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Holy Trinity

The Christian doctrine of the Trinity defines God as three divine persons or hypostases: the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit. The three persons are distinct, yet are one "substance, essence or nature". A nature is what one is, while a person is who one is.

The Trinity is considered to be a mystery of Christian faith. According to this doctrine, there is only one God in three persons. Each person is God, whole and entire. They are distinct from one another in their relations of origin: as the Fourth Lateran Council declared, "it is the Father who generates, the Son who is begotten, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds". While distinct in their relations with one another, they are one in all else. The whole work of creation and grace is a single operation common to all three divine persons, who at the same time operate according to their unique properties, so that all things are from the Father, through the Son and in the Holy Spirit. The three persons are co-equal, co-eternal and consubstantial.

Trinitarianism (one deity in three persons) contrasts with nontrinitarian positions which include Binitarianism (one deity in two persons, or two deities), Unitarianism (one deity in one person, analogous to Jewish interpretation of the Shema and Muslim belief in Tawhid), Oneness Pentecostalism or Modalism (one deity manifested in three separate aspects), and social trinitarianism (three persons united by mutual love and accord).


The English word Trinity is derived from Latin Trinitas, meaning "the number three, a triad". This abstract noun is formed from the adjective trinus (three each, threefold, triple), as the word unitas is the abstract noun formed from unus (one).

The corresponding word in Greek is Τριάς, meaning "a set of three" or "the number three".

The first recorded use of this Greek word in Christian theology (though not about the Divine Trinity) was by Theophilus of Antioch in about 170. He wrote:

"In like manner also the three days which were before the luminaries, are types of the Trinity , of God, and His Word, and His wisdom. And the fourth is the type of man, who needs light, that so there may be God, the Word, wisdom, man."

Tertullian, a Latin theologian who wrote in the early 3rd century, is credited with using the words "Trinity", "person" and "substance" to explain that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are "one in essence—not one in Person".

About a century later, in 325, the First Council of Nicaea established the doctrine of the Trinity as orthodoxy and adopted the Nicene Creed, which described Christ as "God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father".


In the Trinity doctrine, each person is understood as having the identical essence or nature, not merely similar natures. The being of Christ can be said to have dominated theological discussions and councils of the church until the 7th century, and resulted in the Nicene and Constantinopolitan creeds, the Ephesine Formula of 431, the Christological statement of the Epistola Dogmatica of Leo I to Flavianus, and the condemnation of Monothelism in the Sixth Ecumenical Council (680–681). From these councils, the following christological doctrines were condemned as heresies: Ebionism, Docetism, Basilidianism, Alogism or Artemonism, Patripassianism, Sabellianism, Arianism, Apollinarianism, Nestorianism, Eutychianism, Monophysitism, and Monothelitism. Since the beginning of the 3rd century the doctrine of the Trinity has been stated as "the one God exists in three Persons and one substance, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." Trinitarianism, belief in the Trinity, is a mark of Roman Catholicism, Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy as well as of the "mainstream traditions" arising from the Protestant Reformation, such as Anglicanism, Baptist, Methodism, Lutheranism and Presbyterianism. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church describes the Trinity as "the central dogma of Christian theology".

References used from Scripture

Although the New Testament does not use the word Τριάς (Trinity) nor explicitly teach it, it provided the material upon which the doctrine of the Trinity was formulated. Reflection by early Christians on passages such as the Great Commission: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" and Paul the Apostle's blessing: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all," while at the same time the Jewish Shema Yisrael: "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one." led the early Christians to question how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are "one". Later, the diverse references to God, Jesus, and the Spirit found in the New Testament were systematized into a Trinity—one God subsisting in three persons and one substance—to combat heretical tendencies of how the three are related and to defend the church against charges of worshiping two or three gods.

In addition, the Old Testament has also been interpreted as foreshadowing the Trinity, by referring to God's word, his spirit, and Wisdom, as well as narratives such as the appearance of the three men to Abraham. However, it is generally agreed that it would go beyond the intention and spirit of the Old Testament to correlate these notions directly with later Trinitarian doctrine.

Some Church Fathers believed that a knowledge of the mystery was granted to the prophets and saints of the "Old Dispensation", and that they identified the divine messenger of Genesis 16:7, 21:17, 31:11, Exodus 3:2 and Wisdom of the sapiential books with the Son, and "the spirit of the Lord" with the Holy Spirit. Other Church Fathers, such as Gregory Nazianzen, argued in his Orations that the revelation was gradual:

The Old Testament proclaimed the Father openly, and the Son more obscurely. The New manifested the Son, and suggested the deity of the Spirit. Now the Spirit himself dwells among us, and supplies us with a clearer demonstration of himself. For it was not safe, when the Godhead of the Father was not yet acknowledged, plainly to proclaim the Son; nor when that of the Son was not yet received to burden us further.

Some scholars dispute the authenticity of the Trinity and argue that the doctrine is the result of "later theological interpretations of Christ's nature and function." The concept was expressed in early writings from the beginning of the 2nd century forward, and other scholars hold that the way the New Testament repeatedly speaks of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is such as to "compel a trinitarian understanding of God".

References to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

Some biblical verses specifically reference the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as distinct entities in a single narrative. While trinitarians interpret these passages as support for the notion of a Trinity, because these verses speak of distinct entities mentioned by name, and not of a Trinity, non-trinitarians also appeal to these verses in support of their argument that a Trinity was not envisioned at the time of their authorship.

"As soon as Jesus Christ was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and landing on him. And a voice from heaven said, 'This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.'"

"The angel answered and said to her, 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.'"

"How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!"

"But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God."

The eighth chapter of Paul's letter to the Romans, which contains many complex formulations of the relationship between God, Christ, and Spirit, including "the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead," "all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God," and "the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God."

Some verses also reference the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as part of a single formula, which trinitarians view as support of a Trinity, though not explicitly stated. Non-trinitarians argue that because these verses are conclusions to their respective books, they may be later trinitarian formulaic additions to the original works, which were added after the doctrine of the Trinity had begun to be debated and accepted as dogmatic.

"Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (see Trinitarian formula). It has been claimed that writings of Eusebius show the mention of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to have displaced a request by Jesus that his disciples baptize people in his name. However, all extant manuscripts of the Gospel of Matthew unanimously contain the baptismal formula that references Father, Son, and Holy Spirit without variation at 28:19.

"The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you."

Comma Johanneum

In addition to these, 1 John 5:7, which is found in the King James Version and the Douay-Rheims (it is a reading attested in the Textus Receptus, the Clementine Vulgate, and in a minority of manuscripts of the Byzantine text-type, but not in any of the Alexandrian manuscripts), and is absent from most modern English translations (the NASB and NKJV are exceptions), states: "For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one." However, this Comma Johanneum is not considered to be part of the genuine text. It is not included in the official Latin text of the Roman Catholic Church, nor in Vulgate manuscripts earlier than about AD 800. Jerome, the author of the Vulgate, seems not to have known the text. The earliest undoubted reference to it is by 4th-century Priscillian, but some hold that it was referred to by 3rd-century Cyprian. It is commonly found in Latin manuscripts other than the earliest, but is absent from the Greek manuscripts except for a few late examples, where the passage appears to have been back-translated from the Latin. Erasmus, the compiler of the Textus Receptus, on which the King James Version was based, noticed that the passage was not found in any of the Greek manuscripts at his disposal and refused to include it until presented with a manuscript containing it, while still suspecting, as is now agreed, that the phrase was a gloss.

Jesus as God

As opposed to the Synoptic Gospels, the Gospel of John has been seen as aimed at emphasizing Jesus' divinity, presenting Jesus as the Logos, pre-existent and divine, from its first words, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." John also portrays Jesus as the creator of the universe, such that "without him was not any thing made that was made."

