You are here

Chapter 13. The Logical Problems of the Trinity

– Chapter 13 –

The Logical Problems of the Trinity

A basic definition of the Trinity

Among those who uphold the doctrine of the Trinity, few know much about it beyond the “God in three per­sons” formula. Most churches in Canada regard trinitarian­ism as the found­ation of their faith, yet few teach the Trinity to the lay people in any depth, probably because expos­ing them to formal trinitar­ian­ism will create objections to the doctrine. The first thing the people will notice is its use of non-biblical terms (including “trinity” itself), its weak biblical sup­port, and its lack of logical cohesion. The incessant appeal to tradition and the church creeds is becoming passé in this age of open inform­ation.

So what is the Trinity? The following point-by-point definit­ion of the Trinity is rep­resent­ative of how it is explained by trinitarians, and adheres to the trinita­rian language used by trini­tarians.

For the meanings of English words, we consult The American Heritage Diction­ary of the English Language (5th edition) and Oxford Dictionary of English (3rd edition), abbrev­iated AHD and Oxford, respectively.

The following definition of the Trinity includes brief explanatory notes by me. According to trinitarianism:

  • There is one and only one God.
  • God subsists in three persons.
  • Note: The word “subsist” is unfamiliar to most people, but it is used often in trinitarian writing to mean “to exist, be” (AHD).
  • The three persons are: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit.
  • Each person is fully God.
  • The three are coequal and coeternal.
  • The three are distinct from one another, yet are not three Gods.
  • God is not God except as Father, Son, and Spirit — the three together.
  • Note: Many trinitarians use the term “Godhead” to refer to the triune God. AHD defines “Godhead” as “the Christian God, especially the Trinity”. One reason for the trinitarian use of “Godhead” rather than “God” is that in trinitarianism, God is not a person.
  • God is three persons, yet only one “being” or “essence”.
  • Note: Although the word “being” usually refers to a whole and complete person (e.g., “human being”), trinitarians use it in the sense of “one’s basic or essential nature” (AHD, similarly Oxford).
  • Note: Trinitarians use the Greek word hypostasis (or the Latin persona) as an approximate equivalent of “person” (there is a long history behind this which we won’t go into). Hence God is three hypostases (three persons).
  • Note: The three hypostases — Father, Son, and Spirit — share one ousia (essence or substance). Hence trinitarians speak of three hypo­stases in one ousia (three persons in one substance).
  • Note: From ousia comes homoousios (“of one essence” or “of one substance”), which is historically the key term in trinitarian­ism because it is this term or its concept that supposedly makes trinitarianism “monotheistic”.
  • Note: Because the three persons are of one substance, they are said to be “consubstantial”.
  • By incarnation the second person of the Trinity — namely, the eternally preexistent God the Son — acquired a human nature and took on God-man existence as Jesus Christ, who now, as one person, forever possesses both a divine nature and a human nature, and is both fully God and fully man through the “hypostatic union” (of Christ’s two natures, divine and human, in one person or hypostasis).

This basic definition of the Trinity is based on dozens of defin­it­ions given by trinita­rian authorities, Protestant and Catho­lic. It is complete in the sense that any further discuss­­ion on the Trinity will be funda­ment­ally an elabo­ration on these bas­ic points, e.g., how the three per­sons relate to one another; or their diff­erent roles in salvation history (the econom­ic Trinity); or how Christ’s divine nature re­lates to his human nature within the one person (debate over the last quest­ion resulted in years of violence with­in trinita­rian­ism).

Anyone who reads the formal or technical literature on the Trinity would know that it tends to use Greek and Latin terms (or their equivalent English terms), and is imbued with neo-Platonic and other philosoph­ical con­cepts. These gen­erate more con­fusion than illumin­at­ion on how the three persons can be one God.

