His Father as God, with the idea that there is only one God? And while you’re at it, what about the Paraclete, the promised Comforter, the Spirit of God which came upon the early Christians seven weeks after the Resurrection? How does that fit into the mix?

Remember that the ovum has not yet been discovered. Reproductive biology seems to indicate that when a man injects semen into a woman, she is likely to have a baby which is his child. It’s his doing that the child comes to be – they were quite familiar with ejaculations but not with the interior workings of the female reproductive system.

So… a man makes things of matter other than himself. He shapes wood into a chair, gold into jewelry, grain into bread. In contrast, in the sexual act he uses a woman to make something of the same sort as himself: his son.

If the one God is present in Jesus, who calls Him His Father, then the process is best described as begetting: God has caused another Person of the same kind as Himself, just as a man begets a son, rather than creating from that which is other than Himself, as He did in Creation. And it’s the experience of the Christians that the Holy Spirit is yet a third such Person, the promised Advocate who leads into holiness.

And yet, they must be somehow one God. Because it’s a core fact that there is only One.

Stir, mix in Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, and allow to stew for a few decades. Result: God is one in substance: He is a single Godhead. His unity is preseerved. Yet He is equally clearly Three in terms of the Persons with whom worshippers interact: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And because God is eternal, so too are the three Persons eternal. The Father is ontologically prior to the others, their cause, their source. Yet all three are co-eternal.

The Eternal Son, true God, took on human form as the baby Jesus, who grew to be a man, taught, suffered, died, was buried, and rose from the dead. This was not a pious fraud, a seeming of a man: it was as truly human as any of us. Nor was the Son something that entered into Jesus somewhere along the way: God became man at the Annunciation, when Mary conceived the child that would become Immanuel, God with us in a very special way. The call to humility in Philippians 2 describes this sense in which God the Son became man best.

Truly God and truly man are not paradoxical or describing a 50:50 demigod; rather they characterize Jesus as unique. Just as an apple can at the same time be truly red and truly round, Jesus can simultaneously be truly God and truly man.

The Father sent the Holy Spirit at Jesus’s behest. But remember that ruach, pneuma, spiritus mean, indifferently, “wind, breath, spirit” – God exhaled the Holy Spirit as His Breath, His Spirit which was drawn into and envivifies His followers as the breath of life envivifies all humans. Again we have metaphor used to describe a real concept without appropriate words. In speaking of how the Holy Spirit is related to the Father, that “coming forth” (processio) is best suited to identifying how a Breath is exhaled, a Spirit sent out.

The Greek and Latin for this are useful: ousia and substantia for the One substance; hypostasis and persona for the three Persons. But in understanding that, it’s important to realize that persona was in origin the term for the mask worn by an actor to identify the character he was playing. It did not define individual autonomy but role. This led on the one hand to the heresy of modalism: that the three persons were God “playing three roles” and on the other to a tritheism of three distinct Gods; the truth is in between: three distinct Persons united in one Godhead.

Again, this does not cover all the needed discussion but serves as useful data towards grasping the idea.

It’s just one god with multiple avatars. Gods have been using multiple avatars for years.

But I’m not sure that’s what’s being said here. The claim seems to be that the Trinity are three distinct beings, yet somehow all are God – not that they are different forms that God takes. Or maybe I’m misunderstanding Christian theology. (I may also be misunderstanding what you mean by avatars.)

Thanks to Grimpen and Polycarp for the replies.

I can see how if the Son is made from the same substance as the Father (whatever that substance may be), you could say he’s begotten rather than made . . . except, if both have been around for ever, how can one say the Son is begotten from the Father rather than vice versa? If they’re both eternal, what does it mean to say one came from the other?

Again, maybe I’m misunderstanding Christian theology, but I’m under the impression that the Son of God is said to have existed for all of time even before he became incarnate on Earth, right? Or did God the Father exist alone first and then “begat” the Son (which would make it more clear to me what is meant by “begat.”)

Yes. This is the best we can express it. There comes a point where human logic and understanding are not sufficient to fully grasp it. We have to accept that while we have a relationship with God, and He fully knows us, we have limitations and cannot fully know Him.

Buzz! Correction: no, we don’t. There is no such requirement.

Yes, but what is the point or the need of the Holy Ghost?

What role is this being supposed to play?