The Gospel of John ends with Thomas's apparent confession of faith to Jesus, "My Lord and my God!" There is no significant tendency among modern scholars to deny that John 1:1 and John 20:28 identify Jesus with God.

Other passages of John's Gospel interpreted in this sense include, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.", "I and the Father are one.", "....the Father is in me and I am in the Father.", and "....he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God." John is also seen to identify Jesus as the Lord whom Isaiah saw, while other texts are also understood as referring to Jesus as God.

There are also a few possible biblical supports for the Trinity found in the Synoptic Gospels. The Gospel of Matthew, for example, quotes Jesus as saying, "all things have been handed over to me by my Father". This is similar to John, who wrote that Jesus said, "All that the Father has is mine". These verses have been quoted to defend the omnipotence of Christ, having all power, as well as the omniscience of Christ, having all wisdom.

Expressions also in the Pauline epistles have been interpreted as attributing divinity to Jesus. They include: "For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him" and "For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form", and in Paul the Apostle's claim to have been "sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father".

Some believe the Trinity was also introduced in the Old Testament book of Isaiah written around 700 years before Jesus, copies of which were preserved from 300 years before Jesus in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Isaiah 9:6 prophesies "For unto us a Child is born, Unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon his shoulder. And his name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." Thus a son who will be born at a particular point in history who is called "Mighty God". Some non-Trinitarians argue that this passage would also imply that Jesus is the Father, the first person in the Trinity. However, Trinitarians contend that Jesus is the second person in the Trinity, and he is called "Everlasting Father" because of his role as Creator of men, as well as his oneness with, and likeness to, the first person of the Trinity.

Another possible biblical demonstration of the deity of Jesus comes from the biblical scholar Granville Sharp who noted the construction of a particular Greek idiom, which is now called Granville Sharp's rule. According to the rule, when two nouns that are personal, singular, and not proper names are connected in a TSKS pattern (The—Substantive—Kai—Substantive, where 'kai' is Greek for 'and') then the two nouns refer to the same person. Passages like Titus 2:13 and 2Peter 1:1 fit this pattern. Therefore, when Paul says: "The great God and savior, Jesus Christ" he is grammatically identifying Jesus Christ as the great God. Proper nouns are not used in this phrase. In his review of over 1,000 years of Greek literature, Christopher Wordsworth confirmed that early church Fathers had this same understanding of the text.

An opposing view of the Granville Sharp rule, however, argues that in Matthew 21:12 Jesus 'cast out all those that were selling and buying in the temple,' (τοὺς πωλοῦντας καὶ ἀγοράζοντας). So, too, in Mark 11:15, the two classes are made distinct by the insertion of τούς before ἀγοράζοντας. Because of this, they argue that no one can reasonably suppose that the same persons are here described as both selling and buying, yet they fit within the Granville Sharp rule's construction. Therefore, according to this view, there is biblical evidence to distinguish between "the great God" and "our Saviour, Jesus Christ" in Titus 2:13, and by extension, 2 Peter 1:1. However, unlike 2 Peter 1:1 and Titus 2:13, Matthew 21:12 and Mark 11:15 do not fit Sharp's rule, since they use plural participles, not singular personal nouns.

Some have suggested that John presents a hierarchy when he quotes Jesus as saying, "The Father is greater than I", a statement which was appealed to by non-trinitarian groups such as Arianism. However, Church Fathers such as Augustine of Hippo argued this statement was to be understood as Jesus speaking in the form of a man.

Others have suggested that passages in the Synoptic Gospels contradict the Trinity. For example, the Agnoetae sect argued that Jesus himself denied omniscience, when he said "but of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father". However, the Church Fathers reasoned that, in the Bible, "to know" can sometimes mean "to reveal". For example, Augustine of Hippo argued that when Deuteronomy 13:3 said "the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart", "to know" here meant "to reveal". So too, Mark 13:32 could be saying that the Father alone reveals that day, but Jesus himself could know the day as well. This is supported by passages that seem to argue that Jesus did know all things, such as, "He said to him the third time, 'Simon, son of John, do you love me?' Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, 'Do you love me?' and he said to him, 'Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.' Jesus said to him, 'Feed my sheep.'" Another response to this is the following: Because God does not change in His being (James 1:17), God cannot lose attributes. Rather, Jesus, as God, voluntarily gave up the independent exercise of His divine attributes. Thus, Jesus, as God the Son, was dependent upon God the Father to be able to exercise divine powers.

Holy Spirit as God

As the Arian controversy was dwindling down, the debate moved from the deity of Jesus Christ to the equality of the Holy Spirit with the Father and Son. On one hand, the Pneumatomachi sect declared that the Holy Spirit was an inferior person to the Father and Son. On the other hand, the Cappadocian Fathers argued that the Holy Spirit was an equal person to the Father and Son.

Although the main text used in defense of the deity of the Holy Spirit was Matthew 28:19, Cappadocian Fathers such as Basil the Great argued from other verses such as "But Peter said, 'Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.'"

Another passage the Cappadocian Fathers quoted from was "By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host." According to their understanding, because "breath" and "spirit" in Hebrew are both "רוּחַ" ("ruach"), Psalm 33:6 is revealing the roles of the Son and Holy Spirit as co-creators. And since, according to them, because the holy God can only create holy beings such as the angels, the Son and Holy Spirit must be God.

Yet another argument from the Cappadocian Fathers to prove that the Holy Spirit is of the same nature as the Father and Son comes from "For who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God." They reasoned that this passage proves that the Holy Spirit has the same relationship to God as the spirit within us has to us.

The Cappadocian Fathers also quoted, "Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you?" and reasoned that it would be blasphemous for an inferior being to take up residence in a temple of God, thus proving that the Holy Spirit is equal with the Father and the Son.

They also combined "the servant does not know what his master is doing" with 1 Corinthians 2:11 in an attempt to show that the Holy Spirit is not the slave of God, and therefore his equal.

The Pneumatomachi contradicted the Cappadocian Fathers by quoting, "Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?", in effect arguing that the Holy Spirit is no different than other created angelic spirits. The Church Fathers disagreed, saying that the Holy Spirit is greater than the angels, since the Holy Spirit is the one who grants the foreknowledge for prophecy so that the angels could announce events to come.

Claims of Old Testament prefigurations

Genesis 18–19 have been interpreted by Christians as a Trinitarian text. The narrative has the Lord appearing to Abraham, who was visited by three men. Then in Genesis 19, "the two angels" visited Lot at Sodom. The interplay between Abraham on the one hand, and the Lord/three men/the two angels on the other was an intriguing text for those who believed in a single God in three persons. Justin Martyr, and John Calvin similarly, interpreted it such that Abraham was visited by God, who was accompanied by two angels. Justin supposed that the god who visited Abraham was distinguishable from the god who remains in the heavens, but was nevertheless identified as the (monotheistic) god. Justin appropriated the god who visited Abraham to Jesus, the second person of the Trinity.

Augustine, in contrast, held that the three visitors to Abraham were the three persons of the Trinity. He saw no indication that the visitors were unequal, as would be the case in Justin's reading. Then in Genesis 19, two of the visitors were addressed by Lot in the singular: "Lot said to them, 'Not so, my lord.'" Augustine saw that Lot could address them as one because they had a single substance, despite the plurality of persons. Some Christians see indications in the Old Testament of a plurality and unity in God, an idea that is rejected by Judaism.

