The Trinity: What Are Defective Ideas?

A prominent pastor said on global Christian television (paraphrased): “God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit. See? Three Gods! Right? All agree? Okay!” Not okay. We must learn about defective teachings, so we can steer clear of them.

Here are various defective teachings.

1.. What does subordinationism mean, and how is it countered?

It means the Son is subordinate to the Father both in his roles and functions and his being or substance or essence.

The proper understanding is the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father in roles and functions, not in his being, in their roles during creation and redemption. The Father speaks it into existence, and the Son carries it out. But he is of the same full essence as the Father: equal in essence, subordinate in roles.

Without these distinctions of roles and persons, the Triunity would evaporate into a single, solitary, lonely God and into modalism (see below).

2.. What does adoptionism mean, and how is it countered?

It means that Jesus lived as an ordinary man until his baptism, when the Father “adopted” Jesus as his “son” and blessed him with the Holy Spirit. Christ is an exalted man whom God called his “Son” in a unique sense (Grudem p. 245). This false doctrine did not gain much traction in the early church.

When Did Jesus “Become” the Son of God?

The proper response is to read all of Scripture and conclude that the Son had the attributes of deity while he was living on earth as a man. And of course John 1:1-3 says the Logos (Christ) was God.

3.. What does modalism mean, and how is it countered?

God is not three distinct persons, but one person who appeared to men in three modes or forms, as Father, Son, and Spirit in chronological sequence. One God in one person took on three masks. It works out like this:


Old Testament as FatherFour Gospels as Son → Church Age as Spirit

That image is wrong. Another expression of modalism says that God wears three masks simultaneously, each an aspect or revelation of God.

God has been turned into a protean shape-shifter, a quick-change artist—or a slow-motion change artist!

Sometimes modalism is referred to as Sabellianism, after a teacher named Sabellius who lived in Rome in the early third century AD.

Another term is modalistic monarchianism, meaning that God may have revealed himself in different modes, but he was monarch or ruler of the universe.

Counter: The fatal flaw is that it denies the fulness of the three persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who appears in various Scriptures as three distinct persons, at The Son’s baptism, for example (Matt. 3:13-17). This shows we cannot collapse or merge the three persons into one person who changes forms or masks. Keep the persons full and distinct in their roles.

4.. What does Patripassianism mean, and how is it countered?

Patri- (father) and passion (suffering or acted on; cf. passive) means that the Father incarnated in the Son and he too suffered on the cross in the Son. This is countered by keeping the persons and their roles distinct.

5.. What does Socianism mean, and how is it countered?

This defective teaching is named after Faustus Socinus (1539-1604), who was born in Siena, Italy on 5 Dec 1539. His education happened when his two uncles tutored him. He settled in Poland in 1578, where an antitrinitarian community was strong. Socinus believed that Scripture should be interpreted rationally, and this led him to deny the deity of Christ. Christ had a human nature only until after his resurrection, when the Father delegated some divine power on the risen Christ.

The counter to this is to read Scripture that reveals the absolute deity of Christ in his divine nature while he was on earth.

2. Two Natures in One Person: He Was Human and God (this link has many Scriptures)

6.. What does tritheism mean, and how is it countered?

It means that since God is three persons, there must be three Gods. As noted, a prominent pastor fell into this error on international television at a huge conference: (paraphrased): “God the Father, God, the Son, and God the Spirit! So there are three Gods!”

I believe the pastor was sincere and did not mean to be heretical, but it is important to get doctrine of the Trinity right, even in its most basic form. This doctrinal care is especially true if you have a global TV platform. However, if you are not clear about this important doctrine, then stay within in your own lane and don’t teach it at a large conference.

To clarify, all this quoted threefold expression means is that the three persons of the Trinity share the same essence as God, the same “Godness,” not that there are three Gods.

It is countered by clear a definition. To clarify further why there are three persons, but not three Gods, God’s essence is not divided equally into three parts; it is not one-third, plus one-third, plus one-third. Rather, all three persons share the same essence in common, fully God in one being, in total and perfect unity, not as three Gods, which is called tritheism.

7.. What are other defective ideas?

Let’s set them up one at a time.

That is, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are not add-ons to God’s being.

Another defective image:

We must go deeper than that image.

So God is not one-third Father, one-third Son, and one-third Spirit. The lines do not show the right interrelation between the three persons (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit).

8.. What is the right doctrine again?

Basic trinitarian doctrine teaches that one God exists in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. God is one substance, essence, or being with three persons—the Triunity.

Three persons are contained in one essence, in one God.

It is important to keep the terms persons and essence clear.

Here is the right image:

You may want to study this image for a few minutes (take as long as you need). This image keeps the three persons distinct:

I really like the triangle superimposed on the circle. The three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) are distinguished by the circle with the lines “is not.” The Father is neither the Son nor the Spirit; the Son is neither the Father or the Spirit; and the Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son. Further, each person is in a separate corner of the triangle. Therefore, the three persons are distinct, yet each person shares the same substance or essence called God.

Here is another correct image:

The Better Image

Note that three persons (F, S, HS or Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) are within one God, sharing the same essence. The one God (= the circle), monotheism, and all three persons are contained in it. Each person is equal to the whole being of God. The broken or gapped lines keep the persons distinct, but they also are gapped to indicate interpersonal relationship between the three persons. The substance is not divided, but shared by all three persons, equally.

As usual, don’t push illustrations too far. They are merely designed to help guard against misunderstanding and to clarify.

So how does knowing about the Trinity help me know God better?

Here is an entire ten-point post that answers that question:

The Trinity: What Does He Mean to Me?

For now: personally, I like to simplify things. The Scriptures reveal the Father and the Son, not to give us a headache, but so we can relate to them. We can have a personal relationship with the Father as intimately (and more so) as we have with our own father. And we can relate to the Son as the Messiah and Lord, who has a unique relationship with the Father. The Son reveals the Father. The title Father is more personal and revealing than “God.” The Spirit of the Father and the Son now lives in us so he can empower us to have a relationship with the Father and the Son.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Cor. 13:14, NIV)

Bottom line: let’s have a relationship with the Father and the Son (and the Holy Spirit), since they are revealed in Scripture in those two persons (and the third person of the Spirit), for our relational benefit.


The Trinity: What Are the Basics?

The Trinity: What Are Key Terms?

The Trinity: What Are Some Illustrations?

The Trinity: What Does the Old Testament Say?

The Trinity: Three Persons Together in the New Testament

The Trinity: What Do Theologians Say?

The Trinity: What Are His Roles in Creation and Redemption?

The Trinity: What Does ‘Only Begotten Son’ Mean in John 3:16?

The Trinity: What Do Arians and Jehovah’s Witnesses Teach?

The Trinity: What Are Defective Ideas?

The Trinity: What Are Replies to Objections?

The Trinity: Why Would God Seem So Complicated?

The Trinity: What Does He Mean to Me?


Works Cited (see Grudem, pp. 319-221, 2nd ed.)

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