The personhood of the Holy Spirit is something many Christians assume. Because we are well used to the idea of the Trinity being a group of three persons, many people come to the texts of scripture with an a priori assumption that the Holy Spirit is person, and that wherever the Spirit of God is mentioned, that is understood to refer to a distinct person from the Father and the Son.
That the Father is the one God is important to know, for scripture reveals it; but it is important to know not only that these words are true, but what those words mean according to the scriptures. How, after all, can the Father be the “one God” (1 Cor. 8:6), while the Son is also called God (Jn 1:1)?
To answer this question it is important to understand what the term “God” even means in itself. It is a term used very frequently throughout the scriptures, not only for the Supreme God, the Father, the “Lord God Pantokrator” (Rev 4:8), but also for beings as low as men and angels. As Jesus noted in John 10:35 “He [God] called them gods, to whom the word of God came”, speaking of a psalm where the men of Israel were called “gods”. In Psalm 82:1 “God stands in the congregation of the mighty; He judges among the gods”, calling created angels gods. Paul is well aware of this when he writes “For even if there are many called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many gods and many lords), 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live.”
In the broad scheme of trinitarian doctrine, there are only three overarching positions to choose from, each of those three being able to be further divided into different variations. These three options are modalism, tritheism, and subordinationism; there are no other alternatives, and every view on the Trinity fits somewhere within these categories.
All three systems broadly agree on the three basic facts that there is one God, and three divine persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But these facts alone, stated this way, are too vague; and the way each system explains how these facts fit together is different. They do not agree on what it means that there is one God, or what it means that there are three divine persons.
Modalism explains monotheism by arguing that there is only one divine person, and thus only one God. It either makes the three persons out to be one person, or else denies either the divinity or the distinct existence of two persons. Sometimes this is done by denying distinct existence of the Son and Holy Spirit, other times by saying that “Father”, “Son”, and “Spirit” are just three different names, or three different modes of manifestation, of one person, other times by declaring that the three persons are ultimately a single person at the deepest level, although on the surface and in a relative way relate to each other as though three persons. Thus by defining the oneness of God as there being only a single divine person, they ultimately deny that there are three divine persons in anything but name only.
Tritheism goes to the opposite extreme by denying that there is truly one God by making the three persons not only really distinct, but also separate, and entirely equal. By proclaiming three independent identical divine persons, they make there out to be three gods. A weak attempt to say otherwise often comes in the form of arguing that there being one God simply means that there is only one divine nature of Godhood, which is shared by the three identical persons. But this falls apart easily, for just as three human persons with one common human nature are three men, so the tritheistic reckoning of three divine persons with one common divine nature makes there out to be three gods.
Subordinationism avoids the pitfalls of modalism and tritheism. There is not one God because there is only one divine person, as there are three divine persons, truly distinct from each other. It likewise avoids the pitfall of tritheism by not making the Son and Spirit identical and equal to the Father, but rather regards them as subordinate. There are various forms of subordinationism, all of which teach that the Son and Holy Spirit are subordinated to the Father as Their Cause and Authoritative Head. Thus, in this classical trinitarianism, there is one God because there is only one Supreme uncaused Cause of all, Who is the one Supreme Authority over all, the person of the Father. Not only is all creation caused by the Father through His Son and Spirit, but His Son was atemporally begotten of Him before the ages, and His Spirit eternally proceeds from Him; thus all things run up into one supreme cause, the Father, Who alone simply is what and who He is without cause, source, or origin. Likewise although the Son has been given all authority in heaven and earth, even He Himself is subject to the Authority of the one Who subjected all things to Him, His God and Father. Thus all authority runs up into one Supreme Authority over all Who has no higher authority above Him. Thus there is one God, the Father, and yet there are three truly distinct divine persons.
(From Clarke’s answer is recorded in the the fourth edition of Samuel Clarke’s Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity and Related Writings.)
OBJ. “Three Divine Beings – must needs be conceived as Three Gods, notwithstanding any Subordination of the Second and Third Being to the First; or else we must free the Pagan World from the Absurdity of Polytheism, and the Guilt of Idolatry; these being generally, if not always, founded upon a Subordination of many Deities to the One Supreme.”
Scripture teaches that there is only one God. We are also expressly told that this one God is the person of the Father in particular in several places in scripture:
“There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.” Ephesians 4:4-5 NAS
“This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” John 17:3 NAS
“yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.” 1 Corinthians 8:6 NAS
The testimony of the ancient church fathers agrees with this: see I believe in one God, the Father Almighty.
