The Three Persons


I want to spend the next two Lord’s Day evenings considering with you the doctrine of the Trinity, or, better, the Triune God from whose heart and by whose power comes the great salvation we are celebrating these two sacred Sundays: Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. We don’t think about God in this sort of concentrated way as much as we should.

You are well aware of the simple definition: “one God in three persons.” Or as our catechism has it: “There are three persons in the Godhead, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory.” We will make reference to that term, substance, later on.

You know, as well, perhaps, that the triune nature of God awaited the incarnation and the New Testament for its full disclosure. There are intimations, hints of a plurality of persons in the Godhead in the Old Testament, but nothing remotely like what we have in the New Testament where one God continues to be confessed in the most explicit terms, but the Father is declared to be God, the Son declared to be God, and the Holy Spirit declared to be God, and each is distinguished from the other. For example, there is nothing in the OT like:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name [not names, but name] of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit….”

Or,

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”

For a Jew with monotheism in his bones to make a statement like those statements and many others in the NT is powerful proof that the Bible’s doctrine is nothing other than one God in three persons. The possibility of seeing that and appreciating that was opened up to the human mind by the appearance of God the Son in human nature. Once it was clear that Jesus was God himself, but spoke of and to God the Father, the way was opened for the full disclosure of the triunity of God. If God the Son was before his disciples, if he prayed in their presence to his Heavenly Father, and if he spoke then later of sending in his place the Holy Spirit, what other conclusion could monotheists draw but that God existed in three persons.

Perhaps in large part because of the way the truth about God was divulged only gradually throughout salvation history, and not fully until after the incarnation of God the Son, God in our theology and I think in our thinking as Christians, is typically discussed in his unity first. The first question our catechism asks about God is “What is God?” And the answer, as you remember, is:

“God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.”

Nothing there about three persons. But our doctrine of God’s nature, his attributes, is primarily an OT doctrine. God is revealed to us from the opening pages of Holy Scripture. We learn in the Bible first about what God is like in the essence, or, as our catechism puts it, the substance that all three persons share. Only later do we learn of the triple personality. The great American theologian Benjamin Warfield – I think this is a brilliant thought – argued that in the Old Testament “the great thing to be taught the ancient people of God was that the God of all the earth is one person.” A full account of the triunity of God so early would have confused the ancient Hebrews in the great battle between monotheism and polytheistic idolatry. It was not until the monotheism had been completely entrenched in the Hebrew mind that the triunity of God was revealed. [Frame, The Doctrine of God, 703]

But it is not his attributes as a single person that I want to consider with you particularly over these next two Lord’s Day evenings, but the triple personality. I think we think we know more about this than we do. There is a greater mystery here than I think we often realize. Ask yourself how you understand the unity and the triple personality together. Is it really, if the truth be told, a tri-theistic view that you hold: three equal Gods united in some form of cheerful harmony? Or, on the other hand, if truth be told, do you incline more to the thought that there is one God who has three emanations or ways of appearing. The church has swung back and forth between these two misconceptions throughout the ages.

But I fear our greater problem nowadays is that we don’t think nearly as much or as hard about the triune nature of God as we should. When Gregory of Nyssa, one of the Cappadocian fathers of the 4th century, the time of the Arian controversy when the Christian church was terribly divided over this question of the nature of the triune God and of Jesus Christ as the Son of God, moved to Constantinople, he heard debates about the trinity on every street corner.

“Garment sellers, money changers, food vendors,” he wrote, “they are all at it. If you ask for change, they philosophize for you about generate and ingenerate natures. If you inquire about the price of a loaf of bread, the answer is that the Father is greater and the Son is inferior. If you speak about whether the bath is ready, they express an opinion that the Son was made out of nothing.”

I’m pretty sure I have never heard an argument about the Trinity in the grocery store. Have you? But I doubt it is because we all agree and we know what we think about these deep things. It is because people don’t care and don’t think it makes any difference. But, of course, it does. It makes all the difference in the world.

