Trinitarian Basics- Part 6

Eternal Generation and Spiration

These two concepts essentially address the same issue, with the former speaking of the relation between God the Father and God the Son, and the latter speaking of that between God the Father and God the Spirit.  We’ll leave the filioque to the side for the moment.  Also, I’ll be primarily speaking of the eternal generation, but know that I could also add to everything I say, “And it works the same way for spiration of the Spirit…”  I’m just conserving space here.

What is meant by this doctrine is also what is meant by the “monarchia” of the Father.  That is, trinitarian ordering begins with the Father and then moves to the Son and the Spirit. Continue reading


Trinitarian Basics- Part 5

Divine Simplicity

“Simplicity” is the underlying definition of, or way to understand, the divine essence.  Though hotly contested among modern and post-modern theologians (you can see the shift in the mid-19th cent.  Bavinck even critiques Charles Hodge in a footnote about this very subject), simplicity was mostly universally accepted throughout Christendom.  Recently Lewis Ayres has identified three organizational planks behind pro-Nicene theology, and simplicity is right at the top of the list.  It is the statement that God is not composed of “parts,” nor do his attributes make up a composite.  All of God is all of God, and each of His attributes is Him.  “Simple” is thus opposed to complex or composite.

Simplicity is really another way to explain infinity.  If God is outside of space and time, and thus always all that He is without bounds, then no “real” distinctions can be placed within His being.  This means Continue reading

Trinitarian Basics- Part 4

Nature, Substance, Essence

The terms “nature,” “substance,” and “essence” all signify the same thing when speaking of the being of God in Trinitarian nomenclature.  We’ve previously mentioned the occasional confusion of “substance” and “person” (because of the meaning of hypostasis), and there is similar confusion in the possibility of distinguishing between “substance” and “essence,” however, the terms were eventually worked out into a consistent fashion.  Though “substance” and “essence” could mean different things when speaking of the creation, they meant the same when speaking of God.  Each word signified the single divine being.

Like we saw with “person,” the actual definition of these terms is quite bare.  Esse means “the act of existing.”  Essentia means “the whatness of a being.”  Natura also means essentia or quidditas: “the character of something.”  Substantia could have the connotation of material “stuff,” but in Trinitarian nomenclature it was always identified with the essence and thus spiritual, invisible, simple, and infinite. Continue reading

Trinitarian Basics- Part 3


“Person” is the English translation of the Latin term persona and the Greek term hypostasis.  “Person” was used to denominate the individual and irreducible existence of the divine Father, Son, and Spirit respectively.  In fact, the most direct definition of “person” would be the rather uninspiring expressions “something that exists” or “mode of subsistence.”  In Thomism it would gain the added notion of “subsistent relation,” though that definition is still very much contested.  In no case, however, did it have the modern basically univocal meaning of human “person,” still less “personality.”

Richard Muller explains how the older definition of “person” differed from its contemporary meaning here.  Bavinck states plainly:

The Christian church and Christian theology, it must be remembered, never used the word “personality” to describe God’s being; and in respect of the three modes of subsistence in that being, they only spoke of persons reluctantly and for lack of a better term.  (Reformed Dogmatic vol. 2, pg. 50)

Person really doesn’t mean “person,” at least not in the ordinary sense we use it today. Continue reading

Trinitarian Basics- Part 2

Divine Incomprehensibility

Whenever we talk about the Trinity, we are talking about the being and nature of God, and therefore we are talking about something that is beyond us.  We are talking about something for which we have no full category.  There are no exact earthly parallels.  This is not because there is a problem with God’s revelation, nor does it call into question the trustworthiness of religion.  It is simply because God is God.  He is infinite.  He is outside our conceptions of time and space.  His name is wonderful.

This doctrine is universally confessed by Christians.  Sometimes it goes by other names: unknowability, hyperousia, apophatic, via negativa, etc.  The concept is the same.  God is incomprehensible.  He has revealed Himself in a trustworthy manner, but since He nevertheless remains Who He is, Christianity teaches that human knowledge of God is always analogical.

The argument that in Scripture God accommodates Himself to us through our language directly follows from the admission of divine incomprehensibility. Continue reading

Trinitarian Basics- Part 1

One God

The Trinity is an expression of Christian monotheism.  Modern neo-Trinitarian theologians may protest that I am here assuming what needs to be proved, but the response is simply that this series is an explanation of the historic meaning.  If one wishes to contest this meaning, then that is their privilege, but they will then assume the burden of showing why their formulation can use the traditional signifiers while disagreeing with the traditional things signified.  For now, we explain the faith.

