- This article concerns the Holy Trinity of Christianity and related religious denominations. For other uses of trinity, see Trinity (disambiguation).
The Trinity is God according to the doctrine of most branches of Christianity and some related groups. The doctrine says that though God is the only god, God exists in three distinct persons, usually referred to as God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Historically, this Trinitarian view has been affirmed as an article of faith by the Nicene (325) and Athanasian creeds (circa 500). Although the term does not appear in the New Testament, those that profess this doctrine maintain that the concept is clearly seen in many places therein, most explicitly in the accounts of Jesus' baptism (see Luke 3:21-22). These creeds were formulated and ratified by the Church of the third and fourth centuries in reaction to heterodox theologies, some involving the nature of the Trinity, and Christ's position in it. The creeds have been retained in some form by most Protestant denominations.
The Nicene Creed, which is a classic formulation of this doctrine, used "homoousia" (Greek: of same substance) to define the relationship among the members of the Godhead. The spelling of this word differs by a single Greek letter, "one iota", from the word used by non-trinitarians at the time, "homoiousia", (Greek: of similar substance): a fact which has since become proverbial, representing the deep divisions occasioned by seemingly small imprecisions, especially in theology.
Scripture and tradition
The word, Trinity, literally means "three-ness". This term does not appear in the Bible, and indeed, it apparently did not exist until Tertullian coined the term in the early third century. Nevertheless, although trinitarian Christians grant that the modern words and formulas are later developments, they still believe that this doctrine is found systematically throughout the Bible, and in the creeds and other sources of tradition in the Christian church. One early passage in Scripture they point to as an example is Genesis 18:1-16.
Belief in God as a Trinity is an essential tenet of Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and orthodox Protestantism. The doctrine need not be rationally understood, as the Eastern Orthodox Church has historically attempted understanding primarily in an apophatic fashion, also known as negative theology.
Baptism as the beginning lesson
In practice, a Christian begins to learn about the Trinity through Baptism. This is also the starting point in apprehending why the doctrine matters to so many Christians, even though the doctrine teaches that the being of God is beyond complete comprehension. The Apostles Creed has been commonly used as a brief summation of Christian faith, to be professed by converts to Christianity when they receive baptism, and at other times in the liturgy of the church.
A large subset of Christians are baptized "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt 28:19). Other Christians (e.g., Frankists , Branhamists and others) are baptised In the name of Jesus (Acts 2:38). Thus, commonly Christian life, and the Christian understanding of salvation, begins with a declaration related to the Trinity. Basil the Great (330–379) explains:
- "We are bound to be baptized in the terms we have received, and to profess faith in the terms in which we have been baptized."
At the baptism of Jesus, the Trinity appears: "And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased." (Matthew 3:16–17, RSV). To trinitarians, the three persons of the Trinity were made manifest at once, in connection with baptism.
"This is the Faith of our baptism", the First Council of Constantinople declared (382), "that teaches us to believe in the Name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. According to this Faith there is one Godhead, Power, and Being of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit".
Christian life and the Blessed Trinity
This singleness of God's being, and mysterious multiplicity of persons, accounts for the nature of Christian salvation, and discloses the gift of eternal life. "Through the Son we have access to the Father in one Spirit" (Eph 2:18). This communion with the Father is the goal of the Christian faith, and is eternal life. It is achieved through God's union with human nature, in Jesus Christ who although fully God, humanly died for sinners to purchase their redemption; and this forgiveness and friendship with God is made accessible through the gift to the church of the Holy Spirit, who raised Christ from the dead, and who, being God, knows God intimately and leads and empowers the Christian to fulfill the will of God. Thus, this doctrine touches on every aspect of the trinitarian Christian's faith and life; and this explains why it has been so earnestly contended for, throughout Christian history, despite the difficulty inherent in explaining the doctrine.
Famous Orthodox Icon representing three angels that visited Abraham
as a symbol
of the Trinity.
