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You can watch or listen to the following lecture for free from R. C. Sproul:

The entire series of six lectures on “The Mystery of the Trinity” can be accessed for free from Ligonier.

I’ve posted this before, but in case it would help anyone, here’s a diagram that captures some of the relationships within the Godhead:

The internal lines identify the nature, substance, or essence of each person:

  1. The Father is God.
  2. The Son is God.
  3. The Holy Spirit is God.

Basil of Caesarea, writing in the 370s (Letter 236.6), gives a good explanation for why we say “God the Father,” “God the Son,” and “God the Spirit”:

The distinction between ousia and hupostasis is the same as that between the general and the particular; as, for instance, between the animal and the particular man.

Wherefore, in the case of the Godhead, we confess one essence or substance so as not to give a variant definition of existence, but we confess a particular hypostasis, in order that our conception of Father, Son and Holy Spirit may be without confusion and clear.

If we have no distinct perception of the separate characteristics, namely, fatherhood, sonship, and sanctification, but form our conception of God from the general idea of existence, we cannot possibly give a sound account of our faith.

We must, therefore, confess the faith by adding the particular to the common. The Godhead is common; the fatherhood particular. We must therefore combine the two and say, I believe in God the Father.

The like course must be pursued in the confession of the Son; we must combine the particular with the common and say I believe in God the Son, so in the case of the Holy Ghost we must make our utterance conform to the appellation and say in God the Holy Ghost.

The lines of the triangle represent two sets of propositions. First, they remind us that while each of the persons in the Godhead is God (fully divine), the persons are distinct. In other words:

  1. The Father is not the Son.
  2. The Son is not the Father.
  3. The Father is not the Holy Spirit.
  4. The Holy Spirit is not the Father.
  5. The Son is not the Holy Spirit.
  6. The Holy Spirit is not the Son.

After all, the Father is never “sent” in Scripture. Nor is he incarnated or poured out at Pentecost. The Spirit does not die on the cross for our sins. The Father begets the Son, not vice-versa. The Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.

Another aspect indicated by the lines on the triangle is that of mutual indwelling (or perichoresis). The three persons indwell each other in the one being of God. So:

  1. The Father is in the Son.
  2. The Son is in the Father.
  3. The Father is in the Holy Spirit.
  4. The Holy Spirit is in the Father.
  5. The Son is in the Holy Spirit.
  6. The Holy Spirit is in the Son.

Finally, each of the three persons in the one being of God glorify one another. As Gregory of Nyssa writes, there is a “revolving circle” of glory:

The Son is glorified by the Spirit; the Father is glorified by the Son; again the Son has His glory from the Father; and the Only-begotten thus becomes the glory of the Spirit. . . . In like manner, again, Faith completes the circle, and glorifies the Son by means of the Spirit, and the Father by means of the Son. (Gregory of Nyssa, On the Holy Spirit, in NPNF, Second Series, 5:324).

If you are looking for some good books to read on this all-important topic, Fred Sanders says that Our Triune God: Living in the Love of the Three-in-One (by Ryken and LeFebreve) “is the best book to put in somebody’s hands if they’re asking for an introduction to the doctrine.”

J. I. Packer says that The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship (by Robert Letham) “is far and away the best big textbook on the Trinity that you can find, and it will surely remain so for many years to come.”

And the best two books on why this matters and how it relates to all of life and theology, see Fred Sanders’ The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything and Mike Reeves’ Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith.

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19 thoughts on “What Do We Mean by “Person” and “Essence” in the Doctrine of the Trinity?”

  1. James White’s “Forgotten Trinity” was my favorite book I kept going back to when I was teaching on this subject at church. Can’t recommend it enough.

    1. Jonathan says:

      James White’s “Forgotten Trinity” is excellent.

      I would add another one to the list:
      Robert Morey’s “The Trinity: Evidence And Issues”

  2. Luke says:

    What does “Godhead” mean?

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      It’s a synonym for deity or divine essence or God. It was used in the KJB, first introduced in English by Wycliffe and then Tyndale.

  3. I once heard Stanley Grenz explain essence and persons like this:

    God is One in His ‘what-ness’
    God is Three is His ‘who-ness’

    I dunno, that seemed to work for me.

