The biblical, catholic, Christian doctrine of the Trinity is startlingly brief: God is one in three persons. Yet, the moment we pronounce that little formula, we’ve stepped off the pavement and into deep waters. To those outside the faith, our claim that God is one in three persons seems contradictory. Because of the apologetic problems it presents there has always been pressure to modify this formula. The Arians wanted to flatten out the mystery by making the Son (and later the Spirit) not of the same essence as the Father. Subordinationists and adoptionists did the same. There have been tri-theists who have proposed that God is three in essence. In our time there is a movement known as “social Trinitarianism” that holds that we may no longer speak of God’s “being” or essence but only of a relationship. One advocate of this reconstruction of the doctrine of the Trinity says that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are like the Cartwright Family. Rarely but occasionally some have proposed that we should say that God is three persons and one person.
Nevertheless, with the church ecumenical, in all times and places, the Reformed churches confess that God is one in essence or being and three in person:
25. Since there is but one Divine Being, why do you speak of three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit?
Because God has so revealed Himself in His Word, that these three distinct persons are the one, true, eternal God.
It’s instructive that the catechism asks, “why do you speak of three persons…?” One of the principal functions of a confession or catechism is to establish ecclesiastical baselines and boundaries for Christian rhetoric about certain issues. This is not to say that we may only use ecclesiastically sanctioned language. The framers of the catechism itself did not observe any such rule. They explored concepts and taught things that they did not include in the catechism but when we come to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity we’ve arrived at the core of the Christian faith, not to a fragile doctrine by any means but to a shared possession. Reformed Christians are catholic, ecumenical in our doctrine of the Trinity. We confess the same doctrine that was confessed at Nicea (325), at Constantinople (381), at Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), in the Apostles’ Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. Yes, we did accept the Western revision adopted at Toledo (589), so we are Western in our understanding of the double procession of the Spirit (“proceeds from the Father and the Son;” filioque). This puts us at odds with the Eastern churches post-589 but we receive the ecumenical creeds and understanding of the Trinity.
Thus, e.g., when contemporary writers inveigh against the language of “being” or “essence” in the doctrine of God they are not only criticizing the private writings of other philosophical theologians with whom they disagree but the catholic, churchly, universally received rhetoric of the church adopted as a way of articulating the relationship between the divine unity and the divine persons. We say that God is one divine being. He is one.
Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being (θειον εναι) is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man (Acts 17:29; ESV).
We may speak of the divine being. In this case, “divine being” stands for God but we cannot speak of God without saying that he is. At the same time, we don’t say that he “has being” as if God and his creatures share an essence. No, fundamental to the biblical revelation of God is that, in the beginning, he was and we weren’t. He is in a way that we are not and never can be. We couldn’t possibly share in his being, as if there were no distinction between God and creatures or as if humans have the potential to become God. There is no continuum between God and creatures. Sanctification and glorification are not deification. Yes, 2Peter 1:4 says that, in sanctification, we become “partakers of the divine nature” (θειας κοινωνοι) but, in context, Peter was not intending to erase or even blur the distinction between Creator and creature. Calvin’s explanation is sound:
But the word nature is not here essence but quality. The Manicheans formerly dreamt that we are a part of God, and that ,after having run the race of life we shall at length revert to our original. There are also at this day fanatics who imagine that we thus pass over into the nature of God, so that his swallows up our nature. Thus they explain what Paul says, that God will be all in all and in the same sense they take this passage. But such a delirium as this never entered the minds of the holy Apostles; they only intended to say that when divested of all the vices of the flesh, we shall be partakers of divine and blessed immortality and glory, so as to be as it were one with God as far as our capacities will allow.
We cannot reject the rhetoric of God “being” one without placing ourselves at odds with Scripture, with the catholic creeds, and Reformed confessions.
Neither can we modify the fundamental assertion that God is one. Deuteronomy 6:4 says, “Hear O’ Israel, Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one.” He is not three. He is one. Again, the Nicene-Constantinoplitan Creed (381) says, “We believe in one God….” We do not believe in a plurality of Gods. The Biblical faith is monotheistic. The Christian faith is monotheistic. This why the catechism says God is “only” (German, einig; Latin tantrum) one.
Unity is predicated of the divine nature but plurality is predicated of the divine persons. We should not confuse the two. God is one but he is one in three persons. It is the apparent tension between the two predicates (one and three) that creates the tension that must be addressed by the catechism. Since we we say that God is only one divine essence (German göttlich wesen; Latin, essentia divina) why then do we also say that God is three persons? (Note: the German text asks, “warum nennest du drei,” i.e., “why do you speak of three…?” whereas the Latin text says, “cur tres istos nominas,” i.e., “why do you speak of three persons”?)* The apparent tension is between the divine unity and the three persons.
Nothing in Scripture, the creeds, our theologians, or the catechism even hints that we would ever speak of “one person.” God is personal but by that we mean to say that God is tri-personal or multi-personal. When our theologians (e.g., Hodge and Warfield) speak of God being “personal” it never entered their imaginations that anyone would interpret that adjective to mean “unipersonal.” We cannot abstract “personal” from the biblical, historic, and confessional understanding that it signals “multi-personal as, e.g., in the Hebrew and Aramaic Scriptures where the Trinity is suggested but not revealed explicitly or tri-personal, as God is finally revealed in the New Testament Scriptures (on this see Belgic Confession articles 8, 9). We baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Not three gods but one God in three persons. Here the Athanasian Creed is exceptionally helpful.
Neither confounding the Persons: nor dividing the Substance.
For there is one Person of the Father: another of the Son: and another of the Holy Spirit.
But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is all one: the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal.
Such as the Father is: such is the Son: and such is the Holy Spirit.
The Father uncreate: the Son uncreate: and the Holy Spirit uncreate.
The Father incomprehensible: the Son incomprehensible: and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible.
The Father eternal: the Son eternal: and the Holy Spirit eternal.
And yet they are not three eternals: but one eternal.
As also there are not three uncreated: nor three incomprehensibles, but one uncreated: and one incomprehensible.
So likewise the Father is Almighty: the Son Almighty: and the Holy Spirit Almighty.
And yet they are not three Almighties: but one Almighty.
So the Father is God: the Son is God: and the Holy Ghost is God.
And yet they are not three Gods: but one God.
So likewise the Father is Lord: the Son Lord: and the Holy Ghost Lord.
And yet not three Lords: but one Lord
Why do we speak this way? Because it is the way God has revealed himself in Holy Scripture. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were present in creation. They were present at Jesus’ baptism. They were present at Pentecost. God has made himself known as one God, in three, distinct, consubstantial persons. He has not made himself known as three gods (because he isn’t three gods). He has not made himself known as one person, because he is not one person. There’s no true sense in which God may be said to be one person. He Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He is not one person pretending to be three. He is one God. He is three, distinct persons. Each of the persons has his distinct properties. Only the Father is unbegotten. Only the Son is eternally eternally of Father. Only the Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father and the Son. Those distinctions are real, however difficult they may be for us to grasp.
That is why the catechism says, “three distinct persons (Latin, distinctae personae)” and “one true and eternal God.” There is only one God. He is one, in three persons. Full stop. We don’t need to dissolve the mystery by redefining the divine being as a relationship and we don’t need to further complicate the doctrine by re-defining “personal” to mean something other than multi-personal or tri-personal. The triune God is the God who is, who made himself known in his Word and in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God the Son incarnate.
* We shouldn’t worry that the question in the Latin text uses “nominas” (as if the distinction between the persons was only apparent and not real) since the answer uses personae. The distinction between the persons, according to the catechism, is not an illusion. We are not modalists.