Trinity: Terms

This is a discussion of the terms: being, essence, person, and extrinsic and intrinsic relationships.  The distinctions between these metaphysical terms are important to understand to have a clear understanding of the Trinity.  (They are important terms for a discussion of reality too).  The reason they are so important to understand is that these terms have been used to describe the doctrine of the Trinity throughout Church history.

I.  Being, existence, and ‘is-ness.’

Being relates to the first and the most basic knowledge of reality. ‘Is?’ ‘Is’ there something? For example, a person may ask, “Is there something on the driveway?” Before a person can ask ‘what’ something is, the person must first established whether or not there ‘is’ something. The word, ‘being,’ comes from the infinitive, ‘to be.’ The verb ‘is’ expresses the idea that something ‘is’ or ‘that something exists.

So, if we answer, “yes,” to the question, “Is there something on the driveway?” we are affirming there is a ‘being’ on the driveway or that something ‘exists’ on the driveway. Being and existence are related to the infinitives ‘to be’ and ‘to exist.’

So, in answer to the question, “Is there a primary Existent or a necessary Being?” Christians, as well as other theists, answer, “yes.” This affirmative answer is in contrast to atheism who claim there is ‘no’ primary Being. In the book of Hebrews, the Bible notes that Christians “must believe that He is” or that Allah exists.

But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that He is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him. Heb 11:6

‫فَمِنَ الْمُسْتَحِيلِ إ ِرْضَاءَ اللهِ بِدُونِ إِي مَانٍ. إِذْ إِنَّ مَنْ يَتَ قَرَّبُ إِلَى اللهِ، لاَ بُدَّ لَهُ أَنْ يُؤْمِنَ ب ِأَنَّهُ مَوْجُودٌ، وَبِ أَنَّهُ يُكَافِيءُ الَّذ ِينَ يَسْعَوْنَ إِلَيْهِ‭. 

In conclusion, Christians believe there is a Being who exists in extra-mental reality. In other words, we believe Allah is not merely an idea in our minds. Rather, Allah exists in His own eternal being and that His existence is not dependent upon a creature’s conception of His being. Allah is, and Allah is the truest reality there is.

II. Essence or ‘what-ness.’

After it is established there ‘is’ something on the driveway, the next most fundamental question to ask is, “What kind of being is it?” For example, if the answer is, “Yes, there is something on the driveway.” We would naturally want to know what that something is. Is it a dog, a human being, or a car? The ‘what-ness’ question relates to the kind or type of being in question. ‘What-ness’ is also termed essence, substance, quiddity, or nature. These terms all relate to the same basic idea. They relate to the kind of being or what makes a being a particular type of being. For example, an elephant’s ‘what-ness’ is a large, heavy, long-nosed, big-eared animal.

“Being” is common to all things that exist. Humans have being; animals have being; plants have being; stars have being, and insects have being. Every existent thing has being. The opposite of being is non-being, and a non-being is a non-existent or nothing (i.e., no-thing).  Existence is common to all reality. So, being does not distinguish existing things. 

However, the beings of reality have different essences. The essence of a man is different from the essence of a flower. The essence of a horse is different from the essence of a fish. So, while ‘being-ness’ does not distinguish existent things, their different ‘what-nesses’ or different essences cause numerous classes of beings to exist.

So, ‘what’ is the ‘what-ness’ of the primary Being or the Existent that we call, Allah? What is it that which separates Allah from other beings? The following incommunicable attributes are given below in no particular sequence.  An incommunicable attribute is an attribute that no created finite being possesses.





Christianity affirms all of the above regarding the essence of Allah.  Since Christians believe that Allah is ‘one.’ it would be contradictory for Christians to affirm there were three Allahs. Christians believe there is only one Being who possesses the above mentioned attributes.  Within the realm of various theistic beliefs, Christianity affirms monotheism in contrast to polytheism.

Furthermore, Allah is a perfect unity, although we are able to distinguish several different attributes. Allah is the most perfect unity in all reality.  Likewise, the Muslim’s ninety nine beautiful names of Allah do not signify there are ninety nine different beings who are Allah.  There is only one Allah who has these 99 different names. 

