The Trinity, Part 2/2: Unity

[For Part I see here:]

If we reject Van Til’s “one person and three persons” language regarding the Trinity (and I suggest we do) and hold to some distinction between the sense(s) in which God is one and the sense(s) in which God is three, then we should positively identity those senses and note the difference(s).

To do so it might be helpful to look at two terms which are commonly noted in discussions of the doctrine of the Trinity: numerical unity and generic unity.

An example of numerical unity is that “Socrates,” “The Athenian Philosopher,” and “Aristocles” (Socrates’ birth name) are three names that refer to the same subject, the man Socrates.

An example of generic unity is that “Socrates,” “Plato,” and “Aristotle” are three individuals that are all men. The unity of the three is the genus (a word related to the word “generic”) in which the individuals are members. In this example, though each person also has their own accidental attributes, all the members have in common all the essential attributes of Man.

So then, are the persons of the Trinity—The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit—united as numerical unity or generic unity? (Or are they united in some other way?)

The Unity of the Trinity as Numerical

The first option—numerical unity—might seem (at least at first sight) to fall into the error of Sabellianism (a.k.a. modalism, Patripassionism); the view that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not distinct persons but merely modes or aspects of the one God. While this is the result of a “numerical unity of the persons” where “The Father,” The Son,” and “The Holy Spirit” are three names that refer to the same subject, it is not so clearly the result of a separate view of “numerical unity of the essence” where “the essence of The Father,” “the essence of The Son,” and “the essence of the Holy Spirit” each refer to the same subject. These two views must be distinguished. It seems that defenders of “numerical unity” usually or exclusively mean “numerical unity of the essence.”

Though “numerical unity of the essence” might avoid Sabellianism, one major problem still exists: it does not answer the question. That is, it alone does not contribute towards answering the question “how does God’s threeness differ from his oneness?”

James Anderson, who definitely opposes the unity of the Trinity as generic, is an example of one who holds to numeric unity. He believes that “God is essentially one being who subsists in three distinct persons. Each person of the Trinity is numerically identical to God, but numerically distinct from the other two persons.” (See: This, as common to proponents of numerical unity, provides little more than terms (person and being) to refer to the oneness and threeness of God.

Rather than explaining any difference between the oneness and threeness of God, Anderson resolves to call it, in good Van Tillian fashion, an apparent paradox. His “solution” is paradox—that is, he doesn’t have a solution. Anderson contends that anything else would be heresy. He writes, “Rejecting outright appeal to mystery in the face of apparent contradiction, the anti-trinitarian must opt for either oneness over threeness (modalism) or threeness over oneness (tritheism).” (Paradox in Christian Theology, p. 281)

Admitting to not know the solution to any particular problem is understandable enough. The claim to know that no man can know the solution is, however, a much stronger claim that requires justification. Where John Frame admits that the Scriptures do not provide the solution, Anderson claims that man cannot know the answer because of man’s finitude. But why would man be able to know the answer to any problem at all then? It is not clear why man’s finitude would prevent him from understanding some difference between the oneness and the threeness of the Trinity but would not prevent him from understanding something of the substitutionary atonement, the Pythagorean theorem, or of the difference between a cat and a dog.

The Unity of the Trinity as Generic

The second option—generic unity—might seem (at least at first sight) to fall into the error of Tri-theism where there are three Gods, not one. That is, if “Socrates,” “Plato,” and “Aristotle” are united as members of the genus Man and they are three men, would not also “The Father,” The Son,” and “The Holy Spirit” united as members of the genus God be three Gods?

Despite the danger of tritheism, a number of theologians in church history—including most prominently Gregory of Nyssa—have held to some form of generic unity. But for any remaining chance at brevity we will skip a more detailed history of the doctrine and move on to Gordon Clark’s view.

First, an improvement Clark makes over nearly all other theologians in his treatment of the Trinity is that he explicitly provides a definition of “person” and explains something about the meaning of the term “essence.”

