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The Trinity and Tritheism

Article by: Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology

This Tripersonality is not Tritheism: for, while there are three Persons, there is but one Essence.

(a) The term ‘person’ only approximately represents the truth. Although this word, more nearly than any other single word, expresses the conception which the Scriptures give us of the relation between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, it is not itself used in this connection in Scripture, and we employ it in a qualified sense, not in the ordinary sense in which we apply the word ‘person’ to Peter, Paul, and John.

The word ‘person’ is only the imperfect and inadequate expression of a fact that transcends our experience and comprehension. Bunyan: “My dark and cloudy words, they do but hold The truth, as cabinets encase the gold.” Three Gods, limiting each other, would deprive each other of Deity. While we show that the unity is articulated by the persons, it is equally important to remember that the persons are limited by the unity. With us personality implies entire separation from all others—distinct individuality. But in the one God there can be no such separation. The personal distinctions in him must be such as are consistent with essential unity. This is the merit of the statement in the Symbolum Quicumque (or Athanasian Creed, wrongly so called): “The Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Ghost is God; and yet there are not three Gods but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son is Lord, the Holy Ghost is Lord; yet there are not three Lords but one Lord. For as we are compelled by Christian truth to acknowledge each person by himself to be God and Lord, so we are forbidden by the same truth to say that there are three Gods or three Lords.” See Hagenbach, History of Doctrine, l:270. We add that the personality of the Godhead as a whole is separate and distinct from all others, and in this respect is more fully analogous to man’s personality than is the personality of the Father or of the Son.

The church of Alexandria in the second century chanted together: “One only is holy, the Father; One only is holy, the Son; One only is holy, the Spirit.” Moberly, Atonement and Personality, 154, 167, 168—“The three persons are neither three Gods, nor three parts of God. Rather are they God threefoldly, tri-personally.…The personal distinction in Godhead is a distinction within, and of, Unity: not a distinction which qualifies Unity, or usurps the place of it, or destroys it. It is not a relation of mutual exclusiveness, but of mutual inclusiveness. No one person is or can be without the others.…The personality of the supreme or absolute Being cannot be without self-contained mutuality of relations such as Will and Love. But the mutuality would not be real, unless the subject which becomes object, and the object which becomes subject, were on each side alike and equally Personal..…The Unity of all-comprehending inclusiveness is a higher mode of unity than the unity of singular distinctiveness.…The disciples are not to have the presence of the Spirit instead of the Son, but to have the Spirit is to have the Son. We mean by the Personal God not a limited alternative to unlimited abstracts, such as Law, Holiness, Love, but the transcendent and inclusive completeness of them all. The terms Father and Son are certainly terms which rise more immediately out of the temporal facts of the incarnation than out of the eternal relations of the divine Being. They are metaphors, however, which mean far more in the spiritual than they do in the material sphere. Spiritual hunger is more intense than physical hunger. So sin, judgment, grace, are metaphors. But in John 1:1–18 ‘Son’ is not used, but ‘Word.’ ”

(b) The necessary qualification is that, while three persons among men have only a specific unity of nature or essence—that is, have the same species of nature or essence,—the persons of the Godhead have a numerical unity of nature or essence—that is, have the same nature or essence. The undivided essence of the Godhead belongs equally to each of the persons; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each possesses all the substance and all the attributes of Deity. The plurality of the Godhead is therefore not a plurality of essence, but a plurality of hypostatical, or personal, distinctions. God is not three and one, but three in one. The one indivisible essence has three modes of subsistence.

The Trinity is not simply a partnership, in which each member can sign the name of the firm; for this is unity of council and operation only, not of essence. God’s nature is not an abstract but an organic unity. God, as living, cannot be a mere Monad. Trinity is the organism of the Deity. The one divine Being exists in three modes. The life of the vine makes itself known in the life of the branches, and this union between vine and branches Christ uses to illustrate the union between the Father and himself. (See John 15:10—“If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love”; cf. verse 5—“I am the vine, ye are the branches; he that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit”; 17:22, 23—“That they may be one, even as we are one; I in them, and thou in me.”) So, in the organism of the body, the arm has its own life, a different life from that of the head or the foot, yet has this only by partaking of the life of the whole. See Dorner, System of Doctrine, 1:450–453—“The one divine personality is so present in each of the distinctions, that these, which singly and by themselves would not be personal, yet do participate in the one divine personality, each in its own manner. This one divine personality is the unity of the three modes of subsistence which participate in itself. Neither is personal without the others hers. In each, in its manner, is the whole Godhead.”

