Thoughts on the Holy Trinity:

holy-trinityFor quite some time, I have wanted to write at length concerning a subject dear to my heart. I’ve been drawn into several discussions with Muslims, Christians and seekers that touch on the ultimate reality of God, what is He like, and why does it matter. A couple of these conversations are here, and here. Of course, it is meaningless to say that “I worship God” if I neither know nor care who He is or what He is like. It would be like saying “I love my wife” without knowing, or caring to know, anything about her.


I am referring of course to that absolutely bedrock assertion of Christians that God is triune, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. In its fullness, it is maddeningly beyond our grasp, and yet if true, it represents the core and source of all that is, seen and unseen. It is in affirmation of the Trinity that we can say “Jesus is Lord” and by it we are rejected as blasphemers by both Jew and Muslim. The Trinity is nowhere explicitly and unreservedly defined in scripture, although there is strong support. Instead, the understanding of Trinity arises as a consequence of Holy Scripture, that given what we are told about God, this must be true.


As we go along, I very much welcome your contribution to the discussion, and your thoughts about the issue, for or against. As will soon become apparent, I am no scholar or trained theologian, but thinking about truth is the exclusive right of neither.





We see God as existing eternally, before the dawn of time. I believe this means before the creation of time, holding, to the limits of my understanding, that time is of a unity – a ‘forth dimension’ with space in describing the material universe. If time and space were not created by God, they would be either the limitless expanse co-existent with the limitless God, which devolves to pantheism (Many have taken some form of that pantheism road, but the rejection of that is outside the scope of this article.), or they would be the environment in which God dwells and operates.


Time and space would be preconditions upon God, and thus a deeper and more ancient reality. The true “ground of being” would be moved back from who we call “God” onto another agency, be that agency personal or impersonal. This perhaps mindless entity, the cosmos itself, would be the self-existent ultimate reality; by definition, it would be the true God. The Deity we acknowledge would only be a subordinate, or a manifestation. Of course, the current understanding of physics, although ever subject to refinement and change, suggests that time and space (not merely matter, but space itself) had a definite point of origin in the “big bang”, that time has a definite direction, and will be of a fixed length.


No, God must exist outside of time and space. That is a small part of what I understand by “Transcendent.” God, of His nature, does not inhabit the universe in the way that we do. It would be at least as accurate, probably more so, to say that the universe, all of time and space, inhabits Him, without filling Him.


It is very hard to even talk of such an existence without smuggling in the idea of time. I have to slap my fingers to keep from writing “before” time; which is meaningless, because “before” is a question of sequence, of time. My chosen substitute, “outside” is not any better, because “outside” is a question of space and location. I suppose the closest I could come would be to speak of God existing “outside of time, and before space.” We are such total creatures of time and space that we are powerless to envision of an existence without them, even when we know it must be so. The only way we can proceed is to invent words like “transcendence” to describe the indescribable reality.


OK, what does all this have to do with the Trinity?


I think that there are very good reasons for understanding the source of all things, the uncreated “ground of being” as in some fashion corporate. I am going to set those reasons aside to simmer for a bit, not because they are secondary, but because I do not want to encourage the idea that I am arguing for any form whatsoever of polytheism. That is anathema both by Holy Scripture and by reason. Instead, I want to come from the wrong way ‘round, and think of what such a corporate existence would be like if it is in fact true, then come back to why I think it so.




If we envision more than one “existences” we immediately envision a medium in which they exist. There must be such a medium so that we can say ‘this’ is Zeus, and ‘this’ is Hermes. If they are not all the same, there must be some way for a boundary to exist, some way to differentiate one from another. As I see it, this is the most straight-forward evidence against polytheism. Any society of polytheistic gods must of necessity be derivative to whatever is the true self-existent ground of being, that being the environment in which they all exist. Gods under pantheism become little more than people with different forms of bodies and different powers.  A being formed of light energy instead of carbon molecules would still be a creature, no less than we are.

No, this won’t do at all. If there is to be some form of society within the Godhead, it must be as the Trinitarian formula puts it: One God, eternally existing in three (or for this point in my argument, more than one) persons, with the essence of God not divided, and the Persons not confused. God must be One. By reason as well as revelation, God is one. If there is, as I believe, some sort of plural-ness to the uncreated creator, it must be of a sort that does not contradict His unity.