Dorothy Sayers, the English playwright and novelist, once remarked that to the average churchgoer the mystery of the Trinity means “the Father is incomprehensible, the Son is incomprehensible, and the whole thing is incomprehensible. Something put in by the theologians to make it more difficult – nothing to do with daily life or ethics.” [The above from R.J. Neuhaus, First Things (Nov 2004) 74] But the fact of the matter is that it is the Triune nature of God that explains our world and our lives.

You are perhaps aware of the fact that one of the great problems of philosophy and of life is traditionally described as the problem of the “one and the many.” How do we combine plurality and unity in understanding and in life? We are dealing with this all the time in ways, I think, we do not realize. Are universals “real”? Is there such a thing as a tree, a universal that helps us to organize our understanding of a whole world of beautiful plants that exist in our world? Why do we call the oak and the fir and the maple all trees? Is there such a thing as a tree? Or are there simply a lot of individual plants that for convenience we lump together and call trees? Tree is not a real thing, but simply a name we give to different things. “The one and the many.” To make it more important is there such a thing as a human being? Or all we all just a bunch of creatures that for convenience’s sake we have decided to call human beings? What is it? Is there such a thing as a real unity of things amidst all the plurality of life and existence in the world? The question is resolved, and only resolved, in the very nature of the God who made the world, a God who is both real plurality and real unity at one and the same time.

More practically important, perhaps, to our daily life: why is human life so relational? Why is love so important to human beings? Why do souls shrivel if they don’t have it? Why are lives destroyed for the want of it? Why are our lives and the condition of our lives day after day defined by the presence or absence of such loving relationships? Because we have been made in the image of God who is himself a loving relationship and has imprinted his life upon our own and made his own life the goal and the only perfect fulfillment and consummation of our lives.

There is more to the triune life of God than may at first meet the eye. It is not simply a theological datum, a fact of biblical theology. It is the explanation of the world and of human life as we know it and experience it every day. We ought to be turning from life to God and his triple personality and from God to life again and again every day. But to do that we need to think wisely and accurately about God and, what is very important, we need to be careful to rejoice in the knowledge we have been given and to be careful not to go beyond what is known.

Augustine famously remarked concerning the triunity of God that there is nothing in which it is more easy or more dangerous to make a mistake. [In Flavel, Works, V, 421] Because here you  are at the very foundation of all things if you mess this up, everything must be wrong that comes after. And mistakes there have been aplenty! As John Duncan, the “Rabbi” Duncan of 19th century Scottish Presbyterian Church life, wisely wrote:

“The Trinity is my highest theologoumenon. [A theologoumenon is a theological idea constructed out of the data of Holy Scripture but something that is never explicitly taught in the pages of Holy Scripture.] I reach it and find in it the supreme harmony of revealed things. But it is equally irrational and irreverent to speculate on the nexus [the joint, the connection] between the persons. This is not revealed, and I think is not revealable.” [Just a Talker, 72]

The church father Gregory Nazianzen pointed the way forward for us this evening when he wrote:

“I cannot think of the One, but I am immediately surrounded with the splendor of the Three; nor can I clearly discover the Three, but I am suddenly carried back to the One. When I think of any one of the three I think of him as the whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of that one so as to attribute a greater greatness to the rest. When I contemplate the three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the undivided light.” [Orations, 40. 41, cited in Letham, 463-464]

In other words, we understand the Trinity only to the extent that we are emphatic about the One to the same degree that we are emphatic about the Three. But I think if you consult your own mind and thinking, you will find that it is not so easy to be equally emphatic about the unity and the triple personality of God.

