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Conceptions of God


In Christianity, the doctrine of the Trinity states that God is one being who exists, simultaneously and eternally, as a mutual indwelling of three persons: the Father, the Son (incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth), and the Holy Spirit. Since the 4th century, in both Eastern and Western Christianity, this doctrine has been stated as "one God in three persons," all three of whom, as distinct and co-eternal persons, are of one indivisible Divine essence, a simple being. Supporting the doctrine of the Trinity is known as Trinitarianism. The majority of Christians are Trinitarian and regard belief in the Trinity as a test of orthodoxy. Opposing, nontrinitarian positions that are held by some groups include Binitarianism (two deities/persons/aspects), Unitarianism (one deity/person/aspect), the Godhead (Latter Day Saints) (three separate beings) and Modalism (Oneness).

The doctrine of the Trinity is the result of continuous exploration by the church of the biblical data, thrashed out in debate and treatises, eventually formulated at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD in a way they believe is consistent with the biblical witness , and further refined in later councils and writings.[1] The most widely recognized Biblical foundations for the doctrine's formulation are in the Gospel of John. [1]




The word "Trinity" comes from "Trinitas", a Latin abstract noun that means "three-ness", "the property of occurring three at once" or "three are one". The Greek term used for the Christian Trinity, "Τριάς" means "a set of three" or "the number three",[2] and has given the English word triad.

The first recorded use of the word in Christian theology was in about 180 AD by Theophilus of Antioch who used it of "God, his Word, and his Wisdom".[3] In about 200 AD Tertullian used it of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (As discussed below, the persons of the Trinity can be named in different ways.)



Some passages from the Old Testament have been cited as supporting the Trinity, and the Old Testament depicts God as the father of Israel and refers to (possibly metaphorical) quasi-divine figures such as Word, Spirit, and Wisdom. However, mainstream modern biblical scholars agree that "it would go beyond the intention and spirit of the Old Testament to correlate these notions with later trinitarian doctrine." [4]. Indeed, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, some of the Fathers "found what would seem to be the sounder view" that "no distinct intimation of the doctrine was given under the Old Covenant (Cf. Gregory Nazianzen, 'Or. theol.', v, 26; Epiphanius, 'Ancor.' 73, 'Haer.', 74; Basil, 'Adv. Eunom.', II, 22; Cyril Alex., 'In Joan.', xii, 20.)" [5]. "Some of these, however, claimed that a knowledge of the mystery was granted to the Prophets and saints of the Old Dispensation (Epiph., "Haer.", viii, 5; Cyril Alex., "Con. Julian.," I).[5]

The New Testament also does not use the word "Τριάς" (Trinity), nor explicitly teach it. [6] Britannica Encyclopedia, Trinity article states:" Neither the word Trinity nor the explicit doctrine appears in the New Testament, nor did Jesus and his followers intend to contradict the Shema in the Old Testament: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord” (Deuteronomy 6:4)."[7]Encyclopedia of religion for example argues that "God the Father is source of all that is (Pantokrator) and also the father of Jesus Christ; "Father" is not a title for the first person of Trinity but a synonym for God. Early liturgical and creedal formulas speak of God as "Father of our Lord Jesus Christ"; praise is to be rendered to God through Christ (see opening greeting in Paul and deutero-Paul). There are other binitarian texts (e.g. Rom 4:24 ; 8:11; 2 Cor. 4:14; Col. 2:12; 1 Tm. 2:5-6; 6:13;2 Tm. 4:1), and a few triadic texts (the strongest are 2 Cor. 13:14 and Mt 28:19; 19 Gal. 3:11-14)." [4]

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, while Trinity does not explicitly appear in the New Testament, its basis however is established by the New Testament: The coming of Jesus Christ and the presumed presence and power of God among them had implications for the early Christians. "The Holy Spirit, whose coming was connected with the celebration of the Pentecost. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were associated in such New Testament passages as the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19); and in the apostolic benediction: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14)." [7] The Great Commission reflects the baptismal practice at Matthew's time (or later if this line is interpolated, according to The Oxford Companion of the Bible). Aside from this verse, although "Matthew records a special connection between God the Father and Jesus the Son (e.g. 11:27), but he falls short of claiming that Jesus is equal with God (cf. 24:36)". [8]

According to the The Oxford Companion of the Bible, 2 Corinthians 13:14 is the earliest evidence for a tripartite formula. The Oxford Companion of the Bible states that it is possible that this three-part formula was later added to the text as it was copied. However there is support for the authenticity of the passage since its phrasing "is much closer to Paul's understandings of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit than to a more fully developed concept of the Trinity. Jesus, referred to not as Son but as Lord and Christ, is mentioned first and is connected with the central Pauline theme of grace. God is referred to as a source of love, not as father, and the Spirit promotes sharing within community."[8]