According to Swedenborg, the three angels which appeared to Abraham do represent the Trinity, but a Trinity of one being: the Divine Itself, the Divine Human and the Divine Proceeding. That one being is represented is indicated by the fact that they are referred to in the singular as Jehovah and Lord. The reason why only two of the angels went to visit Sodom and Gomorrah is that they represent the Divine Human and the Divine Proceeding, and to those aspects of the Divine belongs judgment, as Jesus declared that all judgment was entrusted by the Father to the Son John 5:22. The three angels did indeed appear to Abraham as three men, but they are only a symbolic representation of the Trinity, which should not be taken literally as three distinct persons. In the Old Testament, Swedenborg finds the earliest direct reference to a Trine in the Divinity in the account of Moses' encounter with the Lord in Exodus which states, "And Jehovah passed by upon his face, and called, Jehovah, Jehovah, a God merciful and gracious."Exodus 34:6

Some Christians interpret the theophanies or appearances of the Angel of the Lord as revelations of a person distinct from God, who is nonetheless called God. This interpretation is found in Christianity as early as Justin Martyr and Melito of Sardis, and reflects ideas that were already present in Philo. The Old Testament theophanies were thus seen as Christophanies, each a "preincarnate appearance of the Messiah".


Genesis 12:7 and Genesis 18:1—God appeared to Abraham

Genesis 26:2 and Genesis 26:24—God appeared to Isaac

Genesis 35:1, Genesis 35:9 and Genesis 48:3—God appeared to Jacob

Exodus 3:16 and Exodus 4:5—God appeared to Moses

Exodus 6:3—God appeared to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob

Leviticus 9:4 and Leviticus 6:2—God appeared to Aaron

Deuteronomy 31:15—God appeared to Moses and Joshua

1 Samuel 3:21—God appeared to Samuel

1 Kings 3:5, 1 Kings 9:2 and 1 Kings 11:9—God appeared to Solomon

2 Chronicles 1—God appeared to David

2 Chronicles 7:12—God appeared to Solomon

The angel (messenger) of the Lord:

Genesis 16:7–14

Genesis 22:9–14

Exodus 3:2

Exodus 23:20,21

Numbers 22:21–35

Judges 2:1–5

Judges 6:11–22

Judges 13:3

Possible references in the Deuterocanonical books

In Wisdom, Sirach, and Baruch, the personifications of wisdom have been seen in the Christian traditions as prefigures for Christ. The most explicit reference to the Trinity is in Wisdom of Solomon:

Who has learned your counsel, unless you have given wisdom and sent your holy spirit from on high? And thus the paths of those on earth were set right, and people were taught what pleases you, and were saved by wisdom.

—Wisdom of Solomon 9:17–18


Ignatius of Antioch is seen providing early support for the Trinity around 110, exhorting obedience to "Christ, and to the Father, and to the Spirit." Justin Martyr (AD 100–ca.165) also writes, "in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit." However, the first of the early church fathers recorded as actually using the word Trinity was Theophilus of Antioch writing in the late 2nd century. He defines the Trinity as God, His Word (Logos) and His Wisdom (Sophia) in the context of a discussion of the first three days of creation. The first defence of the doctrine of the Trinity was in the early 3rd century by the early church father Tertullian. He explicitly defined the Trinity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and defended the Trinitarian theology against the "Praxean" heresy.

Although there is much debate as to whether the beliefs of the Apostles were merely articulated and explained in the Trinitarian Creeds, or were corrupted and replaced with new beliefs, all scholars recognize that the Creeds themselves were created in reaction to disagreements over the nature of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These controversies, however, were great and many, and took some centuries to be resolved.

Of these controversies, the most significant developments were articulated in the first four centuries by the Church Fathers in reaction to Adoptionism, Sabellianism, and Arianism. Adoptionism was the belief that Jesus was an ordinary man, born of Joseph and Mary, who became the Christ and Son of God at his baptism. In 269, the Synods of Antioch condemned Paul of Samosata for his Adoptionist theology, and also condemned the term homoousios (ὁμοούσιος, "of the same being") in the sense he used it.

Sabellianism taught that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are aspects of how humanity has interacted with or experienced God. In the role of the Father, God is the provider and creator of all. In the role of the Son, God is manifested in the flesh as a human to bring about the salvation of mankind. In the role of the Holy Spirit, God manifests himself from heaven through his actions on the earth and within the lives of Christians. This view was rejected as heresy by the Ecumenical Councils.

Arianism, which was coming into prominence during the 4th century along with Trinitarianism, taught that the Father came before the Son, and that the Son was a distinct being from the Holy Spirit. In 325, the Council of Nicaea adopted the term homoousios to define the relationship between the Father and the Son that from then on was seen as the hallmark of orthodoxy. This was further developed into the formula "three persons, one being".

Saint Athanasius, who was a participant in the Council, stated that the bishops were forced to use this terminology, which is not found in Scripture, because the Biblical phrases that they would have preferred to use were claimed by the Arians to be capable of being interpreted in what the bishops considered to be a heretical sense. They therefore "commandeered the non-scriptural term homoousios to safeguard the essential relation of the Son to the Father that had been denied by Arius."

Moreover, the meanings of "ousia" and "hypostasis" overlapped then, so that hypostasis for some meant essence and for others person. Athanasius of Alexandria (293–373) helped to separate the terms.

The Confession of the Council of Nicaea said little about the Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the divinity and personality of the Holy Spirit was developed by Athanasius in the last decades of his life. He defended and refined the Nicene formula. By the end of the 4th century, under the leadership of Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus (the Cappadocian Fathers), the doctrine had reached substantially its current form.

The Ante-Nicene Fathers, although likely foreign to the specifics of Trinitarian theology because they were not defined until the 4th century, nevertheless affirmed Christ's deity and referenced "Father, Son and Holy Spirit". Trinitarians view these as elements of the codified doctrine.

By the end of the 4th century, as a result of controversies concerning the proper sense in which to apply to God, Christ and the Holy Spirit terms such as "person", "nature", "essence", and "substance", the doctrine of the Trinity took the form that has since been maintained in all the historic confessions of Christianity.


Baptism as the beginning lesson

Baptism is generally conferred with the Trinitarian formula, "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." Trinitarians identify this name with the Christian faith into which baptism is an initiation, as seen for example in the statement of Basil the Great (330–379): "We are bound to be baptized in the terms we have received, and to profess faith in the terms in which we have been baptized." "This is the Faith of our baptism", the First Council of Constantinople also says (382), "that teaches us to believe in the Name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. According to this Faith there is one Godhead, Power, and Being of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

Matthew 28:19 may be taken to indicate that baptism was associated with this formula from the earliest decades of the Church's existence.

Some groups, such as Oneness Pentecostals, demur from the Trinitarian view on baptism. For them, the omission of the formula in Acts outweighs all other considerations, and is a liturgical guide for their own practice. For this reason, they often focus on the baptisms in Acts, citing many authoritative theological works. For example, Kittel is cited where he is speaking of the phrase "in the name" (Greek: εἰς τὸ ὄνομα) as used in the baptisms recorded in Acts:

The distinctive feature of Christian baptism is that it is administered in Christ (εἰς Χριστόν), or in the name of Christ (εἰς τὸ ὄνομα Χριστοῦ). (Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 1:539.)

The formula (εἰς τὸ ὄνομα) seems to have been a tech. term in Hellenistic commerce ("to the account"). In both cases the use of the phrase is understandable, since the account bears the name of the one who owns it, and in baptism the name of Christ is pronounced, invoked and confessed by the one who baptises or the one baptised or both. (Kittel, 1:540.)

