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Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Philosophy and the Trinity

Attempts to solve the logical problems that seem to accompany trinitarian belief are many and varied. But the problem at the heart of it all is the problem of the three and the one (how can God be three persons yet only one God?)

I must confess to being undecided which way to jump yet I do have something of a soft spot for Michael Rae's approach. Here is a fabulous dictionary article by Mike Rae on the issue. He outlines the philosophical problem and overviews a range of attempts to solve it (showing the problems of each), before presenting his own approach.

Of the views on offer Mike's is the one I find myself coming back to most often. He is a very brainy guy!


James Goetz said...

Hi Robin,

Years ago, I prayed and struggled to find the best analogy for the Trinity. During that time, I read about US corporations called "general partnerships" and I saw what still stands as my best analogy. For example, three general partners may form a partnership. And each partner has complete authority to make binding contracts that represents the entire partnership. Likewise, each partner completely represents the contractual powers of the partnership. In one way, I see the Trinity as one partnership with three almighty partners. God is one corporate partnership. However, differences include that business partners sometimes fail to work in harmony and all business partnerships had an initial formation while the Trinity always works in perfect harmony and always existed. And some points include that a lack of harmony in the Trinity could start to nullify "almightyness".

Okay, I need more than a single paragraph while one day I'll get to it.:)

David Reimer said...

Didn't you publish James Anderson's book, Robin?!

Here's an interesting recent post post which links to some more mind-bending trinity thinking.

(This is why I do Hebrew, btw!)

Robin Parry said...


every analogy for the Trinity has strengths and weaknesses. I am open to a range of analogies so long as we are clear about how we think they are like the Trinity and also how we think that they are not. Your analogy has clear strengths but, as with all social analogies, needs to work hard to ward off tritheism. I am not against social analogies - on the contrary I think that we need them - BUT they also all have a strong disanalogy with the triune God. God's oneness is what needs watching carefully when we use them.

So my approach is that we can use a range of analogies but we must always be qualifying them with a 'God is like but also unlike this.'

Robin Parry said...


yes - it is a fabulous book! As I recall, he is less persuaded by Mike Rae's approach than I am (although I think he is complimentary about it). But I like his basic approach: that even if we cannot understand how the logic of incarnation or Trinity work it is still rational for a Christian to assent to the doctrines.

His discussions of incarnation and Trinity are excellent!

James Goetz said...

Thank you, Robin.

Perhaps you could help me with more specific criticism of my model or perhaps I have a social model of the Trinity that avoids tritheism while I need to make that more clear.

I also tried to clarify two points of how general partnerships aren't like the Trinity: 1) all other partnerships had a beginning in time; 2) other partnerships make disharmonious mistakes. Another difference is that general partners have different strengths and weaknesses while all of the partners in the Trinity are omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.

I suppose that my partnership model of the Trinity differs from all other social models because each partner has complete contractual powers of the partnership, which also exists in marriages without prenuptial agreements in many countries while I suppose it doesn't exist in any other social analogy.

I'll try harder to defend that the partnership analogy excludes tritheism. For example, three partners with complete contractual powers of a partnership are never referred to as three partnerships. The partnerships with three partners include three entities that are partners while it is a single entity that is a partnership. I suppose that clarifying this should ward off accusations that the partnership model reflects tritheism.

I used to focus on your approach of multiple models while I keep seeing that developing a partnership model works better than anything I ever read. And please let me know if you still see tritheism in my model.

Robin Parry said...


I don't think you are a tritheist - I speak only of the inherent weakness of all social analogies. All analogies have weak spots.

You do indeed highlight some disanalogies - that's helpful. The further problem with your analogy is that the things that make the partnership ONE are not strong enough to do justice to God oneness.

I recommend Mike Rae's article (linked from my post) for a more detailed analysis of the problems.

But I do not object to using analogies (social or otherwise) so long as they are hedged with health warnings.

Anonymous said...

