Trinity: Analogies And Countering Critics

Trinity: analogies and countering critics

Published: 23 September 2012 (GMT+10)

Today’s feedback by Dr Jonathan Sarfati responds to various readers concerning the doctrine of the Trinity. These include is God made of parts, good analogies vs. fallacious ones, the personality of the Holy Spirit, how the early Church including Tertullian realized that the Bible taught the Trinity, what “God is one” means. The original questions were directed at various articles on the web, and this article collates them into one place that is easily searchable.

Trinity analogies: be cautious

Danika T., United Kingdom [Commenting on Has the ‘God particle’ been found?]

Three fundamental particles! Amazing! It’s a great time to be alive. We are fortunate that God has determined to allow us to know more of his majesty.

I also couldn’t help but be reminded that the Creator God is an entity comprised also of three parts!

Thank you for your comments. Just a few notes of caution.

It is not really correct to say that the three Persons of the Trinity are ‘parts’ of God—see also Is God ‘simple’?We see in Colossians 2:9:

For in him [Christ] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,

However, Jesus is not the Father or the Holy Spirit—see also the ancient Trinity diagram.

Also, I would be cautious about using triads in nature, such as solid-liquid-gas, three dimensions, past/present/future as any proof of the Trinity (not that you were doing that). After all, if God were a ‘Binity’ there would be plenty of duals in nature to ‘point’ to Binitarianism (space/time, matter/energy, wave-particle duality, positive/negative charge, and particle-antiparticle pair production). Also, if God were a Quadrunity, the Four Gospels are one parallel that would come to mind, as would the four dimensions of Relativistic spacetime, the four fundamental forces of nature, and the four gauge bosons as per the article.

While all analogies are weak in some way, some are counterproductive. One I’ve seen (not from you) is The Trinity is like a man who is simultaneously a father to his children, son to his parents, and husband to his wife. But this is more like modalism, aka the Sabellian heresy (taught by “Oneness” groups today). This says that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are merely different ways that God relates to His creation, not the distinct Persons that the Bible teaches about (see A biblical defence of the Trinity).

I can suggest another analogy with the Trinity, which goes back to the Church Fathers. Christ was not created but is coeternal with God the Father, but the Father is nonetheless the ‘begetter’ of the Son. Thus one ancient analogy compares Father and Son to the sun and its light: the light’s source is the sun, but the sun’s very nature is to emit light (as per Gen. 1:14 ff. God made the sun precisely as a light-giver to earth), so they are co-eternal. Similarly, God the Son is eternally begotten of the Father, while the Father’s nature is to beget the Son eternally. This is reflected in the classic Nicene Creed of AD 325:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made.

Trinity and the early church

Sam W., Kenya [commenting on Who really is the God of Genesis?]:

This is a good read, very informative. It would be good to include who originated the concept of Trinity, Tertullian, and why. The church father wanted to illustrate the unique (and complex) relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each maintaining their individuality but each distinct in function. This would assist the reader further understand this concept. Once more it is a good read.

We are glad you liked the article. We can’t cover everything, but indeed, the originator of the Trinity is usually considered to be Tertullian (AD c. 160 – c. 225).

I testify that the Father, and the Son, and the Spirit are inseparable from each other, and so will you know in what sense this is said. Now, observe, my assertion is that the Father is one, and the Son one, and the Spirit one, and that They are distinct from Each Other.—Tertullian, 2nd century AD.

An instructive work is Creeds, Councils and Christ: Did the early Christians misrepresent Jesus? (updated 2009) by Gerald Bray, professor at Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He explains that Tertullian, a lawyer and Christian apologist, realized that the Bible taught that God made a covenant with Israel. And on God’s side, there were actually three signatories: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Now in Roman law, the word for party to a legal action was persona. From this, Tertullian summarized the biblical teaching as tres Personae, una Substantia (three Persons, one Substance).

Tertullian explained the Trinity at length using copious biblical passages as proof that there was one God in three distinct Persons in Against Praxeas:

Bear always in mind that this is the rule of faith which I profess; by it I testify that the Father, and the Son, and the Spirit are inseparable from each other, and so will you know in what sense this is said. Now, observe, my assertion is that the Father is one, and the Son one, and the Spirit one, and that They are distinct from Each Other.

Praxeas was a heretic who taught a modalistic view like that of modern ‘Oneness’ groups: that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were all the same Person in different modes. Tertullian convincingly demonstrates the error with scripture, while Praxeas’ few scriptures alleged to support that view are shown to do the opposite.

Actually, a little before Tertullian, Theophilus of Antioch (AD 115–181) wrote in an apologetic work to the learned pagan magistrate Autolycus. In a commentary on the fourth day of creation, Theophilus asserted that the previous three days were literal days before the sun, and “types of the Trinity, of God, and His Word, and His wisdom.” (To Autolycus 2:15, AD 181).

