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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15

The Tri-Unity of God

J. M. Pendleton

From Christian Doctrines: A Compendium of Theology, 1878

While the Bible teaches the unity of God—that there is one and only one God—it also teaches that in the one Godhead there is a distinction of persons. The distinction is threefold. It is such as to justify the use of the terms Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The recognition of these three persons as equally belonging to the Godhead is in theology styled the Doctrine of the Trinity.

The idea intended to be conveyed by this term is that of three in one. It is not meant that the three divine persons are three in the sense in which they are one, or that they are one in the sense in which they are three. I have seen no better definition of the term Trinity than I find in Webster's Dictionary—namely, "The union of three persons (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) in one Godhead, so that all the three are one God as to substance, but three persons as to individuality."

It must be admitted that the word person in its Trinitarian sense is not wholly free from objection, but it seems to be understood by orthodox writers that there is no better word. The objection is that it cannot be used in its common acceptation as applied to human beings. It needs modification. For example, person in the ordinary use of the term means a distinct and independent being, so that one person is one being, and a hundred persons are a hundred beings. But the Godhead there are three Persons and one Being. The dissimilarity in the two instances is manifest.

The doctrine of the Trinity is one of mysterious grandeur, which defies the comprehension of every finite mind, and must be received as true on the authority of the Bible. The wisest men have most readily confessed their inability to explain Trinity in Unity or Unity in Trinity. Prof. Moses Stuart well remarks, in his second letter to Dr. Channing:

"What, then, you will doubtless ask, is the specific nature of that distinction in the Godhead which the word person is meant to designate? I answer, without hesitation, that I do not know. The fact that a distinction exists is what we have; the specific definition of that distinction is what I shall by no means attempt to make out. By what shall I, or can I, define it? What simile drawn from created objects, which are necessarily derived and dependent, can illustrate the mode of existence in that Being who is underived, independent, unchangeable, infinite, eternal? I confess myself unable to advance a single step here in explaining what the distinction is. I receive the FACT that it exists, simply because I believe that the Scriptures reveal the FACT.

“And if the Scriptures do reveal the fact that there are three persons in the Godhead; that there is a distinction which affords grounds for the respective appellations of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; which lays the foundation for the application of the personal pronouns, I, Thou, He; which renders it proper to speak of sending and being sent; to speak of Christ as being with God, being in his bosom, and of other things of the like nature in the like way, and yet to hold that the divine nature equally belongs to each — then it is, like every fact revealed, to be received simply on the credit of divine revelation." (Miscellanies, p. 23)

It has by some been made an objection to the doctrine of the Trinity that the word is not to be found in the Bible. This is true, but there is no weight in the objection if what is meant by the term is there; and this I shall attempt to show. I merely notice, without enlarging on the fact, that in the Old Testament, in several places, when God speaks the plural number is used, as in the following passages: "Let us make man in our image;" (Gen. 1:26) "Behold the man is become as one of us;" (Gen. 3:22) "Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language;" (Gen. 11:7) "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us ?" (Isa. 6:8)

These forms of expression are certainly peculiar, and there is nothing incredible in the supposition that they were used as intimations of a plurality of persons in the Godhead—a fact to be distinctly revealed in the New Testament. The teachings of Christ and his apostles are too plain to be misunderstood. In Matthew 28:19, Jesus says, "Go ye therefore, and teach [disciple] all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." I shall enter into no critical examination of the import of the phrase "in the name," nor inquire whether it might be more properly rendered "into the name." It is enough for my present purpose to notice that baptism is connected with the name of every person in the Godhead.

There is no consistent interpretation of the language which does not place on equality the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. If the Deity of one of these persons is recognized, there is a recognition of the Deity of the three. It is impossible to make a valid distinction as to equality and sameness of nature. The Deity of the Father will be acknowledged by all who believe there is a God. This point, then, is settled. Now, as to the Son and the Holy Spirit, who could without a shudder hear of the name of angel or archangel as substituted in place of the name of either? Why? Because of the blasphemous inconsistency of exalting creatures to an equality with God.

But the name of the Son and the name of the Holy Spirit are joined with the name of the Father, and the conjunction is so important that the validity of baptism is inseparable from it. The doctrine of the Trinity must be true.

Some, conceding the personality of the Father and of the Son, have supposed the Holy Spirit to be an "energy" or an "influence." To show the absurdity of this view it is only necessary to point to the absurdity of baptizing in the name of an "energy" or an "influence" in connection with baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son. It is plain that the reference, in the last commission of Christ, to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, is a reference to persons, and not to energies or influences.

The doctrine of the Trinity is distinctly brought to view in 2 Cor. 13:14: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost be with you all." These words constitute what is usually called the apostolic benediction, and they are an invocation. The love of God the Father is in yoked. This is too manifest to be denied.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ is also mentioned, as is the communion of the Holy Spirit. It transcends all belief that the grace of the Son and the communion of the Spirit are referred to in immediate connection with the love of God the Father if the three persons are not the same in sub-stance and equal in glory. Should the names Gabriel and Michael, conspicuous among angelic spirits, be put in place of the names Lord Jesus Christ and Holy Spirit, all who reverence the Scriptures would revolt from the blasphemous substitution. They would protest against the elevation of the highest order of creatures to an equality with God. In the benediction, however, the Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are invoked as well as God the Father—a fact which shows the equality of the three persons.

