Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: From All Eternity!
And the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form like a dove upon Him, and a voice came from heaven which said, “You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased.” Luke 3:22NKJV
Question 10 of the Larger Catechism asks, “What are the personal properties of the three persons in the Godhead?” It gives the answer, “It is proper to the Father to beget the Son, and to the Son to be begotten of the Father, and to the Holy Ghost to proceed from the Father and the Son from all eternity.” As we consider these personal properties of the persons of the Godhead, let us remember the Bible teaches that God is Triune. The doctrine of the Trinity declares that God is one in essence or being, and three in subsistences or persons. In this question we are considering those qualities in the three persons of the Godhead which make them distinct from one another.
We must be careful not to confuse the personal properties of the Trinity with what is called the doctrine of the “economic Trinity.” The doctrine of the economic Trinity looks at what God does in relation to His creatures in time, and how He does it – the division of labor among the persons of the Godhead, if you will. By this doctrine we understand how the persons of the Godhead act differently in creation and redemption. Thus, in Scripture the Father sends the Son into the world, the Son accomplishes our redemption, and the Spirit applies it to us. It would be erroneous, therefore, to say that the Spirit sent the Father into the world who accomplished redemption, which was then applied by the Son. Thus, the doctrine of the economic Trinity helps to keep our thinking about God accurate.
Of equal importance is the doctrine of the “ontological Trinity.” Whereas the economic Trinity is about the different works of the persons of the Godhead, the ontological Trinity has to do with the being of God. The doctrine of the ontological Trinity examines who God is from all eternity, including the personal properties of the persons of the Godhead, which distinguish them from one another – not according to what each of them do, but according to who each of them are. Thus, while the economic Trinity refers to what God does, the ontological Trinity teaches us who God is.
Here it is very important for us to notice that Catechism question 10 is clearly speaking to the doctrine of the ontological Trinity. Ontology is the science of being. Therefore, in the doctrine of the ontological Trinity we consider the different personal properties of each of the persons of the Godhead. These properties inhere in the persons of the Trinity, and so they do not originate with the work of creation. If that were the case, then God would be one in Essence AND one in Person, from all eternity, and He would have begun to be Triune only when He took up the work of creation. For how could God be three in Person if there were absolutely no distinctions in the persons of the Godhead? Such an understanding of God would make the Trinity a mode of existence that God took up in order to create and to redeem, but it would not describe the essence of God’s eternal being. This is the ancient heresy of Sabellianism or “Modalism.”
The Catechism refutes this error by declaring that the different personal properties of the persons of the Godhead as originate “from all eternity.” From all eternity the Father begets the Son (John 1:18). From all eternity the Son is begotten of the Father (John 17:5), and from all eternity the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and from the Son (John 14:26; 15:26; 20:22). These personal properties describe the way in which our Triune God relates to Himself within His being. God is Trinity, God has always been Trinity, God will always be Trinity.
Furthermore, the doctrine of the persons of the Godhead was not something made up to help us understand God. It is not a divine figure of speech or pedagogical tool. It is who God is and has always been. This teaching also refutes the modern feminist theologians of our day who say it is equally accurate to speak of God as mother, or that God could have revealed Himself to us as mother if He so chose; as if the Fatherhood and Sonship of God were temporal or just semantical! On the contrary, God has revealed Himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, because that is truly and really who God is! Human fatherhood and sonship is a reflection of who God is and not vice versa. Let us bow the knee before our Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – one in essence and three in persons from all and to all eternity!