Themes in Puritan Theology: Trinity

We move on from discussing the Puritan view of God to consider the Trinity, the biblical doctrine of one God in three persons. Related to the one God (Q&A 8), the Larger Catechism (Q&A 9), affirms: “There be 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; although distinguished by their personal properties” (e.g. Matt 28:19, 2 Cor 13:14, John 1:1, 10:30, Acts 5:3,4). Very simply, the teaching of the Trinity sets forth unity in diversity.
The Puritans stood as heirs of not only Reformation but also medieval trinitarian theology and the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed behind it. William Ames, in The Marrow of Sacred Divinity, (1627), provides an early expression of Puritan trinitrarianism at the start of Chapter 5, “Of the Subsistence of God”:
  1. The Subsistence of God is that one Essence, as it is with its personal properties.
  2. The same essence is common to three subsistences, and as touching the Deity, every subsistence is of itself.
  3. Nothing moreover is attributed to the Essence, which may not be attributed to every subsistence in regard of the Essence of it. 
  4. But those things that are attributed properly to every subsistence in regard of its subsistence, cannot be attributed to the Essence.
Presbyterian Francis Cheynell (1608–1665), member of the Westminster Assembly and champion defender of trinitarianianism (especially against Socinianism) echoes such thinking: “The Godhead does subsist in Father, Son, and Spirit, all three without any multiplication of the Godhead” with “three subsistences, but one substance or essence in this divine Triunity” (The Divine Triunity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit , 1650).
Notice in Ames and Cheynell the use of “subsistence” (a manner of personal existence) to speak of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Employing this Latin-based term (or the Greek-influenced hypostasis) rather than “person” helped to avoid the false accusation of teaching three essences as polytheists. Likewise, they used “subsistence” without implying a mere “mode” and getting charged with Sabellianism (modalistic Monarchianism). With the Reformed orthodox, the Puritans elaborated on the Triune God like Calvin: a “person” is a “subsistence” and “different from ‘essence.’” The three persons relate manifest “incommunicable” qualities proper to each while sharing the same “essence as a unity” (Institutes 1.13.2,6). 
Some criticized the use of terms such as “Trinity” and “subsistence” not found in the Bible. Thomas Vincent (1634-1678), certainly with a “good and necessary consequence” exegetical approach behind him, responds, “the things signified by the . . . Trinity. . . are in the scriptures,” therefore, “we may lawfully make use of such words” (An Explicatory Catechism, 1675). Vincent, in his own Trinity defense in The Foundation of God Standeth Sure (1668) sums up the argument for the Trinity “bottom’d upon the Scripture”: 
If the divine essence or Godhead is and can be but one, and the Father is God, and the Son God, and Holy Ghost God  [e.g. Deut 6:4; Isa 44:6; 1 Cor 8:6; John 1:1,3; Acts 5:3,4], and the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost be three distinct subsistents or persons; then there are three distinct subsistents or persons, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost in the same single divine essence or Godhead. 
In a treatise on the person of Christ, Theanthropos; Or, God-Man (1660), John Arrowsmith (1602-1659) makes reference to the essence of God in relation to what we commonly call the “ontological” Trinity. He mentions the Opera ad intra, common internal operations of the Trinity, related to essence, and which “terminated” distinctly “upon some person in the Trinity.” Thus, the Father “begetteth” the Son, the Son “is begotten” of the Father, and the Holy Spirit “proceedeth” from the Father and the Son. The Puritans affirmed as distinct yet inseparable (unified within the Godhead) such internal works exhibited eternally according to the properties of each person. 
Note, as well, the begetting and procession do not imply eternal subordination in the Godhead, yet an ordering of persons in communion with one another. So, maintains Leigh,  the Father is “first from himself,” the Son “second” in “filiation” by “eternal generation,” and the Holy Spirit as “third” as he proceeds “from the Father and the Son” (A Treatise of Divinity, 1646).
Regarding the eternal generation of the Son, the majority of Puritans affirmed the Nicene formula that he is “very God of very God” in the sense that the Father, notes Cheynell, communicates “that self-same divine and entire essence, which is in himself, by begetting the personal subsistence of the Son in the unity of the Godhead from the days of eternity.” Thus, they attested that the Father communicated divine essence to his eternally begotten Son who was at the same time autotheos or “God of himself.” Whether eternal generation referred only personally to Sonship or also essentially to deity, was a matter of debate, though the Puritans generally favored the latter in line with the Nicene Creed and universally affirmed the aseity (God ‘of himself’) of Jesus Christ and denied that his essence was begotten. 
Regarding the Holy Spirit as the third person, the Puritans accepted the orthodox double procession of the Spirit (by order and not subordination) “from the Father and the Son from all eternity” (LC, Q&A 10). This affirmation, “and the Son” (Latin, filioque), added to the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed in the sixth century played a significant role in the East-West Schism (1054) of the church, with the East protesting double procession. Cheynell, rightly argues that denying the Spirit’s procession “equally from the Father and the Son” means that the “equality of the divine persons cannot be maintained if that principle be denied,” since the Son would be subordinate to the Father from whom alone the Spirit proceeds.
While discussing Christ as creator, Arrowsmith also mentions God’s “works ad extra” terminated outside and “common to all the three persons.” Thus, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all create as “one Creator” with “one essence” and “the will of God” being  “the same in all the three persons.” Yet, as “different subsistencies . . . they have a distinct manner of working, even in this business of the Creation.” Regarding such operations, we commonly speak of the “economical” Trinity in terms of ordered activity in God’s relation to creation. Such work (e.g. redemption) was considered united as the expression of the one will of God (e.g. salvation by the Triune God) and yet with ordered activity carried out covenantally according to the distinct personal properties and without subordination (e.g. the Father appoints, the Son accomplishes, and the Spirit applies redemption).
Vincent (The Foundation of God Standeth Sure) notes our struggle to understand and explain “this mystery” of the Trinity. Yet, it is clearly proven “from Scripture” as “one great fundamental point of our Christian faith, which all Christians are bound” by God “to believe.” 
Likewise, we must not only embrace the doctrine but also experience the reality. Our hearts must be stirred to life unto and communion with each of the persons of the Trinity as John Owen advocates wonderfully in Communion with God (1657). He sees this communion as “the mutual communication” of good between persons “delighted” in one another based on the “union between them.” Thus, the Triune God in each person communicates himself to us and we respond to him as he requires and delights with such “flowing from that union which in Jesus Christ we have with him.” If each person of the Trinity delights in this communion, why do we pursue it so meagerly? So, for example, when’s the last time you prayed to the Holy Spirit?

Meet the Puritans is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting us.

For previous posts in this series, see:

  1. What is Puritan Theology?
  2. William Ames and Puritan Theologizing
  3. William Ames and Shorter Catechism Q&A 1
  4. The Two Lights
  5. Scripture
  6. God Is
Bob McKelvey