The Gospel of John does suggest the equality and unity of Father and Son. ("I and the Father are one"; 10.30). This Gospel starts with "the affirmation that in the beginning Jesus as Word "was with God and ...was God" (1.1) and ends (chap.21 is more likely a later addition) with Thomas's confession of faith to Jesus, "My Lord and my God!" (20:28)."[8] There is no significant tendency among modern scholars to deny that either of these two verses identify Jesus with God.[9]

Furthermore, the last Gospel elaborates on the role of Holy Spirit being sent to advocate for believers.[8] The immediate context of these verse were providing "assurance of the presence and power of God both in the ministry of Jesus and the ongoing life of the community." However beyond this immediate context, these verses caused questions of relation between Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, their distinction and yet unity. These questions have been hotly debated over the following centuries, although mainstream Christianity has generally resolved the issue through writing the creeds. [8]

Summarizing the role of Scripture in the formation of trinitarian belief, Gregory Nazianzen argues in his Orations that the revelation was intentionally gradual:

The Old Testament proclaimed the Father openly, and the Son more obscurely. The New manifested the Son, and suggested the deity of the Spirit. Now the Spirit himself dwells among us, and supplies us with a clearer demonstration of himself. For it was not safe, when the Godhead of the Father was not yet acknowledged, plainly to proclaim the Son; nor when that of the Son was not yet received to burden us further [10]


Scriptural texts cited as implying support

To support Trinitarianism, Bible exegetes cite references to the trinity, references to Jesus as God, and references both to God alone and to Jesus as the Savior.


References to the Trinity

A few verses directly reference the Trinity.


Jesus as God

Many Bible verses imply support for the doctrine that Jesus Christ is God and the closely related concept of the trinity. The Gospel of John in particular supports Jesus' divinity. This is a partial list of supporting Bible verses:


God alone is the Savior and the Savior is Jesus

The Old Testament identifies the LORD as the only savior, and the New Testament identifies Jesus Christ as God and Savior. These verses are consistent with trinitarianism, as well as various nontrinitarian beliefs (binitarianism, modalism, the Latter-Day Saints' godhead, Arianism, etc.).

in regard with:



The earliest Christians were noted for their insistence on the existence of one true God, in contrast to the polytheism of the prevailing culture. While maintaining strict monotheism, they believed also that the man Jesus Christ was at the same time something more than a man. This belief is reflected, for instance, in the opening verses of the Letter to the Hebrews and the Gospel of John, which describe him as the brightness of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's nature, through whom all things were created and are upheld. In addition, the discourse recorded in chapters 14 through 17 of John, assures the presence, instruction and power of the Holy Spirit, through whom the Father and Son are promised to dwell in those who belong to the Son. The Epistle to the Colossians further states that "in [Jesus] lives all the fullness of Deity bodily" (Colossians 2:9).

The importance for the first Christians of their faith in God, whom they called Father, in Jesus Christ, whom they saw as the Son of God, the Word of God (Gospel of John), King, Saviour (Martyrdom of Polycarp), Master (First Apology of Justin Martyr), and in the Holy Spirit is expressed in formulas that link all three together, such as those in the Gospel according to Matthew, the Great Commission: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19); and in the Second Letter of St Paul to the Corinthians: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all" (2 Corinthians 13:14).

The doctrine of the divinity and personality of the Holy Spirit was developed by Athanasius in the last decades of his life. [12] In 325, the Council of Nicaea adopted a term for the relationship between the Son and the Father that from then on was seen as the hallmark of orthodoxy; it declared that the Son is "of the same substance" (ὁμοούσιος) as the Father. This was further developed into the formula "three persons, one substance". The answer to the question "What is God?" indicates the one-ness of the divine nature, while the answer to the question "Who is God?" indicates the three-ness of "Father, Son and Holy Spirit."

The Council of Nicaea was reluctant to adopt language not found in Scripture, and ultimately did so only after Arius showed how all strictly biblical language could also be interpreted to support his belief, that there was a time before Jesus was created when he did not exist. In adopting non-biblical language, the council's intent was to preserve what they thought the Church had always believed that Jesus is fully God, coeternal with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit.

There is evidence indicating that one mediaeval Latin writer, while purporting to quote from the First Epistle of John, inserted a passage now known as the Comma Johanneum (1 John 5:7) which has often been cited as an explicit reference the Trinity. It may have begun as a marginal note quoting a homily of Cyprian that was inadvertently taken into the main body of the text by a copyist.[13] The Comma found its way into several later copies, and was eventually back-translated into Greek and included in the third edition of the Textus Receptus which formed the basis of the King James Version. Erasmus, the compiler of the Textus Receptus, noticed that the passage was not found in any of the Greek manuscripts at his disposal and refused to include it until presented with an example containing it, which he rightly suspected was concocted after the fact.[14] Isaac Newton, known mainly for his scientific and mathematical discoveries, noted that many ancient authorities failed to quote the Comma when it would have provided substantial support for their arguments, suggesting it was a later addition.[15] Modern textual criticism has since concurred with his findings; many modern translations now either omit the passage, or make it clear that it is not found in the early manuscripts.