As for defining “person,” Clark writes,

“Accordingly the proposal is that a man is a congeries, a system, sometimes an agglomeration of miscellany, but at any rate a collection of thoughts. A man is what he thinks, and no two men are precisely the same combination.” – The Trinity, p. 106.

And for “essence” Clark notes,

“The real reason for hesitating on the latter word [homoousius, of the same essence] is that it is a meaningless pseudo-concept. Ousia doubtless means “reality.” But no only are trees and rocks “real,” dreams are “real” too. They are real dreams. The number three is real. Everything is real, and thus the term has no meaning.” – The Trinity, p. 67-68.


“This treatise has already suggested that the attributes are the essence, and that it would be better to drop the word essence and use the word definition. The attributes constitute the definition of God.” – The Trinity, p. 77.

He then relates persons and essence through a theory of generic unity. Clark explains his view:

“Now, when we face the subject of the Trinity – the common unity in the three Persons – may we not say that the three Persons share or communicate the common characteristics of omnipotence, omniscience, and so forth, and so constitute one essence? The Platonic point of view makes this essence a reality, as truly as Man and Beauty are real. Were the essence not a reality, and the Persons therefore the only realities, we should have tritheism instead of monotheism.” – “The Trinity” in The Trinity Review, 1979.

We’ll come to a better understanding of Clark’s view as we look at a number of challenges to it.

Challenge 1. God is not an abstraction.

Repeating a John Frame quote from earlier, but now for the purpose of focusing on objection to God as an abstraction, we see that he writes,

Philosophers have sometimes said that we should distinguish between essence and individuality as follows: Fido, Rover, and Spot are three individuals with a common essence, namely the essence of “dogness” or “doghood.” But “doghood” is an abstraction. You can put Fido on a leash, but you cannot so restrain doghood. Now is it legitimate to understand the Trinity (to be sure, a reality exalted far above the canine realm) according to this model? If so, the persons, Father, Son, and Spirit would be the individuals, and the divine essence, God, would be an abstraction. But of course this model is entirely inadequate for the Trinity. God is not an abstraction. Nor is he a mere society of three gods, united by common abstract properties. (Cornelius Van Til, An Analysis of His Thought, p. 67)

James Anderson is similarly opposed to God being abstract. He writes,

“It would be misguided to object that Athanasius could be speaking here of only a generic unity, since this would suggest that the Godhead is a third entity, an abstract nature distinct from the Father and the Son in which both participate.” – Footnote 34, Paradox in Christian Theology, p. 22.

So, both Frame’s and Anderson’s denial of generic unity in the Godhead is, at minimum, based on opposition to God being abstract. But Clark’s view—a type of Realism—avoids this problem because he denies the possibility of abstraction.

Clark writes,

“The idea of abstraction exemplifies the great complexity of the doctrine of the Trinity. It is a point that only the most advanced student would be much inclined to investigate. Yet from a systematic standpoints it is actually essential. To make matters worse for the reader, the present writer may seen to agree with those he is about to criticize, for he too rejects abstract ideas; but for a different reason. … The two philosophers best known for their theory of abstraction are Aristotle and Locke. Briefly Aristotle begins with sensory impressions. These motions initiate subsequent motions after the sense object no long is present. These subsequent motions are sensory images. From these images, by a process which Aristotle never clearly describes, we construct abstract idea. Thus instead of having the individual sensation of this one pussy, Timothy Ticklepitchers by name, we have the abstract idea of cat. Abstraction therefore presupposes an empirical epistemology. Theologians who are not empiricists, Shedd for example, have no place for abstract ideas. Calvin also, if we stress the first chapter of the Institutes, cannot admit the possibility of abstract idea. The present treatise, strongly anti-empirical, denies the possibility of abstraction in its traditional meaning. If theologians wish to redefine abstraction, and if therefore they mean something different from what Aristotle and Locke meant, they should make their redefinition explicit and even emphatic. If any of them has done this, I have failed to find it. (p. 100-101)


“Furthermore, as has been hinted, Augustinianism differs from Platonism. Plato had ideas. Augustine has truths or propositions. In reading what Augustine wrote, most people fail to note what he did not write; namely they fail to note that he has no theory of abstraction. Instead of abstract ideas, he has truths. The present treatise follows Augustine on this point: There are no such things as abstraction and abstract ideas.” (p. 108)

So we find that opposition to God being abstract is an argument without force against Clark’s position because Clark doesn’t hold that God is abstract.

