The Trinity: An Overview, Order in the Persons

An overview of the Trinity ought to include a variety of elements.  The synopsis might begin with a statement concerning God's incomprehensibility and our creaturely need for revelation.  It ought to cover the doctrine of divine simplicity.  God's triunity should also be part of that discussion.  And how could we forget perichoresis?  These are vital to any summary.  However, in this overview article I want to reflect briefly on order within the ontological Trinity.

No one denies order in God - not even egalitarians like Kevin Giles.[1] The problem arises "over the question of how the divine three are ordered."[2]  Now, that is an interesting question.  How are the persons of the godhead to be ordered?  The question itself suggests that there are differences among the three persons and we would be right to think so.  But before we consider personal properties we must do so against the backdrop of God's essence.  In other words, triunity belongs to the simplicity of God, which means that the persons are not parts of God to be parceled out.  God is one. 

Nevertheless, God has revealed himself as three distinct persons or substantia, which means that there are differences.[3]  However, these distinctions must be made within the one simple essence that is God.  And yet, there are differences among the persons.  For example, there is a difference of order.  Giles writes, "The word order used relationally always implies the question, what order?"[4]  The question is how are the three persons to be ordered?  Well, we need to keep a few things in mind.  First, any way we describe the situation is going to be accommodated.   God is lisping to us.  The second is related, this accommodated communication is from God and is therefore true knowledge about Him.  So, third, we are describing an order drawn from special revelation.

So, what is the order?

Well, the order found in God's revelation is that of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Now, what does that mean for understanding order?  Giles provides a number of categories, "Is it hierarchical, vertical, circular, horizontal, sequential, chronological or simply given according to a given plan or pattern?"[5]  Well, how about according to number?  Warfield, quoting Calvin, says that the Genevan explicitly declares, "although the eternity of the Father is the eternity of the Son and the Spirit also…it is nevertheless not vain or superfluous to observe an order [in the three Persons], since the Father is enumerated as the first, next the Son ex eo, and afterwards the Spirit ex utroque."[6]   What is more, Warfield comments that Calvin made "it perfectly plain that he taught a doctrine of order and grade in the Persons of the Trinity, involving a doctrine of derivation - and that, of course, before all time - of the second and third Persons from the first as the fountain and origin of deity" but this "not with respect of the essence, but the order."[7]  Warfield then goes on to clarify Calvin's understanding of autotheos as to essence and order as to persons.  Nevertheless, there is an order and that order naturally emerges in the economy of salvation.[8]

Jeffrey A. Stivason has been serving the Lord as a minister of the gospel since 1995.  He was church planter and now pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.  Jeff is the Managing Editor for Place for Truth.

[1] Giles, Kevin, Jesus and the Father: Modern Evangelicals Reinvent the Doctrine of the Trinity (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 49.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Richard A Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4, The Triunity of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 174.

[4] Giles, 48.

[5] Ibid., 48-49.

[6] Benjamin B. Warfield, Works, vol. 5, Calvin and Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 244.

[7] Ibid., 245.

[8] Muller, 213.


Jeffrey Stivason