Wondrous Trinities Everywhere


A Response to
Douglas Jones’ "Spoiled by the Trinity

"He who knows one religion knows none"Max Mueller


by Nick Gier

Professor Emeritus

Department of Philosophy

University of Idaho


Note: Read an exchange of views by
Gier and Jones here.


The Triune Shiva: Personal Lord of the

Lord of the Cosmic Dance

Image by Stellmacher & Jensen


Note: If the images do not execute type in





thesis is that monism ("all reality is one substance") is really bad, and that
monistic philosophy has led to the worship of power, mass conformity, the loss
of humor and irony, and the rape of women.  With one fallacious brush, Jones
paints all of Asian thought and most of Western philosophy as monistic and
proposes that his Trinitarian thinking somehow corrects all of these maladies.


I demonstrate
that most Asian thought is not monistic and that the schools that are, Zen
Buddhism and philosophical Daoism, contain dramatic examples of nonconformism
and a consummate sense of humor and irony.  Furthermore, there are fully
personalized Trinitarian Godheads in Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Religious
Daoism, and Hinduism that have produced the qualities that Jones admires
(including dancing), but which are, ironically, mostly missing in the history
of Christianity.


John Calvin
defines the Godhead as "one simple essence comprehending three persons" and he
defends a "unity of [divine] substance" against the Arians. Although Jones
embraces Reformed theology, he appears to reject Calvin’s formulation when he
wrote that "there is no flat oneness that could operate outside the communal
aspect of the Trinity."  Jones doesn’t realize that if divine unity is just
the mere togetherness of three divine persons, then the only logical result
would be a polytheistic tritheism.


Jones sometimes
refers to the Greek orthodox tradition for inspiration, and it is clear that
his view of the Trinity is more in line with this tradition.  These
theologians begin with three divine persons whose unity is derived from their
shared divinity.  While the Greek orthodox Trinity does a great job of
demonstrating the interrelation of the three persons, it does not clearly
support the substantial unity of God, the central
doctrine of Judeo-Christianity. When Jones recites the Athanasian creed’s "the
Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one,"
he can affirm only the divinity of each; he cannot claim a substantial divine
unity of them all. In this formulation "Godhead" can refer only to each of the
persons individually, not as three persons of the same Godhead, as the Trinity
is normally understood. Jones’ dramatic images of the Father, Son, and Holy
Spirit frolicking together as children make for great religious literature,
but it is not Judeo-Christian monotheism. Augustine insisted that the Trinity
has "a single action and will," so he would find Jones’ language quite
unusual, if not unorthodox.



            This essay is a response to
Douglas Jones’ article "Spoiled by the Trinity: A Primer for Secularists"
(Credenda/ Agenda,
vol. 14:2; www.credenda.org).  I would like to speak to three
methodological points before I begin my analysis.


            (1) I affirm the
"unity of
truth," a phrase Douglas
once used over 20 years ago when we taught a class together.  For me
this means that there are universal rules of thought that allow all rational
beings to claim provisional truths.  This means that there are no special truths
that people get by revelation or by covenant. There are not as many truths
(Christian, Hindu, Islamic, etc.) as there are scriptural revelations. By
insisting that logic and the canons of evidence be our guide, I have not
embraced any form of rationalism, nor have I become a slave to autonomous
reason, a view of reason I reject along with Jones.


            (2) I will honor the results of
contemporary biblical scholarship and I will not accept as an objection that
these competent scholars somehow lack intellectual or spiritual integrity.  I
also trust that Jones will honor the great theologians of his own Reformed
tradition, who, interestingly enough, appear to disagree with him.


            (3) I also use the best critical
scholarship when I assess the non-Christian religions internally, but when I
work with religions cross culturally, I believe it is best to take their
scriptures at face value.  This is a phenomenology of religion that respects the
self-witness of religious traditions as data for comparative analysis.
Phenomenologyliterally an understanding of those things seen in the light of
day (phainos has its roots in phos)allows us to approach a
nonjudgmental view of the world’s religions.


            I studied theology with
Trinitarians in graduate school and I’ve taught with many of them as well. My
Lutheran colleagues in the theological faculties at Heidelberg,
Aarhus, and
Copenhagen were fervent Trinitarians.  But none of these fine Christians used
the Trinity as a club to hit me over the head and to tell me that I, as a
Unitarian, could be nothing but a conformist or a power hungry, humorless
rapist.  I will take Jones to task for not providing any empirical evidence that
non-Trinitarian thinking actually leads to the dastardly deeds that he claims it


            I suspect that the reason most
Christians are not uppity about the Trinity is that it is the Christian doctrine
that has the least biblical evidence for it.  I think I remember Doug Wilson
telling me that he would not "disfellowship" any Christian for not believing in
the Trinity. (Perhaps he has changed his mind about this now.) Conservative
Presbyterian theologian Donald G. Bloesch concedes that the New Testament "cannot affirm the creedal formulation" of the Trinity because while
suggested," it is "not clearly enunciated."[1] 
It is
truly ironic that the religion whose scripture has the least evidence for a
trinity became the one that has speculated endlessly about its proper
formulation, and, sadly, in some instances executed Christians who rejected the


In this essay I
will demonstrate another reason why Christians must be particularly humble about
their Trinitarian agenda. I will show that Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Hinduism,
and Daoism all have doctrines that preserve the substantial unity of God better
than Jones does. Furthermore, each of these religions offers a balance of
masculine and feminine powers that the Christian Trinity lacks and thereby fails
to speak to half the human race.  Finally, it is a supreme irony that the
qualities that Jones claims to follow from the Christian Trinity–dancing,
playfulness, humor, and relationality–are all better expressed in these Asian


Hasty Generalizations and Faulty

            Before I turn to specific issues
of the Trinity, I would like to point out some errors of generalization and
interpretation in Jones’ article.  First, I object to the way in which Jones
appears to label everyone, presumably even many Christians, "secularists"
because they don’t follow Jones’ particular brand of Christianity.  Second, he
gives the mistaken impression that most modern philosophers followed Descartes
in the errors that Jones rightly points out.  For example, Whitehead, the
founding father of 20th Century process theology, criticized
Descartes for rejecting the reality of qualities and the internal relations that
makes the universe an interdependent whole. Furthermore, not all philosophers,
especially Asian ones, agree with Descartes’ demand that we reduce everything to
simples.  In fact, that is the agenda only for contemporary analytic philosophy.


