“Blogging the Institutes” is my on-going attempt to paraphrase John Calvin’s work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. You can find out more about the series in the Introduction. For all the posts in this series, check out the Master List.
God in Three Persons
There is another special mark by which God designates Himself in order to give more knowledge of His nature. While God proclaims His unity, He sets it up as existing in three persons. These truths must take hold us. Otherwise, knowledge of God will only flutter on top of our brains without actually implanting itself within us. Moreover, I don’t want anyone to think that we worship three Gods. Nor do I want anyone to think that God’s united and simple essence is divided in three ways among the persons. Therefore, we must seek a brief and easy definition to guard us from error. Some people criticize the use of the term “person” in discussion of God as being a merely human invention. Let’s consider whether this is so.
When the author of Hebrews calls the Son of God “the exact imprint of His nature (hupostasis)” (Hebrews 1:3), he assigns to the Father some mode of existence (“subsistence”) in which He differs from the Son. Some interpreters argue that the term is equivalent to “essence” as if the Son represented the essence of the Father like a seal upon wax. Such an interpretation is absurd. God’s essence is simple and undivided. It is contained in Himself entirely, with full perfection, without being divided up or diminished. It is therefore ridiculous to call it His express image.
The Father can distinguished by His own particular properties. Yet, He has wholly expressed Himself in the Son. He is therefore said to have rendered His person (hupostasis) manifest in the Son. Such a statement fits perfectly with what comes next in the verse–that Christ is the “brightness of His glory.” The implication is that there is a proper subsistence (mode of existence) of the Father which is reflected by the Son. From this, it is easy to see that there is a kind of subsistence/mode of existence/person of the Son which is distinguished from the Father. The same is true for the Holy Spirit. He is God. He is also a separate subsistence/personhood from the Father. This is not a distinction of essence (“God-ness”). If we take the author of Hebrew’s words seriously, then we will come to believe that there are three persons in God.
The Latin word persona has been used in the same way that the Greek word hupostatis was used. We must not argue over these terms. The most literal translation would be “subsistence.” Many theologians have used the word “substance” to mean the same thing as “subsistence,” i.e. “person.” The person wasn’t confined only to the Latin church. The Greek church has taught that there are three “aspects” (prosopa) in God. All the churches, no matter what terms they use, are united in the same belief!