The Personality of the Holy Spirit

B. L., United States [commenting on Who really is the God of Genesis?]:

If the Holy Spirit is actually a “third” party in the God Family instead of the power emanating from the Father and the Word, then the Holy Spirit is the Father of Jesus Christ. Jesus must have been mistaken in calling God his father!

Also, why does Paul extend greetings of “grace and peace” to the Romans, Corinthians, etc. from the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ but not the Holy Spirit? Paul would be showing contempt for the Holy Spirit by failing to include it in the greeting if it were.

The trinity is just another example of paganism in the Christian religion.

The first statement is false: the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary so she would conceive Jesus (Luke 1:35). As shown in The Incarnation: Why did God become Man?, this meant adding human nature to the divine nature that the Son already possessed from eternity. As Tertullian pointed out in Against Praxeas (see above):

The role of the Holy Spirit is largely to point people to Christ, not to Himself. It is folly to use such arguments and ignore the clear teachings of the personality of the Holy Spirit. For example, ‘the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them,’’ (Acts 13:2), which shows the Holy Spirit referring to Himself in the first person.

Besides, the flesh is not God, so that it could not have been said concerning it, That Holy Thing shall be called the Son of God, but only that Divine Being who was born in the flesh, of whom the psalm also says, Since God became man in the midst of it, and established it by the will of the Father. Now what Divine Person was born in it? The Word, and the Spirit which became incarnate with the Word by the will of the Father. The Word, therefore, is incarnate; and this must be the point of our inquiry: How the Word became flesh—whether it was by having been transfigured, as it were, in the flesh, or by having really clothed Himself in flesh. Certainly it was by a real clothing of Himself in flesh. …

Of them Jesus consists—Man, of the flesh; of the Spirit, God—and the angel designated Him as the Son of God, Luke 1:35 in respect of that nature, in which He was Spirit, reserving for the flesh the appellation Son of Man. In like manner, again, the apostle calls Him the Mediator between God and Men, 1 Timothy 2:5 and so affirmed His participation of both substances.

Your second argument is just an argument from silence. The role of the Holy Spirit is largely to point people to Christ, not to Himself. It is folly to use such arguments and ignore the clear teachings of the personality of the Holy Spirit. For example, “the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them,’” (Acts 13:2), which shows the Holy Spirit referring to Himself in the first person.

Your third argument is the reverse of the truth. The early church was adamant that the true teachings must be derived from the Bible; we can see this copiously demonstrated by Tertullian, for example. And they fought strongly against pagan philosophies. Indeed, as Gerald Bray noted in Creeds, Councils and Christ (see above), “it looks strongly as if Platonism was refashioned to meet the challenge of Christianity, not the other way round.”

The Tri-une nature of God

Wayne T., Australia, [commenting on Who really is the God of Genesis?]:

It is good that you qualified that Genesis ch. 1 does not specifically nominate a Trinity, nor does scripture refer to the deity as “persons”, except in Job 13:8 where there is a reproof if one is to secretly accept persons. Whenever “person” is used in reference to deity, the Greek renders this word as “Substance”. If God is not a numerical “One”, why is it declared in Isaiah “thus saith the Lord, the Holy One of Israel” or “I am God and there is no God beside me”. If it had been possible to know the Son apart from the Father when Phillip asked Jesus, “Lord show us the Father and it sufficeth us,” Jesus would have done so. On the contrary he reproofed Phillip by stating “Have I been so long time with you,and yet has though not known me.” …

Jonathan Sarfati responds:

Here, as above, I will confine myself mainly to Tertullian’s Against Praxeas and Gerald Bray’s Creeds, Councils, and Christ.

You assert that the oneness of God must be understood in an absolute unity rather than a composite unity (see The Hebrew language and Messianic prophecies). And Tom Wright pointed out, “there is no suggestion that “monotheism” or praying the Shema, had anything to do with the numerical analysis of the inner being of Israel’s god himself,” (more at The Incarnation: Why did God become Man?). In fact, to show that “there is nothing new under the sun”, Tertullian also noted the dogmatism of those who thought that belief in one God entailed belief in one Person in the Godhead:

this heresy, which supposes itself to possess the pure truth, in thinking that one cannot believe in One Only God in any other way than by saying that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are the very selfsame Person. As if in this way also one were not All, in that All are of One, by unity (that is) of substance; while the mystery of the dispensation is still guarded, which distributes the Unity into a Trinity, placing in their order the three Persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost: three, however, not in condition, but in degree; not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in aspect; yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power, inasmuch as He is one God, from whom these degrees and forms and aspects are reckoned, under the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. How they are susceptible of number without division, will be shown as our treatise proceeds.

Analogies are always to be used with caution.

Your other claim is based on something lost in the translations between Greek and Latin. Tertullian defined the Trinity as three Personae and one Substantia. As pointed out below, persona in Roman Law was a party to a legal contract. But a hyper-literal translation to Greek results in πρόσωπον prosōpon, which means “mask”. Thus the Greek church misunderstood the Latin usage, and originally thought that the Latin Church taught modalism: that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are merely modes (masks) of God not distinct centres of consciousness.