            Jones is also wildly incorrect
to state that the consensus of philosophical or "secularist" thinking is monism:
"that the most important part of reality is simple and One. . . ."  This faulty
generalization neglects pluralists such as the early Buddhists, the Jains,
followers of Sankhya-Yoga, Leibniz, James, Whitehead, and many others.  Perhaps
Jones can be excused for painting all of Asian thought with the monistic brush
because so many people do it, but the fact remains is that there is just as much
plurality in Asian intellectual history as there as there is in the
Euro-American tradition.


            Let me refute one particular
expression of Jones’ dreaded monism: "to exist is to stand alone." For
relational ontologies such as Daoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Hegelanism, and
process philosophy this proposition is patently false. The most comprehensive
virtue in Confucianism is ren, variously translated as benevolence,
humanity, love, goodness. The Chinese character itself literally means "two peopleness," indicating a basic Chinese premise that
"to exist is to stand
together with other people."  Perhaps Jones does not remember that I spoke about
this very point before his colleagues and students at New St. Andrews College in
the spring of 2000 when I gave a presentation on "Confucius and the Aesthetics
of Virtue."  In this talk I also embraced the Confucian concept of xin, a
heart-mind that gives both reason and the emotions their due.  I also explained
that the Confucians were known for their great dancing and musical skills.


How can Jones
neglect the most famous relational theologian in the 20th Century? 
In his classic I and Thou the unitarian Jew Martin Buber maintains that
the most sacred relation is one we have with the Thou of our neighbor and the
Thou of God. As he states: "There is no I as such but only the I of the basic
word I‑You and the I of the basic word I‑It."[2]  Buber’s concept of Mitmenschlichkeit ("with peopleness") is very similar
to Confucian ren and Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Marcel, 
Merleau-Ponty, Wittgenstein, Whitehead, and the American pragmatists all join
Buber in rejecting Cartesian methodology and his solitary self.  Indeed, except
for analytic philosophy, most of
20th Century thought has been either
an explicit or implicit critique of Descartes.  Furthermore, very few of the
dozens of major analytic philosophers could be called monists in any sense.


The Trinity in Western and Eastern

article is primarily
rhetorical, not philosophical or theological; indeed, it has a surprising number
of unsupported assertions.  Accordingly, I’ll have to rely on John Calvin and
his followers for a clearer understanding of the Trinity in Jones’
tradition.  Although Calvin complains about the Church Fathers bickering over
precise formulations, he nonetheless defends the orthodox view that the Godhead
is "one simple essence comprehending three persons or hypostases" and he defends
a "unity of [divine] substance" (homoousia) against the Arians.[3]
Calvinist theologian T. F. Torrance claims that homoousia is "the very
substance of the Christian gospel."


Jones appears to
have rejected this Calvinist formulation when he e-mailed me that "there is no
flat oneness that could operate outside the communal aspect of the Trinity." I
share Jones’ suspicion of Hellenistic philosophical abstraction and I firmly
believe that Greek philosophy and biblical revelation are a very poor match. 
But the Church Fathers were correct in their insistence on a substantial divine
unity, because if the only divine unity is the mere togetherness of the three
persons, then the logical result would be a polytheistic tritheism.  Roderick T.
Leupp, an author that Jones recommends, incautiously proposes that "it would not
do a great deal of harm if monotheist were to be dropped from the Christian
Leupp appears to be the source of Jones’ obsession to misrepresent the Unitarian
God as a hermit deity and a source of naked power.


Jones and his colleagues are promoting a view called the "Federal Vision" among
conservative Presbyterians and it is receiving much critical reaction. Indeed,
some critics have declared that the Federal Vision stands outside the Calvinist
tradition. With regard to the Trinity some leaders in the Presbyterian Church of
America are concerned about a less than robust view of divine unity and question
whether it can be preserved as simply the "covenantal relationship among the
three persons."
In a footnote these authors suspect that there is little or no ontological
grounding to their Godhead.  In particular they refer to "discomfort with
the phrase ‘nature of God’" on the part of Jones’ colleague Peter Leithart, and
they note that another proponent of the Federal Vision decries that the
traditional language of "essence" and "substance" is "unwholesomely indebted to


In his book The Federal Vision Douglas Wilson suggests that the
husband-wife relationship must be based on the correct view of the Trinity. 
Wilson rejects the Arian view because it subordinates the wife to the husband as
the Arians subordinate the Son to the Father.  Sabellianism is equally
unacceptable because it allows for only nominal distinctions among the persons
and the family structure would fall to the temptation of egalitarianism and
interesting implication of Wilson’s analogy is that the children are analogous
to the Holy Spirit.
rejecting the Arian view, Wilson still insists on the authority of father in the
family that would suggest a similar hierarchy in the Trinity as well. In his
essay Jones gives equal weight to each of the persons and there is no
notion of any ranking of the
 Father over the Son
or the Holy Spirit.  Furthermore, Wilson’s analogy, just as Jones’ own
language, suggests an independent will for each of the persons of the Godhead as
well as the family, undermining once again Judeo-Christian monotheism and
Augustine’s insistence that God has "a single action and will," and therefore
implying tritheism.

