The Trinity and the Importance of Extra-Biblical Terminology

Trinity - Importance of Extra-Biblical Terminology

Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me,
in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 1:13).

Zacharias Ursinus
Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, pp. 129-133.


Essence, from the Greek ουσια, signifies, as it is here used, a thing subsisting by itself—not sustained by another, although it may be communicated to more. That is said to be communicable, or communicated, which is common, or which may be communicated to many. That is incommunicable in which nothing else can participate. The essence of man is communicable, and common to many men, generically, but not individually. But the essence of God is communicable individually, because the Deity or nature of God is the same and entire in all the three persons of the Godhead.

Person is that which subsists, is individual, living, intelligent, incommunicable, not sustained in another, nor part of another. Subsisting, by which we mean that it is not an accident, or a thought, or a decree, or a vanishing sound, or a created quality or motion. Individual, that is, not man generically, but individually, as this man. Living, something different from that which is inanimate, as a stone. Intelligent, not irrational, as the animal, which although it may have life and feeling, is nevertheless devoid of personality. Incommunicable, it cannot be communicated, as the divine essence, which may be in more than one, and be common to more than one—personality, however, is incommunicable. Not sustained by another, because it subsists by itself; for the human nature of Christ is subsisting, individual, incommunicable, intelligent, and yet it is no person, because it is sustained by the Word. So the soul of man subsists by itself, is intelligent, and not sustained by another, and yet it is no person, for the reason that it is a part of another subsisting individual. It is, therefore, added in the definition, nor part of another.

We may now readily perceive the difference between the Essence of God, and the Persons, subsisting in the divine essence. By the term, Essence, we are to understand, in reference to this subject, that which the eternal Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are considered, and declared to be, singly and absolutely in themselves, and which is common to the three. By the term, Person, however, we are to understand that which the three persons of the Godhead are considered and declared to be individually and relatively, or as compared with each other, and which they are according to the mode of existence peculiar to each. Or, we may define Essence as the very being of God—the very, eternal, and only Deity—whilst the term Person refers to the mode, or manner, in which the being of God, or the divine essence, subsists in each of these three. God the Father is that Being who is of himself, and not from another. The Son is that self-same Being, or essence, not of himself, but of the Father. The Holy Ghost is in like manner the self-same Being, not of himself, but from the Father and the Son. Thus the Being, or divine essence, of the there persons of the Godhead is one and the same in number. But to be of himself, or from another—from one, or from two; that is, to have this one divine essence of himself, or to have it communicated from another—from one or from two, expresses the mode of existence which is three-fold and distinct; to wit, to be of himself, to be begotten or generated, and to proceed; and hence, the three persons which are expressed by the term, Trinity.

The sum of this distinction between the terms Essence and Person, as applied to God, is this: Essence is absolute and communicable—Person is relative and incommunicable. This may be illustrated by the following example: It is one thing to be a man, and another thing to be a father; and yet one and the same is both a man and a father; he is a man absolutely and according to his nature, and he is a father in respect to another, viz: to his son. So it is one thing to be God, and another to be the Father, or Son, or Holy Ghost; and yet one and the same is both God, and the Father, or the Son, or the Holy Ghost; that in respect to himself, this in respect to another.

Addenda. The essence of a man who begets another is communicated to him who is begotten, but the person is not communicated; for he that begets does not bring forth himself, but another distinct from himself. The son, therefore, is not the father, nor the father the son, although both be real men. So in like manner the eternal Father hath by eternal generation communicated to the Son his essence, but not his person—that is, he begot not the Father, but the Son; neither is the Father the Son, or the Son the Father, although each is very God. Yet, although there is this resemblance, there is at the same time a great difference in the manner in which the divine essence, being infinite, and the human, being created and finite are communicated to another, which difference is to be carefully observed; for, first, in men, in the father and the son, the essence is as distinct as the persons themselves—the father and the son are not only two persons, but also two men distinct in essence. But in God, the persons are distinct, whilst the essence remains common, and the same; and therefore, there are not three Gods, but the Son is the same God in number which is the Father and the Son. Secondly, in persons created, he that begets doth not communicate his whole essence to him that is begotten, for then he should cease to be a man, but only a part is made over to him that is begotten, and made the essence of another individual distinct from him who begets. But in uncreated persons, he that begets or inspires, communicates his whole essence to him that is begotten, or that proceeds; yet so that he who communicates, retains the same and that whole. The reason of both differences is, that the essence of man is finite and divisible, whilst that of the Deity is infinite and indivisible. Wherefore, the eternal Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, constitute the one true God; and yet the Father is not the Son, or the Holy Ghost; neither is the Holy Ghost the Son; that is, they are one God—not three Gods, but three persons subsisting in one Godhead.

