Is the Trinity One “What” and Three “Who’s”?

James White summarizes the Christian doctrine of the Trinity this way:

Within the one Being that is God, there exists eternally three coequal and coeternal persons, namely, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. (The Forgotten Trinity, 26)

He goes on to talk about how important it is that we distinguish Being from person.

Note immediately that we are not saying there are three Beings that are one Being, or three persons that are one person. Such would be self-contradictory. I emphasize this because, most often, this is the misrepresentation of the doctrine that is commonly found in the literature of various religions that deny the Trinity. (27)

He then paraphrases the teaching of Hank Hanegraaff, who “has often expressed this point in a wonderfully simple and clear way”:

When speaking of the Trinity, we need to realize that we are talking about one what and three who’s. The one what is the Being or essence of God; the three who’s are the Father, Son, and Spirit. We dare not mix up the what’s and who’s regarding the Trinity. (27)

This expression of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity is probably the norm among conservative evangelicals, but I have a growing dissatisfaction with it. In my view, it lends itself too easily to the view that the Trinity is merely a society of three divine persons, whose oneness goes no further than the abstract nature they share in common.

Responding to some of the faulty implications to which the traditional expression may lend itself (and defending Van Til’s view against the contention that it is logically contradictory), John Frame helpfully summarizes Van Til’s view of the Trinity this way:

[In his doctrine of the Trinity,] Van Til is considering the implications of another statement, universally recognized as orthodox, that “each of the persons of the Godhead is co-terminous with the being of the Godhead.”1 That is to say, each of the persons is fully God, possessing all divine attributes. The persons are not parts of God, as though one could act without the others acting along with him. “God’s being presents an absolute numerical identity.”2 He is one “being,” not three; the three partake of one “essence.”

Now the question becomes, is that one being personal or impersonal? Philosophers have sometimes said that we should distinguish between essence and individuality as follows: Fido, Rover, and Spot are three individuals with a common essence, namely the essence of “dogness” or “doghood.” But “doghood” is an abstraction. You can put Fido on a leash, but you cannot so restrain doghood. Now is it legitimate to understand the Trinity (to be sure, a reality exalted far above the canine realm) according to this model? If so, the persons, Father, Son, and Spirit, would be the individuals, and the divine essence, God, would be an abstraction. But of course this model is entirely inadequate for the Trinity. God is not an abstraction. Nor is he a mere society of three gods, united by common abstract properties.

What is he, then? As we indicated earlier, Van Til’s answer is that God is an “absolute person.” Abstractions are impersonal. God is a concrete, personal reality. Our word is ruled by a person, not an abstract principle. As Van Til says, when God identified himself to us in revelation, “there was not universal being of which he was a particular instance.”3 If the three persons (individually and collectively) exhaust the divine essence (are “co-terminous” with it), then the divine essence itself must be personal. And if God is an absolute person, and his is one, there must be a sense in which he is one person.

. . .

I do believe that when Van Til’s argument is seriously considered, his formulation will not sound so outlandish. Indeed, I believe that the argument is cogent and that the formulation is true. It is also traditional, for it is clearly implied by the doctrine that the divine persons each contain the fullness of God.

3. How, then, do we relate the “one person” to the “three persons”? Van Til asserts that “this is a mystery beyond our comprehension.”4 Indeed! But he does not say that the two assertions are contradictory. Are they in fact contradictory? That may seem obvious, but in fact it is not necessarily the case. Anybody who has studied logic knows that something can be both A and not-A if the two A’s have different senses. In this case, God can clearly be both one person and not-one person, if the meaning of “person” changes somewhat between the two uses.

The traditional language, “one in essence, three in person” (which, again, Van Til does not reject), brings out more clearly, of course, that the oneness and the threeness are in different respects. But the formulation “one person and three persons” does not deny that difference of respect. It is simply an alternative formulation that makes a point somewhat different from the point of the traditional language.