Formulation of the Doctrine

The Trinitarian view has been affirmed as an article of faith by the Nicene (325/381) and Athanasian creeds (circa 500), which attempted to standardize belief in the face of disagreements on the subject. These creeds were formulated and ratified by the Church of the third and fourth centuries in reaction to heterodox theologies concerning the Trinity and/or Christ. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, revised in 381 by the second of these councils, is professed by Orthodox Christianity and, with one addition (Filioque clause), the Roman Catholic Church, and has been retained in some form by most Protestant denominations.

The Nicene Creed, which is a classic formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity, uses "homoousios" (Greek: of the same essence) of the relation of the Son's relationship with the Father. This word differs from that used by non-trinitarians of the time, "homoiousios" (Greek: of similar essence), by a single Greek letter, "one iota", a fact proverbially used to speak of deep divisions, especially in theology, expressed by seemingly small verbal differences.

One of the (probably three) Church councils that in 264-266 condemned Paul of Samosata for his Adoptionist theology also condemned the term "homoousios" in the sense he used it, with the result that, as the Catholic Encyclopedia article about him remarks, "The objectors to the Nicene doctrine in the fourth century made copious use of this disapproval of the Nicene word by a famous council."[1]

Moreover, the meanings of "ousia" and "hypostasis" overlapped at the time, so that the latter term for some meant essence and for others person. Athanasius of Alexandria (293-373) helped to clarify the terms.[2]

Because Christianity converts cultures from within, the doctrinal formulas as they have developed bear the marks of the ages through which the church has passed. The rhetorical tools of Greek philosophy, especially of Neoplatonism, are evident in the language adopted to explain the church's rejection of Arianism and Adoptionism on one hand (teaching that Christ is inferior to the Father, or even that he was merely human), and Docetism and Sabellianism on the other hand (teaching that Christ was identical to God the Father, or an illusion). Augustine of Hippo has been noted at the forefront of these formulations; and he contributed much to the speculative development of the doctrine of the Trinity as it is known today, in the West; the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzus) are more prominent in the East. The imprint of Augustinianism is found, for example, in the western Athanasian Creed, which, although it bears the name and reproduces the views of the fourth century opponent of Arianism, was probably written much later.

These controversies were for most purposes settled at the Ecumenical councils, whose creeds affirm the doctrine of the Trinity.

According to the Athanasian Creed, each of these three divine Persons is said to be eternal, each almighty, none greater or less than another, each God, and yet together being but one God, So are we forbidden by the Catholic religion to say; There are three Gods or three Lords. — Athanasian Creed, line 20.

Modalists attempted to resolve the mystery of the Trinity by holding that the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are merely modes, or roles, of God Almighty. This anti-Trinitarian view contends that the three "Persons" are not distinct Persons, but titles which describe how humanity has interacted with or had experiences with God. In the Role of The Father, God is the provider and creator of all. In the mode of The Son, man experiences God in the flesh, as a human, fully man and fully God. God manifests Himself as the Holy Spirit by his actions on Earth and within the lives of Christians. This view is known as Sabellianism, and was rejected as heresy by the Ecumenical Councils although it is still prevalent today among denominations known as "Oneness" and "Apostolic" Pentecostal Christians, the largest of these sects being the United Pentecostal Church. Trinitarianism insists that the Father, Son and Spirit simultaneously exist, each fully the same God.

The doctrine developed into its present form precisely through this kind of confrontation with alternatives; and the process of refinement continues in the same way. Even now, ecumenical dialogue between Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Roman Catholic, the Assyrian Church of the East and Trinitarian Protestants, seeks an expression of Trinitarian and Christological doctrine which will overcome the extremely subtle differences that have largely contributed to dividing them into separate communities. The doctrine of the Trinity is therefore symbolic, somewhat paradoxically, of both division and unity.


Trinitarian Theology


Baptism as the beginning lesson

Baptism of Christ, by Piero della Francesca, 15th century
Baptism of Christ, by Piero della Francesca, 15th century

Baptism itself is generally conferred with the Trinitarian formula, "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19); and Basil the Great (330–379) declared: "We are bound to be baptized in the terms we have received, and to profess faith in the terms in which we have been baptized." "This is the Faith of our baptism", the First Council of Constantinople declared (382), "that teaches us to believe in the Name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. According to this Faith there is one Godhead, Power, and Being of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

Matthew 28:19 may be taken to indicate that baptism was associated with this Trinitarian formula from the earliest decades of the Church's existence.[16] The formula is found in the Didache,[17] Ignatius,[18] Tertullian,[19] Hippolytus,[20] Cyprian,[21] and Gregory Thaumaturgus.[22] Though the formula has early attestation, the Acts of the Apostles only mentions believers being baptized "in the name of Jesus Christ" (2:38, 10:48) and "in the name of the Lord Jesus" (8:16, 19:5). There are no Biblical references to baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit outside Matthew 28:19, nor references to baptism in the name of (the Lord) Jesus (Christ) outside the Acts of the Apostles.[23]

Commenting on Matthew 28:19, Gerhard Kittel states:

This threefold relation [of Father, Son and Spirit] soon found fixed expression in the triadic formulae in 2 C. 13:13, and in 1 Cor. 12:4-6. The form is first found in the baptismal formula in Mt. 28:19; Did., 7. 1 and 3. . . .[I]t is self-evident that Father, Son and Spirit are here linked in an indissoluble threefold relationship.[24]

In the synoptic Gospels the baptism of Jesus himself is often interpreted as a manifestation of all three Persons of the Trinity: "And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased." (Matthew 3:16-17, RSV).


