How can there be three persons in one Trinity?

How can we speak of more than one “person” within the Trinity? And what implications does this idea have for our lives?

Here I’m not summarizing biblical evidence for the Trinity; this is easily done but it is frequently provided elsewhere. Instead I’m trying to offer one window into what we may mean when we speak of more than one person in the Trinity.

Not always speaking precisely

Greek and Latin theologians developed precise terminology in their languages, but no language that I know of always communicates precisely without explanation. For this reason, it may be that many who do not use others’ precise language may mean something very much the same, whereas some others who do use the language do not understand what they are supposed to mean by it.

I was surprised, for example, to discover that even some who speak of “modes” (using technically Sabellian language) mean something similar to what most Trinitarians mean by “persons.” Neither term (whether in English or Greek) is precisely biblical, but certainly the New Testament regularly distinguishes the Son from the Father. Granted, Jesus and the Father are one (John 10:30), but Jesus also prays that believers may be one even as Jesus and the Father are one (17:22). Jesus is divine, yet he is “with” the Father, in intimate relationship with him (1:1-2, 18). Jesus models intimacy with God for us, doing only what he sees the Father do (5:19), reciprocally knowing (10:15; 15:15; 17:25) and loving (3:35; 5:20; 10:17; 14:31; 15:9; 17:24) the Father. Yet, distinctively, the Father sent the Son (5:23, 36-37; 6:44, 57; 8:16, 18, 42; 10:36; 12:49; 14:24; 17:21, 25; 20:21) and the Son expressed his perfect unity with the Father at least partly in perfect submission to him (10:18; 12:49-50; 14:28).

My agenda in this post is not to challenge Sabellian language, despite my disagreement with it; my point is simply to observe that not everyone uses their language precisely. In fact, most of us cannot match the precision of those theologians who, devoting their lives to the study of the Trinity, have developed very precise ways to articulate relations within the Trinity.

The supremely personal God

But coming back to the question: how can there be distinct persons, or distinguishable entities or actors, within one God? Although we as humanity are made in God’s image (Gen 1:26-27), analogies made from finite persons to an infinite Person, however valuable because of our desire to understand on some level, remain limited. Even the creation of male and female together as God’s image, which might be thought to reflect a sort of complementarity within unity and thus may provide an analogy, may not fully demonstrate or communicate the point. (If pressed far enough, the analogy of water, ice and steam that is sometimes used comes closer to illustrating modalism.)

The problem here, however, is more a problem of language and analogy than of God’s being. God’s personhood is on a higher dimension than ours; he is infinitely more personal than we are. Even with what we know from the world around us, we should be able to recognize that at higher levels of understanding apparent problems at lower levels can be resolved. This happens in theoretical mathematics, physics, and biochemistry. We perceive it ourselves when we distinguish different levels of causation (à la Aristotle): writing can be caused on one level by ink on paper, at another level by human muscles and nerves, on another by a human mind, and on yet another by the social and linguistic conventions that person uses to communicate, or by which that person is shaped. (Christian thinkers often apply this sort of analogy to levels of causation in creation.)

If God is infinite, God can be more personal than we are, and can be revealed in three persons, each of whom could also be no less personal than we are, while remaining one God. (As Richard Bauckham has argued, God’s oneness distinguishes him from all other reality, which is created. It does not prevent us from acknowledging distinctions within God where God has revealed those to us.)

{This one paragraph is a 2018 addition to the original Jan. 2015 post: One human analogy might be identical triplets, who share exactly the same DNA yet are distinct persons. This is a far better analogy than water, ice and steam! But ultimately the unity of the persons within the Trinity goes further than even this. To see the Son is to see the Father (John 14:7); he is the Father’s image (Col 1:15). By itself, “image” could be used even in Arian terms, but in Trinitarian terms it reinforces Jesus’s deity. If from our vantage point we see a line directly from the front, we see only a point. From a three-dimensional standpoint, however, we would see a line. If God is not limited to our dimensions, to see or experience any member of the Trinity is to see or experience God; our finite experience, however, does not limit God’s identity beyond our finite experience. We can trust God’s self-revelation that transcends our limited dimensions of experience.}

Some trinitarian theologians have emphasized other-centeredness as a necessary attribute of God as love. They have thus contended for the necessity of more than one person within God. I am not sure that we would have thought of that connection had we not already believed in the Trinity, but the point nevertheless is well-taken. The deep love shared between the Father and Son, so emphasized in John’s Gospel, seems inseparable from their divine unity.

Implications for us

Because the Son, eternal in being, is worth more than all the cosmos, the love that God demonstrated in sacrificing Him for our sins is more vast than the non-human universe. One time in prayer I felt that God was saying, “The sea is vast; but it is not vast enough to begin to contain my boundless love for my children, nor to contain all the wisdom of my purposes. My giving love to you is greater than all the sands of the seashore, more vast than the seas, higher than the mountains, more awesome than the skies.”

How can one be confident that God’s love is so deep? The Father surely loved the Son, who shared his glory before the world began, more deeply than all creation. If he gave Jesus’s blood to restore us to himself, then surely he loves humans more than the rest of the universe. (So far as we currently know, in terms of information content we are the pinnacle of complexity within God’s creation.)

God’s love for us in Christ is beyond measurement, other than the precious blood of Christ. To be loved by an infinitely personal God is an incomparable and unending blessing, merited not by us but by Jesus, and initiated in the heart of God’s love.

“… so the world may know that you sent me, and have loved them, in the same way that you have loved me”—John 17:23b

“For this is the way that God loved the world: he gave his only Son”—John 3:16a

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