The vast bulk of Christian denominations, representing the overwhelming majority of Christians, subscribe to the doctrine of the Trinity—which, boiled down to its essence, is “one God in three persons.”
Non-Christian monotheists such as Jews and Muslims commonly charge Christians with believing in three gods (a form of polytheism) based on this Trinitarian doctrine.
However, there are also some Christian groups and denominations that consider Trinitarianism to be a belief in three gods.
Trinitarians say that they believe in one God. Why, then, do many people, including some Christians, think that Trinitarians actually believe in three gods?
The Athanasian Creed: Think “three,” say “one”
Here is a quote from the Athanasian Creed, which is accepted as authoritative by the bulk of Christian denominations, showing that the situation is more complex than simply saying that the Trinity is one God:
For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity; to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord; So are we forbidden by the catholic religion; to say, There are three Gods, or three Lords.
This statement perfectly encapsulates the fundamental contradiction in the doctrine of the Trinity, and the reason why every Christian theologian who expounds on it admits that it is a mystery that cannot be understood by the human mind, but insists that it must nevertheless be believed.
The practical reality is that in thinking of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit each as distinct “persons” of God, the mind of the believer inevitably thinks of them as three different beings. This is really thinking of three gods, no matter how vigorously the believer says “one God” with the lips. Each person of God is given a distinct role, and they are conceptualized as interacting with one another as distinct personalities.
Trinitarians picture three gods in their mind
To illustrate this picture of three gods in the minds of those who believe in the Trinity, let’s look at how the Trinity is depicted in Christian artwork.
In Western Christianity, the Father is commonly pictured as an old bearded man, the Son as a young bearded man (often on the cross or associated with the cross), and the Holy Spirit as a dove. For example:
In Eastern Christianity, artwork depicting the Trinity often simply has three human figures. For example:
Clearly, though the lips are saying “one,” the mind is thinking “three.” But as the Athanasian Creed says, the church forbids the faithful from saying, “There are three gods.” Therefore faithful Christian Trinitarians will always say, “There is one God.”
And yet, that’s not what they are picturing in their mind.
As shown in thousands of depictions in Christian artwork, in their mind Trinitarians are picturing three figures, or three gods, not one.
Swedenborg on the polytheism of the Trinity of Persons
Here is how Emanuel Swedenborg articulates this contradiction between what the mind is thinking and what the lips are saying based on the Athanasian Creed. This is from True Christianity #172:
At a conceptual level, the idea of a trinity of divine persons from eternity (meaning before the world was created) is a trinity of gods. This idea is impossible to wipe out just by orally confessing one God.
The following words in the Athanasian Creed make it very obvious that a trinity of divine persons from eternity is a trinity of gods:
The Father is one person, the Son another, and the Holy Spirit another. The Father is God and Lord, the Son is God and Lord, and the Holy Spirit is God and Lord. Nevertheless there are not three gods and lords; there is one God and Lord. Just as Christian truth compels us to confess each person individually as God and Lord, so the catholic religion forbids us to say three gods or three lords.
This creed has been accepted by the entire Christian church as ecumenical or universal. Today everything known and acknowledged about God comes from it. Those who took part in the Council of Nicaea that gave birth to this posthumous child called the Athanasian Creed had no other concept of the Trinity except a trinity of gods, as any can see who merely keep their eyes open as they read it. Since that time they have not been the only people thinking in terms of a trinity of gods; the Christian world thinks in terms of no other Trinity because its whole concept of God comes from that creed and everyone now lives in a faith based on those words.
I submit it as a challenge to everyone—both laity and clergy, laureled professors and doctors as well as consecrated bishops and archbishops, even cardinals robed in scarlet and in fact the Roman pope himself—that the Christian world nowadays thinks of no other Trinity except a trinity of gods. You should all examine yourselves and then speak on the basis of the images in your mind.
The words of this creed—the universally accepted teaching about God—make it as clear and obvious as water in a crystal bowl. For example, the creed says that there are three persons, each of whom is God and Lord. It also says that because of Christian truth, people ought to confess or acknowledge that each person is individually God and Lord, but that the catholic or Christian religion or faith forbids us to say three gods or lords. This would mean that truth and religion, or truth and faith, are not the same thing; they are at odds with each other.
The writers of the creed added the point that there is one God and Lord, not three gods and lords, so that they would not be exposed to ridicule before the whole world. Who would not laugh at three gods? On the other hand, though, anyone can see the contradiction in the phrase they added.
Certainly, due to the insistence of the Bible and the Church that there is one God, Christians who believe in the Trinity will always emphatically say that there is one God.
But no matter how many times they say this, the concept in the minds of those who believe in the Trinity is of three divine beings. This amounts to thinking of God as three gods, regardless of any abstract metaphysical statements about their being “one in essence,” and regardless of the continually repeated statement that the three are one God.
In short, Trinitarians are actually thinking of three divine figures even though their lips are saying “one God.”
Swedenborg simply calls a spade a spade. He points out the practical reality that the doctrine of the Trinity of Persons is a polytheistic doctrine—that even though its adherents have been trained by the church to say, “There is one God,” in reality they are picturing and worshiping three gods.
(Note: This post is an edited and slightly expanded version of an answer I originally wrote and posted on Christianity StackExchange. You can see the original question on StackExchange here, and the StackExchange version of my answer here. I am now posting it on Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life to follow up on a recent series of comments on the article, “Does Doctrine Matter? Why is it Important to Believe the Right Thing?”)
For further reading:
- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
- What is the Biblical basis for disbelief in the doctrine of the Trinity?
- Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What about that Holy Spirit?
- The Logic of Love: Why God became Jesus