The Oneness of God
In answer to this question, we may state from the outset that it certainly was not the intention of our Reformed fathers to teach anything at all like the error of tritheism, and to make a division in the work of the Three Persons. This could not have been the case, for the simple reason that such would have been in conflict with the very teachings of the articles in which this distinction is made. However this three-fold distinction made by the Confession (and also by the Catechism and by the Baptism Form) is to be explained, we may assume from the outset that the Confession would not be flagrantly self-contradictory. In the second place, we may call attention to the fact that this distinction has been borrowed from the Apostles’ Creed, in which the first article is devoted to God the Father, Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; articles two to seven, not simply to the Second Person as He is within the divine Being, but to Jesus Christ, God’s only begotten Son, and His work; and articles eight to twelve do not speak abstractly of the Holy Ghost, but of the Holy Ghost as the Spirit of Christ and of His work in the application of the benefits of salvation to us. This same distinction is made briefly in our Confession: “The Father is called our Creator, by his power; the Son is our Savior and Redeemer, by his blood; the Holy Ghost is our Sanctifier, by his dwelling in our hearts.” And again, whatever else may be said by way of explanation of this distinction, two things are perfectly clear. First of all, this distinction certainly gives expression to a reality in the life and experience of the child of God, and as such is legitimate and accurate. And secondly, it is exactly from the point of view of our concrete, actual, Christian experience of the communion of the Triune God, and that too, according to His own revelation, that this distinction is of meaning, and that too, in such a way that we do not make separation and division between the Persons when we make this distinction. Certainly, we very naturally connect our redemption, for example, with the blood of our Redeemer, Jesus Christ, God’s only begotten Son. And this is Scriptural too. But we surely do not make this connection to the exclusion of the Father and the Holy Spirit. Not at all.
In the third place, we may note that various attempts have been made to clear up this problem, all these attempts agreeing in their denial of any cleavage among the Three Persons. Ursinus, in his “Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism,” faces the objection that by the formulation in question the Son and the Holy Ghost are excluded from the work of creation, while the Father and the Holy Ghost are excluded from the work of redemption, and the Father and the Son are excluded from the work of sanctification. He maintains: 1) That the respective works are not ascribed to the Persons exclusively, that is, in such a way that these works do not properly belong to all Persons. 2) That by this distinction is indicated the order of operation proper to the Persons of the Godhead. The Father created all things out of Himself through the Son and the Holy Ghost. Redemption is ascribed to the Son because it is the Son Who immediately performs the work of redemption: He only, not the Holy Ghost or the Father, became a ransom for our sins. And thus, it is the Holy Ghost through Whom our sanctification is immediately effected. 3) That while the divine works are indivisible, and all the divine Persons perform the outgoing works of God, the order and manner of operation proper to each of the Three Persons must be maintained.
Dr. A. Kuyper Sr., in E Voto Dordraceno, also deals with this problem. And it would seem that by his explanation he can hardly escape the error of introducing a relation of subordination among the Three Persons. For though he too maintains that it is the Triune God Who creates, redeems, and sanctifies, he nevertheless explains that in all the operations that concern Creation the Father is the chief worker with whom the Son and the Holy Ghost cooperate; in all that concerns Redemptionthe Son is the chief worker with whom the Father and the Holy Ghost cooperate; and in all that concerns your personal sanctification the Holy Ghost is the chief worker and the Father and the Son cooperate.” This error must certainly be avoided in our thinking concerning the Holy Trinity. The Three Persons are co-essential and co-equal. And therefore, it must certainly be maintained that all the works of God are the works of the one God. The Triune God creates, redeems, and sanctifies. In the second place, the Three Persons in all of the outgoing works of God appear as essentially co-equal. In the third place, in these outgoing works of God the Three Persons are revealed in their personal relation to one another, that is, in their distinct personal properties. Hence, in creation, redemption, and sanctification the Father operates as Father; the Second Person operates as Son; and the Third Person as Holy Ghost. The Christian’s faith, therefore, is faith in the Triune God, who revealed Himself as. Father in the work of creation, who revealed Himself as. Redeemer in Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son, and who revealed Himself as Sanctifier in the Holy Ghost as the Spirit of Christ.
The Threeness of God
The previous discussion, though related intimately to the oneness of God, has already brought us also into the discussion of His threeness and of the relationship between the Three Persons. Also of this the eighth article of our Confession speaks.
