Sometimes what we can know about key truths such as the Trinity are like light shining through the darkness.

The Trinity, Analogies, and Accidental Heresies

When it comes to mysteries in the Bible, it’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” After all, God doesn’t tell us everything about how certain things work. This is why we have questions about how his sovereignty and our moral agency work together, or the problem of evil, or even the existence of evil at all. And the same is true of mysteries around his nature, like the Trinity.

What is the Trinity?

While the word “Trinity” doesn’t appear in Scripture, as you can see, the concept does. But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy to understand. If you had to condense what we believe about God’s nature—meaning what God is—into three key points, it might look something like this:

  1. There is one God who has eternally existed (Genesis 1:1; Deuteronomy 6:4; Psalm 121:2; 146:6; Isaiah 44:6; 45:5; Mark 12:29; 1 Corinthians 8:4; Revelation 1:8; 22:13).
  2. This one God is entirely self-sufficient, lacking nothing (Psalm 50:9–12; 1 Chronicles 29:14–16; Acts 17:25; Romans 1:20).
  3. This one God eternally exists as three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who are fully and equally divine, one in essence, or substance and will, free from subordination or hierarchy.1

While much can be said about all three, these points make up the heart of Christians’ understanding of God. And it is, admittedly, complex. After all, we’re talking about the nature of God. This is not something finite beings like you and me are going to be able to fully grasp. But even so, this is how the Bible explains who and what God is to us through its narrative.

The Lord, the Father is God (Matthew 6:26-33; Mark 11:22-25; Luke 23:46-47). Jesus, the Messiah, the eternal Word and Son is God (Matthew 5:21-48; 8:28-34; 13:41; John 1:1-2; 5:39; 20:28). The Holy Spirit who was and God the Holy Spirit (Genesis 1:1–2; Matthew 28:19; 2 Corinthians 13:14). Each is fully and equally God. But even as they are eternally united in essence and will, they are also distinct from one another. While the Father, Son, and Spirit are God, the Father is not the Son nor the Spirit, the Son is not the Father nor the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father nor the Son (Matthew 11:27; John 10:30; 14:16).

True? Yes. Easy to understand? Not really.

Three Common Heresies About the Trinity

Even though this teaching is true and held to as primary in every Christian tradition, it has also been the source of some of our greatest controversies and errors. And that’s because our attempts to explain the mystery of God’s three-and-oneness always fall short, as a laundry list of heresies—teachings that contradict or deny an essential truth of the Christian faith—attests.

Heresy 1: Modalism

One teacher attempted to explain the Persons of the Trinity as “forms” or “modes” of existence, that at certain times God acted in the mode of the Father and at others in the mode of the Son or the Spirit. This heresy, called Modalism, is alive and well in our day, as it is part of some churches’ doctrinal statements (such as the Oneness Pentecostals), and finds its way into popular songs and books.

Heresy 2: Arianism

Another teacher, Arius, believed Jesus and the Holy Spirit are not coeternal and equal with God the Father. Instead, he taught that both are created beings and subordinate to God the Father. His heresy, Arianism, is alive and well in religions such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses which, despite using Christian language, does not align with historic Christian teaching, believing Jesus is a created being and the Holy Spirit is an impersonal force. And while it’s wise to avoid painting with too broad a brush, even some teachings about the relationship between the Father, Son, and Spirit within otherwise faithful Christian circles risk being a reframing of this heresy.

Heresy 3: Tritheism

A third common heresy, Tritheism, teaches that the Father, Son, and Spirit are not one but fully separate divine beings. A form of this is taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, another religion that, despite using similar language, does not align with historic Christianity.2

If you choose to be overly charitable, you can make the case that each of these heresies didn’t start out with the intent to deceive. Each sought to emphasize an aspect of what Scripture teaches about the nature of God. The problem is that they do so at the expense of the other aspects the Bible emphasizes. And the same thing happens whenever we try to use analogies to describe the Trinity. They all wind up making us accidental heretics, usually illustrating one of the three heresies outlined above. For example:

  • The Trinity is not like water, which exists at different times as gas, liquid, or solid. That’s Modalism.
  • The Trinity isn’t like a star from which light and heat emanate. That’s Arianism.
  • The Trinity isn’t like a family with a mother, father, and child. That’s Tritheism.

While analogies might make for entertaining YouTube videos, they make for terrible theology. The Trinity is a grand mystery. God’s revelation of His nature is incomparable—there is literally nothing else like Him in all the universe.

A Beautiful Mystery to Behold

Theological mysteries like this are tempting to skip for many of us. We are inclined to put questions about God’s nature in the “I’ll find out when I get there” folder, alongside the problem of evil and why American “reality” TV shows continue to draw audiences. But we can’t do that with the Trinity because there is no Christianity without it. There are no Christians without the Trinity, either. Everything about how we “do” Christianity depends on it, from the way we pray to the way we read our Bible to the message we have to share.

So, even though it’s a head-scratcher, let’s embrace the mystery for the good news that it is. And let’s seek to understand it to the degree that we can. Because when we do, we will be better equipped to recognize false teaching—but just as importantly, we’ll see that it is a beautiful mystery to behold.

Photo by Carlo Alberto Burato on Unsplash

  1. While there is a functional subordination that plays out within the work of redemption (in human form, Jesus submitted himself to the will of the Father, who sent him to rescue and redeem people from sin), it is not innate to their existence as three-in-one. Some academics have attempted to popularize the view that there is an innate subordination within the Trinity. However, their teaching on this point is out of step with historic Christian beliefs. ↩︎
  2. The Church of Latter-day Saints’ official doctrine confirms this. They view “the members of the Godhead in a manner that corresponds in a number of ways with the views of others in the Christian world, but with significant differences.” Among those significant differences? They believe that each member of the Trinity (or Godhead as they prefer) is “is a separate being… Although the members of the Godhead are distinct beings with distinct roles, they are one in purpose and doctrine.” In their view, the Father, Son, and Spirit’s unity is not in their being or essence, but in their purpose and teaching. ↩︎

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