Is Trinity Monotheism Orthodox?

Dear Dr. Craig,

I've been listening to your Defenders class since it restarted in December of 09 and have greatly benefited from the content. I'd like to thank you for your continuous love for God and his truths; your work is a real blessing. Recently, in your defenders class you have been discussing the doctrine of the Trinity. The most recent two pod casts have been on an attempt to understand the relationship between the diverse members of the Trinity and their unity. You have been forming and defending the model that is in Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview in chapter 29 in your podcasts where you use the analogy of Cerberus in Greek mythology.

My question has to do with your model of the trinity and a recent article that I've read which disagrees with your formulation. In Thomas Flint & Michael Rea's Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology, specifically in chapter 18, Michael Rea argues against your formulation starting on page 415. He labels the model you are defending a part-whole Trinitarianism. He writes, "... Moreland and Craig want to preserve the view that God is divine while denying that that God is a fourth divine thing on a par with the persons. Thus, they distinguish two kinds of divinity: the full divine nature, which is possessed by God and implies tri-unity; and a derivative divine nature, possessed by each person."

Rae then objects by raising two problems, which he thinks are "devastating" to your model. First he argues that you are unable to affirm the opening line of the Nicene Creed. Rae writes, "... Moreland and Craig cannot affirm the opening line of the Nicene Creed: 'We believe in one God, the Father, almighty.' For, on their view, God is a fundamentally different thing from the Father," (p. 416).

Second, Rae argues that the model you defend cannot affirm the crucial homoousion clause in the same creed "unless they reject the idea that there is exactly one divine nature." Rae unpacks this when he writes, "... the only viable interpretations of the creedal claim that the Son is homousion with the Father have it that the Son is either numerically the same substance as the Father or of the same nature as the Father. (Natures were also referred to as 'substances'; hence, being consubstantial with something might just mean having the same nature.) the former, of course, they reject. The latter they accept; but in accepting it, they posit, effectively, two divine natures one 'genuine', possessed only by God; the other derivative, but still divine, possessed by the two persons. Of course, they could deny that the derivative nature is a divine nature. But in so doing, they seem to strip the persons of their divinity, which would conflict with other parts of the Nicene and Constantinopolitan creeds. If all this is right, then, part-whole Trinitarianism is in serious trouble ..." (p. 416).

I'm curious how you would respond to Michael Rea as I value both of your contributions to theology in particular, and the advancement of the kingdom of God in general. I'm not sure if you have interacted with Rae on these points before, but I'd love to hear a response to these objections. Thanks again for all that you do.


United States

Thank you, Jeff, for drawing my attention to these criticisms! Are they as devastating as Michael thinks?

(1) Does the opening line of the Creed affirm that God just is the Father? I think Michael fails to take into account the New Testament background of the phrase “We believe in one God, the Father, almighty.” The credal context of that phrase is

We believe in one God, the Father almighty. . . ;
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, . . . ;
And in the Holy Spirit.

The confession is drawn from I Cor. 8:6: “for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” The creed lifts Paul’s key phrase “one God, the Father . . . and one Lord, Jesus Christ” and then tacks on for Trinitarian purposes the terse mention of the Holy Spirit. As Murray Harris explains in his fine book Jesus as God (Baker, 1992), the reason one finds relatively few references in the New Testament to Jesus as ho theos (God) is because that term was reserved for the Father. When the New Testament writers use the word “God,” they are typically referring to the Father. Since the New Testament writers didn’t believe that Jesus was the Father, they had to find other expressions to indicate his deity, such as ho kyrios (Lord). The creed follows this idiom. So when it refers to “one God, the Father,” that needn’t be taken to mean that the Father is the whole of who God is. To talk of ho theos is just to talk about the Father. Thus, when Jesus is confessed to be “the Son of God,” this is taken to mean “begotten from the Father.”

(2) Being homoousion (consubstantial) with the Father is then not problematic because the Father isn’t taken to be the whole being God is. The Father and the Son share the same derivative nature (as Michael puts it; I’m not altogether happy with this way of making the distinction). We shouldn’t think of the divine persons as instances of God’s nature, lest we have a quaternity instead of a Trinity. There is just one being which is the Triune God. The Father, Son, and Spirit share the same essential properties that make them count as divine, like omnipotence, omniscience, moral perfection, necessity, etc. It is misleading to contrast the persons’ nature with the “genuine” nature of God, as though their divinity were somehow second-rate or counterfeit. A cat’s skeleton or DNA is fully and genuinely feline even if they are not themselves cats, that is, instances of the cat nature. Similarly, the Father, Son, and Spirit are genuinely divine, though they are not each a Trinity, that is, an instance of God’s nature.