Those who place great emphasis on the baptisms in Acts often likewise question the authenticity of Matthew 28:19 in its present form. A. Ploughman, apparently following F. C. Conybeare, has questioned the authenticity of Matthew 28:19, but most scholars of New Testament textual criticism accept the authenticity of the passage, since there are no variant manuscripts regarding the formula, and the extant form of the passage is attested in the Didache and other patristic works of the 1st and 2nd centuries: Ignatius, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Cyprian, and Gregory Thaumaturgus. The Acts of the Apostles only mentions believers being baptized "in the name of Jesus Christ" and "in the name of the Lord Jesus." There are no biblical references to baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit outside of Matthew 28:19, nor references, biblical or patristic, to baptism in the name of (the Lord) Jesus (Christ) outside the Acts of the Apostles.

Commenting on Matthew 28:19, Gerhard Kittel states:

This threefold relation soon found fixed expression in the triadic formulae in 2 Cor. 13:14 and in 1 Cor. 12:4–6. The form is first found in the baptismal formula in Matthew 28:19; Did., 7. 1 and 3....t is self-evident that Father, Son and Spirit are here linked in an indissoluble threefold relationship.

In the synoptic Gospels the baptism of Jesus is often interpreted as a manifestation of all three persons of the Trinity: "And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, 'This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.'"

One God

Christianity, having emerged from Judaism, is a monotheistic religion. Never in the New Testament does the trinitarian concept become a "tritheism" (three Gods) nor even two. God is one, and that the Godhead is a single being is strongly declared in the Bible:

The Shema of the Hebrew Scriptures: "Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one."

The first of the Ten Commandments—"Thou shalt have no other gods before me".

and "Thus saith the LORD the King of Israel and his redeemer the LORD of hosts: I am the first and I am the last; and beside me there is no God."

In the New Testament: "The Lord our God is one."

In the Trinitarian view, the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost share the one essence, substance or being. The central and crucial affirmation of Christian faith is that there is one savior, God, and one salvation, manifest in Jesus Christ, to which there is access only because of the Holy Spirit. The God of the Old Testament is still the same as the God of the New. In Christianity, statements about a single God are intended to distinguish the Hebraic understanding from the polytheistic view, which see divine power as shared by several beings, beings which can and do disagree and have conflicts with each other.

God in three persons

In Trinitarian doctrine, God exists as three persons or hypostases, but is one being, that is, has but a single divine nature. Chalcedonians—Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Protestants—hold that, in addition, the second person of the Trinity—God the Son, Jesus—assumed human nature, so that he has two natures (and hence two wills), and is really and fully both true God and true human.

In the Oriental Orthodox theology, the Chalcedonian formulation is rejected in favor of the position of the 3rd ecumenical council that the union of the two natures, though unconfused, births a third nature: redeemed humanity, the new creation, following Christology of St Cyril of Alexandria and the formula "μία φύσις τοῦ θεοῦ λόγου σεσαρκωμένη" – Jesus Christ being really and fully both true God and true human. This doctrine is not to be confused with monophysitism which is condemned by the Oriental Orthodox churches.

The members of the Trinity are said to be co-equal and co-eternal, one in essence, nature, power, action, and will. As stated in the Athanasian Creed, the Father is uncreated, the Son is uncreated, and the Holy Spirit is uncreated, and all three are eternal with no beginning.

It has been stated that because three persons exist in God as one unity, "The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit" are not three different names for different parts of God but one name for God, because the Father can not be divided from the Son or the Holy Spirit from the Son. God has always loved, and there has always existed perfectly harmonious communion between the three persons of the Trinity. One consequence of this teaching is that God could not have created man to have someone to talk to or to love: God "already" enjoyed personal communion; being perfect, he did not create man because of a lack or inadequacy he had. Another consequence, according to Rev. Fr. Thomas Hopko, an Eastern Orthodox theologian, is that if God were not a Trinity, he could not have loved prior to creating other beings on whom to bestow his love. Thus God says, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." For Trinitarians, emphasis in Genesis 1:26 is on the plurality in the Deity, and in 1:27 on the unity of the divine Essence. A possible interpretation of Genesis 1:26 is that God's relationships in the Trinity are mirrored in man by the ideal relationship between husband and wife, two persons becoming one flesh, as described in Eve's creation later in the next chapter.

Mutually indwelling

A useful explanation of the relationship of the distinct divine persons is called "perichoresis", from Greek going around, envelopment. This concept refers for its basis to John 14–17, where Jesus is instructing the disciples concerning the meaning of his departure. His going to the Father, he says, is for their sake; so that he might come to them when the "other comforter" is given to them. Then, he says, his disciples will dwell in him, as he dwells in the Father, and the Father dwells in him, and the Father will dwell in them. This is so, according to the theory of perichoresis, because the persons of the Trinity "reciprocally contain one another, so that one permanently envelopes and is permanently enveloped by, the other whom he yet envelopes". (Hilary of Poitiers, Concerning the Trinity 3:1).

This co-indwelling may also be helpful in illustrating the Trinitarian conception of salvation. The first doctrinal benefit is that it effectively excludes the idea that God has parts. Trinitarians assert that God is a simple, not an aggregate, being. The second doctrinal benefit is that it harmonizes well with the doctrine that the Christian's union with the Son in his humanity brings him into union with one who contains in himself, in St. Paul's words, "all the fullness of deity" and not a part. (See also: Theosis). Perichoresis provides an intuitive figure of what this might mean. The Son, the eternal Word, is from all eternity the dwelling place of God; he is the "Father's house", just as the Son dwells in the Father and the Spirit; so that, when the Spirit is "given", then it happens as Jesus said, "I will not leave you as orphans; for I will come to you."

Some forms of human union are considered to be not identical but analogous to the Trinitarian concept, as found for example in Jesus' words about marriage: "For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; And they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh." According to the words of Jesus, married persons are in some sense no longer two, but joined into one. Therefore, Orthodox theologians also see the marriage relationship as an image, or "icon" of the Trinity, relationships of communion in which, in the words of St. Paul, participants are "members one of another". As with marriage, the unity of the church with Christ is similarly considered in some sense analogous to the unity of the Trinity, following the prayer of Jesus to the Father, for the church, that "they may be one, even as we are one".

Eternal generation and procession

Trinitarianism affirms that the Son is "begotten" (or "generated") of the Father and that the Spirit "proceeds" from the Father, but the Father is "neither begotten nor proceeds". The argument over whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone, or from the Father and the Son, was one of the catalysts of the Great Schism, in this case concerning the Western addition of the Filioque clause to the Nicene Creed. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that, in the sense of the Latin verb procedere (which does not have to indicate ultimate origin and is therefore compatible with proceeding through), but not in that of the Greek verb ἐκπορεύεσθαι (which implies ultimate origin), the Spirit "proceeds" from the Father and the Son (see Filioque), and the Eastern Orthodox Church, which teaches that the Spirit "proceeds" from the Father alone, has made no statement on the claim of a difference in meaning between the two words, one Greek and one Latin, both of which are translated as "proceeds".

This language is often considered difficult because, if used regarding humans or other created things, it would imply time and change; when used here, no beginning, change in being, or process within time is intended and is excluded. The Son is generated ("born" or "begotten"), and the Spirit proceeds, eternally. Augustine of Hippo explains, "Thy years are one day, and Thy day is not daily, but today; because Thy today yields not to tomorrow, for neither does it follow yesterday. Thy today is eternity; therefore Thou begat the Co-eternal, to whom Thou saidst, 'This day have I begotten Thee."

Son begotten, not created

Because the Son is begotten, not made, the substance of his person is that of the deity. The creation is brought into being through the Son, but the Son himself is not part of it except through his incarnation.

