IS GOD MORE THAN THREE PERSONS?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Friday, February 10, 2012 at 12:11pm
QUESTION: We speak about the “three persons in the Godhead,” i.e., the Trinity. We also say that God has revealed Himself in these three persons as performing different roles for salvation purposes. Is it not possible that the omnipotent God could reveal Himself in MORE than three persons with other roles? Perhaps he has revealed Himself in just three persons because these are enough and sufficient to save mankind.
ANSWER: This speculation is quite faulty, and it is based on a false assumption that there is some connection between the persons of the Trinity and the ways in which God reveals Himself. This is the false assumption that underlies the Trinitarian heresy called “modalism,” which says that the three persons of the Trinity are nothing more than three different ways or “modes” in which He reveals Himself. I.e., sometimes He reveals Himself as Father, sometimes as Son, and sometimes as the Holy Spirit. He is always one and the same person, however (according to this view).
This approach to God, and specifically to the Trinity, is contrary to Scripture and is seriously false. It is actually a form of unitarianism. See my books, What the Bible Says About God the Redeemer (College Press), 140-146; and The Faith Once for All (College Press), pp. 73, 253-255.
It is true that God can reveal Himself in many different ways or modes (Num. 12:6-8; Heb. 1:1-2). Sometimes He reveals Himself through His deeds or acts, which are manifested as supernatural events in our history (e.g., the ten plagues upon Egypt). Sometimes He reveals Himself through His words, either spoken by Himself (e.g., the ten commandments, Exod. 20:1-19) or spoken through His prophets (e.g., Moses, Deut. 18:15-19). Sometimes He reveals Himself through visible forms of various kinds (human shapes, as Gen. 18:1ff.; animal shapes, as Luke 3:21-22; shapes of objects, as Exod. 13:21-22). Once He has revealed Himself as an actual human being, when He became incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:1, 14). [Caution: the Logos did not become incarnate simply as a means of revealing God to us; He came to work the works of redemption. But in His incarnate presence among us, He could not help but “show us the Father” (John 14:8-11).]
When God reveals Himself in visible forms (the third type of revelation in the previous paragraph), this is called a theophany, literally, an appearance or manifestation of God. The form that He takes can be anything He chooses. He simply brings that visible entity into being (probably via creation ex nihilo), and it remains in existence only for the time required for the revelation, after which it disappears back into nothingness.
Any one of the three persons of the Trinity can become manifest in this way for revelation purposes; and there is no limit to how many such manifestations are possible over time or at any one time. For example, in the angelic (invisible) universe, in which there is a divine throneroom, (probably) God the Father manifests Himself to the angels in a permanent spiritual theophany, making Himself visible to the angels at all times (e.g., Revelation 4 and 5). After the Judgment Day He will also make Himself visible to the saved in a permanent physical theophany on the New Earth (Rev. 21:3; 22:1-5). These two theophanies will be eternally simultaneous.
We should never think that these theophanies, either in their form or content, are somehow the very essence of God. We should not assume that God has these or any other shapes, nor should we assume that the essence of God’s being is substantive and spatial in the way that created entities are. When the saints of old saw these theophanies, they were not seeing the pure divine essence. When we shall see the theophanies in the angelic throneroom and on the New Earth, we shall not be seeing the pure divine essence. Paul tells us decisively that God “dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Tim. 6:16). Those who have seen and/or will see God (e.g., Matt. 5:8) are seeing only a manifestation of God brought into being for revelation purposes, and not his true and pure essence.
The main point here is this. With few exceptions (such as the incarnation), the various ways or modes in which God has revealed and can reveal Himself to us have nothing to do with the persons of the Trinity as such. When we speak of the three persons of the economic Trinity as dividing up the works of redemption, these are the WORKS of God and are not directly related to ways in which God reveals or manifests Himself to us.
Based on the revelation we have in the OT and NT, we must conclude that God exists as one divine being or essence, in three (and only three) distinct persons. (I explained this in a recent note.) Though God’s plurality is known in the OT era, His divine threeness was then hidden. It is definitely brought to light in the NT writings, however. The NT is clear and emphatic about this threeness (e.g., Matt. 28:19; 1 Cor. 12:4-6; 2 Cor. 13:14); to posit anything beyond this threeness is unwarranted and useless speculation. [If there is any significance to the number seven in “the seven spirits who are before his throne” in Rev. 1:4; 3:1; 4:4; 5:6, we simply do not know what it is.]