I am treading very carefully here, because the two ideas incorporated within the doctrine of the Trinity are seemingly mutually exclusive. God is One. God is Three. Well, which is it! Declare what you really believe, it can’t be both! In my discussions with those from Islam, that seems to be exactly the take. I can’t truly believe what I say I believe. We Trinitarians must actually  be polytheists who lack the honesty to say what we really think.      


There is a huge tension between the two propositions, arising from the limits of our vision. But I take it that when two seemingly incompatible ideas both must be true, then they probably are both true; the incompatibility lies within my understanding.  Those tensions are often the repository of a truth deeper than what we can now see, and by refusing that tension, we may well miss the most important truth, as well as losing the smaller point.

For instance, if I draw a picture something like this / \ and proclaim that these lines are parallel, you may well conclude that I am either a very bad draftsman, or that I have no idea of what “parallel” means, that I am a liar or a fool. If you are blindingly sympathetic and think me preternaturally wise, you may even think that your own understanding of parallel (and that of all mathematical history) is faulty, since I must by right.

All of these approaches are attempts to reduce the tension between the shape drawn, / \, and my assertion that the lines are parallel. The deeper truth which resolves the tension is that reality, which my drawing represents, exists in 3 dimensions, not just the 2 on the paper. The parallel lines are receding into that third dimension like railroad tracks into the distance. If we existed in only two dimensions, and had no way to understand three, we may be totally unable to resolve that tension. But both the drawing and the idea of parallel would both still be true, as well as my status as an accurate interpreter of the drawing. By insisting on a resolution, we would have to deny the truth of something that is in fact true.




Having established that God is (and must be) One and only One, and that tension often points to truth, I am going to turn with trepidation to the issue of plurality within that unity. In what follows, it is most important to remember that first point, the first point both in reason and the Law, that “the Lord your God is One.”   I am going to base my argument for plurality on another of the classical attributes of God: that He is complete within Himself, without need or want, and acts in accordance with his Nature without compulsion of any kind. There are other basis, both within and external to the Holy Scriptures, but for now, this will suffice.


We have called God the “ground of being” meaning that He is the antecedent of all things, having Himself no antecedent. Or, as the Gospel of John puts it “All things were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made”; in Genesis, “In the beginning, God created…”   In that beginning, God already existed (smuggling that idea of sequence, and thus time again!), not needing to be created, and Himself creating all things.


OK,   WHY?


Why did God create? What did He, who wants for nothing, want? What did He who is perfect and complete, without need, need to do or have? What did He who is without passions desire? Why did He create?


A traditional and Biblical answer is that God created out of Love, that God is Love. All well and good, and correct. Let’s follow that a bit, and see where it leads. Was God love before creation, when He was the only entity in existence? If so, then love would have to be defined differently than I understand it. Can love exist in a unipolar fashion, like a magnet with only one pole? I would suspect that this ‘theoretical’ understanding of disembodied love is pretty far from the real thing. I would suspect that love requires both a lover and a beloved to be actual. One of my own ideas about God is that He is never ‘theoretical.’ All is actual, all is real. He is the “I AM” never the “I COULD BE” He is not “potential love” longing for an object onto which He could pour His love. His act of creation could not come from need for something to love.


If we allow for the existence of plurality within the unity of the Godhead, though, these difficulties vanish. God becomes an eternal state of love, between (in the Trinitarian formula) Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and creation comes not from need, but from overflow of love. A crude simile would be the difference between a young single woman desperate to have a baby so that she would have someone to love (and love her), and a couple whose love for each other overflows in fullness to create a child. Crude, but I think not inappropriate.


The act of creation by a God who needs nothing can only be explained by the existence of actual love; and  this requires the existence of multiple persons. though  in such a way as to not violate the unity of God.       




Having established that God is One, and that He must be plural within that one-ness, a “plural-unity”, Why do we say Three-in-One, and not Four or Seventeen or an infinite host?


