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New City Catechism 3.2

Question 3: How many persons are there in God?

Answer: There are three persons in the one true and living God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They are the same in substance, equal in power and glory.

The Trinity is a mystery of our faith. It is beyond our ability to comprehend, but that doesn’t mean we have no categories whatsoever by which to speak of it. In the history of the church, the term “essence” or “substance” has been applied to God’s oneness, while the term “person” has been applied to God’s threeness. God is one in essence, three in person. Another way to say this is that God is one “what” but three “who’s.” There is nothing else in our experience that can be defined in those categories, which speaks to God’s transcendence of all created things.

So if the three Persons of the Trinity are all the same essence (i.e., the three “who’s” are all the same “what”), how can we distinguish them from one another? What is it that makes the Father the Father specifically, and how can he be distinguished at all from the Son? What makes the Spirit distinct from the Father and the Son? On this question, the church has long confessed (based on the Bible’s teaching) that the distinctions between the three Persons are found in their relations to each other.

Here’s how it has been understood traditionally: the Son stands in relationship to the Father from eternity, and that relationship is one of being “begotten” of the Father. In our human experience, the act of begetting (or “fathering”) is something that takes place in time, and thus has a beginning. But in the life of the Trinity, this relationship is eternal. It never had a beginning. Before time ever was, the Son stood in relationship to the Father as one begotten of him, sharing the exact same essence but distinct in personhood because of this eternal begetting. That’s what makes the Father Father and the Son Son.

The Spirit is distinguished from both by a relation of “proceeding” from the Father and the Son from eternity. We confess these words about the Son and the Spirit when we recite the Nicene Creed together:

“And [we believe in] one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father…

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son…”

May we marvel at the wonder of our triune God: one God, three Persons, equal in power and glory.

Suggested passage for family or personal reading: Matthew 28:18-20. Why do you think baptism is to be done in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit? What does that tell us about the three Persons?

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