In a column in the Moscow-Pullmn Daily News (8-7-07), Wilson’s Tritheism is even
more evident when he
states the the "Father is the Lover, the Son is the Beloved, and the
Holy Spirit is the love of each for the other." The church fathers would turn over in their
graves at such a theological hatchet job. St. Augustine set the grounds for the orthodox
Trinity by saying that it has but one will, but here we have either three wills, or what has so
often happened in history of Christian thought, the Holy Spirit is ignored or is no longer a
"person" but simply the love that passes between two deities and pervades the world.

            The great Swiss Reformed
theologian Karl Barth warned Christians that if they made the persons of the
Trinity into personalities, as Jones and Wilson have in fact done, they would not be able to
avoid the heresy of tritheism. Bloesch explains the problem in this way: "To
hold that there are three distinct centers of consciousness, three
self-conscious personal beings, comes close to tritheism."[6]  Calvin
defines the persons of Trinity using the Greek word hypostasis and
this does not express the idea of a divine personality. (The Church Fathers
would have chosen the Greek word prosopon if they intended to indicate a
self-conscious personality.) Jones’ dramatic images of the Father, Son, and Holy
Spirit frolicking together as children make for great religious literature but
bad orthodox theology.


Jones sometimes
refers to the Greek orthodox tradition for inspiration, and it is clear that his
view of the Trinity is more in line with this tradition.  The Greek theologians
begin with three divine persons whose unity is derived from their shared
divinity.  One of the great advantages of Eastern Christianity is its view of
the person as social and relational being. Western Christianity embraced
Boethius’ definition, influenced by Aristotle, that a person is an individual
rational substance.  This priority of rationality over relationality led to the
view of the self as a social atom, a view that both Jones and I reject. While
the Greek orthodox Trinity does a great job of demonstrating the interrelation
of the three persons, it has two major weaknesses: (1) it gives priority to the
Father, just as Wilson does, and undermines the equality of the divine persons; and (2) it can offer
only an abstract view of divine unity.  (1) is especially problematic when Greek
theologians such as Gregory of Nyssa propose that the Son and the Holy Spirit
receive their divinity from the Father.


I offer the
following analogy as proof of (2). Three human beings love one another and
interrelate fully as social persons.  Each human person is fully human, but
their common humanity is abstract, not substantial. Note also that each of these
people would have a separate action and will, something that Augustine insisted
that the divine persons do not have. If homoousia is central to the
Christian Trinity, as the Augustinian-Thomistic tradition holds, then the three
persons of the Trinity are disanalogous to my human model. Here God would be one
divine being with three hypostases, not persons in the Greek orthodox
sense above. By analogy a deity containing three persons in this sense
would not be a normal person; it would be a dysfunctional being of multiple


We now see, more
clearly than ever, the source of Jones’ problems.  To get the fully relational
personal Trinity that he wants, he sacrifices true divine unity (homoousia),
and strongly implies a rejection of monotheism and support for tritheism.  If
each of the divine persons are substantially divine, they are so because of
their individual divinity. If we are using the term "person" in the same sense,
and it seems that Jones must hold this, then the argument from analogy follows:
Just as three human persons are fully human individually, not by simply being
human together, so, too, must the three persons of Jones’ Trinity fully divine
individually and not together.


When Jones recites
the Athanasian creed’s "the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy
Spirit is all one" (p. 1), he can affirm only the divinity of each; he cannot
claim a substantial divine unity of them all.  In this formulation "Godhead" can
refer only to each of the persons individually, the only way that the Trinity
and monotheism can be reconciled. The Athanasian creed insists that Christians
should "neither confound the Persons, nor divide the Substance." Jones succeeds
in the former but fails in the latter. In short, Jones is far from the orthodox
Trinitarian ideal of "three in one and one in three."  Jones must prove to us
that he really does believe in one Godhead rather than three.


Are Christian Trinitarians really more

            I agree with Jones that
worldviews that have taken autonomous reason as an idol have sometimes wreaked
havoc.  American Revolutionaries, many of whom were proto-Unitarians, wisely
refused to rationalize culture to the core, but the French Revolutionaries’rejection of tradition and radical social engineering led to violence and chaos.
Marx’s social-relational self and embodied reason was mechanized and scientized
by Engels and Lenin to produce Communist dystopias.  Other rationalized utopias
have also failed and future ones are bound to fail as well.


            But those who make idols of
scripture and male authority have produced just as much violence in the world. 
Think of the destruction of the colonial powers, all of them inspired by
Trinitarian Protestants and Catholics. On the other hand, Trinitarian Hindus,
Buddhists, and Daoists (more on them later) welcomed all religions to their
lands where there has been very little religiously motivated violence.  The
sects of Hinduism have lived together for 3,000 years without ever warring on
one another for religious reasons. Hindu fundamentalist violence is of very
recent origin, inspired, ironically, by European ideas of nation and religion. 
For more on this topic see



Indian Jews and
Christians prospered on the Malabar Coast for nearly a thousand years until the
Trinitarian Dutch wiped out the Jews and Trinitarian Portuguese coerced Indian
Christians and Hindus to become Roman Catholics or killed them if they refused. 
In Sri Lanka the Dutch Calvinists were perceived as dishonorable and treacherous
and having a "gluttonous rapacity, generated by the rapid acquisition of riches."[7]

When Jones speaks about the monists’"Army of One," I also think of Yahweh’s "Angel of the Lord" leading the heavenly hosts (=armies) against the enemies of
Israel, violating all the known laws of war and human decency.


claims about power and conformity fall flat upon the fact that the Abrahamic
religions have made power a primary divine attribute, and they have given their
God all the attributes of the absolute rulers who in turn abused their power in
this God’s name.  (Divine power is expressed very differently in Asian
religions.) Although not a Christian, Whitehead sees clearly how Jesus’
was a rebuke of this type of power: "The brief Galilean vision of humility
flickered throughout the ages, uncertainly. . . .But the deeper idolatry, of
fashioning God in the image of the Egyptian, Persian, and Roman imperial rulers,
was retained.  The Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged
exclusively to Caesar."[8]
This is why Whitehead’s process theology, which limits God’s power to persuasion
rather than coercion, can express Jesus’ theology of openness, forgiveness, and
compassion in such a compelling way. Whitehead also returns philosophy to the
unity of fact, value, and beauty that Jones embraces, and beauty itself is one
of the principal goals of Whitehead’s God.  For more on process theology
read this link.


