Written by Paul Lucas
When Chris Tomlin wrote the song entitled Indescribable, he was attempting to find the proper words to accurately portray the existential greatness of God. Undoubtedly, it was soon determined that mere words could not describe the true and glorious nature of YHWH God. As the rest of the song’s lyrics suggest, Tomlin is mainly referring to the power God has, and how wonderfully and mightily it is demonstrated through His actions. As such, it becomes evident that, while proper words do not exist to adequately describe the parameters of infinite power and glory, God’s omnipotence can be satisfactorily represented by describing the empirical actions He performs using His power. In other words, humanity better understands the nature of God not by comprehending His nature itself, but rather dwelling on and appreciating the things He does because of His nature.
Many aspects of God’s nature, or attributes, can be experienced and seen through the means described above. For example, His power is demonstrated in His ability to create, sustain, and organize the universe. His grace is demonstrated in that He saved sinners who did not deserve it (Eph. 2:8). His love is demonstrated in His sending of Christ to die for our sins (Rom. 5:8). Many such attributes can be partly understood because there are examples that assist with obtaining a proper understanding. Scripture is full of such metaphors and examples that are God’s effort to reveal His nature to His creation. However, there is one aspect of God’s nature that cannot be dealt with in the same way: His tri-personhood.
The Trinity is one of the few (or perhaps the only) doctrines that is truly indescribable in all aspects. Simple logic seems to contradict this idea. Just as the rest of God’s attributes, it cannot be understood as a property itself, as infinite knowledge and experience would be required for such comprehension. Furthermore, there exist no specific examples or metaphors of the Trinity in Scripture, and it is unlikely that anything else exists that can properly be compared to this concept. Therefore, humanity is left alone to extrapolate the nature of the Triune God as completely as possible. Given the mystery surrounding the idea of a Triune God, it is understandable that history is full of theological and philosophical pursuits to explain, justify, or outright deny the Trinity; creating intellectual disunity and heretical teachings, each intent on discovering the truth.
Biblical Foundations for Trinitarian Thought
The Old Testament has several examples where God refers to Himself in the plural. An example of this is found in Genesis 1:26, where God says “let us make man in our image…” (ESV, emphasis added). A similar example is found in Isaiah 6:8, where the same plural personal pronoun is used in reference to God. These do not prove the Trinity, but they do raise some questions about the nature of God.
The New Testament contains evidence that Jesus is God. In the Gospel of John, the Word (Greek logos) is said to be God (1:1), and is said to become flesh (1:14); the “flesh” referring to Jesus. A stronger case for Jesus as God is found in the fact that Jesus is Savior. In the OT, God the Father explicitly states that there is no savior besides Him (Is. 43:11), yet the NT makes it clear that Jesus is Savior (Lk. 2:11, Eph. 5:23, Php. 3:20). If Jesus is not God, then this cannot be possible. Further evidence for Christ’s deity is found in Romans 9:5, Colossians 2:9, and 1 John 5:20. Similarly, the Holy Spirit (or the Spirit of God in the OT) is described as a separate entity on its own (John 16:13-14) and has power of its own (Acts 10:38, 2 Peter 1:21).
The passages listed above insinuate that there is some aspect to the nature of God that is beyond a basic monotheism. Therefore, early theologians made efforts to develop these concepts into doctrine, and this proved to be a difficult task. Due to the indescribable and incomprehensible nature of a God who is one God with three aspects, there was much difficulty and diversity in opinion concerning the actual description of this doctrine.
In the earliest church traditions, it is apparent that Jesus was held to a very high esteem, much in the same way that God was held. Clement of Rome3 held Christ to a seemingly equal esteem to God, as he wrote, “Brethren, we ought so to think of Jesus Christ as of God”. As expected, Clement merely regurgitated the obvious statements found in Scripture concerning the nature of God and the nature of Christ. His comparison of the two here was one of importance in the context of respect and consideration; not necessarily one of equivalent nature.
Ignatius slightly deepened this understanding when he reflected on the unity of the Father and the Son spoken of in the Gospel of John. He concluded that Christ was preexistent, and He “existed with the Father before the ages”. This conclusion contributed to a Trinitarian understanding of God, but it obviously lacked a full development.
Possibly the earliest large leap in the development of the doctrine of the Trinity is found in the writings of Irenaeus. Although not specifically writing to prove or support the concept of a triune God, his writings contained evidence of an elementary understanding of a Trinitarian doctrine. He writes, “For with [God the Father] were always present the Word and Wisdom, the Son and the Spirit, by whom and in whom, freely and spontaneously, He made all things”. The reference to the Trinity is strongly extant in this excerpt. This development may be due to a necessity to critically analyze the true nature of God because of the Gnostic heresy challenging orthodox beliefs. Gnostic theology severely altered the orthodox beliefs concerning the nature of God, Christ, and the Spirit. Thus, to properly respond, it follows that a more in-depth study of the true nature of God was necessary. The result was an early theology of the Trinity.