One God

God is one, and the Godhead a single being: The Hebrew Scriptures lift this one article of faith above others, and surround it with stern warnings against departure from this central issue of faith, and of faithfulness to the covenant God had made with them. "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD" (Deuteronomy 6:4) (the Shema), "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" (Deuteronomy 5:7) and, "Thus saith the LORD the King of Israel and his redeemer the LORD of hosts: I am the first and I am the last; and beside me there is no God." (Isaiah 44:6). Any formulation of an article of faith which does not insist that God is solitary, that divides worship between God and any other, or that imagines God coming into existence rather than being God eternally, is not capable of directing people toward the knowledge of God, according to the Trinitarian understanding of the Old Testament. The same insistence is found in the New Testament: "...there is none other God but one" (1 Corinthians 8:4). The "other gods" warned against are therefore not understood as gods at all, but as substitutes for God, and so are, according to St. Paul, simply mythological (1 Corinthians 8:5).

So, in the Trinitarian view, the common conception which thinks of the Father and Christ as two separate beings is incorrect. The central and crucial affirmation of Christian faith is that there is one savior, God, and one salvation, manifest in Jesus Christ, to which there is access only because of the Holy Spirit. The God of the Old is still the same as the God of the New. In Christianity, it is understood that statements about a solitary god are intended to distinguish the Hebraic understanding from the polytheistic view, which see divine power as shared by several separate beings, beings which can, and do, disagree and have conflicts with each other. The Gospel of John depicts the Father as united with Jesus as Jesus is united with his followers (John 17:20-23).


God exists in three persons

The "Shield of the Trinity" or "Scutum Fidei" diagram of traditional Western Christian symbolism.
The "Shield of the Trinity" or "Scutum Fidei" diagram of traditional Western Christian symbolism.

This one God however exists in three persons, or in the Greek hypostases. God has but a single divine nature. Chalcedonians — Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants — hold that, in addition, the Second Person of the Trinity — God the Son, Jesus — assumed human nature, so that he has two natures (and hence two wills), and is really and fully both true God and true human. In the Oriental Orthodox theology, the Chalcedonian formulation is rejected in favor of the position that the union of the two natures, though unconfused, births a third nature: redeemed humanity, the new creation.

In the Trinity, the Three are said to be co-equal and co-eternal, one in essence, nature, power, action, and will. However, as laid out in the Athanasian Creed, only the Father is unbegotten and non-proceeding. The Son is begotten from (or "generated by") the Father. The Spirit proceeds from the Father (or from the Father and through the Son — see filioque clause for the distinction).

It has been stated that because God exists in three persons, God has always loved, and there has always existed perfectly harmonious communion between the three persons of the Trinity. One consequence of this teaching is that God could not have created Man in order to have someone to talk to or to love: God "already" enjoyed personal communion; being perfect, He did not create Man because of any lack or inadequacy He had. Another consequence, according to Rev. Thomas Hopko, is that if God were not a trinity, He could not have loved prior to creating other beings on whom to bestow his love. Thus we find God saying in Genesis 1:26, "Let us make man in our image." For Trinitarians, emphasis in Genesis 1:26 is on the plurality in the Deity, and in 1:27 on the unity of the divine Essence. A possible interpretation of Genesis 1:26 is that God's relationships in the Trinity is mirrored in man by the ideal relationship between husband and wife, two persons becoming one flesh, as described in Eve's creation later in the next chapter. Genesis 2:22 Some Trinitarian Christians support their position with the Comma Johanneum described above even though it is widely regarded as inauthentic and was not used patristically.


Mutually indwelling

A useful explanation of the relationship of the distinguishable persons of God is called perichoresis, from Greek going around, envelopment (written with a long O, omega - some mistakenly associate it with the Greek word for dance, which however is spelled with a short O, omicron). This concept refers for its basis to John 14-17, where Jesus is instructing the disciples concerning the meaning of his departure. His going to the Father, he says, is for their sake; so that he might come to them when the "other comforter" is given to them. At that time, he says, his disciples will dwell in him, as he dwells in the Father, and the Father dwells in him, and the Father will dwell in them. This is so, according to the theory of perichoresis, because the persons of the Trinity "reciprocally contain one another, so that one permanently envelopes and is permanently enveloped by, the other whom he yet envelopes." (Hilary of Poitiers, Concerning the Trinity 3:1). [3]

This co-indwelling may also be helpful in illustrating the Trinitarian conception of salvation. The first doctrinal benefit is that it effectively excludes the idea that God has parts. Trinitarians affirm that God is a simple, not an aggregate, being. God is not parceled out into three portions, as modalists and others contend. The second doctrinal benefit is that it harmonizes well with the doctrine that the Christian's union with the Son in his humanity brings him into union with one who contains in himself, in St. Paul's words, "all the fullness of deity" and not a part. (See also: Theosis). Perichoresis provides an intuitive figure of what this might mean. The Son, the eternal Word, is from all eternity the dwelling place of God; he is, himself, the "Father's house", just as the Son dwells in the Father and the Spirit; so that, when the Spirit is "given", then it happens as Jesus said, "I will not leave you as orphans; for I will come to you."