4. How is the word person used in different senses or respects? Obviously, there is some difference between the sense of “person” applied to the oneness of God and the sense applied to the three members of the Trinity. Van Til would agree, for example, with the creedal statements that the Father is the begetter, the Son is begotten, and the Spirit is the one who proceeds; the whole Godhead is neither begetter, begotten, nor proceeder. But neither Van Til nor I would claim to be able to state, precisely and exhaustively, the difference between God’s essence and the individual person of the Godhead. Doubtless the Clarkite critics of Van Til will find this a damaging admission, for they insist that all theological statements be perfectly precise. Never mind that Scripture itself often fails to be precise about the mysteries of the faith.5
(Cornelius Van Til, 67–69)6

I can appreciate James White’s desire to respond concisely in his apologetic encounters to charges that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is contradictory. Certainly Van Til’s formulation is not the most convenient. However, I’m much more comfortable with being less precise and leaving the mystery of how God can be one and yet three unresolved. Attempts to explain this mystery can have the tendency to paint a picture of God as one whose oneness is impersonal and abstract. In my view, this is an inadequate view of our Triune God.


  1. [N16] IST, 229.
  2. [N17] Ibid.
  3. [N18] Ibid., 232. Certainly God and the world may both be said to “be,” and thus to “partake of being.” But Van Ti’s point is that this is not to say that the basic nature of the universe is abstract (“being”) and that God and man are mere variants of that abstract quality.
  4. [N19] Ibid., 230.
  5. [N20] On an orthodox view, Scripture is always true, but it is not always maximally precise. That is an important point when we consider, e.g., biblical uses of round numbers, phenomenal language (“The sun rose”), etc. These are not errors, but they are certainly imprecise. Nor does Scripture give us a precise or comprehensive account of the eternal relations between Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and the divine essence.
  6. The rest of the section, which ends on page 71, is well worth reading.

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11 Responses to Is the Trinity One “What” and Three “Who’s”?

  1. Joe Miller April 28, 2008 at 11:14 pm #

    I agree Phil. In an effort to satisfy our Reason, we end up going beyond the Revelation of YHWH and remove the mystery of our Creator.

  2. Cruv April 29, 2008 at 5:12 am #

    These are some good thoughts, Phil. I too have been dissatisfied with the traditional expressions of Who God is simply because they describe Him as impersonal. In part, I think these expressions hardly touch upon the Love of God. I have written a brief and possibly over-concise article about the Love of God which, at least for me, has been beneficial to think in these terms as well –

    I’d like to know your thoughts – am I still missing the mark?

  3. Paul Lamey April 29, 2008 at 7:13 am #


    This reminded me of a comment that Frame made in his “Salvation Belongs to the Lord.” He wrote, “I think some theologians exaggerate what we know about the Trinity” (30). In our angst to “give an answer for the hope” it is easy at times to rush over the complexities of our theology.

    Thanks for the post.


  4. Phil Gons May 7, 2008 at 9:51 pm #

    Thanks for the comments, guys.

    Cruv, thanks for pointing me to your post. That’s a very helpful perspective.

    Good quote, Paul. Thanks for citing it.

    • Peter Ochoa April 1, 2013 at 5:48 pm #

      I have a question regarding this profound topic.

      When you say God is one person or one consciousness who thinks wills and loves. While at the same time remaining 3 distinct persons or consciousnesses who think will and love.

      Are you saying when they come together as one consciousness there is a mixture of the 3 consciousnesses and with respect to the one consciousness the 3 are no longer distinct while at the same time in another sense with respect to the 3 consciousness they are distinct?

      Or are you saying that because each knows each other fully including their thoughts and fully indwell each other. Although the 3 conscioussnesses don’t mix they are together in perfect unity and when speaking about them as a unit they could be considered one consciousness or person?

      Thanks God bless


  5. Cameron September 3, 2008 at 5:26 pm #

    Thanks for this post Phil. Dr. White’s books have revolutionized by theology. However, when reading the introduction to ‘The Forgotten Trinity’ I had similar things to say as the begining of your response.

    I would not refer to the oneness of God as a “what” simply because Jehovah would not be refered to as a what, but a “who”. Further, one persons existing also as 3 persons (3 who’s existing also as 1 who) is not self-contradictory. It just means God is in a catagory of being far beyond our understanding. Saying God is 3 persons and not 3 persons is self contradictory, however.

