Errors About the Trinity: A Classical Defense

There is perhaps no doctrine more frequently misunderstood or more difficult to comprehend than the doctrine of the Trinity. A large amount of our errors stem from our refusal to acknowledge that we cannot fully grasp it, and that the inner-workings of our almighty, infinite God are far beyond the capacity of even the best and brightest minds of men. It is a doctrine that we must receive to be true and shun any hint of deviation from, regardless of how much an alternative view might appeal to our fallen nature. Fortunately for 21st Century Christians, we have an abundance of riches that we may inherit from those who came before us – precious understandings of Scripture that have been tried, debated, and hammered out for two millennia by our Bible-believing forebears who have proven them to be in accord with the entirety of the Divine Revelation. Unfortunately for 21st Century Christians, of late there has arisen the most acute epistemological snobbery to ever infiltrate the ranks of many of the Church elite. These men treat their heirlooms like worn-out clothes, which may have fit once-upon-a-time but are now well out of fashion. They view their ancestors as barbarians to be pitied for their simplicity, and whose entire enterprise needs to be recreated from the ground up. My aim is to familiarize the reader with the jewels trampled upon by many prominent figures of our day, and to steer them away from the doctrines which contradict orthodoxy. I also aim to show that – while above our understanding – the classical doctrine of the Trinity is coherent, beautiful, and logically sound in the truth it proclaims.

The Litmus Test

Here at the Particular Baptist, we subscribe to the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, and hold it to be an accurate summary of Biblical teachings. Concerning the Trinity, our confession speaks as follows:

“In this divine and infinite Being there are three subsistences, the Father, the Word or Son, and Holy Spirit, of one substance, power, and eternity, each having the whole divine essence, yet the essence undivided: the Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son; all infinite, without beginning, therefore but one God, who is not to be divided in nature and being, but distinguished by several peculiar relative properties and personal relations; which doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our communion with God, and comfortable dependence on him.”

1689 LBCF 2.3

In this articulation of the Trinity, there is nothing peculiar to our confession. It’s merely an expanded form of the corresponding section in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which itself is little more than a summary of the Nicene Creed that has been universally accepted by the Church for almost 1700 years now. Rather than unpack the meaning of these affirmations at the outset, we will take the via negativa, and uncover their truths by examining the falsehoods that depart from them. Only in the context of the errors that prompted the development of our standard Trinitarian language can we fully appreciate the precision and depth found in our historic confessions.

Part I – Errors Concerning the Trinity

Aside from overt denial of the Trinity, there are only two primary ways of departing from the above truths among those who still insist to be “Trinitarian”: modalism and tri-theism. Anyone who explicitly adopted either of those views would immediately be labeled as a heretic by orthodox believers worth their salt, but there are many who hold to either modalistic or tri-theistic understandings of the Trinity who will still claim to be Trinitarian, and so they fly under the radar of many Christians. Indeed, there are likely even many genuine, born-again believers who honestly think they have orthodox views about the Trinity, but have conceptions that are more akin to these heresies simply because they have never been properly instructed. We must be willing to extend grace to those who struggle but are eager to learn, since a mature understanding of the doctrine is difficult to expect for babes in the Faith. Such Christians may believe in the Triune God of Scipture and simply fail to properly articulate Him. However, less gentleness is called for when dealing with seminary-educated men who make themselves out to be leaders. Those we will be rebuking in this essay are those who are fully aware of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity and yet still deny it, all the while pretending to believe in the Trinity lest anyone call them what they are. We will first deal with the error of modalism.

