The Trinity, Part 2: Trinitarian Heresies, Part 1
The Trinity, Part 2
As part of our series on The Attributes of God, we started with a message from Austin Duncan, “Worshipping the Triune God.” We continue now with the doctrine of the Trinity — that is, that God is three-in-one. He is “one in essence, three in persons,” or, as the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it:
… three Persons of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost.
Westminster Confession of Faith, Of God, and of the Holy Trinity
And while it is simple to state these truths, and even affirm them, when working them out in our minds and in our understanding of the scripture, understanding of how God relates to Himself, and of our relationship to God as men, we often make missteps in our attempts at understanding. Often times, these mistakes occur when we attempt to analogize the Trinity in order to get a better grasp of the mystery that it presents. Since the Trinity became a vetted Christian doctrine, many have tried in the centuries since to give some sort of “short hand” to the doctrine, and have, more often than not, only contrived a heresy in the process.
We are going to consider some of those heresies here. Why? For two reasons. Firstly, we do so because often we give ascent to doctrines of scripture without really thinking through them thoroughly. And, for lack of consideration and soul-searching, we find ourselves stumbling through the scriptures, tripping over verses and passages here and there and everywhere which conflict with that misunderstanding. In short, we wave our hands and say “Yes I understand,” when we really, truly do not. The second reason to consider trinitarian heresies is that we, in our finite natures, cannot understand the Trinity. We cannot describe it accurately. We cannot analogize it accurately. We cannot understand it in literal or metaphorical terms, in visual or literary terms. We cannot comprehend or “sense” it in mental or spiritual terms. It follows that we should most beneficially explain the Trinity by means of what it is not. We will attempt to gain some sense of the gravity of God’s nature like so much starlight surrounding the immensity and mystery of a black hole.
Take for example, the classic analogy of the Trinity to an egg. This is one that I personally heard all the time, growing up in the church. The analogy goes something like this: “God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are like an egg: the shell, white, and yolk of an egg are separate, but are parts of the same whole. This analogy, however, illustrates a heretical view of God know as Partialism.
Partialism teaches that God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are each components of God — that is, they are each parts of a whole. Here we see the egg: part shell, part white, part yolk. This, however, runs entirely counter to God’s affirmation of Himself in the scripture as one singular being:
4 “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!”
Deuteronomy 6:4 (NASB)
There are two things to note here. First, that the word which God uses to refer to Himself in the Hebrew is “YHWH” or Yahweh, the personal name of God. One might translate it:
4 “Hear, O Israel! Yahweh is our God, Yahweh is one!”
This is important when coupled with the second observation on the text, namely that the word “one” connotes singularity and “apartness.” This is to say that God here is declaring Himself to be the one and only God. He is singular. He is, therefore, not three and one, but three-in-one. And so, we see The Egg Analogy crack….
The next analogy that comes to mind is the assertion that “God is like water, which is sometimes solid, sometimes liquid, and sometimes gaseous.” Over and above The Egg Analogy, the Water Analogy has the distinction of maintaining the integrity of God’s essence as one, unified, singular body. The water in this analogy is not three separate components sitting side-by-side, or (as with the egg) nested, one-within-the-other. The water here is one essence, but three states. This analogy, too, breaks down immediately, as it is identified as the heresy of Modalism (also known as “Sabellianism”).
Modalism purports that God is only ever identified as one in the scripture (as we saw in Deuteronomy 6:4), and is therefore only ever one distinct person. This explanation has God, as in the Water Analogy, changing states or, as some have said “putting on different masks.” He is at one moment God the Father, another the Son, another the Spirit. The problem with this explanation is obvious: If God only ever changes state, He has no interaction with Himself. There is no relationship of the persons of the Trinity with themselves in Modalism, because God is never all three at once, but is an ever-vacillating form or facade.
If you do not sense a contradiction in Modalism, turn to Matthew 3, where you can see clearly that God is three distinct persons that co-exist simultaneously:
13 Then Jesus arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John, to be baptized by him. 14 But John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?” 15 But Jesus answering said to him, “Permit it at this time ; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he permitted Him. 16 After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water ; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him, 17 and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.”
Matthew 3 (NASB)
Here we very plainly see all three members of the Godhead together, at once, all separate: God the Father speaking, Jesus Christ the Son walking up out of the water, and the Spirit envisaged as a dove lighting on the Son. Were God modalistic in nature, this would not be possible.
We see in scripture, time and again, that God has a relationship with Himself. Jesus talks about being sent by the Father. The Spirit is sent by the Father after Christ’s ascension. And, in Luke 4, we see the most striking evidence against a modal God:
1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led around by the Spirit in the wilderness.
Luke 4:1 (NASB)
“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit….” Christ was indwelled by the Spirit, which in a “state changing” description of God is contradictory. To use the Water Analogy: Water cannot be both liquid and solid at once, nor can gas be contained in the liquid anymore than the solid (And don’t try to sell us on a “carbonated” or “aerated” God!). This, again, simply shows the problems that arise from simplistic analogies of the Trinity. As Austin Duncan said: “You want to know what the Trinity is like? The Trinity is like the Trinity!”
The last trinitarian heresy we are going to address here is the heresy of Tritheism. Trithesim is perhaps the closest heresy to the truthful nature of the Trinity and therefore the most important to distinguish and clarify. Tritheism the belief that each member of the Trinity is a distinct entity who each shares in the substance of a single essence. Put this way, the tritheistic Trinity sounds very, very similar to the Biblical one we discussed earlier “three persons, one in essence.” The distinctions between Tritheism and Biblical trinitarianism are threefold.
First, God never identifies Himself as three gods. He only ever identifies Himself as the one and only God. “I am who I am,” is a statement of singularity, of absolute uniqueness and solitude.
Second, Tritheism carries with it an understanding that with each “person” (read “god”) has its own, unique nature. That is, each god has its own sphere of influence, its own character, its own attributes, its own powers. God never describes any other member of the Trinity in terms of subordination — certainly not by means of power. Jesus said “I and the Father are one,” not “I and the Father share one,” or “I and the Father become one.” In this sense, Christ sets the Father apart from Himself by referring to Him as someone else (an “other”), but states with profound simplicity that they two are one-and-the-same. Is your head beginning to hurt yet?
Third, and finally, Tritheism also carries with it a subtler notion that the so-called unified “essence” of God is a nameless, faceless, thing, rather than God-the-three-in-one. Put another way, “essence” in the Tritheistic sense conveys a sense of a “thread wending its way through three gods,” tying them together as “one God.” And while this gives the appearance of splitting hairs, the distinction here is of utmost importance: God is One. He is not “Three.” God is neither a triad of three heads with one root, nor is He a “dynamic trio” of (literally) like-minded gods who share the same spiritual substance. This is to say, paradoxically, that God is both simultaneously and non-contradictorily, three equal persons — each with its own unique relationship to the other — and God. The distinction is probably best illustrated (though not clarified per se) in the following: We pray to God, without distinction of His person. We also pray to God the Father, as our Father. We pray to Jesus as our Lord, as our Savior, as our brother and friend — and again, we do so as a distinction of the person of Jesus vis-a-vis the Father or the Spirit. We could say the same (though perhaps to a lesser extent) of the Spirit.
In conclusion: God is One. God is a trinity. He is who He is. The mystery of the Trinity cannot be comprehended. And, if you know anything of the true and living God, how would you ever expect to explain Him? He is, as we will see in the this series, infinite, without beginning, without end. He is over and above and through all. He is the all-powerful and infinitely perfect God. Totally unique. Totally alone. Take comfort that trying to understand Him gives you a headache. How great our God is!