For example, human beings have a body and a soul that make up the matter and form of humanness. It may sound like a human being is two distinct and independent entities, one being the soul and the other being the body, but this is not the case for a real existent human being. Although a human being is composed of a soul and a body, a human being is essentially one unity.

So, in conclusion, I have tried to show that essence is different from existence. Essence let’s us know ‘what’ something is. And, ‘existence let’ us know if something ‘is’ or if something ‘exists.’

III.  Person or ‘who-ness.’

The meaning of existence and being has been discussed.  As was noted, existence is the most basic question that can be asked regarding reality.  The answer to this question separates existence (being, reality, thing) from non-existence (non-being, non-reality, nothing).  A ‘being’ signifies that something exists.  Next, the meaning of essence or ‘what-ness’ was defined.  The ‘essence’ of an existent tells us what kind of being a thing is.  This section seeks to examine the meaning and significance of the terms personhood or ‘who-ness.’

Let’s go back to our series of questions. 



Is there something on the driveway?

Yes, there is something on the drive way.


What is on the driveway?

There is a woman on the driveway.


Who is on the driveway?

Mrs. Smith is on the driveway.

The word ‘who’ signifies that a being is a ‘person.’  A person is a particular type of being who has reason, will, and emotion. There are three classes of beings who are ‘persons.’  Human beings, angels, and Allah who all have intellect, free will, and emotion; therefore, personhood can be attributed to all of them.  This means that Allah is more than a blind cosmic force or a mystical energy.  It means that Allah thinks, wills, and loves.

Intellect is the ability of the mind to do abstract reasoning. Free will is the ability freely to choose or not to choose to do a particular act. Emotion is the ability to have feelings of delight or depressions of guilt. Some people try to assign intellect, free will, and emotion to brute animals.  However, animals lack these three abilities, although some animals have many advanced capabilities. No animal is able intellectually to do abstract mathematics.  Animals do not will actions based upon moral concepts of good and evil. If animals did have free will, they would be morally culpable for their actions. And, if they were morally responsible for their actions, then they should be tried in a court of law for their misdeeds. However, their actions are instinctive or learned.  Finally, animals can experience sensory emotions, but they lack the capability to have the intellectual pleasures of truth, justice, and knowledge. Hence, animals are not persons.

We are familiar with persons in our daily lives. The persons we know are the people we meet as we go about our daily business. These people are all distinct persons. The what-ness or essence of all these individuals is human-ness. Their essence is their common-ness. Their personhood is what separates one individual from one another.  Their personhood gives each one their own individual intellect, will, and emotion.

Now, let’s put some of these concepts together and see how they apply to deity.

1. Unitarianism. Christians believe that Allah is or exists. Further, Christians believe there is only one Being who is Allah. Further, Christians believe that Allah is one divine essence. Although different words are used to describe the essence of Allah, they do not mean there are component parts to Allah. They are words that describe the whole of Allah. It is the finite limitations of the human mind and of human language that we have to use multiple words to express the one divine essence of Allah. Allah is love, and Allah is holy. These are true of Allah, and it would be just as appropriate to say that Allah is loving holiness as to say that Allah is holy love. Our language does not have one word that expresses love and holiness as one unified concept.  All the divine attributes are really one in Allah.

Christians do not believe there is one Allah and there are three Allahs. There is only one Allah. The word Allah refers to the essence or to the what-ness of Deity.  Allah is the term that describes the Being who is infinite, eternal, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and immutable.

2. Trinitarianism. Christians believe that the One Allah exists in three Persons. Also, notice that it would be a contradiction to believe in one divine Person and three divine Persons. However, it is not a logical contradiction to believe there is one Allah and three Persons. The reason it is not a logical contradiction is because personhood and essence are two completely different categories. For example, there is one human essence in the world, but there are millions of different human persons on this planet. There is one divine essence, Allah.  So, it is a logical possibility there are three divine Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Let me illustrate it this way. It is not illogical to believe that a triangle has three sides. It would be contradictory to believe that one triangle is three triangles. Likewise, it would be illogical to believe one side is three sides in the same sense. But, since triangle-ness and sided-ness are different categories, it is not contrary to reason to believe that one triangle may have three sides and three corners. Indeed, this is precisely the case for a triangle, because a triangle is a three-sided figure. It is of the essence of a triangle to have three sides.

