Does the Bible use the word 'Person' of Father and Son?

The popular catch-phrase 'One God in three persons' causes anti-trinitarians immense distress. Are these concerns warranted...or is this phraseology Biblical?

  The First Time  
  What does it Mean?  
  Face to Face  
 The Father and the Son 
  The Holy Spirit  
  Express Image  
  To Each His Own  
  Men and Angels  
  Thrice Holy  
Who are the God-people?
  Separate or Distinct?  
  Bible Terminology  
  God is not a Man  
  Face of God  
  Face of the Messiah  
Return to Answering'Oneness' Pentecostalism...

The First Time

The first use that I can discover in post-Biblical literature of the Biblical description of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as 'persons' (Greek 'prosopa') is found in Hippolytus. This author's 'Against the Heresy of a Certain Noetus' employs this phraseology of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the following excerpt:

  • πατηρ μεν γαρ εις, προσωπα δε δυο οτι και ο υιος, το δε τριτον το αγιον πνευμα.
  • “For the Father indeed is One, but there are two Persons, because there is also the Son; and then there is the third, the Holy Spirit.” (14).
  • (Greek quoted from p. 257, 'Hippolyte Contre Les Heresies,' Fragment, Pierre Nautin, 1949).

This author wrote 'Against the Heresy of a Certain Noetus' between the years 200 - 210 A.D. The language had, of course, been used the Bible.

Because first use is so critical in weighing the legitimacy of a phrase, I've scanned Nautin's Greek:

Nautin's Greek Text

The first use of 'prosopon' of Father and Son in the text is found in Section 7, which reads like so in translation: “If, again, he allege His own word when He said, 'I and the Father are one,' [John 10:30], let him attend to the fact, and understand that He did not say, 'I and the Father am one, but are one.'  For the word are is not said of one person, but it refers to two persons, and one power.” (Hippolytus, 'Against the Heresy of One Noetus'). The Greek is as follows:

Nautin's Greek Text



The English translation of 'Against the Heresy of One Noetus' is available in the Thrice Holy Library:


It is difficult to quarrel with Hippolytus over the propriety of this term. As we will see below, 'prosopon' is used in the Bible of the Father and the Son, and likely of the Holy Spirit. Nor is this term so used that one may identify the 'prosopon' of Father and Son as one, rather, "For Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence ['prosopo'] of God for us:..." (Hebrews 9:24). If Jesus Christ is appearing before the face of God the Father, which is what the dative signifies, then how can His 'face' also be the same 'face' before which He appears?


Like many English words, 'person' comes from the Latin: "person, n. [L. persona, primarily a mask used by actors, hence, a character, a person, from personare, to sound through -- per, through, and sonare, to sound.]" (Webster's International). The Latin 'persona' is directly equivalent with the Greek 'prosopon', as Boethius, a sympathetic sixth century observer of Christianity, noted:

  • "For the word 'person' seems to be borrowed from a different source, namely from the masks (personae) which in comedies and tragedies used to represent the people concerned...The Greeks, too, call these masks 'prosopa' from the fact that they are placed over the face and conceal the countenance in front of the eyes: παρα του προς τους ωπας τιθεσθαι (from being put up against the face).  But since, as we have said, it was by the masks they put on that actors represented the individual concerned in a tragedy or comedy - Hecuba or Medea or Simo or Chremes, - so also of all other men who could be clearly recognized by their appearance the Latins used the name 'persona', the Greeks 'prosopa'."
  • (Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, Contra Eutychen, III).

Given that the English 'person' is the Latin persona, it's awkward to portray it as a 'mistranslation' of the Latin, or of the equivalent Greek word.

What does it Mean?

'Prosopon' comes from 'pros ops,' 'about the eyes,' meaning 'face.' 'Prosopon', Strong's 4383, shows up in the KJV as follows: face 55, person 7, presence 7, countenance 3, not tr. 1, misc 5; 78.  It's translated as "person" in Mark 12:14: "...Master, we know that thou art true, and carest for no man: for thou regardest not the person ['prosopon'] of men, but teachest the way of God in truth..." Another translation is as "presence" (i.e., in one's face). By the time of the New Testament, the Greek 'prosopon' had come to take on a similar range of meanings we give to 'person':

  • (Vocabulary of the Greek Testament,
    by J. H. Moulton and G. Milligan).

It also carried our sense of 'personality:' students of Greek rhetoric were expected to perform an exercise called 'prosopopoeia,' προσωποποιια, in which they were expected to remain 'in character' and speak as would a given historical figure. See, for example, Quintilian, "In consequence prosopopeiae appear to me the most difficult of all speeches of this kind; for in them the task of sustaining a character is added to the other arduous points of suasory eloquence. Caesar, Cicero, and Cato, speaking on the same subject, must each express himself differently. . .Nor am I ignorant that poetical and historical prosopopeiae are sometimes given in the schools by way of exercise; as the pleading of Priam before Achilles, or the address of Sylla to the people on laying down the dictatorship." (Quintilian, Institutes of Oratory, Book III, Chapter VIII, Section 49-53). Translating the Greek 'prosopon' with the English 'person' does not substitute something different nor add something new; it does however lop off a portion that Bible word's meaning. It is difficult to see that it is always the wrong portion, though. As will be seen, the Bible uses 'prosopon' of the Father and the Spirit. We do not commonly use 'person' to mean 'face.' Given that the Bible says that "God is a Spirit" (John 4:24), what does 'face' mean? Here is the first entry in Webster's definition of 'face': "The front part of an animal's head..." (Webster's International).

