Three Persons

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This article is one in a series of studies on William Branham and the Trinity - you are currently on the topic that is in bold:


William Branham in the latter stages of his ministry (1958-1965) could not accept the concept of three persons in the Godhead. This appears to have been the result of both his lazy theology and his desire to be seen as a prophet that was restoring long forgotten truths to the church. His argument against the Trinity is referred to as a "straw man" argument, in that he constructs what he thinks Trinitarians believe (but which in fact they deny vehemently) and then attacks that incorrect view of their beliefs.

Now we find in the Scripture that many people teaches that, "three personalities in the Godhead." So, you cannot have a personality without being a person. It takes a person to make a personality.
...You cannot be a person without being a personality. And if you're a personality, you are one personality to yourself. You're a separate, individual being." [1]

William Branham's rejection of the Trinity is not based on scripture, it is not based on sound reasoning and it is not based on what the church has historically taught. He simply rejected it out of hand because he did not take the time to understand the concepts.

A doctrine about the Godhead cannot be refuted simply because it "doesn't make sense". The doctrine of the Trinity was not adopted by the church because it "makes sense". It is considered orthodox because that is what comes our of considering the totality of scripture:

A. There is one God
B. The Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God
C. The three are distinct.

All heresies relating to the Godhead are the result of attempting a "simpler" explanation by removing either A, B, or C above - the result being polytheism, Arianism, or Modalism - all of which must necessarily ignore something in scripture. Much like the concept of eternity, the Trinity is difficult to wrap our heads around, but even harder to debunk with honest, responsible review of scripture.

What does "person" mean

We have been asked the question: God in 3 persons? What is the definition of a person? What is this concept all about? Here is a discussion from Reymond's Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith:

What is the meaning of “person” in the orthodox representation of the Trinity? Etymologically, the word is from the Latin persona, from per, “through,” and sono, “speak,” hence, “speak through” and thus the “mask” through which the Roman actor spoke, and hence the specific “character” he portrayed. The word, it is true, does not appear in the Nicene Creed per se. But it is the word with a history of doctrinal usage that went back as far as Tertullian and which eventually came to be universally used by the church to designate the Three Selves in the One God and to distinguish them from the one divine essence which each is as God.
Today it is commonly understood by orthodox theologians to refer in the Trinitarian context to a “conscious self or ego,” that is, a “center of self-consciousness.” But it is often alleged that persona did not mean in the fourth and fifth centuries what it means today, that it originally referred only to “roles” which God assumed, and that it has only been since the days of Descartes and Locke that “person” has been defined as a self-conscious center of individuality, and that, therefore, because of its modern divergence in meaning away from its first and original intention, “person” should be abandoned as a theological term which has lost its usefulness. What are we to say in response? Here we need to be reminded of Calvin’s opinion that all such words as the church finds useful after the close of the canon to aid in the understanding of Scripture are admissible provided they attest to what Scripture itself teaches. There is nothing, I admit, sacrosanct about the word “person,” and if the church were to discover another word which more accurately conveyed the intention of Scripture, I would welcome it. Indeed, I am certain that John Calvin speaks for every Christian when he writes:
I could wish they [that is, the Greek words, ὁμοούσια, homoousia, οὔσια, ousia, πρόσωπον, prosōpon, and the Latin substantia, persona] were buried, if only among all men this faith were agreed on: that Father and Son and Spirit are one God, yet the Son is not the Father, nor the Spirit the Son, but that they are differentiated by a peculiar quality.[2]

If William Branham had taken this whole question seriously, he would have learned the following:

The historical problem with trying to describe God

How do you even attempt to describe in terms of the English language (or any other language) a Being - God - who created all time and space and whom human beings can not possibly comprehend in His fullness?

