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Avoiding a fourth [Thawed out Thursday]

No (good) trinitarian theologian wants to have a fourth thing - a divine substance considered apart from the Three Persons.  But it's important to be aware that this error (effectively having a quaternity) has two versions.  There is a vulgar quaternity and a more insidious one.

The vulgar one looks like this:

Oneness and Threeness 1

Here is the "shamrock" trinity - three bits growing out of an underlying stuff.  In practice this is, roughly, how many unthinkingly view the trinity.  Such a vulgar quaternity is rightly rejected by theologians.  It can be seen immediately that the 'Godness of God' is considered at a completely different level to the three Persons in their roles and relations.  What makes God God is fundamentally impersonal attributes that may be expressed in the Persons but not constituted by their mutual inter-play.  So we can safely reject this version of things.

But I find that many theologians, having rejected the vulgar quaternity, congratulate themselves prematurely.  There is also the insidious quaternity to be dealt with.  There is another way of having a fourth...

Oneness and Threeness 2

Fundamentally this error consists in conceiving of the one God separately to a consideration of the three Persons in communion.  Recently I read a theologian say "God is both one and three - both a person and a community."  This is an example of the insidious quaternity.  One-ness and Three-ness are laid side by side to uphold a belief in the equal ultimacy of one and three.  Yet the one-ness of God is conceived of as a uni-personal one-ness - that is, it is separately considered to the multi-personal three-ness.  One and Three were not mutually interpreting truths but instead the 'one God' is thought of in non-communal (that is, non trinitarian) terms.

This is the approach taken by by so many doctrine of God text books where De Deo Uno (on the One God) is addressed prior to De Deo Trino (on the Trinity).   Yet, unless the two section are integrated at the deepest levels then there is grave danger of a fourth thing - i.e. "God plus Trinity" or "God apart from Trinity."

When this theological method is followed, often (not always but most times) section one unfolds such that the Three Person'd interplay takes no meaningful part in the discussions of the attributes.  Yet, typically, these attributes are asserted to be the virtue by which God is God.  On this view it is still possible to discuss the 'Godness of God' without reference to the perichoretic life of the Three.  Here One-ness and Three-ness are considered to be non-competing perspectives on the same God.  This effectively means that it is possible to speak in non-triune terms about the living God.  'God', then, is not the same thing as 'the Three Persons united in love'.

This is also a quaternity.  Just a more insidious one.

And the only way I can see to avoid this fourth thing is to side with the Cappodocians: God's being consists without remainder in the Three Person'd perichoresis .

Oneness Threeness 3b

The one-ness of God is not a simple divine essence but the very unity of the Three.  The being of God is not an underlying substance (contra the vulgar quaternity).  But nor is it a separately conceived essence (contra the insidious quaternity). Rather God's being is the very communion by which the Three are One.

Trinity is not a perspective on the one God.  Rather the only God there is is trinity.  And the only way to conceive of Him is in triune terms.  'God' is 'Trinity'.  Unless this strict identity is maintained a fourth enters in.

Thus we must never conceive of the one God in any other terms than trinitarian ones.  (Re-write the text-books!).  God's being is in His communion (to use Zizioulas's phrase).  His One-ness is in His communion.  And (let's not forget) His Three-ness is in His communion - the Three are only who they are in this eternal perichoresis.   To put it another way: God is love.


This is a re-working of an older post on One-ness and Three-ness.

0 thoughts on “Avoiding a fourth [Thawed out Thursday]

  1. Just a Simple Guy

    "Therefore let’s guard against a ‘fourth’ whenever it threatens. Let’s reject the vulgar quaternity, but let’s also reject the insidious quaternity. And if people call us ‘extreme social trinitarians’ or ‘tritheists’ or whatever, let them. The dangers on the other side are far greater."

    I think I understand what you are saying. Have to work on that one a while and let it settle in on my mind though. The way you take it back to the simple truth "God is Love" is a very powerful argument for the truth of what you are saying.

    I have a hard time understanding the trinity as I see God speaking of himself in both the singular and plural. I heard a preacher say one time about a difficult scripture, "What does that mean?" then he paused and said, "I don't know what it means, but I believe what it says!" This is where I find myself in relation to the trinity.

    What are the "dangers on the other side" that you speak of? Sometimes understanding the specific danger in being wrong helps me understand what is right. I always like to put shoe leather to my theology. If it doesn't make it to the street, does it really matter? (A question I often ask myself)


  2. Heather

    Guess I should have read this post before steaming my brain over on the other one. The last diagram "looks" more like my understanding of the tri-unity.

