We spoke last Lord’s Day evening about the triune nature of God and how fundamental that is to the reality of life as we experience it every day. The unity of life amid its diversity, and the social nature of humanity, and the essential place of love in human experience, all of this derives from the triune life of God. God could not be love if he were not triune, three persons who loved one another in the very nature of the one living and true God. And it is this nature that has been imprinted upon the life of man, made as he is in the image and likeness of God. And we spoke of the three persons. We considered how little we can say about the distinctiveness of each person. Even their names tell us only a little about each person: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God has given us a glimpse into his inner life, but only a glimpse. There are three 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, but they form one God, a single God, however impossible it is for us to know how they do so. And, what is more, each person is the whole God, not simply a third of God.
I briefly referred to the doctrine of taxis. Taxis is the Greek word meaning order or arrangement. It is not an order of rank or hierarchy that we find among the three persons, still less an order of time or chronology, but of appropriate disposition and arrangement. [Letham, 383] The Father always sends the Son, never the reverse. The Spirit comes from the Father and the Son, never the reverse. The names themselves, Father and Son, express some taxis, some order, some arrangement that is intrinsic, fundamental, and eternal among the persons. Something is being revealed to us about the very nature of God, about the relationship of the three persons, even in the baptismal order: “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
We cannot help but imagine what all of this means, however far beyond us it remains. One of Dawn Darby’s father’s favorite books – Bill McColley was a well-read and very thoughtful minister of our Presbytery before his sudden death in 1990 – was Robert Farrar Capon’s The Third Peacock. My copy was published in 1972 and if you want evidence of how the world has changed you have only to see the $1.25 price printed on the front cover! The book begins this way:
“Let me tell you why God made the world. One afternoon, before anything was made, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost sat around in the unity of their Godhead discussing one of the Father’s fixations. From all eternity, it seems he had had this thing about being. He would keep thinking up all kinds of unnecessary things – new ways of being and new kinds of beings to be. And as they talked, God the Son suddenly said, ‘Really, this is absolutely great stuff. Why don’t I go out and mix us up a batch?’ And God the Holy Ghost, ‘Terrific, I’ll help you.’ So they all pitched in, and after supper that night, the Son and the Holy Ghost put on this tremendous show of being for the Father. It was full of water and light and frogs; pine cones kept dropping all over the place and crazy fish swam around in the wineglasses. There were mushrooms and grapes, horseradishes and tigers – and men and women everywhere to taste them, to juggle them, to join them and to love them. And God the Father looked at the whole wild party and he said, ‘Wonderful! Just what I had in mind! Tov! Tov! Tov!’ And all God the Son and God the Holy Ghost could think of to say was the same thing. ‘Tov! Tov! Tov!’ So they shouted together ‘Tov meod’ and they laughed for ages and ages, saying things like how great it was for beings to be, and how clever of the Father to think of the idea, and how kind of the Son to go to all that trouble putting it together, and how considerate of the Spirit to spend so much time directing and choreographing. And forever and ever they told old jokes, and the Father and the Son drank their wine in unitate Spiritus Sancti, and they all threw ripe olives and pickled mushrooms at each other per omnia saecula saeculorum. Amen.
Now, lest you think this irreverent, Capon goes on immediately to say:
“It is, I grant you, a crass analogy; but crass analogies are the safest. Everybody knows that God is not three old men throwing olives at each other. Not everyone, I’m afraid, is equally clear that God is not a cosmic force or a principle of being or any[thing else] we might choose to call him.”
Capon’s point is that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are persons even as the one and only God. And as persons they speak and act and love individually. I don’t know how the creation of the world came about. No one does. Gordon Clark, the evangelical philosopher, once said in my hearing that for him the greatest mystery of all was that the eternal God decided to make the world. And the Bible makes unmistakably clear that each person was directly and intimately involved in the creation of the world and of everything in the world and of everything that and everyone who has ever existed in the world. In different places of Holy Scripture we are taught and taught explicitly that the Father created the world, that the Son created the world, and that the Spirit created the world. Thought and action belong to each person.
And so does love. It is interesting, perhaps nothing more than interesting, that the Bible never expressly says that the Holy Spirit loves us. We are told that the Father loves us and the Son loves us, but never that the Spirit loves us. But it is obvious that he does. He is the one who recreates our very selves that we might know God and believe in Jesus Christ. It is he who stoops to dwell with unlovely people such as ourselves and make his residence in us where he must see and smell much greater evil than we ever do. Surely that is a supreme love. And he rejoices to do the will of the Father and the Son who loved us and who gave himself for us. Each of the persons has his own love to give and to receive. That is how distinct and separate the persons are. This is a fantastically beautiful thought and one we ought to ponder more often than we do.