And the Greek Church formulated the Trinity as three hypostases (singular hypostasis ὑπόστᾰσις) and one oὐσία ousia. But a hyper-literal translation to Latin results in substantia—both sub and hypo mean “below”. Yet this is a misunderstanding, because in Greek theological usage, hypostasis meant a quasi-personification of attributes proper to a deity. Indeed, as you inadvertently note, it was used in the Greek New Testament to mean “person”.

The problem of translation, as Bray notes, was solved in the 4th century. Basil (a noted creationist theologian) realized that what the Greek church meant by hypostasis, the Latin church meant by persona, so they really believed the same thing.

The Trinity and Infinity

In my view, a recent article that might help is Infinity through dark glasses. This points out, among other things, that infinite subsets can be as ‘numerous’ as the superset (and there are degrees of “infinity”), as Cantor showed.

It’s complicated, but Cantor showed that although the set of rational numbers contain many members that the set of natural (counting) numbers does not contain, they can be matched in a one-to-one correspondence. Similarly, the set of even numbers, a subset of the set of natural numbers, can also be matched one-to-one. So all these sets, although one is a subset and the other a superset of natural numbers, are classed as “countable infinity”. This is sometimes assigned the cardinality “aleph-null” (ℵ0); aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet). (Also, the set of real numbers cannot be matched into a one-to-one correspondence with the natural numbers, as he showed with his “diagonalization proof”. Thus this has a higher degree of infinity, “uncountable infinity”, which has the higher cardinality 2ℵ0 or “beth-one” (beth ב is the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet), identical to “aleph-one” (ℵ1) only if the continuum hypothesis is true).

Analogies are always to be used with caution, including this one. But I think that Cantor’s analysis of the concept of infinity can be useful understanding that Jesus could be an infinite ‘subset’ of God without losing any of His infinite attributes.

Readers’ comments

Peter M., New Zealand, 23 September 2012

There are several verses that I can't reconcile with the Trinity, plus others I have not included. Can you help?

Dr Jonathan Sarfati replies Indeed I can. Indeed, many of those questions have been addressed on our site.

PM: Colossians 1:15 where our Saviour is mentioned as the 1st born of every creature.

JS: In Jesus Christ our Creator: A biblical defence of the Trinity, I point out:

Some objections to the Trinity Answered

Jesus is called ‘the firstborn of every creature’ (Colossians 1:15). However, in Jewish imagery, ‘firstborn’ means ‘having the rights and special privileges belonging to the eldest child’. It refers to pre-eminence in rank more than to priority in time. This can be shown in passages where the term ‘firstborn’ is used of the pre-eminent son who was not the eldest, e.g. Psalm 89:27, where David is called ‘firstborn’ although he was actually the youngest son.

‘Firstborn’ does not mean ‘first created’; the Greek for the latter is protoktisis, while firstborn is prototokos. In fact, the verses after Colossians 1:15 show that Christ Himself is the creator of all things.

John 17:3 where our Lord tells us that, when praying to the Father, that He is the only true God, and our Lord was sent by Him.

PM: 1 Cor. 8:6 .. one God, and.. one Lord Jesus.

JS: In Defending vital doctrines and the deity of Christ, it is shown that this is powerful evidence for the Deity of Christ:

Also there is 1 Cor. 8:6:

‘Yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.’

Here, Paul is applying the famous Shema of Deut. 6:4 ‘Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD.’ Paul has used the key phrase ‘one Lord’ and applied it to Jesus Christ, thus including Jesus in the divine identity! Also, phrases like ‘of’ or ‘by whom all things’ are typical Jewish formulations that express God’s relationship to creation. This is in line with the Jewish concept of Wisdom, God’s attribute, as God’s tool for creation. Yet this still retains monotheism by including Jesus within the divine identity.

PM: 1 Cor. 15:28.. then the Son also be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.

JS: As mentioned in A biblical defence of the Trinity, equality of nature does not imply equality of roles. Philippians 2:5–11 states that Jesus had equality by nature with God, but voluntarily took on the lower role of a servant. The distinction can be illustrated in the human realm by the role of the Prime Minister — he is greater than us in position, but he is still a human being like us, so is not better in nature. Indeed, Christ submitted to His mother and stepfather (Luke 2:51), although He w

as infinitely superior by nature.

PM: God the Father, His Son—the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit work in unison and have a common purpose and separate. I’ve been trying to understand it all for some years now.

I put my faith and trust in all 3.

JS: Indeed, no one said it was easy. One distinction is one God with three centres of consciousness


Doug T., United States, 23 September 2012

Wow, awesome handling of a very difficult topic. As I’m sure you appreciate, this is a topic that Muslims (even after they’ve trusted Christ as savior) can really struggle with, especially with the relation of the Son to the Father.
churinga churinga
70+, M
Sep 23, 2012