That is unhelpful! The Bible frequently refers to the 'face' of God: "For they inherited not the land by their own sword, and their own arm did not deliver them; but thy right hand, and thine arm, and the light of thy countenance [προσωπου LXX], because thou wert well pleased in them." (Psalm 44:3, Brenton Septuagint). This cannot mean 'visage,' or part of the body, as of a human or an animal, because God is spirit. So what then does it mean? Philo offers one course of speculation on the "face" of God: "It is impossible for human nature to behold the face of the living God; but the word 'face' is not used here in its literal meaning, but it is a metaphorical expression, here intended to manifest the purest and simplest form of the living God, since man is not recognized more by anything than by his face, according to his peculiar distinctive qualities and form." (Philo Judaeus, Fragments, p. 249, Volume IV, The Works of Philo Judaeus, translated by C. D. Yonge.) But all believers are constrained to seek God's face, on their knees; is it only in metaphor?: "If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land." (2 Chronicles 7:14). And has God one solitary face. . .or three?

Easter Lily

Face to Face

Attentive Bible readers are aware that God has more than one 'face', or 'prosopon'.  There is a face of God which no man can see and live: "But He said, 'You cannot see My face ['prosopon' LXX]; for no man shall see Me, and live.'" (Exodus 33:20).

Yet many have seen God and lived: "So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: 'For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.'" (Genesis 32:30).

There is a face of God which no man can see and live. Yet many have seen God and lived.  Does the Bible contradict itself?  That cannot be!  Some, like Daniel, have seen similitudes and visions in the night, but others are plainly stated to have encountered the LORD Himself, face to face:

"So the LORD spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. And he would return to the camp, but his servant Joshua the son of Nun, a young man, did not depart from the tabernacle." (Exodus 33:11);
"Not so with My servant Moses; He is faithful in all My house. I speak with him face to face, Even plainly, and not in dark sayings; and he sees the form of the LORD.  Why then were you not afraid To speak against My servant Moses?'" (Numbers 12:7-8);
"But since then there has not arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face ['prosopon kata prosopon' LXX]..." (Deuteronomy 34:10).

Thus, there is a face of God which no man can see and live.  Yet prophets and patriarchs have seen God and lived.  Jacob not only saw Him face to face: "So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: 'For I have seen God face to face ['prosopon pros prosopon' LXX], and my life is preserved.'" (Genesis 32:30),— but even wrestled with Him!  Not Jesse Ventura-style body slamming but 'Queen for a Day' crying jags fired the competition:

"He took his brother by the heel in the womb,
And in his strength he struggled with God.
Yes, he struggled with the Angel and prevailed;
He wept, and sought favor from Him.
He found Him in Bethel,
And there He spoke to us -
That is, the LORD God of hosts.
The LORD is His memorable name." (Hosea 12:3-5).

Knowing that there is a face of God which no man can see and live, we are thus forced to conclude that there is another face of God which one can see and live with safety: "For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face ['prosopon'] of Jesus Christ." (2 Corinthians 4:6).

This word, "prosopon," is the word the earliest writers employed to say, in Greek, 'One God in three persons.'  The Latin term 'persona' is the correlative term to 'prosopon': "Nor was the word 'person' in use only among the Latins, for the Greeks, perhaps to testify their agreement, taught that there are three 'prosopa' in God." (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book I, Chapter XIII, 2.).

The face of God seen by prophet and patriarch cannot be the Father, because Jesus tells us so:

"Not that anyone has seen the Father, except He who is from God; He has seen the Father." (John 6:46);
"And the Father Himself, who sent Me, has testified of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time, nor seen His form." (John 5:37).  

So: prophets and patriarchs encountered God: God Himself, in person, not represented in vision or dream; yet they did not encounter God the Father.  Whom did they encounter?  God the Son!  The pre-incarnate Logos: "...the image of the invisible God." (Colossians 1:15).


Prosopon: the Father and the Son

The Bible uses the word 'person,' the Greek 'prosopon', both of the Son, and also of the Father.

The Bible talks about the "person" of Christ: "To whom ye forgive any thing, I forgive also: for if I forgave any thing, to whom I forgave it, for your sakes forgave I it in the person ['prosopon'] of Christ..." (2 Corinthians 2:10 KJV).

'Prosopon' is also used of the Father:

"And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face ['prosopon'] of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb..." (Revelation 6:16);
"Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, tthat in heaven their angels do always behold the face ['prosopon'] of my Father which is in heaven." (Matthew 18:10);
"Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence ['prosopon'] of the Lord, and that He may send Jesus Christ, who was preached to you before..." (Acts 3:19-20).
"For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence ['prosopon'] of God for us..." (Hebrews 9:24).

...and also of the Son:

"These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence ['prosopon'] of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes, in that Day, to be glorified in His saints and to be admired among all those who believe, because our testimony among you was believed." (2 Thessalonians 1:9-10).

"And he said, My presence ['prosopon'] shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest." (Exodus 33:14).

So Bible readers who speak of 'the person of the Son' and 'the person of the Father' are not departing from Biblical usage.  

Prosopon: The Holy Spirit

Parallelism, the repetition of the same thought, differently expressed, in sequence, is of common occurrence in the Old Testament. If these are instances of equivalent parallelism, then 'prosopon' is also used of the Holy Spirit:

"Cast me not away from thy presence ['prosopon' LXX]; and remove not thy holy Spirit from me." (Psalm 51:11).
"Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? and whither shall I flee from thy presence ['prosopon' LXX)?" (Psalm 139:7).

A similar Hebrew word, paniym, occurs in Ezekiel 39:29: "Neither will I hide my face ['paniym'] any more from them: for I have poured out my spirit upon the house of Israel, saith the Lord GOD."

Express Image

"God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person ['hypostasis'], and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high..." (Hebrews 1:3). 

