One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life

One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781433528422
Publisher: Crossway
Publication date: 04/30/2015
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Bruce A. Ware (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) is professor of Christian theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has written numerous journal articles, book chapters, book reviews, and has authored God's Lesser Glory, God's Greater Glory, and Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

John Starke is the pastor of preaching at Apostles Church in New York City, New York. He is the coeditor (with Bruce Ware) of One God in Three Persons. He is married to Jena and has three children.

Wayne Grudem(PhD, University of Cambridge; DD, Westminster Theological Seminary) is distinguished research professor of theology and biblical studies at Phoenix Seminary, having previously taught fortwenty years at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is aformer president of the Evangelical Theological Society, a member of the Translation Oversight Committee for the English Standard Version of the Bible, the general editor of theESV Study Bible, and has published overtwenty books.

James M. Hamilton Jr. (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is professor of biblical theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and preaching pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church. He is the author of God's Glory in Salvation through Judgment and the Revelation volume in the Preaching the Word commentary series.

Michael A. G. Haykin (ThD, University of Toronto) is professor of church history and biblical spirituality at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and director of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies. He has authored or edited more than twenty-five books, including Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church.

Robert Letham(PhD, University of Aberdeen) is director of research and senior lecturer in systematic and historical theology at Wales Evangelical School of Theology. A Presbyterian minister with twenty-five years of pastoral experience, he is the author of books such as The Work of Christ; The Holy Trinity; and Union with Christ, and a range of articles published in encyclopedias and journals.

Andrew David Naselli(PhD, Bob Jones University; PhD,Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is associate professor of New Testament and theology at Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, Minnesota and an elder of Bethlehem Baptist Church.

K. Scott Oliphint (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) is professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and has written numerous scholarly articles and books, including God With Us. He is also the co-editor of the two-volume Christian Apologetics Past and Present: A Primary Source Reader and Revelation and Reason: New Essays in Reformed Apologetics.

Michael Ovey(1058–2017) was principal of Oak Hill Theological College for ten years. He receiveda PhD in Trinitarian theology from King’s College, London.

Read an Excerpt


Doctrinal Deviations in Evangelical-Feminist Arguments about the Trinity


Several evangelical-feminist authors have denied that the Son is eternally subject to the authority of the Father within the Trinity. These authors include Gilbert Bilezikian, Rebecca Groothuis, Kevin Giles, and Millard Erickson. More recently, some additional essays have supported this view, especially essays by Phillip Cary, Linda Belleville, Kevin Giles (again), and Dennis Jowers.

In reading these arguments, I noticed that they contained important doctrinal deviations either in what was said or in what was implied by the form of argument used. The arguments either deviated from the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, or rejected the authority of Scripture. The following essay explains those deviations.

Arguments That Deviate from the Orthodox Doctrine of the Trinity

Denying the Trinity by Denying Any Eternal Distinctions between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

Essential to the doctrine of the Trinity, as taught in the Bible, is the idea that there is a distinction between the persons of the Trinity. The Father is not the Son; the Father is not the Holy Spirit; and the Son is not the Holy Spirit. They are three distinct persons. They are equal in deity, so that each person is fully God. And there is only one God. Yet within the one being of God himself, there are three distinct persons.

But several recent evangelical-feminist writers are unwilling to specify any distinctions between the persons. This is a significant deviation. For example, rather than agreeing that the names "Father" and "Son" indicate a distinction between the persons, several evangelical feminists argue that these names show only that the Son is like the Father, not that he is distinct from the Father in any way. Millard Erickson writes, "There is considerable biblical evidence, however, that the primary meaning of the biblical term Son as applied to Jesus is likeness rather than subordinate authority. So, for example, the Jews saw Jesus' self-designation as the Son of God as a claim to deity or equality with God (e.g., John 5:18)."

Similarly, Kevin Giles objects that the names "Father" and "Son" "are not used in the New Testament to suggest that the divine Father always has authority over the Son. They speak rather of an eternal correlated relationship marked by intimacy, unity, equality, and identical authority."

But if "intimacy" and "identical authority" were all that Jesus wanted to indicate by calling himself Son and calling God his Father, he could have spoken of "my friend in heaven" or "my brother in heaven" or even "my twin in heaven." Those images were ready at hand. But he did not. He spoke of "my Father in heaven." Emphasizing likeness in deity only, while failing to specify any distinction between the persons of the Trinity, is a failure to affirm any distinction between the three persons, which is one important aspect of the doctrine of the Trinity. This failure alone is a significant doctrinal deviation.

