Are You Smarter than a Trinitarian? Part Two: Responding to Mormon Misrepresentations of the Trinity

Kimmons - My reaction to trinitarians who call me a heretic

In Part One of this response to LDS apologist Ronald Kimmons’s flow chart on the Trinity, I summarized his argument and replied to red herrings or misdirections included in that chart that are not germane to the issue of whether the doctrine of the Trinity is true. As I explained there, Kimmons seeks to trap Trinitarians into one of two indefensible positions: (a) claiming that people who don’t believe in a meaningless word are going to Hell or (b) claiming that people who don’t accept the Trinity are heretics while at the same time affirming an explanation of the Trinity that is itself heretical. As I shall now show, Kimmons’s polemic against the doctrine proceeds by systematically misrepresenting what Trinitarians actually believe.

 

The “Incomprehensible” Doctrine of the Trinity

Kimmons begins his questioning of Trinitarians with the question, “Can you explain the Trinity to me in a way that makes sense?” The Trinitarian is allowed to answer either “Yes” or “No.” Already we have a problem. Well-informed Trinitarians should be able to explain the doctrine of the Trinity sufficiently so that others can know what it claims, and they may even be able to explain its meaning in a way that shows it is not meaningless or irrational. However, this does not mean that their explanations, even if reasonable and cogent, will be persuasive or satisfactory to opponents of the doctrine. Moreover, most Trinitarians acknowledge that the doctrine in some way represents God as being beyond our full or complete comprehension. That is, most Trinitarians recognize that the doctrine of the Trinity posits ideas about God that we find difficult if not impossible to explicate fully. The “triunity” of God means something to us, something that is intelligible and significant, but since there is nothing literally triune in nature or in our tangible experience our understanding of how God is triune remains imperfect. This does not mean that we should answer “No” to Kimmons’s first question. We can explain the doctrine in a way that makes sense, at least to a significant extent, but those who take a rationalistic approach to the matter (I must understand it fully and perfectly or it cannot be true) will not agree that it makes sense.

You can see what Kimmons is doing from the rhetorical question he asks if you answer “No” to his question about explaining the Trinity:

Imagine if I told you that you have to believe in Sahayafooda or you will go to hell…but that I can’t tell you what Sahayadafooda is because it is incomprehensible. How would you react?

It simply is not the case that Trinitarian Christians cannot tell someone what the Trinity is. Kimmons’s word Sahayafooda is a nonsense word that he invented for the purpose of his polemic against the doctrine.[1] It literally has no meaning at all, and that’s the point of it. However, that is not the case with the word Trinity—and I dare say that Kimmons is smart enough and knowledgeable enough to know it is not the case. The word Trinity denotes the doctrine that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are relationally distinct from one another and yet co-exist eternally as one God. The term Trinity therefore has a specific meaning even though orthodox Christians struggle to explain how God can be one God and three “persons.”

Indeed, orthodox Christians have advanced somewhat different explanations or philosophical constructs to try to articulate in a rational manner how the triunity of God can be conceptualized in categories we can fully understand.[2] But this fact about historical theology does not mean that the word Trinity is a nonsense word.

Orthodox Christians need not be embarrassed at all by the difficulty of articulating a model or philosophical analysis of how God can be one God and three persons. Practically everything traditional Christianity teaches about God has philosophical or conceptual difficulties for those who demand rigorously analytical comprehensiveness for any doctrine that it to be considered intellectually acceptable. We should expect our understanding of the being of God to be severely limited given that God is the incomparable, transcendent Creator of everything other than himself (Isa. 40:12-28; Rom. 11:33-36).

Even doctrinal ideas that many non-Trinitarians accept without question can pose challenging analytical difficulties. For example, many ardent opponents of the doctrine of the Trinity believe two things about God: (1) that he has “free will,” or the ability to make free choices, and (2) that he knows the future including what he himself will do in the future. Few people notice that these two beliefs about God are rather difficult for us to harmonize analytically. If God knows what he will do tomorrow, is he “free” in doing it? Does he have “free will” to do something different than what he already infallibly knows he will actually do? Our difficulty in explaining how God can know what he will do tomorrow and still be free in doing it does not mean we should not accept both ideas about God. If Scripture teaches both ideas (and I would say it does), we should accept them both even though we are unsure how they cohere with one another.

Likewise, if Scripture teaches that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are personally distinct from one another, that each of these persons is God (the Creator), and yet that there is only one such God—and it does[3]—we should accept these ideas and hold them together in our minds as best we can.

 

Analogies and the Trinity: “That’s Modalism, Patrick!”

To those who would answer “Yes” to the challenge of explaining the Trinity, Kimmons issues a fiollow-up challenge question: “Okay, what is it? How is it that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct persons who share a common essence?”

