Is the Trinity Doctrine a Contradiction?

Bruce Nielsonchristianity, Mormon, Trinity 11 Comments

Several times in discussions on Mormon Matters I’ve made the comment that the Trinity doctrine is a contraction. Actually, technically I was not correct when I said that. I wish to explain my self further, partially backtracking on, or at least nuancing, those comments.

The Trinity doctrine itself doesn’t have to be a contradiction – indeed, I grow more convinced all the time that the Trinity doctrine, at it’s root, is what I believe. What I should have said is that creedal Christians honestly seem to me to be making a choice to interpret or use the Trinity doctrine in a contradictory way.

This, in and of itself, wouldn’t be much of a problem if it weren’t for the fact that creedal Christians have also decided to use that contradiction as a basis for judging others salvation, and have done so for millenia.

I am now going to explain in detail what I mean. This is going to be boring, so I highly recommend that you don’t read this post and skip it altogether unless you like logic or have a strong desire to understand the Trinity doctrines problematic intricacies. Still, I write this an issue it as a challenge to creedal Christians to evaluate what I am saying and either help me understand their beliefs better or consider the possiblity that they believe some contradictions.

The Trinity Doctrine Defined

For the sake of argument, we’re going to take the Athanasius Creed as our “definition” of  “The Trinity Doctrine.” This is a postulate for the sake of argument. Yes, you could argue that the Trinity doctrine is true but the Athanasius creed is false. (An argument I often make myself.) But for this argument, we’re assuming they are one and the same for our purposes.

You can find the text of the Athanasius creed here.

The key to understanding the contradiction in how creedal Christians interpret the Athanasius creed is in “verse” 4: “Neither confounding the Persons: nor dividing the Substance [Essence].”

A common way creedal Christians explain this passage is to say that God is three “persons” but one “being.” [1]

Now it’s important to understand that the word “person” here does not mean “person” in any dictionary definition sense of that word. So what does it mean? After attempting to study this out, so far, I have never found an answer to that question. All I have found, so far, are explanations that the word “person” doesn’t mean “person” in any “modern philosophical usage.” [2]

However, creedal Christiand believe that because the members of the Trinity/Godhead are different “person” they are distinctly different from each other. Mormon and non-Mormon Christians seem to be in agreement on this point.

However, this doesn’t mean that they are three Gods; for that would be, to a creedal Christian, polytheism. [3] Thus we are told in verse 15 and 16:

So the Father is God: the Son is God: and the Holy Ghost is God.

And yet they are not three Gods: but one God.

Now this statement is not problematic by itself. In fact, it’s doctrine Mormon’s share with their creedal Christian neighbors. We believe the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. But we also believe in one God and often speak in such terms. Contradiction? Not yet. For we aren’t sure yet what the words actually mean.

If, for example, we think of “God” as meaning “divinity” then this simply means “So the Father is Divine: the Son is Divine: and the Holy Ghost is Divine. And yet there are not three separate and distinct divinities with separate wills, but only one.”

Even the most Tritheistic of Mormons will agree with how I just reworded verse 15 and 16. Yet it’s completely consistent with verse 15 and 16. So we do not “disagree” with that part of the Athanasius Creed, per se.

Now let’s look at verses 5 and 24:

For there is one Person of the Father: another of the Son: and another of the Holy Ghost.

So there is one Father, not three Fathers: one Son, not three Sons: one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts.

Is this problematic or contradictory? No, it’s not. This also is something Mormons can agree with, even in our most Tritheistic forms.

What Do We Disagree with in the Athanasius Creed?

Now this is where things get tricky. Is there anything in the Athanasius creed Mormons “disagree” with? No cheating by using how Creedal Christians “interpret” this creed. You are only allowed to look at the words themselves for this exercise. There are only two thing I can find that we directly disagree with in the Athanasius creed. The first is the pronouncement of damnation for not accepting it. (See verse 1, 28, and 44.)

The second is the ban on referring to more than one God in a numerical sense in verse 20:

So are we forbidden by the Catholic Religion: to say, There be [are] three Gods, or three Lords.

Granted, Mormons would probably not choose to word many things the way the creeds do, but there is nothing else there, at least in the words themselves, that can’t be adequately reconciled to our beliefs. [4] Does that mean Mormons and Creedal Christians believe the same things? Not on your life!

How Do We Differ?

