ONE IN ESSENCE
Polytheism (the belief in many gods) dominated the ancient Mediterranean world, with its gods and goddesses. But “one culture – the Jews – stands out for its uniquely developed commitment to monotheism (the belief in one God).”
From the first pages of Scripture we find a clear declaration that the Lord God “is the God of heaven and earth, the One who creates and rules all things.”
UNITY AND UNIQUENESS
“Great emphasis was placed on God’s uniqueness in the Old Testament community of Israel.” For example, “the Shema was recited in Israelite liturgy and was deeply rooted in the consciousness of the people: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4-5; cf. vv.6-9; also Matt. 22:37).
“The polytheism in the false religions of the nations all around them was seductive,” and so, the “greatest threat to Israel was the corruption that came from pursuing false gods. Israel needed to remember there was no God except its God.”
“The uniqueness of God is also exhibited in the first of the Ten Commandments: ‘You shall have no other gods before Me’ (Ex. 20:3). … ‘Before Me’ means ‘in My presence,’ and the presence of Yahweh extends throughout the entire creation. So, when God said, ‘You shall have no other gods before Me,’ He was saying that there are no other gods because he alone reigns as deity.”
The “New Testament speaks of God in terms of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Hence, “we confess our faith in a triune God.” The Trinity is not three distinct gods, but three distinct persons who together are one God.
The deity of the Son of God is expressed in John 1:1-4: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.”
“The Word and God are together yet distinct – ‘the Word was with God.’… but the Word is also identified with God” – ‘the Word was God.’ The Word is identified with the Creator – ‘All things were made through Him.’ To say, ‘In Him is life,’ that the Word is “the source of life, is clearly to attribute deity to this One called ‘the Word.’” “When Christ appeared and showed His wounded hands to Thomas and invited Thomas to put his hand into His wounded side, Thomas cried out, ‘My Lord and my God’ (John 20:28). … Jesus accepted the worship of Thomas”!
“In a similar fashion, the New Testament attributes deity to the Holy Spirit. This is often done by ascribing to the Spirit attributes that pertain to God alone, including holiness (Matt. 12:32), eternality (Heb. 9:14), omnipotence (Rom. 15:18-19), and omniscience (John 14:26). The divinity of the Holy Spirit is also demonstrated when He is placed on the same level with the Father and Son, as in the baptismal formula in Matthew 28:18-20 or Paul’s benediction in 2 Corinthians 13:14. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor. 13:14).
THREE IN PERSON
A paradox refers to something that “appears to be contradictory until closer examination reveals it is not so.” “The formula for the Trinity is paradoxical, but it is by no means contradictory. The law of non-contradiction states that something cannot be what it is and not be what it is at the same time and in the same relationship. For instance, I can be a father and a son at the same time, but not in the same relationship. The historic formula is that God is one in essence and three in person; He is one in one way and three in another way. To violate the law of non-contradiction, one would have to say that God is one in essence and at the same time three in essence, or that God is one in person and at the same time three in person.”
The church struggled with this profoundly in the first four centuries in order to be faithful to the clear teaching of Scripture that God is one and also that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all divine…. The Christian formula for the Trinity – God is one essence in three persons – may seem to be contradictory because we are accustomed to seeing one being as one person. We cannot conceive of how one being could be contained in three persons and still be only one being.”
ESSENCE AND PERSON
“What is the stuff that distinguishes a human being from an antelope, an antelope from a grape, or a grape from God? It is the essence of the thing, its ousios, a Greek word that means ‘being’ or ‘substance.’ The stuff of deity, the essence – the ousios – is what God is in Himself. When the church declared that God is one essence, it was saying that God is not partly in one place and partly in another. God is only one being.”
Our English word person is derived from the Latin word persona, a term used in the dramatic arts. “It was customary for highly trained actors to play more than one role in a play, and the actors distinguished their characters by speaking through masks, the Latin word for which was persona. So when Tertullian first spoke of God as one being, three personae, he was saying that God simultaneously exists as three roles or personalities – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
SUBSISTENCE AND ESSENCE
“From a philosophical standpoint, going back before Plato, the concept of existence refers to pure being that depends on nothing for its ability to be. It is eternal. It has the power of being within itself. It is by no means creaturely. Creaturely existence is characterized not by being but by becoming, because the chief trait of all creatures is that they change…. God is being, not becoming or changing. He is eternally the same, so we say He is one being.”
“Subsistence is a difference within the scope of being, not a separate being or essence.” “Each person in the Trinity subsists or exists under the presence of deity…. All persons in the Godhead have all the attributes of deity.” “There are not three existences or beings but rather three subsistences within that one eternal being.”
“That we distinguish among the three persons is necessary because the Bible makes the distinction…. One being, three persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
[Adapted from chapter 10 of Everyone’s a Theologian by R.C. Sproul]