  4. Rob says:

    Also helpful is the recent video from Knox Seminary’s New City Catechism Project, taught by Dr. Michael Allen, available here:

  5. rcjr says:

    When you find yourself lost, and if you don’t find yourself lost you’re doing it wrong, just say “Perischorisis” and smile

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      The same is true for “Oecolampadius”!

  6. Craig says:

    I highly recommend Bruce Ware’s book on the Trinity as well:

    Bruce A. Ware – “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, and Relevance” (9781581346688)


    1. MarkO says:

      Certainly Dr. Ware is helpful in other areas, but I find a it worthwhile to be cautious in accepting Dr. Ware’s ideas about Eternal Subordination of the Son.

      1. Craig says:

        Would you elaborate?


        1. MarkO says:

          Hi Craig, Thanks for asking. This might be too small a setting to get into much detail, but the basic idea is that Eternal Subordination of the Son is a teaching that permanently and eternally makes the Son subservient to the Father. Likewise those who teach this believe that the Spirit is subordination to the Son. This makes a 3 tiered Trinity which in effect cancels out any idea of co-equality in the Godhead.

          Co-equal means of the same rank, but Eternal Subordinationists teach that the Son is not of the same rank of authority as the Father. Of course, this cannot be possible since the Son is of the same sovereignty and omnipotence as the Father (except during the time of his incarnation).

          I consider Eternal Subordination to be trinitarian error.

          Hope that helps.

          1. Craig says:

            I am familiar with the doctrine of subordination, but I wanted to hear what you take issue with. I think I understand you.

            Actually, Ware does not teach that there is “3 tiered Trinity” in terms of the equality. He makes a distinction between co-equality in the Godhead and each member’s subordination by virtue of the roles they willingly assume. More to the point: Distinction in role and subordination in those roles does not make them “unequal” — e.g., I submit to the President’s leadership, yet I am his equal. This is the same distinction we make in Complementarianism, which follows directly from the relationships in the Trinity, and which Ware also addresses.

            You are correct that this is a “small space” to discuss it. Thank you for your reply and for clarifying your position.


            1. MarkO says:

              Hi Craig,

              The problem with Ware’s view of the Trinity is that he is reading his view of marriage back up into the Trinity. There are only 2 persons in marriage (at least that’s the way it’s supposed to be). There are only 3 persons in the Trinity. Where does that leave the Holy Spirit?

              He incorrectly uses a matrimonial lens to explain the Trinity. Can’t be done.

              Marriage, 2 persons
              Trinity, 3 persons.
              That’s not a match.

              Also, he is trying to have co-equality (of the same rank) in the Godhead at the same time he wants the Son to be permanently unequal in authority, unequal in rank.

              That’s a contradiction. Both cannot be true.

              The Son and Spirit must be equal in authority, sovereignty and omnipotence with the Father or you don’t have a Trinity in the orthodox sense of the word.


              1. Jonathan says:

                Functional subordination does not imply ontological or essential subordination. The Son can be both functionally subordinate to the Father and equal in authority, sovereignty and omnipotence.

                Why would it be a contradiction? On what basis? Isn’t it a bit arbitrary to say so? The scriptures seem to say otherwise.

                “He incorrectly uses a matrimonial lens to explain the Trinity. Can’t be done.”

                Well, 1 Cor. 11:3 clearly uses the Trinity as an analogy for the submission of the wife to her husband (“But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.”).

                >> Using this as an analogy does not mean that the Trinity is an exact representation of marriage in every possible way.

  7. MarkO says:

    Good info Justin. Thank you for not including stuff about eternal subordination in the diagram. I am reading Kevin Giles book, Jesus and the Father. Great read on why Jesus is just as sovereign as the Father.

  8. sean carlson says:

    I remember 1st coming across that Trinity diagram & thinking how cool it was & using it with others. Then after a few yrs I dropped it. It reminded me of my grade school exercises where I was suppose to diagram a complex sentence. I never gained much from that exercise & it seemed people weren’t gaining much from this Trinity diagram either. It strikes me as more a modernist attempt to understand Father,Son, & Spirit rather than allowing the Scriptures to speak. Hard to imagine the Apostle’s using this approach!

  9. Gary says:

    Someone might want to send this post to TD Jakes, and go ahead and CC Driscoll and MacDonald while they’re at it.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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