Denying the Trinity by Claiming That an Act of Any One Person Is Actually an Act of All Three Persons

Even more troubling is the tendency of evangelical feminists to claim that any action taken by any person in the Trinity is an action of all three persons in the Trinity. When faced with many biblical texts that show that the Son is always subject to the Father (see list under "Ignoring Verses That Contradict Your Position" below), and not the Father to the Son, Millard Erickson proposes a different solution. He suggests that an act of any one person in the Trinity is actually an act of all three persons: Erickson says that "an overall principle can be formulated." He states it this way:

Although one person of the Trinity may occupy a more prominent part in a given divine action, the action is actually that of the entire Godhead, and the one person is acting on behalf of the three. This means that those passages that speak of the Father predestining, sending, commanding, and so on should not be taken as applying to the Father alone but to all members of the Trinity. Thus they do not count as evidence in support of an eternal supremacy of the Father and an eternal subordination of the Son.

But the way Erickson argues this is to point out that some of the actions of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are done by more than one person. For example, he shows that both the Father and the Son are involved in sending the Holy Spirit into the world after Pentecost (p. 125). He shows that both the Son and the Father are involved in judging the world (p. 126). Both the Son and the Holy Spirit intercede before the Father (p. 126). The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all indwell those who believe in Christ (pp. 126–27). The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all give gifts (pp. 128–30). The Father and Son love the world (pp. 130–31). Both the Father and the Son receive prayer (pp. 131–32).

Erickson concludes, "The various works attributed to the different persons of the Trinity are in fact works of the Triune God. One member of the Godhead may in fact do this work on behalf of the three and be mentioned as the one who does that work, but all participate in what is done" (p. 135).

But these verses hardly prove Erickson's point. Yes, it is true that both the Father and the Son send the Holy Spirit into the world. But the Holy Spirit does not send the Holy Spirit into the world. And yes, both the Son and the Holy Spirit intercede before the Father, but the Father does not intercede before the Father.

As for actions that are directed toward people in the world, such as loving the world, judging the world, and indwelling believers, it is true that all three persons are involved in some way. But that does not prove Erickson's point, because the real issue is the relationship between the Father and the Son within the Trinity. And on that issue the testimony of Scripture is clear that the Son consistently, throughout eternity, submits to the authority of the Father.

This is manifest even in some of the passages that Erickson appeals to. At one point he says that it is not only the Father who predestines some to be saved, but Jesus also elects some to salvation. This is because Jesus said, "The Son gives life to whom he will" (John 5:21), and, "No one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him" (Matt. 11: 27). Erickson concludes, "It appears that Jesus chooses those to whom he reveals the Father."

It is remarkable that Erickson mentions these texts, because in the very context of both of them, Jesus attributes superior authority to the Father, authority by which he carries out this activity of choosing as the Father has directed. Just before John 5:21, Jesus says, "The Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing" (vv. 19–20). A few verses later Jesus says, "I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me" (v. 30). Erickson does not mention these verses, which occur in the same context.

And then in the next chapter, Jesus also says that those who come to him are the ones the Father has chosen:

All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. (John 6:37–39; see also vv. 44, 65; 8:28)

Therefore the Son only "chooses" in conjunction with what he has been shown of the will of the Father. As for Erickson's other passage, Matthew 11:27, the beginning of the verse (which Erickson does not quote) says, "All things have been handed over to me by my Father."

Therefore the testimony of Scripture on this matter is consistent. When the Son chooses people for salvation, he is simply following the directives of the Father. He is not acting independently of the Father's authority. Yes, both Father and Son participate in choosing, yet their actions are not identical but distinct. The Father chooses; the Father shows the Son who has been chosen, and the Son chooses those who have been given to him by the Father (John 6:37).

What is even more troubling about Erickson's argument is that he seems to deny any difference between the persons of the Trinity. In this section he is arguing against the idea that the Son has eternally been subject to the authority of the Father. Erickson is trying to nullify that by denying that some things done by the Son are not also done by the Father and the Spirit. Erickson wants to make any such discussion impossible.

But in order to make his point, he is apparently saying that the actions of any one person of the Trinity are the actions not just of the whole being of God, but of every person in the Trinity. And to say this is to deny what is taught by literally hundreds of passages of Scripture that speak of different actions carried out by different members of the Trinity.

For example, at the baptism of Jesus at the river Jordan, God the Father was speaking from heaven, saying, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased" (Matt. 3:17). God the Son was not speaking from heaven saying those words. Nor was the Holy Spirit speaking those words. In fact, God the Son was being baptized in the person of Jesus (v. 16), and the Holy Spirit was "descending like a dove and coming to rest on him" (v. 16). God the Father was not being baptized, nor was the Holy Spirit being baptized. The Son was not descending like a dove, nor was the Father descending like a dove. It simply confuses the teaching of Scripture to say (or imply) that all three persons of the Trinity are doing each particular action. But this is what Erickson seems to be saying.