When we think of Father and Son, it is almost inevitable that we think in terms of our human fathers, who may have multiple children, or of the Father of a nomadic clan. This is the image which looks like polytheism and causes such a scandal in the Islamic eyes. But I don’t think that is quite what is meant.

The second person of the Trinity, the Son, has also been referred to as the Word, or the Logos. The fullness of that is deeper than I can plumb. What I get is that in the Son, we see the expression of the Transcendent God. That which I “beget” is of the same kind of thing that I am, it is in some sense, even in a biological sense, “me” going forth. When I write, or send out my words or my ideas, that is again “me” going forth.


It we imagine two sons, then neither can be the LOGOS, nor can they be co-equal with the Father. Rather, they would be co-equal with each other, and lower than the Father. This would seem to break the triune nature of the one Godhead into a polytheistic hierarchy. Or if the idea of LOGOS is maintained as from John 1, each would be only a partial expression of God, one appropriate for this, and another for that. I would take that as pretty pure modalism, which the church defined early on as heretical.


I believe the classic articulations of the Trinity go much deeper than this, but I think this beginners version is on the same page, and I’ll stand on it until I can see further.


If Jesus Christ as the begotten Son of the Father is the complete expression of God fullness, how can there be another expression, except as a repetition? Remember, our language is metaphorical and symbolic (it is our language that is symbolic, not the truth behind the language) God the father is not a Nomadic chieftain such as Abraham. When He has expressed himself perfectly, fully and completely, He has no other expression to give. There can be only one begotten Son.

 In a similar fashion, there can be only one Holy Spirit of God. If in God the Father we understand the Transcendence of God, and in God the Son we understand His expression, so in the Holy Spirit we understand His imminence. The Spirit is that by which we understand God to dwell within God’s people by His gift. If I understand the western idea correctly, the Spirit eternally arises as a product of the relationship between the Father and the Son. In pharmaceuticals, whenever I take two medications, I have at least three chemicals in my body: medicine A, medicine B, and the compound AB produced by the interaction of the two. Any time two entities exist, there also exists a product of their interaction, as magnets and the magnetic field between them. I find this to be a very limited picture, but it makes sense to me as a direction in which the truth lies, not as the full truth itself. But if it is in the right direction, the Father and the Son have one relationship between them, one Spirit which is the embodiment of that relationship. There cannot be another.


These are very crude images of the one triune God, and are subject to much refining and correction; much needs to be said to amend the flaws in them. But even in these images, the Trinity is of necessity 3, and only 3, in 1. Any extension would seem to overturn the whole idea into polytheism, and loose the idea of the One God.




In all the preceding thought, I have started from the definition of God as the one who creates and is Himself uncreated (the “Ground of Being” or “Prime Cause”) and that He is complete within Himself, having neither need nor want, under no compulsion except to be who He is. From these definitions I have attempted to show that He is, of necessity, One, and that as seemingly contradictory as it may be, that He is inescapably plural; that the seeming contradiction arises not from these two premises, but from the limitations of our understanding, and that our limited capacity to understand should not be made more comfortable by denying either of otherwise true propositions. If you are still with me, you may reasonably ask

“Who cares? Whether all this is right or not, it makes my head hurt. And besides, what difference does it really make?”

 One of my favorite books is called “The Cruelty of Heresy” written by a retired Episcopal bishop named C. FitzSimons Allison. Through reading Bp Allison’s book, I became convinced that the truths about God are important, not just because they are true, but also because they reflect the ultimate realities about this world. These realities are not just interesting thoughts, but they are the guiding principles which should inform our lives. Indeed, if a doctrine has nothing to say about how we should live in the light of its truth, I am somewhat uneasy as to whether it is true at all.


This, by the way is another of the marks by which I try to understand what ideas are true, and which are simply attractive:

When I insert a particular idea into the story, does it just sit there by itself, or does it illumine the rest of the story?

And I believe the idea of the Holy Trinity passes that test.