Some forms of human union are considered to be not identical but analogous to the Trinitarian concept, as found for example in Jesus' words about marriage. Mark 10:7-8 "For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; And they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh." According to the words of Jesus, married persons are in some sense no longer two, but joined into one. Therefore, Orthodox theologians also see the marriage relationship as an image, or "ikon" of the Trinity, relationships of communion in which, in the words of St. Paul, participants are "members one of another." As with marriage, the unity of the church with Christ is similarly considered in some sense analogous to the unity of the Trinity, following the prayer of Jesus to the Father, for the church, that "they may be one, even as we are one". John 17:22


Eternal generation and procession

Trinitarianism affirms that the Son is "begotten" (or "generated") of the Father and that the Spirit "proceeds" from the Father, but the Father is "neither begotten nor proceeds." The argument over whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone, or from the Father and the Son, was one of the catalysts of the Great Schism, in this case concerning the Western addition of the Filioque clause to the Nicene Creed.

This language is often considered difficult because, if used regarding humans or other created things, it would necessarily imply time and change; when used here, no beginning, change in being, or process within time is intended and is in fact excluded. The Son is generated ("born" or "begotten"), and the Spirit proceeds, eternally. Augustine of Hippo explains, "Thy years are one day, and Thy day is not daily, but today; because Thy today yields not to tomorrow, for neither does it follow yesterday. Thy today is eternity; therefore Thou begat the Co-eternal, to whom Thou saidst, 'This day have I begotten Thee." {Psalm 2:7}


Son begotten, not created

Because the Son is begotten, not made, the substance of his person is that of Yahweh, of deity. The creation is brought into being through the Son, but the Son Himself is not part of it except through His incarnation.

The church fathers used a number of analogies to express this thought. St. Irenaeus of Lyons was the final major theologian of the second century. He writes "the Father is God, and the Son is God, for whatever is begotten of God is God."

Extending the analogy, it might be said, similarly, that whatever is generated (procreated) of humans is human. Thus, given that humanity is, in the words of the Bible, "created in the image and likeness of God," an analogy can be drawn between the Divine Essence and human nature, between the Divine Persons and human persons. However, given the fall, this analogy is far from perfect, even though, like the Divine Persons, human persons are characterized by being "loci of relationship." For Trinitarian Christians, this analogy is particularly important with regard to the Church, which St. Paul calls "the body of Christ" and whose members are, because they are "members of Christ," also "members one of another."

However, any attempt to explain the mystery to some extent must break down, and has limited usefulness, being designed, not so much to fully explain the Trinity, but to point to the experience of communion with the Triune God within the Church as the Body of Christ. The difference between those who believe in the Trinity and those who do not, is not an issue of understanding the mystery. Rather, the difference is primarily one of belief concerning the personal identity of Christ. It is a difference in conception of the salvation connected with Christ that drives all reactions, either favorable or unfavorable, to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. As it is, the doctrine of the Trinity is directly tied up with Christology.


Economic and Ontological Trinity

Or more simply - the ontological Trinity (who God is) and the economic Trinity (what God does). Most Christians believe the economic reflects and reveals the ontological. Catholic theologian Karl Rahner went so far as to say "The 'economic' Trinity is the 'immanent' Trinity, and vice versa." [25]

The members of the trinity are equal ontologically, but not necessarily economically. In other words, the trinity is not symmetrical in terms of function, or in relationship to one another. The roles of each differ both among themselves, and in relationship to creation. Furthermore, the trinity is not symmetrical with regards to origin. The Son is begotten of the Father (John 3:16). The Spirit proceeds from the Father (John 15:26). Only the Father is neither begotten nor proceeding (See Athanasian Creed), but is alone "unoriginate" and eternally communicates the Divine Being to the Word, the Son, by "generation" and to the Spirit by "spiration," in that the Spirit "proceeds from the Father" and in the words of some {Eastern} theologians, "rests on the Son" as seen in the baptism of Jesus.

