Stephen Charnock v. Ebenezer Erskine on the Father as the fountain of the deity

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Reformed Covenanter

Cancelled Commissioner
In my reading this Sabbath afternoon, I noticed that Ebenezer Erskine expressed his dislike of referring to God the Father as the "fountain of the deity", but I am just after reading Stephen Charnock's affirmation of this very phrase. Charnock said, "The Father being the root and fountain of the deity, all actions are originally ascribed to him, though common to all; so he is first in order of being, as he is first in order of working." (Works, 4: 543). Erskine expressed his dissent from this terminology:

Some orthodox divines, when speaking of the Trinity of persons in the glorious Godhead, are pleased to say, that the Father is the fountain of the Deity. I do not love that way of speaking; for I think the whole Deity, including the three persons, are their own fountain and original; and that the eternal generation of the Son, and procession of the Holy Ghost, are essential to the Deity; and that the whole Deity is originally in every one of these sacred and divine persons; and that it is inconsistent for anything that is God, to be an inferior or independent being. (Works, 2: 253-54)

What do you make of Erskine's comments?

Reformed Covenanter

Cancelled Commissioner
FYI: Erskine was battling with Arians in the Church of Scotland around the time of making this remark. Professor John Simson was suspended by the General Assemblies of 1727 and 1728 for a year before it permanently suspended him from teaching a Glasgow University in 1729. Erskine made the above comment in 1734.

Ed Walsh

Puritan Board Senior
What do you make of Erskine's comments?

Psalm 36:9
7 How excellent [ Heb. precious] is thy lovingkindness, O God! therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of thy wings.
8 They shall be abundantly satisfied with the fatness of thy house; and thou shalt make them drink of the river of thy pleasures.
9 For with thee is the fountain of life: in thy light shall we see light.

A Few Thoughts from Westminster SC, Fisher's Catechism, and Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and William Lorimer, plus a Link to a Google Search:

Westminster Shorter Catechism:
QUESTION 6. How many persons are there in the Godhead?
ANSWER: There are three persons in the Godhead, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory.

Fisher's Catechism on WSC Q. 6:
Q. 29. Is it proper to say, that the Father is the fountain of the Deity?
A. The expression is dangerous, and now used by adversaries in an unsound sense, to exclude self-existence and independency from the Son and Holy Ghost, and therefore is to be avoided.

Excerpts from An Unpublished Essay on the Trinity by Jonathan Edwards:
I shall only now briefly observe that many things that have been wont to be said by orthodox divines about the Trinity are hereby illustrated. Hereby we see how the Father is the fountain of the Godhead, and why when He is spoken of in Scripture He is so often, without any addition or distinction, called God, which has led some to think that He only was truly and properly God. Hereby we may see why in the economy of the Persons of the Trinity the Father should sustain the dignity of the Deity, that the Father should have it as His office to uphold and maintain the rights of the Godhead and should be God not only by essence, but as it were, by His economical office.

Hereby is illustrated the doctrine of the Holy Ghost. Proceeding [from] both the Father and the Son. Hereby we see how that it is possible for the Son to be begotten by the Father and the Holy Ghost to proceed from the Father and Son, and yet that all the Persons should be Co-etemal. Hereby we may more clearly understand the equality of the Persons among themselves, and that they are every way equal in the society or family of the three.

They are equal in honor: besides the honor which is common to them all, viz., that they are all God, each has His peculiar honor in the society or family. They are equal not only in essence, but the Father's honor is that He is, as it were, the Author of perfect and Infinite wisdom. The Son's honor is that He is that perfect and Divine wisdom itself the excellency of which is that from whence arises the honor of being the author or Generator of it. The honor of the Father and the Son is that they are infinitely excellent, or that from them infinite excellency proceeds; but the honor of the Holy Ghost is equal for He is that Divine excellency and beauty itself.