The Trinity is One God.  The Biblical support for this is found in Deut. 6:4 and James 2:19 (among other NT passages).  At no point does the Bible apply the term “gods” to the Creator, nor does it suggest that any other heavenly beings are equal with Him.  The Nicene Creed sates “We believe in one God.”  The pseudo-Athanasian Creed states, “That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity” and “they are not three Gods, but one God. ”  The 39 Articles state, “There is but one living and true God.”  The Heidelberg Catechism takes monotheism for granted, wishing to know how the confession of 3 persons does not contradict it.  It answers, “these three distinct persons are the one only true and eternal God” (Q&A 25).  The Westminster Confession of Faith mostly echoes the 39 Articles and adds to them, retaining monotheism at the very beginning of its discussion, “There is but one only living and true God…” Continue reading

Trinitarian Basics- Prolegomena

Narrowly speaking, the Bible does not provide us with an exhaustive (or even fully explicit) theology of the Trinity.  The Bible does teach the doctrine of the Trinity, to be sure, but it does so by implication.  It gives us the revelation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and it tells us that these three are one, in various ways.  Anyone who has studied the history of the theological explanation of the Trinity, however, knows that this is only the starting gate of the discussion.  At no point did Arians, Sabellians, Eunomians, or any of the various Homoian groups flatly reject scriptural verses.  The debate was always over interpretation and implication.  This is not illegitimate, nor is its admission any departure from traditional Protestant Christianity.  Calvinists have always insisted on the need to deduce “good and necessary consequences” from the Bible and to insist that those too are part of the whole counsel of God (WCF 1.6).

This little preamble is necessary because of the recent shift to speaking of “Trinitarianism” or explicitly “Trinitarian” formulations of dogmatics.  This manner of speech capitalizes on the historic importance placed upon the doctrine of the Trinity and the rightful recognition that the doctrine of the Trinity is one of the unique confessions of Christianity.  What is less frequently admitted is that to appeal to “the Trinity” is to appeal to a specific theological construct and an objective tradition of theologizing.  There really is a specific referent when we say “the Trinity,” and it includes a number of basic doctrines.  Unfortunately many of these basic doctrines are either unknown or rejected by a good many of modern theologians who wish to cash in on the value of the term “Trinity.”  Therefore it will be necessary to lay out explicitly a number of the basic doctrines which underlay the theology of “the Trinity” in order for us all to be speaking of the same thing.  It will be the goal of this series to make plain what “the Trinity” actually means in historic Christian dogma.

We must also say that while the doctrine of the Trinity is supra-rational, it is not irrational.  At no point do Christians concede that the formulation of the Trinity is a violation of logic.  It is a mystery, to be sure, but not a contradiction.  Therefore it is appropriate to use reason in the service of dogmatics, and it will not be deemed wrong to ask for clarity and consistency in our discussions.  Such is the classic Reformed position.

More John of Damascus on Divine Unity

Continuing with John’s Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, we read about the unity of the Godhead.  Now it must be understood that our contemporary manner of speaking, with clear and easy references to “the essence” and “the persons” is not the positive methodology of John.  He certainly distinguishes between ousia and hypostasis, but he also makes reference to the nature (physis) and the energy.  There is also the concept of names which will come up later.  Rather than simply using our modern notion of “essence,” it is better to speak of “the unity.”  The value of paying attention to the unity will become clear.

John writes:

