As we pursue a biblically faithful understanding of the Trinity, it may help to sort through a number of false views of this crucial doctrine.
Some faulty definitions are grounded in misunderstanding, such as the Muslim view that Christians are polytheists for worshiping God, Jesus, and Mary. Others are subtler in that they properly identify the persons of the Godhead, yet reduce the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to pieces of a divine puzzle, or as three separate gods.
So, as we briefly explore these flawed depictions of the Trinity, it’s important to keep in mind that the Bible reveals one true and living God, who exists as three distinct, but inseparable, co-equal, co-eternal persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Tritheism teaches that the Godhead essentially consists of three separate gods. While it is accurate to say the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, it is wrong to say these three persons constitute three separate deities.
Tritheism has taken on different forms. One ancient view was that the divine nature is divided into three parts, analogous to a lump of clay cut into three pieces. Another view, from the late 11th century, considered the three divine persons as three independent beings who, it could be said, were three gods.
In contrast, the church has consistently taught that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three persons in that each is aware of the others, speaks to the others, and loves and honors the others while sharing divine attributes such as omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence. The three persons who share these “omni” attributes are in effect one being, not three separate beings.
Unitarianism essentially maintains that God is only one divine person (the Father) and denies that Jesus Christ is God in that sense. Historically, the term has been used in reference to Socinianism – a form of non-trinitarianism that emerged around the time of the Protestant Reformation, holding the view that Jesus was merely human.
Here are brief definitions of various forms of Unitarianism:
Modalism – the belief that there is one God in substance and person, and that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three successive functions, or modes, of that God but not distinct persons. In Old Testament times, God appeared as the Father. At the Incarnation, He showed up as the Son. And after Jesus’ ascension, He manifested Himself as the Holy Spirit. Modalism teaches that these modes are consecutive, never simultaneous.
Sabellianism – another way of expressing a modalistic view of God. Sabellius, a third-century priest, argued that God is like an actor wearing several masks – first, the mask of the Father, then the mask of the Son, and finally the mask of the Holy Spirit. But behind these masks is just one person.
Patripassianism – the seemingly logical consequence of modalism that if there is no real distinction between the Father and the Son, then the Father must have suffered on the cross.
Oneness Pentecostalism – a modern anti-Trinitarian sect that denies any distinctions among the persons of the Godhead. Jesus is God, but He also is the Father and the Holy Spirit. In a slight deviation from ancient modalism, Oneness Pentecostals teach that God is able to manifest Himself in all three “modes” simultaneously, such as at Jesus’ baptism (Luke 3:22).
Polytheism is the belief that there are multiple deities. Followers of Judaism, Islam, and a number of counterfeit forms of Christianity often accuse orthodox Christians of being polytheists. They say we worship three Gods: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This, of course, is a serious misunderstanding of the Trinity. Christians insist that the one true God exists in tri-unity or “threeness” – that is, three distinct persons but only one essence or being.
Henotheism is something of a hybrid between polytheism and monotheism. A henotheist is committed to one god, while leaving room for other deities.
Perhaps the best modern-day example of henotheism comes from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The church professes belief in the Trinity, although it describes both the Father and the Son as deities of flesh and bone, with the Holy Ghost a divine “personage of spirit.” In addition, the church acknowledges the existence of countless other gods who rule over equally countless universes. Yet Latter-day Saints are called to focus their attention on Heavenly Father, the god of this world.
These and other errant doctrines should lead us to conclude that the LDS Church is not the true church, as it claims, and that henotheism, while common throughout history, does not properly capture the nature of the one true God.
Next: The failure of analogies