'Tis the honor of the Father and the Son that they are infinitely holy and are the fountain of holiness, but the honor of the Holy Ghost is that holiness itself. The honor of the Father and the Son is [that] they are infinitely happy and are the original and fountain of happiness and the honor of the Holy Ghost is equal for He is infinite happiness and joy itself.

The honor of the Father is that He is the fountain of the Deity as He from Whom proceed both the Divine wisdom and also excellency and happiness. The honor of the Son is equal for He is Himself the Divine wisdom and is He from Whom proceeds the Divine excellency and happiness, and the honor of the Holy Ghost is equal for He is the beauty and happiness of both the other Persons.

By this also we may fully understand the equality of each Person's concern in the work of redemption, and the equality of the Redeemed's concern with them and dependence upon them, and the equality and honor and praise due to each of them. Glory belongs to the Father and the Son that they so greatly loved the world: to the Father that He so loved that He gave His Only Begotten Son: to the Son that He so loved the world as to give up Himself.

But there is equal glory due to the Holy Ghost for He is that love of the Father and the Son to the world. Just so much as the two first Persons glorify themselves by showing the astonishing greatness of their love and grace, just so much is that wonderful love and grace glorified Who is the Holy Ghost. It shows the Infinite dignity and excellency of the Father that the Son so delighted and prized His honor and glory that He stooped infinitely low rather than [that] men's salvation should be to the injury of that honor and glory.

It showed the infinite excellency and worth of the Son that the Father so delighted in Him that for His sake He was ready to quit His anger and receive into favor those that had [deserved?] infinitely ill at His Hands, and what was done shows how great the excellency and worth of the Holy Ghost Who is that delight which the Father and the Son have in each other: it shows it to be Infinite. So great as the worth of a thing delighted in is to any one, so great is the worth of that delight and joy itself which he has in it.

Our dependence is equally upon each in this office. The Father appoints and provides the Redeemer, and Himself accepts the price and grants the thing purchased; the Son is the Redeemer by offering Himself and is the price; and the Holy Ghost immediately communicates to us the thing purchased by communicating Himself, and He is the thing purchased. The sum of all that Christ purchased for men was the Holy Ghost: (Gal. 3:13,14) "He was made a curse for us... that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith."

From a Sermon by George Whitfield - In favor of the phrase:

From A plain Explication of the First Eighteen Verses of the First Chapter of the Gospel of John - by William Lorimer - Against the phrase;

A Google Search for These and More Resources:

That outta keep you busy for a while. :)


Reformed Covenanter

Cancelled Commissioner
Thanks, @Ed Walsh; those sources look very useful. The extract from Fisher's Catechism would also appear to suggest that the Arians in the CofS were using that phrase for heretical purposes.


Puritan Board Graduate
As I understand it, this is the same concern Robert Reymond had with the Nicene Fathers’ use of “very God from very God” in the Creed. If aseity is essential to deity, then the Son and the Spirit must be a se—not deriving their deity from the Father, only their Person.


Unshaven and anonymous
Staff member
Since the 18th century saw a large scale apostasy into defective Trinitarian doctrine, it's not surprising that any phrasing that could ostensibly be used in support of that apostasy fell into disfavor. But the language of fons deitatis is not meant to imply any inferiority of one person to another, but to preserve the unity of the Godhead. Clearly, Erskine recognizes that it's possible to use it in an orthodox way, even if his polemical context made it an inconvenient term.


Puritan Board Junior
In these sorts of questions I'd give the benefit of the doubt to the Scottish divines. (Another example would be over the issue of the "covenant of redemption" being conceived of as a distinct covenant from the covenant of grace.)

Not to say that the earlier divines were wrong, per se, but that the danger in their formulation of these concepts wasn't so clearly seen at the time. It has been said to me that there was a chasteness and carefulness in the theology of the Second Reformation divines in Scotland and their immediate successors (Boston and his contemporaries) which is perhaps sometimes lacking in the puritans.
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