Defining the concept of a trinitarian

I woke up this morning, and realized that there is a problem with how I’ve been defining the concept of a unitarian.  In this post, I will attempt a definition of the concept of a trinitarian, after reviewing what is required of a good definition. Next time, I’ll try to define the concept of a unitarian.

According to the textbook I have used for years in my critical thinking class, a good definition should:

  1. Include the genus and a differentia.
  2. Not be too broad or too narrow.
  3. State the essential attributes of the concept’s referents.
  4. Not be circular.
  5. Not use negative terms unnecessarily.
  6. Not use vague, obscure, or metaphorical language. (p. 44)

What is a trinitarian?

Definition 1: someone who believes in a triune god.

This fails criteria 2 and 6.

2 – The definition is too broad, that is, it lets things into the category which do not belong there. One might be a Hindu who believes in many gods, and one of these many gods is a triune god.  But this person would not be a trinitarian.

6 – The definition is obscure because of the term “triune” – which would seem to mean just, somehow or other triple or threefold.

In addressing 2, we should ask have to tighten up the definition.  It is not a trinitarian by definition a Christian?  I think not.  There have been scholars, admittedly, cranks, who have argued that ancient Jews including the authors of the Jewish Bible, were trinitarians.  This thesis, while patently false, is not false by definition.  So no, that is not the right way to define our term.

Yet we still need a definition which will exclude the sort of Hindu mentioned above.  I suggest that a Trinitarian is supposed to be by definition monotheistic.  Let us also specify the way in which the god is supposed to be triple or triune.

Definition 2: someone who believes that the one God in some sense consists of three “persons.”

The term “persons” has quotes around it to signify that this God in some sense contains three items called “persons.” Whether or not they are literally persons (i.e. selves) is left as an open question.  The definition must be vague in this way to encompass all the sorts of trinitarians out there.

But I think something has still been left out – the definition is still too broad.  Suppose that this one God was originally just the Father, and then sometime later, he created the Son and Spirit “within himself,” so that he now consisted of three persons.  Definition 2 would allow someone believing this to be a trinitarian.  But that is not correct.  This person does not believe that the three “persons” are “ontologically equal” – since the first is the creator of the second and the third.

As with “person” there is some vagueness in the term “ontologically equal” – and yet, I think this is correct – this is the idea actual trinitarians have in mind.

But the definition is still too broad.  Suppose a person thought that the one god consisted of Elvis, Bill Clinton, and Weird Al.  This person would not be a trinitarian, but they would satisfy the above definition.  So too would a Hindu monotheist who thought that the one God consisted of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.  But this is not correct; trinitarianism has to do with the being or beings called by the names “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit” in the Christian tradition.  So let’s try again.

Definition 3: someone who believes that the one God in some sense consists of three ontologically equal “persons,” namely, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

This definition is almost there.  But consider the kind of theory explored by Harriet Baber in our recent series here at trinities.  This was a type of serial modalism in which the one God has temporal parts, in sequence, Father (creation till Jesus), Son (Jesus’ earthly life), and Spirit (post-ascension).  These three would be ontologically equal, each being a temporal part of or stage of God.  But trinitarianism is supposed to be by definition incompatible with any sort of serial modalism.  So we must insert the word “eternally.”

Definition 4: someone who believes that the one God in some sense eternally consists of three ontologically equal “persons,” namely, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

This definition seems correct to me.  I don’t see how it violates any of the six criteria for defining a concept.  What do you think?

Interestingly, I did not have to use any creedal language.  This was by design.  Some trinitarians happily embrace the term homoousion, but others take the view that such terms are theoretical constructions, and while they may have served well that Christians of the fourth century (or whenever), they may not be suited to our present-day world view.  Is this controversial?  Yes!  But I think those inclined towards the traditional language should nonetheless accept definition 3; they themselves count the people I’m talking about as trinitarians.