In a debate with
the Unitarian Forrest Church, Jones called Unitarian theology a "hermit
theology."  Yes, there are hermit deities–Aristotle’s unmoved mover and the God
of deism–but American Unitarians, starting with Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson,
rejected the distant God of the European deists.[9] 
(Jones stoops to his lowest in his cheap caricatures of Jefferson’s religious
views.) But Jones’ argument is weaker than this misinterpretation of American
Unitarians. It implies that Aristotle and the deists were power mongers,
conformists, humorless, and had no sense of play.  This of course is absurd. 
The Jains of India worship hermit saints but they are India’s most notorious
nonconformists and their ethics of nonviolence eschews power in all of its


When it comes to
playfulness, irony, and humor it is difficult to compete with Buddhists saints
and Daoist sages. The stories of the 81 Buddhist Siddhas are highly entertaining
and sometimes filled with immoralities, just as the stories of some Old
Testament saints are.  The Daoist immortals are the most hilarious and unlikely
lot of humanity one could ever imagine, and no one is less conforming and less
interested in the trappings of power and prestige than a Daoist sage or a Zen
Buddhist monk, most of whom are strict monists.  How many Christian saints could
be as penetratingly ironic as to call out "If you see Jesus on the road, be sure
a kill him!"  For those readers who don’t get it, the killing here has to do
with smashing the idol that most Buddhists make of the Buddha rather than
following his ethics.  Unfortunately, the same could be said of many Christians.


So much then for
Jones’ claim that monists and secularists must be "legalistic, dominating, and
humorless."  These qualities appear to be much more abundant in John Calvin,
Jones’ theological hero.  Unitarians find nothing funny in the fact that Calvin,
with no secular authority to do so, recommended the execution of the great
Unitarian theologian Michael Servetus in the name of the Trinity.  All those who
read their New Testament carefully will find that the maximum penalty for
doctrinal dispute is banishment not execution. We might, however, find bitter
irony in the fact that one heretic was condemning another, but there is only
great tragedy in the wake of the defeat of Servetus’ religious liberalism. 
Trinitarian Protestants and Catholics would kill each other for another 240
years until Servetus’ theological descendants brought full religious liberty to
the new American Republic.


What about Jones’
boasts about Trinitarian dancing and appreciation for the arts?  For over
nineteen centuries dancing of any kind was banned in Catholic and Protestant
Churches.  (Too bad that those who performed the
Gnostic "Round Dance of the Cross,"
were condemned and their scriptures destroyed.)[9a]
Why did the Protestants destroy so
many works of art and whitewash the insides of Catholic churches if the Trinity
inspires an appreciation for beauty? Jones’ argument about the results of
Trinitarian thinking is empirically falsified on every possible front. 
Many monists expressed those qualities that only Jones’
Trinitarians should
have, and they have not acted in ways that Jones’ hypothesis predict. 


            If Jones responds by saying that
secularists and monists are somehow secret Trinitarians (somehow "spoiled by the
Trinity"), then I can just as well say that his own virtuous behavior is due to
the monistic unity of God that always stands behind the Augustinian-Thomistic
Trinity.  With his anonymous Trinitarian thesis (� la Karl Rahner’s "anonymous"
Christians), I hope that Jones is not succumbing to Forrest Church’s claim,
which Jones dismissed as "sentimental," that we differ far less than we
fundamentally agree.


            I found it incredibly ironic
that when Jones claims that "the Trinity guarantees a comedy rather than a
tragedy" (p. 4), he then, only after two lines, mentions Job, whose life was
made a complete misery by a God who empowered Satan to destroy everything of his
except his wife.  I read this story as a God induced tragedy, certainly not a
comedy. Perhaps
this is the source of the havoc wreaked by Trinitiarian Christians during the
colonial period. F
inally, in this same paragraph
in the Trinity essay
Jones states that the Trinitarian
"Godhead mysteriously, freely, but certainly controls the paths to the end of
history."  It’s very difficult to understand how this could be the "freedom to
do otherwise" that traditional free-will theory requires, especially if we are
all playing roles in "a play within a play."  A very mysterious freedom indeed. 
See these links on freedom and God:

and www.class.uidaho.edu/ngier/godfreedom.htm.


            Jones claims that a Trinitarian
God would inspire only good sex, but why does Yahweh presumably sanction the
rape of Hagar, says nothing when Lot offers his daughters to the men of Sodom,
and is silent when the Levite’s concubine is raped to death in Judges 19?  (Lot
should have been turned to salt rather than his wife.) Furthermore, I doubt if
the Israelite men had godly sex with the virgins of Midian, the only tribe
members who were spared by God’s command (Num. 31:18). 