Notice that he first asks “what is it,” that is, what is the Trinity, and then asks “how” the three persons “share a common essence.” As I hope the reader sees immediately, these are two different questions. Ironically, Kimmons answers his first question indirectly by acknowledging that a common definition of the Trinity is the belief “that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct persons who share a common essence.” Not satisfied with this definition, Kimmons goes fishing for explanations, several of which take the form of analogies to the Trinity. In each case, Kimmons informs the unwary Christian who finds any of these analogies helpful that the analogy is heretical according to “Trinitarian scholars”:

  • Trinitarians who compare the three Persons to the three states of water (ice, liquid water, and water vapor), to three roles performed by one man (father, husband, carpenter), or to three differently shaped shadows cast by the same triangular prism are advocating Modalism, also called Sabellianism or Monarchianism. These terms refer to a type of heretical doctrine that maintains that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three roles or manifestations of one divine person.
  • Trinitarians who compare the three Persons to three leaves on a clover are advocating partialism, the heretical idea that none of the three Persons is God but only collectively constitute God. Inconsistently, in his quiz “Are You Actually a Trinitarian?” the clover analogy is accepted as an appropriate expression of Trinitarian belief. I found this out because one of his questions contained no entirely satisfactory answers, but I chose the “clover” answer because it was the closest to being acceptable. After taking the quiz I was “rewarded” with the news that I really am a Trinitarian!

There is enough truth to what Kimmons is saying here that he cannot be accused here of directly misrepresenting what Trinitarianism teaches. It certainly is possible to utilize these analogies in the service of an overtly heretical theology. Any reasonably well-informed Christian would immediately recognize that comparing the three Persons to three roles performed by the same person is a mistake. Arguably, this is the one analogy of the four analogies presented in the flow chart that simply cannot be understood in anything other than a heretical way. Educated Christians generally regard the other three analogies also as suggestive of heretical views of the Trinity.

An interesting example of orthodox Christians addressing this very point comes in a popular YouTube video entitled “St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies,” a humorous take on the subject from LutheranSatire that has garnered over a million views. In this video, animated Irish characters called Donall and Conall meet St. Patrick (the Christian missionary who introduced the gospel in Ireland) and ask him to illustrate the Trinity with an analogy. St. Patrick tries some of the very same analogies that Kimmons criticizes and the Irishmen, who hilariously know more than they should, dismiss each one as a heresy. Three forms of water? “That’s modalism, Patrick!” they respond (a line that I have seen quoted on social media numerous times). A three-leaf clover? That’s “partialism,” the Irish country theologians explain. The same man can be a husband, father, and employer? “Modalism again!” Frustrated, St. Patrick shouts, “Fine!” and goes on to assert that “the Trinity is a mystery that cannot be comprehended by human reason.” It would not be surprising in the least if Kimmons had seen this particular video, though of course he could have picked up information about these analogies and the corresponding heresies from other sources.

The problem here is that some of the analogies are not all that bad, as analogies go. The whole point of an analogy is to compare one thing to something that is different and yet has an interesting similarity. The New Testament uses a number of metaphors for the church, in effect drawing analogies between the church and something familiar from our experience, but the church is not any of those things and is in extremely important ways different from all of them. So the church is like a body with Christ as its head, like a temple made of stones with Christ as the cornerstone, and like a bride with Christ as her husband. These analogies are helpful but in each case we can think of ways in which the church is very much not like those things. For example, Peter qualifies his use of the temple metaphor by referring to Christ and Christians as “living stones” (1 Peter 2:4-5), since of course the stones in a literal temple are inanimate objects. He also mixes metaphors by referring to the church also as “a holy priesthood” (2:4, 9), thus comparing the church to both the temple and the priests who work inside it. Press any analogy and it will break down—that is in the very nature of an analogy.

So it is with analogies to the Trinity. Is the Trinity like one clover with three leaves? Yes, but since God is an infinite, noncorporeal being the three persons are not three separate parts of God. All analogies are going to be like this one: presenting interesting comparisons that may help us think more clearly about God’s triunity but will have some limitations simply because clovers, water, and other physical objects are not God. It is fundamental to the biblical view of God that he is not fully comparable to anything we experience in the created order (Ex. 8:10; 9:14; 15:11; 2 Sam. 7:22; 1 Kgs. 8:23; 1 Chr. 17:20; Ps. 86:8; Isa. 40:18, 25: 44:7; 46:5, 9; Jer. 10:6-7; Micah 7:18). This is why even the visions of God that biblical prophets had were highly symbolic representations (e.g., Ezek. 1:26-28; Dan. 7:9-10; see also Rev. 1:13-16).

