Trinity, Infinity, and Person

I am continuing to read volume four of Muller’s immensely important work, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics. Volume four deals with the Trinity. I came across this incredibly insightful and devastating analysis of Socinian theology (known today as Open Theism). Muller is talking about the definition of Person when it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity. The definition of Person has always been a description of one of the three subsistences within the Trinity. The Socinians objected to this, equating Person with Essence, such that if there was one essence, then there had to be only one Person.

As for the Socinian objection that a single essence implies a single person, Owen responds, “that in one essence there can be but one person may be true where the substance is finite and limited, but hath no place in that which is infinite.” This latter point is significant to the Socinian definition, inasmuch as the Socinian doctrine of God assumed a limited God… (Muller, PRRD IV, pg. 179)

Carl Trueman once told us in class that an error with regard to God’s sovereignty such as Open Theism would always lead back to a Trinitarian error. Now, I see why. Owen argued that the problem with the Socinian definition of person was that it assumed a limited substance. A limited substance obviously cannot have absolute authority over humanity. Therefore, a limited God such as the Socinian/Open Theistic God would be something less than a fully Trinitarian God.

Posted by Lane Keister

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17 Comments

  1. November 25, 2007 at 8:34 pm

    Nice post, Lane. We were talking about this just last week in Sunday school. Robert Shaw, in his commentary on the Confession, under WCF 2.3 makes the same point:

    But we maintain, as strongly as they, that there is only one God, and we think it perfectly consistent with this belief, to acknowledge three persons in the Godhead. This, indeed, is a mystery, but there is nothing in it absurd, or contradictory to reason. We do not say that three are one in the same sense and in the same respect in which they are three; that would, no doubt, be a plain contradiction in terms. But we say, they are three in one respect, on in another respect,–three in person, one in essence; and there is no absurdity in that at all. It surpasses our reason, indeed, fully to understand it; and so do a thousand things besides, which yet we know are true and real. But, if it be a doctrine clearly revealed in the Sacred Scriptures, we are bound to believe it, however incapable we may be of comprehending it.

    Later he explains further, and also quotes Dr. John Dick’s Lectures on Theology:

    The distinction in the Godhead is characterised by the word person. This term, in the common acceptation, denotes “a separate and independent being, whose existence and actions have no necessary connection with the existence and actions of any other being. It has been defined to be a thinking substance, which can act by itself, or an intelligent agent, who is neither a part of, nor sustained by another.” But this term, when applied to the Sacred Three, is not to be understood in exactly the same sense as when applied to creatures. The cases are totally dissimilar. “Three human persons have the same specific nature, but three divine persons have the same numerical nature. Anti-Trinitarians affirm, that, by holding three divine persons, we necessarily make three Gods, because they most unfairly maintain, in the face of our solemn protestations, that we affix the same idea to the word person which it bears when used in reference to men. But we deny that it has this meaning. We do not teach that there are three distinct essences mysteriously conjoined,–that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit possess, each of them separately from the others, a divine nature and divine perfections. What we believe is this, that there is a distinction in the Godhead, to which there is nothing similar in creatures, who are one in every sense of the term; and we employ the word person to express that distinction. It may be objectionable, because, being applied to other beings, it is apt to suggest an idea which is inconsistent with the unity of God; but this is the unavoidable consequence of the imperfection of human language; and we endeavour to guard against the abuse by declaring that, in this application, it must be qualified so as to exclude a separate existence. When we say that there are three persons in the Godhead, the word person signifies a distinction which we do not pretend to explain, but which does not intrench upon the unity of essence.”

    Owen’s quote is shorter, but says essentially the same thing. Human pride says, especially in theology, that if we cannot understand something, then it must not be true. Even glorified in eternity, we’ll still be finite, so I anticipate that we’ll never truly understand this.

  2. jared said,

    November 26, 2007 at 1:38 pm

    I’m not trying to be argumentative here but I think there’s a non sequitur happening. Lane says,

    A limited substance obviously cannot have absolute authority over humanity. Therefore, a limited God such as the Socinian/Open Theistic God would be something less than a fully Trinitarian God.

    What does “limited substance” have to do with being “fully Trinitarian”? The Socinian/Open Theistic conception of God may be “limited” but how does that prevent it from being Trinitarian (at least within Open Theism)? In other words, what is the logical correlation between having absolute authority over humanity and Trinitarianism? I can conceive or imagine (however unscriptural) God being Triune while also being “self-bound” to time so as to leave a large portion of the future undetermined.