Homoousios has no biblical support, and is vehemently rejected by Martin Luther

The word homoousios (“of one substance”) is historically the key term in trinitarian­ism because it is this term or its con­cept that, on account of the word “one,” gives trinitarianism some sem­blance of mono­theism. The early trinitarian opinion that homoousios is “the found­ation of ortho­doxy” (Victorinus) is shared by mod­ern trinit­arians, yet the word homo­ousios is found nowhere in the Bible. That this word has no biblical basis is noted by a lexi­cal auth­or­ity, New Inter­na­tion­al Dictionary of NT Theology (NIDNTT, ed. Colin Brown, arti­cle God > The Trinity > NT).

The fol­lowing is an excerpt from this article which cites Karl Barth who, despite his lifelong advocacy of trinitarianism, admits that the doc­trine of the Trinity is not found in the Bible. The excerpt has two levels of quotat­ion. For your convenience, I put Barth’s words in boldface to separate them from the surrounding words of NIDNTT:

The NT does not contain the developed doctrine of the Trin­ity. [Barth says:] “The Bible lacks the express de­claration that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are of equal essence and there­fore in an equal sense God himself. And the other express declara­tion is also lacking, that God is God thus and only thus, i.e., as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. These two express declar­ations, which go beyond the witness of the Bible, are the twofold content of the Church doctrine of the Trinity” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I, 1, 437). It also lacks such terms as trinity … and homo­ousios which featured in the Creed of Nicea (325).

In this striking admission, Barth concedes that the two main tenets of trinitarianism (the concept of one essence and the concept of three persons in one God) are absent in the Bible.

Since homoousios is not a biblical term as noted by NIDNTT and Barth, it comes as no surprise that strong objections to this term have come from the ranks of trinit­ar­ians. Sure enough, Martin Luther, a trinitar­ian, vehe­mently rejects homoousios for its being an unbiblical term, going so far as to “hate” it. The Cambridge Companion to the Trinity (p.151) quotes Luther as saying, “Our adversaries … are fana­tics about words because they want us to dem­onstrate the truth of the trinitarian article … by asking us to assent to the term homo­ousios”. The Cambridge Companion goes on to say that “trinitar­ian terms such as homoou­sios are for Luther a ‘stammering’ and ‘babbling’”.

Luther rejects homoousios even more vehement­ly in a state­ment quoted in Adolf Harnack’s seven-volume History of Dogma:

[Luther] declared such a term as homoousios to be un­allow­able in the strict sense, because it represents a bad state of things when such words are invented in the Christian sy­stem of faith: “… but if my soul hates the word homoousios and I prefer not to use it, I shall not be a heretic; for who will compel me to use it … Although the Arians had wrong views with regard to the faith, they were never­theless very right in this … that they required that no profane and novel word should be allowed to be intro­duced into the rules of faith.” (History of Dogma, vol.7, ch.4, p.225)

Luther’s objection to homoousios for its unbiblical origins was so vehement that he was willing to concede that the heretical Arians — of all people! — were “very right” in re­ject­ing this “profane” word. Luther was aware that his public criticism of homoous­ios could expose him to the charge of heresy because homo­ousios is the cornerstone of trinit­arian­ism’s dubious claim to mono­theism, and that without this term, trinitarian­ism would immediately descend into expli­cit trithe­ism, the doctrine of three Gods.

A Catholic scholar’s admissions about the Trinity

Luther comes from the ranks of Protestants but is there similar dissent from the ranks of Catholics? Hans Küng, one of the greatest Catholic theo­logians of the 20th century, wrote a sect­ion titled, “No doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament,” in his classic work, Christianity: Essence, History, and Future, in which he firmly rejects trinitarian­ism. Here are some state­ments from his book starting from page 95:

… while [in the New Testament] there is belief in God the Father, in Jesus the Son, and in God’s Holy Spirit, there is no doctrine of one God in three persons (modes of being), no doctrine of a ‘triune God’, a ‘Trinity’.

… according to the New Testament, the principle of unity is clearly not the one divine ‘nature’ (physis) that is common to several entities, as people were to think after the neo-Nicene theology of the fourth century. For the New Testament, as for the Hebrew Bible, the principle of unity is clearly the one God (ho theos: the God = the Father), from whom are all things and to whom are all things.