In the half century after Nicaea, the catch-phrase "One substance ['ousia'] in three subsistences ['hypostases']" came into favor amongst Greek theologians. T. F. Torrance credits Didymus of Alexandria [c. 310 - 395 A.D.] with this formula: "He [Didymus of Alexandria] may well have been the first theologian to have used the formula, 'mia ousia, treis hypostaseis' [one substance, three hypostases]..." (The Trinitarian Faith, p. 323).  The term itself had been used before: "Origen in turn writes: 'We have learned to believe in three hypostases, the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost."" (In Joan, XIV, 28., Abbe Felix Klein, The Doctrine of the Trinity, p. 89). Like 'prosopon', this word is also Biblical, occurring in Hebrews 1:3. Though often used as if functionally equivalent to 'person,' it does not carry any connotation of personhood or consciousness, rather 'instantiation:' i.e., the 'ousia' of 'humanity' is expressed in the hypostases Tom, Dick, Jane, etc.

The "brightness" and "express image" of Hebrews 1:3 delineate a relation between "God" (the Father) of verse 1 and "His Son".  An "express image" is numerically distinct from its original, though differing in no particular feature.  Much as 'Oneness' Pentecostals fondly hope to nudge these relations toward the incarnation, making 'the flesh' the express image of 'the Spirit' (however that may be done), the Bible's "through whom also He made the worlds" closes that door, making it plain the "Son" under discussion is the eternal Son, present at the Day of Creation.

The 'God' of Hebrews 1:1 is God the Father, as we know from His being placed in relation to "His Son."  'Theos' [God] and 'kyrios' [Lord], wedded together in the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) as the two common titles of the living God, find themselves neatly sorted out in the New Testament, dispensed respectively to Father and Son: "For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many gods and many lords), yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live." (1 Corinthians 8:5-6).  To those unfamiliar with this New Testament usage, the Jehovah's Witnesses and the 'Oneness' Pentecostals plug 'Father-onlyism' as the Bible way.  Yet one might with equal justice base 'Son-onlyism' on Hebrews 1:8, where it is "the Son" called "God": "But to the Son He says: 'Your throne, O God, is forever and ever...'", or 'Holy Spirit-onlyism' on Acts 5:4, where it is the Holy Spirit called "God": "...You have not lied to men but to God."  Common sense dictates that, where "God" is placed in relation to another who is known to be God, like "His Son", "God" is understood specifically of Him who bears that relation: in this case, God the Father.

The understanding of the Greek theologians that there is more than one 'hypostasis' in God may have arisen through close study of Hebrews 1:3. An 'exact imprint' is numerically distinct, though substantively identical, to its exemplar:

"The apostle, calling the Son of God 'the stamp of the Father's hypostasis' [Heb. 1:3], doubtless assigns some subsistence to the Father wherein he differs from the Son.  For to consider hypostasis equivalent to essence...would be not only uncouth but also absurd.  For since the essence of God is simple and undivided, and he contains all in himself, without portion or derivation, but in integral perfection, the Son will be improperly, even foolishly, called his 'stamp.' But because the Father, although distinct in his proper nature, expresses himself wholly in the Son, for a very good reason it is said that he has made his hypostasis visible in the latter.  In close agreement with this are the words immediately following, that the Son is 'the splendor of his glory'.  Surely we infer from the apostle's words that the very hypostasis that shines forth in the Son is in the Father.  From this we also easily ascertain the Son's hypostasis, which distinguishes him from the Father...Indeed, this is not a distinction of essence, which it is unlawful to make manifold.  Therefore, if the testimony of the apostle obtains any credence, it follows that there are in God three hypostases." (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book I, Chapter XIII, 2).

This use of 'hypostasis' by Greek theologians provoked controversy in the West.  The Greeks diagnosed the problem as the "poverty" of the Latin language: "We use in an orthodox sense the terms one Essence and three Hypostases, the one to denote the nature of the Godhead, the other the properties of the Three; the Italians mean the same, but, owing to the scantiness of their vocabulary, and its poverty of terms, they are unable to distinguish between Essence and Hypostases, and therefore introduce the term Persons, to avoid being understood to assert three Essences.  The result, were it not piteous, would be laughable.  This slight difference of sound was taken to indicate a difference of faith." (Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 21:35).  The 'poverty' problem was this: the Latin 'substance' shares an etymology with 'hypostasis', literally 'standing under,' and is consequently an attractive choice for the translator.  Except 'substance' had already been spoken for: it was the common rendering of 'ousia', which means 'being' or 'essence'.  But all acknowledged that three 'ousia's' was tritheism.  The solution can run in either of two directions: either kick 'ousia' upstairs, translating with a form of 'esse' ['to be'] (as 'ousia' is a form of 'einai', 'to be'), namely 'essence', reserving 'substance' to correspond with 'hypostasis'; or else leave 'substance' to correspond to 'ousia', translating 'hypostasis' as 'subsistence.'  The contention over terms rose to this degree: "...there was a danger of the whole world being torn asunder in the strife about syllables." (Ibid.)

To Each His Own

How did 'hypostasis,' which means 'subsistence' or 'instantiation,' come to be treated as functionally equivalent to 'person'?  Those Greek theologians who preferred 'hypostasis' to 'person' were liberal-minded enough to grant to each his own: "...thus we are regenerated, acknowledging the Unity in the Essence and in the undivided worship, and the Trinity in the Hypostases or Persons (which term some prefer.)  And let not those who are contentious on these points utter their scandalous taunts, as if our faith depended on terms and not on realities.  For what do you mean who assert the three Hypostases?  Do you imply three Essences by the term?  I am assured that you would loudly shout against those who do so.  For you teach that the Essence of the Three is One and the same.  What do you mean, who assert the Three Persons?  Do you imagine a single compound sort of being, with three faces, or of an entirely human form?  Perish the thought!  You too will loudly reply that he who thinks thus, will never see the face of God, whatever it may be." (Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 42, 16.) Though 'hypostasis' does not mean 'person,' those who preferred to say 'hypostasis' said it at the same time as those who preferred to say 'person;' to each his own.

