Contemplating the Christian God: Being and Person. By Rudolph P. Boshoff

John Calvin writes, “God is not imaginable. All images we invent are idols of the mind, products of our own imagination, for God ever remains like Himself and is not a spectre or phantasm to be transformed according to our desires. It is a fact, however, that the mind of fallen man remains a perpetual factory of idols and false imaginations of God, so that He is always projecting his own inventions of figments upon God. That is to say, he is constantly tempted to corrupt the knowledge of the truth through the creations of his own brain. True knowledge is objectively derived and cuts against the speculations and imaginations of the human mind.” (T. F. Torrance, The Hermeneutics of John Calvin. Pg.91-92).

The greatest adventure for any theistic mind is to look into the great revelation of God. The Christian God ultimately leads to a knowledge based on revealed scripture and the revelation of Jesus Christ! We also need to understand the limitations of theological perspectives and realize that the demand of any theological system can never be to explain exactly, we simply seek proximity. In our finite minds, we just cannot fully comprehend, but to the mind of the theologian and devotee, mystery seems essential and even credible. All of us lean on the whims of what God has revealed in our own perceived texts and history. Here I will disclose a short depiction of the Christian conception of God, so here we go: 

It is important to note that Christian Orthodoxy demands that we do not say three “beings are One God” but biblical Trinitarians rather say when we conceive of the Biblical revelation of God, we recognise both the self-disclosure of one being revealing three persons (Father, Son, and Spirit). The Biblical conception shows us that God is a living personal Spirit. He is not an impersonal force, but a living being (ousia: substance) who acts (Psalm 115:3-7) and is tri-personal with his own characteristics (persona). God is Spirit who exists apart from this world and is beyond it. Because God is the ground of being, he is the greatest conceived ‘universal’ expressed in three ‘particulars’.For the Biblical Trinitarian, he cannot conceive of God as being one apart from being three. 

Gregory of Nazianzus affirms, “To us  there is One God, for the Godhead is One, and all that proceeds from Him is referred to One, though we believe in Three Persons. For one is not more and another less God; nor is One before and another after; nor are They divided in will or parted in power; nor can you find here any of the qualities of divisible things; but the Godhead is, to speak concisely, undivided in separate Persons; and there is one mingling of Light, as it were of three suns joined to each other. When then we look at the Godhead, or the First Cause, or the Monarchia, that which we conceive is One; but  when we look at the Persons in Whom the Godhead dwells, and at Those Who timelessly and with equal glory have their Being from the First Cause—there are Three Whom we worship”. (Oration 31.14).

It is important to note that there is a procession of the Son from the Father (John 5:23, 12:49, 20:21, 1 Joh.4:14) and from the Son and the Father to the Spirit. The question of procession has a reasonable explanation (NL. Augustinian/ Chalcedonian) and the orthodox perspective is that the Father and the Son act together in the procession of the Spirit (Joh.14:26/15:26). Interestingly enough, there seems to be an insistence from Unitarian systems of theology to confuse function with ontology. As for the potency of God, it is a sharing amongst equals, but what is essentially important is the distinction between function and ontology. Many theologians fell into disarray trying to make these concepts monolithic. Yet, the disparity evident in Scripture is that there is a difference between who God is, essentially, and what God does. In this article, I am refraining from describing God with the title ‘He’ in this article simply because it creates a dual misapprehension, first, that ‘He’ and ‘Father’ always refer to the same entity and secondly, ‘He’ situates the Being of God as being a purely ‘personal’ construct. The Christian rendition is that the Being of God is ‘impersonal’ yet, personified in the Scriptural revelation of the Three Divine persons. It should also be noted that the Christian conception of God is not that the very Being of God is distinct from the revealed persons of God. The orthodox position is that the Greek use of the understanding of being (ousia) when used of God, was transformed from an impersonal to a very personal sense [as is evident in the revelation of Christ]. God is therefore not some abstract impersonal essence but a dynamic personal being. The One being [particular] is integrated within the Three divine persons [diversity] and the Three persons in the One being, distinct from one another and in unison with One another. God is therefore wholly other and profoundly necessary in His diversity but still a unity, or a Triunity.

The One and the Three

Gregory of Nazianzus affirms “No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the Splendour of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish Them than I am carried back to the One. When I think of any One of the Three I think of Him as the Whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking of escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of That One so as to attribute a greater greatness to the Rest. When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the Undivided Light. (Oration 40.41).

