Monday, September 07, 2015

What Do Trinitarians Mean By A Divine "Person"? (Quotes)

Here are some statements from Trinitarians that
illustrate the tension obtaining between modalism,
Trinitarianism and tritheism.

"For, in truth, as the Father is not the Son, and the
Son is not the Father, and that Holy Spirit who is
also called the gift of God is neither the Father nor
the Son, certainly they are three. And so it is said
plurally, 'I and my Father are one.' For He has not
said, 'is one,' as the Sabellians say; but, 'are one.'
Yet, when the question is asked, What three? human
language labors altogether under great poverty of
speech. The answer, however, is given, three
'persons,' not that it might be [completely] spoken,
but that it might not be left [wholly] unspoken"
(Augustine of Hippo. On the Trinity 5.9).

"It is generally admitted that the word 'person' is
but an imperfect expresson of the idea. In common
parlance it [the word "person"] denotes a separate
rational and moral individual, possessed of
self-consciousness, and conscious of his identity amid
all changes. Experience teaches that where you have a
person, you also have a distinct individual essence.
Every person is a distinct and separate individual, in
whom human nature is individualized. But in God there
are no three individuals alongside of, and separate
from, one another, but only personal self-distinctions
within the Divine essence, which is not only
generically, but also numerically, one" (Louis
Berkhof. Systematic Theology. London: Banner of Truth,
1971. Page 87).

"But to say nothing more of words, let us now attend
to the thing signified. By person, then, I mean a
subsistence in the Divine essence, - a subsistence
which, while related to the other two, is
distinguished from them by incommunicable properties.
By subsistence we wish something else to be understood
than essence. For if the Word were God simply and had
not some property peculiar to himself, John could not
have said correctly that he had always been with
God.When he adds immediately after, that the Word was
God, he calls us back to the one essence. But because
he could not be with God without dwelling in the
Father, hence arises that subsistence, which, though
connected with the essence by an indissoluble tie,
being incapable of separation, yet has a special mark
by which it is distinguished from it" (John Calvin.
Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.13.6).

"If these [i.e. the three persons] are taken as three
separate centers of consciousness in an
individualistic way, as some modern thought seems to
do, then one would end up with tritheism, a denial of
the Trinity. Equally, one can overemphasize the unity
to the detriment of the persons" (John Thompson.
Modern Trinitarian Perspectives. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1994. Page 6).

"We have employed the term 'person' and must
unavoidably do so, but hopefully we have indicated
that this word should be used of Father, Son, and
Spirit with full awareness of the analogous nature of
this predication, therefore with stress on the radical
distinctiveness of 'person,' not just differentiating
divine from human personhood, but distinguishing the
reality of personhood as it applies to Father, Son,
and Spirit" (Bernard Cooke. Beyond Trinity. Milwaukee:
Marquette University Press, 1969. Page 58).

See also


Sean Killackey said...

On a similar note, what (and why) do Trinitarians say that God is atemporal? I figure it has to do with his being immutable, but would that really necessitate him being temporal? It would seem (though I am new to this) that Post-OT, Pre-NT, Wisdom Theology grew up to explain how such a Timeless being could interact with out temporal existence (or how an unchanging being could interact with our changeable world).

However if Wisdom=Jesus and is Jesus is God, wouldn't Jesus by his nature be atemporal? Would Wisdom, rather than being Jehovah's demiurge, or intermediary between himself and the temporal and changeable universe, would himself need a demiurge (am I using this correctly?).

I am not entirely familiar with Wisdom Theology, but it seems that Wisdom and Sirach both expand what Proverbs says, which I don't know. It appears, outwardly anyway, that the Wisdom in Proverbs is not incompatible with our non-Trinitarian view, and while it may support or allow the Trinity, it seems the Wisdom of Sirach, Wisdom (and Philo's Logos) is a better source for their theology.

I might email you in a week or so, after I better understand what exactly I am trying to say.

Edgar Foster said...

Sean, yes, one reason Trinitarians argue that God is atemporal stems from how they interpret divine immutability. I don't agree, but they believe immutability entails divine timelessness. They reckon that a being who experiences no changes must be timeless.

Moreover, a number of Trinitarians understand the concept of eternity to mean timelessness; if God is eternal, they reason, he must be atemporal too.

If Jesus is God (according to this way of thinkiing), then he would be timeless as well. That does raise an interesting question as you point out. If the mediator of creation is timeless, how does he relate to temporal creatures? Defenders of the view apparently don't believe the problem is an intractable one. They argue that a timeless being can interact with temporal beings, even if no true relation exists between the two parties. Aquinas discusses this issue at length.

Wisdom theology contained in Wisdom, Sirach (etc) does seem to amplify what we find in Proverbs, although I don't think it necessarily supports the Trinity. James Dunn wrestles with some commonly asked questions about Wisdom (Hokhmah/Sophia) in his book _Christology in the Making_. It's a good discussion.

Sean Killackey said...

This may be a naive question, but if God is atemporal, how can he experience time? Sure he may be immutable in nature, but would not getting new information change how his nature manifests itself? (I am implying something analogous in God to our brains).

For example Christendom by in large teaches that our mind, despite our having a brain, exists in our eternal soul. Sure the soul might not have "parts" and it may even be temporal, yet it still (according to them) get new memories and can think. It has to store them somewhere.

Edgar Foster said...


there are various theories on the subject, and I'm revising some thoughts on the issue now. But Aquinas, Augustine of Hippo and other thinkers of the church don't believe that God experiences time at all. Anselm of Canterbury writes that God is completely outside of time. So they claim that God, therefore, has a quasi-relationship with his creatures. It's more like his creatures have a real relationship with the creator, but not vice versa. Additionally, on this view, God doesn't learn anything new since he's omniscient in a strong sense.

As creator and exemplifier of all the omni-attributes, God doesn't experience change or learn anything or have emotions. So they say.

I need to clean this piece up, but see

Jimspace also has a good entry on perichoresis at his blog.

Sean Killackey said...

Even if God knew everything before it happens, it will still happen, so he will "witness" it again. He must therefore have a reaction, of which he already knew he would have, when he is communicated to, for we know that he hears prayers and that he also is communicated to in his own realm (though we know not how).

Does being outside of time mean that to him there is no such thing as the past? That all existence and all time are before him as one? Let me illustrate: We are here now, I pray for help. God "hears" it, and to God at this "same time," Abraham is preparing to sacrifice his Son?

Suppose that this is so, though I so strongly object, does that mean the angels are outside of time? I think not, for they desire to learn, they do not know things and they react to things as they take place (the interceding angel in Zechariah, the repentant sinner, the angel destroying Jerusalem, etc.) And yet they exist in the very abode of Jehovah of armies, for they are his armies. But if God is out of time, how could he be with them?

And if the angels of Jehovah are in Jehovah's heavens and they are not outside of time (which suggests that time predates our universe, our universe's time being a physical manifestation of what Jehovah has always had and always had a concept of) would that not at least suggest that Jehovah is not outside of time?

Sean Killackey said...

Also you may be interest to see this post (

JimSpace said...

Edgar said: "Jimspace also has a good entry on perichoresis at his blog."

Why thank you. I believe you have in mind "Exploring a Trinitarian Black Box."

Also, thank you for posting this valuable blog entry.

Edgar Foster said...

You're welcome, Jim.