How do we understand the trinity?


(Phil) #1

Mervin on another thread made this statement:
“Nobody fully understands the trinity. Adding in Greek gods isn’t going to close that gap for you - sorry. I’m confident I understand just enough of what I need of that from Paul’s writings to get by - no Greek gods needed.” @Mervin_Bitikofer

Our pastor started a sermon series yesterday on doctrine, and started with trying to explain the trinity. I though he did a good job with a difficult subject, but even then afterwards he said some came up to him and were more confused than when they started. I suspect it was because they had never thought about, and thinking about it gives you a headache.
Anyway, he discussed Modelism (which is a common way of describing the trinity, though heretical) and Arianism, but while somewhat easy to say what it is not, it is difficult to say what it is. What do you think?


(Shawn T Murphy) #2

Dear @jpm
@Mervin_Bitikofer was speaking to me with this comment, so I know where it comes from. I am curious though, how does Arianism relate to the trinity? I am not clear as to what your question is.


(Phil) #3

It was presented that in Arianism, Jesus is a created being, thus not equal to God, but subordinate to him. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arianism
It is easy to confuse Arianism with Armianism since they sound so much alike though totally different. I have to think whenever I hear one mentioned.

My question is simply one of curiousity as to how you guys think about the Trinity and how you explain it, knowing that it is a question never answered in full. I guess one question that follows is whether belief in the Trinity is necessary to be a Christian, or whether non- trinitarian factions are still considered Christian. My thought is that they can be, with reservations, but interested in the thoughts here.


(Shawn T Murphy) #4

Thank you for clarifying. As you have noticed I agree with Arianism and Origen. I agree with the view of the throne of God as described by John, and nowhere is there a three mentioned.

After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will shew thee things which must be hereafter. And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne. And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald. And round about the throne were four and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold. And out of the throne proceeded lightnings and thunderings and voices: and there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God. And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind. (Rev 4:1-6)

There is great diversity around the throne of God with at least 24 elders, 7 Spirits of God and four beasts. To be Christian, according to Jesus, is to believe in Jesus as the King of Heaven. I know of all the places in the Bible that people point to so as to support the trinity doctrine, but there are just as many clear statement, like Rev 4, that show it is not true.

So, I ask, why is the doctrine so important to Christians? It does not impact any of the core teaching of Jesus - love your neighbor, love your enemy, love God above all others and become perfect as God created us. So why am I looked down upon in Christian circles for not believing the Trinity?


(Phil) #5

Good question to explore. Certainly there are differences in belief within Christianity about a lot of things, and despite the fact that we have trouble articulating the relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, tradition has made it central to belief. I am reading a new book of Enns, and he speaks of how scripture is ambiguous for a reason, and that reason in part is so that it may be applied with wisdom in various settings and situations unknown to the initial audience.


(Mervin Bitikofer) #6

There is something there to explore - my flippant response in the other thread wasn’t meant to indicate that nothing at all is understood about the trinity, but that our understanding of the trinity probably can never be considered close to complete. There is a vast gulf of real life between 0% and 100%. Not being super strong on doctrinal lists myself, I probably tend to rest at understanding levels that I consider “enough” where doctrinal enthusiasts would insist on having many more of the details “nailed down”, so to speak. The more that gets nailed down, though, the more likely it is that wrong things have been cemented into place and become stumbling blocks for others. Hence my apparent allergy to discussing this. I probably actually agree with Shawn that there may be some problems with certain dogmatic aspects of it, but I’m not about to go putting other nails in different places, or making any new “anti-trinity” issue of it when there are so many more bigger fish to fry. [for one thing - I’m not “anti-trinitarian”. I suppose I’m just anti-“you must understand everything about the trinity in exactly the same way I do”. But that last category doesn’t really roll off the tongue so easily.]


(Mervin Bitikofer) #7

I don’t think of the trinity so much an explanation as a declaration. And if I’m not mistaken it was pretty much hammered out as a reactionary doctrine to foreclose on some of the emerging streams of thought in those 2nd and 3rd centuries. We could all look them up to review what their names all were, but essentially I think it boils down to some wanting to deny some or all of Jesus’ humanity, others wanting to deny some or all of Jesus’ divinity; and the eventual victors of the day deciding that they were going to have none of any of that. Jesus is both 100% human and 100% God. Along with the Spirit and the Father also each being 100% God. I would be surprised to learn that there was much in the way of “understanding” promoted in the shaping and choosing of that doctrine. I think it was really a whole lot more of … “let’s just take those other speculations over there and cut them off at the pass.” So (rightly or wrongly - we all know that Shawn here says ‘wrongly’), that’s what they did.