Men and Angels

Pet-food commercials employ 'person' as roughly equivalent to 'human being,' but the same cannot be said of 'prosopon.' Angels too have 'faces':

"And all that sat in the council, looking stedfastly on him, saw his face ['prosopon'] as it had been the face ['prosopon'] of an angel." (Acts 6:15 ).

And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face ['prosopon'] was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire:..." (Revelation 10:1 ).

Even the theophanic 'Angel of the Lord,' who is God Himself, has a 'face':

"And when Gideon perceived that he was an angel of the LORD, Gideon said, Alas, O Lord GOD! for because I have seen an angel of the LORD face to face ['prosopon pros prosopon' LXX]." (Judges 6:22 ).

This angel, i.e. messenger, though called an angel, is no creature but God Himself:

"First and foremost, assurance is given them of the personal presence of Jehovah in that ANGEL, in Whom is the Name of the Lord (Exo. 23: 20). This was no common angel, however exalted, but a manifestation of Jehovah Himself, prefigurative of, and preparatory to His manifestation in the flesh in the Person of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. For all that is here said of Him is attributed to the Lord Himself in Exo. 13: 21; while in Exo. 33: 14-15, He is expressly designated as "the Face" of Jehovah (" My Face" - in the Authorized Version "My presence")."

(Edersheim, Alfred (2014-06-29). Bible History: Old Testament: Books One Through Four (The Works of Alfred Edersheim Book 4) (Kindle Locations 5141-5145).

In contemporary American English, 'person' is dwindling down to meaning 'human being'. This is the first definition in Webster's: "person,...An individual human being;..." (Webster's International). In the Bible, 'prosopon' is applied not only to angels, but even to inanimate objects:

"But there rose a fountain out of the earth, and watered the whole face ['prosopon' LXX] of the earth." (Genesis 2:6).

Because 'prosopon' comes from 'pros' 'ops,' 'about the eyes,' its extension to the interface of inanimate objects is evidently by metaphor. The modern psychological concept of what it means to be a 'person:' incorporating such elements as self-consciousness and autonomy,— is, some think, as much a consequence of trinitarian discussion as something already attached to these words when they first began to be used.

When the Psalmist speaks of beholding God's 'face:' "As for me, I will behold thy face [τω προσωπω σου LXX] in righteousness: I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness." (Psalm 17:15), this should be sufficient to break the 'person=human being' chain.


Tertullian, writing in Latin, employed the term "personae" of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Tertullian wrote 'Against Praxeas' after 213 A.D., which is after Hippolytus had written 'Against the Heresy of One Noetus' in Greek. Some readers take Tertullian's reference to "him whose agency God was pleased to employ" as a fulsome circumlocution for himself:

"Praxeas' tares had been moreover sown, and had produced their fruit here also, while many were asleep in their simplicity of doctrine; but these tares actually seemed to have been plucked up, having been discovered and exposed by him whose agency God was pleased to employ. " (Tertullian, Against Praxeas, I.).

That seems unlikely, given his own testimony that he had recently gone to school with the Holy Spirit on this topic:

"We, however, as we indeed always have done and more especially since we have been better instructed by the Paraclete, who leads men indeed into all truth, believe that there is one only God, but under the following dispensation, or oikonomia, as it is called, that this one only God has also a Son, His Word, who proceeded from Himself, by whom all things were made, and without whom nothing was made." (Against Praxeas, II.)

I think it likelier he was referring to Hippolytus, who had written 'Against the Heresy of One Noetus' at the first outbreak of this heresy. Modalism was a moving target; its initial form of patripassianism was easy enough to refute and even ridicule, but when it came back in the more bullet-proof form of 'Son'='flesh' and 'Father'='Spirit,' the first refutation no longer sufficed. But while he cannot claim originality for the term, Tertullian was a careful writer mindful of the Latin word's meaning. 'Persona' was a term with legal implications. Legal consequences had built up upon the base of the word's literal foundation of a 'mask' distinguishing a character in a drama, thus, a person:

"persona, a mask, esp. as worn by actors in Greek and Roman drama.

TRANSF., (1) role, part, character, person represented by an actor...(2) in gen., the part which anyone plays...(3) a personality, individuality, character." (Cassell's Latin Dictionary)

These legal implications clustered around the idea that a 'person' is one competent to give legal testimony or enter into a contract. Is this implication accurate when talking about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit? Most emphatically!:

Thrice Holy

Aptly the triune God taught Moses to bless the children of Israel,

"The LORD bless you and keep you,
The LORD make His face ['prosopon' LXX] shine upon you,
And be gracious to you;
The LORD lift up His countenance ['prosopon' LXX] upon you,
And give you peace." (Numbers 6:24-26).

"Restore us, O God;
Cause Your face ['prosopon' LXX] to shine,
And we shall be saved!...
Restore us, O God of hosts;
Cause Your face ['prosopon' LXX] to shine,
And we shall be saved!...
Restore us, O LORD God of hosts;
Cause Your face ['prosopon' LXX] to shine,
And we shall be saved!" (Psalm 80:3-19).


Who are the 'God-people'?

One hears from 'Oneness' Pentecostals the barbarous yawp, 'God-people'.  This unholy expression comes from the contemporary English usage of employing 'people' as an all-purpose plural of 'person'.  But it ain't!

