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Three in Person

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
July 7, 2021 12:01 am

Three in Person

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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July 7, 2021 12:01 am

Some people claim that the Trinity is a contradiction. How can God be one when He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Today, R.C. Sproul teaches that the doctrine of the Trinity is no contradiction, but it is a profound mystery.

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How can God be one, yet three?

It may seem to be contradictory because we're saying God is one essence and three persons, and we are accustomed in our vantage point as human beings to see one being is one person. Now to that extent, the doctrine of the Trinity in this formulation is mysterious. And it's a mystery that has caused many to scratch their heads in frustration. How do we understand such a difficult topic?

Today on Redoing Your Mind, we continue Dr. R.C. Sproul's series on systematic theology, and we'll learn that while the doctrine of the Trinity is mysterious, it is by no means a contradiction. Some time ago I had a conversation with a professor of philosophy in one of the American universities, and he told me that he was an atheist and that he couldn't understand how any intelligent person could embrace Christianity because at the very heart of the Christian system of thought was a manifest contradiction.

And I said, well, what's that? And he said, well, the doctrine of the Trinity. He said the doctrine of the Trinity is a contradiction, and intelligent people don't embrace contradictions.

I said, well, I agree with part of that. I grant you that intelligent people ought not to embrace contradictions, though many of them often do. I agree with you that intelligent people should not embrace contradictions. I said, but what surprises me is that you would classify and categorize the Christian doctrine of the Trinity as a contradiction. Not that it's surprising to me that people do that from time to time, but what surprises me is that you are a professor of philosophy, and you are doing this because I'm assuming here, perhaps erroneously, that as a professor of philosophy you've been well trained in the science and discipline of logic and know enough about logic to know its fundamental premise, the law of non-contradiction, and are carefully trained to know the difference between a contradiction and a paradox.

Now, let's look at it. I said, I grant that the formula for the Trinity is paradoxical, but it is by no means contradictory, and let me show you why. The historic formula is that God is one in essence and three in person. I said to my philosophy professor friend, I said, certainly you can see that what this formula is saying is that God is one in one thing and three in something else. Now, to break the law of contradiction, one would have to say that God is one in essence, and only one in essence, and God is three in essence, or saying God is one and only one in person, and at the same time say that God is three in person, because the simple definition of the law of non-contradiction is that something cannot be what it is and not be what it is at the same time and in the same way or in the same relationship. Now, I can be a father and a son at the same time, but not in the same relationship. I cannot be my own son or my own own grandson.

That's obviously impossible. And so when we look at the formal categories of rational thought, we see objectively, I hope, that this formula is not contradictory, and this was one of the things that the church struggled with profoundly in the first four centuries in order to be faithful to the clear teaching of Scripture that on the one hand God is one, and on the other hand that Christ is divine, that the Father is divine, and that the Holy Ghost is divine. Now, that's no mean feat to be able to resolve this apparent contradiction, because at first glance it looks as if the Christian community was confessing faith in three gods, which would violate the principle of monotheism that was so deeply entrenched in the Old Testament. Well, let's look at the word paradox for a moment. The word paradox is based upon a Greek root and a Greek prefix. The prefix para means basically alongside of. You've heard of para-church ministries, you've heard of para-troopers, para-medics, para-legals.

They're people that work alongside of other people, and so para-bull is something that Jesus throws alongside of a teaching that He gives to illustrate a point. Well, para means alongside, and the word docs here comes from doctors. Paradox are two doctors.

Right, Roger? Paradox is two doctors. Paradox, hmm?

No. No, the word here comes from the Greek word docane, also from which the heresy of docetism is known and derived from this same word. And that verb, in its verb form, means to seem, to think, or to appear. Now, so from those words we get the idea of a paradox is something that when placed alongside of something else seems or appears to be contradictory. But when you look at it more closely and subject it to careful scrutiny, you see that in fact it is not a contradiction. And that's what I was asking this professor of philosophy to do with respect to the Christian formula for the Trinity. It may seem to be contradictory because we're saying God is one essence and three persons, and we are accustomed in our vantage point as human beings to see one being is one person. We can't conceive of how one being could contain three persons and still only be one being.

