Human Images of the Trinity (pt. 2)—God as Club or Society

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Human Images of the Trinity that are Static (pt. 2) 

God as Club or Society
from Three in One: Analogies for the Trinity
by William David Spencer

One student wrote an excellent term paper on Mormonism for the Systematic Theology 2 class in 2016. After poring through an array of Mormon writing, she decided that what unified its theology was this image: God as the three Musketeers, with their rallying cry, “All for one, and one for all.” What she perceived in this parallel is that the Musketeers in Alexandre Dumas’ story were an inner circle belonging to an elite corps of warriors. What was analogous to Mormonism was that the inner circle was not closed. With the advent of D’Artagnan, these three musketeers became four. Thus this image depicts shared substance and unity of purpose but includes this danger: there is always the potential of having more gods applying for membership in the Godhead, just as there are more than three musketeers in Dumas’ story. In parallel, the Mormon heaven is filled with other potential gods.[1]

But for historically orthodox Christianity, illustrating the Trinity as an exclusive group or cooperating coalition that shows unity in diversity can actually be very effective, as we see, for example, in this image from John Frame: “The New Testament reveals God Himself as a Trinity, a society of Father, Son and Spirit. The task associated with the image (Genesis 1:28) is one that no one can perform fully as an individual.” Therefore, he notes, “Through Scripture, God calls to Himself as his children not only individuals, but also families, nations, churches. Like godly individuals, godly families image God.”[2] Here he balances the oneness of God with the plurality of persons in the Godhead, showing its reflection in God calling individuals and groups. The illustration of singularity in plurality is helpful, while the danger we have to keep in mind is the problem my student highlights.

Karl Barth in the first volume of his Church Dogmatics draws the line at depicting the Trinity as having three personalities: “What we to-day call the ‘personality’ of God belongs to the one unique essence of God which the doctrine of the Trinity does not seek to triple but rather to recognise in its simplicity.” And he elaborates, “‘Person’ as used in the Church doctrine of the Trinity bears no direct relation to personality. The meaning of the doctrine is not, then, there are three personalities in God.” For Barth, “This would be the worst and most extreme expression of tritheism, against which we must be on guard.” His concern is that “the doctrine of the personality of God is, of course, connected with that of the Trinity,” because “we are speaking not of three divine I’s, but thrice of the one divine I.” Barth’s concern is preserving “the concept of equality of essence or substance,” since “identity of substance implies the equality of substance of ‘the persons,’”[3] which, as we noted, was Athanasius’ point.

While I am not a Barthian myself, I recognize the validity of points like these, for his warning is well taken. I myself have used “personalities” previously for the persons, but I am now careful not to do so. I realize the use of “personalities” in the plural suggests a difference in essence. For example, one person of the Godhead might be forever sovereign other the others. This kind of hierarchy would indeed suggest three gods in ascending order, as we saw in Origen, who considered the Son a secondary god and the Spirit a tertiary (or third) god. In a club, one finds a presiding officer (often called a president), a vice president, and a secretary treasurer. Is this what the Trinity looks like? Not according to Athanasius’ argument from the equality of attributes and substance that had his opponents charging him with making the Father and Son brothers.[4] Needless to say, they missed the point. Athanasius under- stood clearly that God is absolute, and the persons of the triune God must be “equal” to be God together. Otherwise no true equality in the Trinity exists.[5]

[1] Ancient heterodox theologies have survived the condemnation of the creedal councils and are still living faiths that have even threaded their way as alternatives into the plurality of contemporary religious views, for instance, Rastafari. The Trinity is by no means a given even among these religiously oriented people who have come out of a Christian background. I have noted a strong Hindu and Eastern religion influence on some of Rastafari’s founders or early leaders like Joseph Hibbert, Leonard Howell, and Claudius Henry, who at times have appeared to be elevated (some by their own suggestion, others by followers) to occupy a place in the Godhead. For example, among those who were willing to add persons to the Trinity are Bobo Dreads, who did so with their leader, Prince Emmanuel Edwards. See Spencer, Dread Jesus, 79–88, esp. 83–85.