For example, we speak of three persons as we are taught in Holy Scripture to do. Who are these persons? How do they differ from one another? And how are they one God? We tend to think of God as a person when we are thinking of God in his unity. God is love, we say. And we mean that the person of God is full of love, infinitely full of love. Very often in the Bible God speaks or acts, or the Lord speaks or acts. Is it one of the three persons who is acting in every case or all three together? What is more,  if God is a person who has a name and who acts, in what way are the three persons of the Godhead also persons and how are they different from the person of God? Theologians have debated these questions through the ages, often in terms of the question whether there is some “essence” some “substance” that all three persons share, or whether the persons are themselves all there is to God. We’ll talk more about that next time. The Bible, of course, doesn’t explain any of this. That is why the Trinity is a theologoumenon. There is not a passage in the Bible that explains to us how God is one and how he is three at the same time, what that means and how the triple personality is united in the Godhead. So Christian theology has had to work over the data provided in the Bible and come to conclusions based upon them. And it is entirely a question of biblical data. Apart from the Bible there would be no doctrine of the Trinity and no one would ever have invented one. There is nothing intuitive about the triunity of God. We would not believe it unless the Bible taught it. But what does it teach?

Who are the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit? How do they differ from one another and how are they related to one another? We scarcely know.

“Father” suggests many things to us, but one thing it cannot suggest in relation to God is source or origin, as if God the Son was “generated” or “begotten” or “sired” by the Father. This is, as you may remember, what the Arians taught in the 4th century and what the Jehovah Witnesses teach today: that the Father is the only true God and the Son is the first of the creatures, a god, but not the God. They reasoned that since a son comes into being at a certain point in time, that is the nature of a son, the Son of God must have as well. There was a time when he did not exist. But, the church concluded, and rightly, that God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are as eternally God as God the Father. So Fatherhood and sonship do not refer to origin and generation. God has no origin and if the Son is fully God he doesn’t have an origin either. It is helpful to remember that the Yahweh of whom we read so much in the Old Testament, the Yahweh who teaches us what God is like in his eternity and majesty and glory, is very often identified in the New Testament with God the Son not God the Father. It was God the Son who bested the gods of Egypt, redeemed his people from bondage and parted the waters of the Sea of Reeds; God the Son who gave the law to Moses at Sinai, whose glory was reflected on Moses’ face when he came out of the Tent of Meeting; it was God the Son whose glory Isaiah saw when he was given a vision of the Lord at the time of his call as we read in Isaiah 6. So the Son of God, or, better, God the Son, is as full of eternal glory and majesty as God the Father. In fact taking all of that NT evidence together it is I think possible that the person of the Godhead most hidden and least revealed in the first thirty-nine books of the Bible is God the Father, not God the Son and not God the Holy Spirit.

On the other hand, the Bible does name the first person of the Triune God the Father and the second the Son. Obviously in many cases the reference to the Son of God is to the incarnate Son, to God the Son in his human nature. We also are, after all, called “sons” of God in the Bible, we who believe in Jesus and have been brought by God’s grace into his family. But there are places where it is clear “Son” is the eternal name and nature of the second person of the Triune God.

Even such a famous text as John 3:16 teaches us that God the Son was the Son before he ever came into the world.

“For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son…”

Indeed, though we Christians are the sons of God, Jesus Christ is God’s one and only Son, his unique Son. That is, he was the Son before he came into the world. His Father sent him into the world. We read the same in 1 John 4:9: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.” Or when we read in Matthew 3:17 that the Father spoke from heaven to say that Jesus was his beloved Son, or when we read of the Son of God in Romans 1:3-4 that according to his human nature he was a descendant of David, implying of course that according to his divine nature he was the Son of the Father, and when we read of the Son of God in Col. 1:15-20 that he is the image of the invisible God, that by him all things were created, that he is before all things and in him all things hold together, I say in such texts as these, and many others, it is clear that the Son of God has always been the Son of God. He did not begin to be God’s Son when he came into the world as a man. He is eternally the Son of God. He is not the Father, he is the Son; so two persons of the Triune God are revealed to us as Father and Son, terms very familiar to us from human life.

