It has become commonplace for Christians today to identify the God of Christianity as the “triune God”. This is perhaps even more frequent amid Christian attempts to distinguish the true God spoken of by scripture from those imagined by false religions. The description of Christianity’s God, however, as “triune” is actually one opposed to the teaching of scripture itself.
At first read, that might sound an awful lot like a denial of the doctrine of the Trinity; certainly anti-trinitarian heresies would quickly agree with a denial of God’s supposed “tri-unity”. But it is not; rather, the underlying meaning of the phrase “triune God” and the belief it implies is not trinitarian at all, but itself, when carried to the extent of its logical implications, is a denial of the doctrine of the Trinity as it is taught by scripture and was articulated by the fathers of the first three centuries of the church.
The phrase “triune God”, we may first note, is entirely unscriptural. This point is not brought up to argue that for that reason alone the phrase is problematic; but people’s excessive bias in favor of the term should be curbed by the fact that God Himself gave us a perfect revelation of the truth of Christianity in the scriptures without ever using the word. The phrase is expendable; and if it does indeed carry meaning contrary to scripture, as I endeavor to prove, then it must be roundly rejected.
Not only is the phrase absent from scripture, but the first many centuries of Christianity were also able to articulate Christian theology, including the doctrine of the Trinity, without that phrase, or an equivalent. Even through the time of the Protestant reformation, the word’s usage has been moderately scarce. “Triune God” seems to have become something of a buzzword for twenty-first century Christians, however.
Secondly then let us examine the way the phrase is ordinarily employed by those who use it: as a name for the Trinity as a whole conceived of as a single person. This can be easily observed by simply paying attention to the way the phrase is used:
“Because of this, only the Christian triune God can truly be the creator and sovereign Lord of His creation, who is absolutely personal, who bears perfectly all aspects of personality, but remains separate from His creation. Therefore, if man is to truly understand the world in which he lives, he must do so through this revelation of the triune God.” (Colin Smith, Van Til and the Trinity: Correlativism, Aseity, and the Trinity)
“God exists in himself as a triune self-consciously active being. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are each a personality and together constitute the exhaustively personal God… Each is as much God as are the other two.” (Cornelius Van Til)
It is commonplace to hear people speak of the “triune God, Who has saved us by His grace”; the “triune God” Who is eternally Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the “triune God Who reveals Himself in scripture”.
In all these examples, “triune God” can be clearly seen as being used to speak, effectively, of a person who is three persons. It is noteworthy that normal convention is to use singular personal pronouns, such as “He” and “Him” for the “triune God”.
But who is this person? He is described as creating, saving, receiving worship etc. He is given the highest honors. And yet, we see, this person is not the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit individually, but all three of Them together, spoken of as a single person. The three persons of the Trinity, however, are not a single person- such language and the idea it implies, therefore, is clearly semi-modalistic. If someone objects that the triune God is not treated as a person but as a “being”, then they are convicted of simply equivocating over the word person- whichever synonym is employed, the “triune God” is clearly treated as a person, whether it be honored with the title of “person” or not.
But thirdly let us examine what is meant by the phrase “triune God”; it is usually described as indicating that the God of the Bible is “tri-personal”. What this effectively means, is that the one God is three persons. The problem with such a statement? Firstly, in scripture the “one God” is always equated with the person of the Father alone, although the Son and Spirit are divine with the same divine nature as the Father. The one God is not three persons, then, but one person, the Father, eternally in union with the distinct persons of His Son and Holy Spirit. Secondly, The way this gets used is to say that the Bible teaches us that there is this one person who is the one and only God, and he is triune, or tri-personal, meaning he is three persons. This, however, could not more clearly be semi-modalistic.
Nowhere does scripture teach such a doctrine; by making the Trinity itself into a person, such false teaching introduces a fourth divine person into the Trinity, so as to make it no longer a Trinity at all. Thus such language is thus anti-trinitarian. Most who employ this terminology probably do so without realizing this serious implication; an acknowledgement of their ignorance in erring this way, however, does not make the error itself any less serious.
In the interest of seeing if there is any usage of the phrase in question that is legitimate, orthodox, and sensible, let us examine all the ways the phrase “triune God” could potentially be used or applied in relation to trinitarian theology:
For the divine nature/essence: if it were intended to say that the essence considered in itself is tri-personal, then why describe the subject using singular personal pronouns, and in every other way treat the “triune God” as a person? Why not simply say, as historic trinitarianism has, that the divine nature subsists in three persons, without making it itself into a fourth person?
For the Father: the Father is indeed a person, thus justifying the personal language and pronouns, but is not ‘tri-personal’. Besides being utterly nonsensical to suggest that the Father is three persons, it is totally unscriptural.
For the Son: the Son is indeed also a person, thus justifying the personal language and pronouns, but is not ‘tri-personal’. Besides it being utterly nonsensical to suggest that the Son is three persons, it is totally unscriptural.
For the Holy Spirit: the Holy Spirit is indeed a single person, thus justifying the personal language and pronouns, but is not ‘tri-personal’. Besides it being utterly nonsensical to suggest that the Holy Spirit is three persons, it is totally unscriptural.
For the Trinity as a whole/all three persons together as a group: Calling the Trinity as a whole “triune” or “tri-personal” makes some sense, seeing as the Trinity is a group of three persons. However, if this what is meant by the phrase “triune God”, then why use singular personal pronouns for it, and otherwise treat it as single a person? Doing so either entirely denies that the Trinity is three persons, or, worse, as is usually actually the case, presents it as being a person who consists of three persons. Such a doctrine is as nonsensical as it is blasphemous.
It remains to be seen then that the modern popular usage of the phrase “triune God” can be found to have any justifiable usage which does not imply some serious heresy. This author can find none. Rather, the way the phrase is normally used is symptomatic or a widespread and serious problem with the church’s understanding of trinitarian theology- it has become normal for Christians to equate trinitarianism with the idea of God being a single person who is three persons. This is not trinitarianism, but semi-modalism; this problem is serious, and needs to be addressed. The way people speak about God says much about how they think about Him- therefore the fact that there is a widespread acceptance of a convention of speech which only implies semi-modalism is a deeply concerning indicator of the state of the church’s grasp on what scripture reveals about the doctrine of the Trinity.
When we refer to the God of Christianity, then, the God revealed by scripture, we ought rather to acknowledge Him as ‘Father’, rather than ‘triune’. The acknowledgement of God as Father is indeed unique to Christianity; only Christians acknowledge that the one God is to be worshipped with and through His one only-begotten Son, who took on a human nature in addition to His divine nature to become man for our salvation. The understanding of God as being the one Who is Father of His one only-begotten Son, and the one from Whom His one Holy Spirit eternally proceeds, with Whom we are sealed in Christ, is truly unique to the Christian faith.
Our faith in God as Father says much more about our trinitarianism than the false contrivance of calling God “triune”. God’s identity as Father, and all the riches of truth implied in that, including His being the fountain of divinity to the persons of the Son and Holy Spirit, is truly unique to Christianity; while others may acknowledge God as “Father” in a merely figurative sense, Christians acknowledge God as truly and ontologically Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son. Thus when we then desire to distinguish our God from the false ideas of God among the various false religions, we need not resort to a term never found in scripture, which carries a heretic implication, but rather simply acknowledge the one true God as the Lord Jesus Christ taught us to, and as scripture constantly refers to Him: as Father.