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 Universe

Lord of the Cosmic Dance

Image by Stellmacher & Jensen


Note: If the images do not execute type in www.class.uidaho.edu/ngier/trinity.htm instead




Jones' principal 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 Wilson 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. Phenomenology--literally 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 does.


            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 "definitely 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 doctrine.


   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 religions.


Hasty Generalizations and Faulty Interpretations

            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 Christianity

            Jones' 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' Reformed 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."[4]


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 vocabulary."[5] 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."5a 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 Aristotle."


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 feminism.5b  One interesting implication of Wilson's analogy is that the children are analogous to the Holy Spirit.  While 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 personalities. 


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 Virtuous?

            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 www.class.uidaho.edu/ngier/hindfund.htm.


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.


Jones' incredible 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' ministry 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 manifestations.


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 (à 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. Finally, 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: www.class.uidaho.edu/ngier/3dp.htm 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 gods.


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 logos.


            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."[12]  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 Century."[14] 


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 Asia

     The 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.[15]


    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 Yasht, 22:82-3). Note that Ahura Mazda follows Augustine's rule that God must be one "in will and action."



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The Essene Gospel of Peace (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 Spirit.[16]  Buddhist 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.


        The 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, the 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 impersonal One, just as no Greek ever worshiped Aristotle's unmoved mover.


        A 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."[16b] Contained within this verse are the triune functions of Creator, Preserver, and Judge, and timeless interpenetration of these three modes of existence is roughly equivalent to the perichoresis 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 sattva (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 left.) 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 existence.


        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 Judgment.[17] (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.



An 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 the 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.  (Shankara's 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 right).  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 (www.class.uidaho.edu/ngier/archetype.htm).  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.)



            Philosophical 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 "persons."



            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 have.


            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 me.


Acknowledgments.  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.


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

[2]Martin 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.

[3]John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1983), vol. 1, pp. 127, 112-114.

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

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

[5a]Report of the Presbytery of the Mississippi Valley at http://www.msvalleypresbytery.com, MSVP04@msn.com, p. 12 in the pdf document.

[5b]Douglas Wilson, Federal Husband (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 1999), p. 16.

[6]Bloesch, 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).

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

[8]Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York: Macmillan, 1929), p. 520.

[9]In 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.


[9a]See Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (New York: Random House, 2003), p. 124.


[9b]Douglas  Jones, "Playing with Knives: God the Dangerous," Credenda Agenda 16:3.


[10]"Since 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).

[11]Henry, op. cit., vol. 5, p. 197.

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

[13]There 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 absurdum conclusions: If Jesus is born of Mary, then God is born of Mary; if Jesus has wound in his side, then God has exactly the 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.

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

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

 [16]See 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).

[16a]John Webster, Karl Barth (New York: Continum, 2nd ed., 2004), p. 71.

[16b]Shvetashavatara Upanishad 3.2 in The Principal Upanishads, ed. and trans. S. Radhakrishnan (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1953).

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

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

 [19]See Satsvarupa dasa Gosvami, Readings in Vedic Literature, pp. 21-25.