What is the Trinity?
The word "Trinity" describes the belief in Christian theology that the one God of the universe is comprised of three persons: the God the Father, the Son, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. It has been the conviction of Christians throughout the centuries that this is what the Bible teaches. The word "trinity" comes from the Latin word trinitas, meaning "three."
The word "trinity" doesn't appear in the Bible; rather, it is a theological label meant to summarize the passages of the Bible, which teach that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each fully God. This labeling is similar to other doctrines such as "communion," "incarnation," "free will," "rapture," and "advent" - where the word doesn't appear in the Bible.
The early church father Tertullian (c. 155-230), who wrote in Latin, is believed to have first used the term trinity to describe the God of the Bible.
The doctrine of the trinity distinguishes Christianity from other religions including, Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Unitarian Universalism. These groups reject the doctrine, in part, because the word trinity isn't used in the Bible, it doesn't make philosophical sense to them, and they don't believe that it is compatible with monotheism.
The Doctrine of the Trinity in history
The doctrine of the trinity was first thoroughly and formally articulated in the fourth century in response to perceived distortions of biblical teaching on the subject, but the fundamental beliefs of the doctrine can be seen from the first century. And while no systematic presentation of the doctrine can be found in the New Testament, Christians argue that it can be shown that the Bible teaches that the Father is God, the Son, Jesus Christ, is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, all the while affirming that there is but one God.
Hints of Trinitarian beliefs can also be seen in the teachings of extra-biblical writers as early as the end of the first century. 2 However, the fullest early expression of the concept came with Tertullian, a Latin theologian who wrote in the early third century. Tertullian coined the words "Trinity" and "person" and explained that the the Bible taught that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were "one in essence - not one in Person." 3
About a century later, in 325, the Council of Nicea set out to officially define the relationship of the Son to the Father, in response to the controversial teachings of Arius. Led by bishop Athanasius, the council affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity as orthodoxy and condemned Arius' teaching that Christ was the first creation of God. The creed adopted by the council described Christ as "God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance (homoousios) with the Father." 4
Nicea did not end the controversy, however. Debate over how the creed (especially the phrase "one substance") ought to be interpreted continued to rage for decades. One group advocated the doctrine that Christ was a "similar substance" (homoiousios) as the Father. But for the most part, the issue of the Trinity was settled at Nicea and, by the fifth century, never again became a focus of serious controversy.
Most post-Nicene theological discussion of the Trinity consisted of attempts to understand and explain such a unique concept. Gregory of Nyssa, in his treatise, That There are Not Three Gods, compared the divinity shared by the three persons of the Trinity to the common "humanness," or human nature, that is shared by individual human beings. (Ironically, this initially promising explanation has been seen by some to yield a conclusion quite opposite than the title of his work.)
Saint Augustine, one of the greatest thinkers of the early church, described the Trinity as comparable to the three parts of an individual human being: mind, spirit, and will. They are three distinct aspects, yet they are inseparable and together constitute one unified human being.
Modern Denominational Statements on the Trinity
There are many differences in doctrine among mainstream Christian denominations, but the doctrine of the Trinity is not one of them:
The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of the Christian faith and of Christian life. -- Roman Catholicism
The fundamental truth of the Orthodox Church is the faith revealed in the True God: the Holy Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. -- Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America
We teach that the one true God. is the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, three distinct persons, but of one and the same divine essence, equal in power, equal in eternity, equal in majesty, because each person possesses the one divine essence .-- Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod)
We trust in the one triune God. -- Presbyterian Church (USA)
The eternal triune God reveals Himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, with distinct personal attributes, but without division of nature, essence, or being. -- Southern Baptist Convention
There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body or parts, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the maker and preserver of all things, both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there are three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity-the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. -- United Methodist Church
Critics of the Trinitarian Doctrine, Past and Present
Despite its widespread acceptance among Christians, the doctrine of the Trinity has been a stumbling block to many non-Christians throughout its history. The Jews rejected the idea of the Trinity since it first arose, it has been similarly rejected by Islam since that religion was founded, and many other men and women of all backgrounds have found the concept difficult to understand or accept.
This section provides a brief summary of groups and individuals who have rejected the Trinity, presented in roughly chronological order.
In the New Testament, Jews are described as rejecting Jesus' claims apparent claims to divinity, accusing him of blasphemy. In the Gospel of Mark, for instance, Jesus forgives a man's sins and some Jewish teachers thought to themselves: "Why does this fellow talk like that? He's blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" 5 In the Gospel of John, some Jews began to stone Jesus, explaining that they did so "for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God." 6
The great Jewish philosopher Maimonides also rejected the Trinitarian beliefs of Christians.
In his aversion to what he considered to be Christian dilutions of pure monotheism, especially in its doctrine of the Trinity, much of Maimonides' philosophical critique of Christian theology is similar to Islamic arguments against it. In his earlier work, Maimonides translated his theoretical disdain of Christianity into practice. He deemed Christians to be idolators and bemoaned the fact that political necessity forced many European Jews to live in Christian societies. 7
Today, Jewish counter-missionary movements like "Jews for Judaism" seek to educate Jews about why belief in the Trinity is incompatible with Judaism.