And this may be perceived throughout the whole of creation, but in the case of the holy and superessential and incomprehensible Trinity, far removed from everything, it is quite the reverse. For there the community and unity are observed in fact, through the co-eternity of the subsistences, and through their having the same essence and energy and will and concord of mind, and then being identical in authority and power and goodness—I do not say similar but identical—and then movement by one impulse. For there is one essence, one goodness, one power, one will, one energy, one authority, one and the same, I repeat, not three resembling each other. But the three subsistences have one and the same movement. For each one of them is related as closely to the other as to itself: that is to say that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one in all respects, save those of not being begotten, of birth and of procession. But it is by thought that the difference is perceived. For we recognise one God: but only in the attributes of Fatherhood, Sonship, and Procession, both in respect of cause and effect and perfection of subsistence, that is, manner of existence, do we perceive difference. For with reference to the uncircumscribed Deity we cannot speak of separation in space, as we can in our own case. For the subsistences dwell in one another, in no wise confused but cleaving together, according to the word of the Lord, I am in the father, and the father in Me: nor can one admit difference in will or judgment or energy or power or anything else whatsoever which may produce actual and absolute separation in our case. Wherefore we do not speak of three Gods, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, but rather of one God, the holy Trinity, the Son and Spirit being referred to one cause, and not compounded or coalesced according to the synæresis of Sabellius. For, as we said, they are made one not so as to commingle, but so as to cleave to each other, and they have their being in each other without any coalescence or commingling. Nor do the Son and the Spirit stand apart, nor are they sundered in essence according to the diæresis of Arias. For the Deity is undivided amongst things divided, to put it concisely: and it is just like three suns cleaving to each other without separation and giving out light mingled and conjoined into one. When, then, we turn our eyes to the Divinity, and the first cause and the sovereignty and the oneness and sameness, so to speak, of the movement and will of the Divinity, and the identity in essence and power and energy and lordship, what is seen by us is unity.


What is of interest here is John’s statement that “the difference is perceived” only in “the manner of existence.”  It should not be difficult to understand how Thomas Aquinas could make such use of the Damascene, as well as Pseudo-Denys.  The “Person” is a “manner of existence,” and this is also a relationship of “cause and effect”: Sonship and Procession.  There is much to say about this language of “cause and effect,” and John is clear that this has nothing to do with priority of time or nature.  It is only an ordering of relation.

To show that this is indeed what Western thinkers mean by God’s essence, we need to notice John’s language of “one motion.”  In the Trinity:

the community and unity are observed in fact, through the co-eternity of the subsistences, and through their having the same essence and energy and will and concord of mind, and then being identical in authority and power and goodness—I do not say similar but identical—and then movement by one impulse. For there is one essence, one goodness, one power, one will, one energy, one authority, one and the same, I repeat, not three resembling each other. But the three subsistences have one and the same movement.

John does not merely use the term “essence” or “nature,” but he does include these, as well as will, mind, power, energy, and other descriptions under the category of “unity.”  He concludes:

When, then, we turn our eyes to the Divinity, and the first cause and the sovereignty and the oneness and sameness, so to speak, of the movement and will of the Divinity, and the identity in essence and power and energy and lordship, what is seen by us is unity.

When we turn our eyes to the Divinity, what is seen by us is unity.

John of Damascus on the Divine Unity

John of Damascus definitely “starts with” the unity of the divine nature.  In his Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, under the chapter heading of “Concerning the Holy Trinity,” John writes:

We believe, then, in One God, one beginning, having no beginning, uncreate, unbegotten, imperishable and immortal, everlasting, infinite, uncircumscribed, boundless, of infinite power, simple, uncompound, incorporeal, without flux, passionless, unchangeable, unalterable, unseen, the fountain of goodness and justice, the light of the mind, inaccessible; a power known by no measure, measurable only by His own will alone (for all things that He wills He can), creator of all created things, seen or unseen, of all the maintainer and preserver, for all the provider, master and lord and king over all, with an endless and immortal kingdom: having no contrary, filling all, by nothing encompassed, but rather Himself the encompasser and maintainer and original possessor of the universe, occupying all essences intact and extending beyond all things, and being separate from all essence as being super-essential and above all things and absolute God, absolute goodness, and absolute fulness: determining all sovereignties and ranks, being placed above all sovereignty and rank, above essence and life and word and thought: being Himself very light and goodness and life and essence, inasmuch as He does not derive His being from another, that is to say, of those things that exist: but being Himself the fountain of being to all that is, of life to the living, of reason to those that have reason; to all the cause of all good: perceiving all things even before they have become: one essence, one divinity, one power, one will, one energy, one beginning, one authority, one dominion, one sovereignty, made known in three perfect subsistences and adored with one adoration, believed in and ministered to by all rational creation, united without confusion and divided without separation (which indeed transcends thought). (We believe) in Father and Son and Holy Spirit whereinto also we have been baptized. For so our Lord commanded the Apostles to baptize, saying, Baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

~ Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 1.8

Notice that he says there is one energy.  This is because the energy is an attribute of the one essence.