Counting to Three – a lesson in one, two, Trinity

God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!
(Reginald Heber, Holy, Holy, Holy)

When Three is One

Jesus is God. He prayed to his heavenly Father, who is God. And when Jesus was spending his last hours on earth with his friends, he said he would send another who is like him, the Holy Spirit, who is also therefore God.

I’ve written about the doctrine of the Trinity before, once to discuss the countervailing heresy of modalism and once in describing what it means for God to be one in three Persons. Essentially, what the early church leaders meant by “person” is much different than what we mean today by the word. We tend to think of a person as being an individual among a group of people. In early church days, though, the word was used to describe the three subsistences that stand under the single essence of deity.

This came to mind at Church recently. During a prayer toward the end of the service the leader said something about being grateful for the Spirit, the “third being in the Godhead.”

I think that’s wrong.

To look on Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three beings is to take the word “person” and put a modern gloss on it rather than understand how the word was used originally. This can lead to real problems in our understanding of God and his true nature. That’s because the use of the word “person” can confuse some people into tritheism, which is not orthodox trinitarianism and should be avoided just as diligently as modalism:

Tritheism confesses the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three independent divine beings; three separate gods who share the ‘same substance’. This is a common mistake because of misunderstanding of the use of the term ‘persons’ in defining the Trinity. (

You can see how the word “being” can be just as confusing as “person”, if not more so.

In discussing the need to understand Trinitarian doctrine, Augustine said, “In no other subject is error more dangerous, or inquiry more laborious, or the discovery of truth more profitable.” He’s right, of course. It is profitable to know God.

I am glad that God also knows me, even more completely than I could ever know him. But I do know him, Father, Son and Spirit.

Blessed Trinity.


An article that has helped me tremendously is What is the Trinity by R.C. Sproul. You might also enjoy a book I read a couple years ago, Darrell Johnson’s very helpful and easily understandable Experiencing the Trinity.


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10 Responses to Counting to Three – a lesson in one, two, Trinity

  1. Well Tim, one might say but on the other hand two may say it as well but for now since I am one that after reading all of your links and posts you have quite rightly nailed down this concept of subsistence which defines the essence or existence of the trinity.

    Which is why Theology points to the knowledge that there is someone who has the plan that is bigger than yours. However Tim perhaps only one will agree with that as often two rarely agree with anything.

  2. Jeannie says:

    That Darrell Johnson book looks intriguing — maybe “experiencing the Trinity” is a way toward understanding the Trinity. The analogies I’ve heard people use (yolk-white-shell of an egg; core-flesh-peel of an apple; author-character-reader of a book) are all interesting but end up falling short in one way or other.

    • Tim says:

      Right, Jeannie. Those analogies lead toward the modalist heresy. The people I’ve read who most clearly write on the Trinity all advise we stick with what the Bible says about how the Father, Son and Holy Spirit relate to one another and not try to analogize into other relationships we are more familiar with.

  3. Aimee Byrd says:

    “I think that’s wrong.” That line just made me laugh b/c of the understatement. Humble, yet clear. I may have to use that one the next time I am confronted with theological error, Tim!

  4. Pingback: Three Reasons I Embrace Modalism, and a Trinity of Reasons I Do Not | Tim's Blog – Just One Train Wreck After Another

  5. Pingback: God in Three Persons – the doctrine of the Trinity is not as complicated as you think | Tim's Blog – Just One Train Wreck After Another

  6. I typically refer to the “persons” as “beings” but I also understand that as God is perfect being these are ultimately insufficient terms to describe the Triune reality.

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