How 1 plus 1 plus 1 is not a real objection to the triune nature of God
"Been there, tried that. '1+1+1 does not equal one.'"
This was the response I got from a Muslim man in a recent conversation I had with him. That afternoon I had offered him a pamphlet to read which took him a minute to identify. Once he discovered that it was Christian literature it triggered that particular response from him (1+1+1). He called himself Michael and we had a very pleasant conversation for about 40 minutes. I really appreciated his taking the time to discuss Christianity with me. I say this because we exchanged phone numbers and I'm going to send him the link to this article. I want him to know how much I appreciated the time he gave me.
I have heard this math operation as a proof that the Trinity can't exist before. It is a very popularized Muslim objection to the Trinity. I never quite understood it and I am not sure why we should assume the operation for such a question would be addition. Why not multiplication? 1 x 1 x 1 = 1 after all. Voila! Problem solved.
However, it is not really a math problem, is it? I have often heard that no analogy of the Trinity can be offered without miscommunicating something about God's nature. This is often seen as a proof that God cannot be like that and that it must be a contradiction (versus something about God that we cannot understand). There is nothing like God and it would make sense to me that we do not see things that are like God or exist in the way God exists. It would be illogical to say that God is incomprehensible but then be perplexed when we cannot comprehend him. In contemplating things about God we must hold things we do not understand in tension but it does not make sense to hold things in conflict.
Is the Trinity something that we hold in tension or is it a logical conflict? I would like to provide an analogy that demonstrates that it is a tension and not a conflict. It makes sense that contemplating God stretches our understanding. As a matter of fact, if you find something simple that you think is God then I expect it is probably not a good definition of God at all.
We exist as a single person and it is, admittedly, difficult to imagine a being that exists as multiple persons without imagining multiple beings. When we think of any being, we automatically think of personhood because that is what we are used to. However, there are other types of entities that might help us imagine what God is like and we encounter them all the time. I know that analogies and examples of things like the Trinity are often unwise but I will venture forth anyway. I am sure that the analogy will break down at some point. Analogies can help us consider those things that we have not yet considered even when they can't be a perfect fit.
Consider this: A company that has 3 employees. The employees are identical triplets. They each own 1/3 of the company and even they share the exact same authority, talents, and capabilities. They have arranged themselves in different roles and functions. One is the CEO, one is the marketing director and one is in charge of developing their products. Even though they are equal in standing, they have willingly submitted to each other in this way. They have separate roles but are all in equal standing and even have the same DNA.
So, the legal entity of the company is analogous to the essence of God. I am not referring to the internal structure of the company but how it relates to its customers. It is one entity and all 3 of it's employees have equal ability to represent the company. It consists of only one essence or substance. When it creates, it's products are known as being the product of that one company. Customers relate to the company as a whole but often interact with one of the brothers who all equally represent the company.
Each of the 3 employees are distinct in their roles and functions, and they are separate persons that share attributes, but they all share the same company. The entity of the company is analogous to the one-ness of God while the 3 employees are analogous to the 3 persons of the Trinity. They all can represent the one company but they themselves are unique. God is a community but not a community of separate essences; only a community of separate persons who share the same essence.
What do I mean by essence? The essence is the core, the spirit, the fundamental attributes of something. In the example of a company this could be a corporate culture or the defining products that it makes. What makes God, God? That is his essence. God is patient, kind, and just, for example. We can logically deduce that God is a community based on some of his attributes because those attributes are relational. To follow the analogy, the product of God is love (Injeel, 1 John 4:8)--love that is charitable and aimed at others. Who does God love before creation? He loved himself. The members of the Trinity were able to have a self-less love for one another--a defining attribute of God.
It is this product of love and kindness that God displays when he put Jesus publicly forward as a sacrifice for our sin (Injeel, Romans 3:24). This kind of love is not possible if God is not a relational being. Jesus did not just die for us but he also lived for us--as our example. He demonstrates the relational love of God when he calls him "Abba, Father". His radical example in the Lord's prayer is for us all to pray, "Our Father who is in heaven". This is only possible with the God of Trinity.