Distinctions of Persons
As previously discussed, Trinitarian theology holds to a strict monotheistic view of God. There is only one God. Trinitarianism holds that there are three persons sharing in the one being of God. Oneness Pentecostal advocates seem to overlook this most fundamental concept of the doctrine of the Trinity and create straw man arguments against the Trinity by asserting that it teaches tritheism. While David Bernard does not come right out and claim that orthodox Trinitarian theology asserts a belief in three gods, he certainly makes statements in his book, The Oneness of God, alluding to the teaching holding to tritheistic ideas.
“It is clear that the terms Father, Son, and Holy Ghost cannot imply three separate persons, personalities wills or beings.”[i] (emphasis added).
“The Bible speaks of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost as different manifestations, roles, modes, titles, attributes, relationships to man, or functions of the one God, but it does not refer to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost as three persons, personalities, wills, minds or Gods.”[ii] (emphasis added).
Oneness Pentecostals view the one being of God as simply being unipersonal (rather than tripersonal). A question for us to consider today is does the Bible differentiate between Father, Son and Holy Spirit in such a way that they are each understood to be God and sharing in the nature of God and yet distinguished from one another. OP asserts that the Son was simply God the Father manifested in the flesh.[iii] Thus, Son generally refers to the humanity of Christ – his flesh – while the Father is in reference to God and the divine nature of Christ. The Holy Spirit is simply a mode in which God the Father is manifested in terms of his interaction with humanity.
Is this OP line of reasoning sustained by the scriptural evidence regarding the Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Does the scripture teach that the only distinction is really between Father and Son and that is tied strictly to the dual nature of Christ? Or does the scripture teach that the Father is so distinguished from the Son and from the Holy Spirit that the only consistent way in which to understand these passages is to understand the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to all be God and yet the Father not be the Son, the Son not be the Spirit and the Spirit not be the Father – that is, there are distinctions of persons within the being of God?
Father and Son
“The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand….For the Father loves the Son, and shows him all things that he himself is doing; and greater works than these will he show him, so that you will marvel.” (John 3:35, 5:20). Clearly, the Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father and these are the actions of distinct persons. To the OP, these verses are simply describing the divine loving the humanity and the humanity loving the divine Father.
Yet there is something amiss if the Son is merely the Father manifested in the flesh, how can there truly be this loving relationship between the two if they are one and the same person. Jesus said, “Just as the Father has loved me, I have also loved you; abide in my love.” (John 15:9). So as the Father loves the Son, the Son loves his disciples. Clearly the Son and the disciples were separate persons and were therefore capable of loving each other as the act of love is the giving of oneself to another – thus, by definition, love requires two or more persons.
In a number of other passages, Jesus clearly distinguishes himself from the Father. “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.” (John 6:38). “I came forth from the Father and have come into the world; I am leaving the world again and going to the Father.” (John 16:28). In these and other passages, the Son is referred to as being sent by the Father. And not simply that the Father is sending the flesh but that the Son had “come down from heaven” and “came forth from the Father” having “come into the world….”
At the baptism of Jesus we read the following:
After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” (Matthew 3:16-17).
We find here the Father speaking from heaven as the Son is being baptized. The Father again is affirming his love for his Son. We also see the Spirit is descending and resting upon the Son. Here we see three distinct persons represented – the Father speaking from heaven, the Son being baptized, and the Spirit represented by the dove, resting upon the Son. This passage certainly is not the end all of passages in support of the doctrine of the Trinity but it does seem to reflect the triune nature of God. According to OP, the Father was in Jesus and yet the Father was speaking from heaven concerning who, Jesus the man?
Bernard argues that the key to understanding this passage is to appreciate the omnipresence of God. “It was not at all difficult for the Spirit of Jesus to speak from heaven and to send a manifestation of His Spirit in the form of a dove even while His human body was in the Jordan River. The voice and the dove do not represent separate persons any more than the voice of God at Sinai indicates that the mountain was a separate intelligent person in the Godhead.”[iv]
No one disputes that God is omnipresent. Bernard is presupposing that God is unipersonal rather than tripersonal and is confusing is the idea of the ontological Trinity with the economic Trinity and the idea that within the one being of God are three distinct persons. His argument in alluding to the voice of God at Sinai makes no sense as no one would argue that the mountain is a separate intelligent person. Yet the scripture seems to differentiate, as we have been looking at, between the Son and Father as distinct persons who love one another. The Father states that he is well-pleased with his Son. If the Son is merely the Father in flesh is the Father talking about himself or is he talking about the flesh? Or are we looking at separate persons within the essence of God.
We can look at the transfiguration and see again separate persons in the Father and the Son and not simply the Father in the Son: While he was still speaking, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and behold, a voice out of the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to him!” (Matthew 17:5).
Again, we see the Son being distinguished from the Father and not simply the divine from the flesh. In this passage we see the glory of the Son being revealed to Peter, James and John as the Father speaks from heaven.