  3. Hiram

    I agree. God is Trinity. Amen. The end.

    For some reason, Paul Tillich's remix of the doctrine of the Trinity keeps coming to mind.

    Perhaps its because some theologians go too far in attempting to understand the doctrine?

    Or because of the slew of theologians who want to be "revolutionary" in the world of ideas?

    When it comes to some doctrines, I think the Lord intended for there to remain a little bit of mystery. Why?

    So we would remain humble...


  4. Heather

    So we would remain humble…


    Nailed it! :o)

    Actually, when we look at the Genesis account, there is evidence that even now we "know" a lot more than we ever were meant to.

    We "think" we can handle such knowledge and constantly get into trouble. Yet Jesus is always calling to us, saying "Children! You are destroying yourselves. I'll forgive you and I will take care of you if you will only come back to me...All you have to do is humble yourselves and let me show you the Most Excellent way"

  5. Glen

    Hi Craig,

    I wrote a post called "so what??" a while back - it might help you with some of the 'shoe leather' implications.

    Essentially the danger is that we let western philosophy define who God is for us - rather than the Spirit anointed Son of the Father. Beginning with Jesus shows us a God who is radically different to anything the philosopher's have imagined. But I find that people (with the insidious fourth) do trinitarian theology on the one hand and then straight-jacket it immediately with philosophical speculation on the other. Being thoroughly trinitarian is just another way of determining to know God in His eternal Son - it's about centring our theology in revelation and not reason.

    Hiram and Heather - we absolutely must do theology to be humbled. And I think the greatest way to be humbled is to press in very deeply to what God has revealed and be in awe of the profundity of His life.

    I think there's a danger of 'switching off' from trinity talk in the name of humility - as though it's more humble not to enquire further about the Father, Son and Spirit. I don't think that's right. There are certainly some *major* limits to our knowledge! But we mustn't decide for ourselves what those limits are in advance.

    The trinity is a mystery for sure. But in the bible, mysteries are things that are revealed! (see e.g. Eph 6:19 and many others) They are things you could never have worked out for yourself, but at the same time they are made manifest to us. And the way we honour these mysteries is to investigate them as thoroughly as we can.

    The God who gives Himself to us in revelation is honoured when we greedily take as much as we can lay our hands on.

    When Jesus defines eternal life as knowing God His Father and Himself - the Sent One (John 17:3) - He is defining our life *as* one of knowing God in His triune relations. This is the nature of our eternal life - knowing the Father through the Son and by the Spirit.

    And when we press in to know God - there we are humbled by His awesome and majestic love and self-giving. There we really learn what 1 Cor 13 is all about. The most excellent way is love because the most excellent Being is love!

    So I'd encourage you to keep asking, seeking and knocking (as I need to, constantly) to go further into these realities. It is the very stuff of our Christian (and eternal!) life.

    Four talks that have really helped me on the trinity are by Mike Reeves and can be found here:

    These really are the best introduction to the trinity I've ever come across.


  6. Hiram

    "I think there’s a danger of ’switching off’ from trinity talk in the name of humility – as though it’s more humble not to enquire further about the Father, Son and Spirit. I don’t think that’s right. There are certainly some *major* limits to our knowledge! But we mustn’t decide for ourselves what those limits are in advance."

    You know, in the past two weeks this issue has been coming to mind. So I picked up a book on the doctrine of the Trinity...
    and it's all I want to scramble my brains over. lol

    The book is entitled "Jesus and the Father: Modern Evangelicals Reinvent the Doctrine of the Trinity", and it's addressing what the author sees as a modern, somewhat modified version of the Arian heresy that seems to be getting more acceptance.

    Now I'm looking for Athanasius' writings...

  7. Pete Bowman

    Just been reading a few pages of the book Hiram mentions on Google Books... Very interesting stuff.

    Glen, it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on the eternal subordination of Jesus to the Father debate.

    In your recent post "The New Atheism and the Trinity", you quote from your website (regarding point 3) "Within The Community, the Persons freely submit to one another in roles of subordination while never losing their equal status".

    I wonder if this the key to that debate - that all three freely submit to one another (albeit in different ways), rather than only some of the relationships being submissive.

    If so, then that explains a lot about the focus of Jesus in modern theology. If Jesus is really second class to the Father (which Kevin Giles thinks the subordination of Jesus-to-the-Father view ultimate is saying), then we'll spend most of our time talking about the Father and Jesus will only be mentioned when necessary.