When I am confronted by the jibe (often by Muslims)
how can 1 + 1 + 1 = 3
I reply:
1 x 1 x 1 = 1
1 / 1 / 1 = 1
1^1^1 = 1
(1!)! = 1
most arithmetic operations involving 1, result in 1. A reason why 1 is saometimes called Unity.

The Trinity is not an arithmetic problem.

James Goetz said...

Robin, I gave the article a close look. I appreciate Rae's review while I see bigger problems with the constitution model compared to the partnership model.

The constitution model focuses on the illustration of a pillar and a statue, which are the same entity. On one level, I see little difference with this and a common modalist illustration of a son, husband, and father who are the same entity. And I'm more impressed with that modalist illustration than with Rae's. For example, when I think of a pillar and statue that are the same entity, then I think of a decorative pillar or a statuesque pillar. And I have trouble thinking of it as a pure statue because the statue maker was constrained by the needs of the pillar. Most statue makers focus on the artistic attributes of the statue and only worry if the statue can stand by itself while a statuesque pillar maker needs to make sure that the statuesque pillar can help to hold up a building. Also, I am not suggesting that those who hold or lean toward the constitution model are modalists, but modalism needs to be strongly warded of with caveats.

I suppose that one of my motivations in teaching about Trinitarianism is my belief that the social relationship between the Father and Son is central to Christianity. And I believe that the partnership model helps to explain that and the oneness of God better than any model that I have seen.

This thread helped to push my development of the model. For example, I have more disanalogies. If I may, I will try another draft.

US corporate partnerships with three general partners help to model both the threeness and the oneness of the Trinity. This helps to resolve the logical problem of the Trinity, which is the threeness-oneness problem. For example, in the case of a partnership with three general partners, each partner has complete powers to make binding contracts for the entire partnership. And the three partners are not three partnerships, but only one partnership. This is a legal example of threeness-oneness.

Caveats to the partnership model include the following: 1) general partnerships have a beginning in time and face dissolution while the inseparable Trinity has always existed and will always exist; 2) each of the general partners have contractual powers that represent the entire partnership but nothing else about each of the partners represents the entire partnership while the partners in the Trinity always represent the entire Trinity in everything: 3) general partners have equal contractual powers that represent the entire the partnership but each partner has different strengths and gifts in other areas while the partners in the Trinity have equal strengths and gifts in everything.

Additional related thoughts to ponder include trying to understand what it meant for Jesus the Son of God to face temptation to sin. For example, since the Trinity is inseparable, then it could not mean that the Son could have faced separation from the Father. And since God is incorruptible, then it could not mean that the Son and the entire Trinity risked corruption. Or what did it mean for Jesus to face temptation? I am currently agnostic on this while I hope to learn more about it.

I also have a different approach to the Trinity compared to Rea in that I disagree with minor points of ancient creeds that say that the Son was begotten before all worlds. I see the Bible teaching that the Father declared begottenness of the Son in the context of time. And I lean toward belief in an egalitarian Trinity with complete equality of the divine persons before time, and the headship of the Father is in the context of divine revelation and the material world. Gasp, I disagree with a minor point of the Nicene Creed. Prayerful contemplation of everything else in the Nicene Creed and Athanasian Creed led me to believe that both the Son and Holy Spirit could have managed the role of the Father with equal competence. And role decisions about the Father, Son and Spirit occurred before creation.

James Goetz said...

I have two additional thoughts.

First, the constitution model also fails to illustrate the inseparability of the Trinity. For example, Rae points out the following. Hollowing could destroy the "pillarness" while maintaining the "statueness". And removing statue features could destroy the statueness while maintaining the pillarness.

Second, I think of my model more as a legal model instead of a social model. Perhaps the best name for my model is "The Partnership Law Model". Any thoughts about this would be appreciated.:)

crisp family said...

Rea, not Rae. But it is a great paper. I've been doing this stuff with my second years this week. They seemed to get it. I am sympathetic - 'you almost persuade me to become a constitutional Trinitarian, Prof Rea!'