Saturday, March 22, 2014

Three Persons or Three Gods?

The Trinity doctrine claims that God is three persons, but not three gods (tritheism). God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are supposed to constitute three divine persons, who do not compromise biblical monotheism. For instance, the Athanasian Creed states:

"And yet there are not three almighty beings, but one who is almighty. Thus the Father is God; the Son is God; the Holy Spirit is God: And yet there are not three gods, but one God"

In the same creed, we're also told: "And in this Trinity, no one is before or after, greater or less than the other; but all three persons are in themselves, coeternal and coequal; and so we must worship the Trinity in unity and the one God in three persons. Whoever wants to be saved should think thus about the Trinity."

So there are Three Persons rather than three deities, we are assured. Yet the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes:

"By the latter part [of the Athanasian Creed], it follows by the indiscernibility of identicals that no person of the Trinity is identical with any other. And by the earlier part, it seems to follow that there are thus at least three eternal (etc.) things. But it asserts there's only one eternal thing. Hence, the creed seems contradictory, and has been attacked as such (Biddle 1691, i; Nye 1691a, 11; Priestley 1871, 321). Showing where the above argument for inconsistency goes wrong is a major motivation of recent Trinity theories (see sections 1 and 2 of the main entry). In contrast, mysterians hold that it somehow goes wrong, though no one can say quite where.(See section 3 of the main entry.) Finally, some simply reject the creed."

Trinitarians are likely to say that the Trinity doctrine teaches that there are Three divine Persons (three eternal things), but one God (one eternal thing); so it's not contradictory (they might aver) because this claim does not violate the law of non-contradiction. What's under consideration here is that God is claimed to be three in one sense, but one in another sense. Hence, there's supposedly no inconsistency in the claim.

On the other hand, Joseph Priestley and Dr. Magee have viewed the triune God in a different light:

"It must be universally true, that three things to
which the same definition applies can never make only
one thing to which the same definition applies . . .
If, therefore, the three persons agree in this same
circumstance, that they are each of them perfect God,
though they may differ in other respects, and have
peculiar relations to each other and to us, they must
still be three Gods; and to say that they are only one
God is as much a contradiction, as to say that three
men, though they differ from one another as much as
three men do, are not three men, but only one man"
(Joseph Priestley).

"If ideas are attached to the words employed,
Trinitarianism is, in reality, either Tritheism or
Sabellianism" (The Right Reverend Dr. Magee, Bishop of

Defenders of the Trinity have sometimes tried to refute Priestley's criticism by appealing to three men (distinct from one another and three things in that sense) who have one thing in common: human nature. But just as Peter, James, and John are three men, it would seem that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit would be three gods--even if each Person is divine. But as we've mentioned on this blog before, the Trinitarian response to Priestley's criticism is usually the divine simplicity doctrine.

Without going down that road now, one point I want to make with this post is that Trinitarians and Non-Trinitarians sometimes talk past one another. A Trinitarian could possibly be uncharitable and refer to Non-Trinitarians as "deceptive" or intellectually dishonest." The truth of the matter, however, is that both groups approach the Trinity doctrine from two different perspectives. I would suggest that one try to understand someone's position before critiquing it; moreover, even where there's disagreement, name-calling does not have to occur.

Witnesses of Jehovah and other Non-Trinitarians do believe that the Trinity trangresses biblical monotheism. We are not necessarily saying that Trinitarians agree with us; in fact, we know they do not.


Kieran Duffy said...

Thank You.Enjoying a call with a strong Trinitarian lately and we both learn a lot by just not being intimidated by our opposing views.

Edgar Foster said...


I hope your call keeps progressing. Respect and tactfulness often accomplish much (Col 4:6). All the best!

Matt13weedhacker said...

Hi Edgar.

Can you point me in the direction of your previous posts on the divine simplicity please. I want to understand this.

Kind regards.


Edgar Foster said...

Hello Matt13weedhacker,

This post might be the best one to consult on this blog:

All the best!

Anonymous said...

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Edgar Foster said...

Thank you, Melvin. Looks like a good site.

Anonymous said...

Great post. But how can the Trinity be reconciled with divine simplicity? The Trinity is anything but simple. This does not solve the contradiction in the Athanasian Creed; it merely creates a new contradiction to distract from the first contradiction.

Edgar Foster said...

By "absolute divine simplicity," theologians normally mean that God has no parts or any form of composition. So Trinitarians can treat the divine persons as non-parts within the Godgead. Yes, the persons are distinctions, but the Trinity is not (they say) a triplicity (i.e., a tripartite entity).