Doesn't the Trinity contradict monotheism?

by Luke Wayne 
1/16/17

No, the doctrine of the Trinity does not contradict monotheism. In fact, the doctrine of the Trinity, by definition, asserts that there is only one God. The doctrine of the Trinity does not teach that there are three gods, but rather one God who exists as three persons. It is strictly and explicitly monotheistic. It is not a denial of monotheism to suggest that the one true God is not as simplistic as a mere human in His personal nature.

Those outside the historic Christian faith very often misrepresent this doctrine. The Quran, for example, tells Christians in Surah 4:171, "do not say, 'Three'; desist - it is better for you. Indeed, Allah is but one God," as if we were saying there are three gods instead of one. Likewise, the Jehovah's Witness pamphlet, "Should You Believe the Trinity," asserts that monotheism does not allow for a Trinity.1 Orthodox Jews also frequently raise objections to the Trinity like, "we believe in one God, not three!"2 The assumption in each of these cases is that "the Trinity" means more than one God. It is easy to demonstrate that this is not the case.

This teaching is derived directly from Scripture. The actual word "Trinity," however, was not developed until shortly after the New Testament era. Therefore, since our concern here is the meaning of the word, we need to look to the time in history when Christians first started using it. While Christians have always believed the biblical revelation that there is one God who has eternally existed in three distinct, coequal, and co-eternal persons, the first man known to have used the word "Trinity" to summarize this biblical doctrine is Tertullian. Tertullian was a Christian scholar who began writing in the late 2nd century, only about 100 years after the last of the New Testament books were written. He explained:

"Bear always in mind that this is the rule of faith which I profess; by it I testify that the Father, and the Son, and the Spirit are inseparable from each other, and so will you know in what sense this is said. Now, observe, my assertion is that the Father is one, and the Son one, and the Spirit one, and that They are distinct from Each Other. This statement is taken in a wrong sense by every uneducated as well as every perversely disposed person, as if it predicated a diversity, in such a sense as to imply a separation among the Father, and the Son, and the Spirit," (Tertullian, Against Praxeas, Chapter 9).

Tertullian makes it clear that you cannot begin to understand what Christians mean when we talk about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three distinct persons unless you always keep in mind this first rule of faith: we are talking about one inseparable Being. The Trinity is one God. If you assume that the Trinity means that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three separate deities, Tertullian says that you are uninformed at best and "perversely disposed" at worst. Since Tertullian coined the term "Trinity," he certainly has the right to define what he does and doesn't mean by it, and he is clear that he does not mean that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three different gods. "Trinity" is a monotheistic term.

Hippolytus of Rome, who was a contemporary of Tertullian, also explained:

"These things, brethren, are declared by the scriptures. And the Blessed John, in the Testimony of his Gospel, gives us an account of this economy and acknowledges this Word as God when he says, 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.' If, then, the Word was with God and was also God, what follows? Would one say that he speaks of two gods? I shall not indeed speak of two gods, but of one; of two persons, however, and of a third; the grace of the Holy Ghost. For the Father indeed is one, but there are two persons, for there is also the Son; and then there is the third, the Holy Spirit. The Father decrees, the Word executes and the Son is manifested, through whom the Father is believed on. The economy of harmony is led back to one God, for God is one. It is the Father who commands, and the Son who obeys, and the Holy Spirit who gives understanding: The Father is above all, the Son is through all, and the Spirit is in all. And we cannot otherwise think of one God but by believing in the truth of the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit," (Hippolytus, Against the Heresy of Noetus, section 14).

Later, the Athanasian Creed (probably 5th century) summarized these same things:

"We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the persons, nor dividing the substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit.  But the godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is all one, the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit.  The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated.  The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal.  And yet they are not three eternals, but one Eternal. As also there are not three incomprehensibles, nor three uncreated, but one Uncreated, and one Incomprehensible.  So likewise the Father is Almighty, the Son Almighty, and the Holy Spirit Almighty.  And yet they are not three almighties, but one Almighty. So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God.  And yet they are not three gods, but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Spirit Lord. And yet not three lords, but one Lord. For as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge each Person by Himself to be both God and Lord, so we are also forbidden by the catholic religion to say that there are three gods or three lords," (Athanasian Creed).

Thus, the early church consistently made it clear that they were talking about one and only one God, and that to assert more than one God was a denial of the Christian faith. To contort the Christian claim into a belief in three gods so as to write it off as a form of polytheism is just dishonest. The doctrine of the Trinity may make claims about the personal nature of the one true God that critics of Christianity disagree with and even dislike, but it is still unquestionably a monotheistic belief.

 

  • 1. Should You Believe the Trinity, pg 12
  • 2. Michael Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus - Vol. 2 (Baker Books, 2000) 3