Father and Son make sense as personal names. We use them today as personal names. I call my boys “son” from time to time. They don’t call me “father,” but they call me “dad” or “padre,” which amounts to the same thing. But what about the Holy Spirit? Spirit isn’t a family name or relationship. God is spirit and, in that sense, all three persons of the Godhead are spirit. That is, none of the persons of the godhead have bodies. Christ has a body because he has a human nature, but his divine nature is pure spirit. The three persons are also all holy. All three are holy and all three are spirits, so why is only the third person called the Holy Spirit?

The effort in the history of Christian reflection on the triunity of God to define the distinctiveness of each person has not proved very helpful. To say that God the Father is characterized by paternity, the Son by filiation (from the Latin word for “son”), and the Spirit by spiration adds nothing to our understanding. It amounts to saying that the Father is characterized by fatherhood, the Son by sonship, and the Spirit by being spirated or breathed out. That certainly helps! We don’t get much further than the “Shield of the Holy Trinity” that we regularly use as a symbol on the cover of our Sunday bulletin. It says, you remember, that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; but the Father is not the Son or the Spirit; the Son is not the Father or the Spirit; and the Spirit is not the Father or the Son.

Clearly the persons are separate, however equal; they are distinct and we can know them and depend upon them in their distinctiveness. The Lord Jesus taught us to pray to the Father. Jesus taught us to depend upon the Holy Spirit whom he sent to equip us to do the work to which we have been called. The Father sent his Son into the world and calls upon us to worship and serve him.

We also know that the persons of the Godhead are really persons; individual, self-conscious, thinking, willing, acting, communicating spirits that can maintain relations with other persons because they possess what can only be understood as personal attributes. They can be addressed with personal pronouns. They can be addressed and address others as “I” and “you” and “he.” Indeed, the Holy Spirit, though “spirit” is a neuter noun in Greek, is referred to with masculine pronouns. “I will send him to you; and he will come.” You cannot attribute holiness, or sovereignty, or wisdom, or love to an essence or a substance, only to a person. But these separate persons form a single Godhead, indeed, a single God. When we say that a person can have a personal relationship with God, we mean nothing less than that a person can have a personal relationship with the God of three persons, indeed, can enter into the life of the divine society as it were. [Bray, The Doctrine of God, 238]

Perhaps you remember the point C.S. Lewis made in Mere Christianity.

“All sorts of people are fond of repeating the Christian statement that ‘God is love.’ But they seem not to notice that the words ‘God is love’ have no real meaning unless God contains at least two Persons. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, he was not love.”

Surely that is right. If God is love he must be multi-personal and, in fact, we learn that he is. Love withers whenever and wherever the triple personality of God is denied. Unitarianism never made for passionate lovers of God or man. [cf. R. Letham, The Holy Trinity, 459]

Whatever Father, Son, and Holy Spirit mean as identifying the distinct persons of the Godhead, the terms describe, at least as far as human terms can describe, how the three persons relate eternally to one another, and how they relate to us. The Father and the Son relate to one another in some way that is analogous to human fathers and sons, but, of course, only analogous and only in some way.

Holy Scripture doesn’t use the technical terms that Christian theology has used to teach us the doctrine of the triunity of God. It doesn’t use “person” or “substance” to distinguish between what is distinctive about each and what all share. Nor does it ever define the particular distinctiveness of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Calvin said [Institutes, I, xiii, 5] in speaking of the terminology of person and substance and other technical terms,

“I wish, indeed, that such names were buried, provided all would concur in the belief that the Father, Son, and Spirit, are one God, and yet that the Son is not the Father, nor the Spirit the Son, but that each has his peculiar subsistence.”