In 1 John 5:1, in the midst of his exhortation to us to love one another, the Apostle says this:
“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well.”
The point is clear and powerful. We cannot claim to love God if we do not love God’s children, that is, if we do not love one another. How can we love God if we don’t love those whom he loves? If we really care for God, if we love him, we will want him to be happy and what will make him happier as our Father than to see all his children loving one another and getting along cheerfully and graciously and faithfully. I know when I see my children loving one another it causes me great happiness! There is an inexorable logic to John’s exhortation.
But, don’t you see, that principle, that logic indeed, comes from above. We know that God the Father loves his one and only Son. We read that and see that everywhere in the Bible. It was the thing the Father thought to say from heaven at the Lord Christ’s baptism: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” [Luke 3:22] It is inconceivable that in the truest, purest, more perfect society that exists – the society of the Godhead – there should not be love among all the persons and between each. No Christian can read 1 John 5:1 without immediately thinking of the Father and the Son and their love for one another. The love of father and son did not begin among us. Our family love is the effulgence, the overflow of the love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the triune life of God. The reason anyone must love anyone else is because Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are bound together by love.
May I say, as an aside, that the fact that each of the persons has his own love to give is true in respect to Christ as well? Paul makes the wonderfully daring assertion in Galatians 2:20 that “Christ loved me and gave himself for me.” That, of course, we all know is the nature of true love. It is personal, not abstract or general. We are not impressed with someone who says he loves all mankind. Usually people who have such love are distinguished by the lack of love they show to individual human beings! Christ loved me! But have you ever reckoned with the fact that the truthfulness of that assertion absolutely depends upon Christ’s divine nature. He didn’t love anyone in this room personally and individually in his human nature when he went to the cross. He might have loved the disciples, and his mother and the other women, but not you and me. He couldn’t have. A human mind cannot contain such a vast number of names and lives.
As a man Christ didn’t know who touched him the day that sick woman did. He didn’t know the day or hour of his return. He certainly didn’t know the life and life history and character of hundreds of millions; indeed, of billions of infants, of boys and girls, of men and women for whom he would shed his blood. No authentic human mind could know so much. But God the Son knows all those names, all those lives, and infinitely more. It is only because of the love that lives in the heart of God the Son, the second person of the triune God, that we can believe and say, “he loved me and gave himself for me.”
Apropos our Easter celebration let us also remember that each of the three persons was also intimately involved in the resurrection of our Lord Jesus. Usually the resurrection is said to be an act of the Father in the New Testament (e.g. Acts 2:32; Rom. 8:11; 1 Cor. 15:15). Sometimes it is said to be the Son’s own act (John 2:19-21); 10:17-18). But Paul also says that it was through the Spirit of holiness that Jesus “was declared with power to be the Son of God, by his resurrection from the dead.” And Peter says of Jesus that he was “put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit…” [1 Pet. 3:18] As with the creation, so with the recreation, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all working together.
All of this is wonderful and mysterious and leaves us again with three distinct acting, loving persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But then, with these three distinct, living, loving, acting as persons, how do these three remain one God? Do we not have three gods, not simply three persons?
There is a piece or article of the orthodox doctrine of the triunity of God that you may or may not ever have heard of. In Greek it is called perichoresis and in Latin circumincessio. Both terms literally mean “to go around” or, perhaps, “to circulate,” but in reference to the Trinity the terms refer to the mutual indwelling of the persons: the Father in the Son, the Son in the Father, both the Father and the Son in the Spirit, and the Spirit in them. The English term for this feature of the doctrine of the Trinity is coinherence. That is, each of the persons shares, co-inheres in the divine nature and in each other. This is the implication of a familiar way of speaking that we encounter in the New Testament.
“I am in the Father and the Father is in me…” [John 14:11]
“My prayer is…that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” [17:21]
Coinherence follows from the fact that each person of the Godhead is fully God. Since all three persons are fully God and the whole God is in each of them, it follows that the three mutually contain one another. As one theologian daringly puts it (with respect to three Spirits), “all three occupy the same divine space.” [Bray, The Doctrine of God, 158] This is how Paul could say in Colossians 2:9 that “in Christ the whole fullness of Deity dwells bodily.” That is, there are not parts of God that are not in Christ because they remain only in the Father or the Spirit.
Here is a key difference between the three persons of God and human persons. Human persons do not exist in one another (Leiden Synopsis, 6th ed. 1881, 63), but the divine persons do. We are not only distinct, but we are apart. [Letham, 178] But the divine persons are distinct but never apart. Going back to the literal meaning of the terms used to describe this – perichoresis and circumincessio – we might say that the entire divine nature is constantly circulating through the persons and they in one another.
