The Trinity: God is Not an Undifferentiated Monad

Some years ago, J. Ligon Duncan, chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary, declared in a sermon at the historic First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, MS that God was “not an undifferentiated monad!” Precisely so. The God of Scripture is Triune: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He is a Triunity. God did not create out of loneliness, as if he needed the company. God is an eternal being of communal fellowship within himself. One error we want to avoid, though, is thinking of God’s unity as something other than the three persons of the Godhead in their perichoretic unity.

To put it another way, God’s unity is ontological and not just ethical. God’s unity is not the result of a harmonious unanimous vote within the Godhead. The three persons do not form a committee. God’s unity just is the complete and whole interpenetration of the three persons of Father, Son, and Spirit. The essence is not some fourth substance that hides behind three drama masks. And yet, God is thoroughly one as well as three. The persons, let it be said, are ontological too since the essence is not something other than the three persons.

I have used the technical adjective “perichoretic” which is derived from the Greek word perichoresis. Some of my readers may be familiar with its Latin forms circumcessio or circumincessio. These terms refer to the divine reality of the mutual interpenetration of the persons of the Triune Godhead. The Father is not one part of God, and the Son another, and the Spirit a third as if they were so many slices of pizza. The Father is all God, the Son is all God, and the Spirit is all God and yet there is only one God and not three. Perhaps some of you have seen an attempt to capture the nature of God with the use of the illustration of three overlapping circles (much like a Venn diagram or the Olympic game's logo). As with most if not all such illustrations drawn from human experience, we wander into theological error with such a chart. Three overlapping circles suggest that there is a part of God that is not the Father, a part that is not the Son, and a part that is not the Spirit. This is plainly wrong.

The Father is not one third of God, the Son another third, and the Spirit a final third. Remember the doctrine of divine simplicity? God is not made up of parts more basic than he is himself. To illustrate, a brick wall is made of several bricks and mortar and these are the basic building blocks of the wall. God has no basic building blocks. The Father is not more basic than the whole Godhead, nor is the Son, or the Spirit. If you find this all rather mind-blowing, you should. If you find this boring, or abstract, or a yawn, you fail to understand your God. Perhaps, as J. B. Phillips said long ago, “your God is too small.”

Unfortunately, what has been said a multitude of times in recent days is no doubt true: many so-called Bible-believing Christians are practical Unitarians even while swearing allegiance to Scriptural Trinitarian teaching. If the three persons are not the whole God without remainder then we run the risk of falling into modalism or tri-theism. Modalism affirms that God really is an undifferentiated monad hiding behind the three drama masks of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Tri-theism affirms that there are three gods: The Father is a god. The Son is a god. The Spirit is a god. If there is any unity at all, it is the harmony of a three-man committee.

At Jesus’s baptism (Matt. 2:13-17 para.) he sees the Spirit descend from the open heavens on him in the form of a dove and the Father speaks that he is well-pleased with his beloved Son. Here we see that there are not three successive states of the unitary God but three persons who are the Triune God. Further, in John 1:1 we see essential differentiation and unity when it is said that “In the beginning the Word was with God and was God.” Paul in Philippians 2:5-11 shows that the Son was in the “form” of God but was distinct from the Father in that he did not consider equality with God (here no doubt a reference to the Father and not the divine essence) a thing to be grasped or held onto. The Son was able to voluntarily take to himself a true body and a reasonable soul in order to save us. He did this from all eternity before creation in the covenant of redemption (see John 17 for hints of this eternal covenant between the persons of the Triune Godhead). The Son did not do this necessarily but as an act of his will in distinction (though not separation) from the Father and the Spirit.  

We cannot get behind the Father, Son, and Spirit as if we could peel off the persons of the Godhead to find some pure white canvas behind the layers of paint. The unity of God is the three persons in their mutual interpenetration. I do not claim to have solved the mystery of the Godhead. If I could I would be God himself and I can certainly tell you I am not him. God is irreducibly Triune. God is Triune and he is Triune. Our minds cannot settle on the unity or the diversity but must keep both truths together. This is our God. This is the Christian God. There is no other.

Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum.  Additionally he serves as an articles editor for the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.

Jeffrey Waddington