Explaining the Trinity to a Ten Year Old (Mere Trinitarianism?)

Sometimes I'm asked to try to explain the Trinity simply -- sometimes for the humor of watching me try it! {wry g} And sometimes for the perceived apologetic value in my acknowledgment that the doctrinal set of trinitarian theism isn't simple, as if simplicity of a doctrinal set was itself evidence of truth (tell that to an astrophysicist of any flavor), or as if the complexity in itself should be regarded as evidence of unnecessary (and thus false) over-complication.

There are only distant analogies to the Trinity in Nature, and that doesn't help, although that ought to be expected since we're supposed to be talking about the one and only self-existent ground of all reality. The Latin phrase sui generis is sometimes used here; that just means it's one of a kind and so every analogy to it for illustration will bring built-in differences from it.

But one of my nieces (not yet ten years old) started catechism training this year, with some portions of doctrine (regarding original sin) that sounds at least as technically detailed to me as anything to do with trinitarian theism per se! (Don't ask me why the school didn't start with the Trinity or even only with God; I have no idea, but I suppose they have procedural reasons that make sense to them somewhere.)

So I thought I'd post up an account I attempted on another forum a couple of years ago, simplifying as far as possible, yet with as much pertinent detail as possible, the doctrines of trinitarian theism per se.

By "per se", I mean I'm not counting the Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, etc., since technically a person could come to believe trinitarian theism is true, without agreeing that Jesus of Nazareth was the 2nd Person of the Trinity, and that adds a lot more to the doctrine set. Call it "mere" trinitarian theism, short of "Christian" trinitarian theism if you like.

Granted, I was a pretty intelligent 10 year old, but I wish someone at my church (a Baptist one which thought catechism was some kind of Romish popery of the antichrist or whatever) had sat me down by then to spell out the following (after the jump):


The one single thing which causes all things to exist, and to keep on existing, is an active love between persons. Not a feeling, not an opinion or even only a thought, but an always ongoing chosen action.

With us, two or three persons gathered together are two or three things living inside something that isn't us. But God is three persons as one single personal thing Who doesn't live inside or under or next to anything else. One of those Persons is God always causing Himself to exist; we call that Person the Father. And another Person is God always caused by God to exist; we call that Person the Son. And that's always the first and foremost action of God: to actively live for always.

But this always-living is always a choice to love one another, in fair togetherness. The Father always chooses to love the Son and gives everything to the Son. The Son always chooses to love the Father, submitting Himself to the Father rather than going apart from the Father, and gives back everything to the Father. And the first thing the Father and the Son are always giving to one another, beyond Themselves, is also fully a person of God, the Holy Spirit. That's why we say that the Spirit is the Spirit of the Father and also the Spirit of the Son; and that's why we say the Spirit is a different Person from the Father or the Son while still being one God with them. (That's also why most of us say the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, not only from the Father.)


The Father and the Son are not only giving themselves to one another for always, but they are already always giving another Person Who is God to each other (the Holy Spirit). While they don't have to give more to each other, if they choose to do so they will have to give what is not God to each other. But nothing exists above or beside them that is not God. So they have to create what is not God if they choose to give something not God to each other.

The Son already always chooses to submit to the Father in love. In order for God to create what is not God, the Son chooses to submit Himself in a different way. God thus acts in a way different from always living in a self-generating way. God also now acts in a not-self-generating way, while still also acting in a self-generating way. The Son is still faithful to the Father yet acts to sacrifice Himself in a way different from the way the Son is always sacrificing Himself in submitting to the Father.

God thus sacrifices His own action, in a way, so that something not-God will also exist. First that's a system of not-God nature. It isn't a person (or not yet anyway), but it provides a place for not-God persons to live. Then, as the Father always gives life to the Son, and the Son always submits His life to the Father, so that God may always live, the Father and the Son, by means of the Spirit they are always giving to one another, raise parts of Nature to life.

And they give some of those living not-God parts of Nature the gift of a spirit. And that's how persons are created, like you and me, who can rationally choose things, like God, but who aren't God.


God, the Father and the Son and the Spirit all three Persons of one and only one God Most High together, loves little not-God persons like us into existence. We're real children created by God in His love to give persons to one another: the Persons of God give us to each other, and give each other to us (in somewhat different ways). God also expects us to give ourselves personally to each other, and to give God to each other, in various ways. But always in actively personal love to one another.

God Himself, the one single God, is a love of Persons for one another in fair togetherness with each other. That's how God always keeps living at all, and because God lives that's how anything not-God exists at all. God could choose not to love: the Father could choose not to love the Son, or the Son could choose to not love the Father, but if that happened God and everything else would not exist, including what we call our past or present or future.

We can be absolutely sure God will never act against fulfilling fair-togetherness between persons, because we are here now to even talk about it! But if we choose to act as God never chooses -- if we choose to act against fulfilling fair-togetherness between persons -- then we are acting against the source of all existence, including our own.

That's what we call sin. And that's why when we act that way toward other persons, even when they aren't God, we are also acting that way toward God. Even the littlest action of that sort, against fulfilling fair-togetherness between persons, would cause us to stop existing -- if we were God, or if God allowed us to stop existing as a result of our choice to sin.

But just as we live by the freely given love of God to us, we continue to live after sinning by the freely given love of God to us -- even when we have abused the grace of God.

That is because, unlike us, God is uniquely and originally and always good: God is love; God is fair-togetherness between Persons. God always chooses to act to fulfill fair-togetherness between persons. That's why God exists at all, and why we exist at all, and why we keep on existing even when we sin.


God is always just because the Persons of God are always just, and not unjust, to one another. God always acts to fulfill fair-togetherness (which is a word in the Bible we usually translate 'righteousness' or 'justice') between persons. When persons act toward fulfilling non-fair-togetherness between persons, we call that un-righteousness or in-justice. And that's sin.

When we're good, God acts justly toward us because He loves us; and when we're evil, God acts justly toward us because He loves us. What God ultimately is, in His own self-existence, makes a big difference in how God chooses to act toward us, because He will not act toward us in a way that also acts against His own self-existence: the way we act against God, our Creator and Sustainer, when we sin!

So when we sin, what can we expect God to do toward us? We can expect God to keep on acting toward fulfilling fair-togetherness with us as persons -- which is what we didn't do when we sinned. We were unjust instead.

But God will always be just toward us, even if the outcome of that justice has to be delayed for a while to accomplish other goals of God.


This is the point where trinitarian theists start to seriously disagree with one another, on how we can expect God to accomplish justice for everyone. But Christian trinitarian theists all agree that it involves the Son sharing our bodily life with us as Jesus of Nazareth, born of a woman (most of us, myself included, would add "born of a virgin"), voluntarily dying an unjust death, and (most of us, myself included, would include) rising bodily from the grave, to help us trust and cooperate with God instead of continuing to rebel against love and justice.

We also tend to disagree with each other about the best ways to personally cooperate with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in this life; and those two disagreements, in various combinations of answers, account for the division of trinitarian Christians into Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic and Oriental Orthodox and Church of the East, and all the various Protestants.

But we do agree we ought to cooperate better with God; and as I argued a few months ago, even secular humanists would be well-advised to promote trinitarian theism among the vast majority of the population, purely for social utility! (Keeping themselves as the enlightened few who secretly know that fair-togetherness between persons isn't really the ground of all reality, but non-rationality and non-morality instead. {lopsided grin})


Jason Pratt said…
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