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Westminster Shorter Catechism Project

A Commentary
on the
Shorter Catechism

Alexander Whyte

Q. 2. How many persons are there in the Godhead?
A. There are three persons in the Godhead; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory.

Familiar to us as the doctrine of the Trinity is, yet it must never be forgotten what it cost the early Church to bring this fundamental truth out of the Scriptures and get it inserted in the Creed. There was an immense expenditure of learned theological labour before this doctrine was finally formulated and universally accepted in the Church of Christ. In his chapter on the Trinity, Dr. Hodge maintains that this doctrine is peculiar to the religion of the Bible, and that, like all Bible truths, it is not an abstract, speculative, and notional truth, but is most fundamental and vital to the whole Christian faith. And he endorses Meyer's words, to the effect that "the Trinity is the point in which all Christian ideas and interests unite; at once the beginning and the end of all insight into Christianity."

There are three persons—"Lat. per-sona, a mask used by an actor, a personage, character, part played by an actor, a person. The large-mouthed masks worn by the actors were so called from the resonance of the voice sounding through them" (Skeat). It is a long step from the original sense of the word person to that usage we are most familiar with when it is applied to an individual of the human race. But it is a still longer step from our ordinary usage of the word up to the scriptural and theological acceptation when applied to the Three in the Divine Nature. It is utterly inadequate to set forth the manner of Their subsistence, but the Latin theologians could find no better, no less inadequate word in their tongue, and the modern languages of Christendom have not as yet developed any more adequate term. We must be content to call Father, Son, and Holy Ghost PERSONS; but while we do so, we must always remember that They are utterly unlike any personalities we have ever known. "In modern philosophical usage, the term person means a separate and distinct rational individual. But the Tn-personality of God is not a numerical or essential trinity of three beings, like Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob, for this would be Tnitheism; nor is it only, on the other hand, merely a threefold aspect and mode of manifestation in the Sabellian or Swedenborgian sense; but it is a real, objective, and eternal, though ineffable distinction in one divine being" (Schaff, Creeds, ii. 70). "The scriptural facts are—(a) The Father says I; the Son says I; the Spirit says I. (b) The Father says Thou to the Son, and the Son says Thou to the Father; and in like manner the Father and the Son use the pronouns He and Him in reference to the Spirit. (c) The Father loves the Son; the Son loves the Father; the Spirit testifies of the Son. . . . The summation of these and kindred facts is expressed in teh proposition: The one Divine Being subsists in Three Persons—Father, Son, and Spirit" (Hodge). See the Athanasian Creed and Calvin's Institutes, I. 13. 3-6

the Godhead—" Divinity, divine nature. . . The suffix is wholly different from Eng. -head, being, being the same suffix as that which is commonly written -hood. The etymology is from A.S. had, office, state, dignity" (Skeat). By the Godhead is meant the Divine Nature. And a Person in the Godhead is the whole Godhead distinguished by "personal properties." The Godhead neither is nor can be divided into parts; each of the Three Persons hath in Himself the one whole indivisible Godhead. But, as has been said, they are distinguished by their personal properties—that is to say, it is the personal property of the Father to beget the Son (Hebrews 1:5); and of the Son to be begotten of the Father (John 1:14); and of the Holy Ghost to proceed from the Father and the Son (John 15:26; Galatians 4:6). "So the personal properties make no inequality among them; forasmuch as these properties are not temporary or accidental, but eternal and necessary, and could not but be; and every one of the three persons is the eternal, the supreme, and the most high God" (Boston). And, accordingly, just as manhood signifies that human nature, possessing which we are men, so, in some such way, the Godhead is that divine nature which the three divine persons equally possess, and are therefore equally and eternally God.. In manhood there are a multitude of persons that no man can number, but in the Godhead there are three persons only—Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

the Father—The name of father is a relative name, father and son. Paternity is a relation of origin and production, but it is not every kind of production that properly constitutes paternity: paternity is production by generation. Now the Scriptures call the relation that eternally obtains between the First Person and the Second, Fatherhood and Sonship; and they teach that it is originated by a "begetting;" but here also all earthly figures and phrases utterly fail us when we treat of the Divine Fatherhood and the Divine Filiation. The Son is of the Father; the Father is the Fountain of His Divine Nature; but as to how the Son is generated;—before questions like this reason and revelation are alike dumb. Still, there is nothing clearer in Holy Scriptnre than this, that there is a Peraon in the Divine Nature who is constantly spoken of as the Father, and Another who is as constantly spoken of as the Son. The First Person calls the Second Person His Son; He treats Him always as His Son; He sends Him forth and sustains Him; and He receives Him back again, and rewards Him as His Son. While, on the other hand, the Second Person calls on His Father, serves Him, obeys Him, puts His trust in Him, and at last returns home to Him. And this is not a mere economical, conditioned, and figurative relation; for above and apart from their historical and redemptive relations to us at all, the First Person and the Second are represented in Scripture as eternally existing under the internal relations of Father and Son.

