The Trinity (3 Whos and 1 What, or 3 Whos and 1 Who?)

October 25, 2009


Here’s a question for you to ponder on your way to the grocery store today: “Is the Trinity more correctly three whos and one what, or three whos and one who?” By “whos” I don’t mean those things on ‘The Grinch Who Stole Christmas’. In other words, the orthodox position of the Trinity is that God exists as three persons together making up one being.

The question I am raising is, what do we mean by “being” when we refer to the oneness of God? Is this being personal or impersonal? Is it a “what” or a “who”? If we can’t know for certain, then which should we at least lean towards?

What is Modalism? Modalism says that God is one person that acts in different “modes”, or takes on different functions, i.e. God functions as the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. A human illustration would be like saying one person can simultaneously be a dad, a son, and a grandson all at the same time. It makes God more like us. We are one person but have different roles we take on as one person. T.D. Jakes and many others hold to this view, and was condemned as being heretical based upon Scripture at the Council of Nicaea in the 4th century. We should all avoid this view of God like the plague.

Then there is tri-theism. This is simply the reverse of Modalism. Instead of saying there is one person who takes on three different functions, tri-theism is where there are three persons making up one mode, or function. In other words, the oneness of God is more impersonal and is more like a function, an idea, or a thing. It’s similar to how a team is made up of multiple persons. The “team” is simply an idea, not a tangible thing.

The orthodox position is that God is one being eternally consisting of three persons, while all three persons are eternally distinct, are equally God, and together make up one God. This is a paradox, nevertheless, it is the Biblical conclusion of God’s being which He has revealed to us through His special revelation of inspired Scripture. In Scripture we see three eternal persons who are completely distinct from each other, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, and they are all Yahweh. At the same time, Yahweh is one being, thus why Judaism and Christianity are monotheistic worldviews.

Now, I believe it is better to define the Trinity this way: God is three persons while also one person. Instead of saying one “being”, I said one “person”.

Is this possible? It depends. First, one needs to define “person” and “being”. The classical definition for “person” is a “who”. The classical definition for a “being” is a “what”. Wow. At this point I must interject that when it comes to understanding the category of the Trinity, we don’t go very far. The most intellectual theologians are forced to define a “person” and a “being” with one word definitions for crying out loud! The best we can do is say a “who” and a “what”.

Granted, we could talk forever about the necessity and implications of the Trinity. We could use countless big words and complex ideas when it comes to that. But when it comes to understanding what God’s actual nature is, we’re like first graders. In fact, we can’t even understand our own nature that much, let alone God’s nature being 3 in 1!

We can’t grasp the category of our Creator. If you haven’t gotten over this fact, then you need to. It’s supposed to be that way. The doctrine of the Trinity is supposed to show us how limited our understanding of God’s nature is because his nature is “other”. He is holy, holy, holy. You might be very tall in your theological prowess, but you are still forced to bow through the small opening which is the doctrine of the Trinity.

No matter how many pipes you smoke, how many arm chairs you sit in, no matter how many libraries you study in that have fire places, no matter how long you’ve been in seminary or taught in seminary, and no matter how long your hair and beard is, you won’t go very far when it comes to defining what a “person” or a “being” is in regard to the Trinity. The Trinity wins, you lose.

But looking at these classical definitions, I prefer to more consistently refer to the Trinity as one person made up of three persons. In other words, one “who” that is also three “whos”. This seems like a contradiction, however, we should also clarify that there is a difference between the one person and the three persons; we just don’t know what that difference is, therefore, there is no contradiction.

It is highly debated as to whether or not Van Til held this position. I would argue, as well as many others, that he did. I would argue that this is the most Biblically consistent position. Namely, that God is not merely tri-personal, but is both uni-personal and tri-personal.

One of Van Til’s most clenched beliefs was that both God’s unity and diversity are equally fundamental. This was his bases for accounting for the one and the many, thus the laws of logic. Van Til said, “In God, unity… is no more fundamental than diversity, and diversity… is no more fundamental than unity.”

(Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, p. 25.)

Here’s what happens when unity is more fundamental than diversity.