At issue here is the fact that you can’t, or shouldn’t, just take a bunch of words and logically say “I believe that” but have no interpretation for those words. This is something I often perceive creedal Christians as doing. They are quick to explain how the words of the Athanasius creed don’t mean what Mormons believe, but not at all anxious to explain what the words do mean, even just for themselves. [5]

One common way to interpret verse 5 and 24 (as quoted above) is to say that the Son is not the Father, the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Holy Ghost, etc. Okay, sounds good to me.

Another common way to look at the Athanasius creedal view of the Trinity is to say that the Son is 100% God, the Father is 100% God, the Holy Ghost is 100% God. If I understand “God” a meaning “divine nature” then I’m fine with that too. But at this point, things break down. Because, I’m always told by creedal Trinitarians, that by “God” they do not mean “Divinity.” “God” is not a characteristic that you can have, it’s something you are. It’s a form of identity.

But what do they mean? Do they, for example, mean that “God” is a statement of identity in the same way that I might say “Batman and Bruce Wayne are the same being?”

If this is what they mean, then let’s work out the logic for it. We are asserting:

  1. The Father (identity) is God (identity)
  2. The Son (identity) is God (identity)
  3. The Father (identity) is not the Son (identity)
  4. The Son (identity) is not the Father (identity)

Assuming all those statements are about identity, do we have a logical contradiction? Absolutely. I have included the proof – and this is an actual logical proof – in the footnotes. [6] Put simply, the idea that the Athanasius doctrine of Trinity is talking about “God” as an identity is a logical contradiction. Period.

No Answer is Good Enough

I do not believe there is an inherent contradiction in the Trinity doctrine. As far as I can tell, I completely agree with the Trinity doctrine as described in the Athanasius creed minus the two points I mentioned.

But merely agreeing with the words seems to not be enough. Apparently the words in the creed do take on meaning in one case: when needed to deny someone else’s sincere attempt to make sense of the Trinity doctrine.

What I’d really like to see is for creedal Christians to take their explanations of their denials of my beliefs and hold themselves to it logically. Let’s consider some examples of what I am saying.

Example 1: Splitting the Substance

Of course it’s easy enough to say: “We aren’t talking about identity. We’re saying that there are two aspects, person and being. There are three persons that are God, but only one being. My proof above is then problematic because it assumes that given a “being” is God that being is the Father and also the Son. But in fact it’s only one person in that “being” that is the Father.

Okay, fair enough. That is a logical argument and it forces me to redo my proof now that I have that further explanation. But here is the problem, this is really the same saying “God” does not identify the person, but only the group. Mormons would have no issue with this formula because we often think of God as being the whole Godhead (a group identity). But creedal Christians find this idea repugnant because it means that the persons are only 1/3 of “God.” So this formula is supposedly rejected by the Athanasius creed because it says the Father is God and the Son is God, not that they are 1/3 of God.

In other words, they specifically treat “God” as a unique identity when denying the Mormon concept of Godhead, but then later treat it like it isn’t a unique identity when denying their Trinity doctrine is a contradiction.

Example 2: Tritheism

Another way I’ve seen the potential contradiction in the Athanasius creed resolved is to admit that there are in fact three persons that are all fully God and that numerically you could understand that as meaning there are three Gods, but that we shouldn’t talk of it that way because people will confuse the concept with Tritheism. Or, in other words, they are admitting that there is both one God in one sense of the word “God” but three “Gods” in another sense. Richard Swinburne seems to have suggested something similar to this approach,though it’s generally considered unacceptable by Trinitiarians.

I have been told, many times, by creedal Trinitarians that this is impossible because it’s the same as saying there is three Gods and thus it’s polytheism. In other words, when denying this approach, the creedal belief in one God becomes a unique identity and we aren’t allowed to consider the possiblity of “God” having multiple meanings. So the creedal statement that there is only one God takes on meaning here long enough to deny this possiblity.

Example 3: Modalism

Another way I’ve seen this addressed is by admitting that the Father is in fact the Son, at least in some sense. But of course this is now the same as the heresy of modalism because the Father is the Son and vice versa. They are the same “person” if you will. Again, the creedal statement that the Father and the Son aren’t the same person suddenly takes on meaning long enough to deny this possiblity.

Incomprehensibility vs. Contradiction

Another common approach to this problem I’ve seen with Creedal Christians is to say “well, I’m not saying it’s comprehensible.” I often get examples of other incomprehensibles, for example, light being both a wave and a particle. “The universe is not comprehensible, so why would God be?” I am told.