God is a single being. The Hebrew Bible lifts this one article of faith above others, and surrounds it with stern warnings against departure from this central issue of faith, and of faithfulness to the covenant God had made with them. "Hear O Israel! Jehovah is our God; Jehovah is one" (or "Jehovah alone", Deuteronomy 6:4) (the Shema), "You shall have no other gods before me" (Deuteronomy 5:7) and, "This is what the LORD says- Israel's King and Redeemer, the LORD Almighty: I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God." (Isaiah 44:6). Any formulation of an article of faith which does not insist that God is solitary, that divides worship between God and any other, or that imagines God coming into existence rather than being God eternally, is not capable of directing people toward the knowledge of God, according to the trinitarian understanding of the Old Testament. The same insistence is found in the New Testament: "there is no God, but one" (1 Corinthians 8:4). The "other gods" warned against are therefore not gods at all, but unequal substitutes for God.
So, in the trinitarian view, the common conception which thinks of the Father and Christ as two separate beings, is a profoundly mistaken one. The central, and crucial affirmation of Christian faith is that there is one savior, God, and one salvation, in Jesus Christ, to which there is access only because of the Holy Spirit. The God of the Old is the God of the New, and alone is God.
God exists in three persons
This one God however exists in three persons, or in the Greek hypostases. God has but a single divine nature (Chalcedonians hold that, in addition, Christ alone has a single human nature). Each person has a separate will, (according to Chalcedonianism Christ has two wills), but the mainstream Chalcedonian view is that the separate wills are always in harmony and never disagree or work against one another. (The view that God has a single will shared by all three persons is condemned by Chalcedonianism as a heresy.)
The Three are co-equal and co-eternal. However, as laid out in the Athanasian Creed, only the Father is unbegotten and non-proceeding. The Son is begotten from the Father. The Spirit proceeds from the Father (or from the Father and the Son).
It is often opined that because God exists in three persons, God has always loved, and there has always existed perfectly harmonious communion between the three persons of the Trinity. One consequence of this teaching is that God could not have created Man in order to have someone to talk to or to love: God "already" enjoyed personal communion; being perfect, He did not create Man because of any lack or inadequacy He had. Thus we find God saying in Genesis, "Let us make man in our image". It should be noted however that Jews do not see the word "us" here as denoting plurality of persons within the Godhead, rather it is a plural of respect. Hebrew and Arabic both have plurals of respect, where God speaks of Himself in the plural. Trinitarian claims to prove the Trinity from such statements are thus not legitimate.
A rather difficult but useful explanation of the relationship of the distinguishable persons of God is called perichoresis, which means, envelopment (taken woodenly the Gk. says, "dancing around"). This concept refers for its basis to the Gospel of John, 14-17, where Jesus is instructing the disciples concerning the meaning of his departure. His going to the Father, he says, is for their sake; so that he might come to them when the "other comforter" is given to them. At that time, he says, his disciples will dwell in him, as he dwells in the Father, and the Father dwells in him, and the Father will dwell in them. This is so, according to the theory of perichoresis, because the persons of the Trinity "reciprocally contain one another, so that one permanently envelopes and is permanently enveloped by, the other whom he yet envelopes." (Hilary, Concerning the Trinity, 3:1).
This co-indwelling may be helpful in illustrating the trinitarian conception of salvation. The first doctrinal benefit is that it effectively excludes the idea that God has parts. Trinitarians affirm that God is a simple, not an aggregate, being. God is not parcelled out into three portions. The second doctrinal benefit, is that it harmonizes well with the doctrine that the Christian's union with the Son in his humanity brings him into union with one who contains in himself the fullness (not a part) of deity (See also: Theosis). Perichoresis provides an intuitive figure of what this might mean. The Son, the eternal Word, is from all eternity the dwelling place of God; he is, himself, the "Father's house", just as the Son dwells in the Father and the Spirit; so that, when the Spirit is "given", then it happens as Jesus said, "I will not leave you as orphans; for I will come to you".
Eternal generation and procession
Some of the most difficult language in trinitarianism is the affirmation that the Son is "begotten" and the Spirit "proceeds", but the Father is "neither begotten nor proceeding". The argument over whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone, or the Father and Son was one of the catalysts of the Great Schism concerning the Filioque clause in the Nicene Creed.
