How Trinity theories conflict with the New Testament

Most Christians are (at least in theory, according to creeds and statements of faith promulgated by denominations) trinitarians, believers in a triune or tri-personal God, which they call the Trinity. But some have always been unitarians, believers in one God who is one perfect self, who does not in any way contain three selves or “persons.” Nowadays, these are a minority (again, going by official statements and membership rolls – I think the facts about Christians’ actual beliefs are more complicated than the official documents suggest).

In my view, before around the start of the fifth century, unitarians were always a majority. Of course, they didn’t call themselves “unitarians” – that term is of late 17th c. coinage – but arguably most of them were unitarians – for some arguments read this. (Update: or this series.)

In any case, one can’t determine what is true by taking a vote. Truth may be unpopular. But also, it can be popular. So, who is right?

I propose that the following clear arguments provide a way forward. Which should we accept?

T1 The Father is not the Trinity
T2 The Trinity is God.
T3 Therefore, the Father is not God.

T1 The Father is not the Trinity.
U2 The Father is God.
U3 Therefore, The Trinity is not God.

“Is” here means numerical identity throughout. If x in this sense “is” y (in logic we write x=y) then x and y are one and the same, numerically one thing, numerically identical, and so x and y can’t ever differ in any way. The order doesn’t matter: it will be true that x=y just in case it is also true that y=x. And if it is false that x=y, then x and y are truly two – those terms name different things. To repeat: every “is” in these arguments is the “is” of identity. This is why we’re dealing with clear arguments. We’re not talking about some less close relation or association.

“God” here names Yahweh, the one true God asserted in the Hebrew scriptures.

Each argument is valid; in each case, if both premises were to be true, then the conclusion would also be true.

But we can’t consistently accept both arguments as sound. T2 conflicts with U3, and T3 conflicts with U2 (in both cases the pairs are contradictories – pairs such that one must be true and the other false).

So what to do?

Let us start on common ground. All sides should agree to T1. The reason is that if there is a Trinity - however you understand it – it differs from the Father. And so, it (or: he, they) can’t be one and the same thing as the Father, can’t be numerically identical to him. For example, no one thinks that the Father contains three persons (or “persons”), but on any understanding of the Trinity it (he, they) somehow contains or is composed of three persons (“persons”). So trinitarians should agree with T1. Whatever the relation between the Father and the Trinity it is, however close, however mysterious, we know that it can’t be identity, for it is self-evident that one and the same thing can’t differ from itself at one time (or in eternity).

  • Do you think that the Father “is God” in some other sense? (e.g. is wholly composed of the divine nature, possesses the divine essence, is a part of the triune God, is a member of the group of divine persons who collectively are “God”) Fine. Still, you should agree with T1; T1 is consistent with such theories.
  • For their part, unitarian Christians also agree with T1, because they think that the triune God is a hypothesized entity that does not actually exist. But if it did exist, it would differ from the Father, and so couldn’t just be the Father.

But having agreed on premise 1, we’re still stuck.

  • If we accept T2, we’ll conclude that the first argument is sound. (So, we’ll take it as a reason to believe T3.)
  • But if we accept U2, we’ll think the second argument is sound, and so gives us a reason to believe U3 (which, of course, conflicts with T2).

So far, this has all been easy – just logic, combined with a self-evident truth which everyone knows.

But now things get a little harder. You must ask: which do I have more reason to believe – T2 or U2?

I suggest that a good Christian should ask: WWJD? (What Would Jesus Do?). And our best information about that is in the New Testament. Does it explicitly teach either T2 or U2?

Surely not T2, for the simple reason that the writers of the NT have no concept of a triune or tripersonal God. If they had such a concept, it’d be easy for them to assign a term, a word or phrase, to express it, like “the Trinity” or “the triune God.” But they have no such term. At most, they speak in ways which are consistent with the existence of a triune God, and they occasionally speak in ways which kind of suggest such (at least, to some readers). (e.g. Matthew 28:19) If such a doctrine were explicitly taught, then we could just quote the verse. But we can’t. (For a long time, some considered 1 John 5:7 to be the needed verse, but no more; basically all have abandoned it, and rightly so.)

So a Trinity theory is going to be, in the best case, a doctrine of inference – one which is not stated by the sources, but which either logically follows from them, or doesn’t logically follow, but best explains them. Maybe the NT writers are committed to trinitarianism but don’t realize it. So, you can pick a Trinity theory, and see if it can either be derived from or best explain what is in the Bible. But while you’re doing that, back to our arguments.

Is U2 explicitly taught in the Bible? I think it is, at least once. But before I get to that, I don’t think any NT author thought it needed saying! Rather, it is constantly presupposed by every NT author, and according to all of them, by the Lord Jesus himself.

