One Person or Three? Or Both?

Due to completely foreseen developments occurring as a result of my interview with Dominic Bnonn Tennant on last Tuesday’s BW Live, it is appropriate to clarify a few things regarding what I think of the Trinity. I have written extensively on this topic on this blog, but I have limited myself to describing and defending the actual definition of the Trinity, and not talked much about assessing the strengths and weaknesses of various ways of explaining how the pillars of that definition work together. Allow me to do so now.

First, we need to make a clear distinction between two terms and how I’m using them, as it pertains to any complex topic or doctrine, like the Trinity.

  • Definition – Language that seeks to set the boundaries of what is essential to the doctrine
  • Explanation – Language that seeks to help people understand how elements of the doctrine interact with one another and with Scripture

The importance of this distinction is that definitions, if correct, establish orthodox belief, while explanations can vary from person to person, but those people could all still be orthodox if adhering to the definition. When it comes to the Trinity, I believe that what is definitional can be drawn directly from Scripture, and explanations build on the definition, but do not alter it.

The Biblical Definition of the Trinity

Here is what we know, for sure, that the Scripture affirms regarding the Trinity, and therefore, what is the definition of the Trinity, biblically.

  1. Yahweh is utterly unique. Though there be those that are called “gods”, only Yahweh is truly God of gods, eternal, creator, redeemer.
  2. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each identified as Yahweh, in various ways (by being worshipped, said to create, be the redeemer, called “God” and “Yahweh”, etc.)
  3. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are personally distinct (in that the way they relate to one another is expressed as one person to another)
  4. Jesus, since His incarnation, possesses both true and complete Deity and true and complete humanity, in one Person.

These items could be expressed in different ways. For example, you could split items 2 and 3 into their simpler parts (The Father is Yahweh, The Son is Yahweh, etc.), but however expressed, these are the essentials of the Trinity in terms of the biblical revelation.

At this point, some Christians, especially those brought up in a well-established confessional tradition, are probably asking where the familiar terms like “being”, “person”, “essence”, “co-eternal”, “co-equal”, “hypostasis”, and the like are to be found. Aren’t we talking about the Trinity? First, let me try to set your mind at ease by saying that, as far as I understand these terms, I have no objection to the way they are used to describe the Trinity. This article is not an attempt to overthrow them as if they are in error. Rather, it is an attempt to recapture what the Bible actually says about God, and treat the Scriptural witness as the primary thing, as the actual definition of the Trinity.

This is where the distinction between definitions and explanations becomes so important. Much of the language found in creeds and confessions, accurate though it may be, is not drawn directly from Scripture. These descriptions cannot, therefore, be considered the Biblical definition of the Trinity. Many who use these descriptions also use something like my four statements above, speaking of them as the “foundations” or “pillars” of the Trinity. What I’m doing here is trying to shift our focus from seeing the creedal statements as definitional, to seeing the biblical statements as definitional. The creeds then become explanatory. Still correct, but not the doctrine itself.

I’m not alone in doing this. Apologist Rob Bowman wrote this article, showing what I showed above, that all the essentials of the Trinity can be expressed, not only in biblical language, but using only statements found in Scripture. Now, there is a very important reason why I believe it is important to define the Trinity biblically, rather than creedally.

The Constant Attacks on the Trinity

It’s no secret to anyone who knows anyone in a non-Trinitarian group that those folks seem to love almost nothing more than attacking the Trinity. And what do they attack? The Nicene Creed, the Westminster Confession, take your pick. Again, all the terms I’ve mentioned are defensible, when rightly understood and defined themselves, but why make our task so much more difficult by defending secondary sources? Why not just defend the actual, biblical statements that make up the Trinity?

Secondarily, when we are engaged in defending only those things that are specific to Scripture, we don’t get tangled up in other types of attacks. When someone asks questions about which Scripture doesn’t speak, we can simply answer that we don’t know, but we don’t have to know because God hasn’t spoken on that. In any apologetic encounter, we are standing on the solid ground of Scripture, not trying to defend our own explanations, theories, or perspectives.

How This Impacts Traditional Trinitarian Language

Now we come to the conversation from this week’s show. In the show, Bnonn and I agreed that the traditional language that speaks of the Trinity as “one in being and three in person”, while technically true, is not the biblical definition of the Trinity, and therefore is incomplete, and possibly misleading if employed against some very specific types of arguments against the Trinity, which happen to be the ones biblical Unitarians like to use. They are constantly saying things like, “The Trinity makes God an essence, not a person”. “Scripture presents God overwhelmingly as a person”. “Scripture uses thousands of singular personal pronouns about God. Singular personal pronouns refer to a single person”.

I’ll come back to specific defenses against this kind of argument at the end, but after building a case for the way Bnonn and I spoke in the show. We said that another way of talking about the Trinity, or explaining (not defining) it, is to says something like this:

  • God is one Person in one sense, and three Persons in another sense

Bnonn’s article that suggested this kind of thinking to me, which he reposted after the show, expresses it as “one being/three beings”, but the net result and supporting thinking are the same.

