Is God a He? (Paradoxical?)

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Afterthought

Puritan Board Senior
I posted this in the Wading Pool because my topic seems rather basic.

From the Westminster Larger Catechism.

Q. 7. What is God?
A. God is a Spirit, in and of himself infinite in being, glory, blessedness, and perfection; all-sufficient, eternal, unchangeable, incomprehensible, every where present, almighty, knowing all things, most wise, most holy, most just, most merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth.

Q. 9. How many persons are there in the Godhead?
A. There be three persons in the Godhead, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one true, eternal God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory; although distinguished by their personal properties.


From the Westminster Confession.

I. There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, for His own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him; and withal, most just, and terrible in His judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.

II. God has all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of Himself; and is alone in and unto Himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which He has made, nor deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting His own glory in, by, unto, and upon them. He is the alone fountain of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom are all things; and has most sovereign dominion over them, to do by them, for them, or upon them whatsoever Himself pleases. In His sight all things are open and manifest, His knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the creature, so as nothing is to Himcontingent, or uncertain. He is most holy in all His counsels, in all His works, and in all His commands. To Him is due from angels and men, and every other creature, whatsoever worship, service, or obedience He is pleased to require of them.

III. In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost: the Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.



Now for my question. When we ask, "What is God?" we get a personal answer; we call God "He." Indeed, we say He is the fountain of all being. When we talk about the persons in the Godhead, we get a personal answer; we call each person "He." Why is this? Are we truly forced into Van Til's paradox "one person, three persons", or does reformed theology have something else to say? It seems to me that the old "one substance, three persons" ends up leaving the Trinity when considered as a whole (i.e., "one substance") as impersonal, which the Westminster Larger catechism seems to imply at first by using the word "What", but then it takes it away and uses the word "He" in describing God. (and the Westminster Confession ignores the word "what" entirely, sticking with "He")

Does the "He" refer to any person within the Godhead? Do we call God without qualification "He" because the three persons in the Godhead act so perfectly in sync with their wills such that we can say God has one, personal will? I know in the Bible there are times when God is referred to without distinction and is referred to as "He." When the Bible refers to God without distinction (i.e., without telling which person is speaking), is it referring to one of the persons in the Trinity and so uses "He"? Perhaps when it refers to God without distinction it is referring to the Father representing the persons of the Trinity? The New Testament references to God seem to do that to some extent. But then we run into the problem of the Father being the "fountain of all being" (could we say that anyway?)? Do all three persons speak with one voice maybe?



I realize this is a bunch of questions wrapped up into one, and that I need to tread carefully here, so I'd very much appreciate any answers to them. I suppose the main idea behind each of my questions is captured by the thread's title. Are we forced into Van Til's paradox, or is there another way reformed theology deals with the personality of God without distinction (i.e., when no particular person of the Trinity is mentioned)? I'd bet this is answered in some systematic theology somewhere, but I don't know for sure. I've already searched through the forums without finding an answer, but I could have missed something.
 

py3ak

Unshaven and anonymous
Staff member
Raymond, I'm not entirely sure I followed the whole complex of questions. It sounds like the most basic question is, "Is God, essentially considered, personal?" Is that right? I don't want to offer any answers to a question I'm not sure I understood, as that might lead to more confusion.

However it can be pointed out that it would be improper to speak of the "wills" of the Persons in the Godhead. Will is a natural property: thus Christ has two wills, because He has two natures, and yet He is not bipersonal. And thus God has one will, because there is one nature.

Do you have Durham's commentary on Revelation? The first supplementary discussion relates to the doctrine of the Trinity, and it's an eminently sane, short, and valuable discussion.
 
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VictorBravo

Administrator
Staff member
I agree that this is a deeper question than what typically is addressed in the Wading Pool. For one thing, it asks for a pretty deep understanding of Van Til's formulation, which many of us may not be prepared to address off hand.

But one thing I can say is that we shouldn't be overly concerned about the use of "him" or "he" when speaking about God or the Persons of the Trinity. The pronoun is what we have in our language, and it should take the character, nature, particularity, or essence of what it is referring to in context.

In other words, just because we use the same pronoun when speaking of the Triune God as when we speak of each Person of the Trinity individually, we should not then feel forced to say they are the same in all respects. It's not so much a paradox as a shorthand use of language.
 

VictorBravo

Administrator
Staff member
As a follow up to what I posted above, I thought I'd give a plain analogy to the only point I was trying to make.

Here are two basic sets of propositions:

Jeff was a dog. He was a fearless and well trained border collie, but has died.

Josh is my friend. He likes good beer.

In both cases I use "he" but it is obvious that the pronouns are referring to different things. Josh may indeed be well trained and fearless, but he never was a border collie.

And Jeff, indeed, was a friend, but he never liked good beer.