The difficulties of this language are evident in the timefulness of the terms, where no beginning, change in being, or process within time is intended. The Son is begotten, and the Spirit proceeds, eternally. Augustine of Hippo explains, "Thy years are one day, and Thy day is not daily, but today; because Thy today yields not with tomorrow, for neither does it follow yesterday. Thy today is eternity; therefore Thou begat the Co-eternal, to whom Thou saidst, 'This day have I begotten Thee.' ".
Economic versus Ontological Trinity
Economical subordination is implied by the genitive of terms like "Father of", "Son of", and "Spirit of". While orthodox trinitarianism rejects ontological subordination, it affirms that the Father has a monarchial relation to which the Son and Spirit are subject. Or, in other terms, it is from the Father that the mission of the Breath and Word originate: whatever God does, it is the Father that does it, and always through the Son, by the Spirit. The Father is seen as the "source" or "fountainhead" from which the Son is begotten and the Spirit proceeds, much as one might observe water bubbling out of a spring without worrying about when it began doing so. However, this language is hemmed in with qualifications so severe that the analogy in view is easily lost, and is a source of perpetual controversy.
Nevertheless, the concept is considered to be of momentous practical importance to the Christian life because, again, it points to the nature of the Christian's reconciliation with God. The excruciatingly fine distinctions can issue in grand differences of emphasis in worship and government, as large as the difference between East and West, which for generations now have been considered practically insurmountable.
- Economic Trinity: When describing the acts of the triune God with respect to the creation, history, salvation, our daily lives, etc, we describe the Economic Trinity. This refers to how the Trinity operates within history as we think of the roles or functions performed by each of the persons of the Trinity.
- Ontological Trinity: This speaks of the essence (John 1:1-2), nature or attributes of the Trinity.
Or more simply - the ontological Trinity (who God is) and the economic Trinity (what God does). The economic reflects and reveals the ontological. The members of the trinity are equal ontologically, but not economically. In other words, the trinity is not symmetrical in terms of function, nor in relationship to one another. The roles of each differ both among themselves, and in relationship to creation. Furthermore, the trinity is not symmetrical with regards to origin. The Son is begotten from the Father (John 3:16). The Spirit proceeds from the Father (John 15:26). Only the Father is neither begotten nor proceeding. (See Athanasian Creed).
Son begotten, yet uncreated
The church's understanding of how the Son can be begotten and yet uncreated lies in the distinction drawn between the substance of created things, and the substance of deity. Because the Son is begotten, not made, the substance of his person is that of Yahweh, of deity. The creation is brought into being through the Son, but the Son Himself is no part of it until His incarnation.
The church fathers used a number of analogies to express this thought. St. Irenaeus of Lyons was the final major theologian of the second century. He writes "the Father is God, and the Son is God, for whatever is begotten of God is God".
Justin Martyr says "just as we see also happening in the case of a fire, which is not lessened when it has kindled another, but remains the same; and that which has been kindled by it likewise appears to exist by itself, not diminishing that from which it was kindled. The Word of Wisdom, who is Himself this God begotten of the Father of all things."
Tertullian says "We have been taught that He proceeds forth from God, and in that procession He is generated; so that He is the Son of God, and is called God from unity of substance with God. For God, too, is a Spirit. Even when the ray is shot from the sun, it is still part of the parent mass; the sun will still be in the ray, because it is a ray of the sun-there is no division of substance, but merely an extension. Thus Christ is Spirit of Spirit, and God of God, as light of light is kindled."
However, any attempt to explain the mystery to some extent must break down, and has limited usefulness. The difference in thinking between those who believe in the Trinity, and those who do not, is not an issue of understanding the mystery. Rather, the difference is one of belief concerning the personal identity of Christ. It is a difference in conception of the salvation connected with Christ, that drives all reactions, either favorable or unfavorable, to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. As it is, the doctrine of the Trinity is directly an issue of Christology.
Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant distinctions
The Western (Roman Catholic) tradition is more prone to make positive statements concerning the relationship of persons in the Trinity. It should be noted that explanations of the Trinity are not the same thing as the doctrine itself; nevertheless the Augustinian west is inclined to think in philosophical terms concerning the rationality of God's being, and is prone on this basis to be more open than the East to seek formulations which make the doctrine more intelligible.