Arianism is the name given to an anti-Trinitarian belief system taught by Arius, an elder in the Alexandrian church, in the early fourth century AD. Arius affirmed the uniqueness of God and denied the complete divinity of the Son (Christ). He taught instead that Christ was a created and changeable being, who, while superior to humans, is not of the same order as the one God.
Arius and Arianism were condemned at the famous Council of Nicea in 325 AD, which proclaimed that the Son was of "the same substance" as the Father. After Constantine's death, however, Arianism flourished again for some decades and almost overcame the Nicene party. Arianism was finally condemned at the Council of Constantinople in 381 CE.
The sacred text of Islam, the Qur'an (or Koran), explicitly denies the doctrine of the Trinity. It appears to understand the Christian Trinity as being the Father, Son and Mary: And (remember) when Allah will say (on the Day of Resurrection): 'O 'Iesa (Jesus), son of Maryam (Mary) ! Did you say unto men: Worship me and my mother as two gods besides Allah?' He will say: 'Glory be to you! It was not for me to say that which I had no right (to say). 8
The Jehovah's Witnesses, a Christian group founded in the United States, rejects the doctrine of the Trinity. Instead, it teaches a doctrine similar to that of Arius in the fourth century - Christ is the Son of God, a special being, created by God before the beginning of time, but not equal with God. Witnesses regard Arius as a forerunner of Charles Taze Russell, their movement's founder. 9
A Jehovah's Witness brochure entitled "Beliefs and Customs that God Hates" includes the Trinity, saying:
Is Jehovah a Trinity-three persons in one God? No! Jehovah, the Father, is "the only true God." (John 17:3; Mark 12:29) Jesus is His firstborn Son, and he is subject to God. (1 Corinthians 11:3) The Father is greater than the Son. (John 14:28) The holy spirit is not a person; it is God's active force.-Genesis 1:2; Acts 2:18.
In addition to the Bible verses cited above, Witnesses point out that it was the secular Emperor who proposed the doctrine of Christ as "same substance" with God, not the bishops present, and that the doctrine of the Trinity (i.e., including the divinity of the Holy Spirit) was not actually brought forth at Nicea at all. Jehovah's Witnesses also argue that the Athanasian Creed, which sets forth the doctrine more clearly, was not only probably not written by Athanasius himself, but may not have been composed until the fifth century. Finally, they note the presence of Trinitarian-type beliefs in pagan religion, and argue that paganism is the source of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity as well. 10
Mormons believe that the Godhead is made up of three distinct beings who are "one in purpose" but not in being. Jesus is affirmed as Son of God, but not God himself. He is a created spirit.
"Unitarianism" is the doctrine of the oneness of God, with the resultant denial of the Trinity. Today, the doctrine of unitarianism is expressed by the Unitarian Universalist Association and similar groups, which have their historical roots in sixteenth-century eastern Europe. Historically, Unitarian Universalists are defined by their rejection of the Trinity and their belief in the ultimate salvation of all humanity.
Today, however, Unitarians draw from a variety of religious traditions and do not focus on doctrine and creeds as much as love and justice between human beings. Because of this de-emphasis on doctrine, modern Unitarian Universalist arguments against the Trinity are scarce. However, the official Web site of the Unitarian Univeralist Association describes the early history of their beliefs this way:
During the first three centuries of the Christian church, believers could choose from a variety of tenets about Jesus. Among these was a belief that Jesus was an entity sent by God on a divine mission. Thus the word "Unitarian" developed, meaning the oneness of God. Another religious choice in the first three centuries of the Common Era (CE) was universal salvation. This was the belief that no person would be condemned by God to eternal damnation in a fiery pit. Thus a Universalist believed that all people will be saved. Christianity lost its element of choice in 325 CE when the Nicene Creed established the Trinity as dogma. For centuries thereafter, people who professed Unitarian or Universalist beliefs were persecuted. 11
The Da Vinci Code
Although neither a scholarly nor a religious source, Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code is mentioned here because it has been widely read and it claims to present numerous "historical facts" about the development of the Trinity and other aspects of early Christianity. At one point in the novel, a learned character explains that the Trinity was unheard of until the Emperor Constantine enforced the foreign idea of Christ's divinity on Christendom. Brown writes, "until that moment in history, Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet … a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless." This is not historically accurate. For more information on The Da Vinci Code as it relates to Christian history and theology, see the feature article on the subject.
- E.g., Matthew 28:19; John 1:1; John 10:30.
- Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians (Ante-Nicene Fathers 1.58); The Martyrdom of Polycarp 14 (ANF 1.42).
- ANF 3.621; c. 213 CE.
- William Placher, Readings in the History of Christian Theology, 53.
- Mark 2:7.
- John 10:33.
- David Novak, "The Mind of Maimonides." First Things, February 1999.
- Qur'an 5:116-117.
- "Arianism." Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 2004.
- "How Did the Trinity Doctrine Develop?" Watchtower.org.
- "Our Historic Faith." Unitarian Universalist Association.