    I want to say, for clarification’s sake, that I am not an Open Theist. I think they have a deeply flawed metaphysic/ontology of God in relation to His creation and that this greatly marrs their understanding of what and who He is. I actually wrote a paper in response to a paper presented by Peter van Inwagen on divine omniscience and human freedom at the 2004 philosophy conference that’s held annually at Wheaton College (I was a Student at Covenant College at the time). I think Open Theism fails primarily in greatly underestimating the effect(s) of the fall on humanity for their system largely depends on the reality of a libertarian conception of human freedom.

  3. tim prussic said,

    November 26, 2007 at 5:18 pm

    Dude… sounds like Jared’s an Open Theist sympathizer.. GET HIM!!! Just kidding. I’m interested in Pastor Lane’s response.

    I’m amazed at how foundational the doctrines of God REALLY are. It’s one of those ideas-have-consequences things. A rationalized god that makes sense destroys a true conception of reality. The incomprehensible triune God of the Scriptures establishes the creation brought forth from that same triune God. Theological mistakes tend to be watershed issues and create huge problems down the road.

    Finally, Muller ROCKS!

  4. greenbaggins said,

    November 26, 2007 at 5:27 pm

    My response is this: I am banking off of Owen’s remark that substance equalling person doesn’t hold true for God’s being, which is infinite. An infinite being can be fully Trinitarian, and yet unified in essence. The key to the Socinian position is that God is limited. He is limited to one person/essence. He is consequently limited in His governance over humanity. The Biblical position is that it is the fully Trinitarian God who governs the world. If God “reacts” at all, it isn’t to humanity, but to the other persons of the Trinity. By the way, Socinians explicitly denied Trinitarian theology. This is quite plain from the Racovian Catechism. Jared, I think what you’re asking is how God’s authority and how God’s Trinitarian nature are related, such that to deny one is to deny the other. Is this correct? If it is, then the same question that you raise can be asked concerning Mormon “baptism,” which is not into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The authority of God is not seperable from His Trinitarian nature. His Sovereignty depends on Him being fully Trinitarian, since it is the Son who is the active Word, and the Spirit who accomplishes God’s will. Cut out the second and third Persons, and you have a deistic concept which lends itself quite well to a Socinian construction.

  5. kamelda said,

    November 26, 2007 at 7:46 pm

    Rey, just wanted to comment on your second post (your objections to the original post which are interesting: I’m not sure I see the logical necessity of a rejection of sovereignty and a limited God if the rejection of soveriegnty is along the lines you described and will be interested to see the response; but my thoughts reading your first remarks were that of course God has revealed in Scripture that He does indeed choose to use His power to ‘micromanage’ human affairs -Psalm 139: to reject this is to reject His self-revelation and thus the only true God). I used to think that the Trinity was like a one-dimensional triangle. Three angles, one shape. I understood it perfectly when I was seven. But later I realized that a person is far different than a one dimensional geometrical shape, or a computer program, or any of the analogies that God did not choose to represent Himself by (and that there’s a reason why the reformers insist so strongly on God alone having the authority and the ability to represent Himself); and that the analogy was completely inadequate and misleading: I was ‘understanding’ something else, flattening all dimensions, and not really approaching a true idea of the Triune life of God.

    Now it’s very hard for me to understand how anyone could think they do understand the Trinity. I can believe that some people think it, but I confess I have a hard time believing that that they actually do (smiles).

  6. kamelda said,

    November 26, 2007 at 8:30 pm

    A PS to the first post– sorry about my typos -also of course, a triangle has two dimensions. I plead illness, but really there’s no excuse. Stupid of me.

    I still think that the problem with such ‘imperfect’ analogies is that they are not only inadequate in their imperfections but misleading…. & yes though I do believe Psalm 139 teaches God’s sovereignty – His presence and power ruling- in our affairs, if that were the only passage in Scripture it might be suspect to found the entire doctrine there. I merely pointed to it as a handy reference — the sovereignty of God is explicitly taught/assumed all through Scripture. I’m reading the story of the Exodus right now: it would make no sense without that framework. Thanks for your reply, Rey. I’ll be interested to read the rest of the discussion.

  7. November 26, 2007 at 9:34 pm

    rey,

    Lane can speak for himself, but I’d like to offer some thoughts on your posts. I have no idea what your theological background is, so please indulge me while I get down to some basics. I’m merely responding to how I interpreted what you wrote. I apologize in advance if I misinterpreted you.