Economical subordination is implied by the genitive of terms like "Father of", "Son of", and "Spirit of". While orthodox Trinitarianism rejects ontological subordination, it affirms that the Father, being the source of all that is, created and uncreated, has a monarchical relation to the Son and the Spirit. Or, in other terms, it is from the Father that the mission of the Breath and Word originate: whatever God does, it is the Father that does it, and always through the Son, by the Spirit. The Father is seen as the "source" or "fountainhead" from which the Son is born and the Spirit proceeds, much as one might observe water bubbling out of a spring without worrying about when it began doing so. However, this language is hemmed in with qualifications so severe that the analogy in view is easily lost, and is a source of perpetual controversy. The main points, however, are that "there is one God because there is one Father" and that, while the Son and Spirit both derive their existence from the Father, the communion between the Three, being a relationship of Divine Love, is such that there is no subordination according to substance. As one transcendent Being, the Three are perfectly united in love, consciousness, will, and operation. Thus, it is possible to speak of the Trinity as a "hierarchy-in-equality."

This concept is considered to be of momentous practical importance to the Christian life because, again, it points to the nature of the Christian's reconciliation with God. The excruciatingly fine distinctions can issue in grand differences of emphasis in worship, teaching, and government, as large as the difference between East and West, which for centuries have been considered practically insurmountable.

Western Theologian Catherine Mowry LaCugna finds common ground with Eastern scholarship through rejecting modern individualist notions of personhood and emphasising the self-communication of God. Following on from Rahner, she says that God is known ontologically only through God's self-revelation in the economy of salvation, and that "Theories about what God is apart from God's self-communication in salvation history remain unverifiable and ultimately untheological."[26] She says faithful Trinitarian theology must be practical and include an understanding of our own personhood in relationship with God and each other - "Living God's life with one another".[27]

The terminology of Godhead concerns the nature of God and so is largely distinct from that which concerns specifically the interrelations of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant distinctions

The Hospitality of Abraham by Andrei Rublev. The three angels symbolize the Trinity.
The Hospitality of Abraham by Andrei Rublev. The three angels symbolize the Trinity.

The Western (Roman Catholic) tradition is more prone to make positive statements concerning the relationship of persons in the Trinity. It should be noted that explanations of the Trinity are not the same thing as the doctrine itself; nevertheless the Augustinian West is inclined to think in philosophical terms concerning the rationality of God's being, and is prone on this basis to be more open than the East to seek philosophical formulations which make the doctrine more intelligible.

The Christian East, for its part, correlates ecclesiology and Trinitarian doctrine, and seeks to understand the doctrine of the Trinity via the experience of the Church, which it understands to be "an ikon of the Trinity" and therefore, when St. Paul writes concerning Christians that all are "members one of another," Eastern Christians in turn understand this as also applying to the Divine Persons.

For example, one Western explanation is based on deductive assumptions of logical necessity: which hold that God is necessarily a Trinity. On this view, the Son is the Father's perfect conception of his own self. Since existence is among the Father's perfections, his self-conception must also exist. Since the Father is one, there can be but one perfect self-conception: the Son. Thus the Son is begotten, or generated, by the Father in an act of intellectual generation. By contrast, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the perfect love that exists between the Father and the Son: and as in the case of the Son, this love must share the perfection of person. Therefore, as reflected in the filioque clause inserted into the Nicene Creed by the Roman Catholic Church, the Holy Spirit is said to proceed from both the Father "and the Son". (It would also be appropriate according to Western teaching that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son.)

The Eastern Orthodox church holds that the filioque clause, i.e., the added words "and the Son" (in Latin, filioque), constitutes heresy, or at least profound error. One reason for this is that it undermines the personhood of the Holy Spirit; is there not also perfect love between the Father and the Holy Spirit, and if so, would this love not also share the perfection of person? At this rate, there would be an infinite number of persons of the Godhead, unless some persons were subordinate so that their love were less perfect and therefore need not share the perfection of person.

Anglicans have made a commitment in their Lambeth Conference, to provide for the use of the creed without the filioque clause in future revisions of their liturgies, in deference to the issues of Conciliar authority raised by the Orthodox.

Most Protestant groups that use the creed also include the filioque clause. However, the issue is usually not controversial among them because their conception is often less exact than is discussed above (exceptions being the Presbyterian Westminster Confession 2:3, the London Baptist Confession 2:3, and the Lutheran Augsburg Confession 1:1-6, which specifically address those issues). The clause is often understood by Protestants to mean that the Spirit is sent from the Father, by the Son — a conception which is not controversial in either Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. A representative view of Protestant Trinitarian theology is more difficult to provide, given the diverse and decentralized nature of the various Protestant churches.


Naming the Persons

Some contemporary theologians including feminists refer to the persons of the Holy Trinity with gender-neutral language, such as "Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer (or Sanctifier)." This is a recent formulation, which seeks to redefine the Trinity in terms of three roles in salvation or relationships with us, not eternal identities or relationships with each other. Since, however, each of the three divine persons participates in the acts of creation, redemption, and sustaining, traditionalist and other Christians reject this formulation as suggesting a new variety of Modalism. Some theologians and liturgists prefer the alternate expansive terminology of "Source, and Word, and Holy Spirit."

