Classically the Trinity was defined in
God is one in
essence and three in person.
I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard or seen
this formulation described as a “contradiction.” Why is it called a
contradiction? We are accustomed to thinking in terms of “One person equals one
essence.” This equation may be a convenient one, but it’s not a rationally necessary
one. The Trinity is indeed unusual and mysterious, but it is not inherently or
If the formula for the Trinity asserted that God is one in
essence and three
in essence or that he is three in person and one
in person, we would be engaging in the nonsense of contradiction. Something
cannot be one in A and three in A at the same time and in the same
relationship. That’s contradiction.
The classical formula of the Trinity is that God is one in
one thing (one in A, essence)
and three in a different thing (three in B, persona).
The church fathers were careful not to formulate the nature of God in
contradictory terms. The distinction among persons of the Godhead may be
“essential” to Christianity, but the distinction itself is not an essential
distinction about God. That is, though the distinction among persons is a real
and necessary distinction,
it is not an essential distinction.
Lest we seem to be guilty of equivocation here, let me
explain further. When I say that the personal distinction among the Godhead is
not an essential distinction, I mean by “essential” that which refers to being
or essence, not to that which is “important” or “necessary” for other reasons.
The distinction is “essential” in the sense that it is important and necessary
for our understanding. It is not “essential” in the sense that it distinguishes being or essence in God.
The formula is not meant to say that essence and person are
the same things. Essence refers to the being of God, while person is used here
within being. Essence is primary and persona is secondary. Essence is the
similarity, while personal is the dissimilarity in the nature of God. He is
unified in one essence, but diversified in three personae.