They all use “Father” (“our Father,” “my Father,” “our Father in Heaven”) as a term for the one God, Yahweh.  Check all the gospels on this score. And in almost all cases, “God” (“our God,” “my God” etc.) is supposed to refer to this same one. Particularly striking are the greetings in Paul’s letters (all of them, with the possible exception of Colossians) – he sends them blessings from “God our Father” or “our God and Father”, as well as from Jesus. In all these cases, “God” (Greek: “the god”) refers to Yahweh, the one true God of the Old Testament. And that term is being used co-referentially along with “Father” (etc.). This shows that the authors assume that God and the Father are one and the same, numerically one.

But is this same one also also referred to by “Jesus,” “the Lord Jesus,” and such?

No – they all assume that this one who is our God and Father is also the God and Father of Jesus. Hence Peter,

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!  (1 Peter 1:3, ESV)

And John,

… our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:3, ESV)

John isn’t being redundant here. (e.g. “I know Barak Obama! And also, I know the guy who was president of the USA in 2011!”) Rather, he’s asserting that Christian have personal relationships with God, and with the Son of God.

Back to U2, sometimes it very close to the surface; I mean, it is clearly asserted, though not explicitly so (it is clearly implied). Look, for example, at John 17:3 (ESV), in which Jesus is praying to God, that is, to the Father (see verse 1):

And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

WWJD? According to John he’d affirm U2. And I think we may take the author of the gospel of John to be teaching, asserting that the Father is the one true God here, though he doesn’t assert it in his own voice here.

The one place I know where it’s explicitly taught that the Father is numerically identical to the one God is in Paul’s discussion of Christians eating food offered to idols. While the peoples of the world believe in various gods and lords,

…yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. (1 Cor 8:6, ESV)

He Paul explicitly asserts that there is exactly one God, namely, the Father. To say this is, in part, to say that God and the Father are numerically one. What would Paul do? Affirm U2.

Take it from Jesus, John, and Paul (and the rest of the New Testament authors – check them yourself): U2 is true. And so given that T1 is true, we should accept the second argument as sound. To do this is to be a unitarian Christian. Some such also believe in a Trinity, in the sense that they believe Father, Son, and Spirit to be three cooperating selves, perhaps all in some sense divine – but they hold that the one true God is a member of the Trinity (the Father), not the whole Trinity. So they (e.g. Origen, Irenaeus, Justin, Clarke) believe in a Trinity but not in a triune God (so they are not trinitarians). Others, like me, would reject this sort of Trinity for various reasons, but in any case, we agree that that our second argument is sound, and that premise T2 is false (making the first argument unsound).

Unfortunately, when it comes to 1 Corinthians 8:6, some readers are confused by the fact that “the Lord” can be used to name the Father, and also Jesus. In Paul, when he’s not quoting the OT, it is normally the latter. (Nothing strange here; any name, term, or title can be equivocal – that is, can, in different contexts, refer to various beings.) But note that Paul here is presupposing here in this very sentence that the one God and the one Lord differ in some way. (“from… through whom”) So we can be sure that he’s not using the terms “God” and “Lord” co-referentially here; he’s rather assuming them to be non-identical, not numerically one.

As with all the other NT authors, for Paul Jesus and God are one (in will, purpose, and rule) but they’re not the same.


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.

67 Responses to How Trinity theories conflict with the New Testament

  1. Dale says in comment 16:
    Numerical identity is what it is – I don’t understand your complaint that it is being rigidly applied. It is important to reason carefully about it.

    Your example of two partners being able to act with the authority of their company… I just don’t see what this has to do with Trinity theories. This power doesn’t make either of them *be* that corporation. The God of the Bible is a perfect self, not at all akin to a legal fiction like a corporation.

    Hi Dale,

    I have some clearer thoughts about your comment that I quoted above.

    First, God is eminent beyond comparison. Biblical writers nonetheless used analogies to *help* explain mysteries about God. God can never be completely explained, but various teachings can *help* to explain mysteries about God. Also, the word “analogy” implies a comparison with similarities and dissimilarities.

    Second, divine covenants in the Old Testament were comparable to various ancient Mediterranean political covenants. The Bible is filled with governmental and legal analogies such as Luke 18:1–8 comparing the Lord to an unrighteous judge regardless of how dissimilar an unrighteous judge is to the Lord.

    Third, Isaiah 31:5 compares the Lord to a flock of birds hovering overhead regardless of how dissimilar a flock of birds hovering overhead is to the Lord.