The human body is a complex rather than a simple organism, a unity which embraces an indefinite number of subsidiary and dependent organisms. The one life of the body manifests itself in the life of the nervous system, the life of the circulatory system, and the life of the digestive system. The complete destruction of either one of these systems destroys the other two. Psychology as well as physiology reveals to us the possibility of a three-fold life within the bounds or a single being. In the individual man there is sometimes a double and even a triple consciousness. Herbert Spencer, Autobiography, 1:459; 2:204—“Most active minds have, I presume, more or less frequent experiences of double consciousness—one consciousness seeming to take note of what the other is about, and to applaud or blame.” He mentions an instance in his own experience. “May there not be possible a bi-cerebral thinking, as there is a binocular vision? … In these cases it seems as though there were going on, quite apart from the consciousness which seemed to constitute myself, some process of elaborating coherent thoughts—as though one part of myself was an independent originator over whose sayings and doings I had no control, and which were nevertheless in great measure consistent; while the other part of myself was a passive spectator or listener, quite unprepared for many of the things that the first part said, and which were nevertheless, though unexpected, not illogical.” This fact that there can be more than one consciousness in the same personality among men should make us slow to deny that there can be three consciousnesses in the one God.

Humanity at large is also an organism, and this fact lends new confirmation to the Pauline statement of organic interdependence. Modern sociology is the doctrine of one life constituted by the union of many. “Unus homo, nullus homo” is a principle of ethics as well as of sociology. No man can have a conscience to himself. The moral life of one results from and is interpenetrated by the moral life of all. All men moreover live, move and have their being in God. Within the bounds of the one universal and divine consciousness there are multitudinous finite consciousnesses. Why then should it be thought incredible that in the nature of this one God there should be three infinite consciousnesses? Baldwin, Psychology, 53, 54—“The integration of finite consciousnesses in an all-embracing divine consciousness may find a valid analogy in the integration of subordinate consciousnesses in the unit-personality of man. In the hypnotic state, multiple consciousnesses may be induced in the same nervous organism. In insanity there is a secondary consciousness at war with that which normally dominates.” Schurman, Belief in God, 26, 161—“The infinite Spirit may include the finite, as the idea of a single organism embraces within a single life a plurality of members and functions.…All souls are parts or functions of the eternal life of God, who is above all, and through all, and in all, and in whom we live, and move, and have our being.” We would draw the conclusion that, as in the body and soul of man, both as an individual and as a race, there is diversity in unity, so in the God in whose image man is made, there is diversity in unity, and a triple consciousness and will are consistent with, and even find their perfection in, a single essence.

By the personality of God we mean more than we mean when we speak of the personality of the Son and the personality of the Spirit. The personality of the Godhead is distinct and separate from all others, and is, in this respect, like that of man. Hence Shedd, Dogm. Theol., 1:194 says “it is preferable to speak of the personality of the essence rather than of the person of the essence; because the essence is not one person, but three persons.…The divine essence cannot be at once three persons and one person, if ‘person’ is employed in one signification; but it can be at once three persons and one personal Being.” While we speak of the one God as having a personality in which there are three persons, we would not call this personality a superpersonality, if this latter term is intended to intimate that God’s personality is less than the personality of man. The personality of the Godhead is inclusive rather than exclusive.

With this qualification we may assent to the words of D’Arcy, Idealism and Theology, 93, 94, 218, 230, 236, 254—“The innermost truth of things, God, must be conceived as personal; but the ultimate Unity, which is his, must be believed to be superpersonal. It is a unity of persons, not a personal unity. For us personality is the ultimate form of unity. It is not so in him. For in him all persons live and move and have their being.…God is personal and also superpersonal. In him there is a transcendent unity that can embrace a personal multiplicity.…There is in God an ultimate superpersonal unity in which all persons are one—[all human persons and the three divine persons].…Substance is more real than quality, and subject is more real than substance. The most real of all is the concrete totality, the all-inclusive Universal.…What human love strives to accomplish—the overcoming of the opposition of person to person—is perfectly attained in the divine Unity.…The presupposition on which philosophy is driven back—[that persons have an underlying ground of unity] is identical with that which underlies Christian theology.” See Pfleiderer and Lotze on personality, in this Compendium, p. 104.

(c) This oneness of essence explains the fact that, while Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as respects their personality, are distinct subsistences, there is an intercommunion of persons and an immanence of one divine person in another which permits the peculiar work of one to be ascribed, with a single limitation, to either of the others, and the manifestation of one to be recognized in the manifestation of another. The limitation is simply this, that although the Son was sent by the Father, and the Spirit by the Father and the Son, it cannot be said vice versa that the Father is sent either by the Son, or by the Spirit. The Scripture representations of this intercommunion prevent us from conceiving of the distinctions called Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as involving separation between them.