While ancient testimony to these truths is abundant, historical testimony in favor of these points of doctrine is not limited to the ancient church. In this article I want to highlight more men from the Anglican tradition who can also be cited as testifying to these truths:
Richard Hooker (1554-1600)
“The Father Alone is originally That Deity, which Christ originally is not; For Christ is God, by being of God.” (Ecclesiast. Pol. Book 5)
Dr. Henry More (1614-1687)
“By the Term God, if you understand That which is First of all, in such a sense as All else is from Him, and He from None; the Son and Spirit cannot be said to be God in This signification; because the Father is not from Them, but They from the Father.” (Mystery of Godliness, Book 9, Chapter 2)
“Has we gone no further than Scripture, the only Rule of our Faith, in this matter; and held, with That, that To Us there is One God, the Father, 1 Cor. 8,6; One God and Father of All, who is Above all, Eph. 4, 6; And had we known Him The Only True God, (as Christ calls him, Joh. 17, 3, not exclusively, but eminently and by way of Excellency and Prerogative, by which the Name and Title of GOD is peculiarly predicated of God the Father in Scripture; –which is the great Reason given by the Fathers, of the Divine Unity;–) Had we considered this plain scriptural Account and Observation, that One God is spoken and predicated of the Father, and meant of Hi, when it is said both in the old Testament and in the New, The Lord thy God is One God, and there is none other but he, or besides him; we had not given occasion for That Objection of our Adversaries, against our Faith, of its implying a Contradiction, or of its setting up ore Gods than One. The One God, whom we pray to in the Lord’s prayer, and in other Christian Offices and Addresses; whom we profess to believe in, in our Creed; and whom the scripture calls so; is God the Father Almighty. And He hath an Only-begotten Son…” (Sermon on Trinity-Sunday, June 7th, 1696; page 18)
“The One God is spoken of God the Father in scripture, as I have shown you; and a great Many, and particularly Bishop Pearson upon the Creed observes; that “the Name of God taken absolutely, is often in Scripture spoken of the Father, and is in many places to be taken particularly of the Father; and from hence (says he) he is stiled One God, the True God, the Only True God: And This (he says further) is a most necessary Truth to be acknowledged, for the avoiding multiplication and Plurality of Gods;” He laying the Unity mainly here as I have done. So that though the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God; which they are not often called in Scripture; (which rather reserves and gives the Name of GOD absolutely and peculiarly to the Father; as, GOD loved the World, GOD sent his Son, and the like;) yet Neither of them are meant by That One God, which the Scripture speaks of, when is speaks peculiarly of the Father. —The Word God,—- generally (if not always) in Scripture, taken absolutely and spoken so of one God, is meant of God the Father. Which may give us such an Account of the Trinity and of the Unity, as may take off all the charge of a Contradiction. Since they are not One and Three; nor is each of them God, and All of them God or One God; in the same respect, sense and meaning of the Words; but in different. —- The Father is the Only Self-existent unoriginated Being, the Cause and Root of the other Two, as the Antients often call him; and so is… …God in the highest Sense: And the Scriptures, Creeds, and Christian Offices, call him so absolutely and by way of Eminence and Prerogative. The Son is produced of the Father, and so is not Autotheos, or God in That Sense as the Father who is from None; but is God, of God…” (Ibid.)
“He is not indeed God the Father, or God from None, Autotheos: (In That Sense, we believe in One God, the Father Almighty; and to Us there is but One God, the Father, as the Apostle speaks, 1 Cor. 8,6; And Christ is the Son of this God the Father, who had his Being and Nature from him:) But he is God of God…” (Sermon on September 21, 1696; page 87)
“The Father is the Only Self-existent, unoriginated Being; ——- and so, in the words of a Right Reverend and Excellent Person, God in the highest Sense. —– The Word Deus, as it signifies a Self-existent, unoriginated Being, —— is predicated Only of God the Father; and not, secundum eandem rationem [upon the same Account,] of the other two divine Persons, Neither of which are Self-existent and unoriginated, nor God in the highest sense of Autotheos; ——- But He [viz. the Father] —– is called eminently and absolutely, and by way of Excellence and Prerogative, The One God, and, in the Words forequoted, God in the highest Sense.” (Letter from Dr. P. to the Bishop of R. in Vindication of his sermon on Trinity-Sunday, pages 15,16,17)
“This is the Explication of the Antients, which they hold; with this more plain scriptural Account of the Trinity, that needs no explication: One God the Father, with an only-begotten Son…” (Post-script, page 26)
The early church fathers are clear in their testimony that the one God of the Christian faith is the person of the Father in particular, as can be seen here: I believe in one God, the Father Almighty. This is not to the denial of the divinity of the Son and Holy Spirit, but rather an acknowledgement of the Father alone being the supreme uncaused Cause of all, including the Son by eternal generation and Holy Spirit by eternal procession, as well as an acknowledgement of the Father being the Supreme Authority and Head over all, even over His only-begotten Son and Holy Spirit.
After the Nicene era, there is considerably less focus on this important biblical truth. After the Protestant Reformation, however, there seems to have been something of a recovery of this doctrine within Anglicanism. In this post, we see excerpts from Bishop John Pearson’s Exposition of the Creed, wherein he makes several references to the Father in particular being the one God.