In Ephesians 2:18 we read, "For through him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father." Here the three persons of the Godhead are referred to, and the passage confirms the view already presented. In Revelation 1:4, 5 we have this remarkable language: "Grace be unto you, and peace from him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven spirits which are before his throne; and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful Witness."

As seven was the perfect number among the Jews, we are to understand by "the seven spirits" the Holy Spirit in the plenitude of his gifts, in the completeness and diversity of his beneficent operations. If this view is correct, the point to which special attention is called is that grace and peace are sought from the Holy Spirit and from Jesus Christ, as well as from him "which was, which is, and which is to come." These, last words indicate existence from eternity to eternity, one of the attributes of Supreme Deity; and as Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are named in conjunction with him who was, is, and is to come, the irresistible inference is that they are equally divine.

The argument in favor of the doctrine of the Trinity supplied by the use of the personal pronouns, "I, Thou, He," is worthy of some expansion. The passages in the Bible are almost numberless in which God, in referring to himself, says, I, mine, and me: "As truly as I live, saith the LORD;" (Num. 14:28) "I am the LORD;" (Gen. 15:7) "All souls are mine;" (Ezek. 18:4) "Every beast of the forest is mine;" (Ps. 50:10) "Beside me there is no saviour;” (Isa. 43:11) "Prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts." (Mal. 3:10)

There are passages, too, in which the Father and the Son say to each other thou, thee, and thine: "Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee;" (Ps. 2:7) "Thou hast loved righteousness;" (Heb. 1:9) "As thou hast given him power over all flesh;" (John 17:2) "All mine are thine, and thine are mine." (John 17:10)

While the Father and the Son address each other in the use of the personal pronouns, thou, thee, and thine, the Spirit is referred to as he and him: "But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things" (John 14:26); "He shall glorify me" (16:14); "The Comforter whom I will send unto you." (15:26). It is needless to multiply proofs that the Spirit was to be sent by the Father and the Son. The Father is said to have sent the Son into the world, but neither the Son nor the Spirit is ever said to have sent the Father.

The Son is represented as becoming flesh and dying, but this is not true of the Father and the Spirit. In view of these significant facts it is obvious that there is such a threefold distinction of persons in the Godhead as to justify and to require the use of the terms Father, Son, and Spirit. Nor does this threefold distinction conflict with the unity of God, for the three persons are one in substance, while they are three in individuality. These two truths present unity in Trinity.

It may be well, before dismissing this topic, to notice that equality of nature may consist with inequality in office. The most zealous Trinitarian will admit that while the three persons of the Godhead are equal in nature and in essential glory, there is, on the part of the Son and the Holy Spirit, official inferiority. There are various scriptures in which the Father is represented as supreme in office. That is, the Son and the Spirit act in subordination to him. For this reason God is said to have sent his Son into the world, and the Son is said to have come in the flesh. Here we have inferiority, in the sense that he who is sent is inferior to him who sends.

The Son is also recognized as the servant of the Father, for it is said, "Behold my servant whom I have chosen." (Matt. 12:18) As the servant is subordinate to the master, so was the Son subordinate to the Father. Christ said again and again, "I came to do the will of him that sent me." (John 6:38) As doing the will of another denotes inferiority, so Christ in doing the will of the Father appears as his inferior. But the inferiority is in office, not in nature; the subordination is official, and does not touch the divine substance. Here there is perfect, undisturbed equality.

What I have said of the second person of the Godhead may be said substantially of the third. When God the Father says, "I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh," (Acts 2:17) when he is said to "give the Holy Spirit," (Luke 11:13) and when Jesus says, "But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you," (John 15:26) there is manifest reference to inequality of office. There is the sublimest equality of nature.

Official inferiority and natural equality may be easily illustrated. The President of the United States is officially superior to any and every man in the nation. All the men who hold office are, so far as official position is concerned, inferior to him. No one aspires to be his equal. But in nature every citizen of the republic is his equal—that is, every citizen possesses the same human nature. Equality in nature and inferiority in office are therefore exemplified in matters both human and divine.

In contemplating the doctrine of the Trinity as an unspeakable mystery, we must ever guard against looking on it as a profitless speculation, without practical influence. The very fact that the subject is so far above our comprehension should inspire us with reverential modesty and humility. The highest flights of reason cannot reach it, yet the doctrine is among "the true sayings of God." (Rev. 19:9) Alas, how little we know about how God is infinite—for we are finite, and can know but little of him and the mode of his existence.

Where we cannot understand, let us wonder and adore. The economy of redemption seems to have been arranged in recognition of a distinction of persons in the Godhead, and hence the three persons are represented as acting their respective parts in the great work. It is our privilege to consider the love which had been lodged in the Father's bosom from eternity as expressing itself in the gift of his Son; to contemplate the Son as pouring forth his soul unto death, thus procuring redemption by his blood; and to rejoice in the work of the Spirit in renewing the heart, sanctifying the soul, and fitting it for heaven.

We should never forget that in baptism there is avowed consecration to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the Trinity, as it is recognized in baptism, has much to do with experimental and practical piety. Far, far from us be the idea that the existence of three persons in the Godhead is a barren speculation. It is a truth both mysterious and grand, and its influence should be eminently salutary.

One of its effects should be the stimulation of desire on the part of Christians to be one even as the three persons of the Godhead are one. Who can think of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as one—one in nature, one in love, one in purpose—and not hope for the day when the intercessory prayer of Christ will be answered in the union of all his followers?