This is not a stipulative definition, that such as defining the concept of poverty as having a yearly income less than $15,000.  Rather, it is an attempt to specify the contours of a concept which is often employed.  A trinitarian is by definition supposed to not be any sort of (1) unitarian, (2) “Arian,” (3) Jew or Muslim, (4) serial modalist (“Sabellian”). I think the above does all this.

Finally, note that there is nothing polemical in this definition.  It should be accepted by Catholics, Muslims, Protestants, Jews, atheists, “biblical unitarians,” Jehovah’s Witnesses, Greek Orthodox believers – in short, anyone.  It does not stand as a shorthand for an argument; it is a neutral basis for rational discussion.

 Update: I think Definition 4 is still too vague, specifically the term “ontologically equal.” I think the idea is always that they are in some sense equal in their divinity. Now that term “divinity” is plenty vague, but I think it is vague in the right way; various Trinity theories understand it differently. So now I suggest:

Definition 5: someone who believes that the one God in some sense eternally consists of three equally divine “persons,” namely, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

About Dale

Dale Tuggy is a Professor of Philosophy at SUNY Fredonia, where he teaches courses in analytic theology, philosophy of religion, religious studies, and the history of philosophy.

19 Responses to Defining the concept of a trinitarian

  1. Marg says:

    The definition may very well be accepted by all the groups you mention in your list, but I suspect Samuel Clarke would consider it too narrow. Judging from his book, Clarke considered himself to be a trinitarian, even though his writing does not fit your definition.

    However, I accept your right to define words as you intend to use them. So on this blog I am not a trinitarian, whatever I might call myself under my breath.

    By the way, you gave two assignments recently. One was completely out of my league, but somebody gave it a try. Will you be assessing the efforts of students who tried to do the assignments?

  2. Pingback: Defining the concept of a unitarian (Dale) » trinities

  3. Kenny says:

    I wonder if we should distinguish a broader term ‘trinitarian’ and a narrower term ‘orthodox trinitarian.’ If this distinction were made, definition 2 might be an adequate definition of ‘trinitarian,’ and 4 might be ok for ‘orthodox trinitarian,’ or we might want something even narrower than 4 for that.

    The reason I say this is that I’m inclined to regard the person who thinks the Father later created the Son and the Holy Spirit ‘within himself’ as a trinitarian, although of a highly heterodox variety. Note also that if ‘consists’ in definition 2 is given a metaphysically weighty reading, then it already rules out classical Sabellianism.

  4. Dale says:


    Thanks for this comment. You’ve put your finger on a tough issue – is a “trinitarian” *by definition* “orthodox” (i.e. really in compliance with the “ecumenical creeds” rightly understood).

    I think we have to say no… A trinitarian nearly always *wants* to be be and is trying to be orthodox, but does not always succeed. Also, it is often a matter of controversy whether or not someone is really in compliance. cf. Swinburne, Leftow.

  5. Dale says:


    That’s right – Clarke is surely a unitarian, and not a trinitarian. Just about all readers agree. Honestly, I think his desires to remain an Anglican minister, and to avoid controversy, caused him to bend language a bit (e.g. the title of his book).

    But to be fair, there’s an ambiguity in “the Trinity”. Does it mean a tri-personal God, or does it just refer to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, without any implication about how they are related? In this latter sense, every Christian has always been “trinitarian” – but that seems an abuse of language.

    I’ve complained about this sort of thing before:

  6. Pingback: How Trinity theories conflict with the New Testament (Dale) » trinities

  7. Marg says:

    I get your point about ambiguity.
    I can agree that Clarke was a unitarian. But at the same time, in your introduction to his book you speak of “Clarke’s trinitarian theology,” and you give a first rate summary of it. Then on the following page, you say,

    The best label for Clarke’s trinitarian theory is “subordinationist” …

    So although Clarke was a unitarian, his theory was trinitarian.
    That’s fair enough.