[2] John M. Frame, “Men and Women in the Image of God,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, eds. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 230.

[3] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, 2nd ed., trans. G. W. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975), 350–51. One of the most enthusiastic books to embrace Barthianism among conservatives is by John B. Champion, who recommended, “One comes to see that Barth cannot be answered by argument; and that the only appropriate and profitable thing to do is, frankly and humbly, to examine one’s self before God, and get down in utter humility to that relation to God which Barth teaches is foundational. Then God gets a man where He wants him in order to bless him” (Personality and the Trinity [New York: Revell, 1935], 25). Despite a tone bordering on fawning over Barth, sexist language (routine for his day), and a heavy subordinationist flavor throughout his book (e.g., “The Father occupies the principal place in the Godhead. This holds true of the functions of the other two Persons of the Trinity. Two hold a subordinate place to the third. In the Father’s functions or offices origination or source is the chief . . . the Son is His Agent; so also is the Holy Spirit, each in His own way carrying out the Father’s designs” [148]; “the Son is equal in substance, but subordinate in office” [162–63]), Prof. Champion still manages to recognize an ontological unity (“the Three Members of the Trinity are all of the same substance . . . the Father begetting the Word equal to Himself in every respect” [161]), so that, in a useful summary to our discussion, he concludes, “If the Persons of the Holy Trinity could be divided into separate existences, they would constitute not One Being, but three. Then they would not be interexistent interpersonality” (72–73). Melding “interpersonality” with the perichoretic “interexistent” assists us in understanding the point of Barth’s concern. Seeing separate personalities within the Trinity replaces monotheism with tritheism. Another helpful contribution from Champion is his clear explanation separating a “triad” from a “trinity.” He points out, being “non-complementary,” a triad “is therefore without the possibility of true personal unity . . . a triad never reaches trinal unity.” Even “uniformity” does not ensure “real unity,” because “under the similarity of external form may lie all the disunity of greatest divergence or even disagreement” (71). We will revisit Prof. Champion’s thought in the next chapter.

[4] Athanasius, De Synodis 3.51.23.

[5] Athanasius, De Synodis 3.49.20.

This post is adapted from Three in One: Analogies for the Trinity written by William David Spencer. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

Do our images of “one God in three persons” reflect God well?

Release Date: November 15, 2022

Throughout history, Christians have pictured the relationships between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit through analogies. Such illustrations–some from the West but also from Latin America, Asia, Africa, and other places–come laden with theological ramifications that the church has rejected (heresies) or embraced (doctrines). In Three in One, William David Spencer shares a lifetime of insights from teaching within the global church, bringing fresh images and analogies of the Trinity to deepen our theological vocabulary.

Drawing from his extensive teaching in geographically and culturally diverse contexts and his artist’s passion for evocative words and visuals, Spencer offers readers a rich, multifaceted, and practical exploration of the Trinity. Alongside historical and contemporary theology and biblical studies, he considers the strengths and shortcomings of various analogies used to explain the Trinity, such as:

  • Light
  • Water
  • The Celtic knot
  • The totem pole
  • Musical harmonies
  • The human body
  • The family

Readers of Three in One will gain a personal understanding of the Trinity as well as tools for teaching about the Trinity in adult and children’s ministry contexts.



About Author

William David Spencer (ThD, Boston University School of Theology) is distinguished adjunct professor of theology and the arts at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s Boston campus (Center for Urban Ministerial Education). He has authored, coauthored, or coedited eighteen books, including The Global God: Multicultural Evangelical Views of God and Global Voices on Biblical Equality: Women and Men Serving Together in the Church, as well as hundreds of publications in journals and periodicals. He has served in urban ministry for fifty-five years.

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