Challenge 2: The Bible refers to God with singular personal pronouns showing that God is one person.

The argument that “because God is referred to with singular personal pronouns (including I, me, my, he and him) that he must be one person” is a standard argument employed by Unitarians who hold that God is one person and only one person.

It is doubtful that Van Til was making such an argument when he wrote, “We speak of God as a person.” That he wasn’t arguing from the use of singular personal pronouns in the Bible is shown in that he immediately followed with the clause “yet we speak also of three persons in the Godhead.” This seems to imply that by “speaking” he means a more general “speaking in a theological manner,” and not a reference to any particular Biblical content.

Even so James Anderson writes, “But what positive reasons did Van Til have for wanting to say that God is ‘one person’? … In the first place …Van Til found prima facie justification in the language of Scripture itself. There’s no denying it: the Bible often use singular personal terms when describing God qua God. This is a basic revelational datum which trinitarian theorizers (let alone critics of Van Til) cannot simply ignore.” (

The unitarian argument is proven false though, not only because Genesis 1:26, 3:22, 11:17 and Isaiah 6:8 refer to God with the plural personal pronouns us and our, but also in understanding that singular personal pronouns in some places refer to one of the persons of God— usually the Father—or to the being of God, just as they can personify other non-persons like the nation of Israel which is referred to with “thou” in Isaiah 41:8.

If the unitarian argument were true there would be as much trouble for view of Van Til in the Frame/Anderson/Keister interpretation as for any Trinitarian view. That is, if God is one person because God is referred to with singular person pronouns, then the sense in which God is one would be the same as the sense in which God is three (if indeed God would be three at all in such a view). Only Tipton might be glad for this conclusion. Anderson’s response is to claim that “person” in the oneness of God and “person” in the threeness of God are not being used in the same sense but are “analogically related.” This, like “mystery” and “paradox” is merely another way to say “there is a difference, but I don’t know what it is, and you can’t know either.”

One more argument of interest might be noted. If the use of a singular personal pronoun makes for a single person, then when Jesus says in Luke 22:42 “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done,” and the common understanding is that “my will” is referring to Christ’s human will, then the personal pronoun “my” would necessitate a human person for that human will to be associated with. This might be Clark’s view, but it probably isn’t a view any of his critics. If personal pronouns necessitate persons, then, to be consistent, this must apply to Christology as much as to the Trinity.

Challenge 3: Generic unity results in modalism.

Historically, Trinitarian models have had to navigate the narrow waters between the Scylla of tritheism and the Charybdis of modalism. Whereas numerical unity models of the Trinity have typically been challenged in regards to avoiding modalism, the concern with generic unity models has usually been how to avoid tritheism. Thus while it is no surprise to find one critiquing Clark’s view of generic unity on the error of tritheism, a critique of his view on the error of modalism is unexpected. But this very critique has been made by both Steve Hays ( and James Anderson. (

Anderson, for example, argues,

“In his book The Incarnation he [Clark] attempts to give an account of the plurality within the Godhead by arguing that what distinguishes the three persons is just the different first-person indexical propositions that constitute them. … These propositions are contingent truths that concern the different economic roles of the divine persons in which case the persons would be only contingently distinct. This, of course, is the hallmark of modalism: the relations between the persons of the Trinity are nothing more than contingent economic relations.”

