R.C. Sproul’s What Is The Trinity?


What The Triune God Isn’t and What He Is

Book Reviewed by Dr. David P. Craig

If you were asked to clearly define what it means that God is Triune could you do it? In this short book (60 pages) Sproul helps you to understand the biblical doctrine that God is one in essence and three in person. In his inimitable style Sproul gives a lucid  and cogent defense of the Trinity as articulated in key passages of Scripture and as has been defended in the great early Church Council’s of Nicea and Chalcedon.

One of the most helpful sections in this book is when Sproul explains what the Trinity is, by explaining what it isn’t. He gives a brief history of the different early heresies with reference to the early teachings of the church in trying to articulate a unified understanding of the doctrine of God – His character, nature, and essence. He explains and shows the weaknesses of all the major early heresies with reference to a misunderstanding of the Trinity: Adoptionism, Monarchianism, Modalism, Monarchianistic Modalism, Monophysitism, Nestorianism, and Dynamic Monarchianism.

I highly recommend this book on the Trinity as a good place to start in trying to comprehend the biblical doctrine of how God can be one in essence and three in person. Don’t let the shortness of this book turn you away. Sproul is always deep, clear, biblical, theologically precise, and easy to understand. You are sure to learn something new and practical to help you in your walk with Jesus.

A Fascinating Look At 112 Triads Illuminating the Trinity by John M. Frame

Adapted from Appendix 1 in the phenomenal book: The Doctrine of God by *John M. Frame, Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 2002

I will present here a list of triads that have sometimes been thought to reflect or illumine the Trinity in some way. I will offer a few comments, but normally will present them without comment.

I have tried to weed out those that seem to me to be obviously arbitrary, contrived, or uninteresting, but readers should not assume my evaluation of any of these. I do not place any theological weight on these examples—nor do I urge readers to do so. All I would claim is that these triads are of some interest and that they may in some measure reflect, illumine, or provide for the evidence of the Trinity on any of these triads (except for the first one).

Some are taken from other sources, but I will not be able to provide adequate documentation in many cases. I have been building this list for many years, and I have lost track of many sources, for which I apologize to the authors (Nathan Wood, The Trinity in the Universe, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1984 has an even longer list of vestigia). The chapter numbers refer to the chapters in The Doctrine of God.

Scripture and Christian Theology Triads

 (1) Texts anticipating, reflecting, or explicitly teaching the Trinity (chaps. 27-29).

(2) Divine act, covenant making, and period of application.

(3) History, law, and sanctions, as elements of the suzerainty treaty.

(4) God’s word as powerful, meaningful, and self-expressive (See John Frame, Perspectives on the Word of God, Eugene, OR.: Wipf and Stock, 1999, 9-16).

(5) Events, words, and persons as media of God’s word (See Perspectives, 17-35).

(6) Prophet, priest, king.

(7) Revelation, inspiration, and illumination (See Perspectives, 31-32).

(8) Revelation: general, special, and existential.

(9) Control, authority, and presence, as God’s lordship attributes (as discussed throughout The Doctrine of God).

(10) God’s oneness as unity, equality, and concord (Augustine).

(11) Goodness, knowledge, and power, as classifications of divine attributes (as in this volume). Omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence, as exemplifications of these.

(12) The theological account of God’s holiness as mysterium temendum et fascinans (mystery arousing fear and fascination – Rudolph Otto).

(13) The threefold repetition of “holy” in Isaiah 6:3.

(14) God as life (John 14:6), light (1 John 1:5), and love (1 John 4:8, 16).

(15) God’s righteousness as standards, actions, and moral excellence (chap. 21).

(16) God’s will as decree, precept, and wisdom (chap. 23).

(17) God’s spirituality as control, authority, and presence (chap. 25).

(18) God’s acts, attributes, and persons.

(19) Miracles as signs, wonders, and powers (chap. 13).

(20) Creation of heaven, earth, and sea (the three-layered universe).

(21) The sun, moon, and stars.

(22) Providence as government, revelation, and concurrence.

(23) God’s decrees, creation-providence, and redemption.

(24) Law, redemption accomplished, and redemption applied (chap. 13).

(25) Jesus as the Word, his acts in history, and his nature as God and man (chap. 13).

(26) Election, effectual calling, and individual soteriology (chap. 13).

(27) Biblical history: the old covenant period, from the incarnation to the Resurrection, Pentecost to the consummation.

(28) The three parts of the Old Testament in the Hebrew Bible: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings.