All through the scripture we get this idea, which seems very strange to my modern western ears, that there is some sort of unity beyond our individual identity. There is a recurring theme that tribal/familial/national/racial identity actually does matter, that we are somehow tied together. In the New Testament, we are spoken of as corporately one body. We are not just individuals, and it would be a grave mistake to think that we can “separate the essence” of who we are as a whole in order to insist on our standing as unique individuals. And yet at the same time, each of us has a choice to make. We must make it ourselves, as Rahab did at Jericho. Our fate is bound together with that of our brothers, and at the same time, our fate depends on our own choices. It is an equally grave mistake to “confuse the persons” and violate our unique identity by rolling it into the mass of humanity. How can both be true? I think it is a slight whisper, a signature mark of our Maker, you might say a characteristic shape that identifies His work, that things can be somewhat unique and plural at the same time.


I’ve often wrestled with St. Paul’s statements in Romans about our being “in” Adam, or “in” Christ. I accepted it, but without understanding. How could the sin and rebellion of one, or the perfect obedience and sacrifice of the other actually affect me, other than by example? The answer seems to be in that somewhat mystical idea that Charles Williams called “co inherence” which is a thumbprint of the plural-unity of the Holy Trinity.


In my first marriage, before it was redeemed as my second marriage, I did not understand much of what it meant to be “one flesh” and yet two distinct persons. And yet this presents the exact same errors as when contemplating the Trinity. We think (and this was my main error)“we must be one” and so sacrifice either or both individuals into he one-ness. We “confuse the persons.”

Or we may support the existence of two individuals by denying any essential unity, and loose what God has for us in marriage. We “separate the essence.” If the Holy Trinity is one, yet composed of three persons in that unity, held together not by compulsion but by mutual love, and in a that submission does not equal subservience or inferiority, then how should we live so as to echo that back?

How should we in the church live out our Lord’s prayer “that they all should be one, even as we are One”?


I believe that, as like creates like, the plural unity that is the God of all creation is intending to create something of the same sort with us. In the fullness of the kingdom, the eastern religions are half right: we will all be one, but not as a drop of water becomes one with the ocean and looses itself. We will become one in the way patterned after the way that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are one; in a way that glorifies our unique individuality while exulting in the kind of intimate unity that now only occurs, sometimes, in the best of marriages.





The classic doctrine of the Holy Trinity, that God is One, while comprised of three Persons, a “plural unity,” is supported by reason arising from the definition of God as the “ground of being,” that God is love, never in the abstract but always in the real, and that God is without need or compulsion. Any form of polytheism is rejected as being a truncated theology, with any individual supposed ‘gods’ merely derivative. Given these characteristics, creation could only flow from a plural unity. This plural unity is further seen to consist, necessarily, of three and only three persons. It is acknowledged that the tension between one and three is vast, but that the tension arises from our limitations, not from the statements about God.


The Trinity is further upheld as true based on the illumination it sheds on human relationships, on ‘original sin’ and redemption, and its pastoral role in speaking to both marriage and life within the church.


The challenge presented, as always, is to look to God the Son, Jesus, to see Him, and to see God the Father through Him; to do what He does as an apprentice copies his master; then under our submission to God the Holy Spirit, become who He is making us to be.


Filed under ALL, Christianity, Theology, Uncategorized

6 responses to “Thoughts on the Holy Trinity:

  1. GCC

    This is quite a nice post. I found my way here via a link over at The Questioning Christian.

    What I think I like most about your explanation of the Trinity is the acceptance of its mystery. I find myself often just dissapointed and annoyed when people try to use “logis” to explain something that is inherently illogical.

    Here are some ponts of confusion for me:

    You suggest that God is love. You also recognize how that cannot be true. But, the Trinity solves one of the problems in this for you. The Trinity allows God to have love partners (a necessity of love) prior to creation. But, for this to work you have to suggest that love existed prior to creation. How can you explain a created concept existing before creation? Was there more than one creation? If so, and love is the source of creation, how was love created? Did it create itself? Etc. etc.

    Also, love has a definition. Definitions imply boundaries. God has no boundaries, for if God had boundaries, there could be more than one. Earlier in the post you get how reason requires the unity of God. But you leave that reason behind when you give God the boundary of love.

    In your conclusion you hinge the ability for us to reason our to the Trinity on the assumption that God is love. But reason really shows us that God is not love. This is the case because reason brings us to God’s unity, pre-existence, etc. So, if God is not love as reason show us, your rationale for the Trinity is indeed based on something other than reason.