1.1 – Modalism

Part of the reason why so many professing Trinitarians end up with modalistic conceptions is because they don’t really understand what modalism is. There’s a misconception that modalism is the belief that the Persons of the Trinity are one God taking on different roles at different times, and that He is never more than one Person at one time. However, this is indeed a misconception, and one that I’ve seen made even by popular teachers who should know better. There is nothing in modalism that precludes God from being different Persons (or, in their view, manifestations) at the same time. A Oneness Pentecostal who knows his stuff won’t flinch to see the Father and Son contemporaneously interacting with each other. What distinguishes modalists is their belief that the distinctions between the Persons of the Trinity are not real, eternal distinctions within the Godhead, but are rather the distinctions between the roles God plays in creation. Accordingly, you can have real interactions between the manifestations of God within creation, because in their view these are simply the distinct roles of the one Person intermingling. The key difference between Trinitarian theology and modalistic theology is NOT the fact that the distinct Persons of the Trinity simultaneously exist in creation, but that they are simultaneously distinct in eternity, within the Godhead Himself. The Bible says that Jesus shared His glory with the Father as a distinct Person “before the world was” (John 17:5), and that, in the beginning, the Word already was God and with God (John 1:1), and therefore the Word was/is distinct from God the Father outside of creation. And so, if you believe that the Trinity is something like the separating of a single beam of light as it travels through the prism of creation, I humbly encourage you to repent, because that is not true Trinitarianism, but modalism. Creation may magnify the distinctions between the Persons, but they already exist within the Godhead. Simply confessing that the Father is not the Son, who is not the Spirit, and yet that all three are One God does not sufficiently distinguish you from modalism – you must confess that the Father, Son, and Spirit are distinct in eternity. This is why the LBCF stresses that “the Son is eternally begotten of the Father,” because this affirms that the distinction is not temporal, but eternal. And so, a heretic like T.D. Jakes can throw Trinitarians all the bones he wants by saying he believes in the distinction of the Father, Son, and Spirit, but until he confesses that they are distinct within the Godhead, this concession means little.

1.2 – Tri-theism

The bulk of our concern in this essay will be combating tri-theism. This is because, unlike modalism, latent forms of tri-theism have ample support in the modern academy itself. If modalistic conceptions are common among lay people, at least they usually won’t be encouraged in that error when they turn for instruction. However, when the teachers themselves teach heresy, the danger is much greater. Not many will be surprised to see T.D. Jakes called a heretic, but would you expect that someone like William Lane Craig has embraced a fundamentally heretical view of the ontological nature of God? Unfortunately it’s true, and – as we shall see – he and many other such men have fearlessly abandoned a core tenet of the Christian faith confessed with unanimity for over 1800 years.

This error stems from a Jesuit by the name of Theodore de Régnon, who in 1892 began to write of an alleged fundamental difference between Latin-scholastic and Greek-patristic Trinitarian ontology. This misconception has grown to become an imagined divide between Eastern and Western Trinitarian thought altogether, rather than the specific Greek/Latin subcategories that de Régnon theorized. According to de Régnon, the basic difference between the two camps was that the Latins started with the divine essence and then proceeded to the Trinity, while the Greeks started with the Trinity and then proceeded to the divine essence. This distinction (which stands on specious grounds to begin with [1]) may seem harmless, but modern heretics have abused it to frame their abominations with historical legitimacy. Straining this perceived Eastern tradition, they feel comfortable to assert that the individual Persons of the Trinity have an ontological priority to the essence of the One God (which even de Régnon does not say the Greeks believed). Or, to translate tradesman-speak into English, what these theologians say is that God is the RESULT of the three Persons coming together, and therefore NONE of the Persons are themselves the One God; He is simply the combination of the Persons. In this view, God is composed of three distinct Beings, and therefore there is not really one, but three Gods! Make no mistake, friend, this is not monotheism, but tri-theism. Lest anyone think I’m misrepresenting them, let’s hear it from the horse’s mouth:

“Father, Son, and Spirit must be regarded as tightly enough related to each so as to render plausible the judgement that they constitute a particular social unit … In such social monotheism, it will be appropriate to use the designator God to refer to the whole Trinity, where the Trinity is understood to be one thing, even if it is a complex thing consisting of persons, essences, and relations.”