Bernard, again, simply argues that “a voice does not indicate a separate person in the Godhead but only another manifestation of the omnipresent Spirit of God.”[v] Anytime a voice was heard from heaven, “the voice was not for the benefit of Jesus but for the benefit of others, and it came for a specific purpose.”[vi]
Certainly, there was a purpose and a benefit to those who witnessed the Son’s glory and the heard the voice of the Father from heaven. But again, the passage seems to reflect a clear distinction between the Father and the Son from the perspective of personhood.
In the third instance in which there was a voice from heaven, we find the Son praying and the Father speaking to the Son in a voice heard by the disciples:
Father, glorify your name.” There came then a voice from heaven: “I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.” (John 12:28).
Here we find the Son speaking to the Father and the Father responding to the Son. According to OP, this is really a monologue between the Son and himself – it is the human nature speaking to the divine nature and the divine nature responding out of heaven because the Father is omnipresent. Remember, a key to OP, from their perspective, is asking the question who is speaking – is this the human Jesus or the divine nature. In this passage of John, OP would argue that it is the human Jesus praying to the divine and the divine responding from heaven, despite the fact that the Father is really in Jesus. But that is not really an accurate picture as to what is being presented. What we have being presented is one person speaking to another and vice-versa.
The prayers of Jesus and other passages show us over and over that there is a distinction between the Father and Son reflecting two persons. These statements cannot be dismissed on the basis of the human nature of Christ speaking to his own divine nature. Jesus’ statements of have been sent by the Father and having come down from heaven and his pre-existent glory make clear that there is something more here than the human speaking with the divine. The content of these passages make clear that the Son is more than simply a reference to the flesh of Jesus.
Jesus prayed in John 17: “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son, that the Son may glorify you, even as you gave him authority over all flesh, that to all whom you have given him, he may give eternal life. This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent….”
First, we find the use of personal pronouns as stressing the fact that the Father and Son are distinct persons. Jesus is stressing the distinctions in personhood between himself and the Father. Is this simply distinguishing between the humanity praying to the divine?
Jesus continues his prayer: “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.” (emphasis added).
If the Son had glory in the presence of the Father before the world existed how can the Son simply refer to the flesh of Jesus. Jesus, the Son of God, is stating that he had glory in the presence of the Father before the very worlds existed. We will look at the prayers of Jesus and the pre-existence of the Son in other posts but for now, suffice it to say that there is a clear distinction being made between the Father and the Son and this cannot be limited to a simple explanation of pointing to the human and divine natures of Christ. To do so, ultimately would seem to lead us down the troubling path of denying the deity of Christ himself.
How did Paul seem to understand this? One interesting point to note is that, like the rest of the NT writers, Paul made significant effort to both affirm the deity of Christ while distinguishing him from the Father. We can look to many of his opening passages: Romans 1:7, I Corinthians 1:3, II Corinthians 1:2, Galatians 1:3, Ephesians 1:2, and Philippians 1:2 where Paul states “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Any basic reading of these various passages demonstrates that God the Father is being distinguished from the Lord Jesus Christ. Bernard attempts to force a reading onto this passage by arguing that the Greek word kai translated in all these passages as and could also be rendered even resulting a reading of “God the Father even the Lord Jesus Christ” thus identifying Jesus as the Father.[vii] Thus, Oneness advocates argue that these passages teach us that Jesus Christ is the Father rather than a person distinguished from the Father.
Others have noted that re-interpretation of these passages is simply not based on any grammatical or exegetical foundation – it is simply asserted by people like Bernard to deny the scriptural teaching of a distinction between personhood in the being of God. Kai is overwhelming used and properly translated as the connective “and” and not as “even”.
Further, Bernard argues that the definite article (the or o) is missing from before Lord Jesus Christ causing the translation to literally be “from God our Father and Lord Jesus Christ.”[viii] In support of his assertions regarding the Greek, Bernard cites to The Interlinear Greek-English New Testament to show the absence of the definitive article as well as “Greek scholar” Robert Brent Graves, who is also an advocate of Oneness theology and not necessarily an individual with no presuppositions on this issue. Bernard is correct regarding the lack of a definite article before Lord Jesus Christ but is completely wrong with respect to its implications. The passage would read as follows in the Greek:
…apo Theou Patros hemon kai Kyriou Iesou Christou
Bernard’s simple assertions that we should re-read the passage as using “even” rather than “and” and the lack of a definitive article serves to eliminate any distinction between the Father and Jesus Christ is simply not supported by anyone other than a Oneness “Greek scholar”. The use of the definitive article tends to say more about the nature and quality of nouns, in particular, in relation to other nouns. When you have two nouns present and both have the definite article this may well mean that they are essentially equivalent to one another. When you have two nouns and only one has the definite article and it is absent from the other noun (this noun is anarthrous), the anarthrous noun is not necessarily equivalent to the articular noun but describing the nature or quality of the articular noun (see John 1:1c).
Greek grammarians agree that these salutary passages demonstrate that Paul was intending to make a distinction between the Father and Jesus Christ and in no way was he looking to identify them as the same person. Granville Sharp’s Rule 5 states that “when there is no article before the first noun, the insertion of the copulative kai before the next noun, or name, same case, denotes a different person or thing from the first….” (emphasis added).