For example, one explanation is based on deductive assumptions of logical necessity: which hold that God is necessarily a Trinity. On this view, the Son is the Father's perfect conception of his own self. Since existence is among the Father's perfections, his self-conception must also exist. Since the Father is one, there can be but one perfect self-conception: the Son. Thus the Son is begotten by the Father in an act of intellectual generation. By contrast, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the perfect love that exists between the Father and the Son: and as in the case of the Son, this love must share the perfection of real existence. Therefore, as reflected in the filioque clause inserted into the Nicene Creed by the Roman Catholic Church, the Holy Spirit is said to proceed from both the Father "and the Son." The Eastern Orthodox church holds that the filioque clause, i.e., the added words "and the Son" (in Latin, filioque), constitutes heresy. One reason for this is that it undermines the personhood of the Holy Spirit; is there not also perfect love between the Father and the Holy Spirit, and if so, would this love not also share the perfection of real existence? At this rate, there would be an infinite number of persons of the Godhead, unless some persons were subordinate so that their love were less perfect and therefore need not share the perfection of real existence.
Most Protestant groups that use the creed also include the filioque clause. However, the issue is usually not controversial among them because their conception is generally less exact than is discussed above. The clause is often understood by Protestants to mean that the Spirit is sent from the Father, by the Son - a conception which is not controversial in Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, either. Protestantism is harder to describe however, because of its lack of a unified tradition. The Protestant religious climate, which generally eschews any appeal to tradition, makes it more likely that rejected alternatives to Trinitarianism will be revisited. In some cases these alternatives have been formally adopted, which the Roman Catholic (and its appendages) and Eastern Orthodox churches have rejected as heresies, including a practical tri-theism (the distinction of persons implies a distinction in being), Nestorianism (a distinction in Christ's natures implies a distinction in persons), Sabellianism (or Modalism, the oneness of God implies singleness of person revealed in different ways at various times), and Arianism (hero-adoration of Jesus, as opposed to religious worship of God alone, and of Christ as God incarnate, and of the Spirit as the presence of God within the believer), etc. In those cases where such alternatives are formally adopted, as opposed to being mistakenly substituted for orthodoxy, Protestantism drops identification with those groups, in effect upholding the trinitarian tradition as a biblical doctrine.
Because Christianity converts cultures from within, the doctrinal formulas as they have developed bear the marks of the ages through which the church has passed. The rhetorical tools of secular philosophy, especially of Neoplatonism, are evident in the language adopted to explain the church's rejection of Arianism, Sabellianism, Adoptionism, etc. Augustine of Hippo has been noted at the forefront of these formulations; and he contributed much to the speculative development of the doctrine of the Trinity as it is known today, in the West; the Cappadocian Fathers (John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, and Gregory Nazianzus) are more prominent in the East. The imprint of Augustinianism is found, for example, in the western Athanasian Creed, which, although it bears the name and reproduces the views of the fourth century opponent of Arianism, was probably written much later.
These controversies were for most purposes settled at the Ecumenical councils, whose creeds affirm the doctrine of the Trinity. Constantine the Great who called the first of these councils, the First Council of Nicaea in 325, arguably had political motives for settling the issue rather than religious reasons; as he personally favored the Arian party, which in politically key regions of the Empire held a majority over the Catholics. It was also the form of Christianity that had been adopted by northern tribes of Vandals, and it would have given Constantine an advantage in defense against them, if the council adopted the same faith. It was not to be. The arguments of the deacon Athanasius prevailed; and over the next three hundred years, the Arians were gradually converted to Catholicism.
