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The Working of Father, Son, and Spirit in the One Work of God

1 December, 2008

brannansmallHow do we think and speak about the relationship between what the persons of the Trinity do, and what we say God does? In other words, when we say “God is the Creator”, as trinitarians we’re saying “the Trinity is the Creator” — but we should never say “there are three Creators”. So where does the distinction between the three persons come in for our understanding of the creating work of God?

Two quick ‘motivations’ to keep reading: 1) When we’re dealing with faithful understanding of our God and faithful witness to him, these are not hair-splitting or trivial issues; 2) We’re dealing with the highest mystery of Almighty God in such conversations, and so it is crucial not to go beyond what God has revealed of himself truly and faithfully in scripture (Deut 29:29). I’m dealing with the basics here — as much as you can call God’s ineffable life ‘basic’ — not what-if’s and maybe-it’s-like-this’s.

Let’s keep going with God’s work of creation as a good example, since I hope it is crystal clear to everyone that God alone is the one who accomplished the work of creating heaven and earth. Along this line, then,

The Bible teaches that the works of God are unified and indivisible.

In other words, God is the only Creator, the one who accomplishes all creating activity. In Isaiah 45, as one of many examples, God says ‘I am the LORD and there is no other, besides me there is no God’ (v. 5), then one of the things he speaks of as exclusively proper to him is creation: ‘I made the earth and created man on it; it was my hands that stretched out the heavens, and I commanded all their host.’ (v. 12). So we can’t then say as trinitarians, who confess in light of the New Testament that God, the LORD, is Father, Son, and Spirit, that there is more than one ‘work’ or ‘working’: that the Father contributes a certain percentage or portion, and the Son something else, and the Spirit picks up the rest. We aren’t able to or allowed to divide the work of God that way. So we can’t say, as a ridiculous example, that the Father created the Universe, the Son the Milky Way, and the Spirit the Solar System, or anything else like that — there’s nothing we can point to and say “that’s only the work of the Spirit” over against something else which is only the work of the Father or the Son. The work of God is “one”.

Although I gave a ridiculous example, there are quite a few through church history who have taught something in many ways very similar, that the Father (only) is the Creator, the Son (only) is the Redeemer, and the Spirit (only) is the Sanctifier, in such a way as to divide the work of the indivisible Trinity. We can’t do that, and just a cursory run-through of scripture in our minds should tell us that the above teaching is just not biblical. But — is there a real sense in which we are called to speak of the persons as especially accomplishing certain works, as the Son the work of redemption or the Spirit the work of application? Well, YES, and this is very important to affirm, as long as we don’t divorce one person’s work from the other two — which I’ll look at now, and then I’ll come back to this very important point.

The Bible teaches that each persons accomplishes the work of God in their own way, but never apart from the working of the other two.

This is so important, because this is where being trinitarian actually makes a difference in the way we read the Bible and therefore the way we understand God. If all we say is “God creates = the Trinity creates”, but we do not differentiate between the persons at all, where is our trinitarianism? The work of God is one, but just as truly the manner of working of Father, Son, and Spirit is three. Let’s look at one example: Gen 1:1-3 in the light of John 1:1-3.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 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. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

I’ve highlighted words that refer to God, his Spirit, and his creating through speaking. Now look at John’s re-interpretation of the creation account in light of the coming of Christ:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.

So in creation we have God and God’s Word, who is exactly what God is (but not exactly who God the Father is — personally distinct as the Son but the same in ‘God-ness’). And while John doesn’t yet mention the Spirit explicitly until Jesus’ baptism, even this event is intimately connected with the Spirit’s hovering over Jesus as he did the creation, forming him as the New Man, the head of a new creation (Jn 1:32-34). Putting together with John’s apostolic interpretation, we have three persons in God who are working together in their distinct ways to accomplish the one work of God. So in the accomplishment of creation which is the work of the one true God alone,

  • The Father creates, through the Son and in the Spirit
  • The Son creates, from the Father and in the Spirit
  • The Spirit creates, from the Father and through the Son

Calvin put this ordered distinction in the persons’ manner of accomplishing the undivided divine works in this way:

To the Father is attributed the beginning of activity, and the fountain and wellspring of all things; to the Son, the wisdom, counsel, and the ordered disposition of all things; but to the Spirit is assigned the power and efficacy of that activity. (Institutes 1.13.18).

So now we can come back to the question about saying Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier.

The Bible teaches that certain works are taken up with proper reference to one of the persons, though not separate from the other two.

The clearest examples of this are the Son’s incarnation and the Spirit’s indwelling of believers. We can’t say that the Father or the Spirit took on our humanity in Mary’s womb, and we can’t say that the Father or the Son has been sent into our hearts to enable us to cry ‘Abba, Father!’ There are works that the scriptures speak of as ‘appropriate’ to one or other of the persons.

At the same time, the works are undivided. The Son and only the Son became incarnate, but the work of incarnation was the work of God, the Son becoming incarnate as sent from the Father and accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit. Only the Holy Spirit is the guarantee of our inheritance, but the Spirit has been sent from the Father through the Son, and by the Spirit the Father and the Son dwell with us also, so that we may dwell with the Triune God in whose love we already share through the Son in the Spirit (see for example John 16, 17). Likewise, the Father is often (though not always) spoken of as the Creator in scripture, because he is the one ‘from’ whom all the works of God proceed, the source and wellspring of divine activity that Calvin speaks of — but that in no way contravenes the testimony that the Father creates through the Son and in the Spirit, who are together with the Father the one creative and creating God, as Calvin also constantly affirms.

And finally, for both of you who’ve made it this far, again, this is not obscure or impractical. Listen to how Calvin applies this to the fundamental task of understanding what the Bible means when it speaks of “God” doing this or that:

Therefore, whenever the name of God is mentioned without particularization, there is designated no less the Son and the Spirit than the Father; but where the Son is joined to the Father, then the relation of the two enters in; and so we distinguish among the persons. But because the peculiar qualities in the persons carry an order within them, e.g., in the Father is the beginning and source, so often as mention is made of the Father and the Son together, or the Spirit, the name of God is peculiarly applied to the Father. In this way, unity of essence is retained, and a reasoned order is kept, which yet takes nothing away from the deity of the Son and the Spirit. (Institutes 1.13.20)

***For further reflection on the work of the Triune God in both creation and redemption, compare: Rom 8; 2 Cor 4:6; Gal 4:4-7; Eph 1:3-14; Col 1:13-20; Heb 1:2-3; I Peter 1:2.

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