Now, to that extent, the doctrine of the Trinity in this formulation is mysterious. Nobody's arguing that point, and it boggles the mind to think of a being who is absolutely one in his essence of what he is, and yet within that single essence are three persons. Now, we also have to talk about the meaning of these two terms because, again, why this seems to be contradictory is because we have a tendency to see these terms, essence and person, as virtual synonyms because this man is a being. He's a human being, but he's also a person, and we again, as I said, we are accustomed to thinking one person per being.

Unless he has multiple personalities, then we take him to the psychiatrist at this point, but we think one being per person, one person per being. Now, the concept of essence comes from the Greek word, again, another Greek word. It comes from the Greek participial form of the verb to be, which is the word ousia, which means being or substance, or my favorite translation of this in the vernacular is the word stuff.

When I was going to school in Holland and I had to learn the Dutch language, of course, my priority was to learn the theological language, but my wife's priority was to learn what they call the house town in Kuykentel, that is the house and the town and the kitchen language so that she could go shopping and make a different distinction between a turnip and a green bean. And so she was visiting herself with that sort of thing. And of course, one of the appliances that one would use in a culture that was meticulous and finicky about cleanliness was a vacuum sweeper. But the word for vacuum sweeper in Dutch was the word stufsakker, which literally means a stuff sucker.

These people are really imaginative in the way they name their new products. Well, what's that thing? Well, it's a stuff sucker, you know, what do you think it is?

Look at it. It sucks up all the stuff that you find on the floor. Now, we're going to give it a much more sophisticated, ontological, metaphysical term than stuff sucker, but I like that word stuff because what is the stuff? I mean, this is what's the stuff of which you were made? What is the stuff that distinguishes a human being from an antelope or an antelope from a grape?

A grape from God. There is the stuff of deity, the essence, the usia, the substance of what God is in Himself. And what the church was saying is that God is one essence.

There's only one stuff. There's not part of God here, and then separated from that is another part of God over here. That would be two beings, and God is only one being. And so, what do we mean then about saying that God is one in being, but three in person?

Well, that's a little more difficult. Part of the problem we have with it is that when this formula was derived in the early church, it was derived from the Latin roots of the word person that we get, and the word was persona, and its primary function in the Latin language was as a legal term or as a term that was used in the dramatic arts. You're all familiar with the trademarks for the world of drama, the twin masks indicating tragedy and comedy. You've got a smiley face for comedy, and you've got a frowny face for tragedy, and they are portrayed in masks fit over an actor's face. I remember a long hundred years ago when the modern version of the book of Job was cast into a play that was held on Broadway called J.B. And in that play, one distinguished actor played two different roles, and it was Basil Rathbone who played the Sheriff of Nottingham in the classic Robin Hood and who played, of course, for all those years with Nigel Bruce. He played Sherlock Holmes. Well, Basil Rathbone played the role in J.B. of God and of Satan.

And when I went to see that when I was in high school, we had tickets that were literally front row center. I could have reached out and tapped Basil Rathbone on the arm while he was doing this performance, but what was so vivid to me in my recollection of that performance was that when he would change identities in the play, when he would indicate that he was being God, and that he was being God, he would hold up a mask in front of his face that was the mask of God, and he would speak through that mask as he assumed the personality or the character of God. Then when he was Satan or the devil, he would hold up a different mask, and this followed the ancient custom in Greek drama as well as in Roman plays. It was customary for actors that were highly trained to play more than one role in a play.

They were doing something from Euripides, for example, or so on. Somebody could have more than one part. Now, the way they did it then was to distinguish their persons by speaking through these masks, and the Latin word for the mask was the word persona. So that when people like Tertullian, for example, first spoke of this formula of the Trinity and talked about one being three personae, he was saying that there are three roles in the play. Three roles, as it were, that God is playing here that is manifested on the one hand as Father, and the other hand as Son, and the other as the Holy Spirit. And so the point of all of that is that the idea of person in this formula does not correspond exactly to our English concept of personality, because again for us, one person means one distinct being. Now in technical theology, in order to make the distinction in the Godhead among the persons of the Trinity, other terms have been used.

My favorite one, which I think is most helpful and I hope is not confusing to you, is the word subsistence. Now that's probably not a word you're too familiar with in terms of its theological use. You may hear it from time to time with respect to somebody's eking out a living on a very poverty-level form of existence. In fact, we call that extreme level of poverty, what, a subsistence, that they're basically surviving, they are not existing, they're subsisting. And we're indicating that subsistence as a below par level of life.