John Calvin writes, “Therefore, let us beware of imagining such a Trinity of persons as will distract our thoughts, instead of bringing them instantly back to the unity. The words Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, certainly indicate a real distinction, not allowing us to suppose that they are merely epithets by which God is variously designated from his works. Still they indicate distinction only, not division.” (Institutes 1.13.17).  

What we deduce from a Christian perspective concerning “Being” [essence] denotes ‘that which exists’ as the necessary ‘ground of being’ and that which is ultimately personal (‘substansia’ – person) as the sum expression of infinite activities. Reformed Theologian Louise Berkhof writes; “In God, there are no three individuals alongside of, and separate from, one another, but only personal self-distinctions within the Divine essence, which is not only generically, but also numerically, one”.

The reason for the Christian deduction is that “ontologically, the “one” God cannot recede into oblivion as an abstract and indistinct universal, for He is concretely and infinitely defined in relationship to the “three” persons. Nor can the “three” degrade into irrational “particulars” that evade definition at some point, for they are exhaustively defined by the one Trinitarian dynamic. Nothing, then, would fall outside of God’s personal comprehension, including the relationship between His trifold being and his comprehensive self-knowledge. God would be a self-contained, self-defined, and self-sufficient person. (Brant Bosserman).

Further, we can also consider that for God to be the ”maximally great personal Being” this necessitates Him being both personal [love, plurality] and wholly other [Trinity].

Function and Ontology

The external works of the Trinity is undivided, but as we have noted, what is essential to remember is that difference in function (persona) does not negate inferiority in essential nature (being). When it speaks of the procession of the Son and the Spirit, it denotes a voluntary act of the One divine will as love is the essence of God by which the Divine being actualize its self-existence in the Distinct persons of Father Son and Spirit [Father/Lover, Son/Beloved, Spirit/Love = coactivity [Unity – Nature of Being / Diversity – Personal function)].

This enables Trinitarians to conceive of God “both in terms of mutual containing of the particular Divine persons in one another, and in terms of the reciprocal interpenetration of their distinctive activities, and think of them at one and the same time, or in ”perichoretic circularity and wholeness” (Thomas F. Torrance).

God ‘actualizes Himself’ because He is the ‘ground of all Being’, but in the Christian conception, God is both personal and distinct. Personally, therefore Christian Theism is the only true theism because the Conception of God glorifies His ultimate transcendence yet, it celebrates His immanence as revealed in the incarnation. There is a clear line between the Creator/creature distinction and Christian Theology seems to be the only cogent exercise in both conceptual understandings. God is therefore conceived as being close and distinct without violating His otherness and does not becomes the unknown that fades into nothingness when we think of Him. This God is therefore not determined through a pantheistic conception or a deistic distraction. He simply is the greatest conceivable being! As I have already mentioned, perichoretic relations “characterise both the subsistencies and the hypostatic activities of the three Divine persons, so that they are not only Triune in ‘persona’ but Triune in activity” (Torrance).

Most notable should be God’s objective otherness in existing [‘ad alios’] yet, His self-existing being considered in His otherness. The Being of God belongs to each person as it belongs to all three persons fully ‘‘hypostasized.’’ The orthodox definition of the Unity of God [essence] is not to be defined in an abstract generic way, but also not as an undifferentiated Oneness. In fact, what I demand in the above definition is that God [Being] is the indivisible consubstantial Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, mutually indwelling the very being without distinctions in perfect communion, personal, distinct, and absolute because He is the greatest conceivable being both transcendent and immanent. Therefore, the fullness of God dwells in each Person, and the Fullness of each person dwells in God.

Thomas F. Torrance adds; “To say that God is personal is not to say he is a Person [i.e. una persona] in the relational sense of the three Divine Persons, who are Persons [ad alios], but that, far from being impersonal, he is a Communion of personal Being within Himself, for the whole God dwells in each person, and each person is the whole God. Thus we may rightly think ‘in solidium‘ of the Triune God as intrinsically perfectly and sublimely Personal”.

The Christian understanding can be logically explained and the reason for the Triune God visibly affirmed. When we look at the way we perceive our God, it should leave us with a sense of awe and wonder. The God of the Bible is truly a God that necessitates Worship. And we can rightly resound with the Angels in heaven; “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God almighty, who was, and is, and is to come”(Isa.6:3, Rev.4:8).

Selah.

Rudolph P. Boshoff

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