But in The Trinity Clark denies any contingency in the mind of God, arguing for necessitarianism. He writes,

“The second type of necessitarianism may be called logical rather than factual, and absolute rather than hypothetical. On this view of things no other conditions than the actual conditions are possible. This is not “the best of all possible worlds,” as Leibniz claimed: It is the only possible world, as Spinoza claimed. … Now, Spinoza is in ill repute among orthodox theologians … but it does not follow that every idea he suggests is wrong, for otherwise geometry would be false. … We must ask therefore whether or not this world is logically necessitated. The answer must take into consideration that God is truth and truth is rational. Does this mean that the universe is not a voluntary creation? Does it mean that the generation of the Son is not voluntary? Of course not. Both these items are both voluntary and necessary. … Given them the immutability of God’s mind and the eternity of truth, so-called philosophical necessitarianism seems to be quite scriptural and with respect to the creation of the world conflicts in no way with the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son. Since God’s mind is immutable, since his decree is eternal, it follows that no other world than this is possible or imaginable..” (p. 118-119)

Furthermore, Clark distinguishes the divine persons not only by their economic roles and subjective knowledge of those roles, but also by their relational properties; eternal generation and eternal procession. These doctrines, which provide ontological distinctions among the persons of the Trinity, are incompatible with function-only distinctions of modalism.

Challenge 4: Generic Unity of the Trinity results in Tritheism

If three humans persons united under the genus Man are three men, why are the three divine persons united under the genus God not three Gods?

In his book The Atonement Clark notes this question and admits that generic unity cannot be the full story; it cannot be the full explanation of the unity in the Godhead. He writes,

Naturally the Persons of the Trinity are one in the sense that all men are one, and all horses; but it does not follow that the three Persons are one only in that sense. For example, three human beings have three wills; but the three Persons of the Trinity have but one will. Hence the diversification of human beings is not identical to the diversification of the Persons, for which reason we cannot assert that the two unities are completely identical. (p. 117)

Similarly in his article on the Trinity, Clark wrote,

“But it must be made likewise clear, in the interest of sound logic, that the failure of Hodge’s arguments do not prove the identity of the type of unity among men with the type of unity among the three Persons of the Trinity. It remains an unrefuted plausible option. It seems to be the best solution ever proposed. But it still may be and undoubtedly is inadequate.”

This is why he must note, as he did in the same article,

A more substantial objection is that unity in the Godhead cannot be the unity of a species or a genus. The three Persons are one in a stricter, deeper, more inexplicable sense than the sense in which three or thirty men are one. Whether this objection is plausibly true or not depends on the sense in which men are one and the sense in which the Trinity is one. Those who make this objection should define the two senses (if indeed they are two) and point out the distinction. Unless we know how the Persons are one and how men are one, we cannot tell whether the unity is the same or different. But the objectors hardly define specific unity and disclaim ability to define divine unity.”

But since he had said himself that generic unity is inadequate, Clark is to an extent his own critic. Given that he admits that generic unity is inadequate, HE should define a different or additional sense in which the three person are united.

Clark does note that one difference between three human persons and three divine persons is that the former have three wills but the latter have just one will. He explores this further in The Trinity where he notes Gregory of Nyssa’s focus on the single will of God (what Clark here calls there “one operation” or “conjoint action”) as that which forms a unity among the divine person unlike that of human persons. Clark writes,

“he [Gregory] raises the question why, if Peter, James, and John are one human nature, but three men, why are not the Three Persons, of the same nature, three Gods? With unintentional understatement he remarks that this is a difficult question. All men, he continues, have the same nature. Similarly an army has a nature, and though each solider has an individual name, the nature cannot be divided. However, in the case of God, the matter is more complicated Gregory’s answer seems to be that God’s nature is unnameable and unspeakable. God is indeed incorruptible, but this word does not express God’s nature in essence. When we say that God is incorruptible, we say that his nature suffers no corruptions, but we do not say what that nature is. Yet, Gregory admits, this does not solve the problem: if there is one common nature, why are there not three Gods? The Godhead signifies and operation, not a nature. Philosophy is an operation, but there are three philosophers. Gregory replies, perhaps lamely, that although the Godhead is an operation, like shoemaking or philosophy, and not a nature, the men operate independently, but the Three Persons always act conjointly, and their operation is one, not three operations. (p. 39)

