God is One
We see in Scripture that the most fundamental confession of Israel in the Old Testament is "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one." (Deut 6:4) The language and confession is repeated as the most basic declaration of faith in 1Kings 8:60 and Isa 45:5-6 .
Then, in the New Testament, we see three names, that seem to be distinct, called God.
1) God the Father such as in 1 Cor 1:3
2) Jesus (also called the Son or Word) in places such as John 20:28, or John 1:1-14
3) The Holy Spirit in places such as Acts 5:3-4
How is it then, that God is one, and these three are God? The Early Church stuggled with this question, with many answers being posited by men such as Arius, Apollonarius, Sabellius and Athanasius. How do we speak of these three? How do we speak of this one?
The first answer we will look at is the one given by a man named Sabellius. His answer was simple, logical and seemingly true to the Biblical witness. It goes like this:
God is one
The Father is God
The Son is God
Because the Father is the Son
Sabellius would even start calling this Person of God the "Sonfather." It sees one God, with different modes or manifestations. in fact, if we read John 10:30, where Jesus declares "I and the Father are one" this explanation seems to have biblical support. Modalism appealed to some in the Early Church because:
– Preserves equal worth of Son and Father
– Maintains the Fully Deity of the Son
If we are searching for model for this explanation, we may think of water (and in fact, we may shutter to think this may have been how God was explained to us). You see, the Modalist will say, Water can be solid, liquid or gas manifesting itself as an ice cube, a glass of water or steam. Yet, it is all the same water.
Tertullian voiced many of the objections of the other leaders in the church to this teaching, because while Modalism helped explain some things, it also:
– Denies distinction of Father and Son
– Denies the distinct Personhood of Son
The explanation is too simple. If the Son and Father are the same, why does the Son who was on earth, teach us to pray to the Father who is in heaven? Why does the Son pray to the Father in the Garden? How is it that the Son and Father have different roles and actions (John 5:22) if they are the same person?
No, the church could not accept the denial of the division between Son and Father. Other means must be solicited.
Arius was a superb Biblical scholar. He used the technique taught in seminaries across the world: Let the New Testament aid in interpreting the Old Testament. Like a good evangelical, Arius placed his trust in his hermenutic. Finding that Paul had called Christ "the wisdom of God" in the New Testament, Arius knew he had been given the key to understanding the passage about wisdom in the Old Testament in Proverbs 8:12, 22. Here, wisdom personified declares: "The LORD brought me forth as the first of his works." This translation is based on the Greek translation of the Old Testament, and while the Hebrew has a meaning closer to "possessed me at the beginning of your works" still this translation persists today in the NIV and NET as alternative readings. Arius also pointed to the very word "begat" as proof that the Son was distinct, but a created being, divine and the greatest of God's creation, but not God.
Apolloniarius also had a theory of "Son as lesser being" teaching that Jesus was "adopted" at his baptism, when the Holy Spirit decended, as God's vehicle, Jesus then was a man who became God or divine. Yet, still not God as the Father is God.
What does it mean that the Son is Deity?
This is a difficult question, especially when facing the language of "begotten." Our favorite verse in America is John 3:16, containing the very word "begotten." Does this word mean? Very early in the history of the Church was the church father Irenaus. The apostle John had as a disciple Polycarp and Polycarp trained Irenaeus in the teaching of John. Irenaeus, even before Arius, taught what John meant by this word as communicating:
“The Father is God, and the Son is God, for whatever is begotten of God is God.”
If a human begets a son, it is human? Does it share the qualities that make the father human? Then if God begets a Son, then the Son is God in the same shared qualities of Deity. One of these qualities is Eternality. The Son himslef makes this claim as to himself in John 8:58. So also to say the Son is begotten of the Father and shares Eternality is to say there is no time in which the Son did not exist. There was never a time when the Son "was not." For the Son is I AM.
This understanding informs the Creed believed by the Church from 325AD to the present: The Nicean Creed in which it is confessed:
"We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made."
The bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, continued this argument after the Council issued this creed. Athanasius tried to answer: Why is this even important? Athanasius related this back to our salvation. For:
– Man has debt
– Man has no means to pay this debt
– God has means to pay debt
– God has no debt to pay
– Must be paid by a God-man
The denial of the full deity or full humanity of Christ, leaves us dead in our sins and without hope for salvation.
HOW DO WE SPEAK OF GOD?
Can we have a model for God? Can we speak of him as exactly like a Father and Son? Can we speak of Him as water? Augustine wrestled with the same problem and asked this rhetorically:
How can we find a model in nature for a God outside of nature (supernatural)?
The answer: We cannot. Yet, we also long to understand the one-ness and three-ness of God. To this end, we have this model from Augustine:
On the one-ness of God, the Early Church tried to answer when Jesus said "I and the Father are one," Jesus is saying they are one...what?
The word they settled on was "Ousia." This is translated as Substance or Essence. This is defined as Traits of Deity that are shared by Father, Son and Spirit, such as
As for the "Three-ness" of God, the word commonly used was that God is three in hypostasis. This is commonly translated as "Person." Basil simply defined hypostasis as “That which is spoken of distinctly." So:
Ousia - the common traits of God
Hypostasis - that which is spoken of distinctly
Another way to think of it is:
Ousia = What
Hypostasis = Who
We can see this simply defined in the Westminster Confession of our Church:
"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 eternally begotten of the
Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son. "
And even more importantly in the Nicean Creed, the creed of our common Christianity, confessed by Reformed, Lutherans, Methodists, Anglicans, confessional Baptists, Catholics and Orthodox everywhere:
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father [and the Son.] With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
If you are interested in more on this, my highest recommendation is for T.F. Torrence's "The Trinitarian Faith."