How Many Persons Are There in the Godhead? (WSC Q. 6)

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The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are equally and fully God—the same in substance, equal in power and glory. This triunity is the glory of our incomprehensible God. Thanks be to God, who has revealed himself to us in the Bible in all of his trinitarian glory. For what mind could have conceived this, nor even discovered it, save for the gracious revelation of God?

How Many Persons Are There in the Godhead?

Rev. Matthew J. Stanghelle
March 29, 2020

If God is one, how can he also be three? The study of this mystery is known as the doctrine of the Trinity. Last week we explored the unity of God. There is but one God only, the living and true God. God is one. But if God is one, how can we worship Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? What does it mean that God is three in one? 

Question 6 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism unpacks the doctrine of the Trinity in summary form. It reflects historic Christianity. All three branches of Christendom affirm the substance of this statement: Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant.

But why do we need to study this doctrine? We need to consider this doctrine because it is vital for sound, biblical faith. At the root of every heresy is an unbiblical view of God. Those who reject the Bible’s teaching about God are liable to make shipwreck of their faith and to take many souls with them. False teachers fill the pages of the New Testament epistles who did just that (cf. 2 Pet. 2; Jude). Therefore, we must affirm and grow in our understanding of the biblical doctrine of the Trinity.

But there is something even more important than that. More importantly, knowing God is the greatest human pursuit, and it is the key to joy. Jesus prays to the Father, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent…But now I am coming to…that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves” (John 17:3, 13). As we study the Trinity, we come to know God. We come to know the interrelationship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Knowing God not only leads to eternal life, but it also leads us to the fountainhead of joy. If we get the Trinity wrong, we get everything wrong. Eternal life is to know God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Question 6 will help us do that.

Q. 6. How many persons are there in the Godhead?   
A. 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.         

—Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 6

Question 6 reflects historic, biblical orthodoxy on the doctrine of the Trinity. To get a better understanding of this doctrine, we will look at the answer in two parts.

God Is Three-in-One

The doctrine of the Trinity is the mystery of all mysteries. How can God be one and three at the same time? It defies all logic and analogy. God is one, and God is three. You can’t make this stuff up. The doctrine of the Trinity is one of those doctrines that make you realize the choice you have. To know God rightly, you can either rely on what you want God to be in your heart or mind, or what the Bible says he is. So what does the Bible say? The Bible teaches that God is three-in-one—one God in three persons.

First, the Bible gives us the name of God. As we have seen in recent weeks, passages like Exodus 3:14-15 and Exodus 34:6-7 teach us that the divine name of God is Yahweh (YHWH). That name is understood as, “I AM WHAT I AM” in Exodus 3:14. That definition is expanded in Exodus 34:6-7,

The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

—Exodus 34:6-7

So, God has a name. His name is Yahweh (or the older rendering, Jehovah). All modern English translations use the word “LORD” in all caps to reflect when it translates Yahweh. Translating Yahweh as “LORD” is a sign of respect that goes back to the Israelite tradition. They called Yahweh “Adonai,” which means ‘Lord,’ to avoid taking the name of God in vain. So, God has a personal name, and his name is Yahweh. We saw last week in Deuteronomy 6:4 that Yahweh is one. Yahweh is one God, not many.

But the Bible teaches that one God is also three persons, and these three persons have names also. Each person of the Godhead has several names. A name study of each member of the Trinity would yield great devotional value. I commend it to you. In basic form, the Bible refers to the three persons of the Godhead as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For example, we read in Matthew 28:19,

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.         

—Matthew 28:19

Another example is Paul’s benediction in 2 Corinthians 13:14,

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. 

—2 Corinthians 13:14

Both of these texts reflect the “threeness” of the one God by teaching us the names of each person of the Trinity.

Second, the Bible teaches us that each member is divine. God is the Father. Take Paul’s words for example,

The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything… Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “ ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “ ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’   

—Acts 17:24-25, 28

So also, God is the Son. The writer of Hebrews quotes two Psalms to show that Jesus is Yahweh. Citing Psalms 45 and 102, he writes,

But of the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever… And, “You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands.”        

—Hebrews 1:8, 10

The Bible also teaches that God is the Spirit. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 3,

Now the Lord is the Spirit.        

—2 Corinthians 3:17

In this way, the Bible clearly teaches that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God. So far, so good. 

Third, but now we come to the difficult question. What is the relationship between these three persons? Confusion over the relationship of the members of the Trinity is where many errors have plagued the church. What follows are eight historic heresies concerning the Trinity, or one, or all of, the three persons of the Godhead. These were all identified as heresies by the early church, but they still rear their ugly heads from time to time throughout church history.

Docetism. Docetism teaches that Jesus was wholly divine and that his manhood was an illusion.

Arianism. Arianism teaches that Jesus is inferior to the Father in his divinity. In other words, this position teaches that Jesus is less than God the Father but more than man. This view is sometimes called “subordinationism.”

Dynamic Monarchianism. This position teaches that Jesus was a man who became God when God the Father adopted him.

Modalism. Modalism teaches that God takes on three modes. Sometimes God works in the mode of Father, sometimes in the Son, and sometimes in the Spirit. This view of God can be compared to a play with one actor. The one actor wears three different masks. God plays each part in the divine play. So there is only one person behind it all, not three. Modalism makes the Trinity more or less an illusion. This view is also called “Sebellianism.”

