“Holy, Holy, Holy” is one of the most well-known hymns in the English language. The famous hymn, inspired by the Nicene Creed and sung in countless churches each Sunday, ends with the familiar line “God in three persons, blessed Trinity!” But as beloved as this song is, how well do we understand this familiar line? What do we mean when we say God is one God in three “persons”? Does that mean three different personalities? How do these persons relate to each other? And how do we square this with the biblical affirmation from Deuteronomy 6:4 that “the Lord our God, the Lord is one”?

What does it mean to say that the Trinity is personal?

Don’t Take This Too Personally

Over the past several years, evangelical theology has been racked by a battle over the Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS). On the one side are theologians arguing that obedience and submission are felicitous ways to describe the Son’s eternal relation to his Father. Others object that talk of “functional subordination” flirts with (or, worse, hooks up with) Arianism.

This debate implicates longer-standing disputes about the meaning of person in Trinitarian theology. For some, a divine Person is, in the words of Stephen Holmes, professor of systematic theology at the University of St Andrews, an “instantiation of the divine nature.” To say that the triune Persons are “persons” doesn’t imply that they’re personal or have personality in anything like the common modern sense of the word. Holmes puts it starkly. For Augustine and the Cappadocian fathers of the Eastern church, “all that is truly ‘personal’ (knowledge, volition, action ... ) [is located] in the ineffable divine nature, not severally in the [Persons].”

James Dolezal, theology professor at Cairn University, defends the Thomist view that the persons are “subsistent relations,” no more than relations existing in the essence of God. Catholic theologian Karl Rahner drew the drastic conclusion that there is “properly no mutual love between the Father and Son, for this would presuppose two acts.”

Rahner retains the use of person but defines the term as a “distinct manner of subsisting.” Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth went further, arguing that person is too contaminated by the modern emphasis on self-consciousness to be of use in Trinitarian theology:

“Person” as used in the Church doctrine of the Trinity bears no direct relation to personality. The meaning of the doctrine is not, then, that there are three personalities in God. This would be the worst and most extreme expression of tritheism, against which we must be on guard at this stage. ... But in it we are speaking not of three divine I’s, but thrice of the one divine I.

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Others (I’ll call them “personalists”) deny that the divine Persons are mere formal distinctions within the one divine essence. For personalists, personhood means relationality. As Benedict XVI put it, personal existence is being-from, being-for, and being-with. Father, Son, and Spirit are persons because they speak and are spoken to, love and are loved, give and receive. For personalists, the Trinity is an eternal communion of loyal love.

In the aftermath of the ESS debate, the first position appears to be ascendant, and the proposals of personalism have been discarded. That’s unfortunate, and, following a few pathways of biblical reasoning, I write in defense of beleaguered personalism.

The Baptism of Christ by Ercole Graziani from 17th Century in Dom—Saint Peters baroque church.
Image: sedmak / Getty Images

The Baptism of Christ by Ercole Graziani from 17th Century in Dom—Saint Peters baroque church.

See the Son, See the Father

When Philip asks Jesus to show the Father, Jesus answers, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. … Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me?” (John 14:9–10).

Jesus’ words are relevant to Trinitarian theology in an obvious way. At the beginning of his gospel, John cites a biblical truism: No man has seen God at any time (John 1:18). The good news is that now, in his Word, God has spoken himself in flesh. The incarnation works because the Father is in the Son and the Son in the Father. Only thus can Jesus’ disciples see the Father in him.

Jesus’ answer to Philip is also relevant to Trinitarian theology in a more subtle way. Negatively, Jesus implies that creation, time, and history pose no barriers to the Father’s self-disclosure in the Son. Positively, Jesus implies that the humanity of the Word is the vehicle for the revelation of the Father who is in the Son. The enfleshment of the Logos doesn’t hide the Father. The Word’s humanity makes the unseen Father visible.