… where does this doctrine of the Trinity really come from? The answer is that it was a product of the great paradigm shift from the early Christian apocalyptic paradigm to the early church Hellenistic paradigm.

We give one more example from the ranks of Roman Catholics. An esteemed Bible diction­ary — one of the most popular for two decades and in its time the most widely used one-vol­ume Bible dictionary ever — was the scholarly Diction­ary of the Bible written by Father John L. McKenzie, which, though writ­ten by a Catholic, was also used by Protestants for its intellectual depth and lucid writing.

In the dictionary arti­cle “Trinity,” McKenzie, himself a trini­tarian, makes some obser­va­tions that are unfavor­able to trinitarian­ism, in­clud­ing that: (i) The doctrine of the Trinity was reached only in the 4th and 5th centu­ries, and does not represent biblical belief. (ii) The trinitarian terms used for des­cribing God are Greek philoso­phical terms rather than biblical terms. (iii) Unbiblical terms such as “essence” and “substance” were “erron­eously” applied to God by early theolog­ians. (iv) The personal reality of the Holy Spirit is uncertain and was a later develop­ment in trinita­rian­ism. (v) The Trinity is a my­stery that defies under­stand­ing. (vi) The Trin­ity is not mentioned or fore­sha­dowed in the Old Testa­ment.

We must keep in mind that Father McKenzie is a trinitarian. Here are the relevant excerpts from his article:

TRINITY. The trinity of God is defined by the Church as the belief that in God are three persons who subsist in one nature. The belief as so defined was reached only in the 4th and 5th centuries AD and hence is not explicitly and form­ally a biblical belief. The trin­ity of persons within the unity of nature is defined in terms of “person” and “nature” which are Greek philosophical terms; actually the terms do not appear in the Bible. The trinitarian definitions arose as the result of long controversies in which these terms and others such as “essence” and “substance” were erron­eously applied to God by some theologians.

. . . . .

The personal reality of the Spirit emerged more slowly than the person­al reality of Father and Son, which are personal terms … What is less clear about the Spirit is His personal reality; often He is men­tioned in lang­uage in which His personal reality is not explicit.

. . . . .

… in Catholic belief the Trinity of persons within the unity of na­ture is a mystery which ultimately escapes under­standing; and in no res­pect is it more mysterious than in the relations of the persons to each other.

. . . . .

The OT does not contain suggestions or foreshadowing of the Trinity of persons. What it does contain are the words which the NT employs to express the Trinity of persons such as Father, Son, Word, Spirit, etc.

Dissent from the ranks of evangelicals

I now give an example from the ranks of evangelical­s. Marshall Davis is a trinitarian and an evangelical, though no longer the conserva­tive evangelical that he used to be. He served as a Baptist pastor for 40 years, and has a doctorate from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Among his many books is What Your Pastor Won’t Tell You: But I Can Because I’m Retired. The title may sound lighthearted or even frivolous, but in fact the book is a somber and often painful discussion of the things that many evangelical pastors know in their hearts to be true, but won’t tell others for fear of being ostracized or losing their jobs.

One of the vexing issues that Marshall Davies addresses is the Trinity, which he discusses in chapter 5 under the heading, “No One Understands the Trinity”. Davis, himself a trinitarian, begins with these words:

For Christians the concept of one God in three persons is very important, yet it is also very confusing. When you think about it, the Trinity does not make sense. No one understands it, not even your pastor.

The doctrine of the Trinity came into existence as a consequence of believing that Christ was divine. Christians believed that Jesus was divine in the same way that God the Father is divine. Yet Christians were loath to worship two Gods. It smacked of polytheism, not to mention the heresy of Marcionism. Add the Holy Spirit into the mix, and Christian­ity seems to worship three gods — tritheism.

Davis then explains the trinitarian dilemma:

Yet there could only be one God according to the Hebrew Scriptures. “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one.” (Deuteronomy 6:4) So they were forced into the untena­ble position of saying that God was both three and one, even though that statement was logically self-contradictory. The Father, Christ and the Spirit were all God, and they were also one God.