    Your discussion of why there can only be one son also confuses me a bit. First, you suggest that you can beget a number of things that are truly you (kids, words, etc.) Ignoring the fact that whether or not those things are truly you is undetermined and unclear, if you can beget multiple things that are truly you, why can’t God?

    Also if to even begin to accept the Trinity we must depart all dimensions which we can comprehend (fabulous example with the lines, by the way!), why do you then bring us back to the dimensions we can understand in order to justify that there can be only one son? You do just that when you suggest that two sons could not be co-equal with the father. What if there’s another dimnesion which we can’t see or comprehend (like the lines running parallel into the paper) on which those two sons really are co-equal with the father? Another question on this: why, if there’s only one son must he be justified as co-equal with his father?

    You also suggest that there can be only one son because the son is God’s perfect expression of Godself. So, can God only perfectly express Godself once? Why the limits on God? God has no other expression of Godself makes some sense. But why then a trinity and not a duality, or better yet, a unity?

    I really like the way you explain the Trinity as a good and effective doctrine because of how it helps us relate to eachother, etc. However, this does not further indicate the truth of the Trinity. Rather, it further underscores our amazing ability as humans to create God in our image.

    Thanks for posting this. Although I disagree with the conclusions I think you’ve put together one of the best explanations of the Trinity I’ve come across. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts.

    I’m also in the process of discussing that God is not love (nor anythng else for that matter), over at my own blog:

  2. Thanks GCC for your kind words and thoughtful reply.
    DC (“The Questioning Christian”) is a member and friend from a church I attended until a recent move. He and I disagree strongly on points theological (as I’m sure you have noticed!) but we stand together in the assertion that truth matters, and if that principal is followed, it will lead one aright. He has stood as a stallwart testament to the value of civil discource in the often raucus world of blogs, and has set a standard which I strive to immitate.

    I haven’t been able to find time to render a reply with the honor you post deserves, and I hope to do so; but for now, just a few quick thoughts:

    As to love existing before creation requiring a more primary I’m not sure I understand you. It seems that your question hinges on the status of ‘love’ as a created thing. I would class it not as a ‘thing’ but an atribute. something inherent to the uncreated “ground of being” and thus always part of Him. This is part of my argument for the necessity that God be forever plural, although One.

    I certainly follow that if God had boundaries, there could be more that one. I think that arguement is spot on. I also see your point that definitions give boundaries, thus God is inherantly undefinable. I like that construction quite a bit, as it gives me a further way to understand trancendence.
    But I think defining “love” only raises a problem if we say that “love is God” instead of the converse. Any words we use about God are definable, else we are saying nothing. But it would be a vast mistake to think that once we have defined what we mean about a particular aspect of God, that we have plumbed the depths of His nature.

    As to the unique nature of the Son as the complete expression of God, If the Son, the Logos is the “complete expression of God” how could there be another without that other being a copy? I could see another only if the Son was a perfect (but limited) expression. A second “logos” would be faithful, but with different limits.
    neither would be complete, and the Christian assertion from Colossians is that “the fullness of the Godhead bodily dwells in Jesus.”

    The question of duality v trinity is more difficult, there are competing ideas as to the nature of the Holy Spirit as the third person of the Trinity. The view of the western church, as articulated by St. Augustine, makes sence to me, thinking of the Holy Spirit as eternally arising from the relationship between the father and the son.
    The model in my head is something like that of a magnet, with the north pole, south pole, and magnetic field. (of course, this image breaks down in that neither pole, nor the field is the fullness of magnet, let alone all three!)

    The more intriguing and difficult part of your reply is of course the central one: Is God, in fact, love?
    I as a Christian take this on faith, and belive it to be confirmed experientally, but this does us no good in arguement. Obviously both good and evil exist; so it seems something of a “glass half full/half empty” question.
    About the only thing I can offer now is that “good” can be corrupted into evil, but how can “evil” be elevated even to an illusion of good? Or restated, given the at least apparent reality of both good and evil, if we assume ‘good’ as the base condition, then evil is understandable. If evil is the base condition, then how do we explain good?