(29) Many triads in Bible stories and laws: three stories in Noah’s ark, three sendings of birds after the Flood, three sons of Noah, three visitors to Abraham, three patriarchs, three divisions of the tabernacle, three feast periods, three offerings. The cleansing of a leper by blood, water, and oil on the ear, thumb, and toe (Leviticus 14:1-20). Three years in Jesus’ ministry, three temptations, and three crosses.

(30) Grain, wine, and oil as chief staples, elements of offerings, sacraments, and rites.

(31) Creation, redemption accomplished, and redemption applied.

(32) Man as image of God: in Meredith Kline’s view, the image consists of physical, judicial, and moral qualities (in my terms, situational, normative, and existential qualities (Meredith G. Kline, Images of the Spirit, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980).

(33) Human responsibility as accountability, liability, and integrity (chap. 8).

(34) Justification, adoption, and regeneration-sanctification as the major benefits of redemption (chap. 13).

(35) The grounds of assurance of salvation: the promises of God, the fruit of salvation in one’s life, and the internal witness of the Spirit (normative, situational, and existential).

(36) Sanctification: definitive, progressive, and final (at the consummation).

Non-Christian Religion Triads

 (37) A.A. Hodge says that the doctrine of the Trinity captures and balances the truth of deism, pantheism, and mythology, by its teaching about the Father, Spirit, and Son respectively (See his interesting discussion in A.A. Hodge, Evangelical Theology, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1976, 107-10).

(38) Triadic polytheisms: (a) Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva in Hinduism; (b) Osiris, Isis, and Horus in Egyptian religion; (c) Sin, Shamash, and Ishtar (Babylon); (d) Anu, Elish, and Ea (Sumer); (e) Uranos, Kronos, and Zeus (Greece); Odin, Thor, and Loki (Norse).

(39) Raimundo Panikkar: everyone has three aspects: divine, anthropic, and cosmic (normative, existential, and situational).

(40) In mysticism: cogitation, meditation, and contemplation.

(41) In mysticism: purification, illumination, and ecstasy.


(42) Predicables, cases, and exemplifications, like wisdom, Socrates’ wisdom, and Socrates. I see these as normative, situational, and existential (See Nicholas Wolterstorff, On Universals, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970, 133).

(43) Thales is said to have believed that every object has three dimensions: physical, living, and divine.

(44) Hegel’s being, nothing, and becoming, and other triads on patterns of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.

(45) Many twofold distinctions can be construed as triads, for the two terms are related in an important way, producing a unity that brings them together similar to Hegel’s dialectic. Thus: subject/object, naïve/theoretical, free/determined, one/many, form/matter, and so forth (Thanks to my correspondent Daniel Davis – henceforth DCD for this observation).

(46) Instantiation, association, and classification (Vern Poythress, described in chap. 29; other threefold distinctions in his writings: particle, wave, field; expressive, informational, productive).

(47) Beginning, middle, end.

(48) Good, true, and beautiful, seen as convertible in scholastic philosophy. But being, unity, and particularity are also among the convertible “transcendentals.”


(49) Object, subject, and law (DKG).

(50) The situational, normative, and existential perspectives.

(51) In logic: major premise, minor premise, and conclusion.

(52) Dooyeweerd: the Archimedean point, by which we see the world rightly, must not be separated from our selfhood, divine law, or the totality of the meaning of the cosmos (I see these as existential, normative, and situational, respectively).

(53) Rationalist, empiricist, and subjectivist approaches of secular philosophy (DKG).

(54) Knowledge as justified, true belief (see chaps. 11 and 22).


(55) Faith, hope, and love, as virtues that abide (1 Cor. 13:13)

(56) Three lusts (1 John 2:16).

(57) Teleological, deontological, and existential schools of secular ethics (DCD).

(58) Great commandments: love God, love yourself, and love your neighbor.

(59) The world, the flesh, and the devil.

(60) Goal (glory of God), motive (love, faith), and standard (Word of God).

(61) Good works seek the goal of God’s glory, on the basis of the cross of Christ, in the power of the Spirit.


(62) Contrast, variation, and distribution (Poythress: see chap. 29).

(63) Expressive, informational, and productive (Poythress: see chap. 29).

(64) Locution, illocution, and perlocution: locution in a piece of language; illocution is what is done in the language (command, question, statement, etc.); perlocution is what is done through the languages (educate, mislead, annoy, amuse, etc.- See J.L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975).

(65) Three grammatical persons: I, you, and he.

(66) Theories of meaning, locating meaning in the author’s intention, the hearer’s understanding, and the text itself.


(67) Grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic—the classic trivium.


(68) Theories of mathematics: formalism (determined by inner consistency), constructivism (based on the structure of the human mind), and Platonism (mathematical objects and relations belong to the ontology of the world).