To the dictionary, 'person' and 'people' are two altogether different words, with completely different etymologies! The English 'person' is the Latin 'persona', the plural of which is 'personae': "persona (personae)...C. A person, personage, character" (A Latin Dictionary for Schools, Charlton T. Lewis).  The English 'people', by contrast, comes from the Latin 'populus', the plural of which is 'populi': "populus (populi), I. Prop. A. a people, nation; B. I. In Rome, the whole body of citizens, people...2. The citizens...B. A multitude, host, crowd, throng, great number...the public." (A Latin Dictionary, Charlton T. Lewis).  The plural of 'person' is 'persons', the plural of 'people' is 'peoples'.  Sample sentence: 'The peoples of the Balkans must learn to live in harmony.'

Separate or Distinct?

"In over 20,000 references about God in Scripture we get to know all we need to know about the subject. If we will take the Bible literally as to what it says about Him, as we do with other things the subject will be very clear; but if we make God a mystery, ignore the plain statements of Scripture about Him, and refuse to believe the many descriptions of God given by those who have seen one, two, and three separate persons called 'God,' then we will remain in ignorance." (Finis Dake, The Dake Anotated Refrence Bible, p. 290 (280)).

If 'a' is in 'b' and 'b' is in 'a', in what sense can 'a' and 'b' be "separate"?:

"Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me?" (John 14:10).

This is why tradition denies that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are 'separate' persons:

"Since as Jerome remarks, a 'heresy arises from words wrongly used,' when we speak of the Trinity we must proceed with care and with befitting modesty; because, as Augustine says (De Trin. i, 3), 'nowhere is error more harmful, the quest more toilsome, the finding more fruitful.' Now, in treating of the Trinity we must beware of two opposite errors, and proceed cautiously between them - namely, the error of Arius, who placed a Trinity of substance with the Trinity of persons, and the error of Sabellius, who placed unity of person with the unity of essence.
"Thus, to avoid the error of Arius we must shun the use of the terms diversity and difference in God, lest we take away the unity of essence; we may, however, use the term 'distinction' on account of the relative opposition...But lest the simplicity and singleness of the divine essence be taken away, the terms 'separation' and 'division,' which belong to the parts of a whole, are to be avoided...Hence Hilary says (De Trin. vii): 'It is sacrilege to assert that the Father and the Son are separate in Godhead.'" (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, First Part Q. 31, Article 2).

'Separate' is wrong, 'distinct' is Biblically accurate.

Divisibility into parts, a characteristic of the material universe, is not to be looked for in God.  Thus a word like 'separate' which, taken literally, proposes division into parts, is malapropos: "separate, v.t....To disunite, to divide..." (Webster's International, 1965).  "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." (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book I, Chapter XIII, 17).

To go back to the Latin roots of these words, 'distinguo' means to "mark off".  When you take a magic marker and label 'a' and 'b', you are 'distinguishing' a from b.  'Separo' means to "disjoin, sever".  When you take a meat cleaver and divide 'a' from 'b', you are 'separating' them.  So 'distinct' is appropriate to the persons of the Trinity, whereas 'separate' is not.



"The Father is called God, the Son is called God, and the Holy Spirit is called God. As individual persons each can be called God and collectively they can be spoken of as one God because of their perfect unity. The word God is used either as as a singular or a plural word, like sheep." (Finis Dake, The Dake Annotated Reference Bible, p. 490 (280)

Are Father, Son and Holy Spirit 'individuals'? What is an 'individual'?:

"individual...[from L. individuus, indivisible - in, not, and dividuus, divisible. DIVIDE.] Subsisting as one indivisible entity or distinct being..." (Webster's International, 1965).

This Latin word corresponds to the Greek 'atomos': "individuus (in/divido), indivisible, atom." (Cassell's Latin Dictionary). Though modern-day 'atoms' splinter into a plethora of sub-atomic particles, the original concept of an 'atom' is that it's the smallest unit of divisibility. If God is comprised of 'individuals,' then God can be divided into parts.

But that God is perfectly simple: that is, that He cannot be divided into parts,-- follows from His necessary and eternal existence:

"God being a Spirit, we learn that he is a simple and uncompounded Being, and does not consist of parts, as a body does; his spirituality involves his simplicity: some indeed consider this as an attribute of God; and his spirituality also: and, indeed, every attribute of God, is God himself, is his nature, and are only so many ways of considering it, or are so many displays of it. However, it is certain God is not composed of parts, in any sense...If God was composed of parts he would not be 'eternal', and absolutely the first Being, since the composing parts would, at least, co-exist with him; besides, the composing parts, in our conception of them, would be prior to the compositum; as the body and soul of man, of which he is composed, are prior to his being a man...all which is inconsistent with the eternity of God...nor would he be 'immutable', unalterable, and immortal; since what consists of parts, and depends upon the union of them, is liable to alteration, and to be resolved into those parts again, and so be dissolved and come to destruction." (John Gill, Body of Divinity, Of the Simplicity of God).

If God were comprised of parts, then He would exist neither eternally nor He certainly does: "For thus says the High and Lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place..." (Isaiah 57:15). Counting three 'individuals,' for the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, is misleading and unwarranted:

"It is generally admitted that the word “person” is but an imperfect expression of the idea. In common parlance it denotes a separate rational and moral individual, possessed of self-consciousness, and conscious of his identity amid all changes. Experience teaches that where you have a person, you also have a distinct individual essence. Every person is a distinct and separate individual, in whom human nature is individualized. But 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."
(Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology (Kindle Locations 1807-1811). GLH Publishing.)

When the heretics draw erroneous conclusions from trinitarian phraseology, they are not always acting in bad faith; it should be clearly pointed out when assumptions based on that terminology, such as three 'individuals,' which might seem natural, are not accepted, for sound scriptural reasons.


