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A proper definition

Jesus is the Revealer of Himself as God, the Son, and of God, the Father, and God, the Holy Spirit.

The Council of Nicea provided a definitive interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures against the interpretation given by the Arians. The Athanasian Creed dates to that era and explores and explains the doctrine in detail.

Short definition
"Three persons in one God."

What is three is persons.

What is one is being.

The three persons are all homoousios (Nicene Creed, Greek for "same substance") or consubstantial (Latin translation of homoousios, literally "substantial with [each other]").

Three Selfless Selves

The Father pours Himself out completely and gives Himself without limit to the Son.

The Son loves the Father without limit, receiving all from the Father and returning all to the Father.

The Spirit is the Spirit of the Father and of the Son; He is the perfect expression of the love between the Father and the Son.

The Son is the Abiding Word of the Father

The Word remains in the Father while, at the same time, going forth from Him into the world. This is how words work with our minds. When we say something, we are trying to express a meaning that is within us so that others can "see" what we mean. The word comes out of us, but both the word and the meaning of the word remains within us. All of our words are sacramental: they are "outward signs of inward realities."

My e-mail system keeps a copy of everything I send to to people. The word remains with me even though I send it out to others. The Word abides in the Father even though He is sent into the world to reveal the Father.

To speak a word, we must put our breath — our spirit — into it. So, too, the Father fills His Word with His Spirit.

How not to speak of the Trinity

I am presenting a very short synopsis of the outcome of two thousand years of reflection on what Jesus revealed to His apostles.

God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit

I have no idea where this phrase comes from. It may be an evangelical formula. I never say anything like this in class, but I have seen it often enough on exams to suggest that it is a moderately popular way of approximating the doctrine of the Trinity.

Each of the Persons is God, not just the First Person; to think otherwise is to fall into the Arian heresy.

The proper way to speak of the eternal and consubstantial Persons is "God, the Father, God, the Son, and God, the Holy Spirit." The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God — each Person is one and the same God and possesses all of the attributes of God in the same measure as the other two Persons. They are equal in eternity, omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, glory, beauty, truth, goodness, justice, mercy, and every other divine perfection. They differ from each other only in Person. We tell the Persons apart this way:

  • the Father has no personal origin outside of Himself; he brings forth the Son and, with the Son, brings forth the Holy Spirit.
  • the Son originates from the Father and, with the Father, brings forth the Holy Spirit.
  • the Spirit originates from the Father and from the Son.

Three parts of God

God is one being and is infinitely simple.

Thinking of the Persons as slices of the divine pie is horribly wrong. God cannot be divided into "parts."

The Father is not 1/3 of God; He is God. So, too, with the Son and the Spirit.

Bad images associated with this error: three-leaves on a clover plant, five fingers on one hand, three flavors in Neapolitan ice cream. A leaf is only part of a plant, a finger is only part of a hand, and each flavor of ice cream is only part of the Neapolitan mix, but each Person of the Trinity is wholly and completely God.

Three entities in God

"Entity" is from the Latin word for "being."

The Persons are distinct from each other in identity (each is His own "I") but are not separated in being. It is wrong to think of the Persons as three beings or three entities.

AD: "We must not conceive of the Trinity as Siamese triplets."

Three forms of God

"Form" is a word that comes from our experience with matter.

Diamonds, charcoal, graphite, soot, fullerenes (buckeyballs, buckytubes, etc.) are forms of carbon. There is only one material (carbon) that has different properties due to the different forms it can take. The properties of a diamond come not from carbon, in and of itself, but from the form of carbon that gives it its distinctive crystalline structure.

A statue is a form of material — a form of marble, wood, ceramic, metal, or the like. "Three forms of a painting" implies three paintings; "three forms of carbon" implies three different substances; "three forms of life" implies three different species.

"God" is not a material that can take different "forms." It is entirely wrong to say that the Father is a "form of God." He is God. So, too, with the Son and the Spirit.

Three people in God

"People" is a collective noun that indicates human beings considered in a group.

"People" are individual beings. Three people form one group, but they are not consubstantial or homoousios with each other. The unity of the Tri-Unity is greater than that of a group.

The Persons are not human beings. We are "like God" (Gen 1:26-27), but God is not like us. We are people; the members of the Trinity are not.

Three modes of God

All of us are used to playing different roles. One man can have many different characteristics as a son, brother, uncle, cousin, father, or husband. There is only one person who plays many different roles.

The Father does not play the Son in some relationships and the Holy Spirit in others in the same way that we play child, sibling, parent, or spouse. The Son is a different Person from the Father; the Son is not the Father in disguise or in a different role; the Father is Himself and the Son is Himself and the Spirit is Himself — three distinct selves, three Persons, three who can say "I am," not one self, Person, or "I".

Three in one

This is the literal meaning of "Trinity." "Tri" stands for "three" and "unity" stands for "one." But to say "three in one" leaves undefined the way in which God is three (Persons) and the way in which God is one (being, entity, divinity, eternity, power, glory, etc.).

"Three in one being" comes closer to the proper definition of the dogma, but it sounds as though it is "three beings in one being." "3-in-One Oil" is three oils mixed into one oil; a "three in one can opener" is three can openers in one can opener; a "three in one knife" is three knives in one knife.

All analogies fail

All analogies to the Trinity fail because there is no other reality that is like the Trinity in all respects.

If it were the same in all respects, then it would be another Trinity!

There is only one God.

There is only one Trinity.

No other thing in existence has all of the qualities of the Trinity.


One in being.

True Persons, truly distinct, but inseparable.

Self-sufficient, infinite being.

There is no other being like that!

All of our analogies necessarily distort the truth if pushed too far.

We have to use them lightly.

Dance with them.

No other created being has all of the qualities of God.

All of our examples and imagery are going to be slightly misleading.

Help a bit, block a bit.

5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0

Attributed to Aquinas:

- 5 notions
- 4 relations
- 3 persons
- 2 processions
- 1 God
- no proof