Of course, Erickson is able to show some passages in which more than one member of the Trinity participates in a certain action. Certainly it is true that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all come to live within a believer. Of course it is true that both the Father and the Son are somehow involved in sending the Spirit into the world and in judging the world. But this simply proves that some activities are done by more than one person. It does not prove that all activities are done by all the persons at the same time.

More significantly, none of Erickson's examples of the persons acting together show the one-directional kind of activity between two members of the Trinity where one person initiates the activity and the other person receives the activity. For example, the Father sends the Son into the world. But this is not an activity done by all three persons. It would be contrary to the biblical texts to say that the Son sends the Father into the world, or that the Son sends the Son into the world, or that the Holy Spirit sends the Father into the world, or that the whole Trinity sends the whole Trinity into the world. This is simply not the way Scripture speaks, and it is contrary to what Scripture teaches. When Erickson begins to speak in this way, he strays into speculation that seriously conflicts with the teaching of Scripture.

Similarly, God the Son took on human nature and, in the person of Christ, died for our sins. The Father did not die for our sins. The Holy Spirit did not die for our sins. It was the Father who gave the Son to die for our sins. And it was the Father who put on the Son the penalty that we deserved for our sins.

Erickson is aware that in attributing an action of any person of the Trinity to "the entire Godhead," so that "those passages that speak of the Father predestining, sending, commanding, and so on should not be taken as applying to the Father alone but to all members of the Trinity," he is coming very close to an ancient heresy called "patripassianism." This heresy said that the Father also suffered for our sins on the cross. The ancient church condemned this view because it obliterated the differences among the members of the Trinity.

So Erickson attempts to guard himself against the same mistake. He says, first, "It was the Son who died on the cross, but in a very real sense, the Father and the Spirit also suffered." But then Erickson immediately says, "This is not the ancient teaching of patripassianism. This is referring to the other persons' sympathetic suffering and the Son's actual suffering on the cross. Probably most parents have experienced this in seeing the pain of their child and in a very real sense feeling that pain themselves."

But as Erickson attempts to escape from patripassianism, he has to admit that the Son was suffering on the cross in a way that the Father and Spirit were not suffering. It was the Son who bore the penalty for our sins, not the Father and not the Spirit. It was the Son who bore the wrath of God the Father that we deserved against our sins, not the Father and not the Holy Spirit.

If this is true, it means that in order to avoid this ancient heresy, Erickson actually shows that the specific suffering of Christ on the cross was an action that he undertook himself, not an action that the Father and Spirit carried out in the same way. What is troubling is that Erickson will not explicitly acknowledge a difference in the actions of the Father and the Son; he only points out a similarity, speaking of sympathetic suffering. What Erickson gives with the right hand he takes back with the left. In the end he still insists that the actions of any one person are the actions of all three persons: "Those passages that speak of the Father predestining, sending, commanding, and so on should not be taken as applying to the Father alone but to all members of the Trinity. Thus they do not count as evidence in support of an eternal supremacy of the Father and an eternal subordination of the Son."

To say this is actually to obliterate the differences among the members of the Trinity. Although Erickson disavows patripassianism, he does not escape from but rather affirms the same kind of error with regard to all other actions of any person of the Trinity. And at this point it is hard to distinguish what Erickson says from the ancient heresy of modalism, the view that there is only one person in God who manifests himself in different ways or "modes" of action.

Erickson's view here is certainly inconsistent with hundreds of texts that show unique activities carried out by the individual persons of the Trinity. So, as with patripassianism, we are back to asking, how does Millard Erickson avoid modalism in his explanation? The answer is not clear. If all three persons do every action in the same way, then there is no difference at all between the persons. And if there is no difference between the persons, then we no longer have the doctrine of the Trinity. Such a significant doctrinal deviation coming from a widely respected evangelical theologian is very troubling.

At this point someone may object that the whole being of God has to be involved in every action of each person of the Trinity. I agree with this, because each person of the Trinity is fully God, and part of the deep mystery of the Trinity is that the very being (or substance) of each person of the Trinity is equal to the whole being of God. So when one person of the Trinity is acting, it is also true, in some sense that we only understand very faintly, that the entire being of God is acting. This is because of what is sometimes called "perichoresis," the idea that each of the persons of the Trinity is somehow present "in" the other two persons. Jesus said, "the Father is in me and I am in the Father" (John 10:38).