So the use in the Confessional documents of "he" and "him" does nothing more than refer to something already defined.
 
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Afterthought

Puritan Board Senior
py3ak said:
It sounds like the most basic question is, "Is God, essentially considered, personal?" Is that right?
Yes, I think that's correct. I'll try to explain really quickly again to make sure. Usually, to summarize the Trinity without falling into contradiction, we use the phrase "one substance, three persons." However, I've noticed that when God is referred to without reference to any person, the bible (and the Confessions) use the personal pronoun "He." So it seems like we are forced into Van Til's "one person, three persons" [with "person" used in two different senses]. My question then is, "Are we really forced into that paradox? If not, how do we escape it?" God is one with respect to substance or essence, but aren't substance and essence impersonal? Yet the Bible refers to God, when considered as one, as personal, which makes it seem like we're stuck with "one person, three persons" instead of "one substance, three persons."


py3ak said:
However it can be pointed out that it would be improper to speak of the "wills" of the Persons in the Godhead. Will is a natural property: thus Christ has two wills, because He has two natures, and yet He is not bipersonal. And thus God has one will, because there is one nature.
I see. Thanks for that! To make sure I understand, we could say, "If he Holy Spirit wills X, then God wills X, so the Son and the Father also will X?" But I suppose if I could find that commentary you mentioned online, that would clear up that and related questions.

VictorBravo said:
I agree that this is a deeper question than what typically is addressed in the Wading Pool. For one thing, it asks for a pretty deep understanding of Van Til's formulation, which many of us may not be prepared to address off hand.
Well, you all can move it to the Theological Forum if you all think it would be more suited there. I wasn't sure precisely where I wanted to post it anyway.


But one thing I can say is that we shouldn't be overly concerned about the use of "him" or "he" when speaking about God or the Persons of the Trinity. The pronoun is what we have in our language, and it should take the character, nature, particularity, or essence of what it is referring to in context.

In other words, just because we use the same pronoun when speaking of the Triune God as when we speak of each Person of the Trinity individually, we should not then feel forced to say they are the same in all respects. It's not so much a paradox as a shorthand use of language.
I see, and your example helped a bit. But then would it be improper to say that "God is one person in one sense and three persons in another sense but not paradoxically" (is that even possible?)? Or maybe would we say "God is one substance, three persons but the substance is personal?"
 

py3ak

Unshaven and anonymous
Staff member
I'm going to move this out of the wading pool, as I don't know that I have answers definitive enough for that venue on "substance" being "impersonal". C.S. Lewis raised the point in a letter where he talks about Martin Buber's I and Thou that perhaps it might be more appropriate to speak of God essentially considered as superpersonal because tripersonal. I think the reason that sounds wrong is not so much the usage of the personal pronoun to refer to God without distinction of the persons, but the fact that there isn't some part of the divine essence that isn't completely and wholly possessed by each of the Persons. When we speak of essence and of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit we are not speaking of four entities. That ties in as well to your question about the will of God, but there it has to be carefully defined in what sense we are speaking of will. Certainly the rule holds good that opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt - the external works of the Trinity are undivided.

I think introducing "in one sense" into the language of persons is likely to create confusion: we have a variety of words for the sense in which God is one: essence, substance, nature.... And we have a variety of words for the sense in which God is three: subsistence, hypostasis, person.....

Sadly, I doubt that Durham is online. Do you have Turretin's Institutes of Elenctic Theology? There is also some good stuff there, though not quite as brief nor pithy as Durham.
 

Afterthought

Puritan Board Senior
py3ak said:
I'm going to move this out of the wading pool, as I don't know that I have answers definitive enough for that venue on "substance" being "impersonal".
:up:

I think introducing "in one sense" into the language of persons is likely to create confusion: we have a variety of words for the sense in which God is one: essence, substance, nature.... And we have a variety of words for the sense in which God is three: subsistence, hypostasis, person.....

Sadly, I doubt that Durham is online. Do you have Turretin's Institutes of Elenctic Theology? There is also some good stuff there, though not quite as brief nor pithy as Durham.
Thanks for the help in your post! And no, I don't have them either. I wish I did though because I heard they were good. All my (extrabiblical) theological resources are currently limited to the web. =( At least I have an idea of what I can aim to get.
 

VictorBravo

Administrator
Staff member
I see, and your example helped a bit. But then would it be improper to say that "God is one person in one sense and three persons in another sense but not paradoxically" (is that even possible?)? Or maybe would we say "God is one substance, three persons but the substance is personal?"

I think it is not helpful and potentially dangerous because it uses "person" in two senses that can cause confusion unless you are constantly qualifying your use. You can use "he" and "him" in all sorts of senses because you first identify what the pronouns refer to.