There are intimations of such a perfect indwelling or mutuality in human life, in the purest and deepest of human love, especially perhaps between a mother and her child or between a husband and his wife in which there is found at the best of times a desire literally to bring the other within yourself, to form, as it were, a union so profound as to leave but one instead of two. But these are imperfect hints only and the limitations of our humanity prevent anything like the full indwelling that exists between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And it is this perfect, infinite, eternal, and mysterious indwelling that keeps the three persons so much a single God. There are distinctions between the three persons but no divisions; they together constitute the one undivided being of God.
The doctrine of coinherence assures that the oneness of God is equally as ultimate as the threeness; that the three persons are as surely one God as they are three persons. Admittedly, we are talking about things we hardly understand. We are using terms so as to not say nothing at all. But these terms – perichoresis, circumincessio, and coinherence – are derived from the teaching of the Scripture itself and in their historic usage represent a faithful summary of what must be true about God, if indeed, each person is fully God, if indeed the fullness of deity dwelt in Christ, and if indeed the Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father and both are in the Spirit and the Spirit is in both the Father and the Son.
We see this wonderful reality in God’s nature as mutual indwelling – hard as it may be for us to understand the concept and necessary as it may be to describe it in terms of analogies, such as each divine person occupying the same space – and then we see it also in his acting – always the three together, always in harmony, always an outworking of love, always together toward the same end – the perfect picture of what human relationships ought to be but are not in this world of sin. The individual and the corporate in perfect harmony, the freedom and dignity of the one cheerfully subject to the whole, the society in turn completely devoted to the individual. Just think of how far short we fall of the divine life in its perfect mutuality in our families, in our churches, in our society, in our state, where the individual and the corporate rarely resemble such wonderful harmony.
Now, the great application of this truth is to the glory of God and the glory of his works in saving us from sin and death. It is, I think, not only an utterly mysterious thought but a perfectly wonderful thought that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the triune God both in his unity and his triple personality, loved us and gave himself for us and to us. It is a glorious thought that our salvation is restoring us to communion with a society of love so deep and so powerful that three are actually one.
In a scene such as Robert Farrar Capon might describe, we are inclined to think of the Father watching his Son’s earthly life from heaven and the Spirit as walking with him on the earth. We can imagine conversations between the three before Christ entered the world as a man and can imagine a happy reunion when the Lord Jesus returned to heaven, the wreckage of an evening meal lying finished on the table while they reminisce about the thirty-some years in Galilee and Judea and the Father, with tears in his eyes, loving his Son for being so willing to go and suffer and die, and the Son so thankful for his Father’s plan and care and ever willing hearing of the prayers he was always praying and the Father and the Son so grateful to the Spirit for all his help at every step of the way, and the Spirit so proud of having been able to serve the Father and the Son and, indeed, the salvation of the world as he did. But it is only a crass analogy. The truth is far deeper and far more wonderful than that.
The mysteries of our salvation come thick and fast when we think about the triune God. Think of Christ’s divine nature in his person when he took to himself a human nature. God the Son continued in the perfect communion and fellowship of the triune God throughout his life in the world, he all the while coinhering in the Father and the Spirit and they in him even as he lived, suffered, died, and rose again. It baffles the mind. Our Savior’s divine nature was demanding punishment as surely as the Father and the Spirit demanded it for our sins. The Son was in the Father and in the Spirit and they in him as his human body lay dying on the cross. Amazing!
Or, think of this: the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament teach us that the Lord lived his human life by the Holy Spirit. He was led by the Spirit, empowered by the Spirit. He was raised by the Spirit. But, of course, his own deity was entirely sufficient for the task because all the deity was in him. Why then was his life lived by the Spirit and not simply by the divine power of his own divine nature? Who can say? But we might well think that the triune God was so invested in our salvation that it was imperative for each and for all together to be intimately and decisively involved. The Father and the Spirit could not bear not to be a part of the work of our salvation. And even that last great act: what a wonderful thing we are being told when we are taught that the resurrection of the Lord Jesus was accomplished by the Father and by the Son and by the Holy Spirit.
Your salvation and mine was the shared work of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each of them and all of them together, the entire Godhead and each person of it, inhabiting one another in all the work that had to be done to secure our deliverance and our entrance into eternal life.
We learn to value things by what it took to acquire them. This is the purest and highest demonstration of the supreme value of your life, your soul, your existence: that God himself in all three persons conspired to plan, to execute, and to apply their holy plan to save you. And how beautiful a salvation it is and how wonderful a future it promises is nowhere more beautifully demonstrated than in this: that it was a mighty love within the Godhead from which it sprung and into that mighty love and that mutual life that we are being raised. What a gift; what a giver!