If creation were a barrier to God’s self-revelation, then we—being creatures—could never come to know God, unless by some miracle we could become God. If time closes God off from us, then we—being temporal beings—are forever on the wrong side of the veil that separates time and eternity. If, conversely, seeing Jesus is seeing the Father, the human history of his Son must be an adequate mode of revelation. It must be possible because it’s actual.

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Words and Works of the Father

How do we see the Father in Jesus? Jesus tells Philip that his words are the words of the Father abiding in him, and his works are the works of his Father (John 14:10). We know the mutual indwelling of Father and Son from the Son’s words and works (John 10:38). We can gloss Jesus’ statement to Philip: “If you have seen my works, you’ve seen the Father. The Father is the sort of God who restores the lame, gives sight to the blind, raises the dead. If you’ve heard my words, you’ve heard the Father, since I speak at his initiative. The Father is the sort of God who calls worshipers to worship him in spirit and truth, who speaks comfort to the grieving, who condemns false shepherds.”

Do all of Jesus’ actions and doings show the Father? It doesn’t seem so. Jesus’ weakness doesn’t seem very Godlike. He gets hungry and thirsty: Does the Father? He sleeps: Do we see the Father when we catch Jesus napping? Jesus bleeds: Does the Father have veins and arteries?

To such questions, the Bible provides ready answers. “If I were hungry, I would not tell you” (Ps. 50:12) and “He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Ps. 121:4). Augustine distinguished “form of a servant” statements (what is true of Jesus in his humanity) from statements about the “form of God” (what is true of Jesus as eternal Son). It’s a serviceable distinction, though even here we should pause to consider what kind of almighty, needless, un-sleeping God is capable of entering so fully into our frailty.

Not all questions about Jesus and his Father are so absurdly easy to answer. Jesus mourns (John 11:35); does the Father? He gets angry (Mark 3:5); does God really get angry? Out of compassion, Jesus heals (Matt. 9:36; 4:14); does the Father experience compassion (whatever divine “experience” might be)? Does the Father respond to human misery? Do we see the Father when we see Jesus dying on a Roman cross?

We might think that sorrow, anger, compassion, and responsiveness to injustice and misery belong on the “form of a servant” side of Augustine’s ledger. Jesus experiences those things because he’s human. But that can’t be right. If Jesus sorrows, grieves, shows anger, and feels compassion, and yet the Father does nothing like that, if Jesus’ character is nothing like the Father’s, then we wonder what Jesus means when he says, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” We suspect that Jesus is hedging, and at a crucial point.

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N. T. Wright has called attention to the uncanny resemblance between Yahweh and Jesus. Jesus mourns, grieves, and laments, and so does Yahweh (Gen. 6:5–6; Jer. 48:36–39). Jesus turns his ferocious wrath against hypocrites and bullies, and so does Yahweh (Ps. 50:16–21). Jesus pities the broken, including those who have broken themselves by their own rebellion; compassion is Yahweh’s Name (Ex. 34:6). Jesus lays down his life for his friends, and the heart of Yahweh’s covenant with Israel is the promise of self-gift: I will be your God, the God who delivers Israel from Egypt and helps his anointed (Isa. 43:1–3).

Much of what we might think is the “form of a servant” actually shows Jesus in the “form of God.” As Wright says, to say that Jesus is God is to make a remarkable claim about Jesus. It is also to make an astonishing claim about God. Jesus shows what kind of God God is.

And that helps us answer questions about Triune “personhood.” If we see the Father (not the ineffable divine nature) when we see Jesus, then the Father must be the kind of being for whom we could draw up a character sketch, with likes and dislikes, the kind of God who responds with outrage at injustice, pity at suffering, and saving action for the distressed. If we see the Father when we see Jesus, the Father is a person in the personalist sense of the word.

Mutual Love

Rahner said that the unity of action in God implies that there is no mutual love between Father and Son. The New Testament teaches otherwise.

When Jesus clears out the temple (John 2:17), the disciples remember Psalm 69 (“zeal for your house will consume me”), and that zealous love is evident in Jesus’ every word and action. He does the Father’s will, speaks the Father’s words, does the works the Father gave him to perform, keeps the ones his Father gave him, takes on himself the reproaches against his Father (cf. Rom. 15:3). The eternal Son’s love for the Father is visible in his life in the flesh.

