Westminster Confession Of Faith: With Introduction And Notes (1881)

by John Macpherson

CHAPTER II | Section iii

1. The unity of God is maintained in this section from quite another point of view from that of the former section. It was there made with an immediately practical, here it is made with an immediately doctrinal, intention. The unity of the Godhead is affirmed in full view of the personal distinctions which are recognized in it. In this unity, without disturbing it, those distinctions exist. We are not, however, to separate between Godhead and God. This had been attempted by the mystics when they distinguished the incomprehensible, abstract unity of God that cannot be revealed, and the manifestation of God under personal acts. It reappears in Delitzsch, who speaks of a divine doxa as the undivided center of trinitarian distinctions. The same tendencies are found in Gregory of Nyssa and others, who viewed the relations of the divine unity to the divine personal distinctions as similar to the relation of the general notion of humanity to individual men. But just as the fullness of humanity is never realized in any individual, if we follow out such analogies, the fullness of divinity could not be found in each of the three persons. According to the indications of Scripture we may simply speak of one God, the unity of the Godhead, not bringing into view the distinctions of Father, Son, and Spirit, nor yet assuming any abstract ground separate from these distinctions. The God of Israel, who certainly related Himself to His people in a trinitarian manner, says, ' Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord.'

2. Equality in substance, power, and eternity is ascribed to each of the divine persons. We must guard against a false subordinationism in regard to the second and third persons of the Trinity. We distinguish between the essential Godhead in which each person equally shares, and the economic manifestation of personal distinctions in which a relative subordination is ascribed to the Son and Spirit. The true doctrine is expressed by Jesus Himself when He explains His relation to the Father β€” in respect of being and dignity, I and the Father are one; in respect of economic manifestation in the work of redemption, my Father is greater than I. More generally the equality of the persons is shown in this, that for each of them are claimed the same names, attributes, actions, and worship. In Scripture we have indications both of the essential and of the economic Trinity. We have the essential Trinity when the Word is shown to be God from the beginning and with God, and when the Spirit that searches the deep things of God is also acknowledged to be God. We have the economic Trinity in the whole scheme and work of redemption, and specifically in the terms of the Baptismal Formula and the Apostolic Benediction.

Various attempts were made by the Fathers to represent by means of some familiar figure what seemed to them expressible in the grand mystery of the Trinity. Gregory of Nyssa (331-394) regarded the name God as applicable to the Godhead, just as the name man is applicable to mankind as including individual men : the three persons are one Godhead, as individual men constitute the human race. Such a representation evidently endangers the doctrine of the Divine Unity, and tends towards Tritheism. Augustine (354-430) thought to discover in man created in the image of God an analogue of this divine mystery. In the union of being, knowledge and love, or of memory, intelligence, and will, in man, he seemed to find an analogy to the trinity of persons in the Godhead. Here evidently there is a danger of falling into a monarchian conception of God, and through a doctrine of abstract unity of losing the thought of personal distinctions. Similar analogies were attempted by most of the Schoolmen with no better success. It may be interesting to refer to two attempts made by poets of the Middle Age to elucidate this doctrine. Dante's figure of the rainbow, its reflection, and a radiance proceeding from both, is well known {Parad. xxxiii. 107-112). Less known, but interesting as illustrating old English thought and also for its own quaint ingeniousness, is that of Langland in Piers Plowman Vision (written about 1362), where he represents the trinity of persons by the parts of the human hand β€” fist, palm, and fingers. Hooker {Eccles. Polity, v. 51) expresses the doctrine thus : β€œThe substance of God with this property to be of none doth make the Person of the Father ; the very self same substance in number with this property to be of the Father maketh the Person of the Son ; the same substance having added unto it the property of proceeding from the other two maketh the Person of the Holy Ghost. So that in every Person there is implied both the substance of God which is one, and also that property which causeth the same person really and truly to differ from the other two.”

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