Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


These are heretics who might pass for other than Christians. However, they acknowledge Jesus as Saviour and Mediator; but they dare to maintain that nothing is more contrary to right reason than what is taught among Christians concerning the Trinity of persons in one only divine essence, of whom the second is begotten by the first, and the third proceeds from the other two; that this unintelligible doctrine is not to be found in any part of Scripture; that no passage can be produced which authorizes it; or to which, without in any wise departing from the spirit of the text, a sense cannot be given more clear, more natural, or more conformable to common notions, and to primitive and immutable truths; that to maintain, as the orthodox do, that in the divine essence there are several distinct persons, and that the Eternal is not the only true God, but that the Son and the Holy Ghost must be joined with Him, is to introduce into the Church of Christ an error the most gross and dangerous, since it is openly to favor polytheism; that it implies a contradiction, to say that there is but one God, and that, nevertheless, there are three persons, each of which is truly God; that this distinction, of one in essence, and three in person, was never in Scripture; that it is manifestly false, since it is certain that there are no fewer essences than persons, nor persons than essences; that the three persons of the Trinity are either three different substances, or accidents of the divine essence, or that essence itself without distinction; that, in the first place, you make three Gods; that, in the second, God is composed of accidents; you adore accidents, and metamorphose accidents into persons; that, in the third, you unfoundedly and to no purpose divide an indivisible subject, and distinguish into three that which within itself has no distinction; that if it be said that the three personalities are neither different substances in the divine essence, nor accidents of that essence, it will be difficult to persuade ourselves that they are anything at all; that it must not be believed that the most rigid and decided Trinitarians have themselves any clear idea of the way in which the three hypostases subsist in God, without dividing His substance, and consequently without multiplying it; that St. Augustine himself, after advancing on this subject a thousand reasonings alike dark and false, was forced to confess that nothing intelligible could be said about the matter; they then repeat the passage by this father, which is, indeed, a very singular one: “When,” says he, “it is asked what are the three, the language of man fails and terms are wanting to express them.” “Three persons, has, however, been said — not for the purpose of expressing anything, but in order to say something and not remain mute.” “Dictum est tres personæ, non ut aliquid diceretur, sed ne taceretur.” — De Trinit. lib. v. cap. 9; that modern theologians have cleared up this matter no better; that, when they are asked what they understand by the word person, they explain themselves only by saying that it is a certain incomprehensible distinction by which are distinguished in one nature only, a Father, a Son, and a Holy Ghost; that the explanation which they give of the terms begetting and proceeding, is no more satisfactory, since it reduces itself to saying that these terms indicate certain incomprehensible relations existing among the three persons of the Trinity; that it may be hence gathered that the state of the question between them and the orthodox is to know whether there are in God three distinctions, of which no one has any definite idea, and among which there are certain relations of which no one has any more idea.

From all this they conclude that it would be wiser to abide by the testimony of the apostles, who never spoke of the Trinity, and to banish from religion forever all terms which are not in the scriptures — as trinity, person, essence, hypostasis, hypostatic and personal union, incarnation, generation, proceeding, and many others of the same kind; which being absolutely devoid of meaning, since they are represented by no real existence in nature, can excite in the understanding none but false, vague, obscure, and undefinable notions.

To this article let us add what Calmet says in his dissertation on the following passage of the Epistle of John the Evangelist: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one; and there are three that bear witness in earth, the spirit, the water and the blood; and these three are one.” Calmet acknowledges that these two verses are not in any ancient bible; indeed, it would be very strange if St. John had spoken of the Trinity in a letter, and said not a word about it in his Gospel. We find no trace of this dogma, either in the canonical or in the apocryphal gospels. All these reasons and many others might excuse the anti-trinitarians, if the councils had not decided. But as the heretics pay no regard to councils, we know not what measures to take to confound them. Let us content ourselves with believing and wishing them to believe.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01