The Doctrine of the Trinity
- Wednesday, March 07, 2007
Is the Trinity Contradictory?
This leads us to investigate more closely a very helpful definition of the Trinity which I mentioned earlier: God is one in essence, but three in Person. This formulation can show us why there are not three Gods, and why the Trinity is not a contradiction.
In order for something to be contradictory, it must violate the law of noncontradiction. This law states that A cannot be both A (what it is) and non-A (what it is not) at the same time and in the same relationship. In other words, you have contradicted yourself if you affirm and deny the same statement. For example, if I say that the moon is made entirely of cheese but then also say that the moon is not made entirely of cheese, I have contradicted myself.
Other statements may at first seem contradictory but are really not. Theologian R.C. Sproul cites as an example Dickens' famous line, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Obviously this is a contradiction if Dickens means that it was the best of times in the same way that it was the worst of times. But he avoids contradiction with this statement because he means that in one sense it was the best of times, but in another sense it was the worst of times.
Carrying this concept over to the Trinity, it is not a contradiction for God to be both three and one because He is not three and one in the same way. He is three in a different way than He is one. Thus, we are not speaking with a forked tongue-we are not saying that God is one and then denying that He is one by saying that He is three. This is very important: God is one and three at the same time, but not in the same way.
How is God one? He is one in essence. How is God three? He is three in Person. Essence and person are not the same thing. God is one in a certain way (essence) and three in a different way (person). Since God is one in a different way than He is three, the Trinity is not a contradiction. There would only be a contradiction if we said that God is three in the same way that He is one.
So a closer look at the fact that God is one in essence but three in person has helped to show why the Trinity is not a contradiction. But how does it show us why there is only one God instead of three? It is very simple: All three Persons are one God because, as we saw above, they are all the same essence. Essence means the same thing as "being." Thus, since God is only one essence, He is only one being-not three. This should make it clear why it is so important to understand that all three Persons are the same essence. For if we deny this, we have denied God's unity and affirmed that there is more than one being of God (i.e., that there is more than one God).
What we have seen so far provides a good basic understanding of the Trinity. But it is possible to go deeper. If we can understand more precisely what is meant by essence and person, how these two terms differ, and how they relate, we will then have a more complete understanding of the Trinity.
Essence and Person
Essence. What does essence mean? As I said earlier, it means the same thing as being. God's essence is His being. To be even more precise, essence is what you are. At the risk of sounding too physical, essence can be understood as the "stuff" that you "consist of." Of course we are speaking by analogy here, for we cannot understand this in a physical way about God. "God is spirit" (John 4:24). Further, we clearly should not think of God as "consisting of" anything other than divinity. The "substance" of God is God, not a bunch of "ingredients" that taken together yield deity.
Person. In regards to the Trinity, we use the term "Person" differently than we generally use it in everyday life. Therefore it is often difficult to have a concrete definition of Person as we use it in regards to the Trinity. What we do not mean by Person is an "independent individual" in the sense that both I and another human are separate, independent individuals who can exist apart from one another.
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