10 steps towards getting less confused about the Trinity – #8 – trinity vs. Trinity
Two common uses of “Trinity,” but one came first…
Two common uses of “Trinity,” but one came first…
In ancient times, three lawless ruffians roamed the land: a giant, a long-haired man, and a swordsman. They wrought such havoc that their legend long survived them; generations passed down tales about “The Triple Threat,” as they came to be called.
Eventually, though, the legend was oddly transformed; the “Triple Threat” was now supposed to be a giant, long-haired swordsman – one guy, and not three. Whereas earlier story tellers had used “The Triple Threat” as a plural referring term (a way of picking out the giant, the long-haired man, and the swordsman) later tellers used the phrase as a singular referring term, picking out (so they supposed) a giant with long hair and a sword.
Something similar happened in the case of the Trinity. At first, there was no such word in the Christian vocabulary. “Trinity” (Greek: trias) was coined some time in the second half of the second century. We don’t know who coined it, but the earliest surviving mention of it is by Theophilus, bishop of Antioch (d. c. 185). Commenting on the Genesis days of creation, in his remarks on the fourth day, he says that
…the three days which were before the luminaries [i.e. the stars], are types of the Trinity [Greek: triados, a form of trias], of God, and His Word, and His wisdom. (“Theophilus to Autolycus,” Ante-Nicene Fathers vol. II, p. 101)
(How do we know that “God” here means the Father, and not the three of them? It’s clear from the sentence, and also from the whole rest of the work, especially book I and book II ch. 10, which describes the Father’s (the one God’s) “begetting” of the Son before creation, so as to create through him.) The word triados here would be better rendered as “triad” or “trinity.” This would help us to not anachronistically import later ideas into the passage. This triad or trinity is just a threesome, a group of three somethings, not necessarily of the same kind or status, and not necessarily parts of any whole. And God himself, Theophilus thinks, is the oldest and the primary, founding member of that threesome, that trinity. Theophilus doesn’t betray any hint here that he’s introducing a novel term, which leads us to think that he or someone else in his circles has previously introduced it. But he tells us what this trinity is: God, God’s Word (i.e. the logos of John 1), and God’s “wisdom” – evidently the Holy Spirit.
This is the plural referring usage of trias (and the Latin trinitas) that one always sees in ancient catholics like Origen, Tertullian, Irenaeus, and Novatian.
Because of this, some translators render terms like trias and trinitas as “trinity” in Christian sources of the first three centuries. In other words, they use “trinity” as the plural referring term (picking out Father, Son, and Spirit – whatever precisely those are, and however exactly they’re related to one another), and “Trinity” for the one God in three “Persons” which catholic Christianity made mandatory in the last two decades of the fourth century.
I urge that all Christians should recognize this convention of “trinity” vs. “Trinity.” Not doing so regularly causes confusion. Scholars opine that “The Bible is all about the Trinity.” But notice how much the ambiguity matters here. This claim is false if “the Trinity” is read as a singular referring term. The Bible doesn’t mention any tripersonal god as such. All occurrences of the words translated “god” or “God” or “Lord” refer to the Father (a.k.a. Yahweh, “the Lord”), or to Jesus, or to a spirit, a foreign deity, a ghost, a man, or an idol, and arguably once or twice to God’s own Spirit (or spirit). But if “Trinity” in the “The Bible is all about the Trinity” is a plural referring term, so that it’s saying that the Bible is all about God, God’s Son, and God’s Spirit, this is surely true! The Old Testament focuses on God, and the New Testament on God’s Son, and on the workings of God’s Spirit. Yes, the Bible is, so to speak, all about the trinity.
How about “It has always been that nearly all Christians believe in the Trinity.” “Trinity”? False. We don’t see believers in a tripersonal God containing three equal “Persons” in the first three centuries. But: “trinity”? True. All Christians have always believed in God, in God’s Son, and in God’s Spirit (whoever or whatever that is).
How are you using the term “Trinity”? Are you using singular or plural pronouns and verbs to go with the term? If singular, then you mean Trinity. (e.g. “The Trinity is the one God.”) If plural, you mean trinity. (e.g. “The trinity cooperate together in all they do.”) If it’s a “they” you mean trinity. If it’s a “he/He” or an “it,” you mean Trinity.
Should a trinitarian even talk of “the trinity”? There is no inconsistency in so doing. What is mentioned as three beings can also be mentioned as one, if the three in some sense compose the one. But it gets confusing, because unitarians can and have gladly talked about “the Trinity” (meaning the trinity), and when they do, trinarians hear Trinity, and think those unitarians (people who think that Yahweh just is the Father) agree with them. But this is confusion.
Are such unitarians, like John Biddle, Samuel Clarke, or me being tricky? We can say this much; they want to emphasize their agreement with other Christians. Both unitarian and trinitarian Christians believe in the trinity, but only trinitarians, following catholic tradition (and many would add, the Bible rightly understood) believe in the Trinity. Unitarians think there is no such being, no such god. Still, we unitarians are happy to emphasize the agreement of all Christians on the reality of the trinity, even though this sloughs over somewhat different understandings of each of the three, most seriously in the case of the third.
So for trinitarians, “trinity” refers to the Three as such, and “Trinity” refers to the one tripersonal God. For unitarians, “trinity” refers to the Three as such, and “Trinity” doesn’t refer; there is no tripersonal God, because (they think) the one God is the Father.
Some unitarians would rather be rid of both “Trinity” and “trinity,” but I don’t see why this must happen, given the pre-trinitarian usage of “trinity,” (c. 185 – c. 380) and the fact this this plural-referring usage is still common. There is no problem with using non-biblical words (as all English words are) so long as they are useful on the whole. But “trinity” has been a useful plural referring term since the late 100s, and “Trinity” is useful for referring to God as conceived by trinitarians.
There is a temptation, yes, for trinitarians (particularly apologists) to pull a bait and switch here. They point out, correctly, the universal Christian belief in the trinity, and then act as if this shows universal Christian belief in the Trinity. But, as careful and honest scholars agree, this doesn’t follow.
Capital letters are useful; let us fully exploit this technology for the sake of clarity and mutual understanding.
Many people sense a need for a plural referring term in this area, so the term “Godhead” has come to be used, in English, as a plural referring term, meaning trinity. But this recent practice, I think, is confused and confusing. “Godhead” is the traditional English translation for words like the Greek theiotes and the Latin divinitas, and should mean the same thing as “the divine nature” or “deity.” (The KJV may be the culprit here; it uses “Godhead” three times.) So no, properly, “Godhead” doesn’t mean the same thing as “trinity.” The former is a singular referring term (referring to God’s nature, or just to God), whereas the latter is a plural referring term. Really, “Godhead” in English is an archaic term that we should just retire completely.
In sum, “the trinity” is just God (aka the Father), God’s Son, and the Spirit of God, without prejudice as to whether or not they share a nature or are one god. (Some will use “the trinity” presupposing such commitments, others not.) In contrast, “the Trinity” is the tripersonal god of trinitarian theology. “The trinity” is a plural referring term, while “the Trinity” is a singular referring term. Keep them straight!
Linguistic reform is not impossible. In my little fiction above, we can imagine later historians untangling the confusion that eventually entered into the tales of “The Triple Threat.” These historians could just choose to reserve the proper-name-ish “The Triple Threat” for the later one legendary man (the giant, long-haired swordsman) and use “the triple threat” to refer to the actual three ruffians.