Dorner adds that “in one is each of the others.” This is true with the limitation mentioned in the text above. Whatever Christ does, God the Father can be said to do; for God acts only in and through Christ the Revealer. Whatever the Holy Spirit does, Christ can be said to do; for the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ. The Spirit is the omnipresent Jesus, and Bengel’s dictum is true: “Ubi Spiritus, ibi Christus.” Passages illustrating this intercommunion are the following: Gen. 1:1—“God created”; cf. Heb. 1:2—“through whom [the Son] also he made the worlds”; John 5:17, 19—“My Father worketh even until now, and I work.…The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father doing; for what things soever he doeth, these the Son also doeth in like manner”; 14:9—“he that hath seen me hath seen the Father”; 11—“I am in the Father and the Father in me”; 18—“I will not leave you desolate: I come unto yon” (by the Holy Spirit); 15:26—“when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth”; 17:21—“that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee”; 2 Cor. 5:19—“God was in Christ reconciling”; Titus 2:10—“God our Savior”; Heb. 12:23—“God the Judge of all”; cf. John 5:22—“neither doth the Father judge any man, but he hath given all judgment unto the Son”; Acts 17:31—“judge the world in righteousness by the man whom he hath ordained.”

It is this intercommunion, together with the order of personality and operation to be mentioned hereafter, which explains the occasional use of the term ‘Father’ for the whole Godhead; as in Eph. 4:6—“one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all [in Christ], and in you all” [by the Spirit]. This intercommunion also explains the designation of Christ as “the Spirit,” and of the Spirit as “the Spirit of Christ,” as in 1 Cor. 15:45—“the last Adam became a life-giving Spirit”; 2 Cor. 3:17—“Now the Lord is the Spirit”; Gal. 4:6—“sent forth the Spirit of his Son”; Phil. 1:19—“supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ” (see Alford and Lange on 2 Cor. 3:17, 18). So the Lamb, in Rev. 5:6, has “seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God, sent forth into all the earth” = the Holy Spirit, with his manifold powers, is the Spirit of the omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent Christ. Theologians have designated this intercommunion by the terms περιχώρησις, circumincessio, intercommunicatio, circulatio, inexistentia. The word οὐσία was used to denote essence, substance, nature, being; and the words πρόσωπον and ὑπόστασις for person, distinction, mode of subsistence. On the changing uses of the words πρόσωπον and ὑπόστασις. see Dorner, Glaubenslehre, 2:321, note 2. On the meaning of the word ‘person’ in connection with the Trinity, see John Howe, Calm Discourse of the Trinity; Jonathan Edwards, Observations on the Trinity; Shedd, Dogm. Theol., 1:194, 267–275, 299, 300.

The Holy Spirit is Christ’s alter ego, or other self. When Jesus went away, it was an exchange of his presence for his omnipresence; an exchange of limited for unlimited power; an exchange of companionship for indwelling. Since Christ comes to men in the Holy Spirit, he speaks through the apostles as authoritatively as if his own lips uttered the words. Each believer, in having the Holy Spirit, has the whole Christ for his own; see A. J. Gordon, Ministry of the Spirit. Gore, Incarnation, 218—“The persons of the Holy Trinity are not separable individuals. Each involves the others; the coming of each is the coming of the others. Thus the coming of the Spirit must have involved the coming of the Son. But the specialty of the Pentecostal gift appears to be the coming of the Holy Spirit out of the uplifted and glorified manhood of the incarnate Son. The Spirit is the life-giver, but the life with which he works in the church is the life of the Incarnate, the life of Jesus.”

Moberly, Atonement and Personality, 85—“For centuries upon centuries, the essential unity of God had been burnt and branded in upon the consciousness of Israel. It had to be completely established first, as a basal element of thought, indispensable, unalterable, before there could begin the disclosure to man of the reality of the eternal relations within the one indivisible being of God. And when the disclosure came, it came not as modifying, but as further interpreting and illumining, that unity which it absolutely presupposed.” E. G. Robinson, Christian Theology, 238—“There is extreme difficulty in giving any statement of a triunity that shall not verge upon tritheism on the one hand, or upon mere modalism on the other. It was very natural that Calvin should be charged with Sabellianism, and John Howe with tritheism.”

Article by: Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology, "The Present Work Is a Revision and Enlargement of My ‘Systematic Theology,’ First Published in 1886."–Pref. (Bellingham, Wa.: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2004), 330.

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