Cornelius Plantinga, JR, “Social Trinity and Tritheism.” 68

Notice the author of that statement: Cornelius Plantinga, former president of Calvin Theological Seminary. This is not a theological liberal, but someone who claims to stand in the stream of historical evangelicalism. In Plantinga’s view, God is not One Being, but rather a social unit,” much like a cohesive community of like-minded individuals would be. The Father, Son, and Spirit do not each possess the whole, undivided Divine Essence as the LBCF asserts, but rather they are parts of the Divine Essence, and only the Trinity as a whole would rightly be called God. Therefore, Plantinga does not hold to a real, ontological monotheism, but rather a “social monotheism,” as he says. William Lane Craig is even more explicit in this:

“[My view] holds that while the persons of the Trinity are divine, it is the Trinity as a whole which is properly God … the Trinity alone is God and that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, while divine, are not Gods”

William Lane Craig, A Formulation and Defense of the Doctrine of the Trinity

In Craig’s view, then, only the whole Trinity can be called God, and none of the individual Persons can be called God, but only divine beings. If only Dr. Craig was around to let the Apostles know this, who routinely refer to the distinct Persons as each God in their own right (e.g. John 1:1, John 3:16, Ephesians 1:3, 1 Peter 1:2, 1 Timothy 3:16, John 21:28, Acts 5:3-4, Psalm 45:7, etc., etc.)! And while Craig tries to dodge the label of tri-theist by insisting that each Person is not Himself God (which is already profound heresy), it is truly the height of semantic trifling to deny that his position imagines three Gods, especially when he and J.P. Moreland say that the three Persons are “distinct centers of consciousness, each with its proper intellect and will” [2]. Who cares if you call each Person God or not if you say each are distinct divine beings, who each have more of a right to be called God than any of the fictions dreamed up by pagans? In their attempt to fashion God after their own image, they imagine that the Persons of God are like the persons of men, and so each Person is an ontologically distinct being with His own mind and will (contrary to Scripture, which presents no division in the one Will shared by the Persons of the Trinity [e.g. John 5:19, John 16:13]). But in this pertinacity they plummet themselves into polytheism, since if the Persons of God were like persons of men in this respect, God would no more be one Being than three like-minded comrades would be one person, and no matter how tight their “social unit” might be, they would not be One God. And so with that, Craig, Moreland, and Plantinga have abandoned all Protestant confessions, Nicaea, the Apostle’s Creed, and the daily recited Shema, which says, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord” (Deuteronomy 6:4). They depart from the first thing Jesus says when asked what the greatest commandment is (Mark 12:28-29). To pretend that these men are orthodox, evangelical Protestants when they aren’t even monotheists is to make orthodoxy mean nothing at all.

Part II – Defending Orthodoxy

Piecing together what we’ve said so far, the philosophically-minded reader may think that our rebukes of modalism and tri-theism have put us in a predicament. On the one hand, we’ve dismissed modalism for not recognizing a distinction of Persons within the Godhead, and on the other we’ve attacked tri-theism for arguing that there are multiple distinct Beings in the Godhead. So, what are we saying? Are we saying that the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father within the Godhead, and yet the Father, Son, and Spirit are each simply the same One, undivided God? Our answer: Yes, and any departure to the right or to the left of this is heresy. It’s no concern of ours if this doesn’t fit into your realm of philosophical possibilities; what’s impossible for man is possible for God. He is by no means like us or anything else we’re familiar with. However, while the inner-workings of the Trinity are far beyond us, it is possible to demonstrate that these seemingly contradictory affirmations are, in fact, logically coherent. To the best of my ability, the remainder of this essay will be dedicated to proving just that.