  8. Dale says:

    Marg, I think I need to correct that! I was obviously speaking loosely then, as many do, where any theory about the Father, Son, and Spirit is “trinitarian.” Thank you for pointing that out.

  9. Aaron says:

    I am trying to understand how subordinationism is necessarily Unitarian. Didn’t Clarke affirm the complete divinity of the Son/Spirit while only saying that they were eternally dependent on the Father? We may be splitting hairs, but I would most definitely call this “Trinitarian Subordinationism.” Each one of us defining and understanding the implications of each viewpoint must be playing a role in the final label we ascribe to each viewpoint. From what I can gather, in your mind, unless the Son and the Spirit are the exact same as the Father in every way, then they are not the True God, because He is the True God (regardless whether or not they are eternal/creating/upholding the universe etc.)

    “There have been scholars, admittedly, cranks, who have argued that ancient Jews including the authors of the Jewish Bible, were trinitarians. This thesis, while patently false…”

    Have you ever checked out Michael Heiser’s case for the Trinity in the OT? ( )

  10. Aaron says:

    I had a couple more questions and I’d like to get your thoughts when you have time, Dale.

    First, it seems according to Clarke that he saw himself as a Trinitarian. If he was not then I have to ask, according to you, who was Jesus, to him? An eternal, creating, sustaining, all knowing, all present, fully divine, non-god? Clarke doesn’t claim He is a second god, does he? So then who/what is Jesus as you see it according to how you interpret Clarke’s view?

    Second, I notice you tend to act like Humanitarian Unitarians and Subordinationists are somehow close in their Christologies and views of God. This seems odd to me. Even granting your classification of Subordinationists like Clarke as “Unitarians,” it seems evident that their view of Jesus is far closer to classical Trinitarianism than to a Humanitarian Unitarianism.

  11. Dale says:

    “Clarke that he saw himself as a Trinitarian”

    Yes, in the wide sense of “trinitarian” much used by cheerleading theologians today, when they say the Bible’s trinitarian throughout, all Christians have always been trinitarians, etc. Here, “Trinity” is a plural referring term, just referring to whatever it is that’s picked about the Bible’s usage of “Father,” “Son,” and “HS”.

    Clarke (and I) are trinitarians in the sense of believing in those, in whatever the NT asserts about those, properly understood.

    Clarke quite correctly saw himself as holding the theology that was mainstream c. 150-350. About his views, please see my recent paper in the Journal of Analytic Theology – note the GOD vs. god distinction that is important to Clarke, and which should be carefully considered. It was clear, e.g. to Origen and Tertullian. In Clarke’s context, he wouldv’e associated the word “unitarian” with Socinians, which he differed from, and I think was really not influenced by. But the word fits his theology, as it does many others with similar views – e.g. Emlyn, Biddle, Worcester, Newton, Whiston.

    ” I notice you tend to act like Humanitarian Unitarians and Subordinationists are somehow close in their Christologies and views of God. This seems odd to me”

    That’s because you think Christology is the chief matter. In contrast, I’m focusing on theology. The two camps you mention have in common that the one true God is the Father, and no one else – that’s the key unitarian thesis. Many sorts of Christology are compatible with that.

    I do think that the scriptures are about as clear as they could be about who the one true God is. I think they are less clear about the “pre-existence” of Jesus issue. I believe that spiritually, much harm is done by Christians confusing Jesus with God – thinking that Jesus is God himself. About Jesus’s precise metaphysical status – I think Jesus is more concerned with our believing and obeying his teachings, including those about his and our God, than he is about that. That he has “two natures” or that he created or help to create the cosmos – those were not a part of the gospel in the apostolic era; that arose in the course of the 100s.

