Argument for the Trinity #2: The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are Distinct Persons

This entry is part 4 of 14 in the series The Trinity Series

Here in part 2, we are going to address a second clear truth taught in Scripture, that of the distinct personhood of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This truth, of course, has its detractors as well as the previous one. Monotheism was challenged by the gnostics and pagans from the very earliest days of the Christian faith. The early gnostics even wanted to call themselves Christian, having incorporated Jesus into their system. The distinction between the Father and the Son was also challenged very early. Long before Arius was challenging the Deity of Christ, Sabellius was saying that Jesus was not only God, but just the same person as the Father, come in human flesh. His status as “Son” just referred to the fact that He had become human.

In addition to establishing that the Persons of the Trinity are indeed distinct, we will also be establishing that they are indeed Persons. There are no groups I’m aware of that deny that the Father is a Person and the Son is a Person, though some do think they are the same Person. Almost everyone who rejects the Trinity, however, also rejects that the Holy Spirit is a Person. So, we will be spending some time on that as well.

An Assumed Truth

There are some things that the Bible just assumes. These things it rarely, if ever, stated in a form that we would take as a specific teaching, but that does not make them less true. For example, with only very few exceptions, the Scriptures just assume God exists. There are no arguments for God’s existence in Scripture. There are a few texts that touch on belief that He exists, but that is not the norm. There is no verse that just says “God exists”. There is a verse about the fool believing He doesn’t, and there is a verse about how we should not expect prayer to be answered unless we believe He exists, but we are never just told, “God exists”. Now, should we doubt that He exists because we lack this particular text? Of course not. We don’t need that statement when we have numerous statements about what God has done, said, etc. We know Scripture affirms His existence because Scripture is really all about Him and His relationship with His creation.

This, I believe, is a powerful thing to understand when addressing the distinct Personhood of the members of the Trinity. When we take in all that the Scriptures have to say about these Persons, we cannot come to any other conclusion than that there are three Persons. In order to deny this truth, a person must have some other theological commitment that colors how they approach the text. For modalists like Sabellius in the early church or like Oneness Pentecostals today, that theological commitment is that, if Jesus is seen as a distinct Person from the Father, then He would be a second God, so they deny He is a second Person. The Unitarian believes the same thing as the Modalist, but concludes instead that Jesus is a separate person, but not God. I’ll address that view in another article.

The assumed truth I think the Scriptures contain is that personhood is expressed by its attributes, including will, speech, emotion, thought, action, morality, etc. If actions expressing these attributes are expressed toward another person, then another person exists. Of course, Scripture, like all literature, comes in many genres and there are certainly poetic Scriptures that symbolically apply personal characteristics to things that are not persons, and there is even speech directed at oneself in the Psalms that grammatically may look like there’s another person there (bless the Lord, oh my soul). Most of these are fairly obvious, though, and can see what is going on without complicated explanations. In narratives like the Gospels, or in didactic teaching epistles, we should not assume this kind of language is present without indications from the text itself.

The Distinctions of the Persons

In non-poetic sections of Scripture, then, what do we see assumed about the distinction between the Father and the Son? By far, the most common, clear testimony is that they are, indeed, distinct from one another. This is seen by the simple fact that they speak of each other as another person, that their actions are not identical, and that they personally relate to one another. Let’s look at some Scripture that shows this.

The Father speaks of the Son:

Matthew 3:16-17

16 Now after he was baptized, Jesus immediately went up from the water, and behold, the heavens opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove coming upon him. 17 And behold, there was a voice from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

The Son speaks of the Father:

John 5:19-22

So Jesus answered and said to them, “Truly, truly I say to you, the Son can do nothing from himself except what he sees the Father doing. For whatever that one does, these things also the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son and shows him everything that he himself is doing. And greater works than these he will show him, so that you will be astonished. For just as the Father raises the dead and makes them alive, thus also the Son makes alive whomever he wishes. For the Father does not judge anyone, but he has given all judgment to the Son,

Notice also that roles are closely tied, but distinct. It is not the Father who will judge, but the Son.

The Son speaks to the Father:

John 17:5

And now, Father, you glorify me at your side with the glory that I had at your side before the world existed.

This entire chapter is an extended prayer of the Son to the Father. The text gives no reason to suspect that Jesus isn’t really talking to someone else. Notice he also refers to possessing glory before the world existed. There is no indication that he only existed as a plan or something impersonal. He existed as a person distinct from the Father.

