Sunday, December 05, 2010

God, One or Three Persons, or Both?

A well regarded professor at a prominent Reformed seminary has been quoted as saying this:

“This is one of Van Til’s most original contributions to theology proper. As he said at the beginning of the chapter, to speak of God as one is to speak of God as a person. This fits our ordinary experience, as, for instance, when we pray, we pray to one person. It also fits biblical data that constantly refers to God as a person. By this reminder Van Til avoids two errors. The first is the tendency, found mostly in Western theology, of separating God’s essence, which becomes a remote inaccessible being, from the persons. The other is the neoorthodox error of reducing personality to relationship, rather than regarding it as the foundation of ontological consciousness.”
To pray “Our great God in Heaven – Father, Son and Holy Ghost” is to address one God in three persons. It is consistent with oneness and plurality being equally ultimate in the Godhead. It is not a prayer to three Gods let alone a prayer to individuals stripped from their intra-Trinitarian relationship. Most of all, it is not a prayer to a one person trinity.

God’s revelation of himself was progressive, not instantaneous. To Abraham God revealed himself as God Almighty, and to Moses as I Am. In the fullness of time the Second Person of the Trinity revealed God as Father, Son and Holy Ghost. When we worship God according to God’s full revelation, we worship the Trinity – one God in three persons; not one God in one person. To think of one God as one person is at least to blur if not utterly eclipse the doctrine of "God in three persons." We may not strip the one God from the plurality of persons in the Godhead, nor may the distinct persons of the Trinity be stripped from their intra-Trinitarian relationships, which is an all too common occurrence in the evangelical church. When we know any person of the Trinity aright, we know him in relation to the other two divine persons. For each person of the Trinity is to be worshipped and adored in accordance to his intra-Trinitarian relationship, for the Trinity is to be worship as the undivided Trinity. Accordingly, we worship the Father who chose us in Christ and glorified him. We worship the Christ who was obedient to the Father and glorified him. We worship the Sprit who baptizes us into existential union with Christ. (We do not worship a Holy Spirit, as is so common today, that has so little to do with Christ and his cross.) This is not to say that personality equates to relationship, for there is of course an ontological aspect of personality, but notwithstanding that ontological aspect cannot be understood apart from the ontological relationship. It does not exist without it.

If we worship the one true God at all, we do so with at least some understanding of the unity and diversity of divine persons in the Godhead. And if we worship any particular person of the Trinity at all, we do so with at least some understanding of His relationship to the other divine persons in the Godhead for that is how God is revealed because that his how God is God is three in a different sense than he is one, and one in a different sense than he his three. God is not one in the same sense that he is three.

So, when the WCF 1.1 and 1.2 speak of God as “he” I see no problem interpreting the personal pronoun in light of oneness of “God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost” which is consistent with the doctrine found in the very next paragraph, WCF 1.3, which addresses the three distinct persons in the Godhead. At the very least, we need not allow the standards to contradict themselves by allowing God to be one person in the same sense that he is three persons. So for instance, the triune God who is “God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost” is “infinite in being and perfection,” etc. So again, I disagree with this professor. When we address the Trinity as “You” in our prayers we should not be ignoring the other aspects of God’s revelation; we should as best we can, in our finitude, appreciate that we are addressing the triune God as one. By rejecting the notion that God should be perceived as one person we don't deny that God is personal and relational. In fact, by appreciating that God is three persons and one, we can begin to appreciate that God is the ultimate - personal and relational.

We need not at every moment elaborate upon every aspect of orthodox Trinitarian doctrine, but what we say about the Trinity should be consistent with the rest of what we don’t say that is in accordance with Scripture. (Just like there is no need to always mention human responsibility when speaking about divine providence, yet our doctrine of divine providence should look nothing like that of blind fate.) When we address God has “You” – we should be thinking that we are addressing the one single God who eternally exists as Father Son and Holy Ghost (in three distinct persons). By “You” we should not be thinking that we are addressing the triune God as one person in particular – for the triune God is not one person in particular; nor should we think we are addressing three distinct persons separately. Rather, in our finitude we should be striving to address God as Scripture reveals God – as the one true God that eternally exists in relation as three persons all of Whom are harmoniously working to apply the accomplished redemption to the world. It seems to me that by introducing the concept that the Trinity may be perceived as a person, the person we would end up addressing in such a construct would be a fourth person. It would be much better to simply pray to the first person of the Trinity, through the Son by the Holy Spirit.

In sum, we are not denying the divine essence or distinct persons with such a construct but rather through acknowledging the equal ultimacy that God has revealed about the Godhead, we can find a personal God without thinking of him in terms of one person. To err on the matter of equal ultimacy must always be at the expense of something. To err toward the side of one being, at the expense of persons, is a move toward modalism; whereas to err on the side of persons, at the expense of being, is a move toward tri-theism. By thinking in terms of a one person Godhead is not a solution to the problem, as the professor suggests, but rather is to eclipse God's revelation of being three persons, which is to emphasize being at the expense of persons. In this case, that error would seem to stem from the desire to find a single person with which to relate, yet in doing so undermining the ultimate reality found in the unity of a plurality of persons. And I suspect that the need to define God in that way, as one person, stems from the fundamental error of considering personality the "foundation" for "ontological consciousness" without reference to relationship, a sine qua non for God's ontology! That is not to suggest that any person derives his divinity from another, but by downplaying the intra-Trinitarian relationship in favor of abstracting ontological consciousness from that relationship leaves one seeking elsewhere (outside the Trinity - even to a fourth person) for that which was desired in the first place, a personal and relational God who is love.

Added 6/10/11 Finally, to address one person, we may say "you" (singular). When we address three persons at once, we may say "you" (plural). But what if we wanted to address the three not as plural (i.e. not by saying "you" as shorthand for: you-1, you-2 and you-3), but as an organic one comprised of three? We have no such English word to my knowledge, but maybe context dictates the meaning. Or do southerners have a singular-plural word for "you" - that being, "y'all"?

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