This divine perfection and Trinitarian unity means something profound. The God who eternally lacks no perfection and who in himself is goodness and joy and peace and love, as Father who loves the Son in the Spirit, this God creates us anyway. Therefore, at the heart of this world, underneath its very existence, is not chaos, not violence, not emptiness, but Love. Love that rejoices in its own being, Love that loves itself in unimaginable infinity. And that Love is, as Isaak Dorner said, also a lover of life.
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. (Apostles’ Creed)
According to the Christian confession, there is one God, the Lord, the one declaring his name “I am,” “the first and the last,” “the living God,” the “holy one of Israel.” The declaration that “there is none besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other” (Isaiah 45:6) does not mean that our God is better than the other deities that occupy the category of “gods.” It means that the one God is in a class by himself, with no other being in his category: “Besides me there is no God” (Isaiah 45:5).
At the same time, the Christian faith understands this one God to be simultaneously three: the God of Israel, who is “one” (Deuteronomy 6:4), has saved his sinful people by sending God the Son and God the Spirit. These three are not three gods, nor do they make God cease to be singular. There is one name revealed to us into which we are baptized: the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). How can this be?
The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is the way the Christian faith has explicated the reality of divine revelation and redemption, and it is this doctrine that is the “ruler and judge over all other Christian doctrines” (John Webster, God Without Measure, 1:159). Every Christian doctrine is Trinitarian through and through, so it is of great importance that we get this clear. When we confess the Apostles’ Creed, what do we mean — and not mean?
Many of us have been taught to say briefly that God is one essence in three persons. This admirable beginning demands that we know what we are saying by the term essence, the term persons, and the relationships among the various terms (see Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:298). By essence, Christians mean the “what-ness” of God, his nature or his being. But due to God’s utter transcendence of our world and powers of knowing, he must tell us what he is like by declaring to us his name and demonstrating his nature in his works.
Listening to the biblical witness has led the church to describe God’s nature in four important ways (although there are many more!). First, God has life in and of and from himself. More than merely “independence” or “uncausedness,” this conception (called aseity) is positive and indicative of God’s own measureless, blissful existence that is without origin, cause, change, or dependence — from eternity to eternity, God is unimaginably alive.
Second, God is simple, or not composed of parts. This is a way of describing the radical oneness of God, who does not come to be good, nor is only one part of him good, nor is he measured by some standard of the Good other than his own nature. God simply is good, since he simply is himself.
Third, God is perfect. God’s perfection does not refer to properties of worldly greatness magnified a billion times and then attributed to God. Rather, God is perfect as himself, as the Holy Trinity, lacking “nothing of the mode of [his own] perfection” (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia.4.1).
Fourth, God is good. While we are called good (by him!), we are so in an analogous, creaturely sense. But God is goodness itself — purely, perfectly, simply — in and of himself, and he needs no other to whom to pour out that goodness.
In all of these four ways, he is himself. This particular nature is the divine essence that all three Trinitarian persons are (or share). Uniquely, the Christian confession affirms these truths of God in himself before and apart from his relation to us.
Who are these three who are the one God? We confess in the creed what we hear in Scripture: God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These three persons are not parts of the one God, coming together to make the one; nor are they the one divided into three. Each person is the one God, but only as related to the other two persons. Thinking of one divine person in isolation is a sort of nonsense: the names are, as Augustine demonstrated, “relation-wise” terms and are thus mutually constitutive. The Father is he who eternally begets the Son and who, with the Son, eternally breathes out the Spirit. Son and Spirit likewise are identified by their respective relations to the Father and each other.
When we confess in the creed, “I believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth,” we in no way intend that the singular divine person of the Father is solely the Creator, and that Son and Spirit are not part of that divine work. The Father who creates is eternally Father-of-the-Son, and Father-with-the-Son-who-is-related-to-the-Spirit. The creation of the universe is a Trinitarian action, executed by all three persons in the singular, perfect divine essence. God is triune before and apart from his relating to us in his works.