the Son—The Son is set forth as eternally and continually "begotten;" or, as an incomprehensible and yet most vivid Scripture says, He is "in the bosom of the Father." And this eternal generation of the Son is the ultimate ground of His Godhead—that is to say, He is God because He is the Son of God; and He is the Son because He has His Godhead by a divine and eternal generation. And thus He is able to say, "I and the Father are one," and also at the same time to say, "The Father is greater than I." One, because begotten of the Father, and therefore the same in substance, equal in power and glory. While the Father is the greater, as being before and above the Son in order of existence, and as being eternally and continually the source of the Godhead and Sonship life. Calvin commends Augustine for the following explanation:—" Christ, as to Himself is called God, but as to the Father He is called Son. The Father, as to Himself is called God, but as to the Son He is called Father. He who, as to the Son is called Father, is not Son; and He who, as to the Father is called Son, is the same God."

the Holy Ghost—" The Third Person of the Trinity is called the Spirit by way of eminence, probably for two reasons first, because He is the power or efficiency of God; and secondly, to express His relations to the other persons of the Trinity. The Son is called the Word as the revealer or image of God, and the Third Person is called Spirit as the breath or power of God. He is also called predominantly the Holy Spirit, to indicate both His nature and operations. He is absolutely holy in His own nature, and the cause of holiness in all creatures. For the same reason He is called the Spirit of Truth, the Spirit of Wisdom, of Peace, of Love, of Glory" (Hodge). "The Holy Ghost receiveth the same essence from the Father that the Son receiveth, and thereby becometh the same God with the Father and the Word; but though the essence be the same that is communicated, yet there is a difference in the communication: the Word being God by generation, the Holy Ghost by procession; and though everything that is begotten proceedeth, yet everything which proceedeth is not begotten. Wherefore in the language of the Sacred Scriptures and the Church, the Holy Ghost is never said to be begotten, but to proceed from the Father; nor is He ever called the Son, but the gift of God" (Pearson).
"The Spirit of God bears the name of Holy in the New Testament where His more special title is ‘the Holy Ghost,' as our old English hath rendered it to us. But is not the Father holy, and the Son holy, and Both equally holy with the Holy Ghost? Yes, essentially and personally holy in themselves: ‘Holy, Holy, Holy,' they are all proclaimed (Isaiah 6). How is it then that He, the Third Person, should have the peculiar title of Holy? It is neither in a peculiar, neither in a personal or essential respect, but relatively unto that which is His proper and peculiar work, because He sanctifies us and makes us holy, and so merits the name of Holy Ghost as Christ doth of Saviour, and the Father doth of Father" (Goodwin).

these three are one God—"This is the Catholic faith, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity. Neither confounding the Persons nor dividing the substance" (Athanasian Creed).
"It seems to me nothing can be more admirable than the words of Gregory Nazianzen: ‘I cannot think of the Unity without being irradiated by the Trinity: I cannot distinguish between the Trinity without being carried up to the Unity ‘"(Calvin). "The Father is the one simple, entire Divine Being, and so is the Son; they do in no sense share divinity between them: each is whole God. This is not ditheism or tritheism, for they are the same God; nor is it Sabellianism, for they are eternally distinct and substantive Persons; but it is a depth and height beyond our intellect, how that which is Two in so full a sense, can also in so full a sense be One, or how the Divine Nature does not come under number" (Newman's Notes on Athanasius).
Where all is mystery, we may not properly speak of any part being more mysterious;. but perhaps of all the mysterious aspects of the blessed Trinity as they are presented to us in Scripture, the most mysterious is that which has been called the Mutual Indwelling of the three Divine Persons. Theology, both Greek and Latin, has had to coin terms to set forth this mystery. This intimate union was named by the Greeks the Perichoresis, and by the Latins Inhabitatio. These scientific terms were struck out to express the scriptural facts that the Son is always in the Father, and the Father in the Son: that the blessed Three dwell in each other. As in all this exposition we here fall back on Athanasius and his annotator Dr. Newman. "A Perichoresis of Persons is implied in the unity of substance. This is the connection of the two texts so often quoted: ‘The Son is in the Father, and the Father is in the Son,' because ‘the Son and the Father are one.' And the cause of this unity and Perichoresis is the Divine Begetting." "The Perichoresis was the test of orthodoxy."