To someone whose thinking is more confessional than biblical (and I mean this in the most charitable way possible), this just doesn’t look right. And that’s why I didn’t include anything like this in my Trinity series, limiting myself to that which is definitional to the Trinity, and not getting into more explanatory language like this. In this article, I’ll defend why I think the above statement is useful, and not self-contradictory, in terms of explaining an aspect of the Trinity.

First, it is not self-contradictory. A logical contradiction must take the form, where “A” is a statement that is true or false, of, “A, and it is not the case that A”. What logicians have figured out, though, is that you can put certain kinds of statements in place of A that can be understood as non-contradictory, due to ambiguities in human language. Bnonn’s article uses squares, circles and cylinders to express things.

Another way is to consider statements like the following statement “The glass contains three ice cubes”. Now, is it possible, in any sense, to plug that statement in for A and have it not be a contradiction? Sure there is. What if the actual total ice cubes in the glass is six? Is it still true in some sense that it contains three? Yes. It still contains at least three. However it does not contain only three. There is an ambiguity in our statement. Now, we can just stipulate, when talking about a contradiction, that, if A is a given statement, we must take it to have the same sense in both cases.

And that is fine, but that adds a wrinkle to what it takes to derive a contradiction. If it isn’t stipulated, the fact is that we must be speaking in the same sense in both statements to have a contradictions. It is a contradiction that “the glass contains three ice cubes”, and “the glass contains six ice cubes”, if we are understanding “contains” in the same sense in both statements. However, if they have different senses, there is no contradiction. This means, most importantly, that if we don’t know for sure that they have the same sense, and more than one is possible, we cannot confidently say we have a contradiction.

This brings us back to the Trinity. Consider the following two statements.

  • God is one in being and three in Person
  • God is one Person in one sense, and three Persons in another sense

Let me make this clear one more time. Neither of these statements is the definition of the Trinity. Both are ways of explaining how the one and three inherent in the Trinity can be reconciled. I know it’s difficult, if you’ve always thought of one of these as the definition, to shake loose of that. It isn’t. And here’s how you know for sure. Ask yourself, where does Scripture describe the relationship of the one and three in this way? Where does it describe this relationship at all? What Scripture affirms is one Yahweh, and three who are Yahweh. Both of these statements are attempting to show a way in which that works. For the record, I think that both of these explanatory statements are true.

What’s the Point?

Now, what in the world is the utility of introducing a different way of explaining the Trinity? It’s simple, really. Those who oppose the Trinity make the same error of mistaking an explanation for the Trinity for the Trinity itself. But if we are free to use different explanations, so long as they are coherent and consistent with Scripture, then we can head off many attacks that come against the Trinity. This is why I have labored so long to establish, in my previous series, just what is the biblical definition of the Trinity, as opposed to expressing the Trinity itself as if it were fully defined in one of the many creeds, confessions, or apologetic explanations. The place I stand is defending the Scriptures, not human-invented formulations.

This new human-invented formulation does what others do, which is to make explicit a way of understanding the biblical data that is internally coherent. What it does that is new is handle a very common argument, put forward by folks like Anthony Buzzard, that Scripture characterizes God, not as a “multi-personal being”, but as a Person. And you know what? He’s right, in a sense. Scripture really does speak of God as a “He” and a “Him”, thousands of times. There are several ways Trinitarians can explain this, but every explanation has its limitations. The being/person explanation, while true, is limited by the fact that the “one” in that explanation is not something that just works, without explanation, with singular pronouns. The “person, in a sense/persons, in another sense” explanation is able to simply affirm singular pronouns about God without hesitation, while still affirming the distinct personhood of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This has limitations, too. It is less philosophically easy to grasp than the being/person explanation. Because of this, I don’t recommend it be used in, say, a Sunday School class, unless that class is very theologically advanced. It does have utility when employed against more theologically astute Unitarians, as I am doing in this article. Like the being/person explanation, it sometimes makes sense to talk about, and sometimes it wouldn’t be the best option. Again, this is why I like to mainly stick with the biblical definition.

So, do you think this is useful? If not, and you’re a Unitarian, your task is to show a logical contradiction, or biblical passage that disallows this explanation. If you’re a Trinitarian who thinks I’ve erred, you need to decide if I’ve misdefined the Trinity itself and show me this by either showing a Scripture that denies my definition above, or else that affirms your version of the Trinity in contradiction to either my definition or this new explanation.

If there’s one takeaway, it is something I’ve already said many times. Whether you like this explanation or not, the main point is that I think we’ve made a mistake in Christendom, defining the Trinity in non-biblical terms, rather than acknowledging that our traditional definitions aren’t actually definitional, but explanatory, and get back to the biblical definition of the Trinity, which is supremely simple and biblical. If we understand that, we will find conversations about the Trinity much more fruitful and understandable.

1 thought on “One Person or Three? Or Both?”

  1. One way to deal with the Trinity is by Kant’s dinge an sich. That is it is beyond reason. Another way is Emanation. Both seem fine to me. But I do not think they equal the Catholic position. My impression is that Catholics were going with Plato and Augustian for almost a thousand years until problems with the Trinity just got to be so hard that it made more sense to go with Aristotle.

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