The Nicene Creed asserts that Father and Son are 'homoousios,' meaning, of one substance, essence, or being:

This, too, is denied by Finis Dake, who finds multiple "beings" in God:

"There is more than one Jehovah and more than one God as individuals, but they are one Jehovah and one God in unity, thus expressing the truth of 3 separate and distinct persons, beings, or individuals in the Divine Trinity....Since there are 3 persons or beings, then the only way they can be one is in the sense of unity, as prayed for in Jn. 17:21-23." (Finis Dake, The Dake Annotated Reference Bible, p. 394 (235).)

Three "beings" is three ousia's: tritheism. Unfortunately this author reacted so strongly against 'Oneness' that he went over to the heresy on the other side. The idea that the doctrine of the Trinity describes 'three separate beings' is depressingly common amongst anti-trinitarians:

  • "But that their defense is merely verbal is now plain from what has been said; for admitting that there are three beings, which they call Persons, by reasoning from a substitution of terms [a convertibilibus arguendo], they admit three entities, and consequently three Substances."
  • (Michael Servetus, On the Errors of the Trinity, p. 56, The Two Treatises of Servetus on the Trinity, translated by Earl Morse Wilbur).

No doubt by a judicious 'substitution of terms,' any statement can be transformed into any other; it is preferable not to substitute, because these terms were chosen carefully.

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While modern-day 'Oneness' Pentecostals abhor the word 'person', Sabellius, the most widely known of the modalists, was willing to use the orthodox terminology of One God in three persons ('prosopa'):

"Not long ago, indeed quite recently, a certain Sabellius came to the fore, and from him the Sabellians get their name...A close analogy may be found in the body, soul and spirit of man.  The body is as it were the Father; the soul is the Son; while the Spirit is to the Godhead as his spirit is to a man.  Or take the sun: it is one substance, but it has three 'prosopa', light, heat, and the orb itself.  The (analogous to) the Spirit; the light to the Son; while the Father himself is represented by the actual substance.  The Son was at one time emitted, like a ray of light; he accomplished in the world all that pertained to the dispensation of the Gospel and man's salvation, was then taken back into heaven, as a ray is emitted by the sun and then withdrawn again into the sun." (Epiphanius, Adv. haerese, lxii.I, quoted p. 38, Documents of the Christian Church, Henry Bettenson).

Incidentally, does all this talk about stuff being 'emitted', then 'taken back' sound unfamiliar, perhaps even. . .unbiblical? This extra-Biblical vocabulary sounds for all the world like technical terminology from Neoplatonic philosophy; Sabellius would seem to have been of that persuasion. I have uploaded Basil's very interesting Letter 210 to the Thriceholy Library, where readers can see how the revival modalists he countered were very willing to say that God has several 'faces,' but  not 'hypostases.' Basil unfortunately does not say what they thought was the singular "name:"

  Letter 210 

The sun analogy, which goes back to the gnostics, has proven popular among orthodox trinitarians.  Here is Jonathan Edwards' take on the sun analogy:

"There are two more eminent and remarkable images of the Trinity among the creatures. The one is in the spiritual creation, the soul of man. There is the mind, and the understanding or idea, and the spirit of the mind as it is called in Scripture, i.e., the disposition, the will or affection. The other is in the visible creation, viz., the Sun. The father is as the substance of the Sun. (By substance I don't mean in a philosophical sense, but the Sun as to its internal constitution.) The Son is as the brightness and glory of the disk of the Sun or that bright and glorious form under which it appears to our eyes. The Holy Ghost is the action of the Sun which is within the Sun in its intestine heat, and, being diffusive, enlightens, warms, enlivens and comforts the world. The Spirit as it is God's Infinite love to Himself and happiness in Himself, is as the internal heat of the Sun, but as it is that by which God communicates Himself, it is as the emanation of the sun's action, or the emitted beams of the sun.
"The various sorts of rays of the sun and their beautiful colors do well represent the Spirit. They well represent the love and grace of God and were made use of for this purpose in the rainbow after the flood, and I suppose also in that rainbow that was seen round about the throne by Ezekiel (Ezek. 1:28; Rev. 4:3) and round the head of Christ by John (Rev. 10:1), or the amiable excellency of God and the various beautiful graces and virtues of the Spirit." (Jonathan Edwards, An Unpublished Essay on the Trinity).

To make the sun analogy acceptable to the orthodox requires only a more astronomically accurate understanding of it.  Justin Martyr, years before, had heard it and rejected it...on the strength of the assumption that the sun, like a small-town merchant, rolls up his awning and closes up shop at night, withdrawing his rays into himself:

" they say that this power [the Word] is indivisible and inseparable from the sun in the heavens; as when it sinks, the light sinks along with it; so the Father, when He chooses, say they, causes His power to spring forth, and when He chooses, He makes it return to Himself..." (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, CXXVIII).

But even Ptolemaic astronomy had the resources to realize the sun's rays are not "withdrawn" when the sun shuts down for the night; rather, the sun shines always, we only turn away from his unfailing brightness at night.  So understood in astronomically accurate fashion, this analogy speaks of the eternal Son and Spirit, not intermittent 'emanations' 'withdrawn' back to their source.

It was the willingness of Sabellius to employ the orthodox terminology of 'One God in three persons' which pushed the Post-Nicene Greek theologians towards using 'hypostasis', 'subsistence', in place of 'person':

"For merely to enumerate the differences of Persons is insufficient; we must confess each Person to have a natural existence in real hypostasis.  Now Sabellius did not even deprecate the formation of the persons without hypostasis, saying as he did that the same God, being one in matter, was metamorphosed as the need of the moment required, and spoken of now as Father, now as Son, and now as Holy Ghost." (Basil, Letters, 210:5, To the Notables of Neocaesarea).
"We distinctly lay down that there is a difference of Persons; but this statement was anticipated by Sabellius, who affirms that God is one by hypostasis, but is described by Scripture in different Persons, according to the requirements of each individual case; sometimes under the name of Father, when there is occasion for this Person; sometimes under the name of Son when there is a descent to human interests or any of the operations of the oeconomy; and sometimes under the Person of Spirit when the occasion demands such phraseology." (Basil, Letters, 214:3, To Terentius).
"The distinction between ousia and hypostasis 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... On the other hand those who identify essence or substance and hypostasis are compelled to confess only three Persons [prosopa], and, in their hesitation to speak of three hypostases, are convicted of failure to avoid the error of Sabellius, for even Sabellius himself, who in many places confuses the conception, yet, by asserting that the same hypostasis changed its form to meet the needs of the moment, does endeavor to distinguish persons." (Basil, Letters, 236:6, To Amphilochius).

