trinity and simplicity

I woke up this morning with last night’s class discussion still on my mind, so I thought I’d share it with you and see if anyone has a special insight. Here’s the problem:  I believe that the Trinity is fully one and fully three, and following the lead of the Athanasian Creed, I tell students that we should say God is both one and three with the strongest possible voice. Modalism isn’t guilty of too much oneness, it’s impossible to have too much oneness in God, but it’s guilty of insufficient threeness. Likewise, tritheism isn’t guilty of too much threeness, it’s impossible to have too much threeness in God, but it’s guilty of insufficient oneness.

One of the advantages of the doctrine of divine simplicity is that it anchors the oneness of God. There is no stronger way to say that God is one than to say that the persons of the Godhead are identical with each other and the perfections of the divine being. But does this powerful expression of God’s oneness leave room to also say God is three? The medievals said the persons of God are formally distinct, but this doesn’t seem to express God’s threeness in the strongest possible sense. On the other hand, saying that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three parts to God—which would be expressing threeness in the strongest possible sense—does inevitably sound like tritheism.

As I see it, here are my options:

1. Give up belief in simplicity so that I can say God is three in the strongest possible terms. But I’m not prepared to do this, as there are compelling reasons to believe in simplicity, it’s universally held in the Christian tradition (at least until 1980), and the objections to it are not persuasive to me.

2. Back off the threeness of God. Acknowledge that simplicity prevents us from holding the threeness of God in the strongest possible sense, and be content with three personal distinctions within the one divine essence. This strategy is attractive, in large part because it seems to be widely held in the western tradition. But do three “distinctions” express the threeness of God strongly enough? The Son seems to have a center of consciousness that is different from the Father’s, so is it enough to say he is only “distinct” from the Father?

3. Hold both beliefs—divine simplicity and God is three in the strongest possible sense—and chalk the paradox up to mystery. This is what I want to say, though I fear that simplicity may prevent me from holding a robust threeness. And I’m not sure I want to anyway, as saying three in the strongest possible way sounds like tritheism to my western ears.

4. Limit simplicity to the divine perfections. Each of God’s perfections are identical with all the rest, but they’re not identical with his persons. This would free me to say God’s threeness in the strongest possible terms, but would redefine simplicity so that I’m now out of step with the tradition. It would also seem to forfeit the many advantages to the doctrine, such as its grounding of divine aseity and sovereignty.

I’m waffling between #2 and #3. My western tradition pushes me toward #2, but I fear that I’m now fudging on God’s threeness. I want to say #3, but fear that my use of “mystery” may be nothing more than nonsense and that it may land me in unintended tritheism. Any suggestions?







5 responses to “trinity and simplicity”

  1. Brian McLaughlin

    Question: when did “simplicity” become a part of the tradition? This is not a set-up question and I’m not denying that it is true, I genuinely wonder when that came about in the history of theology. It is not in any creed (I don’t think). I ask because my guess is that the biblical theologian would likely respond that the discussion is too centered on a philosophical concept so don’t worry about it.

    For example, I once heard Philip Cary explain it this way. The doctrine of the Trinity can be summarized in 7 statements:
    The Father is God
    The Son is God
    The Holy Spirit is God
    The Father is not the Son
    The Son is not the Spirit
    The Spirit is not the Father
    There is one God

    I think it is basically a summary of the Athanasian Creed, but I think on some level it works. Just as the Bible doesn’t prove God’s existence, it just is; so the Bible doesn’t prove the Trinity in the ways you are suggesting, it just is.

    Maybe that will help you sleep at night!

  2. mikewittmer

    I hear you about the biblical theologian. It is a bit surprising that with no obvious proof text, it’s hard to find someone who didn’t espouse simplicity until the late 20th century (to my knowledge). George Coon did a Th.M. thesis for me on this several years ago, in which he surveyed both East and West and found unanimous consent on simplicity, and going back at least to the second century if I remember rightly. Perhaps the reason it isn’t in the ecumenical creeds is because it was assumed–there was no one speaking against it so no one thought to put it in.

  3. Jonathan Shelley


    Read Anselm. (That’s just generally sound advise, but also germaine).

  4. Paul Johnston

    I found Robert Letham’s The Holy Trinity helpful. I don’t think Letham is able to resolve the temsion logically but affirms both strongly. Why not live in the junction of the two ideas? Why do we expect to resolve the mystery of the inner life of God?

  5. I think the insistence that everything be able to be adequately explained in logical terms understandable to us as human beings is foolish. I think we need to pay more attention to 1 Corinthians 3:19 and numerous other references in that letter to foolishness.

    Pre-modern and post-modern Christianity understand that human wisdom is inadequate to fully describe divine truth. Modern Christianity fails to understand this truth, and that is a major failing of pretty much all the varieties of modern Christianity.

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