The church fathers used several analogies to express this thought. St. Irenaeus of Lyons was the final major theologian of the 2nd century. He writes, "the Father is God, and the Son is God, for whatever is begotten of God is God." (Compare Spinoza's philosophy of God.)

Extending the analogy, it might be said, similarly, that whatever is generated (procreated) of humans is human. Thus, given that humanity is, in the words of the Bible, "created in the image and likeness of God", an analogy can be drawn between the Divine Essence and human nature, between the Divine Persons and human persons. However, given the fall, this analogy is far from perfect, even though, like the Divine Persons, human persons are characterized by being "loci of relationship". For Trinitarian Christians, this analogy is important with regard to the Church, which St. Paul calls "the body of Christ" and whose members are, because they are "members of Christ", also "members one of another".

However, an attempt to explain the mystery to some extent must break down, and has limited usefulness, being designed, not so much to fully explain the Trinity, but to point to the experience of communion with the Triune God within the church as the Body of Christ. The difference between those who believe in the Trinity and those who do not, is not an issue of understanding the mystery. The difference is primarily one of belief concerning the personal identity of Christ. It is a difference in conception of the salvation connected with Christ that drives all reactions, either favorable or unfavorable, to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. As it is, the doctrine of the Trinity is directly tied up with Christology.

Economic and ontological Trinity

Economic Trinity: This refers to the acts of the triune God with respect to the creation, history, salvation, the formation of the Church, the daily lives of believers, etc. and describes how the Trinity operates within history in terms of the roles or functions performed by each Person of the Trinity—God's relationship with creation.

Ontological (or essential or immanent) Trinity: This speaks of the interior life of the Trinity—the reciprocal relationships of Father, Son, and Spirit to each other without reference to God's relationship with creation.

The ancient Nicene theologians argued that everything the Trinity does is done by Father, Son, and Spirit working in unity with one will. The three persons of the Trinity always work inseparably, for their work is always the work of the one God. Because of this unity of will, the Trinity cannot involve the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father. Eternal subordination can only exist if the Son's will is at least conceivably different from the Father's. But Nicene orthodoxy says it is not. The Son's will cannot be different from the Father's because it is the Father's. They have but one will as they have but one being. Otherwise they would not be one God. If there were relations of command and obedience between the Father and the Son, there would be no Trinity at all but rather three gods. On this point St. Basil observes "When then He says, 'I have not spoken of myself,' and again, 'As the Father said unto me, so I speak,' and 'The word which ye hear is not mine, but which sent me,' and in another place, 'As the Father gave me commandment, even so I do,' it is not because He lacks deliberate purpose or power of initiation, nor yet because He has to wait for the preconcerted key-note, that he employs language of this kind. His object is to make it plain that His own will is connected in indissoluble union with the Father. Do not then let us understand by what is called a 'commandment' a peremptory mandate delivered by organs of speech, and giving orders to the Son, as to a subordinate, concerning what He ought to do. Let us rather, in a sense befitting the Godhead, perceive a transmission of will, like the reflexion of an object in a mirror, passing without note of time from Father to Son.."

In explaining why the Bible speaks of the Son as being subordinate to the Father, the great theologian Athanasius argued that scripture gives a "double account" of the son of God—one of his temporal and voluntary subordination in the incarnation, and the other of his eternal divine status. For Athanasius, the Son is eternally one in being with the Father, temporally and voluntarily subordinate in his incarnate ministry. Such human traits, he argued, were not to be read back into the eternal Trinity.

Like Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers also insisted there was no economic inequality present within the Trinity. As Basil wrote: "We perceive the operation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be one and the same, in no respect showing differences or variation; from this identity of operation we necessarily infer the unity of nature."

Augustine also rejected an economic hierarchy within the Trinity. He claimed that the three persons of the Trinity "share the inseparable equality one substance present in divine unity". Because the three persons are one in their inner life, this means that for Augustine their works in the world are one. For this reason, it is an impossibility for Augustine to speak of the Father commanding and the Son obeying as if there could be a conflict of wills within the eternal Trinity.

John Calvin also spoke at length about the doctrine of the Trinity. Like Athanasius and Augustine before him, he concluded that Philippians 2:4–11 prescribed how scripture was to be read correctly. For him the Son's obedience is limited to the incarnation and is indicative of his true humanity assumed for human salvation.

Much of this work is summed up in the Athanasian Creed. This creed stresses the unity of the Trinity and the equality of the persons. It ascribes equal divinity, majesty, and authority to all three persons. All three are said to be "almighty" and "Lord" (no subordination in authority; "none is before or after another" (no hierarchical ordering); and "none is greater, or less than another" (no subordination in being or nature). Thus, since the divine persons of the Trinity act with one will, there is no possibility of hierarchy-inequality in the Trinity.

Catholic theologian Karl Rahner went so far as to say:

"The 'economic' Trinity is the 'immanent' Trinity and the 'immanent' Trinity is the 'economic' Trinity."

Since the 1980s, some evangelical theologians have come to the conclusion that the members of the Trinity may be economically unequal while remaining ontologically equal. This theory was put forward by George W. Knight III in his 1977 book The New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Men and Women, states that the Son of God is eternally subordinated in authority to God the Father. This conclusion was used to support the main thesis of his book: that women are permanently subordinated in authority to their husbands in the home and to male leaders in the church, despite being ontologically equal. Subscribers to this theory insist that the Father has the role of giving commands and the Son has the role of obeying them.

Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant distinctions

The Western (Roman Catholic) tradition is more prone to make positive statements concerning the relationship of persons in the Trinity. Explanations of the Trinity are not the same thing as the doctrine; nevertheless, the Augustinian West is inclined to think in philosophical terms concerning the rationality of God's being, and is prone on this basis to be more open than the East to seek philosophical formulations which make the doctrine more intelligible, while recognizing that these formulations are only analogies.

Eastern Christianity, for its part, correlates ecclesiology and Trinitarian doctrine, and seeks to understand the doctrine of the Trinity via the experience of the Church, which it understands to be "an icon of the Trinity". Therefore, when St. Paul writes concerning Christians that all are "members one of another", Eastern Christians in turn understand this as also applying to the Divine Persons.

The principal disagreement between Western and Eastern Christianity on the Trinity has been the relationship of the Holy Spirit with the other two hypostases. The original credal formulation of the Council of Constantinople was that the Holy Spirit proceeds "from the Father". While this phrase is still used unaltered both in the Eastern Churches, including the Eastern Catholic Churches, and, when the Nicene Creed is recited in Greek, in the Latin Church, it became customary in the Latin-speaking Church, beginning with the provincial Third Council of Toledo in 589, to add "and the Son" (Latin Filioque). Although this insertion into the Creed was explicitly vetoed by Pope Leo III, it was finally used in a Papal Mass by Pope Benedict VIII in 1014, thus completing its spread throughout Western Christianity. The Eastern Orthodox Churches object to it on ecclesiological and theological grounds, holding that "from the Father" means "from the Father alone", while in the West belief that the Holy Spirit "proceeds", in the Latin (and English) meaning of this word, "from the Father and the Son" had already been dogmatically declared to be orthodox faith in 447 by Pope Leo I, the Pope whose Tome was approved at the Council of Chalcedon, and Pope Leo III, who opposed insertion of the phrase into the Nicene Creed, "affirmed the orthodoxy of the term Filioque, and approved its use in catechesis and personal professions of faith".

The 1978 Anglican Lambeth Conference requested:

that all member Churches of the Anglican Communion should consider omitting the Filioque from the Nicene Creed, and that the Anglican-Orthodox Joint Doctrinal Commission through the Anglican Consultative Council should assist them in presenting the theological issues to their appropriate synodical bodies and should be responsible for any necessary consultation with other Churches of the Western tradition.