The Physical World

(69) Field, wave, and particle (see chap. 29).

(70) Red, green, and blue (the primary painters’ colors), from which other colors can be made. I have said (rather tongue-in-cheek) of the first triad that blue is the sky (normative), green is the earth (situational), and red is the interior of the body (existential).

(71) Yolk, white, and shell.

(72) Liquid, solid, and gas.

(73) Height, width, and length (Each constitutes all of space, yet they are distinct).

(74) Outside, inside, and above. (Also used as three viewpoints: “from outside,” etc.)

(75) Number, space, and time (yielding arithmetic, geometry, and calculus).

(76) Past. Present, and future.

(77) Matter, energy, and meaning. David Bohm, a disciple of Einstein, believed that each of these replicates the other two. Each is a basic manifestation of reality.

(78) The nine dimensions of some recent theories: a trinity of trinities.

(79) Root, trunk, and branches.

(80) The sun brings light, heat, and life.

The Human Body

(81) Circulation, respiration, and nervous system.

The Human Mind, Personality

(82) Mind, knowledge, and love.

(83) Memory, understanding, and will (Numbers 82-85 are important to Augustine’s discussion of the Trinity).

(84) Being, knowing, and willing.

(85) In self-knowledge: the self as subject, object, and knowledge.

(86) In self-love: the self as lover, beloved, and love.

(87) Thought, word, and deed.

(88) Intention, action, and response (especially within the same person).

(89) We form our selfhood in our relations to others.

(90) Unity and plurality in the human mind and in the human race (chap. 29).

(91) Some people are normativists, always seeking justice. Others are situationalists, wanting to be committed to a cause or activity beyond themselves. And some are existentialists, focused on their own feelings. In families, the oldest child is often normativist, and the other children sort out the other two roles. These are aspects of all or us, but we differ in focus.

Human Society, Culture

(92) Husband, wife, and child.

(93) Physician, pharmacist, and patient (Normative, situational, and existential, respectively, if you take this triad from the patient’s point of view – Taken from an ad for Women’s International Pharmacy, placing each term at one point on a triangle. Anything is fair game for theology!).

(94) Think, work, and serve (the motto of Tennessee State University – DCD).

(95)  Godel, Escher, and Bach (relatively normative, situational, and existential – See Douglas R. Hofstadter, Godel, Escher, Bach, New York: Random House Basic Books, 1980).

(96) Piety, doctrine, and social action, seen as varying emphases among (especially Reformed) Christians. In truth, each requires the others.

Art, Music, And Literature

(97) I, IV, and V, the three primary chords, defined by triads of tones.

(98) Root position and two inversions of triadic chords.

(99) Tonic, tierce, and quiet.

(100) Melody, harmony, and rhythm (the music as composed).

(101) Timbre, volume, and harmony (the music as presented).

(102) The threefold structure of the twelve-bar blues.

(103) The threefold structure of many classical forms: theme, development, and recapitulation; fast, slow, and fast movements in sonatas and concerti; the da capo aria.

(104) Themes with variations, in which the variations correspond one-to-one with the theme, but are widely different from each other.

(105) Composer’s conception, the score, and the performance (any of these can be called “the piece” – Thanks to Steve Hays for this suggestion).

(106) beauty as integrity, proportion, and splendor.

(107) Aesthetic theories: formal (locating beauty in qualities inherent in objects), emotional (locating it in the response of the perceiver), and relational (finding beauty in the capacity of objects to arouse responses). I see these as normative, existential, and situational, repectively (DCD).

(108) “Unity within monotony” as aesthetic criterion (DCD).

(109) Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30) describes three stewards: one increased the Lord’s investment, then a second did, but the third did not. As in many jokes, two people would seem to be too few, and four too many (I recall watching on TV a discussion among several comedians about “three guys” jokes [as, “An atheist, a priest, and a rabbi were going past a bar…”]. They agreed that there was something unique about the number three that was crucial to that form of humor).

The first sets up a pattern, the second establishes it as a continuing pattern, and the third consummates the pattern, driving home its significance. This is not essentially different from the work of the persons of the Trinity: initiation, accomplishment, and application (We should, of course, not see a rigid or unvarying pattern here. There are also important twofold distinctions in Scripture [e.g., Old and New Covenants, Creator and creature, double restitution for theft in the Mosaic law, law and gospel], as well as fourfold, sevenfold, tenfold, etc. But the threefold distinctions are strangely pervasive, and they hold special interest for our present discussion).