Christians had painted themselves into a theological corner. After repeated attempts by theologians to resolve the problem (all declared heresy), they simply gave up and declared that the Trinity was true, even though it didn’t make sense. It is a mystery! A paradox! Actually it was just a problem they could not solve. Instead of abandoning the doctrine as untenable, they declared it to be true by fiat.

Davis says that the Trinity has no biblical basis:

Another thing your pastor will not tell you is that the Trinity is not in the Bible. The terms Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are found in the Bible. There are even a few places where the three words (or something similar) are found together. The most famous example is the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19, where Jesus com­mands his apostles to baptize all nations “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” But nowhere is there any attempt in the Bible to define these names as three equally divine persons of one unified Godhead.

The doctrine of the Trinity, as we know it today in all its glor­ious confusion, originated in the third century by Tertullian. He was the first theologian to use the term “Trinity.” He was also the first to use the words “person” and “substance” to explain the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It has been all downhill ever since. Christianity would have been better off if [Tertullian] had just left it as a description of Christian experience instead of trying to theologize it.

The Gnostic use of homoousios

Gnosticism is widely regarded as the greatest threat to the life of the church in its first two centuries. We won’t ex­plain what Gnosti­cism is since it is a standard topic in church his­tories, ex­cept to say that it was a cancerous movement that grew deep roots in the church and nearly killed it. Emin­ent church histor­ian Justo L. González says, “Of all these differ­ing interpreta­tions of Christian­ity, none was as dangerous, nor as close to victory, as was gnostic­ism.” [1]

It will come as a shock to trinitarians that the Gnostics were the first to use the word homoousios. The first person known to have used it was the Gnostic theologian Basilides (2nd century A.D.) who used homo­ousios to ex­plain his con­cept of a “threefold sonship consubstan­tial with the god who is not”. [2]

When Gnosticism was at its peak, homoousios had a reputat­ion in the church for being a Gnostic term. Well before the Council of Nicaea in 325, many church fathers were already aware of the Gnostic use of homoousios. R.P.C. Hanson’s authoritat­ive work, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, says on p.191: “Hippo­lytus quotes Gnos­tics as using the word homoousios … Clement of Alexandria also uses the word in quot­ations of Gnostic authors, as does Irenaeus … Ori­gen simi­larly uses the word only when he is quot­ing Gnostic heretics.” The academ­ic authority of Hanson’s work is well known to every church historian and patristics scholar in the English-speaking world.

Although Gnosticism was in relative decline by the third or fourth cent­ury, it left some of its roots in the church as seen in the adopt­ion of homoou­sios at the Council of Nicaea in 325. A central con­cept in Gnostic­ism is the emanat­ion of divine beings, the lesser from the greater. So it comes as no surprise that at Nicaea it was decreed on pain of anath­ema that the second person eman­ates from the first, much as light eman­ates from a source of light. Nicaean formulations of Jesus as “God of God, Light of Light” and other lofty descript­ions are nothing more than direct echoes of Greek philoso­phy and religion.

Immense logical difficulties: Is trinitarianism tritheistic?

Trinitarianism is the doctrine of one God in three persons where­as tri­theism is the doctrine of three distinct Gods. The latter is a special case of poly­theism, the belief in many Gods (e.g., Hinduism).

Trinita­rians vigorously deny that trinitarianism is tri­theism, yet the two are inher­ently similar, as we will see. To put the matter plainly, trinitar­ian­ism is trithe­ism that claims to be monotheistic.

In trying to make sense of trinitarianism, the immediate pro­b­lem that we en­counter is its use of double­speak: Trinita­rianism assigns two differ­ent mean­ings to the word “God,” and then switches back and forth be­tween them, usually to evade logical dilem­mas.

There is the first sense of “God” in which God is not God except as Father, Son, and Spirit — the three together. This form­ul­at­ion was de­signed as a means of avoid­ing explicit tritheism, and is one of the two main tenets of trinit­arian­ism according to Karl Barth (whom we quoted a few pages back).