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You can see from the following discussion by John McIntyre, that for centuries people have wrestled with the difficulty of trying to describe God:

The original words for the nature of being of Godhead—essence (essentia or ousia) and substance (substantia) are straightforward enough. On the contrary, the originals for ‘person’ underwent considerable revision. Of the adoption of the word persona by the Latins, Augustine said that they did so ‘since they could not discover any more suitable method to describe that which they could understand without words’ (De Trinitate, V. 10). The Greeks seemed to have difficulty in establishing the most acceptable term for the object designated by the Latin persona, which is not quite equivalent to ‘person’ or ‘personality’ in our sense of the words. The exact translation (at least of one of its senses), namely, prosopon, means ‘a mask’, ‘an aspect’. Since, however, the word had been employed by the Sabellians in their unacceptable view of the Trinity—that the same one person, God, is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as it were in sequence, showing one aspect when creating, another aspect when redeeming, and a third when sanctifying, these external aspects reflecting no eternal distinctions immanent in the Godhead—it was rejected. So the Greeks chose hypostasis, which was by no means initially a simple or obvious choice; for hypostasis itself has two connotations—the one, strictly etymological and signifying ‘substance’ and so apparently equivalent to substantia or ousia, eventually fell out of use in trinitarian theology; and the other has traditionally been translated as ‘person’. In the history of trinitarianism, persona was equated with tropos hyparxeos, and with the Latin subsistentia in divina essentia.[3]

"Person" does not mean "Individual"

Maclean in the Dictionary of the Apostolic Church states the following:

The words which we render ‘Person’ (ὑπόστασις, πρόσωπον, persona) are of a still later date, and at first exhibited a remarkable fluidity of signification. Thus ὑπόστασις was used at one time to denote what is common to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, what we should call the Divine ‘substance,’ at another it was used to distinguish between the Three; so that in one sense there is one ὑπόστασις in the Holy Trinity, in the other there are three. With regard to the word ‘Person,’ the student must necessarily be always on his guard against the supposition that ‘Person’ means ‘individual,’ as when we say that three different men are three ‘persons’; or that ‘Trinity’ involves tritheism, or three Gods. These technical expressions are but methods of denoting the teaching found in the New Testament that there are distinctions in the Godhead, and that, while God is One, yet He is not a mere Monad. These technical terms are not found in the apostolic or sub-apostolic writers; with regard to the second of them, it may be remembered that the idea of personality was hardly formulated in any sense till shortly before the Christian era; and its application to theology came in a good deal later.[4]

The word "person" is not a perfect descriptor

Theologians recognize that the word "person", particularly in its current meaning in the English language, does create problems.

Both [Karl] Barth and [Karl] Rahner held that “person” (from Lat. persona), the traditional term in the so-called Western church for the divine Three, had become seriously misleading. While originally designating a theater mask and then a role and hence an identity, in contemporary usage “person” (→ Self) had come to denote a subjective center of consciousness. With that understanding of “person,” the claim that God is three persons stands in grave danger of degenerating into tritheism. Barth proposed as an alternative the phrase “mode of being” (Seinsweise); Rahner proposed “mode of subsisting” (Subsistenzweise).[5]

Even in the KJV English of 400 years ago, the word "person" carried a different meaning than today:

Today we think of a person as an individual human being with his or her own character, history, and consciousness. “Respect for persons” is regarded as a basic principle of sound democracy and true religion. But we then read in the KJV that “God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34), and this idea is repeated in one form or another in a dozen passages of the Old and New Testaments. The Greek word which the KJV translates as “respecter of persons” means “one who accepts the face”; the Latin equivalent is acceptor personae, that is, “one who accepts the mask worn by an actor or the character he assumed.”
When the KJV was published, the English word “person” was still close to this primary meaning of the Latin word persona, mask. It referred to people’s outward appearance or circumstances—physical presence, dress, wealth, position—rather than to their intrinsic worth or inner springs of conscious, self-determining being. “God is no respecter of persons” or similar wording in Acts 10:34 and elsewhere means that God does not regard mere externals.[6]

But... there is no better term at present

Carl Henry explains that the reason the "threeness" of God has been expressed as "God in 3 persons" is that there is really no better simple explanation:

There is little doubt that the formula “one essence, three persons” creates problems, but any alternative formulation only multiplies the difficulties. Augustine was dissatisfied with the term persona but found no preferable alternative: “We say … three persons, not that we would say this, but that we would not be silent” (De Trinitate, V, 9); “… not because Scripture does so, but because Scripture does not forbid” (VII, 4).
But Western Latin theology has used the formula “one substance, three persons” ever since Tertullian. Eastern or Greek theology had translation problems with the Latin formula (in Greek, the Latin persona becomes prosōpon which means “mask” and thus seems to deny essential identity) so Basil the Great and the Cappadocians, distinguishing two terms that until then had also been used confusedly, spoke of three hypostases in one ousia.
The Latin translation, however, was una essentia, tres substantiae (“one essence, three substances”) which implied tritheism.
Apprehensive lest three “persons” might imply three “substances,” Anselm affirms “three I do not know what” (Monologium, c, 78). Aquinas equates “person” with a relation that is “its own mode of being” (Summa Theologiae, I, W. 29, Art. 4).
Calvin defines person as “a ‘subsistence’ in the Divine essence … distinguished … by an incommunicable quality” (Institutes, Book I, XIII, 6). To this day Eastern theologians (cf. for example Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church) insist that the Greek term hypostasis best fits the meaning of “person”; Roman Catholic theologians, on the other hand, find it unserviceable as a clear alternative to pagan polytheism and to bare monotheism. Nevertheless their mutual recognition of theological intention serves to override semantic differences.[7]

C.S. Lewis' analogy

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C.S. Lewis provided one of the best analogies for understanding this problem that we have encountered:

You know that in space you can move in three ways – to left or right, backwards or forwards, up or down. Every direction is either one of these three or a compromise between them. They are called the three Dimensions.
Now notice this. If you are using only one dimension, you could draw only a straight line. If you are using two, you could draw a figure: say, a square. And a square is made up of four straight lines. Now a step further. If you have three dimensions, you can then build what we call a solid body: say, a cube – a thing like a dice or a lump of sugar. And a cube is made up of six squares.
Do you see the point?
A world of one dimension would be a straight line. In a two-dimensional world, you still get straight lines, but many lines make one figure. In a three-dimensional world, you still get figures but many figures make one solid body. In other words, as you advance to more real and more complicated levels, you do not leave behind you the things you found on the simpler levels: you still have them, but combined in new ways – in ways you could not imagine if you knew only the simpler levels.
Now the Christian account of God involves just the same principle. The human level is a simple and rather empty level. On the human level one person is one being, and any two persons are two separate beings – just as, in two dimensions (say on a flat sheet of paper) one square is one figure, and any two squares are two separate figures. On the Divine level you still find personalities; but up there you find them combined in new ways which we, who do not live on that level, cannot imagine.
In God’s dimension, so to speak, you find a being who is three Persons while remaining one Being, just as a cube is six squares while remaining one cube. Of course we cannot fully conceive a Being like that: just as, if we were so made that we perceived only two dimensions in space we could never properly imagine a cube. But we can get a sort of faint notion of it. And when we do, we are then, for the first time in our lives, getting some positive idea, however faint, of something super-personal – something more than a person. It is something we could never have guessed, and yet, once we have been told, one almost feels one ought to have been able to guess it because it fits in so well with all the things we know already.[8]


Footnotes

  1. WHO.IS.THIS.MELCHISEDEC_ JEFF.IN V-5 N-10 SUNDAY_ 65-0221E
  2. Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 319-20 (Nashville: T. Nelson, 1998).
  3. John McIntyre, The Shape of Pneumatology : Studies in the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, 76-77 (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004).
  4. A. J. Maclean, "God", in , vol. 1, Dictionary of the Apostolic Church (2 Vols.), ed. James Hastings, 460 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1916-1918)
  5. Erwin Fahlbusch and Geoffrey William Bromiley, vol. 5, The Encyclopedia of Christianity, 547 (Grand Rapids, MI; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Brill, 2008).
  6. Martin H. Manser, Natasha B. Fleming, Kate Hughes and Ronald F. Bridges, I Never Knew That Was in the Bible!, electronic ed., 332 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000).
  7. Carl F. H. Henry, vol. 5, God, Revelation, and Authority, 210-11 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999)
  8. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 161-162


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