Yet the fact that God has one will does not seem to answer the question, “why are the three divine persons united under the genus God not three Gods?” When three men act conjointly in running a relay race or winning at tug-of-war they do not cease to be three men. That Clark noted Gregory’s answer to be “perhaps lame” seems to indicate that Clark didn’t see Gregory’s answer as sufficient either.

The question of tritheism and the necessity of finding a unity beyond that of generic unity is also noted by Joel Parkinson who writes,

Now the simplistic answer to those who assert it is a contradiction to say God is both three and one is to respond that he is three in a different sense than he is one. However, if we desire to be convincing, we should also try to define the senses in which God is three and one and do so in a way that preserves all three Trinitarian affirmations. For instance, one could say that God is three Persons with one divine nature. But though this is true, if it is left unqualified it implies tritheism. Three men clearly share a common human nature but are not indivisible. One man could be killed without necessarily endangering the existence and identities of the other two. So there must be something unique to the divine nature precluding such divisibility. (“The Intellectual Triunity of God”, The Trinity Review, January 1992)

As a solution, Parkinson contends,

shared and identical objective knowledge possessed by the three maintains a unity that is unique within the Godhead and negates tritheism.” (“The Intellectual Triunity of God”, The Trinity Review, January 1992)

It is not yet clear to me, however, how either an identical will or identical objective knowledge (or both) being shared among the three divine persons is sufficient to “negate tritheism.”

Looking back to Parkinson’s previous quote might help send us in the right direction for an answer. He noted, “Three men clearly share a common human nature but are not indivisible. One man could be killed without necessarily endangering the existence and identities of the other two.” This seems to imply that his view (like Clark’s who he is basing his view on) is that the divine persons are mutually dependent upon each other unlike how any human persons are. This is the solution we will now investigate.

There are relational distinctions among the divine persons that are essential to who they are. (1) It is essential to who the Second Person of the Trinity is that he is eternally generated of the First Person of the Trinity. (2) It is essential to who the First Person of the Trinity is that he eternally generates the Second Person of the Trinity. (3) It is essential to who the Third Person of the Trinity is that he eternally proceeds from the First Person of the Trinity (and the Second Person of the Trinity according to the Western Church’s Filioque). (4) It is essential to the First Person of the Trinity (and to the Second Person of the Trinity) that the Third Person of the Trinity eternally proceeds from him.

Because these relational attributes of the Persons of the Trinity are essential to who they each are, the divine persons cannot exist independently (separately) of each other. This is not the case, however, with human beings. There are no essential relations between humans making them who they are; only accidental relations. Adam may be “married to Eve,” but he would still be Adam if he were not; just as he was Adam before he married Eve.

So, to supplement the generic unity of the divine persons we have identified 3 additional forms of unity; not the Belgic Confession, Canons of Dordt, and Heidelberg Catechism, but the sharing of a single will, the possessing of identical knowledge, and essential relational attributes of mutual interdependence among the persons. It is particularly the last of these three points that might show promise for negating tritheism. The three divine persons are distinct from each other but ultimately are who they are in virtue of their relations to one other and thus cannot be separated.




About douglasdouma

I am a graduate of the University of Michigan (BSME), Wake Forest University (MBA), and Sangre de Cristo Seminary (Mdiv). I've learned far more from books than in school. I'm particularly in debt to Martin Luther, Ludwig von Mises, and Gordon H. Clark for any thoughts I have.
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One Response to The Trinity, Part 2/2: Unity

  1. Pingback: The Trinity, Part 1/2: Various Interpretations | A Place for Thoughts

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