None of the member Churches has implemented this request; but the Church of England, while keeping the phrase in the Creed recited in its own services, presents in its Common Worship series of service books a text of the creed without it for use "on suitable ecumenical occasions".

Most Protestant groups that use the creed also include the Filioque clause. However, the issue is usually not controversial among them because their conception is often less exact than is discussed above (exceptions being the Presbyterian Westminster Confession 2:3, the London Baptist Confession 2:3, and the Lutheran Augsburg Confession 1:1–6, which specifically address those issues). The clause is often understood by Protestants to mean that the Spirit is sent from the Father, by the Son, a conception which is not controversial in either Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. A representative view of Protestant Trinitarian theology is more difficult to provide, given the diverse and decentralized nature of the various Protestant churches.

Questions of logical coherency

In Christian tradition the Trinity is a mystery of faith revealed in scripture, beyond human understanding. Theological explanations thus tend to lack or avoid a logical or philosophical foundation. In his explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity, Augustine pointed out that Jesus spoke in similitudes and would later reveal the Father more plainly. Despite his lengthy exposition to explain the Trinity in light of scripture, Augustine states that an explanation is beyond human language, and that the definition of the Trinity as three persons is but a similitude needed in order to express it. Augustine concludes that one must believe before one understands, and that the Trinity must remain unknown. After this conclusion Augustine then attempted to describe analogies of the Trinity in love itself and in the mind of man.

Hilary of Poitiers stressed that as God is infinite, eternal and omnipresent, his true nature is unfathomable, and that "words cannot describe Him." He notes that scripture states no one knows the Father except the Son. As to how the Son could be begotten, and yet not be created, he admits that it is a mystery, and confesses his ignorance at understanding it, for the Son had not yet made revelation concerning this matter. When Jesus said that He and His Father are one, he interprets it as one nature, but two persons. Again it is a mystery: "There cannot be one Person only, for He speaks not of Himself; and, conversely, They cannot be separate and divided when the One speaks through the voice of the Other. These words are the revelation of the mystery of Their unity." Because they share one nature the doctrine is "guiltless of ditheism."

Beginning around the 12th century, theology began to be influenced by Scholasticism, which is a method based on dialectical reasoning. This can be seen in the works of Thomas Aquinas, who thought that both faith and reason are necessary in Christian theology. The names of Father, Son and Holy Spirit signify the procession or emanation of the Divine. This act of procession is comparable to how an idea is conceived in the intellect; and this came forth from God as the Word. This can only be understood via similitudes, and not literally understood through material bodies. Moreover, there are two processions in God, one of the intellect (the Word) and one of the will or love. In regards to the Trinity of persons, Aquinas lists the following objection:

"It would seem that there are not several persons in God. For person is the individual substance of a rational nature. If then there are several persons in God, there must be several substances; which appears to be heretical."

How does Aquinas answer this objection? He redefines the word "person" as "a relation subsisting in the Divine nature." Thus properties found in God, such as goodness and wisdom, are distinguishable, but subsist together as one. But then Aquinas comes to the question, Why three? And, three what? To the first question, he answers because scripture says so (quoting the dubious Comma Johanneum), and to the second question, he answers "three persons" falling into circular reasoning.

In contrast to Joachim of Fiore's historicization of the Trinity, there have been recent philosophical attempts to defend the logical coherency of Trinity by men such as Peter Geach. Regarding the formulation suggested by Geach, not all philosophers would agree with its logical coherency. Geach suggested that "a coherent statement of the doctrine is possible on the assumption that identity is "always relative to a sortal term".

The Canadian philosopher-theologian, Bernard Lonergan, has demonstrated by analogy with the operations of the human subject (the psychological analogy) the logical coherency of the Trinity. It is chiefly in his work "The Triune God: Systematics" that he draws on his abstract phenomenology to show this logical inner coherency in the Trinity doctrine. He sees himself as doing nothing more than standing in the tradition of Augustine and Aquinas on this issue and not based on the Bible.


The Trinity is most commonly seen in Christian art with the Spirit represented by a dove, as specified in the Gospel accounts of the Baptism of Christ; he is nearly always shown with wings outspread. However depictions using three human figures appear occasionally in most periods of art.

The Father and the Son are usually differentiated by age, and later by dress, but this too is not always the case. The usual depiction of the Father as an older man with a white beard may derive from the biblical Ancient of Days, which is often cited in defense of this sometimes controversial representation. However, in Eastern Orthodoxy the Ancient of Days is usually understood to be God the Son, not God the Father (see below)—early Byzantine images show Christ as the Ancient of Days, but this iconography became rare. When the Father is depicted in art, he is sometimes shown with a halo shaped like an equilateral triangle, instead of a circle. The Son is often shown at the Father's right hand. He may be represented by a symbol—typically the Lamb or a cross—or on a crucifix, so that the Father is the only human figure shown at full size. In early medieval art, the Father may be represented by a hand appearing from a cloud in a blessing gesture, for example in scenes of the Baptism of Christ. Later, in the West, the Throne of Mercy (or "Throne of Grace") became a common depiction. In this style, the Father (sometimes seated on a throne) is shown supporting either a crucifix or, later, a slumped crucified Son, similar to the Pieta (this type is distinguished in German as the Not Gottes) in his outstretched arms, while the Dove hovers above or in between them. This subject continued to be popular until the 18th century at least.

By the end of the 15th century, larger representations, other than the Throne of Mercy, became effectively standardised, showing an older figure in plain robes for the Father, Christ with his torso partly bare to display the wounds of his Passion, and the dove above or around them. In earlier representations both Father, especially, and Son often wear elaborate robes and crowns. Sometimes the Father alone wears a crown, or even a papal tiara.

Eastern Orthodox tradition

Direct representations of the Trinity are much rarer in Eastern Orthodox art of any period—reservations about depicting the Father remain fairly strong, as they were in the West until the high Middle Ages. The Second Council of Nicea in 787 confirmed that the depiction of Christ was allowed because he became man; the situation regarding the Father was less clear. The usual Orthodox representation of the Trinity was through the "Old Testament Trinity" of the three angels visiting Abraham—said in the text to be "the Lord". However scholars generally agree that the direct representation of the Trinity began in Greek works from the 11th century onwards, where Christ is shown as an infant sitting on the Father's lap, with the Dove of the Holy Spirit also present. Such depictions spread to the West and became the standard type there, though with an adult Christ, as described above. This type later spread back to the Orthodox world where post-Byzantine representations similar to those in the West are not uncommon outside Russia. The subject long remained sensitive, and the Russian Orthodox Church at the Great Synod of Moscow in 1667 finally forbade depictions of the Father in human form. The canon is quoted in full here because it explains the Russian Orthodox theology on the subject:

Chapter 2, 44: It is most absurd and improper to depict in icons the Lord Sabaoth (that is to say, God the Father) with a grey beard and the Only-Begotten Son in His bosom with a dove between them, because no-one has seen the Father according to His Divinity, and the Father has no flesh, nor was the Son born in the flesh from the Father before the ages. And though David the prophet says, "From the womb before the morning star have I begotten Thee", that birth was not fleshly, but unspeakable and incomprehensible. For Christ Himself says in the holy Gospel, "No man hath seen the Father, save the Son".cf. And Isaiah the prophet says in his fortieth chapter: "To whom have ye likened the Lord? and with what likeness have ye made a similitude of Him? Has not the artificier of wood made an image, or the goldsmiths, having melted gold, gilt it over, and made it a similitude?" In like manner the Apostle Paul says in Acts "Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold or silver or stone, graven by art of man's imagination." And John Damascene says: "But furthermore, who can make a similitude of the invisible, incorporeal, uncircumscribed and undepictable God? It is, then, uttermost insanity and impiety to give a form to the Godhead" (Orthodox Faith, 4:16). In like manner St. Gregory the Dialogist prohibits this. For this reason we should only form an understanding in the mind of Sabaoth, which is the Godhead, and of that birth before the ages of the Only-Begotten-Son from the Father, but we should never, in any wise depict these in icons, for this, indeed, is impossible. And the Holy Spirit is not in essence a dove, but in essence he is God, and "No man hath seen God", as John the Theologian and Evangelist bears witness and this is so even though, at the Jordan at Christ's holy Baptism the Holy Spirit appeared in the likeness of a dove. For this reason, it is fitting on this occasion only to depict the Holy Spirit in the likeness of a dove. But in any other place those who have intelligence will not depict the Holy Spirit in the likeness of a dove. For on Mount Tabor, He appeared as a cloud and, at another time, in other ways. Furthermore, Sabaoth is the name not only of the Father, but of the Holy Trinity. According to Dionysios the Areopagite, Lord Sabaoth, translated from the Jewish tongue, means "Lord of Hosts". This Lord of Hosts is the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And although Daniel the prophet says that he beheld the Ancient of Days sitting on a throne, this should not be understood to refer to the Father, but to the Son, Who at His second coming will judge every nation at the dreadful Judgment.

Oriental Orthodox traditions

The Coptic Orthodox Church never depicts God the Father in art although he may be identified by an area of brightness within art such as the heavenly glow at the top of some icons of the baptism of the Lord Jesus Christ.

In contrast, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church has many ancient icons depicting the Holy Trinity as three distinct Persons. These icons often depict all Three Persons sitting upon a single throne to signify unity. The Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church follows the same practice.


Only a few of the standard scenes in Christian art normally included a representation of the Trinity. The accounts in the Gospels of the Baptism of Christ were considered to show all three persons as present with a separate role. Sometimes the other two persons are shown at the top of a crucifixion. The Coronation of the Virgin, a popular subject in the West, often included the whole Trinity. But many subjects, such as Christ in Majesty or the Last Judgement, which might be thought to require depiction of the deity in the most amplified form, only show Christ. There is a rare subject where the persons of the Trinity make the decision to incarnate Christ, or God sending out the Son. Even more rarely, the Angel of the Annunciation is shown being given the mission.

Less common types of depiction

Especially in the 15th century, and in the less public form of illuminated manuscripts, there was experimentation with many solutions to the issues of depicting the three persons of the Trinity. The depiction of the Trinity as three identical persons is rare, because each Person of the Trinity is considered to have distinct attributes. Nonetheless, the earliest known depiction of God the Father as a human figure, on the 4th century Dogmatic Sarcophagus, shows the Trinity as three similar bearded men creating Eve from Adam, probably with the intention of affirming the consubstantiality recently made dogma in the Nicene Creed. There are many similar sarcophagi, and occasional images at intervals until a revival of the iconography in the 15th century. Even rarer is the depiction of the Trinity as a single anthropoid figure with three faces (Latin "Vultus Trifrons"), because the Trinity is defined as three persons in one Godhead, not one Person with three attributes (this would imply Modalism, which is defined as heresy in traditional Christian orthodoxy). Such "Cerberus" depictions of the Trinity as three faces on one head were mainly made among Catholics during the 15th to 17th centuries, but were condemned after the Catholic Council of Trent, and again by Pope Urban VIII in 1628, and many existing images were destroyed.

The Trinity may also be represented abstractly by symbols, such as the triangle (or three triangles joined together), trefoil or the triquetra—or a combination of these. Sometimes a halo is incorporated into these symbols. The use of such symbols are often found not only in painting but also in needlework on tapestries, vestments and antependia, in metalwork and in architectural details.


Non-orthodox views of the Christian trinitarian God have also been suggested by process theologians like Lewis S. Ford, who endorse the entitative view of God as timeless and eternal concrescence, but interpret the Whiteheadian natures of God (primordial nature, consequent nature, and superjective nature) in a trinitarian way. Other process theologians like Joseph A. Bracken consider the three divines persons, each understood in the Neo-Whiteheadian societal view of God sensu Charles Hartshorne and David Ray Griffin, as constituting a primordial field of divine activity.


Some Christian traditions either reject the doctrine of the Trinity or consider it unimportant. Persons and groups espousing this position generally do not refer to themselves as "Nontrinitarians". They can vary in both their reasons for rejecting traditional teaching on the Trinity, and in the way they describe God.



Since Trinitarianism is central to so much of Catholic and Orthodox church doctrine, Christian nontrinitarians were mostly groups that existed before the Nicene Creed was codified in 325 or are groups that developed after the Protestant Reformation, when many church doctrines came into question.

In the early centuries of Christian history Adoptionists, Arians, Ebionites, some Gnostics, Marcionites, and others held nontrinitarian beliefs. The Council of Nicaea professed the divinity of Jesus, and the Council of Chalcedon made a declaration on the issue of the relationship between Jesus' divine and human natures, against Monophysitism ("one nature only"), a belief that did not deny his divinity. Miaphysitism ("one nature") and monothelitism ("one will") were other attempts to explain this relationship, while upholding Trinitarianism.

During more than a thousand years of Trinitarian orthodoxy, formal nontrinitarianism, i.e., a doctrine held by a church, group, or movement, was rare, existing, for example, as a belief among the Cathars, a Christian dualist heresy in W. Europe in the 13th–14th centuries. The Cathars were a serious threat to the authority of the Catholic Church especially in southern France Albigenses and northern Italy, until they were suppressed. They were forced into secrecy by a war between the nobles of the north and south of France, the northern nobles were supported by a crusade authorized by the Catholic Church.

The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century also brought tradition into question. At first, nontrinitarians were executed (such as Servetus), or forced to keep their beliefs secret (such as Isaac Newton). The eventual establishment of religious freedom, however, allowed nontrinitarians to more easily preach their beliefs, and the 19th century saw the establishment of several nontrinitarian groups in North America and elsewhere. These include the Church of God (7th day) – Salem Conference, the Christadelphians, the Jehovah's Witnesses, and Unitarians groups. Some Messianic groups are also nontrinitarian. Servetus heavily influenced the theology of Emanuel Swedenborg; the church founded on his writings is a small but influential nontrinitarian movement. Some groups espousing Binitarianism such as the Living Church of God claim that Binitarianism was the majority view of those that professed Christ in the 2nd century.

20th century nontrinitarian movements include Iglesia ni Cristo, Most Holy Church of God in Christ Jesus, and the Unification Church. Nontrinitarian groups differ from one another in their views of Jesus Christ, depicting him variously as a divine being second only to God the Father (e.g., Jehovah's Witnesses), as Yahweh of the Old Testament in human form (Modalism), as God (but not eternally God), as Son of God but inferior to the Father (versus co-equal), as a prophet, or simply as a holy man.