In trinitarian doublespeak, there also is a second and contradict­ory sense of “God” in which each person of the Trinity is indiv­idually and fully God: “So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God” (Athanasian Creed). Trinitarians say further that each is “fully God” (White, Grudem, Bowman) or “fully and complete­ly God” (ESV Study Bible, p.2513).

The historically important Fourth Lateran Council (1215, Rome) is even clearer: “each is God, whole and entire”. In other words, the Father is God whole and entire; the Son is God whole and entire; and the Spirit is God whole and entire. Yet the three together are God whole and entire.

In trinitarian­ism, each person of the triune Godhead, whether the Father or the Son or the Spirit, is fully God, coeternally God, and coeq­ually God, such that trinit­arians can and do speak of “God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit” in language that ascribes whole deity to each. Whole deity of each is preserved even if we reverse the word order within each of the three clauses: “the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God” (Athana­sian Creed).

Trinitarianism says that each person — whether the Father or the Son or the Spirit — is “fully” God (“each is God, whole and entire,” Fourth Lateran Council). Moreover, trin­ita­rianism assigns sufficient dis­tinct­ion between the persons such that the Father is not to be con­fused with the Son, nor the Son with the Spirit, nor the Father with the Spirit. The Athana­sian Creed says, “For there is one Person of the Father, an­other of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit”. To state the obvious, the distinction of persons is already seen in the basic fact that trinitarians speak of “three persons” in one God.

Since the three are each “fully” God yet are three distinct persons, it would be seman­tically correct to say that they are three Gods (tritheism). The force and clar­ity and obviousness of this point is keenly noted, yet its val­idity is rejected, by the Athanasian Creed: “And yet they are not three Gods, but one God”.

This violation of semantic sense for which the Athan­a­sian Creed offers no explan­ation apart from denial by fiat, must be rejected unless it is allowed by mitigating factors such as explicit biblical sup­port. But does the Bible really teach the three-in-one trinitarian form­ulation? Many trini­ta­rians (Barth, Küng, Davies) admit that it is absent in the Bible. One such trinitarian is Dr. Charles C. Ryrie, author of the Ryrie Study Bible and pro­fessor of systematic theology at Dallas Theological Sem­inary, who makes a shocking admiss­ion about trinita­rianism:

But many doctrines are accepted by evangelicals as being clearly taught in the Scripture for which there are no proof texts. The doc­trine of the Trinity furnishes the best exam­ple of this. It is fair to say that the Bible does not clearly teach the doctrine of the Trinity. In fact, there is not even one proof text, if by proof text we mean a verse or passage that ‘clearly’ states that there is one God who exists in three persons … The above illustrations prove the fallacy of con­clu­ding that if something is not proof texted in the Bible we cannot clearly teach the results … If that were so, I could never teach the doctrine of the Trinity or the deity of Christ or the deity of the Holy Spirit. (Basic Theology, pp. 89-90)

Dr. Ryrie, without a trace of hesitation or subtlety, elevates trin­itar­ian doctrine above the witness and authority of Scripture.

Another trinitarian who says that the Trinity is found nowhere in the Bible is Millard Erickson, a prominent specialist on trinita­rian doc­trine and the author of Christian Theology:

[The Trinity] is not clearly or explicit­ly taught anywhere in Script­ure, yet it is widely regarded as a central doctrine, indis­pensable to the Christian faith. In this regard, it goes con­trary to what is vir­tually an axiom of biblical doctrine, namely, that there is a direct correla­tion between the script­ural clarity of a doctrine and its cruciality to the faith and life of the church. (God in Three Persons: A Contem­porary Interpretation of the Trinity, p.11)

The classic way of explaining away the tri­theistic underpin­nings of trinita­rian­ism — by positing that the three per­sons share one essence (homoousios) — is uncon­vin­cing. It’s not only because the word homo­ousios is absent in the Bible, but also because a shared essence or nature charact­erizes trithe­ism as much as it does trin­it­arianism! Whether we are speaking of a unity of three Gods (tritheism) or a unity of three persons in one God (trinita­rian­ism), the three share the one sub­stance or essence of deity. Applying the concept of “one essence” to three per­sons who are each “fully” God does not make them “one God”; it only makes them a unity of three full Gods. Hence the term homoousios (of one sub­stance) — whose first known use was by the Gnostic theolo­gian Basilides, and which was adopted at Nicaea over the objections of some bishops from both camps — offers no help to trinita­rian­ism but in fact draws unwelcome attent­ion to trinitarianism’s affinity with trithe­ism!