In the first place, the article states the truth concerning the Three Persons as follows: “. . . in which (one single essence) are three persons, really, truly, and eternally distinct, according to their incommunicable properties.” And in this connection the article mentions the names of the Three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. As we mentioned before, the article speaks in this connection of the “incommunicable properties” of the Three Persons. By this expression is meant the distinct personal property of each Person, that is, a property that cannot be communicated from Person to Person. In the second place, the article states the distinct personal property of each of the Three Persons, as follows: “The Father is the cause, origin and beginning of all things visible and invisible; the Son is the word, wisdom and image of the Father; the Holy Ghost is the eternal power and might, proceeding from the Father and the Son.” And in this connection the article stresses again: “. . . that the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, have each his personality, distinguished by their properties.” And therefore, the Confession adds the negative delineation: “Hence then, it is evident, that the Father is not the Son, nor the Son the Father, and likewise the Holy Ghost is neither the Father nor the Son.”
Now from all the above, -as also from what the article says concerning the interrelationship of the Three Persons, it is very evident that it is not easy to formulate the doctrine of the Trinity in any detail. We deal here indeed with the mystery of the incomprehensible God. For that reason, while it is very well possible to know Him as the Triune God, it is very difficult to form even a limited conception of the Trinity. This article engages in a negative-positive delimitation of the truth concerning the Three Persons throughout. Nevertheless, on the basis of this article we may say the following.
There are three distinct Persons in the Godhead. The article does not go into the question as to what is meant by a person. And this is indeed not an easy question, that is, if we try to define aperson. In a man, his person is the subject of all his actions and all his existence. It is that which remains the same through all the changes through which he passes. It is his ego, his I. I was born; I was a lad; I became a young man; I grew to maturity; presently I shall die; I shall be raised from the dead; and I shall appear in glory. In all these various stages of my existence, I perform various actions. And that I is always the same I. My personality implies, therefore, my individuality. But implies more. A tree or an animal may also be an individual. But a person is an individual in a rational, moral nature. And when we confess that there are three Persons in the Godhead, we mean that there are in God three such subjects, three that say I. Among men, however, three persons would also imply three beings. But God is Triune. There is but one divine being and nature; and subsisting in that one divine essence there are three distinct Persons. These Persdns’have their personal distinctions. And these distinctions are indicated by their names. The Father is the cause, origin, beginning, of all things visible and invisible. His distinct personal property is that He is Father. As such, He eternally generates the Son. Such is His distinct property within the divine Essence. And this is revealed in the outgoing works of God in the revelation of the Triune God as the cause, origin, beginning, of all things. The Son is the word, wisdom, image of the Father. He is generated eternally by the Father. Such is His distinct property within the divine Being. And as such He is revealed both in creation and redemption. And the Holy Ghost is personally the eternal power and might of God. He is subject of all the divine virtues and works as Spirit. He proceeds as the Spirit of the Father to the Son, and as the Spirit of the Son to the Father. And as such He is revealed in the application of the blessings of salvation to us as the Spirit of Christ.
There are two questions that remain. The first-is: What is the relation of these Three Persons to the divine Essence? On this question our Confession is very explicit. We read: “. . . . but in such wise that these three persons are but one only God . . . Nevertheless these persons thus distinguished are not divided, nor intermixed: for the Father hath not assumed the flesh, nor hath the Holy Ghost, but the Son only. The Father hath never been without his Son, or without his Holy Ghost. For they are all three co-eternal and co-essential. There is neither first nor last: for they are all three one . . .” Hence, negatively, there is no division and no separation and no subordination between the Three Persons. And, positively, they are co-equal: they are all three co-eternal and co-essential. In one Essence they are equally God. There is among the Persons no difference in this respect. And this is not to be understood mechanically, or mathematically, as though each Person, so to speak, had a one-third share of the divine attributes. Each of the Three Persons lives, thinks, wills, acts in the whole divine Being. They all possess all the divine attributes in their infinite totality. There is no rank, no order of time, no subordination in any sense of the word. Being co-eternal and co-essential, they are co-equal.
This already brings us into the sphere of the second question, namely: What is the relation of the Persons to each other? On the one hand, that relationship, as we have seen, is that of personal distinction. There is no intermixing of the Persons. Our Confession uses an illustration from the outgoing works of God in this connection: the Father hath not assumed the flesh, nor hath the Holy Ghost, but the Son only. This personal distinction is expressed in the names of the Three Persons. On the other hand, that relation is one of perfect harmony. There is no division and separation in God. In the oneness of the divine Being the Three Persons find their perfect harmony.
As such, God, in whom there is the infinitely perfect likeness of perfect unity of Being, yet by personal distinction, is both the living God and the covenant God. He lives a life of infinitely perfect fellowship in Himself; and He reveals Himself to His people in the perfection of His covenant fellowship. In truth, in power, in goodness, and in mercy, the Three Persons are perfectly one God.