    The comprehensive sovereignty of God is a core tenet of basic Christianity (or even basic theism for that matter). I don’t know if you’ve ever done a study on God’s sovereignty and superintending providence. Dr. R. C. Sproul’s book The Invisible Hand covers the subject well and is very readable. From what you wrote, I think that you’d find that reading profitable. God’s superintending providence is described not just in the Psalms but throughout Scripture, starting in Genesis, e.g., with the patriarch’s lives, displayed prominently in Daniel for instance, and carries through Jesus’ teaching and wraps up only at the very end of Revelation. If you have access to a Nave’s or similar topical resource, you’ll find dozens of verses listed where God teaches His superintending providence. As Sproul likes to say, there isn’t a single rouge molecule in the universe.

    God’s trinity and sovereignty are indeed inextricably intertwined. His eternal being and various attributes cannot be separated from each other. He is, for instance, simultaneously Spirit, loving, merciful, righteous, triune, just, sovereign, etc. Herman Bavinck as quoted in Dr. Morton Smith’s Systematic Theology puts it succinctly: “Whatever God is he is completely and simultaneously. God has no properties but merely is essence, God’s properties are really the same as his essence: they neither differ from his essence, nor do they differ materially from one another.” His trinity and sovereignty cannot be separated.

    I see you writing that you “understand” the Trinity, but what I hear you saying is that you accept the truth of the Trinity. One of the great truths passed down from our forefathers in the faith is that the finite cannot contain/comprehend the infinite. As you yourself said, there are no good analogies. There is nothing in human experience on which to base such an understanding. At best, we accept the truth in faith by the illumination of the Holy Spirit.

  8. Jeff Cagle said,

    November 26, 2007 at 11:02 pm

    Rey #6:

    God exists as three Persons in one Essence. How is that hard to grasp?

    For me, really hard…because I’m not sure I understand what the word “Essence” means.

    I accept the doctrine of the Trinity as our best way to understand the Biblical data, and without which we end up saying silly things that undermine salvation … but I don’t understand it.

    Nor two Essences in one Person, without co-mingling. :)

    Jeff Cagle

  9. Gianni said,

    November 27, 2007 at 3:08 am

    Hi guys,

    The Notepad analogy is quite good.

    For me, however, nothing beats C.S. Lewis’ analogy of the beaver in Mere Christianity, chapter 23.

    It is not a trinitarian analogy, and it is limited in other ways, but whenever I see people struggling with the words “trinity”, “essence” and “person” I always think of a beaver.

    Eye-opening, clear, to the point. In short, vintage Lewis. And at least to me, it even preserves the awe God deserves, rather than trivializing the matter.

  10. jared said,

    November 27, 2007 at 3:12 am

    Lane,

    Thanks for the response. You say,

    The key to the Socinian position is that God is limited. He is limited to one person/essence. He is consequently limited in His governance over humanity. The Biblical position is that it is the fully Trinitarian God who governs the world. If God “reacts” at all, it isn’t to humanity, but to the other persons of the Trinity. By the way, Socinians explicitly denied Trinitarian theology. This is quite plain from the Racovian Catechism.

    I suppose, then, that my comment must be relegated to Open Theism; to my knowledge they are largely Trinitarian. I agree with you here, that if God “reacts” at all it is intra-Trinity. How would your response (or the Owen quote) apply to Open Theism specifically?

    You say,

    Jared, I think what you’re asking is how God’s authority and how God’s Trinitarian nature are related, such that to deny one is to deny the other. Is this correct? If it is, then the same question that you raise can be asked concerning Mormon “baptism,” which is not into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The authority of God is not seperable from His Trinitarian nature. His Sovereignty depends on Him being fully Trinitarian, since it is the Son who is the active Word, and the Spirit who accomplishes God’s will. Cut out the second and third Persons, and you have a deistic concept which lends itself quite well to a Socinian construction.

    Not exactly what I’m asking, Lane. Now that I think about it, I’m not exactly sure how to understand your terminology in the post. What does a “less than fully Trinitarian” conception of God imply? Is it, or could it be, still sort of Trinitarian? Open Theists don’t deny God’s authority at all; they don’t deny His omniscience and, as I understand what I’ve read of them, neither do they deny that God is Triune. They would argue that God doesn’t have “absolute authority over humanity” by design, as He has granted humanity free will. The logical consequent (on their view) of this gift is that He cannot know that which has not happened yet (these are called future-free-acts and they are considered unknowable because they are non-existent), save for what He has set forth, e.g. such as OT prophecy and the second coming and maybe a few things here and there in between. This isn’t a limitation of essence of person on the part of Open Theism, rather it is a “limitation” brought about by God’s very own design. It does not follow, then, that from this limitation God is somehow less than fully Triune.

