Can the Trinity Be Explained?
This train of thought, leading to this blog post, began the other day when I stumbled across a Youtube video entitled “Why Isaac Newton Was Hiding a Deadly Secret” (Channel “Thoughty2”). I was intrigued to see (really, to hear) what the “deadly secret” was.
A long time ago I learned about Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) in some high school science or history class. But I didn’t learn that much about him. Later I learned that he was not only one of the most influential scientists of the modern age but also that he was a devout Christian who spent much of his time attempting to calculate the year of the Lord’s return. That is hardly ever mentioned in history or science classes.
So, I watched and listened to the relatively brief video presentation and found it informative and entertaining. However, the presenter (“Thoughty2”) made two mistakes when talking about Newton’s religious beliefs. He said that Newton was a Christian, but that he was a heretic. That is true—if orthodoxy is measured by the Nicene Creed. But he also said that Newton could have been killed by the church and the state for his heresy—that Jesus was not God and there is no Trinity—and that the doctrine of the Trinity, which Newton denied, is that God is “separated into three equal parts of the Holy Trinity.”
Could Newton have been executed for not believing in the Trinity? Possibly, but not likely. Newton was contemporary with John Milton who also denied the Trinity and, although Milton was criticized for that, he was never tried or executed. The age in which both men lived was, at least in Great Britain, relatively lenient with dissenters to orthodoxy.
More serious, however, is the presenter’s expression of the doctrine of the Trinity! Is God “separated into three equal parts?” Is that the what the Christian doctrine of the Trinity says? Most definitely not—although I know from experience teaching Christian theology in three Christian universities over almost forty years that many relatively mature Christian’s would not recognize that expression as heretical. And it is possible that Newton and Milton denied THAT expression of the doctrine of the Trinity AS DO I.
I well remember what happened after my first lecture on the Trinity. I explained the doctrine to the class. Afterwards a student came up to me and said “But you still haven’t explained the Trinity to us.” Later I thought I should have responded “I wasn’t trying to explain ‘the Trinity;’ I was trying to explain the doctrine of the Trinity.
I’m reminded of the title of a book by religion scholar Jonathan Z. Smith: “Map Is Not Territory.” (The title comes from Alfred Korzybski’s second principle of general semantics: namely, Non-All-ness.) The doctrine of the Trinity is one thing; the Trinity is something else. Because God is unique there can be no exact analogy to the oneness and unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In fact, all analogies are heretical!
The doctrine of the Trinity is most definitely NOT that God is “separated into three equal parts.” This is what often happens when lay people, even many pastors and teachers, attempt to “explain” or express the doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity expresses a mystery beyond human comprehension. It’s main purpose is to protect against distortions of what God has revealed about himself. But we have no knowledge of the inner “workings” of the community of three “persons” Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Much of the trouble begins with the word “persons” which, of course, is just the English translation of the Greek word “hypostases.” The Nicene Creed of 381 (Constantinople) used that Greek word to express the threeness of our one God. The Cappadocian Fathers, Basil, Gregory and Gregory, wrote many treatises explaining the difference between “ousia” (substance) and “hypostasis” (person) in the years leading up to the Council of Constantinople in 381. Augustine later said that we do not say “three persons” because we want to but because we have no alternative.
”Hypostasis” should be literally translated into English as “subsistence”—a single example of a general, shared substance. But even that does not do justice to the unity of the Godhead in revelation and in classical Christian doctrine. But American culture especially has introduced into the meaning of “person” such an individualistic connotation that it is almost impossible to cleanse it of that now.
When I teach doctrine and theology to Christians students (and sometimes to non-Christian students and others) I insist that they never use the word “separate” to describe the “distance” (none) between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I insist that they use “distinct” as is “three distinct persons” and realize that in this case “persons” does not mean individuals. I tell them that God is not a committee!
However, we cannot know or describe the actual reality of the Trinity; we can only know and describe the orthodox DOCTRINE of the Trinity and that matters because it protects from heresies such as tritheism which is what “separated into three equal parts” implies.
I also forbid students from referring to the persons of the Trinity as “parts” as if our God is like a puzzle, one piece of which could get lost.
Having said all of that, after years of teaching and writing about the doctrine of the Trinity, I have all but given up on trying to get Christians to think of it correctly.
I was recently in a Bible study of lay Christians when the doctrine of the Trinity came up in discussion. One visitor, not a regular attender, interjected that it’s really simple: God is like H2O…. I couldn’t let that go and had to explain why that common analogy is problematic. It leads straight into modalism, so common a heresy that it can hardly be called a heresy without making most Christians, at least in America, heretics! Everyone in the Bible study said that is what they thought the Trinity was like; they had all learned that analogy in Sunday School! So did I. But I later learned that it is at least quasi-heretical.
I want to conclude with something helpful, but the only thing I can think of is to say that IF you want to understand the Christian doctrine of the Trinity you need to read a good book like the one I wrote with Christopher Hall entitled simply “The Trinity” (Eerdmans). Or, on a less technical-historical level, read theologian Alister McGrath’s “Understanding the Trinity” (Zondervan).
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