    Fourth, unless somebody rejects the existence of legal entities and the governmental organizations that make the laws about legal entities, I cannot understand why somebody would reject legal fiction.

    If you still reject my analogy, would you please elaborate more to me about your rejection of legal fiction to help analogize God?

    Thank you for your consideration.

  2. Jaco says:

    Hi James

    A lot has been written pro and con about the preexistence of Christ and I do not agree with everything written by every church father. I merely meant that I agree with what the said about three persons and one substance.

    Ok, that’s great. Since this is a mute point and neither of us is compelled to believe everything the Fathers wrote, I hope IF and WHEN I engage you on the development of the Trinity doctrine these won’t be cited as proof of the trinity having originated in the Bible.

    In any case, I have no problems with saying: I worship the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I worship three divine persons who are one indivisible God. And that is true for anybody that holds to a relative identity or mysterious interpretation of the Trinity.

    Yes, but I’m completely unconvinced of how the concept of “person” and “being” can be cognitively realised in the operational mind. Not only that, but how this idea was realised in the Hebrew mind, let alone assumed by the ancient Bible writers. You have indeed chosen the safer way out by discussing the philosophical aspects of this invention. Since this is indeed an evolved philosophical idea, I understand why trinitarians are constantly tweaking on its premises. Whether the trinity is truly taught in Scripture is of course the priority of most questioning Christians and should be of highest priority. What your doctrine teaches on what God can and cannot do is of course totally different from WHETHER the God of the Bible has revealed Himself of HAVING done this or that or of BEING what the trinity purports Him(It/Them) to be. With such a human construct you are indeed free to say, “according to this law of this country, this construct can be interpreted and understood they way I explained it,” or, “according to this dictionary of that language and dialect I may use the language I prefer.” You have indeed created your version of God in your image…

  3. Hi Dale,

    More thought on legal fiction:

    The legal fiction concept of legal personality is indispensable for understanding political history. Likewise, the concept of legal personality is indispensable for understanding political concepts in biblical studies that include theological analogy.

    The modern concept of legal personality refers to governmental, business, and non-profit entities that have a legal name, rights, protections, privileges, responsibilities, and liabilities under law. For example, legal persons include sovereign nations, subnational entities, municipalities, universities, banks, and retail stores.

    One might point to the intangible nature of law and challenge the existence of legal persons such as sovereign states. For example, so-called sovereign states are not entities, but multitudes of distinct individuals merely act is if there were sovereign states with political officials. Wars are declared and tangibly fought, but no sovereign state ever existed. Emperor Nebuchadnezzar and his subjects merely acted as an emperor and empire. Or in the case of so-called business entities, there are no owners and employees while distinct individuals merely act as owners and employees. A bank and county sheriff merely act as a banking entity foreclosing on a mortgage for a family’s residence while there never was a banking entity, a governmental county, or ownership of property. All sense of governmental and institutional authority is nothing but an illusion.

    Such an anti-realist challenge to the existence of sovereign states and business entities appears impossible to formally prove or disprove, but history indicates overwhelming evidence for the existence of sovereign states and business entities. The default assumption of history and politics assumes the existence of sovereign states.

    In the context of biblical studies, the concept of legal personality compares to ancient Mediterranean perspectives of politics. The ancient consensus assumed the existence of sovereign states and cities. Also, the biblical writers used political analogies comparable to legal fiction that help to describe God. For example, a primary theme in the Bible describes God as King and Judge, which are concepts illuminated by legal fiction. Likewise, the biblical writers made a precedent for using concepts comparable to legal fiction in analogies of God.

    A common complaint about the use of analogies that describe God involves the monotheistic belief that God is eminent beyond comparison. However, analogies by definition involve both similarities and dissimilarities while the use of analogies to teach about God permeate the Bible. For example, biblical analogies of God include comparing God to a flock of birds (Isaiah 31:5) and an unrighteous judge (Luke 18:1–8), which are astonishingly dissimilar to God.

    In the case of the general partnership model of relative identity, each general partner *is* the *undivided* authority of the partnership, which is the *particular* authority. Also, legal fiction goes as far as saying that each general partner *is* the partnership. Such an inseparability of owner and business exists only with sole proprietorships and general partnerships, which is why lawyers generally recommend that owners form a limited liability corporation instead of a sole proprietorship or general partnership.

    Also, even if we limit the relative identity analogy to multiple partners being the same undivided particular contractual authority, then this provides an analogy of authority in Trinitarian doctrine that also models relative identity: “RI: *x* and *y* and *z* are the same *F* but *x* and *y* and *z* are different *Gs*.” The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one undivided authority while they are different unipersonalities. They are also one undivided substance. In this case, the analogous similarity is the model of triune authority while dissimilarities include divine self-existence of one particular substance versus natural persons forming a general partnership that faces dissolution. However, legal fiction also says that each general partner is the partnership that analogizes the undivided substance of the Trinity.