An interesting question for me is how much infallibility do we attribute to early church fathers? On the one hand most Christians are quite willing to critique, pick and choose among them without near the level of commitment involved as when the 66 books of the protestant Bible are directly in play. And yet many of us in the next breath will take a doctrine like the trinity and (with the canon selection) single those out from those early church fathers and imperial councils as having an infallibility equal with scriptures themselves. So we do seem to have a bit of selectivity of our own in play when we latch onto some of those things with a doctrinal death grip.

But choosing to keep a lighter grasp of those is different than trying to replace them with even stranger yet Greek doctrines [Shawn] that have little-to-no scriptural support. But what it seems there is scriptural support for is being attentive to the Spirit and how it moves in us collectively today to apply the scriptures in fresh ways - ways that don’t call us to abandon our God-given gifts of observation, logic, and discernment. There is much to be said for that, I think.


(George Brooks) #8

The trinity is a mystery …
but it all seems to work out…

George Brooks, Unitarian


(Cindy) #9

I’m actually doing my Exploring Religion paper on the doctrine of the Trinity so I am quite interested in what people on this Board may say about this doctrine. I’ve not done my IRB training, let alone put in my proposal so I may be worrying about nothing here. But… To be clear, my purpose for participating in this thread is to get some idea of what people actually do think about the Trinity and it’s relevance to their Christian beliefs. Any thing learned here will be in the form of general statements in my paper. No names, of course. Well unless I see someone who is really interesting and then I might PM them and ask them if they’d like to contribute more.

OK, with that said; and please, if I am out of line-moderators, please tell me.

My personal belief is that certain aspects of the Trinity doctrine are vital. For instance, the equality of Jesus to God the Father and the Holy Spirit. If Jesus is in any way less than them, His sacrifice looses significance and meaning. Jesus’s death was the payment for sins because He was God. He had the power and the right to refuse to die, He chose to accept the Father’s will and go through with it. The Holy Spirit must be equal to God as She is the one that leads us in our daily lives. God on earth today. What these Three in One actually are; well that certainly is debatable and I find no reason to argue too strongly about what Three in One actually means as I really do not understand it all that well myself. Whether or not they are equal in status, whether or not all Three should be worshiped equally; that I will argue about!


(Mitchell W McKain) #10

First of all what is the doctrine of the Trinity… originally? It is as follows…

The Father, the Son Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are three distinct persons but only one single God. So the following are true statements:
The Heavenly Father is God.
Jesus is God.
The Holy Spirit is God.
There is only one God.
Jesus is not the Father.
When you see Jesus you see the Father.
Jesus and the Father are one.

As far as various heresies like modalism go, the key word here is person. The Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are three different persons, not different modes, or different aspects, or different phases, or different gods, or different beings, or different functions, or different appearances, etc… just different persons.

So what other questions are there?

How is this possible? God is not like us. God is an infinite being without our limitations including the limitation to a singularity of personhood.

Why do we think this? Because this is the conception of God which is most consistent with all of the Biblical canon taken together.

Is this doctrine actually in the Bible? No it is not – not in the original text, so the insertion added to the King James version does not count. You can find those true statements mentioned above in the Bible but not the doctrine itself or even the word “godhead.”

Why three? Well… this is a way in which many Christians go too far… the doctrine of the Trinity is NOT that God is three persons. The Heavenly Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are the persons of God we know. We do not know that that the persons of God are limited to three. There is nothing in the Bible which says anything of the sort.


(GJDS) #11

As Christians we worship the one God, and discuss God the Father, Christ as the only begotten Son, and the Holy Spirit. God is One in essence, and thus we can speak of God the Father, Christ as God, and God as the Holy Spirit.

The doctrine of the Trinity was formulated using the term ‘homoousios’ the identical substance, showing God is One substance.