But what does the word “comprehensible” mean in this context? If I say that light is both a wave and a particle, I would agree that I can’t really “comprehend” that in the sense that I can’t, in my mind, picture what as “wavicle” looks like. But I can easily “comprehend” that a “wavicle” is something that sometimes has properties of a wave and sometimes a particle. I can easily state the mathematics behind it. I can use the math to make predictions.

This objection is a dodge. It equates “contradiction” to “incomprehensible” inappropriately. I am not asking creedal Christians to give me a set of statements that I can picture in my head (I.e. “comprehend”) I’m asking them to give me a set of statements that they themselves are willing to accept the logical conclusions of.

Will God Make a Contradiction True?

Another common thing I hear from Creedal Christians is God can make a contradiction true.

Now I have no way of knowing if God can or can’t make a contradiction true. But I do know that God says he wouldn’t because making a contraction true is the same as lying. For example, God could declare that you are saved if you believe in Jesus Christ and then send you to hell for it because you are both saved and not saved.

Accepting that God would make a contradiction, for all intents and purposes, scrubs God off the slate (to paraphrase Lewis) for the sake of having any discussion about Him at all.

Oh, and if you are going to accept that contradiction, why not accept an equivalent one: that God is both one God and three Gods. If you can accept that, you now need to accept that Mormons are fully Trinitarians. In fact, you’ll have to accept that Jehovah’s Witnesses are too because Jesus is both fully God and not fully God. There is no longer a basis for rejecting anyone as having truth or not having truth because the very concept of “truth” starts with the assumption that we are not allowing contradictions.

Use of Jargon

I have seen some creedal Christians try to get around their contradictory use of the Trinity doctrine through use of Jargon. By multiplying words, we might be able to eventually hide the fact that we’re avoiding answering the question of what the Trinity doctrine really means. Take a close look at the quote in footnote 1. I believe this is such a case.


I hope I’ve clarified the problem as I see it, as well as my real frustrations with trying to make sense of creedal Christian’s beliefs. There are many ways to take the Trinity doctrine and make sense of it, yet all of those ways are considered unacceptable to creedal Christians. Thus the net result is that they seem to believe a group of words that have no meaning even to them.

[1] As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, this is just a word game in many ways. To anyone not already accepting the creeds as the authoritative revealed word of God, the words “person” and “being” would mean the same thing. And, of course, the Bible doesn’t use those words. “Person” and “Being” are non-scriptural and purely creedal. See also footnote 3 for further explanation of how “person” and “being” are not used in any common sense of those words.

[2] Consider this “explanation” of the word “person” given on the same web page as the Athanasius creed:

In modern philosophical usage the term person means a separate and distinct rational individual. But the tri-personality of God is not a numerical or essential trinity of three beings (like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), for this would be tritheism; nor is it, on the other hand, merely a threefold aspect and mode of manifestation, in the Sabellian or Swedenborgian sense; but it is a real, objective, and eternal, though ineffable, distinction in the one Divine being, with a corresponding threefold revelation of this being in the works of creation, redemption, and sanctification. Hence the distinction between the immanent, intrinsic (or ontological) trinity and the extrinsic or economical) trinity; in other words, between the trinity of essence and the trinity of manifestation.

Can someone tell me what any of this actually means? It really comes across to me like a very wordy denial that the word “person” as used in the creeds actually mean “person” at all. It tells us what it doesn’t mean, not what it does mean.

It is sayings like this that make me wish I had a trusted but very educated creedal Christian to ask questions of but could trust he/she wouldn’t get mad if I keep asking penetrating questions and not accept unexplained creedal statements as answers.

[3] Again, this seems to me to be a word game. To a full monotheist, like a Jew or Muslim, three persons that are all fully God is three Gods and thus polytheism.

Let’s put this another way: if it’s okay to redefine monotheism from “one God” to “one God that is found 100% in three distinctly different persons” (Trinity formula) then why isn’t it okay to redefine monotheism to “one God that is a Godhead made up of three persons that are all also fully God.” (LDS formula) Again, this seems like a word game to me.

[4] I know I’ll get push back on this. Mormons are so strongly trained to reject creeds, that the idea that it’s possible to interpret them as Mormon doctrine is more or less anathema for us. Furthermore, there are a lot of questionable things stated in the Athanasius creed that many Mormons (often even myself) would prefer to not interpret as pro-Mormon. For example:

“So that in all things, as aforesaid: the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshiped.”