In the present passages, we have a lack of the article before the first noun and both God the Father and Lord Jesus Christ are in the same case. Therefore, according to standard Greek grammarian rules, God the Father and Lord Jesus Christ “denotes a different person or thing from the first.” Bernard’s citing to the absence of the article before Lord Jesus Christ does nothing to support his Oneness position – the contrary, the lack of the article in this phrase points to the fact that Paul was seeking to differentiate between God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Granville Sharp himself cited to passages such as II Corinthians 1:2, Ephesians 1:2 and Galatians 1:3 as examples of where this rule should be applied.
The fact of the matter is, Paul is very consistent in his distinguishing between the Father and the Son and yet affirming the deity of both the Father and the Son. He continuously refers to the Father as God/theos and the Son as Lord/kurios. The Father is regularly referred to by the God or the OT name of Elohim while the Son is regularly referred to by the OT name of Yahweh. They are never identified as the same person but are both identified as the God of the OT. Both the Father and Son are deity and yet both are distinguished as persons from one another. In this respect Paul can both affirm that Jesus is God and is yet distinguished from the Father. Paul can state that all of God dwelt in Christ and yet he does not state that the Father was in Christ. All of God’s nature and attributes were in Christ as the Son is fully God, and yet he is not the Father.
Father, Son and Holy Spirit
If we have seen distinctions in personhood between Father and Son, it would seem that it should follow we would also see distinctions between the Spirit, the Father and the Son as well.
First, we know that the Spirit takes up unique functions with respect to God and his dealings with humanity and, in particular, with respect to man’s regeneration. We have already made mention of the Holy Spirit appearing as a dove and lighting upon Jesus at his baptism as distinguishing himself from the Father and the Son in that picture.
In John 16, Jesus speaks concerning the coming of the Spirit and his role and purpose and does so while distinguishing the Spirit from himself as well as from the Father:
Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer…. I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
From these passages we can see that with the departure of the Son, the Helper will come. He will be sent by the Son and will have a number of roles to play. The Spirit will act as an advocate to the believer. He will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment. The Spirit will guide believers into truth. But note that the Spirit does not speak based on his own authority but whatever he hears is what he speaks. His role is to bring glory to the Son. Thus, the Spirit is spoken of here by Jesus as not only distinguished from the Father and the Son in terms of his functions and role but in terms of his personhood as well. Recall that differences in function does not mean subordination within God. The Holy Spirit is fully God despite it being his function to speak what he hears and to bring glory to the Son. Again, we are distinguishing between the ontological Trinity and the economic Trinity.
A number of other passages speak of this distinguishing both of personhood as well as work of the Spirit:
Now he who establishes us with you in Christ and anointed us in God, who also sealed us and gave us the Spirit in our hearts as a pledge. (II Corinthians 1:21-22).
For through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. (Ephesians 2:18).
There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4-6).
In a number of other passages, the Holy Spirit is described as acting with personal attributes. In Hebrews 3:7 the Spirit speaks; in Acts 15:28 the Spirit reasons; in I Corinthians 2:10-11 the Spirit searches, thinks and understands the depths of the mind of God; in I Corinthians 12:11 the Spirit has a will; in Ephesians 4:30 the Spirit can feel and experience grievance; and in II Corinthians 13:14 the Spirit fellowships with believers.
As we read these passages and other it becomes evident that the believers in the early church were Trinitarian in their thinking and understanding of the nature of God. This thinking continues to be carried through and contained in the writing of the early post-apostolic church. Clearly, there were those who struggled in attempting to understanding the nature of Christ and the nature of God and this did lead some into error. There were those who sought to deny the deity of Christ and saw Jesus as simply a man – they distinguished between the Father and Son but did so at the expense of denying the divine nature of Christ (these were the Arians). There were those who sought to maintain the deity of Christ but did so at the expense of denying the distinctions between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the scripture (these were the Sabellians). Both camps were roundly condemned by the early church fathers as asserting doctrines concerning Christ and the nature of God that were contrary to the historical teaching of the church.
The historic teaching on the nature of God is that there is one divine being with one indivisible essence – this essence reflects all the attributes and fundamental nature of who God is and what makes God, God. Oneness advocates (and KJV readers) will identify this as the godhead (from the old English word godhood as describing the essence of all that makes God, God). Within this one being of God there are three distinct persons or subsistences (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) that are co-equal and co-eternal. The whole essence of God is shared equally by each of the subsistences. Thus, we can say that the Father is fully God, the Son is fully God and the Holy Spirit is fully God. Nevertheless, the three distinct persons are distinguished by personal attributes, roles and functions. Differences in attributes, roles or functions do not mean that one is necessarily subordinate to the other for all share equally in the essence of God. Thus, there are no demigods within the nature of God.
[i] Bernard at 134.
[ii] Id. at 144.
[iii] Id. at 67.
[iv] Id. at 172-3.
[v] Id. at 175-6.
[vi] Id. at 176.
[vii] Id. at 208.
[viii] Id. at 209.