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The Trinity: Not
a Logical Contradiction

By Gary F. Zeolla

It is often claimed that the doctrine of the Trinity is a logical contradiction. Three cannot equal one. It is true; three cannot equal one. But this is not what the doctrine of the Trinity teaches! To explain why will require the defining of several terms.

First, theologian Millard J. Erickson defines the Law of Contradiction as, "A principle of logic which states that a thing cannot be both A and non-A at the same time and in the same respect."(1)

In this context, respect means, "A particular aspect, feature, or detail."(2) So for a statement to be contradictory the two things being compared must be identical in every way.

To illustrate, if I said that right now, at this very moment, I have only one apple and I have three apples, that would be a logical contradiction. One is not "non-one" - one is one. But, if I said I had three apples yesterday but today I have only one apple, there is no contradiction. The "time" is different.

Similarly, if I said I have only one apple but I have three pieces of fruit, there would also be no contradiction. Apples and fruit are related but not identical. All apples are fruit, but not all fruit are apples. So the "thing" being compared is not the same in every respect.

Now, to apply this to the doctrine of the Trinity. One way of stating the doctrine is to say that God is three Persons in one essence.

Essence means, "The intrinsic or indispensable properties that serve to characterize or identify something. The most important ingredient; the crucial element. The inherent, unchanging nature of a thing or class of things." Person means, "The composite of characteristics that make up an individual personality; the self."

So essence and Person are somewhat related, but they are not identical. The former refers to intrinsic properties and the latter emphasizes individual personality. So there is no logical contradiction in saying God is three in Person and one in essence. The "things" being compared (i.e. person vs. essence) are not identical in every respect.

In fact, in its definition of "person" The American Heritage Dictionary includes the following, "Theology. The separate individualities of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as distinguished from the essence of the Godhead that unites them."

Another way of looking at God's three-in-oneness is to study His objective knowledge versus His subjective knowledge. Objective can mean, "Based on observable phenomena." So objective knowledge comes from observing things.

Since all three Members of the Godhead are omniscient, each knows all things that can be observed. So they all have the same objective knowledge (i.e. each possesses all objective knowledge possible).

On the other hand, subjective can mean, "Particular to a given person; personal subjective experience." So subjective knowledge is attained via personal experience, not observation.

Only the Father sent His Son to die for the sins of His people. Only the Son died for the sins of His people. Only the Holy Spirit regenerates His people.

Now each Member of the Godhead has the objective knowledge that each of these events occurred. But only each respective Member has subjective knowledge of each event. So the Father, Son, and Spirit have the same objective knowledge in these cases but each has distinct subjective (or experiential) knowledge.

Thus God is one in respect to His objective knowledge; three in respect to his subjective knowledge. Since, objective and subjective knowledge are not identical, again, there is no logical contradiction.

Either way it is looked at, the doctrine of the Trinity does not teach three equals one. It teaches God is one in one respect; three in a different respect. So the Trinity is not a logical contradiction.

Replies to Responses

I posted the above commentary in "alt.christnet.theology" Newsgroup. I received a couple of short responses to the post. Below are my replies to these responses.

#1 - The point of my post was that the doctrine of the Trinity is not "gibberish" as you claim. It is only confusing to those who don't understand the simple rule of logic of the Law of Contradiction.

Or to put it another way, if I could have assumed that those reading my post knew rules of logical and how to use a dictionary it would have been a fraction of its length. But my experience has shown me that most people have not been taught rules of logic and don't seem to know how to use a dictionary; so much of my post was devoted to explaining the Law on Contradiction and defining key terms.

As regards your claim that the Trinity was somehow "invented" in the early Church to make things complex, try reading the writing of the people who lived at the time. If you do, you will see that the doctrine of the Trinity was simply a way of EXPLAINING the Biblical teaching that God is three-in-one.

#2 - Thank you for your response. To clarify my position, what the Bible teaches is that God is "somehow" one and "somehow" three. Terms like "essence" or "Person" are simply attempts to EXPLAIN God's three-in-oneness. My post indicated another way that God's three-in-oneness could be explained.

Moreover, these concepts were not invented in the fourth century as you seem to imply. They can be seen in the writings of the Church Fathers of the second and third centuries.

As for what the Bible teaches, see the Scripture Study Doctrine of the Trinity found in my Scripture Workbook. It collects together hundreds of verses relevant to this subject.

As for the teachings of the Church Fathers see the following article: The Father, the Son, and the Spirit - In the Post-Apostolic Church.

Books and eBooks by Gary F. Zeolla, the Director of Darkness to Light

1) Millard J. Erickson. Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Moody Press, 1982), p.36.
2) The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition copyright 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from InfoSoft International, Inc. All rights reserved. The rest of the definitions in this post are also from this source.

The Trinity: Not a Logical Contradiction. Copyright 1999 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.zeolla.org/christian).

The above article was published in Darkness to Light newsletter in January 1998.

The Doctrine of the Trinity: Intermediate
The Doctrine of the Trinity

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