Okay? Now again, the reason why we sense this as something low or below something else is because of that prefix. We all know what the prefix sub means. It means under or below. A submarine was not an airplane in World War II. It was a boat that went where?

Under the water. There you go. All right. So now what about this systems here? Well, we see the common term between subsistence and existence. When we use the term existence, it's a common daily word that we use, and yet it's one that's filled to the brim with all kinds of philosophical and theological assumptions. I gave a lecture once at an Orlando conference where the whole point of my lecture was to deny as emphatically as I could and as categorically as I knew how the existence of God. And when I began that lecture, I said, what my task is today is to convince you folks that God does not exist. Came this gasp from the ground. What are you talking about? What kind of game are you playing with?

I'm not playing. I said, the worst thing that could ever happen to us is to discover that God exists in the specific meaning of the term exist, because the term exists in our language, has derived etymologically from the Latin ex esteri, which means, ex means out of, and esteri means to stand. So somebody who exists is somebody that's outstanding, but outstanding in what sense? Well, what was meant by this word philosophically centuries ago, going all the way back to Plato and before Plato, was the idea that there is being pure and simple, and pure being depends on nothing for its ability to be. It is eternal. It has the power of being within itself. It is by no means creaturely. The thing that characterizes creaturely existence is not being, is not being, but becoming, because the chief character trait of all creatures is they change.

Whatever you are today, you will be different ever so slightly tomorrow, and today you're that much different from what you were yesterday if it's only that you're 24 hours older than you were at this time yesterday. Now the idea of existence says to exist is to stand out of something, and the idea meant to stand out of being, so that something that exists is something that has one foot in being and the other foot in becoming or in non-being. Unless it's connected somehow to being, it couldn't be. We wouldn't be human beings.

We'd be human becomeings. If it were had both feet in being, it couldn't be a creature. Now the point I'm saying is that we don't want to think of God like this. If you ask me, is God, I say yes, of course God is. But does He exist?

Not in this sense, because that would make Him what? A creature, a dependent, derived existence, but rather we say God is here. God is being, not becoming, not changing. He is eternally the same, and so we say there's one being. Now within that being are not three separate existences.

Remember the difference in the prefix. Exist means to stand out of being or non-being, but the word that the theologians use with respect to the Trinity is not the word three existences, but three subsistencees. That is, underneath the pure being of God, at a lower dimension, we must distinguish among these subsistencees, which the Bible calls Father, Son, Holy Ghost. Not three existences, not three beings, but rather three subsistencees within that one eternal being that is God. And so we can say that the distinction among the three persons is a necessary distinction because the Bible makes the distinction, and it is a real distinction, but we say it's not an essential distinction. Uh-oh. What do you mean, it's not an essential distinction? You mean to be mean by that? It's not important that we make the distinction, and it doesn't matter, it makes no difference whether we believe in a Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

No, no, no. Sometimes we use the term essential to mean what? It's so important that without it you don't have what you need to have, and it's absolutely crucial to possessing what it is you want, and in that sense it's essential, meaning supremely important.

But when I say that the differences among the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit are real, but not essential, I'm being more specific and precise with respect to the word essential, saying these represent real differences within the Godhead, but not within the essence of deity itself, one being three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. That's Dr. R.C. Sproul helping us better understand the Trinity. We're working our way through R.C. 's series, Foundations, this week here on Renewing Your Mind, and we're glad you've joined us.

I'm Lee Webb. We're concentrating on the Trinity this week, but the entire series covers so many other essential doctrines, like the atonement, sin, salvation, angels and demons, and the return of Christ. We'd like for you to have this 8-DVD set, more than 23 hours of teaching. When you call us with your gift of any amount, we will send it to you.

Our number is 800-435-4343, but you can also make your request online at Thank you for being with us today, and before we go, I wanted to let you know there are a number of ways you can listen to the program. For example, when you go to, you'll see ways to listen. One of those is through email. Just enter your email address, and you'll receive a link in your inbox every day. Learn more at God is absolutely different than us. We will learn about God's incommunicable attributes, those attributes that He possesses alone. That's Thursday, here on Renewing Your Mind.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-09-24 10:11:58 / 2023-09-24 10:19:48 / 8

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