    Disclaimer: this model of relative identity does not prove the respective Trinitarian doctrine but merely supports the metaphysical possibility.

    Thank you for your consideration.

  4. Pingback: trinitarian or unitarian? 7 – Origen uncensored (Dale) » trinities

  5. John says:

    If you are a shareholder in Face-Book, that does not mean that you ARE Face book – in fact with the exception of the share transfer secretary, they probably never heard of you.
    Desperate attempts to drag up relative identity models are futile .
    They don’t work for the simple reason that the Trinity is a product of human rationalisation and speculation.
    Every Blessing

  6. Pingback: Larry Hurtado on early Chrisitans’ worship of Jesus » trinities

  7. Pingback: William Lane Craig in the Chronicle of Higher Education » trinities

  8. Just want to say I’m really excited to discover your blog. I love reading PhD bloggers! Thanks. Looking forward to reading more. I’m taking a (distance) seminary Trinity class right now and happy to find some philosophical reflection on these issues.

    I’ve always been troubled by the transitivity of the “is of identity” and the statements “Jesus is God”, “The Father is God” and “Jesus is not the Father.” I like how you layed out the argument using the is of identity to keep things clear.

    P.S. it’s nice to listen to a music video while typing a comment!

  9. Dale says:

    “I’ve always been troubled by the transitivity of the “is of identity” and the statements “Jesus is God”, “The Father is God” and “Jesus is not the Father.”

    Thanks for the comment, Ben. I left one over at your blog.

    You’ve set out an obviously inconsistent triad of statements here (obvious once we understand that “is” there means “is numerically the same thing as”). Which of the three do you deny?

  10. Hi Dale,
    My default is to understand God as identical to the Trinity. So I reject “Jesus is identical to God(the Trinity)” and “the Father is identical to God (the Trinity)”. That was your T1 statement. So of those three, when people say “Jesus is God” I translate it as “Jesus is divine” to keep things consistent with “Jesus is not the Father”. Any recommended links on this blog given my starting point?

  11. Dale says:

    Hi Ben,

    There’s quite a lot on this blog. My main reply would be that the NT everywhere assumes and asserts that the Father just is (is identical to) the one God. See my explanation of identity, and my treatment of some important passages here: If it is true that “Jesus is divine,” we should ask: in the same sense as the Father? If so, then, it looks like we have two divine beings, two gods. If not (so that Jesus is divine in a different sense than the Father is) I would say that’s compatible with monotheism, rightly understood. We would need to say what it is to be divine in this lesser sense though, that doesn’t imply being a perfect being and the one true God.

  12. Jeff Koperski says:

    Hello Dale,
    You say somewhere on your blog that this post was a good place to start in order to understand your own views. Where to next?

  13. Dale says:

    Hi Jeff – perhaps this “evolution” series of posts?

  14. Jeff Koperski says:

    Aha. Is there a part 9? We have more important influences in common than I had realized: J.P., Willard, and the Vineyard nonetheless.

  15. Dale says:

    Hey Jeff,

    No – I guess I pooped out at that point. The next part would be explaining why I’m a “humanitarian” unitarian, and not a subordinationist one like Clarke. This would require several more posts, wherein I explain why I don’t think the arguments for the “pre-existence” of Jesus and his having created the cosmos are convincing, as well as some other concerns about two-natures christologies. Though I’ve taught and thought a fair bit about classical christologies, I’ve yet to really write anything about them. I hope to, God willing, but am trying to finish up some articles and a book on Trinity theories. Also, I’m inclined to think that matters of Trinity are more important. Maybe, God willing, I’ll resume this series some day.

  16. Jeff Koperski says:

    Thanks, Dale, this has been really helpful. One more question for now. As I recall, J.N.D. Kelly refers to the view of the earliest church fathers as “primitive trinity.” Is Kelly’s work flawed or do you just think it’s a misnomer to call those views trinitarian?

  17. Dale says:

    Hi Jeff,

    I think in one sense the early guys believe in “the Trinity” and another sense not. I prefer to use Trinity for the triune God (of later orthodoxy) and the trinity for just the group, without prejudice as to whether they are merely a triad or a tri-personal deity. I explain in these posts: I think it is very important to see that trias / trinity was introducted simply as a plural referring term, after the patter then (2nd c.) popular with Platonists. This is a great source of confusion in theology, and even, yes, with peolpe who do history of theology.

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