            In the patriarchal culture that
Jones and his colleagues support, male honor appears to be much more important
than the rights and dignity of women. In such a culture women, slaves, Job, and
Jesus must submit, obey, and suffer, while the top males, human and divine, rule
with firm authority.  As Doug Wilson and Steve Wilkins claim in their
Southern Slavery as It Was
(Canon Press, 1996),
most slaves were very happy second class citizens because their godly masters
treated them very well.  (In a talk in Moscow, Idaho in February, 2003,
Wilkins made the outrageous claim that Islam was a violent religion because it
did not have the Trinity.) Here are the real conformists: top males who insist
that everyone conform to their wills and the commands they claim come from their


Biblical Evidence for the Trinity

            Let us turn now to the biblical
evidence for the Trinity, which is virtually nonexistent in the Old Testament
and has only an allusive presence in the New Testament.  To be sure, there are
dynamics within Yahweh, but they are primarily dipolar not trinitarian.  For
example, Yahweh appears either as the Angel of the Lord in battle (Josh.
5:13-15) or as Satan in temptation and divine wrath (Num. 22:22, Job 1). In
pre-exilic Judaism the Hebrew word satan is not a proper name signifying
a separate entity, but it refers instead to a divine function.  Therefore,
Luther called Satan a "mask of God" and saw Satan as the principal expression of
divine wrath.[10]
Another dipolar relation is the one found between Yahweh and divine Wisdom (Prov.
8:30), which should have continued as feminine sophia until Philo of
Alexandria performed the gender change operation that gave us the masculine


            If Christians want to embrace
biblical dipolar theism, I would recommend John Cobb’s proposal in Christ in
a Pluralistic Age
that Whitehead’s "primordial nature" of God be identified
as the divine Logos and God’s consequent nature be called the redemptive
Christ.  God’s consequent nature literally feels every event that happens in the
universe and is one of the best conceptual ways for Christians to understand the
Passion of Christ. I submit that divine twoness, supported by the Hebrew Bible,
grounds relationality and inspires dance and play just as much as divine
threeness.   Conservative evangelical theologian Carl Henry states that without
the evidence of the New Testament we are "unsure whether two, three or more
centers of consciousness exist within the one God."[11]


Some Christians
have been taught that the Trinity is found in "let us make man in our image" of
Gen. 1:26, but Hebrew grammar does not support this view.  This is a plural of
majesty as when the Queen says "we are not amused."  Others desperately point to
the three angels who visit Abraham in Gen. 18, but what happens to the unity of
this trinity when only two angels go off to Sodom with Lot?  And of course,
angels are always subordinate to Yahweh never his equals.


            There is plurality in the Hebrew
Godhead but this represents a polytheistic residue in the texts.  This
polytheism is usually expressed as henotheism, that is, one executive deity
ruling over subordinate deities.  Hebrew henotheism can be seen in Deut. 32:8
and Ps. 82, where Yahweh dismisses the lower deities for maladministration.  But
of course henotheism does not serve the Trinity at all: (1) there are more than
three deities; (2) they are all subordinate to Yahweh; and (3) Ps. 82
demonstrates that there is definitely not a playful harmony among them.  For
more on Hebrew henotheism, see my article at


Writing for Theology Today,  Donald H. Juel
writes that "the New Testament contains no doctrine of the Trinity."
For New Testament evidence
Donald Bloesch can come up with only five passages. (He wisely avoids 1 John
5:7, which was doctored by early scribes as extra proof of the Trinity.) 
Reading the Trinity into the Baptism of Jesus is risky hermeneutics for a number
of reasons.  First, this event was a favorite one for early Christians who were
adoptionists, a wide-spread view that Jesus was a man approved and adopted as
the Son of God at this baptism.  Second, God and his spirit are not necessarily
two different persons, even less so than the Angel of the Lord and Satan are in
the Hebrew Bible.  Third, even if the spirit is a separate person, there is no
indication that it and Jesus are coequal with God the Father.  Indeed,
subordinationism, especially the famous kenosis hymn of Philippians 2:7,
is much better supported than the equality of the divine persons.[13]


            The consensus among New
Testament scholars is that the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19 is an early
Church addition, which, by the way, does not indicate any specific aspects of
the orthodox Trinity.  Bloesch also mentions 2 Cor. 13:14 and Eph. 4:4-6, but
these passages are even weaker support for the Trinity. If Paul were a
Trinitarian you would think that he would have at least begun each letter with a
Trinitarian salutation.  But again we should not be surprised that Hebrew
dipolar theism, such as "Paul, an apostle . . . by Jesus Christ and God the
Father" (Gal. 1:1), is the theological frame of the standard greeting.


If the Trinity were
so central to the Gospels one would think that it would be a dominant doctrine
in the early Christian Church. The Greek word for Trinity (trias) does
not appear until ca. 180 when Theophilus of Antioch proclaims the "the Trinity
of God [the Father], His Word and His Wisdom" (Ad  Autolychum, II, 15)
(Please note the odd substitution of Wisdom for Spirit.) After a through study
of early Christian texts, Robert M. Grant makes the following conclusions: "The
doctrine of the Trinity in unity is not a product of the earliest Christian
period, and we do not find it carefully expressed before the end of the 2nd


It is clear that
the earliest formulations of the Trinity were just as much influenced by
neo-Platonism and Aristotle as the Bible.  The first inkling of the doctrine is
not even trinitarian, because Justin Martyr adds an "army of good angels" to the
threesome of Father, Son, and "prophetic Spirit."(Apology 1.6.2)  When
Athenagoras (Embassy 10.2) says that Christ is the "ideal form" (idea)
and the "energizing power" (energeia), he is indulging in the Hellenizing
thought that Jones so much condemns.  The first book on the Trinity was written
by Novatian of Rome, but Grant concludes that his doctrine subordinates the Son
to the Father and joins the strong Arian movement that was finally crushed by
"orthodox" bishops at the Council of Nicea.


