You see, the Trinity is the classic Third Way. One side argues that there is just one God. We are monotheists, not polytheists!
Another side argues that the Bible declares Jesus, the Spirit, and God are all divine. There are, therefore, three divine beings.
The two sides wrangle back and forth, pointing out the verses that support their views. And neither considers that there might be a third possibility. Indeed, when someone mentions that perhaps they are both right, both scoff. Logic demands that there be but one or three — not both one and three!
This doctrinal dispute greatly troubled the early church. Emperor Constantine was so concerned that he called the first church council to decide the issue, held in Nicea, and resulting in the Nicene Creed. The council famously found that God has one “essence” but three “persons.” And this became the orthodox, accepted view.
But many believers rejected the Nicene Creed. It was too illogical. It didn’t fit the simple, Platonic categories the Greek mind insisted on.
The doctrine of the Trinity remains a problem today. Many a skeptic has challenged Christianity because of the supposed logical incoherence of the Trinitarianism. It’s either three or it’s one!
Christians typically respond by declaring the concept a matter of faith. Yes, it makes no sense. It’s illogical. But just believe! Obviously, the more analytical, thoughtful types often find this entirely unpersuasive.
Now, for me, the “just believe” position is fine for those who can. But for the logicians among us — as I sometimes fancy myself — well, I just need a real, honest-to-God answer.
I’ll offer two.
Some years ago, when driving to the beach, one of my sons asked about this God-in-three-persons thing. I told him I’d explain it when we got to the beach. Yes, I said, it’s entirely possible and entirely logical for God to be both three and one at once.
When we arrived, we walked out to the wet sand. We sat down and I used a finger to dig three parallel holes in the sand. How many holes? I asked. He said three.
I then reached down and connected all three with a horizontal shaft. It looked something like this (try to imagine it in three-dimensions):
Now, I asked my son, how many holes are there? One or three?
He puzzled over it for a while. And then he laughed. “Neither. Or both. I don’t know!”
That’s right, I said. If you say three, I’ll point out that they’re all connected. If I pour water in one, the other fills up! If you say one, I’ll point out the three entrances.
You see, even in nature, words like “one” and “three” represent extreme simplifications of reality — a reality that often doesn’t lend itself to such simplification. Some things in this world have characteristics of both three-ness and one-ness.
I held up my hand, with my fingers spread. I asked, how many?
He said, “Five.”
“Well, there are five fingers.”
How many hands?
And so, how many?
“One and five. Both. My head hurts!”
Brilliant philosophers demand a single number to describe a complex thing. They are being simple minded, constrained by false categories that could be seen as inadequate if they’d just look at their hands.
Imagine the nature of a spiritual being, bigger and older than the universe. You can’t. Our brains aren’t wired to imagine such things. And so we try to reduce God to something familiar. Like a number.
Now, for those few readers that are familiar with the wave-particle duality of light, the same conclusion can be found there. Photons (the smallest pieces of light) act simultaneously as particles and as waves. They defy common sense. Indeed, nothing in our experience behaves the way subatomic particles behave.
Here’s the point: matter, at its most essential level, can be two things at once. It can be both a wave and a particle at exactly the same time. It can be polarized horizontally and vertically at the same time. It can exist in mutually contradictory states simultaneously, until someone observes it. Then it must take on one form or the other.
The Trinity is not the same as this — but it is like this. God exists in both a one-person and a three-person state simultaneously. This is contrary to common sense and experience, but very much like the natural world that God made as its most essential level — that is, it’s the essence of existence.
You likely were a Trinitarian before reading this post. But I hope this has helped you see the nature of Third Way thinking. By rejecting the false choice (false dichotomy) of one or three and instead being willing to investigate the nature of one-and-three-ness (Triunity), we gain a deeper, better understanding of God himself.
We refuse to cop out and demand “just believe!” Rather, we should try to get outside conventional patterns of thought and look for new, Biblically sound solutions to ancient problems.
On the other hand, we find ourselves peering through a darkened glass. We can see how it’s possible to be both three and one, but we don’t really, deeply understand God’s triunity.
Our faith is strengthened, because we no longer find ourselves having to believe the impossible true. Rather, we believe the possible — but without understanding it all that well. Which is how things are when it comes to God.
PS — The picture at the top of the page is an illustration of three quarks. Quarks also have this strange ability to be more than one way at once. They are one and they are three. You see, three quarks make up either a proton or a neutron. And quarks never act individually. They always bind with two others. At least, that’s how it’s been since the first moments of the universe’s existence — and in a few atom smashers that simulate those conditions. Actually, the quarks change and sort of blend into and out of existence within the proton or neutron, and the proton or neutron remains unaffected! You really can’t draw a picture or visualize it. It’s just too weird.