“The Three Sisters”, Canadian Rockies in Alberta, Canada (CC-BY-SA-3.0 more)

Is the Doctrine of the Trinity Irrational?

The doctrine of the Trinity states there is one God who exists eternally as three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. “[T]he word Trinity means ‘tri-unity’.” [R.C. Sproul, What is the Trinity?, pg. 2 (2011)] Even though each member of the Trinity is distinct from the other two members, they are always unified, not separate. [See, Douglas Blount, The Apologetics Study Bible, “The Trinity: Is it Possible That God Be Both One and Three?”, pg. 1459 (2007); Kenneth Samples, A World of Difference, pg. 131 (2007)]

Although some critics allege the doctrine of the Trinity is irrational because a being cannot be both three and one, Christian apologists maintain the doctrine does not violate the law of non-contradiction because the doctrine does not say God is one in the same way that he is three.

Critics often allege the doctrine of the Trinity is contradictory and, therefore, irrational. Certainly, if the doctrine of the Trinity is truly contradictory, it is irrational because all contradictory statements are irrational. For example, it is contradictory and irrational to state that A is always B and to also state that A is always not be B because it is logically impossible for A to always be B and always not B. Likewise, critics of the doctrine of the Trinity allege it is contradictory to say God is both three and one. In their view, there can be one God or three Gods but God cannot be both three and one.

Christian scholars maintain that even though the doctrine of the Trinity may be a paradox or a mystery, a closer look at the doctrine demonstrates it is not truly contradictory.  Only if the doctrine made either of the following propositions, would it be truly contradictory:

God is one in essence (whatness) and three in essence (whatness) at the same time

or

God is three in person (whoness) and one in person (whoness) at the same time

But, the doctrine of the Trinity does not state either of the above propositions.  In fact, Christians do not maintain God is one in the same way he is three. Rather, Christians maintain that in one way (what God is) God is one and in a different way (who God is) he is three. [See, Douglas Blount, The Apologetics Study Bible, “The Trinity: Is it Possible That God Be Both One and Three?”, pg. 1459 (2007); D. James Kennedy, Skeptics Answered, pgs. 67-69 (1997)]

The reason the statement above (that A is always B and always not B) is contradictory is because of the use of the word “always”. If the word “always” was taken out of the statement, the statement wouldn’t necessarily be contradictory because then A could be B at one time and not be B at another time or A could be partly B and not partly B at the same time. It is not contradictory for A to also be B at a different time or in a different relationship.

Christian philosopher, R.C. Sproul provides the following example to demonstrate how the same being might be different “in person” at different times or in different relationships:

A man can be a father and not be a father at the same time as long as you are talking about different times or different relationships. So, a man can be a father to his son and at the same time not be a father to his father.  Likewise, a man can be a father and not be a father as long as you are talking about different times. A man is not a father before his child is born and is a father after his child is born.

Christian theologians maintain the doctrine of the Trinity is not contradictory because the doctrine merely states that God is one in essence (God is one what or one in being) yet three in person (God is three whos – Father, Son and Holy Spirit). [R.C. Sproul, Renewing Your Mind, “Contradiction and ParadoxNRB, 3/10/09; D. James Kennedy, Skeptics Answered, pgs. 67-69 (1997)]

The Greek word for “essence” is ousios which is the present participle of the Greek word “to be.”  The concept behind the word “essence” is that for anything to be real (to have a real essence), it must be in a state of being. Therefore, when philosophers talk about God being one in essence, they are referring to God’s existence in a state of pure beingness.  The word “person” is different than the word “essence” in that personhood refers to a “subsistence”; it literally means “to stand under the essence.”  So, the concept of the Trinity is that while God is one in essence (one in his beingness), there are three “subsistences” (persons) who stand under the essence of God’s beingness.  Although all three “subsistences” (persons) have the essence of one deity, they each possess unique attributes which distinguish them form one another. While these distinctions are real, the distinctions never interfere with the essenceof the one deity. [R.C. Sproul, What Is the Trinity?, pgs. 47-51 (2011)]

Every person on Earth is a human being; being human is their beingness or whatness.  But, every individual is a different person or whoness.  So each person has one whatness and one whoness.  God is different — while he is one what, he is three whos. Although nothing like God exists, him being one in whatness and three in whoness it is not a contradiction.

Because the doctrine of the Trinity holds that God is one in one sense and three in different sense, there is no contradiction.  Rather, it is unity and diversity (i.e., university) in one being that consists of three persons. [Ravi Zacharias, “Questions and Answers”, NRB, 7/20/09]  Since it is impossible for love to exist without relationship, Christian philosophers and theologians point out that it is the triunity of God which explains how God could be self-existent (not dependent on anything outside of himself) and still loving (more >>).

Due to man’s inherent limitations as created beings who live in a finite universe, any attempt to fully explain God’s beingness is truly impossible; however, man’s inability to fully understand the Triunity of God doesn’t mean the doctrine of the Trinity is irrational. As set forth above, Christian philosophers and theologians maintain that since the doctrine of the Trinity does not say God is one in the same way he is three, it does not violate the law of non-contradiction and, therefore, the doctrine is not irrational, even though God’s triune nature remains a mystery[R.C. Sproul, Renewing Your Mind, “Contradiction and Paradox”, NRB, 3/10/09; D. James Kennedy, Skeptics Answered, pgs. 67-69 (1997)] 

© 2012 by Andrina G. Hanson

Published: May 25, 2012 / Last Updated: April 2, 2016

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QUICK LINKS TO SOURCES REFERENCED OR RELIED ON IN THIS ARTICLE

Douglas K. Blount, The Apologetics Study Bible: Understand Why You Believe“The Trinity: Is it Possible That God Be Both One and Three?” pg. 1459 (Holman Bible Publishers, 2007)

D. James Kennedy, Skeptics Answered(Multnomah Books (October 1, 2005)

Kenneth Richard Samples, World of Difference, A: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test (Reasons to Believe)(Baker Books, 2007)

R.C. Sproul, What is the Trinity? (Crucial Questions Series) (Crucial Questions (Reformation Trust))(Reformation Trust Publishing, 2011)

R.C. Sproul, Renewing Your Mind, “Contradiction and Paradox”, aired on NRB, 3/10/09, available at www.ligonier.org/learn/series/defending-your-faith/contradiction-and-paradox/

Ravi Zacharias, RZIM, “Questions and Answers”, aired on NRB, 7/20/09

IMAGE CREDITS & LICENSING

Slideshow Photo:  This photograph (photographer unknown) is of The Three Sisters mountain located in the Canadian Rockies in Alberta, Canada. The three peaks depicted in the photo are individually known as Big Sister (Faith), Middle Sister (Charity) and Little Sister (Hope).  The image was downloaded from www.wikimedia.org which states the image is licensed under the Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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