Some people take issue with the use of the word “Person” in the doctrine of the Trinity when the word is applied to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They wrongly assume that the doctrine of the Trinity inadvertently teaches that three Gods exist. Their reasoning goes something like this: If God the Father is a “Person,” then he is a God in his own right (having the characteristics of being divine). He would count as “one” God. The same could be said about the Son and Holy Spirit. Thus, there would be three separate Gods.
The Trinity doctrine has the opposite intent – to preserve the biblical witness to the oneness of God’s Being, yet at the same time accounting for the divinity of the Father, Son and the Spirit. When we speak of God’s divine nature, we must not confuse tritheism with the Trinity or think of “persons” as we do in the human sphere. What the Trinity says is that God is one with respect to his essence but is three with respect to the internal distinctions within his Triunity.
Here is how Christian scholar Emery Bancroft described it in his book Christian Theology, pages 87-88:
The Father is not God as such; for God is not only Father, but also Son and Holy Spirit. The term Father designates that personal distinction in the divine nature in virtue of which God is related to the Son and, through the Son and the Spirit, to the church. The Son is not God as such; for God is not only Son, but also Father and Holy Spirit. The Son designates that distinction in virtue of which God is related to the Father, and is sent by the Father to redeem the world, and with the Father sends the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not God as such; for God is not only Holy Spirit, but also Father and Son. The Holy Spirit designates that distinction in virtue of which God is related to the Father and the Son, and is sent by them to accomplish the work of renewing the ungodly and sanctifying the church.
When we are seeking to understand the Trinity doctrine, we need to be careful how we use and understand the word “God.” For example, whatever the New Testament says about the oneness of God, it also draws a distinction between Jesus Christ and God the Father. This is where the above formula from Bancroft is helpful. To be precise, we should speak of “God the Father,” “God the Son” and “God the Holy Spirit” when we are referring to each hypostasis or “Person” of the one God.
There are limitations of using the word “person” when explaining the nature of God. Do we really understand how God can be one in Being and three in Person? We have no experiential knowledge of God as he is. Not only is our experience limited, but so is our language. Using the word “Persons” for each of the three hypostases of God is in some ways a compromise. But, when speaking of God’s nature, we need a word that emphasizes his personalness in relationship to us human creatures and within himself, and yet carries with it the concept of distinctiveness. “Person” is the most appropriate word we have in the English language to do this.
Unfortunately, the word “person” also contains the notion of separateness when used of human persons. How can we deal with this? We understand that God does not consist of the kind of persons that a group of human beings do. Human persons are separate from each other and have separate wills because they only have external relations with each other, while the Persons of God have internal relations and share the same essence.
The Trinity doctrine uses the word “Person” for each hypostasis of God because it is a personal word, and God is a personal being in his dealings with us. Only a personal being can love, and love is the defining essence of God, according to the biblical witness (1 John 4:8; John 3:16; 15:9-10)
The word “persons” distinguishes between the three Persons of God and the one Being of God in the sense that the three Persons constitute his one Being. Thus, the doctrine preserves both the biblical revelation that there is but one God and no other, as well as its testimony that the Father, the Son and the Spirit are all equally divine and true God of true God.
Those who reject the Trinitarian explanation of God’s nature are in a quandary. If they reject the theology of the Trinity, they have no explanation that preserves two biblical truths about God’s Being: God is One Being and also he is plural in his Being. If they accept the biblical fact that Jesus is divine, they need some way of explaining that God is one, yet has more than one Person.
That is why Christians formulated the doctrine in precise technical language – so that we could rightly speak of God, according to the witness he has left us of himself through Christ and in the Spirit, as attested to by the New Testament. The church confesses the biblical testimony that God is one divine Being. But Christians also confess that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are divine, true God of true God, according to the New Testament.
The Trinity doctrine was developed with the intent of explaining, as well as human words and thought would allow, the reality that God has existed from eternity both as One Being and yet as three Persons. The Trinity doctrine says that God is one and that in his oneness he is Triune.
Explanations of the nature of God other than the Trinity have been put forth throughout the history of the Church. Arianism is one example. This theory claimed that the Son was a created being. The Arians thought they had preserved the oneness of God in their explanation, but created a heresy that did not rightly speak of God’s nature. The Arian conclusion was fundamentally flawed in that if the Son was a created being, he would not be divine, of the same essence of God, and therefore, could not be our Savior and could not be worshipped. Only God can save us and make us new creations. All other theories advanced to explain God’s nature in terms of the revelation of the Son and Holy Spirit have proved equally unfaithful to the gospel and the nature of God.
On the other hand, the Trinitarian explanation takes into consideration the divinity of the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit – and the biblical truth that there is only one God. That’s why the doctrine of the Trinity has survived for centuries as the explanation of God’s nature that preserves the truth of the biblical witness of who God is – and that he has saved us in himself through the Son and in the Spirit.
Author: Paul Kroll