Today's modalists, unlike Sabellius, are generally hostile to the formula 'One God in three persons.' One exception to the rule,—or is he?— is Bishop T. D. Jakes, who prefers the language of 'One God in three eternal manifestations.' Since those who prefer to say 'three manifestations' generally seek to communicate that these are temporary appearances, it is not clear what the speaker who says 'three eternal manifestations' wishes to communicate; certainly not that these are 'temporary,' or he wouldn't say 'eternal.' God has revealed Himself to mankind as triune; the orthodox understand that He has revealed Himself truly, as He is. If He had revealed Himself as what He is not, would that be a revelation or a concealment? The trinity is not just how God appears to us, but how God is.


Bible Terminology

Bible-believers dislike using extra-biblical terminology: "If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God..." (1 Peter 4:11). When Hippolytus wrote, in Greek, of 'one God in three persons,' the accusation he was using extra-biblical terminology would have been incomprehensible. As we've seen, the Bible freely applies 'prosopon' to God. 'Prosopon' means what 'person' means...and then some.

There is no one-word English translation for 'prosopon' suited for all instances. English translators are obliged to render this one word by a variety of English words: 'face,' 'presence,' 'person.' So 'one God in three persons' may appear to an English reader as unbiblical. How it appears to readers of Tagalog or Lithuanian I couldn't say; the New Testament, after all, is written in Greek, and the early church argued in Greek. Nevertheless, if one must have an alternative which 'works' in English translation, may I suggest the catch-phrase 'one God in three witnesses'? Father and Son are corroborating witnesses:

"It is also written in your law that the testimony of two men is true. I am One who bears witness of Myself, and the Father who sent Me bears witness of Me." (John 8:17-18).

The Holy Spirit corroborates their testimony:

"But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father...He will testify of Me." (John 15:26);
"And we are His witnesses to theses things, and so also is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him." (Acts 5:32).

The limits of the concept of 'Bible terminology' may be shown by evaluating Tertullian's interpretation of Lamentations 4:20: "We indeed, who know for certain that Christ always spoke in the prophets, as the Spirit of the Creator (for so says the prophet: “The person of our Spirit, Christ the Lord,” who from the beginning was both heard and seen as the Father’s vicegerent in the name of God), are well aware that His words, when actually upbraiding Israel, were the same as those which it was foretold that He should denounce against him. . ." (Tertullian, Five Books Against Marcion, Book III, Chapter 6). What Old Testament prophet actually says anything about Christ as "the person of our Spirit"? It's Lamentations 4:20, "The breath of our nostrils, the anointed of the LORD, was taken in their pits, of whom we said, Under his shadow we shall live among the heathen." (KJV). Can we possibly learn anything about the inner workings of the Trinity from such a verse? But Tertullian is making a very literal, word for word Latin translation of the Septuagint, which reads, "The breath [πνευμα] of our nostrils [προσωπου], our anointed [χριστος] Lord [κυριου], was taken in their destructive snares, of whom we said, In his shadow we shall live among the Gentiles." (Brenton Septuagint, Lamentations 4:20; his text must have been slightly different, but only slightly). 'Breath' and 'spirit' are the same word, as indeed in Hebrew [ruach]; 'anointed' [mashiyach] is Christ, etc. And yes, there's our friend 'prosopon.' How little distance needs to be traversed to land in a different thought-universe! You can either take God at His word, or not. Of course, it doesn't say that in English. But if the luxuriant riches of the Greek language cannot give to God anything He does not already have, surely the poverty of the English language cannot take anything away from Him either. Translating the Hebrew scriptures into Greek cannot make a uni-personal God triune; but neither can the deficiencies of English make a triune God uni-personal.

Personally I would not venture to speak of three 'centers of consciousness' in God, because the Bible knows nothing of any 'centers of consciousness,' and what might such a thing be anyway? But three persons is right, and Biblical.

God is Not a Man

"God is not a man, that He should lie Nor a son of man, that He should repent. Has He said, and will He not do? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?" (Numbers 23:19).
"I will not execute the fierceness of My anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim. For I am God, and not man, the Holy One in your midst; and I will not come with terror." (Hosea 11:9).

The English word 'person' has increasingly come to be synonymous with 'human being.' Although God took on human nature in the incarnation, in His own nature He is not a man. As we've seen, the word used by the earliest writers to say 'God in three persons' is applied in the Bible to God the Father as well as the Son. Given that 'prosopon' is used of God the Father, is it not self-evident that the word cannot be limited to meaning 'human being'? This oddity of contemporary English has already facilitated heresy in the case of Finis Dake, unless his was a case where the ghost of Joseph Smith strikes again: this inventive and protean heretic also thought of God as an exalted man. To this day the Mormons argue that 'non-corporeal' means 'non-existent.' This equation, 'person'='human being,' is an error to be guarded against.


