Can we make sense of the Trinity for its deniers? I once saw a post on Facebook that had been shared by a Jehovah’s Witness. It was an explanation of the Trinity, but it made absolutely no sense. And that was on purpose. Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe in the Trinity. They don’t believe that Jesus is God, and they believe that the Holy Spirit is just another name for God’s power rather than an actual person. So the purpose of that post was to show that the Trinity cannot be true because the doctrine does not make sense. Here is what it said:
“The Trinity teaches that God asked himself to go to earth to save mankind.
Then he agreed with himself and volunteered himself to himself to offer himself.
Then God impregnated a woman as himself, with himself.
God prayed to himself and glorified himself repeatedly.
God strengthened himself and talked to himself.
Finally God forsook himself and sacrificed himself to prove his loyalty to himself.
While dead he resurrected himself so he could exalt himself above himself.
Then he sat at his own right hand and waited till he placed his enemies as a footstool.
Finally with Satan’s forces defeated, God would turn his kingdom over to himself that all things would become everything to himself.”
This dizzying array of nonsensical statements might sound convincing at first, but it has one fatal flaw: the person who wrote it simply does not understand the doctrine of the Trinity. This intentionally ridiculous “explanation” actually describes something called Modalism, a heresy condemned by the early Church. Modalism teaches that God is one person, but he assumes different roles throughout salvation history. Sometimes he takes on the role of Father, sometimes he takes on the role of Son, and sometimes he takes on the role of Holy Spirit.
To understand what this means, let’s use an analogy. A single human being can have many different roles, such as being a father to his children, a husband to his wife, a son to his parents, a boss to his employees, etc. Sometimes he even has more than one role in relation to the same people. For instance, if he works with his children at a family business, he can be both their father and their boss. When he is at work, he assumes the role of their boss, but everywhere else he assumes the role of their father.
Similarly, Modalism teaches that God is one person, but he has three different roles that he assumes with respect to humanity. Sometimes he relates to us as the Father, sometimes as the Son, and sometimes as the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, he is still one person, just like a human being with different roles is still one person.
The nonsensical “explanation” of the Trinity fits that heresy perfectly. On a Modalist understanding, God did ask himself to go to earth, he did pray to himself, and he did sacrifice himself to prove his loyalty to himself. So the Facebook post is a pretty good refutation of the heretical Modalist belief. The problem, however, is that Modalism has nothing to do with what Christians actually believe about God.
What the Trinity Actually Is
The doctrine of the Trinity says that there is one God, but he exists as three distinct persons. In other words, there is one divine nature, and all three of the divine persons fully possess it. This can seem a bit abstract, so let’s flesh it out a bit. A person is a subject that acts and experiences things. A nature is the set of faculties through which a person acts and experiences. The set of faculties includes the will, the intellect, and the senses such as sight and taste. We cannot entirely separate a person from his nature, but we can distinguish them. We can say things like “we all possess a human nature” and “we think with our intellects”. Thus, even though persons and natures are inseparable, they are distinct.
Once we realize this, we can see that the Trinity isn’t nonsense. It goes beyond anything we have ever experienced at the human level. Admittedly, we cannot even begin to understand what it would be like for three persons to possess one nature. However, it is not nonsense and it is not a self-contradiction. Since persons and natures are distinct, there is nothing inherently contradictory about three persons all possessing one nature.
One Divine Nature
However, we have to be careful here. When we say that there is one divine nature, there are two ways we can understand that (and only one of them is correct). First, we can use the phrase “divine nature” to refer to a group of natures that are all of the same kind, just like when we talk about human nature. In a certain sense, it is correct to say that there is only one human nature. You, me, and every human being you will ever meet all have the same nature, but when we say this, what we really mean is that we all have the same kind of nature. I have my own individual instance of human nature, you have your own individual instance of it, and so does everybody else. Nevertheless, all of those natures belong to the same kind, so there is a sense in which we can say that there is only one human nature.
But that is not what we mean when we say that the persons of the Trinity all possess the one divine nature. We are not saying that they all have the same kind of nature. No, we are saying that there is only one instance of divine nature, and all three persons of the Trinity fully possess it. For example, there is only one divine will and one divine intellect, and those two faculties are both fully possessed by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Like I said, it boggles the mind to think about what it would actually be like to exist this way, but we shouldn’t be surprised. God is infinite and we are finite, so it actually makes sense that there would be things about him that we cannot fully comprehend. The important thing is simply that we can explain it enough to know that it is not a self-contradiction.
The Trinity and Popeye
This talk of persons and natures may still seem a bit abstract and divorced from reality, so I want to make it more concrete. I want to use one more analogy to explain it further. When I was a child, I used to love the cartoon Popeye the Sailor. I would always get a kick out of his eating his can of spinach and suddenly becoming an unstoppable wrecking ball of a man. In one episode, Popeye fought a two-headed giant, and while I didn’t realize it at the time, that giant was actually a pretty good analogy for the Trinity. See, its two heads were quite independent of each other and were not always doing the same thing. For example, one could be reading a book while the other had a conversation with someone. Each head was a distinct person, but because they both had the same body, they both shared the same nature.
Now, since these two persons shared the same nature, there really was only one giant. He simply existed as two distinct persons, much like the one divine nature exists as three persons. Granted, this isn’t exactly like the Trinity, since these two persons merely shared their one nature (each controlled part of it) while each person of the Trinity fully possesses the divine nature, but no analogy is perfect. The point is simply that one being (whether God or a giant) can exist as multiple persons.
Moreover, these two heads could talk to each other, and again, there is nothing contradictory or nonsensical about that. Consequently, when we talk about the Son praying to the Father (or anything else the persons of the Trinity do with or to one another), there is nothing contradictory or nonsensical about that either. If a two-headed giant can do it, so can the Trinity.
The Mystery of the Trinity
Admittedly, the Trinity is a mystery. We can’t fully wrap our minds around it or understand what it would actually be like to exist that way, but we should not be surprised. If God really is as far above and beyond us as we believe him to be, then we should not be surprised that we cannot fully understand him. An ant can’t fully understand a human being, and ants are much closer to us than we are to God.
Nevertheless, the little bit that we can understand about the Trinity is enough to know that it is not a self-contradiction. It does not imply that God prayed to himself or sacrificed himself to himself. Rather, the three divine persons act with and to one another. For example, when Jesus prayed during his earthly life, he was praying to the Father, who is a distinct person. As a result, there is nothing ridiculous or illogical about the doctrine of the Trinity. It isn’t nonsense, so if people like the Jehovah’s Witnesses want to argue against it, they have to do so on other grounds.