The Son is sent by the Father:

John 16:28

I have gone out from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father.”

The Son speaks of the Spirit:

John 14:16-17

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, in order that he may be with you forever — the Spirit of truth, whom the world is not able to receive, because it does not see him or know him. You know him, because he resides with you and will be in you.

Notice Jesus says that the Spirit isn’t just an Advocate (Helper, Counselor, etc.), but another one, implying both that Jesus Himself was also an Advocate and distinguishing between Himself and the Holy Spirit.

The Father sends the Spirit:

Acts 2:33

Therefore, having been exalted to the right hand of God and having received the promise of the Holy Spirit from the Father, he has poured out this that you see and hear.

So, the general testimony of Scripture is that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct, so why would someone come to the conclusion that they aren’t? As stated, it is generally believed that the main motivation for modalism is the preservation of monotheism. If you see that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are spoken of as God, but you want to make sure that you keep monotheism, this would be a “solution” that might come to mind. Indeed, it becomes even more understandable when you ask the average Christian to explain the Trinity to you. Quite often, they will describe something very much like modalism. They may say something like, “Well, I think of it like God is the Father, and he becomes human so that’s like the Son, and then when Jesus is resurrected, he sends the Spirit, so it’s sort of like I have different roles in my life, in my family, work, etc.” An unexamined Trinitarianism, in my experience, is often expressed as some form of modalism.

A conscious modalism, however, does appeal to certain texts to attempt to support its view. Let’s look at some of these.

John 14:9

Jesus said to him, “Am I with you so long a time and you have not known me, Philip? The one who has seen me has seen the Father! How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’

John 10:30

The Father and I are one.”

In general, I would say that all of these Scriptures also support the Trinity, since the Trinity does take all three Persons to be the same God, and that unity is so profound that the one God is also consistently (though not exclusively) referred to singularly, as “He”. So if you’ve seen Jesus, you’ve seen the Father, not because they are the same Person, but because they are the same God, and so seeing Jesus is as good as seeing the Father. For John 10:30, it is fairly clear that the fact that the Father and Son are one does not require us to say that they are one and the same Person. The Trinitarian says they are one God. Interestingly, the Greek (which is reflected in the English) has a plural verb there. “We are one”.

Now, taken alone, each of these statements does clearly link the Father, Son and Holy Spirit very closely. Scholar Richard Bauckham, a Trinitarian, even says that the Son shares the “identity” of the Father, while still maintaining that they are distinct Persons. The reason they do not convince most Trinitarians to abandon the Trinity is that they don’t nullify all of the Scriptures previously cited. Scripture cannot be set against Scripture, so, somehow, they must all be true.

The fact is, when speaking of the Persons in relation to one another, the Scriptures do not always categorize things neatly. They are not a technical manual. The fact is, the Bible contains statements that clearly distinguish the Persons, but then it also contains statements that either seem to identify one Person as another, or that speak of God as a single Person. How is all of this explained?

It may disappoint the reader to hear that I don’t have any simple explanations for why Scripture says things the way it does. As I said in a previous post concerning the Unitarian argument from logic, I find that, when it comes to the issue of understanding God from the Scriptures, everyone has an area where they can be questioned and not have very satisfying answers.

As we’ve seen above, from the general testimony that Jesus and the Father are distinct Persons, the modalist has to find ways to explain why the numerous affirmations of this personal distinction don’t mean what they clearly appear to mean. Now, the modalist doesn’t run into the same problems the Trinitarian wrestles with. The Trinitarian gets questions about just how it is that three can exist together as one, and the like. The modalist has freed himself from having to answer those kinds of questions by just rejecting that there are three at all. That simplifies things tremendously, but the cost is that the modalist now has a different set of challenges to wrestle with.

Namely, how the many, clear statements of Scripture differentiating the Father and the Son, in multiple genres (narrative, epistle, poetry, apocalyptic), are all supposed to be completely figurative, while the handful of enigmatic statements (I and the Father are one, if you’ve seen Me you’ve seen the Father) are full of clear meaning that the Father just is the Son. Not only do I think that’s a much harder task on its face. I also just think you are on much safer ground to be able to affirm everything Scripture says and have difficulty explaining how it all fits than to have a really simple, easy theological system that is at odds with multiple sections of Scripture.

I do think there are satisfactory explanations that Trinitarianism has to offer on the difficult questions, and I will talk about those in a later part of this series. For now, I would just say I’d rather be at odds with people who have philosophical problems with the Trinity than with the Words of God.

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