A human analogy of this would be like comparing God to an actor. The actor is a single person (unity) taking on multiple roles (diversity). This illustration is like Modalism. The individual is one person, but the roles the actor plays are merely different functions. The person is more fundamental than the roles. The roles are a by-product of the person. When we view God in this way, we must hate this false view. This is Modalism. We must hate Modalism just as much as tri-theism.

Here’s what happens when diversity is more fundamental than unity.

In a baseball team you have multiple persons (diversity) making up a non-personal team (unity). This illustration is like tri-theism. The individual players who make up the team are personal, but the team itself is not a person. A team is a “thing” or an “idea”. The players are more fundamental to the idea of “team”. The team is a by-product of the persons. When we view God in this way, we must also hate this false view. This is tri-theism. We must hate tri-theism just as much as we hate Modalism.

If God’s unity were more fundamental than His diversity, you’d end up with abstract diversity, thus Modalism, or at least leaning towards Modalism. If God’s diversity were more fundamental than His unity, you’d end up with abstract unity, thus tri-theism, or at least leaning towards tri-theism. Thus, God must be three persons while simultaneously one person. Neither His oneness or three-ness can be more fundamental then the other, otherwise you’d end up with either Modalism, tri-theism, or leaning towards one or the other.

The more we try to define what a “person” is, or what a “being” is, the more we have a tendency to distinguish God’s oneness and his three-ness, thus either lean towards Modalism or tri-theism. We become inconsistent and even heretical at times. On the contrary, if we were to entirely conflate what the one person is with what the three persons are, we would also end up in contradiction.

Nevertheless, if we clarify that there is a difference between what the one person is and what the three persons are, yet can’t know that difference, then there is no contradiction, and we avoid Modalism and tri-theism the most. On the surface, using this language makes people think you’re nuts and that you’re being the most contradictory, however, once we clarify then we actually become the most consistent.

There is apparent contradiction, hence a paradox, but not an absolute contradiction. We don’t know very much about the nature of God. What we do conclude so far is very basic, yet extremely profound. In addition, we need to know what we can’t know, namely, the difference between God’s oneness and his three-ness. That is where we shut up, put our hands over our mouth, and remain in awe of our God. He is Yahweh, and he is holy. He is other.

Here is a link that argues for this position and shows Van Til, John Fame, James Anderson, and many others holding this position as well.

An attempt for a natural illustration of the Trinity

Lastly, I would like to throw out what I believe to be the most helpful natural illustration (while it still has its limitations) of what we can most closely compare the Trinity to. This wold be the picture I have at the top of this thread which shows the primary colors.

The additive primary colors are blue, red, and green, and together make up the single color white (if we can allow white to be a color). Notice the color white consists of all three colors, and all three colors exhaust one another entirely to make up white. No one color is more of a color than the others. All the colors are distinguishable, yet inseparable in terms of comprising the color white. The colors all blend, exhaust one another, and in a sense become only one color, yet on the other hand, they are also distinct in another sense and are not completely the same.



  1. hi wat is ur fb site?

  2. What’s an fb site? Whatever it is, let’s talk about the Trinity instead of fb sites!

  3. Thanks, this is helpful. We were just talking about the trinity yesterday in Sunday School. Hank Hanagraph always says the Trinity is three whos and one What. That is comprehendible but seems too easy. I liked your thoughtss and will pass them on.

  4. Thanks a lot Dennis. A lot of people have called me a heretic and many are usually very spkeptical of this type of clarification of the Trinity – because most have never heard it before. Be carefull if/when you share this. People’s traditions will be challenged, and they also may think you’re saying something completely different than what you are. Nevertheless, I personally emailed James Anderson on this topic – a well trusted person when it comes to articulating the Trinity within Reformed circles – and he fully agreed with me. I know a lot of other Christians whom hold to this view as well. It’s nothing new at all, it just usually seems new to those whom haven’t heard this type of clarification before.

    I would also love to know how your Sunday school class is going!

  5. […] Here’s how I’m definig “Trinity”, or “triune”. […]

    • I have a question regarding this profound topic.

