Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Essence and Being

I have recently finished reading Evangelicals and Nicene Faith: Reclaiming the Apostolic Witness, edited by Timothy George.* This book and some things I have been hearing in podcasts have gotten me thinking on the the Trinity as a concept.  As much as anyone, I have had trouble trying to get my brain wrapped around a God that is one yet three.  How does one explain the Almighty, Lord of heaven and earth, in correct terms without falling of the rails into tri-theism on one side and modalism on the other.  There must be a constant tension that holds to what is conceptualized in the diagram at right.

One pretty good explanation I have heard points out that there are three persons with one being.  One problem that arises with this explanation stems from misconstruing the concept of being.  When we think of a human being, we conceive of one independent person.  In reality, being is not the individual but the class that defines characteristics of an essence that defines what a life form is.  For a being to be human, it must be bipedal, upright, reasoning, communicative, and many other attributes distinguishing men and women from other animal or plant life.  Person subdivides this class and tells us which particular being is described or discussed sufficiently to demonstrate uniqueness.

This is not without its problems.  When we think of three of any being group (human, bovine, canine, feline, etc.), we are still stuck because though the three operate with the same attributes, they are independent of each other.  God is not this way.  Each person in the godhead acts in perfect accord in an incomprehensible interdependence and interrelation.  The closest human example possible would be for a person to be cloned into three, all having the same characteristics, knowledge, and outside influences, so that one might expect react in the same ways to like experiences.  Even here there are insurmountable difficulties, as the experiment presupposes a purely mechanical or animalistic response to stimuli, denying the spiritual component.  Even if cloning of the physical body was possible, how could the spirit be perfectly replicated in another?

God is spirit by nature: it is his essence (John 4:24).  We do not operate on this level and cannot fully understand how three spiritual persons can be of the same essence, yet this is what we learn when bringing together the evidence in divine revelation.  When taken to its logical conclusion, we should marvel that one person of that spiritual being took on a nature foreign to himself, so that the two natures are not confused in any way, but each are kept perfectly in their fullness and for eternity.

* Most of the essays were well done, especially so the first three, which gave the historical background of the Nicene Creed.


Stephen Pohl said...


I believe The catechism of the Catholic Church does an excellent job on the subject of the Trinity and the subject of essence, substance, being.


Steve Bricker said...

I read sections III, IV, and In Brief. They are quite good. I enjoyed Gregory Nazianzen's quote in 256, but my effort to find the source was in vain.

Stephen Pohl said...

The source for the Gregory Naizianzen quote is:
St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Oratio 40,41: PG 36,417.