    Thanks again for stopping by, and for joining the discussion.

    -R. Eric Sawyer

  3. GCC

    “Ground of being!” Nice. I picked up my first Tillich book just this past Sunday at my local Episcopal Cathedral. Unfortunately I put down “Courage to Be” in favor of “Dynamics of Faith.”

    I can work within the framework of love being a part of that uncreated ground of being metaphorically. I run into problems though when I apply the overarching conception of God I have that has God creating everything, even things that to us are mere concepts (or atributes) and barely definable, if at all. Here’s one way to describe this: anything we can (or do) comprehend is necessarily a part of creation. God, not being a part of creation, can’t then be any of those things. I would argue that we comprehend love quite well. So I have a hard time thinking that love is a part of the uncreated ground of being. One could overcome this by suggesting that it’s love in a different sense (like for instance calling love an “attribute”), or we don’t really understand love, etc. But then I think we’d just be using the word love to mean something different.

    I think it all works well metaphorically though. And the NT passage that says “God is love” is sandwiched between statements about God being “in” people. To me then it’s obviosuly metaphor.

    Speaking of metaphor, some recent reading brought the following to my attention: Trinity = 1 God in 3 persons. 3 persons? What, like homo sapiens? I think not. It seems to me that the word “persons” is a metaphor. So, maybe 3 is a metaphor too. And if it is, I would suggest that it’s quite a beautiful metaphor. Just think of all the “magic” that surrounds the number three in so many parts of life. How fantastic that one of the metaphors that we’ve crafted to describe the incomprehensible reflects so much meaning and truth in the natural world!

    When it comes to the good/evil thing I think you might be connecting God to closely with creation. Just because God is active in creation (by which I only mean to not appear as a deist) doesn’t mean that creation in any way necessarily reflects God. What I mean is that God could be good and creation evil or the other way around. I think what I’m trying to say is that we might need to question the assumption that either god or evil is a baseline. In any case, it is interesting to note that good and evil don’t seem to exist independent of each other and as such are extremely relative. One might argue that the existence of evil is evidence of God’s altruism because it blesses us with the knowledge of Good (not a Garden of Eden reference).

    Finally, when I say God is not love, I don’t mean that God does not love. (Well, sort of I do…because God doesn’t have emotions like we do.) The point is that we can’t say God is literally love in exactly the same way we can’t say God is literally a rock or music or anything else that’s created. When we do say things like God is love, etc. wht we are describing is not God Godself, but rather the way in which God relates to creation – or more accurately, the way in which we perceive God’s relationship to creation. It’s a metaphysical anthropomorphism.

    I any case, I haven’t really responded or clarified. I was just tipped off by the Tillich quote and kept writing.


  4. Pingback: Thoughts on Marriage (or, “An Exercise in Hubris”) | Random Musings

  5. Brilliant thinking! It goes way beyond anything I could discern. I have just one quibble arising not from your essay but your comment. “Obviously both good and evil exist.” This is not obvious to me. Light exists, but does darkness exist? It is only the absence of light. Similarly, evil may be only the absence of good. The word works better for me as an adjective than a noun.

    • Thank you Paul for joining the discussion, and for your kind words.
      Actually, I think your point is not just a quibble, but an important main point – with which I agree, while failing to articulate well.

      This is the line you cite, together with it’s follow-up:

      “… Obviously both good and evil exist; so it seems something of a “glass half full/half empty” question.
      About the only thing I can offer now is that “good” can be corrupted into evil, but how can “evil” be elevated even to an illusion of good? Or restated, given the at least apparent reality of both good and evil, if we assume ‘good’ as the base condition, then evil is understandable. If evil is the base condition, then how do we explain good?”

      I meant that in our experience, we experience some things as “good” and some as “evil” -that designation though does not prove that they are actually a duality of equal-but-opposite things. Like you, I do not think that they are.
      I think there is a lot to your parallel with light and darkness.
      In this case, I would almost think of evil not just as “Absence of good,” but of “ruined” or “fallen” good – Good that has been twisted somehow.

      But I believe you are exactly right that evil is not a reality in the same way that Good is a reality.

      But they are both real interpretations in our experience.

      Thanks again!

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