The tritheistic underpinnings of trinitarianism come out in many books such as James R. White’s The Forgotten Trin­ity, which is endorsed by J.I. Packer, Gleason Archer, Norman Geisler, and John MacArthur, indi­cating its acceptance among evan­gelicals.

White gives what he calls a “short, succinct, accurate” defin­ition of the Trinity: “Within the one Being that is God, there exists eternally three coequal and coeternal persons, namely, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” (p.26) Here White makes a distinction between “person” and “Being” such that God is three persons yet one Being. To explain what this means, White says:

When speaking of the Trinity, we need to realize that we are talk­ing about one what and three who’s. The one what is the Being or essence of God; the three who’s are the Father, Son, and Spirit.

This shocking statement tells us that trin­itarian­ism’s claim to monothe­ism rests on the concept of “one Being” or “one essence” rather than “one person”. Here we see again the trinitarian deperson­alizat­ion of God — He is no longer a person. In trying to give trinita­rianism some sem­blance of monotheism, White is forced to make God a what, not a who — a blasphemous description of God. The God of trinita­rianism is techni­cally an “it” rather than a “He”.

If you take this to mean that God in trinitarianism is not a person, you are cor­rect. Tertullian says: “God is the name for the sub­stance” (see J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, p.114). We have already quoted C.S. Lewis, a trinita­rian, as saying: “Christian theology does not believe God to be a person.” (Christian Reflect­ions, p.79).

Trinitarian semantics

In the strange logic of trinitarianism, the mere use of “one” as in “one essence” is supposedly sufficient to qualify trinitarian­ism to be mono­the­ism. This is what we might call “monotheism by vocabulary”: You declare that a doctrine is monotheistic simply by appropriating a word such as “one” that sounds monotheistic and has a monotheistic ring to it.

An enduring difficulty for trinitarians is that in both tritheism and trinitarianism, there are three who are “fully” God, i.e., there are three persons each of whom is “God whole and entire”. This formulation, as it stands, is tritheistic rather than monotheistic, so what do trinit­ar­ians do to make it sound monotheistic? They simply say that the three share “one” essence!

In the strange logic of trinitarianism, the tritheistic con­cept of “three per­sons who are each fully God” (note the key word “fully”) does not dis­qualify trinitarianism from being mono­the­ism. This is try­ing to have it both ways, to have mono­theism and trithe­ism, to have God as one and God as three, to have one God and three who are each fully God. In the final analysis, the convoluted logic of trinitar­ian­ism is the inevitable result of an at­tempt to prove, at times almost mathem­atically, that three equals one or that 1/3 equals one.

James White says: “The Father is not 1/3 of God, the Son 1/3 of God, the Spirit 1/3 of God. Each is fully God, coequal with the others, and that eter­nally.” This statement is problematic because if God is three per­sons, then anyone who is “fully God” — i.e., God whole and entire — would have to be all three persons at the same time or else he would be incomplete God (unless we change the meaning of “God” using double­speak).

The problem runs even deeper, for if Jesus is not all three persons at the same time, he would not be God at all, for God must always exist as three or else we would be breaking the “mono­theism” of trinita­rianism such that it descends into ex­plicit tritheism. We must bear in mind that one of the two main tenets of trinitarianism is that God is not even God unless He is all three at the same time (Barth).

White rejects the idea that Jesus is one third of God, yet it cannot be denied that Jesus is one third of the Trinity in the sense of being one of the three persons of the Trinity which trinitar­ians equate with God.

