One God, Three Persons?

In our discussions about the ways in which we understand the nature of God we began to focus on the difference between a strictly Unitarian view of God and the classical Trinitarian view of God. In last week’s blog entry we said that for “the Trinitarian Christian, who takes the Biblical witness on the nature of God and the person and work of Jesus seriously, the Qur’an in 4:171 will likely be very problematic [(Sura: An-Nisa’ in the YUSUFALI English translation): “O People of the Book! Commit no excesses in your religion: Nor say of God aught but the truth. Christ Jesus the son of Mary was (no more than) an apostle of God, and His Word, which He bestowed on Mary, and a spirit proceeding from Him: so believe in God and His apostles. Say not “Trinity”: desist: it will be better for you: for God is one God: Glory be to Him: (far exalted is He) above having a son. To Him belong all things in the heavens and on earth. And enough is God as a Disposer of affairs”.]”

Although the word “Trinity” does not appear in the Bible, it is possible to support the Trinitarian nature of God from the Biblical witness, as was shown in comments on last week’s blog entry, which are repeated here for clarity:

First point: There is One God (now and forever):

RSV Deuteronomy 6:4 “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD;

RSV Isaiah 43:10 “You are my witnesses,” says the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am He. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me.

Second point: God is Father:

RSV 2 Peter 1:17 For when he received honor and glory from God the Father and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,”

Third point: God is Son:

RSV John 20:28 [speaking to Jesus]: Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

Fourth point: God is Holy Spirit:

RSV Acts 5:3-4 But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.”

Note here the synonymous parallelism that shows that the Holy Spirit is equated with God.

Fifth point: The three separate and distinct persons are one God:

RSV Matthew 28:19 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,

Note: In Greek, when two or more singular personal nouns (not proper names) are separated by “and”, and are preceded by the definite article, two or more separate and distinct nouns are referred to. In other words, there is only “one” name for the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

I would add now that the account of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist shows the (simultaneous) presence of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and so argues against modalism (the idea that God is sometimes the Father, sometimes the Son and sometimes the Spirit).

So why does this matter? In our conversation we noted that the Doctrine of the Trinity indicates that God may be viewed as “community” and, further, that community is not made up of essentially identical characters but is a community of three distinctly different “persons”. In other words, community and diversity are inherent to the nature of God.

We considered how one might understand a statement such as “God is love” in the light of this understanding of God. It is of course possible to think of love as an abstract concept but if that love is to be instantiated (made real in the universe) then it seems that there must be a vehicle by which it can be made real. The Trinity provides such a vehicle. God can be seen as “love” in a very real sense because the Trinity allows for such a relationship between the persons of the Godhead. It was difficult for us to see a way to make “love” real in the person of God if God is a strictly Unitarian entity.

Further, we saw how some artists have portrayed the Trinity (e.g. Rublev’s icon of the Trinity) in a way that invites a person to enter into the relationship that constitutes God. Hence, the notion of the Trinity seems to provide a means by which one might enter into a personal relationship with God. It seems that the Trinitarian understanding of God might help us in answering a number of the questions that we have been asking recently (e.g. Is God personal or impersonal?).


  1. Rick Gaillardetz

    I would like to add to the wonderful reflection of Julian by noting the distinction that has to be made between the central meaning or insight contained in a doctrine like the trinity and the way we use theological language to communicate that insight. For example, it is standard to define the doctrine of the trinity as three “persons” sharing one divine nature. So far so good, unless we think of the notion of “person” in the modern sense of an individual possessing an independent center of consciousness and will. If we were to attribute that understanding of personhood to the trinity we would end up with tritheism since there cannot be three centers of consciousness in God (this may explain why Muslims find the trinitarian belief problematic). To solve this problem, a number of great theologians, Protestant and Catholic, have proposed alternative formulations. So Karl Barth suggested that we speak of three distinct “modes of being” (Seinsweisen). This should not be confused with the modalism that Julian was condemning. Julian is referring to the modalism associated with an early church figure named Sabellius who claimed that God is three, not within God’s innermost identity, but only in God’s external relations to the world. Barth is not using the term “modes of being” in this sense, because he acknowledges a fundamental and ontological differentiation within God. Karl Rahner has taken an approach similar to Barth in suggesting that we speak of trinitarian personhood as “distinct modes of subsisting” (Subsistenzweisen). My larger point, however, is simply that our theological formulations may change over time as we seek ever more adequate ways of articulating our most basic doctrinal assertions. Let me conclude with a quotation from St. Augustine: “Because the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father, and the Holy Spirit who is also called the gift of God is neither the Father nor the Son, they are certainly three… Yet when you ask “Three what?”, human speech labors under a great dearth of words. So we say three persons, not in order to say that precisely, but in order not to be reduced to silence” (Trinity, Book V, 10).