      When you say God is one person or one consciousness who thinks wills and loves. While at the same time remaining 3 distinct persons or consciousnesses who think will and love.

      Are you saying when they come together as one consciousness there is a mixture of the 3 consciousnesses and with respect to the one consciousness the 3 are no longer distinct while at the same time in another sense with respect to the 3 consciousness they are distinct?

      Or are you saying that because each knows each other fully including their thoughts and fully indwell each other. Although the 3 conscioussnesses don’t mix they are together in perfect unity and when speaking about them as a unit they could be considered one consciousness or person?

      Thanks God bless


      • 1. Are you saying when they come together as one consciousness there is a mixture of the 3 consciousnesses and with respect to the one consciousness the 3 are no longer distinct while at the same time in another sense with respect to the 3 consciousness they are distinct?

        2. Or are you saying that because each knows each other fully including their thoughts and fully indwell each other. Although the 3 conscioussnesses don’t mix they are together in perfect unity and when speaking about them as a unit they could be considered one consciousness or person?

        The first one would be more accurate, while the second one is more like tri-theism. With the nature of the Trinity, the important thing isn’t that we can fully understand it. We can’t. We can’t understand our own natures, let alone God’s. What we conclude is important, namely that the Christian God is NOT a monad, rather he is eternally 3 distinct persons, while also in another sense that we can’t understand one person.

        With this foundation we are then able to make so much more sense of Scripture, and everything in the universe. What this shows us is that God is an eternal community. No other religion can say this, yet it is so amazingly significant and beautiful. Jesus commissioned us to all be immersed in an understanding of the Trinity, not ontologically so much as practically. The Triune God accounts for everything:

        God does everything in covenant, or in loving relationship to himself.

        Morality is a reflection of how the persons eternally treat each other.

        Judgment of sinners is not tyrannical, but it’s loving and beautiful because it means that the persons are defending and protecting one another.

        Worship of God is not arbitrary or fascist. We worship God because we are created in his image. Just as the 3 persons praise each other and seek each other’s glory out of delight, so we praise God and seek his glory.

        Marriage is a reflection of God’s nature. The persons lead at times, yet also submit to one another. No differently marriage reflects this Triune God.

        Science reflects God’s being. God upholds the universe in a uniform way so that we can have dominion over his creation and be industrious with it. God has dominion over everything in a good and healthy way, thus we reflect his image when we do likewise.

        The list goes on and on… Sadly, many Christians whom claim to believe in the doctrine of the Trinity, still don’t understand these things and view God as a monad.

        I highly recommend the book ‘Trinity & Reality’ by Ralph Smith.


  6. Hmm I think even amongst the one person three person camp there are differing views.

    How is it not contradictory that God can think as 1 consciousness without distinctions (ie 3 consciousnesses are not deciding together) and 3 consciousnesses (eg I am begotten)
    So at the same “time” God is thinking as one consciousness and also thinking as three consciousnesses.

    Also how is it not against immutability for the Son as the 2nd conscious person to give up his consciousness and no longer the 2nd self but be something wholly different as a combination of 3selves being 1self.

    I am not a Clarkian, I am just trying to understand. I would be in the Van Til camp but Scripture is the ultimate rule of faith not Van Til.

    Thanks God Bless,


    • Again, we can only go as far as to say that there is no contradiction because there is a different sense in which the 3 are 1 and the 1 are 3, yet we cannot know this sense. As soon as we try to know it, we begin to lean into heresy (with limited human rationality). The oneness of God and the threeness of God are eternally co-dependent. The One cannot be the One without the Many, and the Many cannot be the Many without the One, otherwise you’d end up with abstract one or an abstract many, like all other religions and worldviews terminate into.

      Thus, there is no immutability from God’s angle, it just seems like immutability from our finite perspective in trying to rationalize it.

      The doctrine of the Trinity is first a doctrine of humility because it shows that God’s nature is beyond our understanding, yet it is the light by which we see all other light! Without the starting point of the Trinity, we ultimately lose all morals, meaning, truth, purpose, relationship, and enjoyment.

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