Responding to feminist concerns, orthodox theology has noted the following: a) the names "Father" and "Son" are clearly analogical, since all Trinitarians would agree that God has no gender per se (or, encompasses all sex and gender and is beyond all sex and gender); b) that, in translating the Creed, for example, "born" and "begotten" are equally valid translations of the Greek word "gennao," which refers to the eternal generation of the Son by the Father: hence, one may refer to God "the Father who gives birth"; this is further supported by patristic writings which compare and contrast the "birth" of the Divine Word "before all ages" (i.e., eternally) from the Father with his birth in time from the Virgin Mary; c) Using "Son" to refer to the Second Divine Person is most proper only when referring to the Incarnate Word, who is Jesus, a human who is clearly male; d) in Semitic languages, such as Hebrew and Aramaic, the noun translated "spirit" is grammatically feminine. Images of God's Spirit in Scripture are also often feminine, as with the Spirit "brooding" over the primordial chaos in Genesis 1, or grammatically feminine, such as a dove in the New Testament.


Logical Coherency

The doctrine of Trinity on the face seems to be logically incoherent as it seems to imply that identity is not transitive -"for the Father is identical with God, the Son is identical with God, and the Father is not identical with the Son." Recently, there has been two philosophical attempts to defend the logical coherency of Trinity, one by Richard Swinburne and the other by Peter Geach et al. The formulation suggested by the former philosopher is free from logical incoherency, but it is debatable whether this formulation is consistent with historical orthodoxy. Regarding the formulation suggested by the latter philosopher, not all philosophers would agree with its logical coherency. Richard Swinburne has suggested that "the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit be thought of as numerically distinct Gods." and the latter suggested that "a coherent statement of the doctrine is possible on the assumption that identity is ‘always relative to a sortal term’." [28]


Ambivalence to Trinitarian doctrine

Some Protestant Christians, particularly members of the restoration movement, are ambivilent about the doctrine of the Trinity. While not specifically rejecting trinitarianism or presenting an alternative doctrine of the Godhead and God's relationship with humanity, they are not dogmatic about the Trinity or do not hold it as a test of true Christian faith. Some, like the Society of Friends and Christian Unitarians may reject all doctrinal or credal tests of true faith. Some, like the restorationist Churches of Christ, in keeping with a distinctive understanding of "Scripture alone", say that since it is not clearly articulated in the Bible it cannot be required for salvation. Others may look to church tradition and say that there has always been a Christian tradition that faithfully followed Jesus without such a doctrine, since as a doctrine steeped in Greek philosophical distinctions it was not clearly articulated for some centuries after Christ.



Some Christian traditions reject the doctrine of the Trinity. Nontrinitarians can vary in both their reasons for rejecting mainstream teaching on the trinity, and in the way they describe God.


Criticisms of trinitarian doctrine

Nontrinitarians commonly make the following claims in opposition to trinitarianism.


Nontrinitarian groups

Since Trinitarianism is central to so much of church doctrine, nontrinitarians have mostly been groups that existed before the Nicene Creed was codified in 325 or are groups that developed after the Reformation, when many church doctrines came into question[30]

In the early centuries of Christian history Arians, Ebionites, Gnostics, Marcionites, and others held nontrinitarian beliefs. The Nicene Creed raised the issue of the relationship between Jesus' divine and human natures. Monophysitism ("one nature") and monothelitism ("one will") were heretical attempts to explain this relationship. During more than a thousand years of trinitarian orthodoxy, formal nontrinitarianism, i.e., a doctrine held by a church, group, or movement, was rare, but it did appear. For example, among the Cathars of the 13th century. The Protestant Reformation of the 1500s also brought tradition into question. At first, nontrinitarians were executed, (such as Servetus), or forced to keep their beliefs secret (such as Isaac Newton). The eventual establishment of religious freedom, however, allowed nontrinitarians to more easily preach their beliefs, and the 19th century saw the establishment of several nontrinitarian groups in North America and elsewhere. These include Christadelphians, Christian Scientists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Unitarians. Twentieth-century nontrinitarian movements include Iglesia ni Cristo, Oneness Pentecostals, and the Unification Church. Nontrinitarian groups differ from one another in their views of Jesus Christ, depicting him variously as a divine being second only to God the Father, Yahweh of the Old Testament in human form, God (but not eternally God), prophet, or simply a holy man.


In popular culture

Trinity is the central female character in the Matrix trilogy. Some believe that the three main characters resemble the Holy Trinity throughout the trilogy. Morpheus as the Father, Neo as the Son, and Trinity as the Holy Spirit. Another view is that Morpheus represents Elijah, or John the Baptist as the one who sought out and recognized that Neo had the dedication to constantly seek truth. It was Morpheus who Baptized Neo and announced to the others that Neo was the One, while Trinity represents the divine female or Jesus’ female counterpart, Mary Magdalene. While none of them are certain of what God is, they are certain that what they previously knew to be the truth, was indeed a lie to prevent discovery of the truth that they were being used as energy to fuel their own selfish fantasies while keeping all the Agent Smiths "on the payroll" (see Trinity (The Matrix)).