2.1 – Divine Simplicity

We cannot properly explore the Trinity without first discussing another crucial aspect of God’s nature: namely, His simplicity. When we say God is simple, we don’t at all mean the same thing as when we might call a man simple. God is simple in the sense that He doesn’t have parts, and that everything in God is God. As Irenaeus put it in the 2nd Century:

“He is a simple, uncompounded Being, without diverse members, and altogether like, and equal to himself, since He is wholly understanding, and wholly spirit, and wholly thought, and wholly intelligence, and wholly reason, and wholly hearing, and wholly seeing, and wholly light, and the whole source of all that is good— even as the religious and pious are wont to speak concerning God. He is, however, above [all] these properties, and therefore indescribable.”

Irenaeus. Against Heresies, 2.13.3-4

This truth, confessed by Irenaeus at a time when the Church was still relatively pure from the later errors that would seep in, has been recognized by all branches of Christendom, and retained even by those who have apostatized on other doctrines. It was recognized by all of the reformers and all the historic confessions of faith. It became a universal doctrine of the Church because it’s a thoroughly biblical doctrine, grounded on God’s repeated emphasis of His Oneness, His pure self-identification with His Being, and the utter independence He asserts from all that is not Him. I’ve gone into a little more depth explaining this doctrine elsewhere, but here I will simply say that it’s a necessary consequence of God’s self-existence. If God was composed of parts that were not simply God Himself, then He would be dependent upon those parts to be who He is. Therefore, He would not be the utterly independent, self-existing Being we see in Scripture, but rather He would be dependent on that which isn’t in and of itself God, much like a car depends on nuts and bolts that aren’t the car itself.

The universal recognition of this doctrine is one of the reasons why the appeal to the East to lend an air of legitimacy to tri-theism is so unconvincing, because all of the Eastern theologians embraced a doctrine of divine simplicity that is completely incompatible with the musings of Craig, Plantinga, and Moreland, all of whom openly reject divine simplicity. And it’s easy to see why they must do so, for there is no room to have God be the sum of three Beings who are not God in light of His simplicity.

But the doctrine requires us to be even stricter than this, making our job more difficult still; if all that is in God is God, and the three Persons are each God, then it’s not only the case that a shared divine essence is uncompounded, but also that there are no additional attributes in any of the members of the Trinity that may differentiate them. How, then, is the Father not the Son, the Son not the Spirit, and the Spirit not the Father? Boethius answers this dilemma brilliantly.

2.2 – Actual vs. Relative Properties

When we describe something, there are multiple types of predication (i.e., there are multiple ways in which we can ascribe a quality to something). For the purpose of this essay, we’ll distinguish three types of predication: essential, accidental, and relational. Essential predication deals with the essence of something: namely, that which determines what a thing is on a fundamental level. E.g., to describe Bob as a person would be an essential predication, because Bob wouldn’t be Bob if he wasn’t a person. Accidental predication, on the other hand, occurs when we describe something that isn’t fundamental to the thing we’re describing; it’s something that could change without changing the nature of the thing we’re describing. E.g., describing Bob as having white hair is an accidental predication, since Bob would still be Bob even if he had blonde hair. Finally – and most importantly for our purposes – there is relational predication, which doesn’t directly describe the thing itself, but rather its relation to something else. E.g., describing Bob as the father of Joe is a relational predication.

Why is this relevant? Because, unlike essential and accidental predication (which together may be described as actual predication), relational predication doesn’t necessarily say anything about the thing it describes, but only speaks of a relationship that exists between that thing and something else. It may sometimes imply essential and accidental qualities (e.g. Bob being a father implies something about his age, gender, and hopefully character), but – in and of itself – relational predication doesn’t demand to be associated with any essential or even accidental qualities in the thing it describes. An example Boethius uses is a person being on the right or left of someone else. “Right” can be predicated of one person, but this doesn’t distinguish any of the person’s essential or accidental properties from the person on the left. A proof of this is that we can stipulate the person on the left suddenly vanishing from reality, and yet the person on the right remains exactly the same. The only thing that has changed is that he now can no longer be called the person on the right, and has lost that relative property.