"Origen introduced the phrase 'the Son's eternal generation'" – Robert Isaac Wilberforce

Modalism teaches that the Heavenly Father, Resurrected Son and Holy Spirit identified by the Trinity Doctrine are different modes or aspects of the One God, as perceived by the believer, rather than three coeternal persons in God Himself. In passages of scripture such as Matthew 3:16–17 where the Son, Father, and Holy Spirit are separated in the text, they view this phenomenon as confirming God's omnipresence, and His ability to manifest himself as he pleases. Oneness Pentecostals, other Oneness adherents, and Modalists dispute the traditional Trinitarian doctrine, while affirming the Christian doctrine of God taking on flesh as Jesus Christ. Like Trinitarians, Oneness adherents believe that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man. However, whereas Trinitarians believe that "God the Son", the eternal second person of the Trinity, became man, Oneness adherents hold that the one and only true God—who manifests himself in any way he chooses, including as Father, Son and Holy Spirit—became man. Oneness Pentecostals and other modalists are regarded by Catholic, Orthodox, and some other mainstream Christians as heretical for rejecting the Trinity Doctrine, which they regard as equivalent to Unitarianism. Modalists differentiate themselves from Unitarians by affirming Christ's Deity. Oneness teaches that there is only one being, revealing himself in different ways. Modalists cite passages in the New Testament that refer to God in the singular, and note the lack of the word "Trinity" in any canonical scripture. They claim that Colossians 1:15–20 refers to Christ's relationship with the Father in a similar sense:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by (that is, by means of; or in) him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities; all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

They also cite Christ's response to Philip's query on who the Father was in John 14:10:

Jesus answered: "Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'?

A notable modern adherent of Modalism is T.D. Jakes

Baptismal formula

When criticized by Trinitarian believers who cite the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19 as being the biblical affirmation of "in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" baptismal formula, Oneness adherents point to the singular sense of that phrase, and argue that if the passage was really supporting what the Trinitarians propose, it would have said the "Names" in the plural instead of "Name". Oneness Scholars then state that the passage is referring to The Name, in other words, Jesus, and they point to passages like Acts 2:38 KJV as being the correct baptismal formula. Oneness believers view "Father", "Son" and "Holy Spirit" as titles or forms, reflecting different manifestations of the one true God. Apostolic Christians also point out that there is no passage that appears to confirm Matthew 28:19 as being the correct baptismal formula (going against the scriptural requirement of "two witnesses" to establish a verdict), while all the other passages in the Gospels and Acts point to "in the Name of Jesus" as the correct form. They also state that Jesus was not only referencing Water Baptism, but also the long term "baptism in thought, word, and deed" (2 Corinthians 10:5 and Romans 15:18 NIV) that all believers undergo as they mature in the Word.


Unitarianism is a form of Christian theology holding that God is only one person, in contrast to the doctrine of the Trinity (God as three persons in one), and that God is a separate being from Jesus Christ. It is a specific type of nontrinitarian theology and resembles strictly monotheistic conceptions of God upheld in Judaism and Islam.

Some confusion has resulted because the term "unitarianism" (uncapitalized) has sometimes been used informally to describe any Christology (i.e., understanding of Jesus Christ) that denies the Trinity or believes that only the Father of Jesus (and not Jesus himself) is God. Mere denial of the Trinity, however, is more commonly called nontrinitarianism. Recently some religious groups have adopted the term "biblical unitarianism" to describe their theology, but they hold to a conservative form of nontrinitarianism, which rejects many of the teachings of liberal Unitarianism.

So, too, Unitarianism does not accept the Godhood of Jesus, and therefore does not include Modalist belief systems which do—for example, Oneness Pentecostalism, United Pentecostal Church International and the True Jesus Church—that maintain that Jesus is God as a single person.


George Johnson, a proponent of Binitarianism, argues that Jesus is the God of the Old Testament, distinct from the God who is called the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7:13, and that the Holy Spirit is not a person.


Zia H. Shah, a Muslim, interprets the Christian doctrine of the Trinity as saying that "the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three complete and separate Gods and are yet one at the same time", a thought that he describes as absurd and incompatible with monotheism. Al-Quran says: Surely, disbelievers are those who said: "Allah is the third of the three (in a Trinity)." But there is no Allah (God) (none who has the right to be worshipped) but One Allah (God -Allah). And if they cease not from what they say, verily, a painful torment will befall on the disbelievers among them.

Eric Cline states that certain verses of the Quran, which are included in a monumental calligraphic inscription on the inside arcade of the Dome of the Rock on al-Haram esh-Sharif in Jerusalem, explicitly deny the Christian concept of the Trinity:

O People of the Scripture, do not commit excess in your religion or say about Allah except the truth. The Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, was but a messenger of Allah and His word which He directed to Mary and a soul from Him. So believe in Allah and His messengers. And do not say, "Three"; desist – it is better for you. Indeed, Allah is but one God. Exalted is He above having a son. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. And sufficient is Allah as Disposer of affairs. Never would the Messiah disdain to be a servant of Allah, nor would the angels near . And whoever disdains His worship and is arrogant – He will gather them to Himself all together.

That is Jesus, the son of Mary – the word of truth about which they are in dispute. It is not for Allah to take a son; exalted is He! When He decrees an affair, He only says to it, "Be", and it is.


Cher-El L. Hagensick says that the Trinity doctrine owes more of its Triune philosophy to pagan Egyptian and Stoic sources, and that the word Trinity was formulated 100 years after the crucifixion by Tertullian: "The word 'trinity' was not coined until Tertullian, more than 100 years after Christ's death, and the key words (meaning substance) from the Nicene debate, homousia and ousia, are not biblical, but from Stoic thought. Nowhere in the Bible is the Trinity mentioned." In other words, the writer says, the early church began to slowly include pagan Greek philosophy that was not taught in the Bible. Scholars also criticize efforts to introduce plurality into God's names in the Old Testament:

"Enough has been said to show that a great majority of the most learned authors in the 'orthodox' body who have treated of the subject acknowledge that the argument drawn from the plural forms of Hebrew nouns applied to Deity are totally invalid, in support either of a Trinity or any plurality of Persons in the Godhead. To deduce a plurality in God from a Hebrew idiom is impossible. The argument for plurality in God seems never to have been thought of before the time of Peter Lombard, a puerile writer who lived in the twelfth century"-John Wilson


In Mormonism, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three individual members of a heavenly council, perfectly united in purpose and will, but nevertheless separate and distinct individuals, a view sometimes called social trinitarianism. An April 1830 revelation to Joseph Smith, for instance, affirms that they "are one God, infinite and eternal, without end". This belief that God the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are physically distinct beings is in contrast to most denominations of Christianity which continue to uphold the doctrine of the relationship of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost in the terms recorded in creeds, such as the Nicene Creed, which were formulated as part of the Arian controversy.

Mormons claim to draw their understanding of the Godhead from teachings of the Bible, but also draw from teachings of the Book of Mormon and revelations given to modern prophets and apostles. One of the most influential accounts of the Godhead comes from the prophet Joseph Smith, Jr., who claimed to have actually seen God the Father and Jesus Christ in his First Vision, and recounted seeing "two personages", one of which referred to the other as His "Beloved Son." Still, Mormons do cite Biblical script to support their position that God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost are actually three distinct beings. Daniel C. Peterson of Brigham Young University states that "uniquely Mormon scriptural texts assert the unity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost at least as strongly as the Bible does."

Jehovah's Witnesses

Jehovah's Witnesses reject trinitarianism. According to their belief, Jehovah is the only true God, and Jesus Christ is the son of Jehovah. The holy spirit is considered to be God's active force and not a person.

Christian Science

Christian Science explicitly denies the deity of Jesus and has therefore always been non-Trinitarian, for which reason the term is of little significance within its core texts, though Mary Baker Eddy did adopt it on occasion for discussion of a wider spiritual unity with God which characterized all mankind rather than Jesus alone, as in her statement that "The Trinity in Christian Science is found in the unity of God, Christ, and the Holy Ghost or—"God the Father-Mother; Christ the spiritual idea of sonship; divine Science or the Holy Comforter." Its elements thus united but distinct in essential identity, this Trinity indicated "the intelligent relation of God to man and the universe".

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