Doctrinal Division and Heresy
As with many theological beliefs, disunity and diversity is seemingly inevitable. The more difficult a doctrine is to understand, the more diverse the development becomes. Hence, the Trinity resulted in widespread disagreements and heretical teachings. The term “heresy” is used lightly here, and it should not necessarily carry the wholly-negative connotations which many apply to the term. Commonly, those who are deemed heretics are not attempting to be challenge orthodox teaching in a negative way, especially concerning the doctrine of the Trinity. Because it is a difficult concept to comprehend, many early theologians had their own methods of describing it. Their motives were seemingly pure, but their views were simply not consistent with Scripture, so they became “heresy”. There were many attempts to explain the Trinity, and a few prominent ones are covered below.
The Trinity is most difficult because it is an apparent paradox that merges two seemingly opposing truths: The oneness of a monotheistic God and three distinct but unified and equal persons. Naturally, some problems arise when one half of the paradox is valued over the other, as is the case with Monarchianism, which is a broad term that links many theologies which overemphasize the oneness of God.
Monarchianism contains several sub-categories. Firstly, there is Modalistic Monarchianism. Also known as Modalism, this view asserts that a singular God manifests Himself into three separate “modes”. The Biblical narrative according to a Modalist describes God as being in the form of the Father in the Old Testament. Then, He takes on the person of Jesus Christ in the Gospels. After His ascension, He becomes the Holy Spirit and dwells among men, as He continues to do today. In its strictest form, it is counter-biblical for many reasons. However, the broader concept has taken on many forms as an effort to attempt to reconcile the logic of the Trinity. For example, the popular “water metaphor” to describe the Trinity is a form of Modalism. At its core, Modalism denies the co-eternal aspect of the Trinity.
Another form of Monarchianism is known as Adoptionism. This particular Trinitarian heresy is a two-fold heresy that also denies an orthodox understanding of Christology and the Incarnation. This view states Jesus Christ was a mere human being before he was adopted as God’s Son. As indicated, this belief opens up for many potential Christological heresies. More relevantly, this view denies the eternal deity of Jesus Christ, and thus denies the orthodox view of the Trinity. Even if one holds that Jesus became God upon adoption, this still denies the eternal deity of Christ. In more extreme cases, an Adoptionist may completely deny that Jesus is God, which obviously contradicts the concept of a Triune God. It was declared heresy by the Council of Nicaea in 325.
Another early heresy is known as Arianism. This is the belief that Jesus Christ is not the God, but rather a god who was created by God the Father; a concept derived from Jesus being God’s “begotten son” (Jn. 3:16), which led Arius to assert that “there was a time when [the Son] was not” (a common summation of his beliefs). This view, while affirming the Trinity in a broad sense, denies the Trinitarian concept of the three persons being co-eternal. His views were officially declared heresy by the Council of Nicaea in 325.
These differences in belief, although divisive at the time, contributed to the overall development of the doctrine of the Trinity. The Council of Nicaea in 325 was perhaps the largest jump in progression in history because it was a necessary response to the diverse beliefs that existed in the ancient church. These challenges sparked an interest in Trinitarian studies as an attempt to both unify the Church and find the Truth.
Concluding Remarks: On Philosophy and the Trinity
The High to Late Middle Ages sparked a nearly universal interest in philosophy which continues to this day. Over time, the Western world began to rely more on logic and empirical proof, and this intellectual shift permeated all aspects of academia; including theology and biblical studies. This inevitably led to a promotion of logic and reason over “blind” faith and tradition; a slow fade that can be traced back to Thomas Aquinas.12 It is well-known that a large portion of Aquinas’ work revolves around attempts to reconcile faith with reason, theology with philosophy, and natural knowledge with spiritual revelation. His influence in these areas is undeniable, and he certainly created a foundation for future apologists and rational thinkers to build upon. To this day, popular apologists such as William Lane Craig merely pick up where Aquinas left off, especially concerning the Cosmological argument.
However, merging theology with philosophy will not always yield satisfactory results. Concerning the Trinity, it can even be counterproductive. If one relied solely on logic, explaining the Trinity could prove to be very difficult, if not impossible. From an apologetic standpoint, any attempts to do so (because they will inevitably fail) will push some people further away from Christianity. A wiser apologetic method concerning the Trinity would be to appeal to mystery.
While the Trinity itself cannot be logically proven, a rational mind may find solace in the fact that it is rational to describe it as a mystery. Given that God is great, infinite, and omnipotent, it is rational to assume that parts of God’s nature are either unknown or indescribable by humans. If the Trinity does not make logical sense to a finite mind, it does not necessarily follow that it cannot be true, as this commits a Personal Incredulity fallacy. Contrarily, it should be expected that the true nature of God is incomprehensible. Therefore, when human understanding lacks in this area, we must rely on the only source of knowledge that Christians truly trust: Scripture. As briefly mentioned earlier, Scripture clearly indicates some form of a Triune nature. At the very least, it can be concluded that Jesus is God incarnate.
The Trinity is impossible to understand, yet history is riddled with theologians who attempted to understand it as best they can. In doing so, disagreements and heretical teachings were soon manifested within the Church, and the Church needed to respond by nuancing Orthodoxy and creating Creeds to affirm the Truth they discovered. Doctrine develops due to disagreements.