    Part of the reason for our difference, I would guess, is that you accept, and I reject the catholic traditions of claiming that Jesus’s atonement, his ministry, and the propriety of his worship, utterly depend on his “having the divine nature.” I deny those speculations, on the grounds that the NT doesn’t support them at all. We worship Jesus because God has raised him and exalted him to his right hand. The NT says not a word about his having to “be God” to be an acceptable sacrifice for sin. And Jesus himself tells us that it was the Father himself – by the power of his spirit – doing the works through him – so there’s no need to speculate that Jesus was thereby manifesting his divine nature. Plain scriptural statements should trump speculations, even long traditional ones, in my view. All the NT emphasizes too, that Jesus was a real man, before and after his resurrection. Well, that rules out being God himself, or even “having the divine nature,” for more than one reason. It was only by force and deliberate obfuscation that the “two natures” speculations became mainstream, after Chalcedon.

    Having said all that, it is certainly worth arguing about the Jesus-created and Jesus-existed-before-he-was-a-human prooftexts – by all means. Just not here, now.

  12. Aaron says:

    Okay, I am sifting through a lot of historical viewpoints now. Just one last question:

    How would you categorize Jesus and the Holy Spirit according to Clarke’s view? If they are not God…..what are they? Secondary “gods” would amount to polytheism, we know that can’t be it. But you’re saying he was a Unitarian. OK, I’m willing to bite, but I need to know what Jesus is now….???

  13. HI Aaron:

    You said: “Secondary ‘gods’ would amount to polytheism, we know that can’t be it.”

    I think both of those statements are questionable. It’s not obvious that ancient Jews would have considered recognition of secondary “gods” as “polytheism”, esp with the negative connotation the term has to us moderns, i.e. if it’s “polytheism” then “we know that can’t be it.”

    Many scholars have observed that Jewish monotheism didn’t correspond precisely with the modern Jewish and Christian outgrowths. Both angels and men were often conceived of as “gods” in some sense in the biblical period by monotheistic Jews, including Moses (Ex. 7:1; see also On the Life of Moses, by Philo, Book I, where he is called “god and king of the whole nation”, etc.), Kings (Ps. 45:7, Isa. 9:6), Judges (Ps. 82), and angels (Ps. 8:6; 97:7; 138:1; in the DSS).

    A few brief quotes show that this is recognized by scholars who’ve studied the nature of monotheism in light of the extant historical data:

    Larry Hurtado:
    “I propose that Jewish monotheism can be taken as constituting a distinctive version of the commonly-attested belief structure described by Nilsson as involving a `high god’ who presides over other deities. The God of Israel presides over a court of heavenly beings who are likened to him (as is reflected in, e.g. the OT term for them `sons of God’). In pagan versions, too, the high god can be described as father and source of the other divine beings, and as utterly superior to them. In this sense, Jewish (and Christian) monotheism, whatever its distinctives, shows its historical links with the larger religious environment of the ancient world.” (What Do We Mean by `First-Century Jewish Monotheism’?, in Society of Biblical Literature 1993 Seminar Papers. Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1993), p. 365

    John J. Collins:
    “The great Jewish scholar Yigael Yadin pointed out 40 years ago that the beings we call angels are called elim, gods, in the War Scroll, and the same usage can be found in the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, an early mystical text also found at Qumran. Given the appearance of such semidivine figures in Jewish texts, the term `monotheism’ is not entirely felicitous as a description of Jewish beliefs in the pre-Christian period” (Aspects of Monotheism: How God is One), p. 86

    Collins continues:

    “…in this literature [apocalyptic literature such as the DSS, & Philo] the supremacy of the Most High God is never questioned, but there is considerable room for lesser beings who may be called `gods,’ theoi’ or elim.” (ibid., p. 93)

    More Collins:

    “The text then applies to Melchizedek a passage from Psalm 82: ‘Elohim (God) stands in the assembly of El, in the midst of Elohim (gods) he judges.’ In interpretation, we are told that ‘Melchizedek will exact the vengeance of El’s judgments…In the view of the midrash, the Most High God is El. Elohim is a lesser deity, an angel, if you prefer. But the striking thing about this passage is that the term Elohim, which is usually understood to refer to the Most High in the biblical psalm, now refers to a lesser heavenly being. There are, at least, two divine powers in heaven, even if one of them is clearly subordinate to the other.” (Powers in Heaven: God, Gods, and Angels in the Dead Sea Scrolls, found in Religion in the Dead Sea Scrolls, edited by John J. Collins and Robert A. Kugler), pp 18 and 19.