This distinction of essence and person is, therefore, to be observed, that the unity of the true God may not be impaired, or the distinction of persons be taken away, or something else be understood by the term person, than the truth which God’s word declares. Therefore these cautions are to be diligently observed:

1. That person, in relation to this subject, never signifies a mere relation, or office, as the Latins are wont to say, Principis personam tueri, to preserve the person of the prince, as formerly Sabellius falsely taught; much less does it signify he countenance or visible shape, representing the form or gesture of another; in which sense a stage-actor may play off the person of another, as Servetus of late years sported and trifled with the word person; but it signifies a thing subsisting truly distinct from others to whom it has a relation and respect, by an incommunicable property; that is, it signifies that which begets, or is begotten, or proceeds and not the office dignity, or rank of him that begets, or is begotten, or proceeds.

2. That the persons do not constitute something abstracted or separated from the essence which they have in common, nor that the essence is any fourth thing separate from the three persons; but each of them is the entire and self-same essence of the Divinity. But the difference consists in this, that the persons are each distinct from the other, whilst the essence is common to the three.

3. Concerning the word essence, it is also to be observed, that God or the Deity, or the divine nature, has not the same respect to persons as matter has to form, for the reason that God is not compounded of matter and form. We cannot, therefore, correctly say, that the three persons are or consist of one essence. Neither is it as the whole in respect to the parts, because God is indivisible; therefore, we cannot correctly say that the person is a part of the essence, or that the essence consists of three persons; for every person is the whole divine essence. Neither is it as the general to the particular, because essence is not the genus of the three persons, nor is person a species of essence. But God is a more common name, because the essence of the Deity is common to the three persons, and therefore may be affirmed of each of them. But the names Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are not applied in the same general way, because the persons are truly distinct, so that we cannot predicate the one of the other. We may, therefore, correctly say, God or the divine essence is the Father, is the Son, and is the Holy Spirit; also, the three persons are one God, or in one God; likewise, they are one and the same essence, nature, divinity, &c.; and again, that they are of one and the same essence, nature, &c. Yet, it cannot be properly said, that they are of one God, because there is no one of these persons that is not himself whole and perfect God. Wherefore the divine essence is in respect to the persons as that which is communicated in an extraordinary manner is in respect to those things with which it is common. There is, however, not a similar or exact example of communication in any thing created.

Trinity, from the Greek τριας, signifies these three persons, distinct in three modes of being, or existing in one essence of the Deity. But Trinity and triplicity, trinal and triple differ. That is called triple which is composed of three essences—trinal is that which is but one in essence, having three modes of being or subsisting. God is, therefore, trinal, but not triple, because he is only one in essence, but three in persons, existing most simply.


Heretics, formerly, already opposed the use of these terms, because they are not found in the Scriptures. We, however, correctly retain the form of speech used by the church in her early and purer days, by holding fast to these terms:

1. Because, although they are not found in the Scriptures in the very same syllables, yet words and forms of speech of very close affinity and similarity, yea, such as certainly signify the same thing, are found in the Scriptures; as where it is said, for instance, in Ex. 3:14, “I AM that I AM: he said, thus shalt thou say, I AM hath sent me unto you.” Again, it cannot be denied that the name Jehovah corresponds with the word Essence. So the word Hypostasis is used for person in the Epistle to the Hebrews 1:3, “Who being the express image of his person.” Neither does the church call the persons, the Trinity, in any other sense than that in which John says, “There are three that bear witness in Heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost.” (1 John 5:7.)

2. The object of interpretation requires that the words of Scripture should be expounded to those less learned by other words signifying the same thing and taken from common use; otherwise, all interpretation would be taken away, if no words but such as are found in the Scriptures were used. It is proper, therefore, that the church should invent and use such forms of speech as express significantly the sense of Scripture, and her own understanding of it.

3. Because the frauds and sophisms of heretics, which they generally attempt to cover with the words of Scripture, are the more easily discerned and detected, if the same things are expressed in different words. And it is on account of the brevity and perspicuity of these words and phrases, that heretics are not able to conceal their impositions and sophisms. If there were a full consent or agreement concerning the thing itself, there would be no difficulty about the use of the words. We abhor a logomachy or contention about words. Neither is the church at controversy with heretics and sectarists merely in regard to words, but it is concerning this doctrine, that the Eternal Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God; and yet neither is the Father or the Son, the Holy Ghost; nor is the Holy Ghost the Father or Son, &c. Were it not that heretics hold this doctrine in abhorrence, they would also easily admit the words. But they object to the use of the words because they do not receive the things expressed and signified thereby.

From these things we may easily answer this objection: Words which are not in the Scriptures, are not to be used in the church. These terms, such as Essence, &c., are not in the Scriptures. Therefore, they are not to be used. We reply to the major thus: Those things which are not in the Scriptures, neither as to the words nor as to the sense, are to be rejected. But in relation to the terms Essence, Person, and Trinity, as far as the things themselves are concerned, they are in the Scriptures, as hath been shown. Again, terms that are not found in the Scriptures must not be retained, if we are sure the omission of them will not endanger that which is expressed by them. But heretics seek nothing else than with the terms to reject the doctrine, or at least corrupt it.

It is also objected to the use of these terms, that they breed contentions. To this we reply that it does this only by accident, and with contentious heretics.


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