Of God and the Holy Trinity (2) | Robert Shaw

shaw_wcfThe Reformed Faith

An Exposition of the

Westminster Confession of Faith

Robert Shaw

Chapter II. Of God and of the Holy Trinity


Section 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 eternal begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.


We are here taught,–First, That in the one Godhead there are three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Secondly, That these three are distinguished by their personal properties. Thirdly, That each of these persons is truly God.

1. That in the one Godhead there are three persons, is affirmed in opposition to the Anti-Trinitarians, who maintain that God is one in respect of personality as well as of essence. The term which has been chosen to express the doctrine now under consideration is Trinity. This word is not to be found in Scripture, but it is a very appropriate and happy term to express this profound mystery. It is a compound Latin word, signifying three in unity; that is, three distinct persons in one undivided Godhead. The adversaries of this doctrine now call themselves Unitarians, by which they mean to intimate their belief of only one God, and insinuate that those who believe the doctrine of the Trinity must admit more than one God. But we maintain, as strongly as they, that there is only one God, and we think it perfectly consistent with this belief, to acknowledge three persons in the Godhead. This, indeed, is a mystery, but there is nothing in it absurd, or contradictory to reason. We do not say that three are one in the same sense and in the same respect in which they are three; that would, no doubt, be a plain contradiction in terms. But we say, they are three in one respect, on in another respect,–three in person, one in essence; and there is no absurdity in that at all. It surpasses our reason, indeed, fully to understand it; and so do a thousand things besides, which yet we know are true and real. But, if it be a doctrine clearly revealed in the Sacred Scriptures, we are bound to believe it, however incapable we may be of comprehending it.

Before proceeding to establish the doctrine, we must explain the terms employed. The word Godhead signifies the divine nature. This is a scriptural term.–Rom. i. 20; Col. ii. 9. In the Scriptures, and, agreeably to them, in our Confession, Godhead denotes that infinite, eternal, and unchangeable nature, or essence, which is not peculiar to the Father, or the Son, or the Holy Ghost, but common to all the three. The distinction in the Godhead is characterised by the word person. This term, in the common acceptation, denotes “a separate and independent being, whose existence and actions have no necessary connection with the existence and actions of any other being. It has been defined to be a thinking substance, which can act by itself, or an intelligent agent, who is neither a part of, nor sustained by another.” But this term, when applied to the Sacred Three, is not to be understood in exactly the same sense as when applied to creatures. The cases are totally dissimilar. “Three human persons have the same specific nature, but three divine persons have the same numerical nature. Anti-Trinitarians affirm, that, by holding three divine persons, we necessarily make three Gods, because they most unfairly maintain, in the face of our solemn protestations, that we affix the same idea to the word person which it bears when used in reference to men. But we deny that it has this meaning. We do not teach that there are three distinct essences mysteriously conjoined,–that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit possess, each of them separately from the others, a divine nature and divine perfections. What we believe is this, that there is a distinction in the Godhead, to which there is nothing similar in creatures, who are one in every sense of the term; and we employ the word person to express that distinction. It may be objectionable, because, being applied to other beings, it is apt to suggest an idea which is inconsistent with the unity of God; but this is the unavoidable consequence of the imperfection of human language; and we endeavour to guard against the abuse by declaring that, in this application, it must be qualified so as to exclude a separate existence. When we say that there are three persons in the Godhead, the word person signifies a distinction which we do not pretend to explain, but which does not intrench upon the unity of essence.”

