A.A. Hodge on personal distinctions within the Godhead
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19, ESV)
“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” (Second Corinthians 13:14, ESV)
The biblical and orthodox doctrine of the Trinity teaches that the one true and living God exists in three co-equal, co-eternal Persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. As the Bible-based answer to Shorter Catechism Question # 6 (“How many persons are there in the Godhead?“) states this doctrine, “There are three persons in the Godhead; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory.” (Note: “Substance” means “essence” and refers to the one Divine essence.) Each of the three Persons in the Godhead share fully in the one Divine Essence (or “Substance” to use the wording of the Nicene Creed).
The doctrine of the Trinity is a basic, fundamental tenet of Bible-believing, historic Christianity. Yet one suspects that many Christians struggle to understand this doctrine. While the Trinity is a Divinely-revealed doctrine, it is also a doctrine full of profound mystery, for it confronts us with the infinite mystery and majesty of the Being of God, and thus it is a revealed truth that we as finite creatures cannot hope to comprehend in exhaustive detail. At the same time, since it is a truth that God has seen fit to reveal to us in His Word, and therefore an important truth that God wants us to understand at some level, we ought to try to understand it as much as is humanly-possible.
I suspect that one aspect of the doctrine of the Trinity that many Christians especially struggle to understand is the personal distinctions that exist between the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. For example, what is it that makes God the Father “Father”? Why is the Second Person of the Trinity called the “Son of God”, and in what sense is the Son related to the Father? And why do the Scriptures sometimes speak of the Holy Spirit (the third Person of the Trinity) as the “Spirit of God” (meaning God the Father) but in other places He is refered to as the “Spirit of Christ” or the “Spirit of his Son”?
Because of the biblical data on the personal distinctions within the Godhead, theologians distinguish the personal properties of the Persons of the Trinity as follows: God the Father (the first Person of the Trinity), Himself unbegotten, eternally begets the Son within the Divine Being.
God the Son (the second Person of the Trinity) is eternally begotten of the Father. (This does not mean that the Son is a created being. As it is affirmed in the Nicene Creed, the Son is “begotten, not made“.) This personal property of the Son is described by theologians as the eternal generation of the Son.
And God the H0ly Spirit (the third person of the Trinity) eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son. (This eternal procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son is sometimes described by theologians as spiration.)
In the words of our Larger Catechism in answer to Question # 10 (“What are the personal properties of the three persons in the Godhead?): “It is proper to the Father to beget the Son, and to the Son to be begotten of the Father, and to the Holy Ghost to proceed from the Father and the Son from all eternity.”
But how are we to understand these truths of the eternal generation of the Son from the Father, and the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son? The late Dr. A.A. Hodge, a great theologian of the old Princeton Seminary, offers a helpful explanation of these revealed truths in his masterful book, Outlines of Theology:
“The data of inspiration are simply as follows: 1st. Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, three divine persons, possess from eternity the one whole identical, indivisible, unchangeable essence. 2d. The Father from his characteristic personal name, and the order in which his name uniformly occurs in Scripture, and from the fact that the Son is called his and his only begotten, and that the Spirit is called his, the one proceeding from him, and from the order of his manifestation and operation ad extra, is evidently in some way first in order of personal subsistence relatively to the Son and Spirit. 3d. For the same reason…the Son, in the order of personal subsistence, is before the Spirit. 4th. What the real nature of these distinctions in the order of personal subsistence may be is made known to us only so far – (1.) That it involves no distinction as to time, since all are alike eternal. (2.) It does not depend upon any voluntary action, for that would make the second person dependent upon the first, and the third upon the first and second, while they are all “equal in power and glory.” (3.) It is such a relation that the second person is eternally only begotten Son of the first, and the third is eternally the Spirit of the first and second.” (pp. 190-191; Edinburgh; Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust; First published 1860)