In the Valérian comics, The Rage of Hypsis and In Uncertain Times, the Trinity appeared as Harry Quinlan, the character played by Orson Welles in the 1958 film Touch of Evil, (Father); a hippie (Son) and a broken jukebox (Holy Spirit).

The Irish comedian Dave Allen famously satirised the Trinity as Big Daddy (Father), The Kid (Son) and Spook (Holy Spirit).

In the book Angela's Ashes there is a heart warming scene where Frank McCourt, as a child, mistakenly refers to the "Father, the Son, and the Holy Toast."

In the Fritz Lang film Metropolis, the city mayor Joh Fredersen represents the Father and the humble city proletariat as the Holy Spirit. The son of the mayor, Freder Fredersen, represents the Son. The film ends in statement: The intermediator between brain [Father] and hands [Holy Spirit] is Heart (Son).

Also, in Postcolonial Theory, "The Holy Trinity" is a term coined by Professor Robert J.C. Young, a well-known postcolonial critic currently based at NYU, with regards to the three main postcolonial theorists whose work constitutes much of the debate in this thriving and controversial field of study: Edward Said, Homi K Bhabha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. [31]



  1. 1.0 1.1 Oxford Dictionary of the Bible, Trinity Article
  2. Liddell & Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, entry for Τριάς, retrieved December 19, 2006
  3. Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus, II.XV (retrieved on December 19, 2006).
  4. 4.0 4.1 "Encyclopedia of Religion", Vol. 14, p.9360, on Trinity
  5. 5.0 5.1 Catholic Encyclopedia "Trinity", Old Testament
  6. The Columbia Encyclopedia: "the doctrine is not explicitly taught in the New Testament"
  7. 7.0 7.1 Encyclopedia Britannica, Trinity
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4
  9. Raymond E. Brown, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John (XIII-XXI), pgs. 1026, 1032
  10. Gregory Nazianzen, Orations, 31.26
  11. The Trinitarian interpretation of this statement is that Jesus is claiming for himself the name of God, Yahweh, which is translated as "I am"
  12. On Athanasius, Oxford Classical Dictionary, Edited by Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth. Third edition. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  13. Wallace, Daniel B. "The Comma Johanneum and Cyprian", accessed online 16 February 2006.
  14. Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 2d ed. Oxford University, 1968 p.101
  15. An Historical Account of Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture
  16. Some groups, such as Oneness Pentecostals, demur from the Trinitarian view on baptism. For them, the fact that Acts does not use the formula outweighs all other considerations, and is a liturgical guide for their own practice. For this reason, they often focus on the baptisms in Acts, citing many authoritative theological works. For example, Kittel is cited where he is speaking of the phrase "in the name" (Greek: εἰς τὸ ὄνομα) as used in the baptisms recorded in Acts:
    The distinctive feature of Christian baptism is that it is administered in Christ (εἰς Χριστόν), or in the name of Christ (εἰς τὸ ὄνομα Χριστοῦ). (Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 1:539.)
    The formula (εἰς τὸ ὄνομα) seems rather to have been a tech. term in Hellenistic commerce ("to the account"). In both cases the use of the phrase is understandable, since the account bears the name of the one who owns it, and in baptism the name of Christ is pronounced, invoked and confessed by the one who baptises or the one baptised (Ac. 22:16) or both. (Kittel, 1:540.)
    Those who place great emphasis on the baptisms in Acts often likewise question the authenticity of Matthew 28:19 in its present form. A. Ploughman, apparently following F. C. Conybeare, has questioned the authenticity of Matthew 28:19, however, the majority of scholars of New Testament textual criticism accept the authenticity of the passage. There are no variant manuscripts regarding the formula, and the extant form of the passage is attested in the Didache and other patristic works of the first and second centuries;[citation needed] for most textual critical scholars this is sufficient evidence to prove authenticity.
  17. 7:1, 3 online
  18. Epistle to the Philippians, 2:13 online
  19. On Baptism 8:6 online, Against Praxeas, 26:2 online
  20. Against Noetus, 1:14 online
  21. Seventh Council of Carthage online
  22. A Sectional Confession of Faith, 13:2 online
  23. Baptism "in the name of" need not necessarily be taken as referring to a formula used in the ceremony in either Matthew or Acts; it may merely indicate the establishment of a relationship, corresponding to the phrases "baptized into Christ Jesus" (Romans 6:3) and "baptized into Christ" (Galatians 3:27). Compare "baptized ... into John's baptism" (Acts 19:3), "baptized in the name of Paul" (1 Corinthians 1:13), "baptized into Moses" (1 Corinthians 10:2).
  24. Kittel, 3:108.
  25. K Rahner, The Trinity (Herder & Herder:1970) p22
  26. Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God For Us (Harper Colins:1973) p231
  27. Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God For Us (Harper Colins:1973) p410
  28. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy Online, on Trinity, Link
  29. Jewish Encyclopedia
  30. See indulgences, particular judgment, primacy of the Pope, purgatory, transubstantiation, etc.
  31. (Young, Robert J.C., Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race London: Routledge, 1994, p.163)

See also


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