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THEOLOGY > God > God's Essence > God is Tri-Unity  


God is a unity—He is one (Deut. 6:4; I Ki. 8:60; Isa. 44:6, 8; Mk. 12:29; Jo. 10:30; I Cor. 8:4; Eph. 4:6; Gal. 2:20; I Tim. 2:5-6). God proclaims: “Besides Me there is no God” (Isa. 44:6), and Paul declares: “There is no other God but one” (I Cor. 8:4). Concurring with Scripture the confessions state that we believe in “one God,” with the word “one” suggesting two concepts. One, the word specifies number. There is one God; God is not many (polytheism) but one (monotheism). God, therefore, is not to be found among the gods, because He is not part of the pantheon. Two, “one” also speaks of the uniqueness of God; there is no other one like Him. Not only is God “one” but there is no “one” like Him.

Christian Truth proclaims there is one God in which there are three subsistences—or persons—who partake of the essence; each partakes of the same essence so each Person is God, meaning that the undivided and total essence is shared by each of the three subsistences simultaneously and fully. Whatever is predicated of God is true of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. The Father is God; the Son is God; and the Spirit is God. Herein is the mystery of the Trinity (word is from the Latin, trinitas, meaning threeness): an undivided whole essence in three distinct Persons at the same time. “God is not one and three, but one in three” (Shedd, DT, I, 253).

The Divine Essence and the Divine Persons cannot be separated; the essence does not exist apart from the Persons, and the Persons do not exist apart from the essence. There is a distinction in the Persons, but no division in the essence. Both have always existed simultaneously, eternally a singularity in diversity, a unity in trinity (a tri-unity). “It is quite clear that in God’s essence reside three Persons in whom one God is known” (Calvin, Institutes, I, 140). To deny any part of this is to be susceptible of tritheism, subordinationism, or modalism. We must agree with Gregory of Nazianzus:

I cannot think of the one Supreme Being without being encompassed with the glory of the three persons; and I cannot discern the three persons without recurring to the unity of the essence.

Each of the Persons, however, possesses a unique quality that is the basis for each of the Person’s distinct existence as Father, Son, and Spirit; and the distinguishing qualities that so differentiate each as Father, Son, and Spirit are not shared. The Father is not the Son; the Son is not the Father, and neither the Father nor the Son is the Spirit. This is to say that there is something that makes the Father the Father, the Son the Son, and the Spirit the Spirit. For example, the Father and the Spirit have never changed their state, whereas the Son experienced the Incarnation—He assumed flesh. The Father, Son, and Spirit are distinct; they are not one and the same Person.

What is it that makes the Father the Father, the Son the Son, and the Spirit the Spirit? What are the properties peculiar to each? “Attributes” is the word used to refer to those qualities that are true of each of the persons, those qualities each possesses in common; whereas “properties” is the word used to refer to those qualities that distinguish each Person of the Godhead, those qualities peculiar to a particular Person.

Do the words “Father” and “Son” refer only to the relationship of the two in the act of redemption, or is there a sense in which the Father is the “Eternal Father” and the Son is the “Eternal Son?” The words themselves suggest a relationship, not only in time because of the Incarnation but also in eternity. There is a unity of the two in the sense of essence (whatever is true of God is true of each) but the very words, “Father” and “Son,” seem to imply that there is a sense of order within the Trinity—a unity of essence but an order of Persons. In the unity of essence there is one will, not three; in the order of Persons there is an independence and distinction that has existed from all eternity and that is not dependent on the act of redemption.

To assert or to suggest much more is to press the bounds of Scripture and press comprehension beyond the limits of its possibility. To comment on the “eternal generation” or “eternal begetting” of the Son by the Father based upon Jo. 5:26 (the self-existence of the Son is the same as that of the Father but it is a communicated self-existence) is to speak of that which is at the edge of Revelation; “it is foolish to imagine a continuous act of begetting, since it is clear that three persons have subsisted in God from all eternity” (Calvin, Institutes, I, 159).

The positive benefit is that the concept assists in our grasping something of the peculiar quality of each Person. The Father is Unbegotten; the Son is Begotten; and the Spirit is Proceeding. In other words, the Father is the eternal source of the Son, and the Spirit is the One who proceeds from the Father (Jo. 15:26); at the same time the one Divine Essence is undivided and eternally existing in each of the three. In this sense the designations (Father, Son, Spirit) applied to each of the Persons are given individual meaning. What more can be said? Perhaps, too much already has been suggested. Because we know God through the three Persons does not mean that we have three Gods—there are three Persons but one God. “Within Himself He may speak in the plural, as in Genesis 1:26; to us He reveals Himself and speaks as the absolute I” (Hoeksema, RD, 59).

The Trinitarian concepts are “one” and “three”; this does not mean that God is one and three at the same time and in the same way. That would be a contradiction, and the Trinity is not a contradiction but a mystery because “man cannot comprehend it and make it intelligible” (Berkhof, ST, 89). God is “one” in one sense and “three” in another sense—one in essence and three in Persons. This cannot ultimately be fathomed, for reason cannot comprehend the concept. But the concept must be accepted if the God of Scripture is to be accepted.
The tri-unity of the one God resolves the age-old philosophical dilemma of the one and the many. Unity and diversity are both valid—one God, three persons. The option is not only between dualism (good and evil, light and darkness, spirit and matter, or noumenal and phenomenal) or monism (all being is one); another choice is the fact of the Trinity.

Man is not shut-up to the inevitable frustration and despair of an unending dualistic struggle between good and evil nor to the sacrifice of the value and individuality of the individual by a monistic emphasis upon being, but man has the option of enjoying value and meaning because of his creation by the God who assures ultimate victory. God will triumph, and in eternity there will be God and man.

I and My Father are one.
Jo. 10:10

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