According to the Athanasian Creed, each of these three divine Persons are said to be eternal, each said to be almighty, none greater or less than another, each said to be God, and yet together being but one God. According to the teachings of orthodox Christianity, the three persons of the Holy Trinity are said to share one Divine Nature, thus preserving their belief in one God. So are we forbidden by the catholic religion to say; There are three Gods or three Lords. -- Athanasian Creed, line 20
Some opponents of this view contend that these three "Persons" are not separate and distinct individuals. The modalists attempted to resolve the mystery of the Trinity by holding that the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are merely modes, roles, or manifestations of God Almighty. These titles describe how humanity has interacted with or had experiences with God. In the Role of The Father, God is the provider and creator of all. In the mode of The Son, man experiences God in the flesh, as a human, fully man and fully God. God manifests Himself as the Holy Spirit by his actions on Earth and within the lives of Christians. This view is known as Sabellianism, and was rejected as heresy by the Ecumenical Councils although it is still prevalent today among denominations known as "Oneness" and "Apostolic" Pentecostal Christians, the largest of these sects being the United Pentecostal Church. Trinitarianism insists that the Father, Son and Spirit simultaneously exist, each fully the same God.
Some feminist theologians refer to the persons of the Holy Trinity with more gender-neutral language, such as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer (or Sanctifier). This is a very recent formulation, and emphasizes their roles rather than their personhood. Since, however, each of the three divine persons participates in the acts of creation, redemption, and sustaining, traditional Christians reject this formulation as simply a new variety of Modalism.
The doctrine developed into its present form precisely through this kind of confrontation with alternatives; and the process of refinement continues in the same way. Even now, ecumenical dialogue between Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and trinitarian Protestants, seeks an expression of trinitarian doctrine which will overcome the extremely subtle differences that divide them into separate communions. The doctrine of the Trinity is symbolic, somewhat paradoxically, of both division and unity.
Dissent from the doctrine
Some Christians believe that the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity is so central to the Christian faith, that to deny it is to reject the Christian faith entirely. However a number of nontrinitarian groups, both throughout history and today, identify themselves as Christians but reject the doctrine of the Trinity in any form. Some ancient sects, such as the Ebionites, said that Jesus was not a "Son of God", but rather an ordinary man who was a prophet. Many modern groups also teach a nontrinitarian understanding of God. These include The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Christadelphians, Christian Scientists, the Unification Church, Unitarian Universalists, Branhamists, Frankists , and Oneness Pentecostals, among others. These groups differ from one another in their view of God, but all alike reject the doctrine of the Trinity.
Criticism of the doctrine includes the argument its "mystery" is essentially an inherent irrationality, where the persons of God are claimed to share completely a single divine substance, the "being of God", and yet not partake of each others' identity. Critics also argue the doctrine, for a teaching described as fundamental, lacks direct scriptural support, and even some proponents of the doctrine acknowledge such direct or formal support is lacking. The New Catholic Encyclopedia, for example, says, "The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not taught in the Old Testament", and The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia adds, "The doctrine is not explicitly taught in the New Testament", although these sources contend the doctrine is implicit. The scriptural question, however, was sufficiently important to historical figures such as Michael Servetus as to lead them to argue the question, for which mainstream believers burned Servetus at the stake.
Debate over the biblical basis of the doctrine tends to revolve chiefly over the question of the deity of Jesus (see Christology). Proponents find plurality in Old Testament details like the term "Elohim" and argue for example that Jesus accepted worship, forgave sins, claimed oneness with the Father, and used the expression "I am" as an echo of the divine name given to Moses on Sinai. Those who reject the teaching for their part offer different explanations, arguing among other things that Jesus also rejected being called so little as good in deference to God (versus "the Father"), disavowed omniscience as the Son, and referred to ascending unto "my Father, and to your Father; and to my God, and to your God". They also dispute that "Elohim" denotes plurality, noting that this name in nearly all circumstances takes a singular verb and arguing that where it seems to suggest plurality, Hebrew grammar still indicates against it. They also point to statements by Jesus such as his declaration that the Father was greater than he or that he was not omniscient, in his statement that of a final day and hour not even he knew, but the Father. As in similar theological disputes, few are cross-persuaded and tend as a rule to cling to the convictions they received within their own upbringings.
The teaching is also pivotal to ecumenical disagreements with two of the other major faiths, Judaism and Islam; the former reject Jesus' divine mission entirely, the latter accepts Jesus as a human prophet just like Muhammad but rejects altogether the deity of Jesus. Many within Judaism and Islam also accuse Christian trinitarians of practicing polytheism, of believing in three gods rather than just one.