  8. pgjackson

    I might be wrong but I think some of the stuff in the eastern trad on the Trinity would be really disliked by Giles? Like the Father as the font/ source of divinity/ all of the 'primacy of the Father' stuff?

    Maybe not, but it seems to me that the concept of mutually-constituting eternal relations doesn't fit with an egalitarian agenda.

    That said, I like Leithart's point here about dependency between the persons:

  9. Heather

    You guys are far more brave than I am. I've tried reading those types of books and only get confused. Then I worry that I'll end up hanging my faith on some guy's explanation of God rather than on the trustworthiness of God Himself.

    While I believe we are to diligently pursue a relationship with God, I do know that the picture of trinitarian unity of the Godhead has created a huge problem for a lot of people.

    For a while, a lot of people in the US were raving about how the novel "The Shack" had helped them to make sense of the inter-relationship of the trinity. I couldn't get past the fact that the author portrayed the "Father" and "Holy Spirit" as women. The concept of eternal /mutual loving subordination seemed to be woven into the story line, but it scared me to note how many reviewers seemed to think they had God all figured out after having read the book.
    Never even finished the book, but I was really disturbed by it.

    And the Jehovah's Witnesses were happy to just re-write the Bible to say that Jesus is "a" god so everything else would make logical sense on a human level.

    I think human arrogance can sometimes drive us to go farther than we are supposed to as we look for satisfactory answers. Certainly, the more I learn, the more unanswerable questions surface.

    I suppose that is one way our faith gets tested. I'm always challenged to ask myself who I'm really trusting when answers aren't readily available.

  10. Glen

    Funny - I was going to link to the same Leithart post that Pete did:

    It's got the balance exactly right in my opinion.

    If social trinitarianism means viewing God's oneness strictly as the mutual-indwelling of the Three distinct Persons, then call me a social trinitarian. If it means waging war against philosophical notions of oneness and the oneness of some supposed catch-all "monotheism" then sign me up. If it means honouring the distinct Personhood of the Three and not smooshing them together into some kind of boiled-down essence - I'm a social trinitarian.

    But if it means kissing goodbye to 'hierarchy' then I have to say 'stop the train I want to get off'. The Father sends the Son. The Son never sends the Father. To insist that their equality means a flat authority structure is not a conclusion reached by examining the gospel! In the gospel - the Son is the One Sent and defers in all things to the Father. But in the gospel the Son reveals to us that true glory is found in service etc. The equality of being between Father and Son has *nothing* to do with some kind of European Union equal rights agenda.

    I don't know the Giles book. But I wonder whether it says lots of good and refreshingly gospel things about the distinct Personhood of the Three. And then I wonder whether it says stuff about their functional equality that's not really discerned from the *gospel* but from a pre-fabricated notion of what equality must mean.

    Check out the Leithart post. I was keeping it up my sleeve to post on later - but it summarizes my position on trinity things very well indeed - and says it much much better.

  11. Pingback: Jesus Vs. The Scribes « Involuted Speculations

  12. pgjackson

    I think some of the problem has been that the language of subordination is most often tied, traditionally, to forms of the Arian heresy. Some people hear others talk of a kind of 'subordination' in terms of role or relation or order or something and it gets them a bit worried that other forms of subordination are never far away.

    So, I vastly prefer the language Leithart uses of asymmetry of mutual dependency. Or even better, pointing to the eternality of the relations (Father-Son-Spirit, not three brothers), and insisting on what we see in the gospel (Father sends the Son, and so on) being a true revelation of the inner life of the Trinity.

  13. Glen

    This post is all about how affirming the asymmetry of the Persons actually refutes Arius:

    If we begin with the one-ness of God being the unity of *others* in relation then the other-ness of Jesus can never be a threat to His divinity. It's when we assume the Persons must be identical in their relations that we run into problems. Jesus says the Father is greater. Oops - I guess He's not God then.

    But no - if we begin by affirming a hierarchical trinity in which the Son expresses His equality in this dynamic divine life through service, then what we see in the gospel is (as Pete says) 'a true revelation of the inner life of the trinity.'

    If we presume that there can be no hierarchy in the trinity and *then* we encounter Jesus deferring in all things to His Father then we'll have to conclude that Jesus doesn't actually reveal the divine life as it is.

    And *that's* the Arian danger right there. Arius's problem is that Jesus doesn't reveal God to you. He's close (of like nature) but not completely the real deal.

    It sounds to me like Giles is faced with the Arian problem via a slightly different route. But it's the same problem - Jesus is not showing us the divine life as it really is.

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