But McConkie said we worship only the Father, right? No, actually, McConkie allowed for worshiping them as a single unit. See the details here. So this statement, while abnormal for Mormons is not inconsistent with even McConkie’s own highly tri-theistic teachings. For this statement to have been at odds with our teachings it would have had to have said “we worship the Son by addressing prayers in His name.”

A few others. Verse 9:
“The Father incomprehensible [unlimited]: the Son incomprehensible [unlimited]: and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible [unlimited, or infinite].”
Mormons don’t like to think of God as “incomprehensible” and we often used this as a dividing point between ourselves and creedal Christians. However, even the most die hard Mormons in this regard will ultimately relent and admit that there are, at least currently to us mortals, things that are incomprehensible about God. I think our general concern with this verse is that it seems to be referring to the Trinity doctrine itself as incomprehensible. And since we don’t agree with the traditional interpretation of Trinity, this is a self reference that we do reject. But the words themselves, we don’t reject.

Verse 8:
“The Father uncreate [uncreated]: the Son uncreate [uncreated]: and the Holy Ghost uncreate [uncreated].”

Do we think of the Son as uncreated? Isn’t he “begotten” and thus created? Or do we think of all intelligence as uncreated and thus the Son is uncreated? It entirely depends on how you choose to interpret this verse. But clearly Mormons could choose to legitimately agree with the words.
Verse 33:
“[the Son] Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead: and inferior to the Father as touching his Manhood.”
Do Mormons agree with this? Well, we do in fact see Jesus as equal to the father in terms of this “divinity” (I.e. “Godhood”) but inferior in terms of His “Glory.” Close fit to be sure. If I assume “manhood” is a reference to his “Sonship” then I have no problems with how this verse is worded. Of course, traditionally Christians interpret this verse to mean that Jesus is in every way equal to the Father accept when He was a man. And clearly Mormons would disagree with this.

But let’s not get too worried about whether or not Mormons agree with the Athanasius creed or not. That isn’t my point. My point is that the words in the Athanasius creed can’t be separated from their traditional interpretation. This is key to understanding why the doctrine of Trinity is a contradiction in how creedal Christians use it. 

[5] See footnote 1 for further explanation about this.

[6] Here is the proof in predicate logic. This will avoid misunderstandings of what I am saying. Please note, I know very little about predicate logic out side of one class ages ago, so feel free to check me and critique. That’s sort of the point of going through this much trouble — to be sure I’m being precise in what I am saying so that I can be understood.

F =  Father, G = God, S = Son
To display “identity” I’m going to use “if and only if” as my logical statement.

F ↔ G (I.e. If and only if the Father, then God. Or in other words, the Father is uniquely identified as God)
S ↔ G (I.e. If and only if the Son, then God. Or in other words, the Son is uniquely identified as God)
¬ (F ↔ S) (I.e. The Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father)

¬ [(F → S) ∧ (S → F)] ¬ [(F → S) ∧ (S → F)] ⊢ (¬(F → S) ∨ ¬(S → F))
¬(F → S) ∨ ¬(S → F)
[(F → G) ∧ (G → F)] [(F ∧ G) ∨ (¬G ∧ ¬F)] [(S → G) ∧ (G → S)] [(S ∧ G) ∨ (¬G ∧ ¬S)] S → G
G → F
[(S → G) ∧ (G → F)] ⊢ (S → F)
[(F → G) ∧ (G → S)] ⊢ (F → S)
¬(F → S) ∨ ¬(S → F)
(S → F)
(F → S)
(F ↔ S)

In plain English, we just concluded that the Father is the Son, which is a contradiction to one of our assumptions.

Of course you don’t need all this. It should be intuitively obvious that, as wikipedia puts it: “[The Trinity Doctrine] appears to imply that identity is not transitive—’for the Father is identical with God, the Son is identical with God, and the Father is not identical with the Son.'”

Comments 11

  1. “The first is the pronouncement of damnation for not accepting it.”

    That is the crux of the issue – on two fronts: 1) that anyone is damned for not accepting something, regardless of the reason; 2) that the damnation pronounced is NOT for rejecting the creed but for rejecting the interpretations of the creed that have arisen over the years and masked the actual wording of the creed. I have very little problem with the actual wording of the earliest creeds; it is the later interpretations and creeds that truly are abominable, imo.

    This is going to be blasphemy to those who currently accept that creed, but I am convinced if an objective parser read the creed itself and made the determination of salvation v. damnation based solely on that parsing, Mormonism would be lauded while “orthodox Christianity” would be damned. This post has laid out a very good explanation as to why that would be.