    I suppose this is just a long and complex way of saying that you can’t exactly lump Socinianism and Open Theism together as tightly as you have done in this post.

  11. Reed DePace said,

    November 27, 2007 at 9:24 am

    Ref. #12:

    Jared: ytour final point provides me the opportunity to make a point relevant to all such conversations, a point I think will advance understanding.

    In a different thread you (or was it Xon, doesn’t matter) had a similar response to my opinion that the specific FV factor we were discussing amounted to Arminianism.

    In both cases (mine previously, and this one here) it is not right to say:

    Modern position (A) = historical position (B).

    That is, of couse Open Theism is not expressly and merely a re-expression of Socianism. Nor is FV expressly/merely Arminianism.

    I do not think that is what Lane is trying to say here (nor I there), and this may be a need for more clarity on our parts. It is better to say:

    Modern position (A) : historical position (B)

    That is, there are at least some express: parallels, similarities, presuppositions, exegesis, conclusions, and/or practical applications, shared by the two positions.

    In this specific case, it seems to me that this is more in line with what Lane is saying. (Although Lane can correct me). If this is true, then further understanding can be gained by tracing with Lane what he beliesves are these parellels, etc.

    You may not agree, but at least you will have better understanding.

  12. jared said,

    November 27, 2007 at 10:42 am

    Reed,

    Yes, that clears things up quite a bit, especially if Lane is on the same page as you are presenting. I need only to change my strategy a little in order to compensate: just because two views run parallel, or have some (even if only on the surface) similarities; it does not stand to reason that the same errors and criticism(s) can be leveled at both views. For example, some FVists say justification can be lost and Arminians say justification can be lost, thus we are able to aim the same rhetoric at both positions, right? Or Socinians say that God is limited and Open Theists say that God is limited, thus we are able to use the same critique on both positions, right? Arguing this way is how bridges get, and have been, burned.

  13. greenbaggins said,

    November 27, 2007 at 11:41 am

    Rey, you need to be a bit more polite. Charging the owner of a blog with ignorance is not the way to debate. Furthermore, it is quite beside the point.

    The short answer is what Bob said: you are compartmentalizing God and denying the simplicity of His nature. You cannot separate the attributes of God from the essence of God. Therefore the Trinity and God’s sovereignty are, as Bob said, inextricably intertwined.

    To Jared, I am not equating everything that Socinians believed with everything that Open Theists believe. Rather, I am asserting that in at least one thing they are the same: both deny God’s sovereignty, making key blunders about the essence of God, which is inseperable from His Trinitarian nature. I am asserting that they will both wind up in Trinitarian heresy, as Socinianism demonstrated. I don’t have quotations right now to back that up with regard to the Open Theists. However, the direction of their theology goes in a deist direction, a social Trinitarian direction, or a modalistic direction.

  14. greenbaggins said,

    November 27, 2007 at 11:41 am

    Reed is spot on.

  15. jared said,

    November 27, 2007 at 2:29 pm

    Lane,

    I don’t think Open Theism ends up in Trinitarian heresy for two reasons. First, most of them have a very robust view of the dynamics of Trinity. In fact, one of their leading proponents got his theological “start” with a book (which, I believe, was originally his doctoral thesis) called Trinity and Process. This book is basically an attempt to reformulate A.N. Whitehead’s process philosophy (as expanded by Hartshorne) within the boundaries of fundamental evangelicalism, which can hardly be described as Socinian. Secondly, while both Socinianism and Open Theism have limitations placed upon God’s sovereignty, Socinianism’s is unintentional (a logical consequent of their particular theology) and Open Theism’s is intentional (a logical requirement of their particular theology). As such, Open Theists do not outright deny the sovereignty of God, just sovereignty as it is “classically” understood. The lack in Socinianism is a direct result of denying the Trinity, the lack in Open Theism is not and even doesn’t not logically conclude in such a denial.

    At any rate, we both agree that Socinianism and Open Theism are gross theological errors.

  16. jared said,

    November 27, 2007 at 4:17 pm

    Lane,

    BTW, I have faith that you can work through my ultra-double-negative sentence there at the end; but just in case, here’s what I meant to say:

    “The lack in Socinianism is a direct result of denying the Trinity, the lack in Open Theism is not the result of such a denial, nor is such a denial (of the Trinity) the logical end of Open Theism.”

  17. November 28, 2007 at 10:22 am

    [...] on GreenBagginses, Lane posted Trinity, Infinity, and Person, a nice, short summary of the Doctrine of the Trinity. Don’t miss the comments under the [...]


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