Bishop John Pearson (1612-1686):
“That one God is Father of All; and to us there is but One God, the Father of All; and to us there is but one God, the Father.” (Pearson, On the Creed, Page 26)
“And thus to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things; To which the Words following in the Creed may seem to have relation, The Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth.” (Pearson, On the Creed, Page 26)
“From hence He [the Father] is stiled One God, (1 Cor 8,6; Eph 4,6) the True God, (1 Th. 1,9) the Only True God, (Joh. 17,3;) the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, (2 Cor. 1,3; Eph 1,3;)” (Pearson, On the Creed, Page 40)
“After the confession of a Deity, and assertion of the divine unity, the next consideration is concerning God’s paternity; for that one God is Father of all [Eph 4:6], and to us there is one God, the Father [1 Cor 8:6].” (Pearson, On the Creed, Page 45)
“I shall briefly declare the Creation of the World to have been performed by that One God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Pearson, On the Creed, Page 63)
“But as we have already proved that One God, the Father, to be the Maker of the world,” (Pearson, On the Creed, Page 64)
Bishop George Bull, an Anglican, showed himself an important patristic scholar of his era with his books in defense of the Nicene creed, in which he attempts to prove that the Nicene Creed’s articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity is in essential agreement with those of the earlier church fathers. In his books, he makes some valuable observations about how the ancients spoke of the Father in relation to the Son:
From Book IV of Defensio Fidei Nicaenae, Chapter 1:
“Respecting the subordination of the Son to the Father, as to His origin and principle, we have incidentally, when engaged on other points, spoken not a little in the preceding books; it is, however, an argument not unworthy of a more careful discussion by itself in a separate book; especially as at the beginning of our work we put it forward as a distinct head of doctrine delivered in the Nicene Creed, and which we proposed to establish by testimonies out of the ancients. Respecting this subordination, then, let the following be our first proposition:
The First Proposition
That decree of the Council of Nice, in which it is laid down that the Son of God is ‘God of God,’ is confirmed by the voice of the catholic doctors, both those who wrote before, and those who wrote after, that council. For they all with one accord taught, that the divine nature and perfections belong to the Father and the Son, not colaterally or co-ordinately, but subordinately; that is to say, that the Son has indeed the same divine nature in common with the Father; in such sense, that is, that the Father alone hath the divine nature from Himself, in other words, from no other, but the Son from the Father; consequently that the Father is the fountain, origin, and principle, of the Divinity, which is in the Son.”
Isaiah 43:11 and Isaiah 45:5-6 are very similar passages:
“I, even I, am the Lord, And besides Me there is no savior.” Isa 43:11 NKJV
“I am the Lord, and there is no other; There is no God besides Me. I will gird you, though you have not known Me, That they may know from the rising of the sun to its setting That there is none besides Me. I am the Lord, and there is no other;” Isa 45:5-6 NKJV
Third-century Latin church father Novatian of Rome is not well-known today, but was an important figure in his time. He was an anti-pope, meaning he opposed the bishop of Rome, and was elected as a rival bishop. This caused a lot of controversy, which is not within the scope of this post to explore.
Novatian is noteworthy regardless of other shortcomings he may have had for his small contribution to trinitarian doctrine, in his treatise Concerning the Trinity. In it he elucidates his understanding of trinitarianism. In doing so he argues for both the divinity of Christ and the doctrine that the one God is the person of the Father, and defends the biblical truth that the Father is the one God by showing it is compatible with the doctrine of the Son’s divinity.
Aphrahat of Assyria is not a household name in Western Christianity, but his Demonstrations serve as a valuable window into the theology and practice of the churches of the middle east around the time of the Nicene Council. By the time of the council, the Christian church stretched from Britain in the West to India and China in the East, and had not yet been divided by the later schisms that have left so many churches cut off from one another. In English, at least, it is difficult to find the writings of ante-nicene and Nicene era Christian authors who lived farther East than Persia. Most of those commonly known in the West today come from Europe, North Africa, and the Western edge of the Asian continent. Who knows what excellent theologians may have lived in the ancient churches of India and China, today unknown to later generations.
Aphrahat’s writings prove themselves a rare treat to Western Christians as a chance to peer into the often overlooked but enormous ancient churches of the East, where Syriac, instead of Greek or Latin, was used by the churches.
Aphrahat of Assyria, however far he was geographically from other orthodox fathers we may be familiar with such as Irenaeus of Lyons (modern-day France), was not far from them at all in his theology. Like Irenaeus and the fathers at the Nicene Council, Aphrahat taught that the one God is very same person who is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ:
“For if they worship, and honour with the name of worship, the heathen— those who in their heathen wickedness deny even the name of God — and yet do not worship them as their maker, as though they worshipped them alone, and so do not sin; how much more does it become us to worship and honour Jesus, Who converted our stubborn minds from all worship of vain error, and taught us to worship and serve and minister to the one God, our Father and our Maker. ” (Demonstrations, on Jesus Christ the Son of God)
We see Aphrahat express the classical trinitarian belief that men are brought by the Lord Jesus Christ to the one God, Who is our Father and Creator. The one God is not to Aphrahat the Trinity conceived of as though it were a single person, but rather the one God is explicitly the person we know as Father, to Whom the Lord Jesus Christ stands in relation as His only-begotten Son, and the Holy Spirit as His Spirit.
Aphrahat’s belief on this important point of doctrine stands in agreement with both scripture and the teaching of other orthodox fathers of the ante-nicene and nicene eras, as can be see here: I believe in one God, the Father Almighty