The idea of the three-in-oneness of God has proved to be extremely difficult to understand. It is, to be sure, an exercise well worth the effort.
Ultimately, the question of the Trinity is part of an even more significant question: Do you know whom you worship? The basic fabric out of which a doctrine of God can be woven can be reduced to the following seven statements.
The first three confess the name of the Triune God:
(1) The Father is God
(2) The Son is God
(3) The Holy Spirit is God
The next three statements affirm that a distinction must be made between the three persons of the Trinity. That is, there is not merely one God who changes roles like a chameleon:
(4) The Father is not the Son
(5) The Son is not the Spirit
(6) The Spirit is not the Father
The final statement sums up the distinctive logic/arithmetic of the Trinity:
(7) There is one God1
Some early Christian theologians, struggling with how to put these pieces together, emphasized the oneness of God by minimizing the three persons. Thus, the one God can manifest himself as Father, Son, or Spirit, but when God is the Father, He is not the Son, and when He is the Son, He is not the Spirit, and when He is the Spirit, He is not the Father.
There is one God who changes roles or modes depending on the need of the moment. This view is called modalism. I’ve heard children’s sermons where the speaker used the analogy that the Trinity is like water. Water exists as ice, liquid, or steam but is still H2O. The problem is, the H2O can’t be ice and liquid or liquid and steam at the same time. It can only exist in one mode at a time. As a result, this seemingly harmless analogy actually teaches the ancient heresy of modalism.
On the other extreme is the ancient heresy of tritheism. This view treats Father, Son and Spirit as three equal, fully distinct and individual persons with no basic unity. Thus, there are three separate Gods.
I have heard the analogy that the Trinity is like an egg. You have the egg, the yoke, and the egg white and together they make a single egg. The analogy fails, however, since each of the parts of the egg are made up of different substances and are distinct, thus promoting tritheism.
Another failed approach emerged in the fourth century around an elder from Alexandria named Arius. In an attempt to emphasize the absolute uniqueness and transcendence of God, Arius argued that since God the Father could not share his deity, then the Son had to be a created being, although exalted above any other created being. His motto was that “There was a time when the Son did not exist.” This heresy lingers on in the teachings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In the next article, we will provide answers to the question of what a legitimate understanding of God’s three-in-oneness might look like.
1Phillip Carey, “The Logic of Trinitarian Debate,” in Religious and Theological Studies Fellowship Bulletin, Sept/Oct 1995: pg. 2. Carey extracted these seven propositions from Augustine’s summary of the doctrine of the Trinity in his On Christian Doctrine 1:5.