(110) The chiasm is a frequent literary device in Scripture, especially in the Pslams, but also in prophecy, prose narratives, etc. It is essentially an A-B-A form in which one idea, theme, image, or motif gives rise to another, then returns to the first with some level of enrichment. The chiasm can become more complicated, when the text includes chiasms within chiasms: so, A-B-A, B-C-B, C-D-C creates the total structure as A-B-C-DC-B-A. Often the central item (D in our example) receives the emphasis. But the overall structure can be understood as triadic: theme, additional theme, return.

(111) The chiasm exists implicitly in all literature. A story begins in a situation and encounters a problem that brings the situation to a different state: thesis, antithesis, and synthesis-consummation (as in the “quest” genre: a journey from comfort to ordeal to enlightement; stasis, katabasis, anabasis). In Scripture: Jesus’ preincarnate glory, his state of humiliation, and his resurrection and ascension to an even greater acknowledgement of his lordship; or creation, fall, redemption.


(112) Confrontation, consolidation, and continuation: stages of major cultural movements (reformation in the church and political change).

*John M. Frame is an American philosopher and a Calvinist theologian especially noted for his work in epistemology and presuppositional apologetics, systematic theology, and ethics. He is one of the foremost interpreters and critics of the thought of Cornelius Van Til (who he studied under while working on his B.D. at Westminster Theological Seminary). An outstanding theologian, John Frame distinguished himself during 31 years on the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary, and was a founding faculty member of WTS California. He is best known for his prolific writings including: Apologetics to the Glory of God; No Other God; The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God; Salvation is of the Lord; The Doctrine of the Christian Life; The Doctrine of the Word of God, and several others. He is a regular contributor to many books and reference volumes, as well as scholarly articles and magazines.

Frame was born (1939) and raised in Pittsburgh, PA. He came to know Christ at around 13 or 14 years of age, through the ministry of Beverly Heights UP Church (in particular the youth and music ministries) and some Christian friends.

For his education, Frame received degrees from Princeton University (A.B.), Westminster Theological Seminary (B.D.), Yale University (A.M. and M.Phil., though he was working on a doctorate and admits his own failure to complete his dissertation), and Belhaven College (D.D.). He has served on the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary and was a founding faculty member of their California campus. He currently (as of 2005) teaches Apologetics and The History of Philosophy and Christian thought at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL. He is appreciated, by many of his students, for his charitable spirit and fairness to opposing arguments (although, he fairly demolishes them nonetheless).

Frame is also a classically trained musician (he plays the piano and organ) and a critic of film, music, and other media. He has been involved in the music/worship ministry of the church since he was a teenager, upon coming to faith in Christ. He is deeply committed to the work of ministry  and training pastors.

Book Review: The Holy Trinity by Robert Letham

The Complex Made Simpler

One of the long standing “cardinal” doctrines of Orthodox Christianity is the teaching that God is one in essence and three in person, and yet it is one of the most difficult of doctrines to comprehend of the whole lot. Robert Letham writes, “For the vast majority of Christians, including most ministers and theological students, the Trinity is still a mathematical conundrum, full of imposing philosophical jargon, relegated to an obscure alcove, remote from daily life.”

However, due to this lack of understanding and grappling with the ramifications of this doctrine most Christians view God in the abstract and as a result have a detached and almost deistic relationship with the God of the Bible who is actually transcendent and immanent in our world. In this book the author seeks to bring about a new revitalization to the church and its witness to the world by having a deeper understanding of the Triune God as revealed in the Scriptures.

In this very cogent book Dr. Letham seeks to give a broad overview of the Triune doctrine by canvassing the Scriptures, church history, modern discussions with contemporary theologians of the past few centuries (their orthodox and unorthodox views), and Critical Issues – including the incarnation, worship, prayer, missions, and union with Christ.

This book is a challenging read, but I think Dr. Letham maintains a good balance between the scholarly aspects of the discussion and its practical applications – which ultimately lead us to worship. Many of the chapters end in prayer and focus on actually worshipping God, not just discussing Him. Two excellent articles reviewing books by Gilbert Bilezikian and Kevin Giles on the Trinity conclude the work as appendixes. A helpful glossary and bibliography conclude the work.

I am grateful to the Triune God of Scripture for Dr. Letham’s excellent contribution to theological reflection in this book. It is a readable and comprehensive study of the doctrine of the Trinity in the unfolding revelation of the Bible, in its breadth of reflection from church history, amid the loci of influential systematic theologians, and in the life and application of the evangelical community. I think anyone will benefit from reading this book. It will definitely sharpen your understanding of the Triune God we worship and inform and influence the way you relate to Him in your daily life.