But this truth is not what Erickson means, because he is arguing not that the whole being of God is somehow involved in every action, but that the action of any one person is also in the same way an action of the other two persons, so that any action done by one person is also done by the other two persons. This is something Scripture never teaches and the church has never held. And it is something that means we no longer have the doctrine of the Trinity. We have modalism.

Another evangelical-feminist author to go this direction is Sarah Sumner. She at first seems to affirm the orthodox doctrine of the subordination of the Son to the Father, but then modifies it with a novel proposal: "So then, to whom is Christ finally subjected? God. Christ the Son is subject to the triune God of three persons. The Son is subjected to 'the God and Father.' And in that sense, the Son is subjected to himself. This is the doctrine of the Trinity."

But this is not the doctrine of the Trinity. To say that "the Son is subjected to himself" is the ancient heresy of modalism. If we are to maintain the doctrine of the Trinity, we may not erase the distinctions between the persons or preclude that one person in the Trinity does something the others do not.


Excerpted from "One God in Three Persons"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Bruce A. Ware and John B. Starke.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1 Doctrinal Deviations in Evangelical-Feminist Arguments about the Trinity WAYNE GRUDEM,
2 "I Always Do What Pleases Him" The Father and Son in the Gospel of John CHRISTOPHER W. COWAN,
3 God Is the Head of Christ Does 1 Corinthians 11:3 Ground Gender Complementarity in the Immanent Trinity? KYLE CLAUNCH,
4 "That God May Be All in All" The Trinity in 1 Corinthians 15 JAMES M. HAMILTON JR.,
5 Eternal Generation in the Church Fathers ROBERT LETHAM,
6 True Sonship — Where Dignity and Submission Meet A Fourth-Century Discussion MICHAEL J. OVEY,
7 Augustine and His Interpreters JOHN STARKE,
8 "To Devote Ourselves to the Blessed Trinity" Eighteenth-Century Particular Baptists, Andrew Fuller, and the Defense of "Trinitarian Communities" MICHAEL A. G. HAYKIN,
9 An Examination of Three Recent Philosophical Arguments against Hierarchy in the Immanent Trinity PHILIP R. GONS AND ANDREW DAVID NASELLI,
10 Simplicity, Triunity, and the Incomprehensibility of God K. SCOTT OLIPHINT,
11 Does Affirming an Eternal Authority-Submission Relationship in the Trinity Entail a Denial of Homoousios? A Response to Millard Erickson and Tom McCall BRUCE A. WARE,
General Index,
Scripture Index,

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“It is interesting to see how theology gets mixed up with ethics and politics. Recently, a number of writers have appealed to the Trinity to argue that just as Father, Son, and Spirit are equally worthy of worship, so man and woman should play interchangeable roles in marriage, the church, and society. Others argue that although the persons of the Trinity are equal, they are not interchangeable. It is not accidental, for example, that the Son, not the Father, came to the earth to die for our sins. And so it is inappropriate to appeal to the Trinity as a model for political and social egalitarianism. One God in Three Persons contains excellent scholarly essays defending this latter view. I find it thoroughly persuasive and I hope it plays a major role in both theological and social discussions.”
John M. Frame, Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy Emeritus, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando

“This profoundly insightful book is a major contribution to our understanding of the nature of Tri-unity in God. Its focus on the question of whether the Son is both functionally subordinate to the Father and ontologically equal is of crucial importance for the life of the church and our understanding of the relationship between male and female. No attempt to answer that question can be regarded as adequate that does not give serious consideration to the content of this volume.”
Sam Storms,Senior Pastor, Bridgeway Church, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

“What a fascinating banquet for all readers, whether agreeing or disagreeing with the common theme that God’s oneness of essence does not negate eternal taxis (or even eternal subordination) within God’s very being. Adding to the delight is that the authors provide a diversity of careful, weighty arguments within the basic harmony of the book.”
J. Scott Horrell, Professor of Theological Studies, Dallas Theological Seminary

“I am so grateful Ware and Starke are addressing these issues with such insight and wisdom. I pray that pastors see the important implications of this book and use it to teach their flock that God’s creation of male and female is an extraordinarily beautiful reflection of the unity and diversity of the Trinity.”
Susan Hunt,Former Director of Women's Ministries, PCA; coauthor, Women's Ministry in the Local Church

"One God in Three Persons is a treasure trove of careful exegesis, theology, church history, and pastoral insight. Ware and Starke have assembled an outstanding team of scholars who have provided an exploration of the Tri-unity of God that is rigorous and refreshing. Furthermore, it is very responsible in its application to questions of male/female relationships in the church and home. Responsible pastors and scholars in this discussion cannot afford to overlook the arguments and applications raised here."
Rob Lister, Associate Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies, Talbot School of Theology

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