    Such observations could be multiplied many times over. It’s no wonder that D. S. Russell observed:

    D. S. Russell:
    “It is often said that, in its highest reaches of religious though, the Old Testament expresses belief in God in terms of ‘ethical monotheism’. But it must be remembered that monotheism, for the Old Testament prophets, had a connotation very different in many respects from that which it has in modern thought. It is false to assume that the Old Testament writers, however exalted their conception of the Godhead might be, conceived of God as alone in isolated majesty over against men, the creatures of his will. There is ample evidence to show that this conception of monotheism was held in conjunction with a belief in a spiritual world peopled with supernatural and superhuman beings who, in some ways, shared the nature, though not the being, of God.” (The Method & Message of Jewish Apocalyptic), p.


  14. Aaron says:

    Hi Sean,

    I actually agree with a lot of what you posted. I believe that it is evident that the ancient Israelites believed in many “elohim,” as did the people of the surrounding nations. The difference, I would contend, is that they believed Yahweh was the only uncreated, eternal one, who created all the others. They all were given authority in the spiritual realm and reported back to Him. The “bene elim” (Sons of God) may or may not refer to beings we ontologically identify as angels. We here in the present day tend to attach a very specific set of attributes to words such as “God” and “angel.” However, the ancient Israelites didn’t seem to do this. It seems that they believed there were many “elohim” but that they were not all equal in attributes. Baal may very well have truly existed, but he was no match for Yahweh because he would have been created by Yahweh and given authority by Yahweh. When he did not serve Yahweh faithfully and turned people to worshiping him instead of operating within the spiritual hierarchy, Yahweh judged Him. So Yahweh did and has done with many “elohim” or “lesser elohim” as one might call them.

    I don’t believe this is polytheism, henotheism, etc. because there is still only 1 uncreated creator. However, in the case of Jesus and the Holy Spirit in the view of Clarke they are all 3 uncreated, eternal, all knowing, all wise, creating, etc. BUT Jesus and the Holy Spirit are dependent on the Father eternally for their aseity. Jesus does not fit into the same category of the lesser elohim, and while He is has all the same attributes of the Father also is dependent on the Father and thus does not fit into the exact same category as the Father. So then, what is He? (I think we should note that in a sense the Father is eternally dependent on the Son as well, or else He would eternally have been “The Father”).

    Thanks for your thoughts! Good stuff to think on. God bless.

  15. Jaco says:

    “However, in the case of Jesus and the Holy Spirit in the view of Clarke they are all 3 uncreated, eternal, all knowing, all wise, creating, etc. BUT Jesus and the Holy Spirit are dependent on the Father eternally for their aseity.”

    And I think here lies the contradiction. There is no aseity if any one person does not exist a se. And if any one has been notionally in existence since eternity, it does not imply ontological aseity. If that were the case then Paradise, Torah, Patriarchs, Gehenna, etc. which all existed notionally since eternity should be included in the divine plurality.

    “Jesus does not fit into the same category of the lesser elohim,”

    Actually he does. Jesus fits perfectly in all the ancient Jewish schemas of intermediary representation of God. His being called Lord renders his position by default angelomorphic.