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Twice Jesus says, “the Father loves the Son” (John 3:35; 5:20). In the first passage, the Father’s love is expressed in his gift of “all things” to the Son. In the second, the Father’s love is expressed in self-disclosure: The Father “shows [the Son] all he does.” We don’t have to take Jesus’ word for it. At Jesus’ baptism, the Father speaks for himself: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased.”

The Father is a Lover, and the Son his beloved; the Son is a Lover and the Father is the object of his jealous loyalty. Love implies knowledge and volition, for surely the Father and Son don’t love ignorantly or involuntarily. Each acts on his love, the Father by giving and disclosing himself to the Son of his pleasure and the Son by his zeal to do his Father’s will.

We must, of course, insist that God is one. We might say: The Father’s paternal love for the Son in the Spirit is inseparable from the Son’s filial devotion to his Father in their common Spirit. We can describe the love of the Father for the Son as a single tri-personal movement of love. We might point out that Jesus’ descriptions of divine unity include plurality: “I and the Father are one” and “I in you, you in me.” We might say that we’re staring at a mysterious both/and: God is utterly one and yet also three personal persons.

Yet, whatever mysteries and difficulties it raises for our understanding of God’s oneness, personalism provides an indispensable idiom for talking about the Father and the Spirit, just as it’s indispensable for talking about Jesus.

Of course, we must qualify. The Father’s personhood isn’t a gigantically inflated version of human personality. Properly formulated, for instance, impassibility or apatheia is the insistence that the Father’s pity, anger, compassion, and sorrow aren’t creaturely passions but the Lord’s pity, anger, compassion, and sorrow. Trinitarian theology needs such constant reminders that God is God.

But impassibility is a qualification, not a nullification. We can’t let our theological qualifications turn Jesus’ assurance into its opposite: “When you see me, you’ve seen nothing like the Father.” Then we don’t know the Father at all, and if we don’t know the Father we don’t have eternal life (John 17:1). When we find ourselves heading down that cul de sac, we need to revise our qualifications or, in some cases, repent of them.

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Whatever we add, we shouldn’t nullify bald scriptural claims about the mutual love of Father and Son.

Pressure Toward Personalism

I’m not arguing that personalism should have a monopoly of Trinitarian discourse. Many church fathers compare the Father-Son relation to the relation between a light source and a beam of light, and that impersonal analogy captures profoundly important features of the Trinity.

Further, my defense of personalism does not imply criticism or rejection of the biblical and historical confession of God’s uniqueness and oneness. Father, Son, and Spirit are homoousios, the same substance, the one God. Thomas McCall is right to insist that “Trinitarian theology should work for the strongest account of divine oneness that is available to it.”

McCall is equally right to add that our treatment of God’s oneness is accountable to the revelation of God in the incarnation of the Son. That revelation requires us to use personal categories to speak faithfully of the Triune Persons. As Word of the Father, indwelt by the Father whose Word he is, Jesus says, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” The pressure toward personalism arises from Jesus’ testimony about himself and his Father.

Neither Rahner nor Barth finally resisted this pressure. God, Barth says, “does not exist in solitude but in fellowship,” but, assuming that “modes of being” can have fellowship, how is their fellowship different from fellowship between “persons”? After denying mutual love between Father and Son, Rahner writes that the Father and Son welcome each other “in love, drawn and returning to each other communicate themselves in this way, as received in mutual love, that is, as Holy Spirit.” So there is mutual love after all, personalized as the Spirit.

These are internal contradictions, perhaps, albeit happy ones. Yet, it would be better to remove the contradictions by confessing from the outset that the one living God is Father, Son, and Spirit, three eternal personal Persons.

Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute in Birmingham, Alabama. His most recent book is a two-volume commentary on Revelation in the International Theological Commentary series (T&T Clark, 2018).