Character or Characteristic?August 5, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
I’ve been thinking lately about the doctrine of the Trinity, and I thought it might be helpful to talk about it in terms of the distinction between a character (i.e. a distinct, individual identity) versus a characteristic (i.e. a trait or category that might be shared in common between multiple distinct individuals). The question is, when we use the term “God,” what are we describing, a character or a characteristic?
If we look at the term “God” as referring to a character, meaning a unique and distinct individual identity, then we have monotheism. “God” is the name of one particular Person, and not of anyone else. We see this most clearly in Islam, where the Arabic word for “a god” (allah) has assumed the position of the Name of the One True God. Used in this sense, the term “God” clearly refers only to a single Person, since it denotes His unique, individual identity.
The alternative is to see the term “God” as a characteristic, i.e. a generic, categorical term. Just as we can speak of Man (or Mankind) meaning all individuals who share the characteristic of being human, the term “God” is a reference to a shared quality possessed by multiple distinct individuals. This, of course, is the classic polytheistic position: there is one God (meaning of “one race of gods”) in the same sense as there is one Mankind (meaning “one race of men”), even though within the generic category of God and Man there are multiple individual persons of each type.
The doctrine of the Trinity arose in the third century AD as an attempt by the men of that age to try and reconcile the passages of the Bible that treat “God” as a unique, individual character, with the passages that treat “God” as a characteristic shared between multiple individual persons. This was a problem, because the former is monotheistic, and the latter is polytheistic, and it wasn’t entirely clear who was really being heretical here, especially since both usages date all the way back to the apostles, and the monotheistic references, to the Old Testament.
And, interestingly enough, the attempt to reconcile these two different usages failed. The conclusion of the church council(s) was that mortal minds were insufficient to truly comprehend the “mysteries” involved, which means that the men who invented the doctrine of the Trinity (a) understood the serious nature of the inconsistencies involved and (b) were unable to come up with a coherent, rational, non-self-contradictory reconciliation of the two.
Most Christians, unsurprisingly, gloss over the problems inherent in the notion of the Trinity, and simply use whichever usage seems to work well at the moment. Thus, you will hear Christians who speak and act as though God were a person, referred to with singular pronouns, even though according to the doctrine of the Trinity, God is actually three Persons and thus a Them, not a Him. Yet to call God a “Them” sounds heretically polytheistic, so the singular pronoun is used instead, just as it is throughout the Old Testament and in much of the New.
At the same time, Christians will tell you that treating the Father, Son, and Spirit as the same Person is just as heretical as calling God a Them. The great church councils identified a number of different heresies in which various theologians (aka “heretics”) tried vainly to reconcile the monotheistic parts of the Bible with the polytheistic parts, through the expedient of making the Father and the Son into the same divine Person. Modalism, for example, teaches that there is one God who sometimes appears as the Father, sometimes as the Son, and sometimes as the Spirit, the way a person might appear sometimes in jeans, sometimes in a suit, and sometimes in a tuxedo.
Other heresies teach that Father, Son, and Spirit are merely different aspects of the one Person Who is God, just as the head, legs, and arms are all different from each other yet part of one same body. Or perhaps we can see the Trinity as one God being viewed from three different angles, just as the same head can be drawn in profile, full-front, or 3/4ths view, and appear different from each perspective.
Most of these heresies cause major problems within Christian theology because they make the Crucifixion more or less of a sham. The “Father” can’t accept the sacrifice of the “Son” if the whole event was merely God indulging in a little sock puppetry or play-acting. They also make Jesus into rather a charlatan, when he pretended, as the Son, to submit to the will of the “Father,” who was really just himself pretending to be someone else. And the list goes on.
Yet if the Trinity really is three distinct Persons, each of Whom share the common, generic characteristic of being “God,” then it is mere semantic quibbling to claim that Christianity is anything other than polytheistic. Christians avoid this conclusion by reducing the topic to a set of ritualized slogans that express the inherently contradictory ideas of the Trinity in a way that minimize any overt expression of the actual conflict. Even though these ritualized dictums avoid expressing the contradiction, however, they do not minimize or eliminate it, otherwise the church councils would not have needed to declare the Trinity as a mystery that was necessarily beyond human comprehension.
So what is the correct way to refer to “God”? Is “God” a character, a unique individual person, or is “God” a characteristic, a generic category shared among multiple distinct individual persons? Trinitarianism has no consistent, coherent answer to this question, because it is based on a fundamental self-contradiction in the original Bible. Calling it a mystery only tries to cloud the issue. Truth is consistent with itself, and thus we can know that the Trinitarian God, being irretrievably inconsistent, is the faulty product of fallible men.