White’s statement that the three are each “fully God” is but a naked assertion of pure and classic tritheism. But trinitarians de­ny that their doctrine is tri­theistic, and they do this by insisting that God is not God through the Father alone, or the Son alone, or the Spirit alone, but by all three toget­her. This is one of the two foundat­ion­al tenets of trinitar­ianism (Barth) and is stated in the following words of Millard Erick­son, a promi­nent spokesman for trinitar­ianism:

God could not exist simply as Father, or as Son, or as Holy Spirit. Nor could he exist as Father and Son, or as Father and Spirit, or as Son and Spirit, without the third of these persons in that given case. Further, none of these could exist without being part of the Trin­ity… None has the power of life within itself alone. Each can only exist as part of the Triune God. (God in Three Persons, p.264)

Erickson runs into vast difficulties in his attempt to defend the illogical and the incoherent. His statement that “none has the power of life with­in itself alone” is a most shocking way of describing some­one who is supposedly God. In the case of the Father, Erickson’s statement even contra­dicts John 5:26 in which Jesus says, “the Father has life in him­self”.

Equally shocking is Erickson’s statement, “none of these could exist with­out being part of the Trinity”. Erickson is not just saying that God is ontologi­cally triune, but that each Person has no pow­er of exist­ence outside the framework of the Trinity! Erickson’s state­ment was proba­bly designed with the purpose of avoiding expli­cit tritheism.

Erickson’s statement — that “none of these could exist without being part of the Trinity” — effectively destroys what it means to be God. For if Jesus (or the Father or the Spirit) is fully God, his exist­ence would not depend on any­one or anything, for God “is”. The eternal God is the “I am who I am” or “I will be what I will be”. Nothing can limit or deter­mine or circumscribe God’s existence. Yet in trinitarianism, the ul­tim­ate ontological reality is not God the Father despite His being fully God and despite His being the One of whom the Son is begotten and from whom the Spirit pro­ceeds. To the contrary, the ultimate ontological real­ity in trinitar­ianism is an eternal triune frame­work that governs the existence of three persons, none of whom can exist outside it (“each can only exist as part of the Triune God,” Erickson). In other words, this triune framework is what constitutes the real God. That is why trinita­rians say that God is not a “person” but a “what”.

Erickson’s statement that “God could not exist simply as Father, or as Son, or as Holy Spirit” contradicts the trin­itarian tenet that the Father is fully God, the Son is fully God, the Spirit is fully God.

In fact the unbiblical teaching of Sabellianism or modalism (which says that in salvation history, the one God is mani­fested in three modes, Father, Son, and Spirit) is infinitely more logical than trinita­rian­ism. That is because modal­ism is free of self-con­tradic­tion, as is tritheism. If trin­ita­rian­ism is to be logi­cal and self-consistent, it can only be so as modalism or outright tri­theism, both of which are as unbiblical as trini­tarian­ism.

Tritheism, being a special case of polytheism, would be ex­pected to borrow from the language of polythe­ism. We would expect this to be equally true of trinit­ar­ianism. Sure enough, the famous­ly polytheis­tic religion of Hinduism would occasion­ally speak of the “divine essence” or “divine sub­stance” [3] — a fact that further exposes trinitarianism’s affin­ity with poly­theism.

The trinitarian term “divine substance” is also used in polythe­istic Greek mytho­logy [4] and Gnosticism, [5] yet is absent from the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures!


[1] The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day, vol.1, p.58.

[2] Hippolytus in Refutatio omnium haeresium 7:22.

[3] Klaus Klostemaier, A Concise Ency­clopedia of Hinduism, p.124; Klostemaier, A Survey of Hinduism, p.487; Steven Rosen, Ess­en­tial Hinduism, p.193; Sri Swami Sivananda, All About Hinduism, p.134.

[4] Richard Caldwell, The Origin of the Gods, Oxford, p.137.

[5] Jean-Marc Narbonne, Plotinus in Dialogue with the Gnostics, p.39; and Sean Martin, The Gnostics, p.38.


(c) 2021 Christian Disciples Church