I think it is very difficult to improve on how Athanasius put it in his creed:
That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost.
 

VictorBravo

Administrator
Staff member
Raymond, I can see better what you are asking. You are thinking that God, spoken of as the trinity, must be personal because he has attributes, does things, etc. That is a fair thought, but I think it is helpful to think about what "person" means here.

Usually we use the word "person" to speak of some individual among other similar individuals. So we import that usage when we speak of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit because they are of the same essence--in the same group, so to speak, but distinguished from each other (I speak loosely).

But God, spoken of in the sense of the Trinity is not an individual among others. He is one. There is no other. So it is sensible to avoid calling him a "person."
 

Afterthought

Puritan Board Senior
py3ak said:
There is some good stuff online. Francis Cheynell has an extensive book on the Trinity available here.
Thanks! I've downloaded it and hope to start reading it soon. It looks very good!

VictorBravo said:
You are thinking that God, spoken of as the trinity, must be personal because he has attributes, does things, etc.
Yes! That's precisely what I was getting at. Thanks for your helpful response. I think my question has been answered, but I'll think on it some to make sure. (If anyone has anything else to add too, I'd be happy to hear it =) )
 

Afterthought

Puritan Board Senior
So some more thoughts/questions on this issue. It appears the solution is a matter of definition. But when we prove that the Holy Spirit is a person, we look at what He does, how He responds, etc., then call Him a person. Isn't it inconsistent to not call God as Trinity a person when we see the exact same things applied to Him as we see applied to the Holy Spirit?

But then if we take the definition of person to needing to be an individual among similar other individuals, then we cannot call God as Trinity a person. But then what can we call Him? It seems inconsistent to not call Him "personal" in some sense when the same argument used to prove the Holy Spirit to be a person could be used to prove God as Trinity to be one too.
 

VictorBravo

Administrator
Staff member
But then if we take the definition of person to needing to be an individual among similar other individuals, then we cannot call God as Trinity a person. But then what can we call Him? It seems inconsistent to not call Him "personal" in some sense when the same argument used to prove the Holy Spirit to be a person could be used to prove God as Trinity to be one too.

It's a matter of using reasonable precision in our limited language to describe the infinite. Reverence toward God demands that we not be sloppy when we can avoid it. So, in speaking about God, historically it seemed best to reserve the term "Person" to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit respectively and not to the Trinity.

We see this in the Westminster Larger Catechism:
Question 7: What is God?

Answer: God is a Spirit, in and of himself infinite in being, glory, blessedness, and perfection; all-sufficient, eternal, unchangeable, incomprehensible, everywhere present, almighty, knowing all things, most wise, most holy, most just, most merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth.

Question 8: Are there more Gods than one?

Answer: There is but one only, the living and true God.

Question 9: How many persons are there in the Godhead?

Answer: There be three persons in the Godhead, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one true, eternal God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory; although distinguished by their personal properties.

Question 10: What are the personal properties of the three persons in the Godhead?

Answer: It is proper to the Father to beget the Son, and to the Son to be begotten of the Father, and to the Holy Ghost to proceed from the Father and the Son from all eternity.

Question 11: How does it appear that the Son and the Holy Ghost are God equal with the Father?

Answer: The Scriptures manifest that the Son and the Holy Ghost are God equal with the Father, ascribing unto them such names, attributes, works, and worship, as are proper to God only.

You can safely describe God as a Spirit (but not in the same sense as the person of the Holy Spirit). I don't see any reason you cannot describe God as a "being" because it is a very general term. But using "person" carries with it the connotation you acknowledged: that there may be others in the same category.
 

Peairtach

Puritan Board Doctor
I think the problem may be partly in abstracting the Divine Nature (Godhead or Godhood or Essence) from the Persons. This may be necessary in our speech and theological
formulations about God but in reality the Persons of the Triunity are not abstacted from the Divine Essence :2cents:
 

rbcbob

Puritan Board Graduate
I am comfortable with the Church’s historical formulations on the Trinity.

That being said I would comment on the language issue as mentioned in these posts. Whether we would insist on the word “Person” or “Being” or “Essence” or “Substance” to make our points it should be kept in mind that the Creator of all things and He to whom alone our worship is due is One.

Mark 12:29 Jesus answered him, "The first of all the commandments is: 'Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.

And yet He who is One consists in Three; Each of the Three are themselves God equally with the other Two. This is a deep mystery and far beyond the capacities of our human intellect. But understanding it is not required in order to believe it.
 

Afterthought

Puritan Board Senior
Thanks all! I suppose it is partially a problem of abstracting the nature from the persons, but it seems that would lead to one person speaking (e.g., the Father speaking as representing the Trinity) whenever God as Trinity spoke. Once again, I'll think on the answers some more and come back if I have further questions, though I'll be happy to hear any other comments!
 
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