So, what if – as we must confess – the Persons of the Trinity are only distinguished by relative properties, but not by any actual (i.e., essential or accidental) properties? I’ll let Boethius answer that himself:

“Wherefore if father and son are predicates of relation, and, as we have said, have no other difference but that of relation, but relation is not predicated with reference to that of which it is predicated as if it were the thing itself and objectively predicated of it, it will not imply an otherness of the things of which it is said, but, in a phrase which aims at interpreting what we could hardly understand, an otherness of persons … since the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, but God has no differences distinguishing him from God, he differs from none of the others. But where there are no differences there is no plurality; where there is no plurality there is unity … Thus the Unity of the Three is suitably established.”

Boethius. De Trinitate, V

Notice that this is precisely what was said by the LBCF, the framers of which stood on the shoulders of the giants before them. The Persons of the Trinity are there said to be “distinguished by several peculiar relative properties and personal relations,” i.e., not by any actual, objective properties, but solely by the relations existing between the Persons who are identical in essence, and not distinguished by anything else like space or time. And if there is no distinction between things, and they are not separated by either space or time, then they are indeed one and the same, yet this would not invalidate any relationship between them if one existed. Thus, the Father, Son, and Spirit are indeed distinct from one another, insofar as the Father is distinguished as the Begetter, the Son is the Begotten, and the Spirit is He that proceeds from the Father and the Son, yet they are all One and the same God. In Trinity, Unity.

2.3 – How God Can be Related to Himself

Mockers of the Faith view the idea of God’s self-relations as nonsensical. How can One and the same God be related to Himself in different ways, especially a simple God who has no parts that could have relationships between them? It would be permissible to stop here on the grounds that we, who have no idea what the divine nature is like in itself, have no basis for saying that He cannot be self-relating. But I believe it’s possible to go further, and to show that it’s not only possible, but even logical for God to be self-relating.

When I studied modern physics, I vividly remember my professor calling the Bohr model – that famous depiction of an atom’s electrons orbiting neatly around its nucleus – “a lie, but a pedagogical lie.” It’s a lie, because electrons don’t orbit like objects might on a macro-scale (they’re more like “probability clouds”), but it’s still pedagogical, because the lie reveals something true about the nature of atoms which we can learn from (i.e., the existence of electrons at different energy levels, which is analogous to an orbit). Similarly, in order to better understand the Trinity, it’s sometimes useful to resort to what could be called a “pedagogical heresy.” Much like the analogies frequently used by Athanasius, the following picture will be inadequate, and even heretical if taken too seriously, but it may nevertheless be helpful in understanding something true about the relations within the Trinity. Specifically, we will imagine what it would look like if the relationships within the Trinity emerged over time, starting with the Father and then proceeding to the Son and the Spirit. To be clear, they did NOT emerge over time, and all three Persons are eternally co-existent, but – because of the limitations of our time-bound brain – we will have to consider how the relationships would look temporally, and then we may be able to better understand how they exist logically.

Let’s begin by imagining a time when there was only God the Father (again, there was no such time, and if there were He certainly wouldn’t have been a father, but I digress). Imagine then that He decided to beget another God exactly like Himself – what would happen? If it’s a clone of Himself that He begets, there would be no difference between them, and in the absence of anything such as space or time to distinguish them (as would actually be the case), the action of begetting would simply result in Himself. No new Being was generated. However, just because He didn’t generate a new Being doesn’t negate the fact that He performed the action to generate a new Being; it just so happens that the product of that action was Himself. Therefore, we are still left with One Being, yet there was an action that took place that related Him with Himself. For that action, there was an initiator (a Begetter) and a result (the Begotten). Both the Begetter and the Begotten are the same Being, God, but in respect to the action, there is a Begetter and a Begotten that are logically distinct from each other, since there are logically distinct start and end points of the action. Thus, there is One God, and yet two relations or – as we’ve come to call them – Persons.