the same in substance—Substance as here used is a scientific or theological term; that is to say, it is not found in Scripture, but has had to be coined by scriptural students for their use, and for the service of the truth. The word substance in its etymology means that which in matter or mind underlies and sustains all phenomenal manifestation. Popularly, we associate the word more with matter than with spirit, but it is equally suitable and serviceable as applied to both. Philosophically taken, substance means that in matter which underlies, and so to speak supports, all the attributes or qualities of matter. Locke gives the primary qualities of matter as extension, figure, divisibility, motion, hardness, softness, fluidity. And accordingly substance, as its name implies, is that mysterious and inaccessible background which stands behind and sustains all these its qualities. And so it is in the spiritual world. The substance treated of in the Catechism in that awful, mysterious essence of which the qualities are not extension, or colour, or figure, or fluidity; but the qualities that the Divine Substance supports are infinite and eternal wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth. These qualities are, so to speak, the phenomena that the inscrutable Divine Substance presents to us. God, then, as to His Substance, is Divine Spirit; and as to the phenomena, or qualities, or attributes of that uncreated, eternal, Divine Substance, they are such as we have already learned.
It was for this phrase, "the same in substance," that Athanasius carried on his splendid and successful contention before the Ecumenical Council of Nice in the fourth century. And thus it is that Athanasius leaves his mark on our own Catechism, as on all the symbolical and confessional books of the Christian Church since his day. He saw that this word consubstantial, of one and the same substance, was the only word that would assert without ambiguity or possibility of gainsaying the scriptural doctrine of the perfect and eternal Godhead of Jesus Christ. And by the blessing of God on his great talents and his heroic stand, the Godhead of our Lord has ever since been safely fixed in the Church's Creed; sheltered, so to speak, under the shield of the consubstantiality which Athanasius fashioned and hung up before it. By scriptural, Athanasian, Nicene doctrine then we are taught that there are three Persons in the Godhead, who are the same in substance, and that that same substance sustains in each Person the same properties or attributes of divine wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.

equal in power and glory. "The divinity of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is one, the glory equal, and the majesty equal. . . . And in this Trinity there is nothing prior or posterior, nothing greater or less, but all three Persons are co-eternal and co-equal in themselves (Athanasian Creed). "Are the three Hypostases or Persons of the Most Holy Trinity all of equal majesty? Yes; all of absolutely equal divine majesty. The Father is true God; the Son is equally true God; and the Holy Ghost true God; but yet so that in the three Persons there is only one Tri-Personal God" (Eastern Church Catechism).
"Q. How doth it appear that the Son and the Holy Ghost are God equal with the Father ?—A. The Scriptures manifest that the Son and the Holy Ghost are equal with the Father, ascribing unto them such names, attributes, works, and worship, as are proper to God only" (Westminster Larger Catechism).

1. "The design of all the revelations contained in the word of God is the salvation of men. Truth is in order to holiness. God does not make known His being and attributes to teach men science, but to bring them to the saving knowledge of Himself. . . . This is specially true of the doctrine of the Trinity" (Hodge).

2. "What will it avail thee to dispute profoundly of the Trinity, if thou be void of humility, and art thereby displeasing to the Trinity? Surely high words do not make a man holy and just; but a virtuous life maketh him dear to God" (a Kempis).

3. "May we never speak on subjects like this without awe; may we never dispute without charity; may we never inquire without a careful endeavour, with God's aid, to sanctify our knowledge, and to impress it on our hearts, as well as to store it in our undertandings" (Newman).


1. Trace the Trinitarian allusions in John 14, 15, 16, 17.

2. Explain the additional clause in the Larger Catechism: although distinguished by their personal properties.

3. Explain Pearson's statement: The Father Is not only eternally, but originally God.

4. Explain "Hilary's felicitous paradox: "The Father is the greater without the Son being the lesser.

5. Give two interpretations, both ancient and orthodox, of John 14:28, last clause.

6. Explain Augustine's saying: Go to the Jordan, and thou wilt see the Trinity.

7. Explain Canon Bright's saying about Athanasius: His zeal for the consubstantiality had its root in his loyalty to the Consubstantial.

8. Read Trinitarian and lncarnation doctrines in Dante's last vision—

"In that abyss
Of radiance, clear and lofty. seem'd, methought,
Three orbs of triple hue clipt in one bound;
As rainbow is from rainbow; and the third
And, from another, one reflected seem'd.
Seem'd fire, breath'd equally from both. Oh, speech,
How feeble and how faint art thou, to give
Conception birth!. . .
For I therein, methought, in its own hue
Beheld our image painted: . . . I intent to scan
The novel wonder, and trace out the form,
How to the circle fitted, and therein
How plac'd: but the flight was not for my wing."

9. Explain the distinguishing title Holy Ghost.

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