Finally, the term Trinity (tri-unity) refers to the one unity of Allah existing in three persons. The divine Personhood requires some careful thinking. The nature of the personhood of angels is different from human personhood too. We should not necessarily assume that the personhood of human beings, angels, and Allah are all the same.

Christianity affirms the personhood of Allah in opposition to pantheism in which Allah is viewed as a non-personal, pervasive, universal cosmic force. In Christianity, Allah has free will, mind, desire, and emotion and these are the fundamental elements of personhood. Allah is not just a blind pantheistic cosmic force.

IV. Relationships. 

Allah is One Being of perfect unity.  So, any distinctions in the personhood of Allah cannot give rise to multiple beings, because this would logically and necessarily lead to polytheism.  The distinctions would have to be more subtle and completely non-material in nature.  So, before we look at the personhood of Allah, we need to define different types of relationships.

A. Extrinsic relationships.

Extrinsic relationships are relationships that are external to someone.  For example, the relationship between an employee and an employer is an extrinsic relationship.  This is because there are two beings involved in the relationship.  The employee is one being and the employer is another being.  The relationship between them is dependent upon both of them.  The employer is ‘external’ to the being of the employee.  Hence, the employer’s relationship is ‘extrinsic’ to the being of the employee.  Since the relationship depends upon both of the two existent beings, the extrinsic relationship changes, whenever their mutual relationship changes.  For example, when an employee ceases to work for a particular employer of a company, the employee loses his extrinsic ’employee relationship’ with his former company.  For another example, the relationship between a triangle and a circle is an extrinsic relationship because they are two separate and distinct geometric objects.

Since the doctrine of the Trinity is the doctrine of the One Allah.  The Trinitarian viewpoint of divine personhood cannot entail an extrinsic relationship.  By contrast, polytheism believes in multiple gods who are extrinsically related, as fathers, mothers, children, uncles, aunts, etc.  Often, the opponents of Trinitarianism erroneously mischaracterized the Christian view of the Trinity as a system of extrinsic relationships between different divine persons.

B. Intrinsic relationships.

Intrinsic relationships are relationships that are within a being.  For example, the relationship between a person’s soul and a person’s body is an intrinsic relationship.  This relationship does not depend upon an external person or another being for this intra-being relationship.  Another intrinsic relationship is the relationship between a person’s mind (the knower) and a person’s thought (the known).   The fact that a person’s mind can have thoughts does not suggest that a mind and its thought are two distinct beings.  Rather, one being can have a mind that can think thoughts.  As a result, the relationship between the mind and its thought is an intrinsic relationship.  Another example of an intrinsic relationship is the relationship between a triangle and its sides and its corners.  

Intrinsic relationships offer a potential door to understanding the doctrine of the Trinity.  This is true because intrinsic relationships are possible to have within a single being.  It is not necessary to have two beings to have an intrinsic relationship.  On a physical level we can visualize one triangle with its three sides.  We can conceptualize triangle-ness and sided-ness and notice the relationships between the sides and the angles of a triangle.  The sum of the internal angles is 180 degrees.  And, the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the two opposing sides of a right triangle.  This is conceptually and logically coherent for a single triangle with a 90 degree angle. 

The intrinsic relationships of a physical triangle were easy to understand.  But, since Allah is not a physical being with a body, we have to consider intrinsic relationships that might exist in a pure immaterial spirit.  We have already noticed the nature of Allah’s existence and spiritual essence.  It is infinite, eternal, omniscient, all-powerful, etc.  And, these essential attributes are all in one perfect unity without any relational distinctions.  

Is Allah a person?  Does Allah have a will?  Does Allah have emotion?  Does Allah have thoughts?  A Christian would answer, yes, to each of these questions.  Christians affirm that Allah is a person in the truest sense.  However, we need to discuss personhood, before we discuss the intrinsic relationships that might exist in the personhood of Allah.

Last edited 12/20/1999