The doctrine of the Trinity is not discoverable by the light of nature, or by unassisted reason. It can only be known by divine revelation, and it is amply confirmed by the Holy Scriptures. There are many passages in the Old Testament which prove a plurality of persons in the Godhead, such as those passages in which one divine person is introduced as speaking of or to another. To these we can only refer.–Gen. i. 26, iii. 22, xi. 7; Ps. xiv. 6, 7, cx. 1; Isa. vi. 8. All these texts plainly point out a plurality of persons in the Godhead. But it is evident from Scripture, not only that there is a plurality, but also that there is a Trinity, or only three persons in the Godhead. This is plain from Isa. lxi. 1, where our Divine Redeemer thus speaks: The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me,” &c. Here one divine person is the speaker; he speaks of another divine person, whom he styles the Spirit; and of a third divine person, whom he calls the Lord God. The work of creation is ascribed to the agency of three distinct persons, Ps. xxxiii. 6: “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth.” Here three are distinctly pointed out,–the Father; the Word, or the Son of God; and the breath of his mouth, which can be no other than the Holy Spirit. But in the New Testament this doctrine is still more explicitly revealed. In the history of our Lord’s baptism we have a plain intimation of the mystery of the Trinity.–Matt. iii. 16, 17. The Father, by an audible voice from heaven, bears testimony to the incarnate Redeemer; the Son, in human nature, is baptised by John; and the Holy Spirit: descends upon him in a visible manner. Hence the primitive Christians used to say to any who doubted the truth of this doctrine, “Go to Jordan, and there you will see the Trinity.” Plainer still is this truth from the form of words appointed to be used in Christian baptism,–”Baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” – Matt. xvi. 19. To baptise in the name of one, is to baptise by his authority, and dedicate to his service. This is competent only to a divine person. Now, if the Father, in whose name we are baptised, be a person, so must the Son, and the Holy Ghost, for we are baptised in their name, as well as in the name of the Father. The apostolic benediction furnishes another proof of a Trinity: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all.”–2 Cor. xiii. 14. “This is evidently a prayer, which it would be impiety and idolatry to address to any other but God. Yet three persons are distinctly addressed, and consequently are recognised as possessed of divine perfections; as knowing our wants, and hearing our requests, and able to do what we ask; as the fountain of all the blessedness implied in the terms, grace, love, and communion.” We have a most explicit testimony to this doctrine, 1 John. v. 7, “There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost, and these three are one.” The genuineness of this text has been much disputed; but the truth of the doctrine does not rest on a single text, as has been already shown.

Nor is the doctrine of the Trinity a mere-speculation. On the contrary, to use the language of Dr Dick, “without the knowledge of this doctrine it is impossible to understand the grandest of the works of God–redemption,–in which the three persons act distinct and conspicuous parts. We are called to contemplate the love of the Father, the condescension of the Son, and the gracious operations of the Spirit. Redemption is not the work of a solitary agent, but of three, all concurring in the salvation of our perishing race. Hence we owe gratitude to each of the persons of the Godhead distinctly, and are bound to give to each the glory to which he is entitled. We are baptised in their name, and consecrated to their service; and our prayers are addressed not to God absolutely considered, but to the Father, through the Son, and by the assistance of the Holy Ghost. It appears, therefore, that the Christian system of duty is founded upon this doctrine, and that without the belief of it there can be no acceptable religion. So far is it from being useless, that it is the very foundation of practical piety.”

II. The Sacred Three are distinguished from each other by their personal properties. It is the personal property of the Father to beget the Son.–Ps. ii. 7. It is the personal property of the Son to be eternally begotten of the Father.–John. i. 14. It is the personal property of the Holy Ghost to proceed eternally from the Father and the Son.–John xv. 26; Gal. iv. 6. These are called personal properties, to distinguish them from the essential perfections of Deity. Essential perfections are common to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, but a personal property is something peculiar to each, something which may be affirmed of one, but cannot be affirmed of the other two. Paternity is peculiar to the first person, filiation to the second, and procession to the third. We pretend not to explain these personal properties; here, if in anything, it is safest to abide by the language of Scripture.

III. Each of the Sacred Three is truly God. That the Father is God is admitted on all hands; it is, therefore, unnecessary to prove what no one denies. But the Deity of the Son was controverted and denied at an early period of the Christian Church. The Arians, who arose in the beginning of the fourth century, held that the Son had a beginning, and is a creature, though in antiquity and excellence superior to all other creatures. The Socinians, who sprung up towards the close of the sixteenth century, went further than the Arians. They held that the second person had no existence till he was formed in the womb of the Virgin, and that he is called the Son of God because God employed him to propagate divine truth by his ministry, and to confirm it by his death, and advanced him, after his resurrection, to the government of the universe. The modern Socinians, who call themselves Unitarians, the disciples of Dr Priestley, have gone still further in degrading the Son of God. They maintain that Christ is a mere man, that he was the human offspring of Joseph and Mary, that he is no proper object of religious worship, but only the most excellent of human characters,–the most eminent of all the prophets of God. They go along with the old Socinians in maintaining that Jesus had no existence prior to his birth, but they disclaim the notion of Socinus, that, since his resurrection, he has been advanced to the government of the universe; and contend that, as he differed in no respect from other men in his mode of coming into the world, so he can have no dominion or superiority over men in the world of spirits. In opposition to adversaries, earlier and later, our Confession asserts that the Son is God, of one substance, power, and eternity, with the Father. This might be evinced by a great variety of arguments, which we can only indicate in a very summary manner.

