Understanding the Trinity (1) – Happy Pentecost

The doctrine of the Trinity says that God exists in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But that is not all it says. The central elements of the doctrine are neatly summarized in a passage of the Athanasian Creed, one of the most widely respected summaries of the Christian faith:

We worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in unity, neither confusing the Persons, nor dividing the substance. For there is one person for the Father, another for the Son, and yet another for the Holy Spirit. But the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one. . . . Thus, the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; and yet there are not three Gods, but there is one God.

This passage offers a paradigm statement of the orthodox understanding of the Trinity. As it makes clear, the doctrine requires not only that God exists in three persons but also that each of the following is true as well:

  1. There is exactly one God.
  2. The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God.
  3. The Father is not the Son, and the Holy Spirit is not the Father or the Son

Over the past four decades, however, various philosophers and theologians have developed some more promising analogies, or models, for understanding inter-Trinitarian relations. These models are:

The Social Analogy

Throughout the gospels, the first two persons of the Trinity are referred to as Father and Son. This suggests the analogy of a family, or, more generally, a society. Thus, the persons of the Trinity might be thought of as one in precisely the way that, say, Abraham, Sara, and Isaac are one: just as these three human beings are one family, so too the persons are one God. But because there is no contradiction in thinking of a family as three and one, this analogy removes the contradiction in saying that God is three and one.

Those who attempt to understand the Trinity primarily in terms of this analogy are typically called Social Trinitarians. Historically, this approach is associated with Greek (or Eastern) Trinitarianism, a tradition of reflection that traces its roots to the three great Fathers of the Eastern Church—Basil of Caesarea, his brother Gregory of Nazianzen, and their friend Gregory of Nyssa. (They are often referred to as the Cappadocian Fathers, after the province in Asia Minor from which they came.) Prominent contemporary proponents of Social Trinitarianism include Richard Swinburne, Cornelius Plantinga Jr., and William Lane Craig.


Cite: Brower & Rea, Understanding the Trinity, Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 8.1 (2005) 145-157

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