What if there was another begetting? Well, from the perspective of a time-bound pedagogical heresy, God could keep begetting Himself an infinite number of times, producing an infinite number of Persons. However, without time to distinguish one act of begetting from another, there could necessarily only be the one begetting that took place in eternity. Keep in mind that the Begetter and the Begotten are not separate Beings; if they were, it would be possible for the Begotten to do His own begetting, and so on and so forth ad infinitum. However, when they are One and the same Being, then the Begotten is simply the result of the action of the begetting, and the Begetter is simply He who begets. And so it’s impossible for the Begotten to do any begetting, because for God to beget is simply to be God the Begetter (remember, the different Persons are only the relations, nothing more). In other words, the Father is simply God begetting, and the Son is simply God being begotten, so they cannot interchange their roles. If the Son could be imagined to beget (which the careful reader will see is a contradiction), it would simply make Him the Begetter, and the result would be the Begotten. And with neither actual nor relative properties to distinguish these new two Persons from the first two Persons, we’re still left with only the original two, and there wouldn’t even be any multiplication of relations.

BUT besides the relationship of begetting, there is an additional potential relationship in the Godhead which we’ll call procession. There are two feasible ways to replicate: one way is to beget from oneself, and the other is to use that which one has received. And so the One who has received, the Begotten, may take what He received from His source to overflow into a third Person, who again is One and the same as the Begetter and the Begotten. This would not be the Begotten functioning as a Begetter because – unlike the Begetter – He did not take from Himself but from a logically distinct source, and so it’s a different relation with its own logically distinct result. This third Person would properly be described as He who is “proceeding from the Father and the Son,” as the LBCF states.

This model was inspired by that found in Pavel Butakov’s paper [3]

And so we have three Persons: One who can be described as “the from,” One who can be described as “the to and from,” and another who can be described as “the to,” as far as the direction of their relationships goes. Laid out like this, it’s apparent that there can be no other Persons. This is the beauty of the Trinity. What other possibilities are there but “from,” “to/from,” and “to” for the Divine Essence? We cannot multiply any more Persons without making them identical to one of these three categories. Therefore, the Trinity is the fullness of the Divine self-expression, fully complete within itself. And this Trinity does not emerge from the speculations of any philosopher, but was revealed gradually by the Living God Himself through His inspired, Holy Word. Do not cast these precious truths to the wind, reader; cherish them, and become heirs to great tradition of Bible-believing Christians before you.

Footnotes:

[1] D. Glenn Butner, JR. For and Against de Régnon: Trinitarianism East and West

[2] Moreland and Craig. Philosophical Foundations, 583.

[3] Pavel Butakov. Relations in the Trinitarian Reality: Two Approaches. This work provides an excellent exploration of the differences that do exist in some Eastern and Western Trinitarian models which resulted in the great Filioque controversy. He somewhat draws from de Régnon, but makes plain the deficiencies of that paradigm. The reader will notice that the distinctions that do exist do not result in anything like the tri-theism posited by Craig, Moreland, and Plantinga. However, the Western model is undoubtedly superior, as the article shows, and the Filioque can be found to have been supported even by some of the patristics that de Régnon would like to pit against the West. And that’s not to mention the biblical support for it (e.g. John 15:26)

Published by Andrew Warrick

One of the millions of sinners redeemed by the finished work of the only Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, Who requires nothing but our faith in Him for us to receive the full forgiveness of all our sins -- past, present, and future. I'm a Reformed Baptist layman living in Northern Virginia. My beliefs are summarized by the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, which can be found here: https://www.the1689confession.com/

3 thoughts on “Errors About the Trinity: A Classical Defense

  1. Andrew, thanks for this post. William Lane Craig also has heterodox views on Roman Catholicism, he views it as a fully legitimate Christian entity.

    Like

    1. Yes, it seems to be rare for someone to be heterodox in one area without being heterodox in many others. I have no idea why so many hold Craig in high esteem when he doesn’t even affirm the basics of the Trinity or the centrality of the pure Gospel. Glad you liked the post, Tom!

      Liked by 1 person

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