1. Divine names are applied to him. He is expressly called God,–John i. 1, Rom. ix. He is called the mighty God,–Isa. ix. 6; the true God,–1 John v. 20; the great God, – Tit. ii. 13. The Lord, or Jehovah, the incommunicable name of God, is frequently applied to the Son, – Isa. vi. 1, applied to Christ,–John xii. 41; Isa xl. 3, applied to Christ,–John i. 93; Numb. xxi. 6. 7, applied to Christ,–1 Cor. x. 9.

2. Divine attributes are ascribed to the Son no less than to the Father. Eternity is asscribed to him, – Mic. v. 2; Rev. i. 8; omniscience, – John ii. 24, xxi. 17; omnipresence,–Matt. xxviii. 20; omnipotence,–Rev. i. 8; Phil. iii. 21; immutability, – Ps. cii. 25-27, compared with Heb. i. 10-12, and xiii. 8.

3. Divine works are ascribed to him. The production of all things out of nothing, John i. 3; the preservation and government of all things,–Col. i. 17; Heb. i. 3; John v. 17,27, the purchasing of eternal redemption, – Heb. ix. 12; the forgiveness of sins,–Mark ii. 5; the raising of the dead at the last day,–John v. 28, 29; the judging of the world.–Rom. xiv. 10.

4. We are commanded to give the same divine worship to the Son that is due to the Father. The established law of worship is, “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.” But divine worship is expressly commanded to be rendered to the Son. John v. 23. Angels, the highest of created beings, are enjoined to worship him, – Heb. i. 6; and we have numerous instances of divine worship being given to him.–Acts vii. 59; 2 Cor. xii. 8; 2 Thess. ii. 16.

5. As an additional proof that the Son, no less than the Father, is the supreme God, it may be observed, that he is expressly affirmed to be equal with the Father. He claimed equality with God, and for so doing was accused of blasphemy by the Jews; yet he never charged them with misconstruing his words, but appealed to his works in proof of his claim.–John v. 18, x. 30, 38. He thought it no robbery to be equal with God,–Phil. ii. 6; and his eternal Father acknowledges him to be his fellow and equal.–Zech. xiii. 7.

We may here observe, that when Christ saith that “his Father is greater than he” (John xiv. 28), he does not mean that he is greater with respect to his nature, but with respect to his office as Mediator; in which respect Christ sustains the character of the Father’s servant, and acts in virtue of a commission from him.–Isa. xlii. 1. But as the second person in the undivided Trinity, he is in all respects equal to his Divine Father.

The divinity of the Holy Spirit is also denied by Socinians; but it may be evinced by the same arguments which prove the Deity of the Son.

1. Divine names are ascribed to the Spirit equally with the Father and the Son. He is called God. In Acts v. 3, Ananias is said to “lie unto the Holy Ghost;” and in ver. 4 he is said to “lie unto God.” True Christians are said to be temples of God, inasmuch as “the Spirit of God dwelleth in them.”–1 Cor. iii. 16. The name Jehovah is also given to him.–Isa. vi. 8, 9, compared with Acts xxviii. 25.

2. Divine attributes are ascribed to the Spirit. Eternity is ascribed to him,–Gen. i. 1, 2; omnipresence, – Ps. cxxxix. 7; omniscience,–1 Cor. ii. 10,11. In fine, the apostle attributes to the Spirit the most sovereign will andomnipotent power.–1 Cor. xii. 11.

3. Divine works are ascribed to the Spirit. Creation is ascribed to him, in reference to the world in general, and to man in particular.–Gen. i. 2; Job xxxiii. 4. The preservation of all things is as much the work of the Spirit as of the Father and the Son. – Ps. civ. 30. The application of redemption is peculiarly ascribed to the Spirit.–Tit. iii. 5; 1 Cor. vi. 11.

4. Divine worship is ascribed to him. Prayer, one of the most solemn parts of worship, is addressed to him.–Rev. i. 4, 5. By the seven spirits, in this passage, are not intended any created spirits, but the third person of the Godhead, who is so called on account of the variety and perfection of his gifts and graces. Baptism is administered in the name of the Holy Ghost, as well as in the name of the Father and the Son; and the apostolic benediction is pronounced in his name. – 2 Cor. xiii. 14.

The same glory, then, is due to the undivided Three, – to the Son no less than to the Father, and to the Holy Spirit equally with the Father and the Son.


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