If each of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is fully God, then they have the same attributes. How then do they differ from each other? Yesterday in our after-breakfast Bible reading time my family and I began reading the section on the distinctions between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in Chapter 14, “God in Three Persons: The Trinity,” of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (Zondervan, 1994). What we read was so complete and clear that nobody had any comments on or questions about it and I wish that I could just tell you to read pages 248-252 of his book. However since most of you don’t have the book, I’ll follow my regular practice of summarizing here what we read.
Grudem starts out by demonstrating that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit had different primary functions in creation and had/have different functions in redemption. Next he notes that they will continue to have those different functions in the future. Then he demonstrates that they have always existed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Finally he distinguishes between the “economy” and “ontology” of the Trinity
Their Different Primary Functions in Creation and Redemption
In creation the Father spoke the words that brought things into existence, the Son carried out the Father’s creative decrees, and the Holy Spirit apparently represented God’s immediate presence in His creation. Bible passages showing this are:
– “And God [the Father] said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:3, ESV; all Bible quotations are from the ESV). See also Genesis 1:6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26.
– “All things were made through him [‘the Word’ or Jesus Christ], and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3). See also 1 Corinthians 8:6; Colossians 1:16; and Hebrews 1:2.
– “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:3).
In redemption the Father planned redemption and sent His Son into the world, the Son accomplished our redemption by coming and dying for our sins, and the Holy Spirit applies redemption to us:
– “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). See also Galatians 3:4 and Ephesians 1:9-10.
– “When Christ came into the world, he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then said I, <Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book>'” (Hebrews 10:5-7, with Christ quoting from Psalm 40:6-8). See also John 6:38, etc.
– “Jesus answered [Nicodemus], ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of the water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:5-6). See also Romans 8:13 and 1 Peter 1:2 on the Holy Spirit’s role in sanctification and Acts 1:8 and 1 Corinthians 12:7-11 on the Holy Spirit’s role in empowering us.
Their Eternal Existence as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
That the Son was subordinate in function to the Father before the creation of the world is indicated by Ephesians 1:3-4, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him [the Father].”
That the Son will remain subordinate in function to the Father in the future is indicated by 1 Corinthians 15:28, “When all things are subjected to him [Christ], then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.”
By analogy with the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son, we can conclude that the relationship of the Holy Spirit with the Father and the Son before the creation of the world and in the future was and will be similar to what it was/is in creation and redemption.
The Economy and the Ontology of the Trinity
I opened this post by asking, “If each of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is fully God, then they have the same attributes. How then do they differ from each other?” In the post I demonstrated that they had/have different primary functions in creation and redemption. This distinction between their primary functions is sometimes called “the economy of the Trinity,” using “economy” with the meaning of “the arrangement of activities.” Their being no distinction between them according to their nature and attributes is sometimes called “the ontological equality of the Trinity,” where “ontology” means “being.” Thus the Trinity is sometimes described as having “ontological equality but economic subordination,” meaning that they are equal in being but subordinate in function.
If they didn’t have ontological subordination, they wouldn’t each be fully God. But if they didn’t have economic subordination, they wouldn’t be three distinct three persons. Thus the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit’s being eternally equal in being but subordinate in function is essential to the doctrine of the Trinity.