Wondrous Trinities Everywhere, especially

religious imagination has always been fascinated with numbers, particularly
twos, threes, fours, fives, sevens, and nines.  Let us begin with Zoroaster, the
only religious prophet, who, according to scholarly consensus, wrote his own
scripture. Zoroaster’s ancestors once shared the same
religious culture as the people who would later bring the Vedas to India. 
Mary Boyce speculates that these early Indo-Iranians worshipped a moral triad
of Varuna, Mithra, and Ahura, who becomes the Ahura Mazda of Zoroastrianism.


    The Zoroastrian Godhead is a septad, a brilliant theological creation
that contains a double Trinity.  Ahura Mazda is the Wise Lord who expresses
himself first in a masculine Trinity of Good Mind (=Christian Logos), Good Law,
and Creative Power; and a feminine Trinity of Devotion, Perfection, and
Immortality.  The following passage describes this unity of seven divine persons
"who are seven of one thought, who are seven of one word, who are seven of one
deed, whose mind is the same whose speech is the same, whose deeds are the same,
and whose Master and Ruler is the same, the Creator, Ahura Mazda" (Fravardin
, 22:82-3). Note that Ahura Mazda follows Augustine’s rule that God
must be one "in will and action."



comm.gif (108288 bytes)

The Essene Gospel of
(www.essene.com/GospelOfPeace), showing influences from both Buddhism
and Zoroastrianism, proclaims a double septad, but unlike the Zoroastrians, who
subordinate the feminine, the Essenes balance an earthly mother with six modes
(earth, air, water, life, joy, and sun) persons equally with a heavenly father
with six modes (wisdom, eternal life, love, creative work, power, and peace).
The religion of Mithra, a later development of
Zoroastrianism and contemporary of Christianity, does return to a three-fold
deity with Ahura Mazda as Father, Mithra as Savior Son, and Anashita, a goddess,
as the third person.



        Let us now move to Buddhism, which
in its Mahayana school, developed a Trinity of the dharmakaya, the cosmic
body of the Buddha, the nirmanakaya, the dharmakaya as incarnate
in Gautama Buddha, and the sambhogakaya, the dharmakaya as the
intercessionary Bodhisattvas, performing roughly the same work as the Holy
scripture and art also portrays a Buddha of the Past (symbolizing all the
previous incarnations of the Buddha), the Buddha of the Present (Gautama
Buddha), and the Buddha of the Future, the Maitreya Buddha, the Buddhist Messiah
who will come to redeem the world. (See image from Tibet’s
Potala Palace on left.)
  While not orthodox, a very
popular Christian belief, beginning in medieval times, was a progressive
Trinitarian view of history with successive Ages of the Father, the Son, and the
Holy Spirit.


most well known Hindu Trinity (trimurti) is Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and
Shiva as Judge.  In the Maitri Upanishad the
three are called the "foremost forms of the supreme, the immortal, and bodiless
Brahman" (4.6). This formulation appears to be modalistic (i.e., modes
of divinity rather than "persons" of the Godhead), but even the best
triniatarian formulations of Western Christianity have been criticized as
modalistic. For example, John Webster, t
he best expositor of
Calvinist Karl Barth, concludes that his formulation of
the Trinity has a "monistic and modalistic tendency."[16a]


Under the influence of Advaita Vedanta (8th Century CE),
Brahman was later conceived as impersonal, but the text above and other Upanishads
make it clear that the highest reality is Brahman as Purusha, the Sanskrit word
for a male person. The Katha Upanishad reiterates the doctrine that the
Godhead is Purusha (3.10), and many of the Upanishads began with an invocation
to either Vishnu or Shiva as personal deities. (All the principal Upanishads are
pre-Christian written from 800-200 BCE.)
In fact, Shankara, the
founder of Advaita Vedanta, was a devout Shaivite and wrote wonderful hymns
to his personal Lord Shiva. This indicates that not too many
Hindus have ever worshiped an
One, just as no Greek ever worshiped Aristotle’s unmoved


personal theism devoted to Shiva started very early with his Vedic equivalent
Rudra: "Truly Rudra is one, there is no place for a second, who rules all these
worlds. . . . He, the protector, after creating all worlds, withdraws them at
the end of time."
Contained within this verse are the triune function
of C
reator, Preserver, and
Judge, and timeless interpenetration of these three modes of
existence is roughly equivalent to the
of the Christian Trinity
Icons of Shiva always show him carrying a trident, which
symbolizes his threefold nature as well as the threefold nature of reality as
(reality), rajas (desire), and tamas (matter).
In 1992 I had the privilege to see a world masterpiece bas relief of the Shiva
Trinity on Elephanta Island in Bombay harbor. (See image on
) The Portuguese military used the
side panels of the temple for target practice, but they spared the Shiva
Trinity, presumably out of respect for any Trinitarian Godhead. And as for
playful lovemaking and dancing, all the Hindu gods defer to Shiva for these
activities, because he was an expert in coitus interruptus and he won all
the dance contests.  Hindu classical dance, now performed only by Hindu women,
originated in the 108 dance steps by which Shiva brings each new cosmic age into


        The Hindu Goddess (Mahadevi=Great
Goddess) is also worshiped as a Trinity in which shakti, the feminine
power of the universe, is expressed as Sarasvati, Goddess of Wisdom
(=biblical Sophia), Lakshmi, Goddess of Prosperity, and Kali/Durga, Goddess of

(See Figure 1.) The Goddess theologians are
emphatic in their rejection of an impersonal Godhead. Please note how both
masculine and feminine attributes are harmonized in this Hindu Godhead. 
Protestants ignore the divine feminine at their peril: the Goddess will not
tolerate such neglect!  (I look forward to the Second Coming of Sophia!)  For
all of Jones’talk of egalitarian relations, it seems to apply only to the
masculine members of the Trinity and, for some odd reason, and is not reflected
in human families and society at large. Also recall that the Eastern Orthodoxy
promoted a top male ideology even with the Trinity itself, with divinity flowing
from the Father to the Son and then to the Spirit.