But even Calvin has to use the technical term “subsistence.” As Augustine put it, we use these terms in order not to say nothing at all. These things are shrouded in deep mystery. God is far above us. We do not know precisely what “Father” is intended to convey, though we can imagine some things about the meaning of the term. He is our Father in heaven and he is like a very good human father. In certain ways he is compared to a human father as in the beautiful words of Psalm 103: “as a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear him.” What does the “Son,” or what does the “Holy Spirit,” as terms, as names convey regarding the eternal distinctiveness of each person? All we can say is that they are appropriate terms, terms God chose himself, to reveal his three-fold person to us. There is something about the first person of the Godhead that is best expressed by Father; the Father sends the Son, that order is never reversed in the Bible; there is something about the second person of the Triune God best expressed by Son, it is the Son who is sent and who obeys his Father, the order is never reversed in the Bible; and there is something about the third person best expressed by Holy Spirit. It is always the Spirit who comes from or proceeds from the Father and the Son. That order is never reversed in the Bible. What precisely these terms signify we do not know. Indeed, Anselm, in recognition of the ambiguity of the theological term “person,” which meant different things to different theologians in his time and does today, spoke of the “three something-or-others,” and the “three I know not whats”. [tres nescio quid]. [Cited in Frame, Doctrine of God, 698-699]

But, at the same time, our theologians insist that we also confess that each person is coterminus with the entire divine being. That is, the Father isn’t a third of God, the Son another third, and the Spirit the last third. They are all God and completely God. Each shares the divine nature entirely. If they did not, each person would not be completely God but only a part of God or partly God. Is your head spinning yet?

Well, here we must stop. God has given us “a glimpse into his inner life, but only a glimpse.” [Frame, 705] The Trinity is not an irrational doctrine but it is highly, deeply mysterious. Only one other mystery compares to it and that is the mystery of the divine nature and the human nature united in the single person of Jesus Christ.

When you think about it your own person is a deep mystery. Who are you? What are you? The answers are far from obvious. Many people, we know, mistake themselves and think they are what they are not. And the wisest of us know what depths there are to our persons that we have not explored and cannot. Why is our personhood so deep and wide and great? Because we are made in the image of God whose own persons are so incomprehensible to us. [Lethem, 460]

But all is not dark and unknown. For Christ has come to us and revealed God to us and showed the Father to us. We know something wonderful about the Father because he is the Father of our Lord Jesus, our Savior. We know something about the Son because Jesus showed us what the Son of God is like and what he does and how he loves. We know something wonderful about the Holy Spirit who travels to and fro through the earth bringing life to the dead and communicating the wonders of God’s love and the power of Christ’s atonement and the gift of eternal life to the lives of small and sinful human beings. Jesus could say to Philip in John 14:9, “if you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” That is how much I am like him and he is like me. And he said of the Holy Spirit, he will show me to the world. We don’t know most things about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But we know many wonderful things about them.

  1. How they love one another and live in perfect harmony with one another; their inner life the perfect exemplar of what we are striving for in our own lives in the fellowship of the saints and in the fellowship of our families; perfect love and a single mind and heart.
  2. How they love their people and love them together; and how loving the people of God is the great interest and work of the three persons as one.
  3. How they agree in all matters touching their plans for the people of God and how they have submitted to one another in the working out of that plan for every single son and daughter of the family of God;
  4. With what power and justice and wisdom and grace and mercy and love they perform all their works in the world; never at cross purposes, never unsure of what the other thinks, what the other desires or whether the one is willing to fulfill the desires of the other.

 

Our faith, yours and mine as Christians, is full of splendor. And it begins and ends here in the living God whose very nature is, though ineffable and indescribable in most ways, is perfect beauty and love because it is triune. On this Palm Sunday let us not forget that our salvation, our eternal life that stretches before us out of this world and into the next and then forever, was born in the loving counsels of the threefold heart of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We can ponder for days what that conversation must have been like. But we must always remember that all three, the one living and true God, gave themselves to us each in his own unique way to the accomplishment of that salvation, that all three were at work from the beginning to the end and will be to its consummation, and that we owe our life to the love, regard, harmony and the single purpose that is found in this common life that is the life of the one true and living God.