Owen: The One God, Eternally Three

I continue my study through John Owen’s Communion with the Triune God, discussing his view of the eternal Trinity.

For Owen, knowing the identity of the God who is Three is fundamental in doing Christian theology. He says that knowing God is fundamental to the Christian’s life and praxis, and in that finds it important to discuss the One God who is eternally three.

Owen exegetes the Scriptures to show that God has always been a Trinity: there has never been a point in which he was not Trinity, nor a point where he became Trinitarian. In light of God’s revelation as Trinity, we are to “know, love, and respond to him as such” (Vanhoozer, page 23). Without knowing that God has always been Trinity, we run the risk of incorrectly studying doctrine (especially out of the Old Testament) and forming false ideas about God.

Vanhoozer describes Owen’s view of the Trinity with the terms “eternal distinction” in light of God’s “unbreakable unity”. The Father, Son, and Spirit “know each other, love each other, delight in each other, must needs be distinct; and so are they also represented to our faith”, and their distinction “lies in their mutual relation one to another” and their “distinct actings and operations” grow out of this eternal mutual relation. For Owen, the Father is eternally the Father and not the Son or Spirit, the Son is eternally the Son and not the Father nor the Spirit, and the Spirit is never the Son nor the Father but “springs from them both”.

In their unbreakable unity and eternal distinction, each Person of the Godhead is free to act however they please, but the Triune God acts in unity with Godself. The Son was free to die for the sins of the elect, but the Son’s actions did not “prejudice” the freedom of the Father, who pardoned and accepted us on the basis of his freedom and the sacrifice of the Son. In the same way, the Spirit’s freedom is not infringed by his commission by the Father and Son, but he freely gives what he has. “Thus, in perfect oneness, the three persons willed and desired the redemption of the elect.” (Vanhoozer, p. 24). In this, the whole Trinity is active and exalted in the redemption of man: “while Christ is the center of the history and redemption, this divine movement of grace is triune and occurs accordingly” (Vanhoozer, ibid.).

Vanhoozer provides three examples of Triune activity in the life of the believer:
1. Faith: The Father is the source of faith, but it is directed toward the Son who “secures and increases faith”, and is powered by the Spirit.
2. Diverse gifts: Gifts come from the Spirit, and are used in a variety of services arranged by the same Lord, and are all powered by the same God. (This is a weak example, considering that he merely quoted the verse from I Corinthians rather than expanding upon them!)
3. Holiness: The Father appoints holiness for his people, the Son appoints it as a mediator, and the Spirit empowers it.

Any encounter with God should be in the light of the Triune revelation of God: based on Ephesians 2:18, Owen notes that we appraoch the Father through the Son and by the Spirit. “[D]istinction does not obliterate divine unity, nor does divine unity undercut distinction. Rather, unity governs distinction, and distinction must inform conceptions of unity.” In that, Owen says: “There is no grace whereby our souls go forth unto God, no act of divine worship yielded unto him, no duty or obedience performed, but they are distinctly directed unto Father, Son, and Spirit.” In that, for Owen, worshipping God is not worshipping an abstract force, but a direct relation to the Father, Son, and Spirit as distinct persons unified forever.

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