I should say that some of these analogies of the Trinity are arguably better than others and are not nearly as terrible as is sometimes claimed. A simple comparison of the Trinity to water changing to ice when it is cold and to steam or vapor when it is hot certainly sounds like modalism. However, a much more sophisticated version of the analogy has compared the triunity of God to the triple point of water. Michael Bozack, a physics professor who has given this analogy its most impressive articulation, explains that the term triple point refers to “the point where the solid, liquid, and gaseous forms of a substance coexist in a state of dynamic equilibrium.” For example, ice, water, and steam can coexist at a temperature of 0.01 degrees Celsius and an air pressure of 0.0006 atmosphere.[4] Bozack goes on to compare the triple point and the Trinity and to explain why the analogy implies neither tritheism nor modalism.[5] Bozack cautions that a chief deficiency of the analogy is the inability of an inanimate substance such as water “to approximate traits best described as personal…. Obviously the phases of the triple point are not self-determining but are controlled by the applied thermodynamic conditions. A second deficiency in the triple-point analogy is that all matter is comounded in structure, composed of smaller and smaller particles, while the Godhead is singular and indivisible.”[6] Other believing scientists and theologians have used scientific comparisons in the reverse direction, arguing that a Trinitarian understanding of God illuminates our understanding of the natural world.[7]

Ultimately, analogies are neither descriptions nor explanations of the Trinity. They are comparisons made to illustrate select aspects of the idea of oneness and threeness coexisting in the nature of deity. To expect analogies to be more than analogies is illogical. And if you ask a Trinitarian for an analogy in order to trap him or her into sounding like a heretic, you are confusing the issue, not illuminating it.

 

Strawman Misrepresentations of the Trinity

Kimmons gives the Trinitarian four other options from which to choose as possible answers to his challenge to explain how “the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct persons who share a common essence.” These four options are not analogies but theological assertions, all of which constitute outright denials of the Trinity:

  • “All three persons are God because, in truth, God is everywhere and everything” (pantheism).
  • “The Son and the Holy Spirit are actually beings created by God the Father, who shares his power and authority with them” (Arianism).
  • “Jesus was not actually a mortal being, but a mirage created by God the Father” (Docetism).
  • “The Trinity is comprised of three coequal, coeternal beings who are united in purpose, not essence” (tritheism).

None of these assertions represents the doctrine of the Trinity, as Kimmons knows full well. He says so, explaining in each case that the assertion is understood as expressing a specific heresy (i.e., pantheism, Arianism, Docetism, or tritheism). Including an explicit statement of pantheism is laughable; no one who professes belief in the Christian Trinity also embraces pantheism.

In short, in his flow chart, Kimmons asks for an explanation of the Trinity, gives Trinitarians eight answers from which to choose, and claims that all eight answers implicate the Trinitarian in a heresy that is contrary to the doctrine of the Trinity. The whole argument turns out to be an exercise in stacking the deck.

Answers could have been included as choices that would have avoided the limitations of analogies and that would have been perfectly acceptable to most if not all advocates of the doctrine of the Trinity. For example, I would have happily agreed to the following answer:

The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct persons but because their nature is that of infinite, incorporeal spirit, they exist as one divine Being, not three separate entities.

Or Kimmons could have used the following popular evangelical distinction, which I think is not as precise as I would like but which would be recognizably Trinitarian:

God is one What (the divine Being) and three Whos (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).

Offering Trinitarians answers such as these, however, would have spoiled all the fun, as would have acknowledging that no explanation of the nature of God is going to change the fact that nothing in the world is completely like God and that our ability to understand his nature is inevitably limited.

 

NOTES

[1] See his answer to the question, “Christians: Can you help me understand the concept of trinity?” Quora, updated June 30, 2016. Kimmons later developed his comment here into the flow chart we are examining.

[2] For an excellent survey of the issue and of the various models of Trinitarian theology, see Thomas H. McCall, Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism? Philosophical and Systematic Theologians on the Metaphysics of Trinitarian Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).

[3] For a detailed overview of the biblical evidence, see Robert M. Bowman Jr., “The Biblical Basis of the Doctrine of the Trinity: An Outline Study,” rev. ed. (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2011).

[4] Michael J. Bozack, “Physics in the Theological Seminary,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 36/1 (March 1993): 66 (65–76).

[5] Ibid., 66–70.

[6] Ibid., 76. See also his earlier article “The Thermodynamical Triple Point: Implications for the Trinity,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 39 (March 1987): 39–41.

[7] E.g., John Polkinghorne, “The Universe in Trinitarian Perspective: A Theology of Nature,” chapter 3 in Science and the Trinity: The Christian Encounter with Reality (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004); Vern Sheridan Poythress, Knowing and the Trinity: How Perspectives in Human Knowledge Imitate the Trinity (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2018).

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One Response to Are You Smarter than a Trinitarian? Part Two: Responding to Mormon Misrepresentations of the Trinity

  1. The inadequacies of analogies and even most explanations of the Trinity is what led me to say that the Trinity just is the collection of statements: There is only one God, Yahweh. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are relationally (or personally) distinct. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each identified as Yahweh. Jesus is affirmed to possess both all attributes of humanity and all attributes of deity.

    I’ve seen you do this as well, in your article on using biblical language to describe the Trinity. I just say if you agree with each of these statements, you are a Trinitarian, even if you can’t explain it further. I just say, here’s what Scripture actually says, and you can’t refute the Trinity without proving Scripture doesn’t support those statements. I see the Trinity more as a system of doctrines, akin to Calvinism or arminianism, or premillennialism or postmillennialism, as opposed to a single doctrine, like the atonement or virgin birth. Entire systems of doctrines are supported (or refuted) by examining multiple texts and interpretations of those texts to understand them. This is what opponents of the Trinity rarely do.

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