Apollonarianism. Apollonarianism teaches that Jesus is fully God and partially man.

Nestorianism. Nestorianism teaches that Jesus was two persons: fully God and fully man. This view is opposed to the orthodox formula that Jesus is one person with two natures: fully God and fully man.

Monophysitism. Monophysitism teaches that Christ’s deity absorbs Jesus’ humanity. In other words, Jesus only has one nature, not two. This view is also known as “Eutychianism.”

Monothelitism. Monothelitism teaches that Jesus has only one will. This view is opposed to the orthodox teaching that Jesus has two wills—one divine and one human.

Now, this is a crash course on early church heresies. You would be well off studying these at greater length. Once you do, you will see these errors cropping up still today. Today’s cults and false teachers that claim to be Christian are rooted in one or more of these heresies.

I share these heresies with you to simply say that the relationship of the persons is complicated. Nevertheless, the three major branches of Christendom have stood in lockstep agreement since the first four ecumenical councils. That is, the councils of Nicea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451). These four councils settled the issues surrounding the Trinity. They dealt with the natures of each person of the Godhead. Particular emphasis was given to Christ’s deity and incarnation.

All Three Persons Are Equally and Fully God

Question six of the Shorter Catechism simply reflects the orthodox, historical interpretation of the Bible’s teachings. Namely, that all three persons of the Trinity are the same in substance, equal in power and glory.

Orthodox Christianity, as we find in the Catechism, affirms that the Son is just as much God as the Father. There is no subordination. Likewise, the Spirit is just as much God as the Father and the Son. There is no inferiority. In respect to the ‘Godness’ of each person, they are the same in substance, equal in power and glory.

But what about Jesus saying things like, ‘Not my will, but yours be done’ (cf. Luke 22:42). Doesn’t this show that Jesus’ will is subordinate to the Father? What we have to understand here is that Jesus does many things as our human mediator (1 Timothy 2:5). As our representative, Jesus did everything that we failed to do. He did that as a man. Therefore, he submits to the Father. But that is in his human nature. In his divine nature, he shares the same will as the Father. So when we read the Bible, we need to discern when Jesus is speaking as our human mediator. 

More of this will be unpacked when we get to the doctrine of Christ later in the catechism. But if you miss that, you start down the path of Arianism by teaching that Jesus is eternally subordinate to the Father. That is a dangerous idea. You may also go down the path of Monothelitism, which explains that Jesus has one will distinct from the Father. This position leads to Tritheism, which is the worship of three individual gods. 

What you need to know here is that as the early church wrestled with the Bible’s teaching about the Trinity, they concluded that all three persons are the same in substance, equal in power and glory. You need to know this because some well-known evangelical theologians are teaching things like Jesus’ glory is lesser than the Father’s glory. Some are teaching that Jesus is eternally subordinate to the Father in respect to his role (called “Eternal Functional Subordination”). But what these theologians are doing is confusing Jesus’ role as human mediator with his nature as God. I have heard from some Norwegians that this teaching has led to the Monothelite heresy being revived here in Norway.

We could flesh out many of these heresies in the Word of Faith, Prosperity, and New Apostolic Reformation movements. If you want a good place to dive in, I would recommend the documentary entitled, American Gospel produced by Shawn Rech and Brandon Kimber.

By way of application, I would encourage you to study the four major creeds that deal with these issues: The Apostles’ Creed (3rd-4th century A. D.), the Nicene Creed (A. D. 325; revised A. D. 381), the Chalcedonian Creed (A. D. 541) and the Athanasian Creed (4th-5th century). Each of these creeds adds to the Biblical testimony concerning the persons of the Godhead being the same in substance, equal in power and glory. I close with two excerpts from these creeds.

The Nicene Creed teaches us about the divinity of the Son and Spirit:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten* Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father… And we believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified.  

—Excerpts from the Nicene Creed

Likewise, the Athanasian Creed underscores the divine equality of each member:

And the catholic* faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons nor dividing the Substance. 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. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Ghost uncreated. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three Eternals but one Eternal. As there are not three Uncreated nor three Incomprehensibles, but one Uncreated and one Incomprehensible. So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Ghost almighty. And yet they are not three Almighties, but one Almighty. So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods, but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not three Lords but one Lord. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord, So are we forbidden by the catholic religion to say, There be three Gods or three Lords.    

The Father is made of none; neither created nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created, but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son: neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity none is before or after other; none is greater or less than another; But the whole three persons are coeternal together, and coequal: So that in all things, as aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.

—Excerpt from the Athanasian Creed

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are equally and fully God—the same in substance, equal in power and glory. This triunity is the glory of our incomprehensible God. Thanks be to God, who has revealed himself to us in the Bible in all of his trinitarian glory. For what mind could have conceived this, nor even discovered it, save for the gracious revelation of God?

Beloved, this God has made us. This God has saved us, and this God will bring us to himself at the end of days. There we will worship him in glory forever. And to that end, we can praise him with the hymnist,

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty…God in three Persons, blessed Trinity.   

—Reginald Heber, Holy, Holy, Holy