One might say that
with their fervent worship of Mary, Roman Catholics have squared the Trinity and
made it a more stable four-sided sacred mandala.  Let me be more provocative: if
Mary is truly the Mother of God (theotokos), i.e., Mother of both the
Father and the Son (equal in divine substance), then she moves to the Godhead
itself just as Mahadevi does in the Hindu Goddess Trinity.  But notice that in
both we have four elements that can be signified, divinity itself and its three
expressions.  As conservative evangelical philosopher Stuart C. Hackett affirms:
"Deity itself must have or be an essence."[18]
(So much for Jones rejecting a "flat oneness" separate from the three persons.)
Does not the sacred four here trump the sacred three? Or does the unity of
divine substance trump the three persons? Please note that if Jones says that the Godhead is not separate from
the three persons, then he backs right into tritheism with each of the divine
persons resting in their own separate divinity.



image of the Vishnu Trinity is shown at the left. Shri Bhagavan Dattatreya, very
popular incarnation of Vishnu, is visually represented by this icon. 
Dattatreya is also portrayed as encompassing the Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and
Shiva, but the th
e Bhagavata-purana and the
Markandeya-purana, state
that he is an incarnation of Vishnu only. This deity was so popular that followers of
Shiva also claim him and worship him in a triune form. 
Both major Hindu sects are so tolerant of one another that one artist combined
the two viewpoints in one triune image on the right. Dattatreya is holding
Vishnu’s conch and discus (adjacent to the heads on either side), and he holds
Shiva’s trident, holy water, and drum from right to left on the bottom.



The most popular savior God in India
is Krishna, the eighth incarnation of Vishnu. The Bhagavad-gita presents
Krishna as a Creator-Redeemer God who creates a real world of souls and matter. 
(Shankaras monistic interpretation of the Gita is now widely
discredited.) In Chapter 11 of the Gita Krishna transfigures himself in a
way very similar to Christ’s transfiguration (image on
  Krishna asserts his divine priority
and sovereignty by subordinating impersonal Brahman as his "womb" (14: 2, 27).
(See Figure 2.)
The Krishna Trinity is usually expressed by Vishnu as the cosmic body (vishvarupa),
the incarnate Krishna, and Krishna as paramatma, a Hindu equivalent of
the Holy Spirit immanent and working in all things.[19]
(See Figure 3.) On the  left you can see a
representation of the cosmic Vishnu and the baby Krishna
who conforms to my savior archetype very nicely
 Finally, even though Krishna has to dispatch a few demons, his childhood is
filled with mirth, song, dance, and godly love making. (Krishna images used by permission of the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.)



hilosophical Daoism represents a
monism in the Daodejing or a sophisticated skepticism in the works of
Zhuangzi.  Religious Daoism, however, is a marvelously multivalent
religious tradition that is dominated by the correlative method of relating five
elements, five colors, five planets, etc.  Trinities dominate as well. 
On the right you will find the Trinity of the Pure Ones as expressed in the All Truth Dragon Gate
School of religious Daoism.  (Daoist Templed in
Brisbane, Australia.)
This Trinity is thoroughly personalized as
(from the left) the
great sage Laozi, the Jade Emperor, and Ling Bao. Interestingly enough, the
Celestial Mother (second from left and modeled on the Hindu Goddess) is
suggested as the personal Godhead of each of the Pure Ones.


            Following the phenomenology of
religion explained at the beginning, I will not permit Jones to reject these
Trinities as pagan and false.  I have already anticipated his response that
Asian Trinities have an impersonal Godhead, which we’ve seen that most of them
do not. The question is not one of biblical "history" versus Asian myth either. 
Great literature can sometimes express the qualities that Jones admires better
than real life itself.  For example, the legend of Job reveals something about
Yahweh that I personally detest, but the legends of the boy Krishna show us a
culture that is truly in love with life and a religion that sacralizes all of
life’s manifestations.


            Jones also cannot argue that
these Trinities are formulated incorrectly for at least two reasons.  First, as
I have already pointed out, the few New Testament passages are so amorphous that
they do not allow for any exact formulation. As with their theology in general,
early Church Fathers had to resort to Greek philosophy to rationalize their
formulations of the Trinity. Second, as with the Incarnation, the Trinity is a
Christian mystery that cannot be made completely intelligible. On this point
there is yet another irony in the fact that Jones’ Tritheism is not a mystery
because there is nothing logically puzzling or baffling about a polytheism of
three separate divine persons. The mystery of course is the combination of a
substantial divine unity that at the same time has three distinct



            Let me summarize the ironic
implications I’ve discovered in Jones’ alleged Trinitarian theology.  We have
found monists who are nonconformists, funny, ironic, and nonviolent, but we have
now found Asian Trinitarians with these same qualities that we have not always
found in Christian Trinitarians. Jones is therefore foiled on two different
fronts. Furthermore, in their affirmation of substantial divine unity, Christian
Trinitarians affirm a monistic metaphysics that should lead to the horrid
actions that Jones claims all monists are prone to.  Please keep in mind that
the Asian Trinities hold to a substantial divine unity just a fervently as
orthodox Christians do, and this is the unity that Jones’
Tritheism does not


            Jones needs to learn the lesson
that I learned in writing my book Spiritual Titanism
(SUNY Press, 2000).  Early in that project I thought that a worldview that
deified humans would necessarily lead to power hungry and violent behavior.  But
then I had to face the fact that the Jains deify their saints as spiritual
Titans, but they are the foremost practitioners of nonviolence.  One of the
greatest temptations of the theoretical mind set is to propose necessary
connections between human ideas and human behavior.