The Holy Spirit is that person of the Trinity who is most involved with the day-to-day interaction with the created world. It is the Holy Spirit who caused Christ to be conceived, who effects the transformation of the elements of the eucharist, who guides the Church, who inspires people to do good works, who heals and sanctifies and works miracles, and who operates through the sacraments.

My own view is that God exists in multi dimentions (much more then our puny 3+time). As pointed out our words, since they are based on our reality, don’t really apply directly to a hyper-dimentional diety. Add to that these text were written before we had any concept that other dimentions could exist. If you have a concept of more dimentions you may be able to grasp the idea of 3 in one God, not a solid grasp however, but sort of a better understanding on how this could be.

Anyway that’s my own view, YMMV

I have also heard that the Holy Ghost is the ‘female’ aspect of God. It is also the one that we humans can use to defend against the Evil One.

Correct, we have free will and can chose our own path.

OK, but if Christians are going to put forth something like the Nicene Creed as a statement of their core principles, one would hope they at least understand the words in that statement. (Again, I don’t mean to imply that Christians don’t understand those words, only that I don’t.)

I.e., it’s fine to claim that we can’t fully understand the nature of God – but I would hope that we at least understand the meaning of the claims that we as humans make about God.

For instance, when the human authors of the Nicene Creed said:

what did they mean by “eternally begotten”? If you’re eternal (i.e., you’ve been around forever), how can someone “beget” you?

I presume they must have had some clear idea of what this phrase meant, or they wouldn’t have written it down. Maybe we can’t know exactly what they were thinking, but I’d hope Christians today (who still so far as I know generally accept the Nicene Creed as a statement of their core beliefs) would have some idea what this means.

Not to hijack my own thread, but . . .

I take it these extra dimensions don’t obey the same laws of physics as our regular dimensions, thereby allowing God to do all the miraculous things God does.

But if we accept that God can break the laws of physics, what’s the point in proposing that His existence spans more than four dimensions? Is it any less reasonable to propose that a 3+1 dimensional God who can violate the laws of physics can do everything God supposedly does?

Well, “begotten” is intended to be antithetical to “created” – the Son is of the same nature as the Father, as opposed to Creation, which is something different from Him and derived.

As for the illogic in “eternally begotten” the simplest way to explain it is to say that “ontologically prior” does not mean “temporally prior” but rather describes a non-temporal cause-and-effect relationship. A useful parallel is if one sets a stack of three books down on a table simultaneously, the one on the bottom is holding the other two up, even though they arrived on the table at the same time. It “causes” the other two to be elevated above the table surface. Likewise, God can be sempiternal and yet the First and Second Persons be in a father-son relationship, with the Father being the cause for the Son. Remember that in using these terms, we are consciously extending the meaning of mundane, secular words to describe spiritual things for which there is no extant vocabulary. The Creed also says “sitteth at the right hand of God the Father” but NOBODY takes that literally; it’s universally understood to mean “has been given the place of honor” in an evocative figure of speech.

That’s an awful lot of presuming and hoping, tim314. A while back, I tried to get some explanation of the Athanasian Creed. All I got was a lot of gushing about how beautiful and how important it is.

Hi! I am a non-demoninational (protestant) Christian. I believe that Jesus is/was divine. I believe in his teachings of tolerance, compassion, and understanding. I believe in the underlying concept of Christianity’s inclusion of the Old Testament to mean that there is still a definite, fundamental, line between right and wrong, and we’d better try (individually) our best to stay on the right side. Just don’t be judgemental or heartless towards your fellow man, even if they cross the line. I really can’t outline my beliefs faster than that. But I definitely have a problem with any form of dogmatic or organised religion.

Now I realise this is already a hot thread, and I don’t want to throw fuel onto a potential fire. Nor do I want to appear to be trolling… But…

All I can add to this is my own experience, I’m no theological scholar. It seems to me, that while it is a cornerstone of the framework of Christianity, the Trinity is not really a part of the core. I know in my upbringing (by two faithful but non-churchgoing Lutherans) that it was somewhat irrelevant. What was stressed where the values: One must be just. One must be kind to others. Anyone can be redeemed, if not in this life, then in the next. There are no Chosen People. The specifics of the mythos were unimportant. Even my Catholic friends believed in the ideals, and didn’t really focus on the story that teaches them.

And what’s wrong with that? Why does it disturb you that Christians might not understand the details of the narrative behind their beliefs? It seems to me that the only thing disturbing is when Christians don’t understand the message of their beliefs. Which, unfortunately, many of my faith (including many prominent church leaders throughout history) are guilty of.