  6. Derek Ashton September 4, 2008 at 6:43 pm #


    This is great stuff! I’m so thrilled to see an acknowledgment of the deep mystery in theology – Not denying the Biblical statements in any way, just admitting that they’re ultimately beyond human comprehension. At some point, all of us have to admit that our finite minds are incapable of fully rationalizing the vastness and profundity of God. For me, this is one more reason to worship the ineffable and glorious God Who created all things, reigns sovereignly, loves His creatures, gave His Only Son, and redeemed us from our sins. He’s beyond me, and that’s comforting. If He could “fit” in my pea brain, what would that say?

    One other point: isn’t it interesting that the ONE HUMAN BEING Who could have explained all of this to us spoke often in parable and paradoxes? He did not offer rationalizations that would merely satisfy our craving for knowledge. Hmmm.

  7. Cameron September 10, 2009 at 10:33 pm #

    I’m now coming back to this because here is my encounter with White when trying to discuss this issue with him.

  8. Cameron April 13, 2010 at 1:55 pm #

    I changed the address. Here are my remarks after being kicked off of White’s chat forum for holding to this view of the Trinity! It was crazy. White actually banned me forever from his chat forum for disagreeing with him on this very issue!

  9. TheColonel July 15, 2010 at 2:58 pm #

    My son (a JW, unfortunately!) suggested this website because he and I have had ongoing discussions about the nature of God as Trinity. There’s a whole lot of back story to all this, but I don’t want to go there. Let me just say that I think that John Frame, in his second paragraph (next to last and fourth from last sentences) equivocates on the word \God\. It seems logical to me that \God\ can be understood as being either subjective or objective. For example, we could say, \Only Yahweh is the true God.\ Here, \God\ essentially speaks of nature or essence. I could even envision being in a conversation with someone and saying more colloquially, \Only God is God!\ Here in one sentence, \God\ is used two ways, the later referring more to the nature of a particular entity we know as God/Yahweh.

    So, my objection is that Frame, in the cited paragraph used \God\ the first time in an objective sense (He’s essentially describing a category of thought.) and the second time in a subjective sense (the \Person\ of God?!) and tried to equate the two….which, speaking logically, is what’s called an informal fallacy. I actually don’t have a problem using the idea of one \what\ and three \whos\ as long as you define your terms with those you’re engaging in debate.

    In any case, the bottom line is that I’m wondering why my son sent me here. I know that James White’s description of the Trinity is not always helpful when you’re defending the revealed triune God against a typical (much less a well-trained/experienced) Witness. But, it seems to me that everyone who commented above was thoroughly supportive of the Trinity, and I appreciate very much the comments regarding the mysteries of the faith and Frame’s last sentence.

    • Cameron July 16, 2010 at 11:45 am #

      TheColonel, I assume it’s a good thing your son brought you here, because many JW will point out to Christians that they are somewhat sub-consciously tri-theists since they don’t believe that Yahweh in his oneness is a person, but an abstract being. So maybe at least your son, as JW, realizes that Christians have answers for these types of accusations.

      I agree with you that “one what and three persons” needs clarification, but ALSO so does “one person and three persons”!

      The major problem with JW’s is that they place the traditions of the WTS over reading Scripture in context, grammatically correct, and consistently. For example, when you take them to Mat 1:23 which refers to Jesus as “o theos” (the God), what do they do? They go to other passages which they think show he’s NOT God. Here’s what you have to say next. “I’ve reconciled the passage you’re showing me which doesn’t explicitly say he’s not God, with the passage I showed you which explicitly says he is God. You need to reconcile those too, otherwise you’re having lunch line theology where you pick and choose which verses you want to tell you about Jesus while ignoring others.” Then you need to repeat this a 1000 times and pray to God they eventually admit it.

      The reason JW’s don’t admit it though is because they are “bible readers”, NOT “bible students”. They’re only “WTS students”.

      I showed a JW once that John 12:41 proves that Christ is Yahweh in the OT, and they actually said that in verse 41 the pronoun “him” changes to refer to Yahweh, not Christ. This is so silly and a desperate try because the surrounding pronouns seemlesly refer to Christ, and there is never a break to allow the pronouns refer to anyone else. That is basic Greek.

      I’ll be praying for your son. The truth is always better when it’s true.

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