            Jones’essay is well written and
aesthetically pleasing, but I have shown that it is riddled with unsupported
assertions and contains surprising gaps in philosophical and religious
knowledge.  The Trinity and other numeric religious symbols are aesthetically
pleasing, even seductive, but no right-thinking theologian should ever be
tempted to propose that their own number mysticism is superior to any other
system.  The Trinity is a matter of theological taste and not a point of dogma.
The virtue of humility is very much recommended on this issue.


            I had a friend at Claremont
School of Theology who was in love with the Trinity.  He was also very much
attracted, just as I was, to the process theology that was being taught there. 
In his dissertation he tried mightily to interpret Whitehead in a Trinitarian
way.  I did not get to read his dissertation and I have also lost track of him. 
Knowing full well the power of religious symbolism and the ingenuity of the
human mind, I’m sure that he figured out an interpretation that made a dipolar
theist into a Trinitarian.  I now could have told him that divine twoness is
just as biblical as divine threeness, but he probably would not have listened to


I am grateful to Brian Morton of the University of Idaho
Philosophy Department for his comments and criticisms.  My thanks also to
Douglas Jones for referring me to two of his own sources, John Thompson and
Roderick T. Leupp, cited in the footnotes.


Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology (New York: Harper & Row,
1987), vol. 1, p. 48, note 20; p. 35.

Buber, I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Scribner’s,
1970), p. 54.  Conservative evangelical theologian Carl Henry praises Buber
many times for his contributions to returning theology to a relational and
personal deity.  See indices in God,
Revelation, and Authority
(Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1976-1983), 6 vols.

Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry
Beveridge (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1983), vol. 1, pp. 127,


Quoted in John Thompson, Modern Trinitarian Perspectives (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 15.

T. Leupp, Knowing the Name of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press,
1996), p. 17.

of the Presbytery of the Mississippi Valley at

, 04msn.com">
MSVP04msn.com, p. 12 in the pdf document.

Federal Husband
(Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 1999), p. 16.

op. cit, vol. 1, p. 48, note 21. John Thompson concurs: "If these [the three
persons] are taken as three separate centers of consciousness in an
individualistic way, as some modern thought seems to do, then one would end
up with tritheism, a denial of the Trinity" (op. cit., p. 6). Thompson also
reminds us that "Augustine was unhappy even about the use of the term
�person,’ which to him smacked too much of individualism" (p. 128).


L. D. Campbell as cited in John C. Holt, The Religious World of Kirti Sri
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 10. 

Process and Reality (New York: Macmillan, 1929), p. 520.

a letter to Benjamin Rush (April 21, 1803) Jefferson states that Jesus
"corrected the deism of the Jews" by giving "juster notions of [God’s]
attributes and government" and by providing a superior ethics, something the
European deists could not do. In his autobiography Franklin relates that he
was converted to deism at an early age but later gave it up, mainly due to
its inability to distinguish vice from virtue (Carl Van Doren, ed.,
Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiographical Writings
[New York: Viking, 1945],
pp. 257-8.) John Adams, probably the most devout Christian among the
founders, explicitly argues against the views of Bolingbroke, Blount, and
Voltaire. Of Bolingbroke he says that "his religion is pompous folly; and
his abuse of the Christian religion is as superficial as it is impious" (L.
H. Bitterfeld, ed., The Diary and Autobiography of John Adams
[Cambridge, 1961], vol. 3, p. 264).  In their later years Adams and
Jefferson traded religious views by mail and their most scathing remarks
were reserved for Calvin and the Trinity.


Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas
(New York: Random House, 2003), p. 124.


Douglas  Jones, "Playing with Knives: God the
Dangerous," Credenda Agenda 16:3.


God moves and does all, we must take it that he moves and acts even in Satan
and the godless;…evil things are done with God himself setting them in
motion" (Luther’s Works, eds. Pelikan and Hansen [St. Louis,
Missouri: Concordia, 1968], vol. 33, p. 189).  Note that this is not a
simple allowing of evil but an active causing of it, as in God directly
causing all of Job’s miseries (42:11).

op. cit., vol. 5, p. 197.

H. Juel, "The Trinity and the
New Testament," Theology Today 54 (1997), p. 313.

is a strong logical argument for subordinationism as well.  If the copula in
the proposition "Jesus is God" is the "is of identity," then everything that
is true of Jesus is true of God.  This leads to a string of reductio ad
conclusions: If Jesus is born of Mary, then God is born of
Mary; if Jesus has wound in his side, then God has exactly
same wound as
well.  If it is possible for humans to be divine, and that is a very
problematic concession, then the Arian claim that "Jesus is divine," using
the "is of predication," is the only intelligible way to interpret the Son’s
nature in the Trinity and the Incarnation.

M. Grant, Gods and the One God (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press,
1986), p. 150.

(London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979), pp. 8ff; see also her A History
of Zoroastrianism
(Leiden: Brill, 1975), vol. 1.

Buddhist Texts Through the Ages, ed. Edward Conze (New York: Harper
Torchbooks, 1964), pp. 240, 249. Initially, Carl Henry admits to a Buddhist
personal theism, but then returns to the unfounded assertion that there is
no personal theism in Asia or that at most it is its very obscure (op. cit.,
vol. 5, pp. 142, 145).

Webster, Karl Barth (New York: Continum, 2nd ed.,
2004), p. 71.


3.2 in The Principal Upanishads, ed. and trans. S. Radhakrishnan
(Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1953).

Thomas Coburn, Devi-Mahatmya: The Crystallization of the Goddess
(New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1984); Devi-Bhagavata
Purana, trans. Swami Vijnananada
(New Delhi:  Manogarlal, 1921-23).

C. Hackett, The Reconstruction of the Christian Revelation Claim
(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984), p. 195, sidebar.

Satsvarupa dasa Gosvami, Readings in Vedic Literature, pp. 21-25.

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