    “(I think we should note that in a sense the Father is eternally dependent on the Son as well, or else He would eternally have been “The Father”). ”

    This is merely a derived conclusion. The Father’s role as Father may not be eternal for as long as there was no son. Yahweh’s role as Yahweh Sebaoth may equally be not eternal for the same reasons. But his existence as The One is nevertheless eternal regardless of his relation. It is the same as saying, The President studied politics at Harvard. It obviously does not mean that he had been President while studying. The same individual is nevertheless referred to. And yes, many ancient fathers have philosophised about this, but they did so in a completely distinct cognitive realm than the writers did or intended it to mean. All and all the Gentile musings about the Christian God in post-biblical centuries have been an exercise in hybridizing and reculturing a Hebraic Yahweh (excuse unfortunate tautology).

  16. Aaron says:

    Existence in the notional manner was never something I put forward. I don’t understand why you are refuting that stance.

    Jesus would not “fit perfectly” into the category of lesser elohim within the view of Clarke because He was seen by Clarke as eternal, omnipresent, etc. This would clearly distinguish Him from the other elohim. I am not sure what Clarke’s views of the OT “elohim” were. However, at this point we could only speculate as we are combining 2 views into one and then relating them to one another. Neither of these viewpoints are presently a predominant view inside Christianity as most people reject them outright or don’t even know that they exist.

    Much of your reply took from what I was saying and applied it in an unintended way.

  17. Jaco says:

    “Existence in the notional manner was never something I put forward. I don’t understand why you are refuting that stance. ”

    Without a pre-existent theology and allowance (if not preference) for ontological eternality in the case of the Son, I can’t see how anyone would go down the road proving Jesus’ aseity. Jesus’ own admissions according to John 6 and 7 indicates that he is BECAUSE his Father is. Jesus most certainly does not exist or do a se. Nothing he did or said was inherently his. That by definition renders him not-God.

    “Jesus would not “fit perfectly” into the category of lesser elohim within the view of Clarke…”

    I don’t take Clarke to be an expert on ancient Judaism or early Jewish-Christian culture and theology. Clarke’s theological opinions aside, from a study of ancient Jewish culture, theology and history, Jesus fits perfectly in the class of lesser elohim. That is where he belonged, given the ancient Sitz im Leben. Later Gentile hybridizers ignored and distorted this truth, unfortunately.

    If I misrepresented you in any way, I apologise. I just think that bad hermeneutics, sentimentalised theological riffraff and outright nonsense have overstayed there welcome for way too long. Conservative Christianity’s gradual loss of appeal is a very welcome development.

  18. Aaron says:

    I would say we both have views or at the very least entertain ideas which mainstream classical Christians would not like very much. I see what you have been trying to say, and I agree some and disagree in other places. To make everything much simpler, I will ask my question again directly, and hopefully we someone here can answer.

    According to Clarke: How do we categorize Jesus ontologically? I am currently saying that from my reading of Clarke Jesus is ontologically inferior to the Father but ontologically superior to “elohim” of the OT. If you believe He would fit perfectly into the category of lesser elohim, could you explain how this is so, despite the fact that He is inherently different from them? Thanks and God bless.

  19. Jaco says:

    Thanks Aaron,

    “If you believe He would fit perfectly into the category of lesser elohim, could you explain how this is so, despite the fact that He is inherently different from them? Thanks and God bless.”

    I think it can be very difficult to make such clear ontological distinctions on such minor nuances. Let me explain. We know that Jesus is ontologically distinct from God. Not merely as a person (in the Trinitarian sense), but wholly distinct from God Most High, Yahweh. That by default places him in subordination to God, since only One is Most High and no-one else. Jesus may function at a representative level on the same par as Yahweh, as that is the standard pattern of representation. So I think this is sorted.

    With regard to the lesser elohim, Jesus would fit perfectly within that category, as that category serves the purpose of representation, only on a corporate level. Within that corpus of representative elohim (whether human or angelic), Jesus has been given superior authority. So Jesus is superior not in kind but in degree. If one follows the many traditions of human exaltation in intertestamental and pseudepigraphal writings, one finds that within the category of representatives, one exceptional human is given greater authority. I think it goes to far to create a distinct class or category only for Jesus.

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