God cannot be discussed in anthropological terms, and the clearest biblical teaching is when Christ said, “You have seen me, you have seen the Father”.


(Shawn T Murphy) #12

Dear Mitchell,
This is an accurate description of the doctrine and you point out illogical aspects of it well. There are more glaring contradictions that I would like to point out.

  • The first commandment says that we should only worship the one God but it does not say that there is only one god. If fact there are many gods and the trinity represents three, not just the one from Exodus 20:1-3. (For definition purposes: a god is an immortal, spiritual or ethereal being.)
  • Only Jesus, the Logos, was alone with God in the beginning, not any holy spirit.
  • Jesus is alone the King of Heaven, not God the Father or any of the holy spirits.
  • You can only reach the Kingdom of God through Jesus, not through the Holy Spirit nor through God.

(Christy Hemphill) #13

Your statements show that you don’t conceive of the unity of God in the Trinity. I do, so these statements don’t make sense because they impart an individuality and separateness to the Godhead that would violate their unity and oneness.

We are united with Christ through the Holy Spirit. It is our unity with Christ that reconciles us to God the Father, and God the Father who counts us righteous and makes us his children. You can’t make one person of the Trinity’s work or relationship with us primary in our reconciliation, because they are a unified whole.


(Shawn T Murphy) #14

Dear Christy,
Yes, you are correct, I believe the biblical description of the Father and the Son and the angels. I was offering @Seeking_Harmony the points to consider that conflict the trinity doctrine, in addition to the points that @mitchellmckain made for the paper she is writing. Until now I have read no logical counterpoints and I am looking forward to hearing them.


(Mitchell W McKain) #15

Shawn, your alterations of the text of the Bible are not interesting to me.

  • It does not say that Jesus was alone with God in the beginning.
  • It says nothing about Jesus ever being alone, quite the opposite. Jesus is never alone. Jesus, Father and Holy Spirit are one.
  • I says nothing about being able to get to the kingdom without God and the Holy Spirit, quite the opposite in fact. John 14 that there is no way of excluding Jesus follows tautologically from the doctrine of the Trinity and it is talking about getting to the Father not the kingdom so that is another way in which you change the text. Instead we are told of the necessity of the Holy Spirit in being born again, and even more often Jesus and the NT speaks of the necessity of our relationship with the Heavenly Father.

But Shawn that is all I am going to say about this for I am not interested in debating this topic with you, because of the way in which you alter the text and add too freely to scripture from other sources. You can believe what you like, and I will defend your right to do so from unfair and erroneous attacks. But from what I have read of your posts, the content and the way you get to those belief is not very interesting to me. It is too far out there for me to feel that meaningful dialog with me is possible. As the atheists often like to say… I am not so open minded that my brains will fall out (though to be sure that is an very subjective thing to say). Such are the limits of my interests and rationality.


(Shawn T Murphy) #16

Dear Mitchell,
I was writing this for Cindy, but I am surprised at your accusation of me loosely using the Bible.

Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. (John 14:6)

John 14 speaks of three separate and distinct entities, and clearly says that you can only get to the Father through Jesus. Separately, Jesus promises to send the comforter and the spirit of truth to stay with us and teach us.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. (John 1:1-5)

I see no place in John 1 that the spirit is mentioned in the beginning.


(Christy Hemphill) #17

If you want to get all proof-texty about it, the go to verse would be Genesis 1:2, where the Spirit of God is hovering over the watery deep pre-Creation.


(Shawn T Murphy) #18

Christy, I do not think you can interpret every occurrence of “Spirit of God” or “Angel of God” in the Bible as the same singular being. In addition, Genesis is a new beginning, not the same beginning in John 1. There was darkness in the new beginning that was not present in John.


(Cindy) #19

This actually an interesting point. We have always assumed three because that was what was made known to us. It seems a reasonable assumption but it definitely is something assumed. (I think)

Can any Biblical scholar point to a verse that says that there are only three persons in the Godhead?


(Randy) #20

Here’s a discussion between Randal Rauser and Dale Tuggy (Unitarian) and also a clip from Mr Tuggy’s discussion with Michael Brown. It helps me think more, even if I don’t get all the points clearly yet.

https://randalrauser.com/2019/01/debriefing-the-trinity-debate-a-conversation-with-dale-tuggy/