  2. I think the main problem here is terminology – the tendency to think of “being” as a physical object and “substance” as type of stuff. Neither are good contemporary translations for “ousia” outside of narrow technical discussions. The only terms that come close are “essence” and “nature”.

    No substance splitting is required. There is one essence (nature) shared by three persons. Suppose the substance is “hydrogen”. The existence (hypostasis) of distinct hydrogen atoms does not detract from the identification of each as having the same essence (nature, ousia) as every other hydrogen atom.

    Likewise, “consubstantial” does not mean having the same body or identity. As translated, it means no more and no less than sharing the same nature or essence.

    If you follow that rule the Athanasian creed makes perfect sense. If you go beyond it, the creed turns into a logical contradiction. If you say “the Father is God” and “the Son is God” and “the Holy Ghost is God”, the word “is” in those phrases can only have reference to sharing the same nature, or the idea that they are distinct persons is a logical contradiction.

  3. Well done.

    I have felt, in my conversations with Protestant Christians, that their understanding of the Trinity is closer to the Mormon teaching of the Godhead (the way that you explain the Athanasius Creed alone is in harmony with Mormonism’s teaching of the Godhead). It is only those that have intensely studied the subject that truly understand the differences between the Godhead and mainstream Christianity’s interpretation of the Trinity.

  4. I once heard a Lutheran teacher tell that Eastern Orthodox Christians love the mysteries of God, and don’t even attempt to fully explain them. It is as if they enjoy the conundrums you mention, and that God/Godhead/Trinity is just one of the mysteries of God, and we are just meant to be at peace with it, even if it doesn’t make logical sense.

  5. Mormon Heretic: Yes, that is what I understand as well. Here is a typical comment on this:

    “The Eastern Orthodox church tends to regard the Western Church, in both its Roman and Protestant branches, as too rationalistic because of its particular theological development (think Anselm on the atonement or Westminster on the covenant) as opposed to the apophatic approach of the East, in which theology is done largely by via negative, God being defined by what he is not, being best known mystically.” (*)

  6. Pingback: Trying to Understand Creedal Trinitarianism - An Analogy at Mormon Matters

  7. Mark, #3:
    The hydrogen analogy brings up just what Bruce was saying. A hydrogen atom is a hydrogen atom all by itself, and the fact that there are several of them underlines the fact that one atom is not the same as the other one, although it would be hard in their case to identify them uniquely. What makes them hydrogen is the way they are organized (a certain number of primary particles held together in such a way as to give them certain attributes), pretty much the way you can say what makes God a God is his qualities (or the way he is “organized”, whatever we understand that to mean). In this way there undeniably are three Gods in the Godhead. In this case I like BRM’s straightforwardness.

    Anyhow, I have been digesting this for a couple of days, and I think I understand some statements made by my Lutheran and Baptist friends better. I am still to this reminded of “that is the beauty of it!” when I participate in discussions about Trinity, because usually a creedalist brings up something that says as much.

  8. Post

    Great comments everyone. Wish this was a bit more accessible topic.

    #3: Mark D.

    I completely agree with your description of the Trinity. I believe the way you just explained it, it is logical and without contradiction. I also believe it fully explains the Mormon concept of Godhead. (Or at least the Mormon concept of Godhead is one possible instantiation of that formula.) In other words, the Mormon concept of Godhead is a form of Trinitarian doctrine, under the logic you are laying out. (I label that I don’t reject as per my previous posts.)

    Every Trinitarian I’ve talked to have quite forwardly assured me that the formula you just described, even though it fits their own creeds, is a heresy. Such is life. It’s too bad really, there is a lot of common ground here that gets ignored due to wanting to be different. (Not that I think there is something wrong with wanting to be different, but it’s a problem if if hides us from real understanding of those differences, which I think is the case here.)

    #2: Ray, I completely agree.

    #7: Yes, BRM was quite straightforward in the very logic you just went through. But he still affirmed that there was one God. He, like me, split the word “God” into two (or more) different senses.

  9. Most Trinitarians would probably argue that God is three sub-minds who together comprise one mind. This does indeed solve the oneness/threeness paradox, but it has the unfortunate tendency of making God into a kind of divine schizophrenic Cerberus.

    Here’s another contradiction: the Holy Spirit is eternal and yet originated. This is impossible. If something is eternal, it simply is.

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