Alleged pagan origin and alleged influence of Hinduism
Anti-trinitarian Christians have long contended that the doctrine of the Trinity is a prime example of Christian borrowing from pagan sources. A simpler idea of God was supposedly lost very early in the history of the Church, through accommodation to pagan ideas, and the incomprehensible doctrine of the Trinity took its place. As evidence of this process, a comparison is often drawn between the Trinity and notions of a divine triad, found in pagan religions and Hinduism. Modern Hinduism also has a trinity, i.e., Trimurti.
As far back as Babylonia, the worship of pagan gods grouped in threes, or triads, was common. That influence was also prevalent in Egypt, Greece, and Rome in the centuries before, during, and after Christ. It is alleged that, after the death of the apostles, these pagan beliefs began to invade Christianity. (First and second century Christian writings reflect a certain belief that Jesus was one with God the Father, but anti-Trinitarians contend it was at this point that the nature of the oneness evolved from pervasive coexistence to identity.)
Some find a direct link between the doctrine of the Trinity, and the Egyptian theologians of Alexandria, for example. They suggest that Alexandrian theology, with its strong emphasis on the deity of Christ, was an intermediary between the Egyptian religious heritage and Christianity.
The Church is charged with adopting these pagan tenets, invented by the Egyptians and adapted to Christian thinking by means of Greek philosophy. As evidence of this, critics of the doctrine point to the widely acknowledged synthesis of Christianity with platonic philosophy, which is evident in Trinitarian formulas that appeared by the end of the third century. Catholic doctrine became firmly rooted in the soil of Hellenism, it is alleged; and thus an essentially pagan idea was forcibly imposed on the churches beginning with the Constantinian period. At the same time, neo-Platonic trinities, such as that of the One, the Nous and the Soul, are not a trinity of consubstantial equals as in orthodox Christianity.
However, it must be pointed out that earlier Christians, the Apostolic Fathers, have long recognised the parallels between Christianity and pagan religions and have answered charges of syncretism in their writings. Justin Martyr is one such example.
Similarities in Torath ha-Sod
In Kabbalistic tradition, an essential part of representations of the Tree of life or Etz Hayim is a set of three vertical lines of light, each line being headed by Sefirot, or degrees, of altruistic quality at the top. These three Sefirot form a spiritual or heavenly triangle, which rules the whole earthly part of the Tree of Life. It is obvious, that Sefirot of Kether (Crown), Chochmah (Wisdom) and Binah (Understanding), i.e. Ancient One, Father and Mother, or even Chohmah , Binah and Tiphereth (Glory) as Son also have much similarity with a secret of Trinity. These three lines (sheloshah kavim) are an essential and very deep spiritual secret of Torah (Torath ha-Sod). Priority, importance and secrecy of Trinity and sheloshah kavim (three lines) is obviously similar. According to kabbalah through these mysterious lines -- kav smol, kav yamin and kav emtsa`i -- Heaven rules the soul's wishes and destiny.
Due in part to the apparent similarities between these Kabbalistic teachings and the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, Christian disputationalists sometimes attempted to use Kabbalah to convince Jews to convert to Christianity, and encouraged Christians to study Kabbalah in the belief that this would help them to do so. Needless to say, not many Jews were so convinced, and Jewish Kabbalists believe that, even though superficial similarities exist between the Christian Trinity and some parts of Kabbalah, these are distinct beliefs and properly understood one does not imply the other.
Rastafarians believe that Haile Selassie is God incarnate, the latest incarnation of Jesus Christ. Haile Selassie is seen as being both God the Father, creator of heaven and earth, and that he also manifests himself as God the Son by taking the form of Haile Selassie. The Holy Spirit, the third part of the trinity, is to be found within all true believers of the faith, and according to some within all human beings. Haile Selassie means Power of the Trinity in the Ethiopian language Amharic, which is why the Rastafarians are the only non-Christian group to theorise about the Holy Trinity. Another way of describing this relationship is that Rastafarians see themselves as the body and Haile Selassie as the head.