The Face of God

06440 paniym paw-neem’ pl. (but always as sing.) of an unused noun

AV-before 1137, face 390, presence 76, because 67, sight 40, countenance 30, from 27, person 21, upon 20, of 20, 18, against 17, ...him 16, open 13, for 13, toward 9, misc 195; 2109

1) face
1a) face, faces
1b) presence, person
1c) face (of seraphim or cherubim)
1d) face (of animals)
1e) face, surface (of ground)
1f) as adv of loc/temp
1f1) before and behind, toward, in front of, forward, formerly, from beforetime, before
1g) with prep
1g1) in front of, before, to the front of, in the presence of, in the face of, at the face or front of, from the presence of, from before, from before the face of
(Online Bible Dictionary)

It might seem to some readers that this word and its correlate 'prosopon' combine such heterogeneous meanings that no conclusion can be drawn from their use. God does not speak to man by concocting a divine Esperanto, but employs existing human languages. Still, God does not select the words He uses at random, nor are these meanings unconnected by a common thread. Believers are commanded to seek God's face: "...if My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face ['paniym'] and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land." (2 Chronicles 7:14). To turn one's back is to reject, to turn one's face to enter into relation: "For they have turned their back to Me, and not their face. But in the time of their trouble they will say, ‘Arise and save us.’" (Jeremiah 2:27). God-seekers pray for God's face to turn their way: "Turn us again, O God of hosts, and cause thy face ['paniym'] to shine; and we shall be saved." (Psalm 80:7). If the concept of God's "face" is so ridiculous as to earn the raucous mockery of the 'Oneness' Pentecostals, why then do believers pray for these things?

In Southeast Asia where villagers are menaced by man-eating tigers, they draw a little face on the back of a farmer's shirt. A tiger will not attack a man who is looking at him, whereas a man whose back is turned is easy prey. A crude sketch with two eyes, a nose, and smile is sufficient to convince the tiger, or so the villagers think. Those who thought this is what was in view when the Bible speaks of the face of God wandered into error: "Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things." (Romans 1:22-23). The children of Israel encountered the word of God face to face: "The LORD talked with you face to face ['paniym'] in the mount out of the midst of the fire..." (Deuteronomy 5:4), but not the villagers' smiley-face: "Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves; for ye saw no manner of similitude on the day that the LORD spake unto you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire:..." (Deuteronomy 4:15).

To be 'in your face' is to be in your presence. The people of God travel in His company: "And because he loved thy fathers, therefore he chose their seed after them, and brought thee out in his sight ['paniym'] with his mighty power out of Egypt;..." (Deuteronomy 4:37). But not only do the people meet God face to face, there are face to face interactions within God: "For Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence ['prosopon'] of God for us:..." (Hebrews 9:24). There is thus a relation or interface within God, as well as between God and His people. Since the Bible says so, in so many words, what is the problem in believing it?


Face of the Messiah

As we've seen, when third century Antipope Hippolytus of Rome applied the word 'prosopon' to Father, Son and Holy Spirit, he was using a Bible word in its proper signification. He would have been mystified by the accusation, so often heard today, that this is not a Bible word. As we've seen, it's translated,— or, rather, the Hebrew word 'paniym,' is translated,— in a variety of ways, some of the time giving no more than the sense of 'before:' when someone is 'in your face,' that person is in front of you, not behind you. You are behind your own face, as the familiar little bit of doggerel has it:

My face I don't mind it,
For I am behind it,
It's the people out front get the jar.

Hebrew uses words derived from the human body for directional signals,

"In the Hebrew language, just as in Arabic, Aramaic, and the other Semitic languages, many prepositions or words having to do with direction or orientation are derived from parts of the body. For example, in Hebrew, the words for 'first' or 'beginning ' come from the word for 'head,' since in the human body, it is the head that comes first. And just as we can speak about being at the 'head of the class' in English, so also in Hebrew you can speak about being at the 'head' (='top') of the mountain. Or, to give you some other example based on other parts of the body, when I am standing next to someone, in Hebrew I am literally 'at the hand' of that person, and if I am standing 'before' them, I am literally 'to the face of' that person." (Michael L. Brown, Go and Sin no More, Kindle location 1221).

Some conclusions that have historically been drawn from this language are misleading, like the lessons learned by the anthropomorphites. But was Hippolytus in error in seeing what he saw? And what would it mean to be 'in front' of God anyway? Let's ask a question that can be answered, though the Bible answer will strike some people as counter-intuitive: how many 'faces' are there? One cannot confirm from the Bible that the 'face' of the Messiah and the 'face' of God the Father is one and the same, as some people say. Rather, the Messiah is before God's face, and God is before the face of the Messiah. See, for instance, Psalm 84:9:

"Behold, O God our defender, and look upon the face of thine anointed. [το προσωπον του χριστου σου LXX]" (Psalm 84:9 Brenton Septuagint).

God the Father is here exhorted to look at the face of the anointed one, whether the present king or the coming one. So here it is not the same face. In Psalm 22, it's just the other way around:

"For he has not despised nor been angry at the supplication of the poor; nor turned away his face [prosopon LXX] from me; but when I cried to him, he heard me." (Psalm 22:24 Brenton Septuagint).

This psalm begins with the terrible cry of dereliction, heard from Jesus on the cross. It goes on to describe in great detail, though written centuries before the event, the Lord's sufferings. Then it pivots on the prayer's being heard and answered, and ends with a catalog of Messianic blessings. Though hesitant to apply such a banal phrase to such crippling god-forsakenness, the psalm does have a 'happy ending.' The Lord's abandonment, the eclipse of the manifest presence of the Father's loving face while He groaned under the weight of alien sins, is a great mystery. It happened just as it was prophesied, but it is the antitype that governs the type, the three-dimensional reality that determines the form of the shadow. It was prophesied, because it happened. Here again, the Messiah has His own face, and beholds His Father's face, not in a mirror but as the face of another. So this, too, is a Bible reality that believers should learn from, not argue with:

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