  2. Brad

    My thoughts about the Trinity are much different now than they were a week ago. Prior to last week, the Trinity seemed to me an unnecessary dogma that fails to have any positive effect within the Christian community and, in fact, serves an end that is divisive at the most, or confusing at the least. I had heard Dr. Gaillardetz and Julian speak of the Trinity as “community” or “relationship” but have never seen that understanding of Trinity widely understood by any congregation or denomination. It seemed something that would sound profound when spoken by theologians but have no practical effect. Dr. Gaillardetz made a related observation about popular theology in his lecture last week when he suggested that our popular religious language reflects a unitarian conception of God rather than a relational, or Trinitarian, conception of God. Although I am not convinced that a non-relational conception of God, as described by Dr. Gaillardetz, is best described as unitarian, his point about relational theism – specifically, what it looks like when practiced – resonated very much with me. (I dispute his use of the term “unitary theism” because, from my experience with Judaism, which is unitarian, Jews ironically seem to practice relational theism better than Christians. Also, the early Christians, as far as I know, did not speak in Trinitarian terms, as we do, but I think we would agree that they practiced relational theism. But maybe not?) A non-relational conception of God understands a relationship with God as similar to that between two individuals. With that understanding, we think we must set aside special time for devotions to God or church worship and any time spent not wholly concentrated on God is time away from God. (This type of practice also implies that God needs worship. Perhaps we should see worship as something we need rather than something God needs.) A relational conception of God, as expressed through the Trinity, however, understands God’s presence to be infused into every aspect of life. We interact with God in everything we do. God is not a being far away in heaven whose presence is only experienced when we intentionally focus on God. As Dr. Gaillardetz says, God is not a bigger, badder Zeus. The Divine presence permeates the world. The way we live our lives now becomes as important as worship – perhaps even more important. Jesus said that whatever we would do for the least individuals, we would be doing for him. He seems to have emphasized the way we treat each other and live our lives moreso than how much time we read the Bible or pray or sing hymns. God is love, God is community, God is relationship. In this conception of God is the truly transformative and radical influence Christianity can have. In this is the key to the kingdom of heaven. But…I return to my observation that few Christians practice relational theism and understand the Trinity as a picture of relational theism. What do we do? Dr. Gaillardetz suggests that we need new metaphors to understand our relationship with God: God is the composer and we are the musicians responding in creative interaction with God’s direction toward love. This metaphor better represents relational theism. Furthermore, I think we need to adapt our rituals to reflect a relational conception of God. Rituals are metaphors in action and thereby reinforce our belief. How do we pray with a relational conception of God? How do we take communion? How do we sing? How do we preach? How do we celebrate the sacraments? How do we live our lives day to day? What conception of God do our rituals reflect – relational or non-relational? We need the clergy and the theologians to begin articulating new metaphors and introducing fresh ways of celebrating the sacraments. When Christians understand the Trinity as a divine relationship, a divine community, a picture of God that explains, “God is love,” then they can be transformed in the radical way Jesus envisioned.

  3. Brad

    Another thought about the Trinity:

    For the three centuries following the Incarnation, Christians pondered, “What kind of God could be so loving?” Or, more precisely, referring to 1 John, how can God “be” love? Finally, the doctrine of the Trinity answered those questions.

  4. The Edz

    Another fascinating thing is how the Trinity makes appearances in the Old Testament. Moses speaks of a prophet to come (Jesus). The Holy Spirit is described often, particularly when equipping somebody for a task (building the tabernacle, e.g.). And of course, the Father is the Creator throughout the OT text.
    Also, the “we” passages are interesting in Genesis when God is speaking.
    I know Rabbi Kushner thinks the “we” are God and the animals first created, but I truly believe that is the Triune God working there.

    As mentioned previously, our God is a God of community. May we rememeber that as his children…being in community!

  5. A Brake

    This is a wonderful conversation. Thank you, Brad, for inviting me into it. Another relational, and powerful, application of the Trinity is in the marriage relationship. In the Genesis account of the creation, God mad Adam, man and the woman proceeded from Adam. She was made from his rib as God fashioned her from the man. And the woman is the bearer of children. So, as we read in the New Testament, The Son proceeds from the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from the Son. In the family unit, the basic element of all societies, we have a daily illustration of the love and unity of the trinitarian relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. From a Christian point of view, then, the truest and healthiest marriage (and family) is a reflection of the glory of the Trinity.

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