Let us suppose I were to ask if a person believed in the doctrine of the full deity, divinity, or Godness of our Lord—that our Lord Jesus, according to his divine nature, is of the same, singular essence, glory, will, and power as the Father. Let us suppose they answer “yes.” Let us further suppose I asked that same person this question: “Where does the Bible teach that?” They answer: “John 10:30, because there we read, ‘I and the Father are one.’” Is the matter settled by quoting a verse? I would say no, and here is why.
John 10:30 was a critical verse for the early church. As believers wrestled with the documents of the New Testament in terms of their teaching about our Lord’s identity, and in relation to the Old Testament, various views began to be propagated. Some taught that our Lord was not eternal God by nature, but rather a mere creature (though the first and greatest of creatures). In other words, there was a time when he was not. Others taught that God is one in nature and one in person, revealing himself in three distinct modes at different times. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are not distinct, eternal divine persons, each having the same essence, nature, or substance.
These and other teachings were vigorously debated. As a result of these debates, at least two things have come to us in our own day: first, technical language to help us identity what and who the persons of the Godhead are, and second, creeds and confessions which seek to affirm Scripture’s teaching unequivocally. We even sing hymns which reflect the fruit of the early church debates. For example:
To the great One in Three
Eternal praises be,
His sovereign majesty
May we in glory see,
And to eternity
Love and adore.
The “One” is “Three” and there is one “sovereign majesty.” The creeds helped subsequent generations of Christians understand what and who God is and gave them a common language with which to express themselves.
Some people in our day do not like written creeds and confessions. Their reason is because they view Scripture, and Scripture alone, as our only authority for faith and practice. Creeds and confessions are viewed by these people, however, as man-made documents which undermine the authority of Scripture. People who think in this fashion often say things like this: “Give me Bible doctrines in Bible words.” Let us suppose I were to ask such a person if he or she believed in the doctrine of the full deity, divinity, or Godness of our Lord—that our Lord Jesus, according to his divine nature, is of the same, singular essence, glory, will, and power as the Father. Let us suppose they answer “yes.” Let us further suppose I asked that same person this question: “Where does the Bible teach that?” They answer: “John 10:30, because there we read, ‘I and the Father are one.’” Is the matter settled by quoting a verse? I would say no, and here is why.
Simply quoting a verse does not communicate its meaning in the same way to everyone who might hear the quoted verse. This was the very problem faced by the early church. Those who ended up being considered outside of orthodoxy, or right teaching according to Scripture, often used the same Bible words from the same texts as the orthodox. The real issue is the meaning of the words, which requires using words not in the text to explain the text. Let me show you an example. If I said, “I believe in the full divinity of our Lord due to the words of John 10:30,” someone could say the opposite—“I don’t believe in the full divinity of our Lord due to the words of John 10:30.” We look at the same words but derive different meanings. So how would we settle our debate? The words must be explained in terms of their meaning, and this requires using different words from the ones in the text. Merely citing the words back and forth would never settle the debate. This is why the early church theologians published creeds for all to see. They wanted the world to know exactly what they thought Scripture meant by what it said.
Consider the Nicene Creed (325) on the issue of our Lord’s identity.
“[We believe in] one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, begotten from the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made; of the same essence as the Father.”
Note the italicized words: “of the same essence as the Father.” Those words are not found in Scripture. But are the concepts embodied in those words scriptural? Does Scripture teach that our Lord is “of the same essence as the Father”?
Or consider The Creed of Chalcedon (451).
“We, then, following the holy fathers, all with one consent teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and body; coessential with the Father according to the Godhead…”
Note the italicized words: “coessential with the Father according to the Godhead.” Again, these words are not found in Scripture, but is the sense of the words scriptural? Is it the case that the Bible teaches the Son is “coessential with the Father according to the Godhead”? And if it does, where and in what words?
Moving ahead to the seventeenth century, my church’s confession of faith, the Second London Confession of 1677/89 (2LCF), says this:
“In this divine and infinite Being there are three subsistences, the Father, the Word or Son, and Holy Spirit, of one substance, power, and eternity, each having the whole divine essence, yet the essence undivided (2LCF 2.3a)”
This language is very similar to the Westminster Confession of Faith. It was borrowed from it and slightly modified as to its form. Note these words in 2LCF 2.3a: “of one substance, power, and eternity, each having the whole divine essence.” In chapter 8, while discussing Christ the Mediator, the 2LCF says:
“The Son of God, the second person in the Holy Trinity, being very and eternal God, the brightness of the Father’s glory, of one substance and equal with him who made the world, who upholdeth and governeth all things he hath made…” (2LCF 8.2a)
Note the italicized words above: “of one substance.”
Were the documents cited above right to state that the Father and the Son, though distinct divine persons, are of the same essence or substance, equal in glory and power? Is it scriptural to assert that our Lord, according to his divinity, is “of the same [singular] essence as the Father,” “coessential with the Father according to the Godhead,” “of one substance, power, and eternity,” “having the whole divine essence,” “of one substance,” and, therefore “of one…power, and eternity”? I think they were.
But how does one go about proving that such statements are scriptural? The answer, of course, is to go to Scripture itself. In going to Scripture to account for the statements above, however, are we to expect Scripture to use the same terms as those statements? The answer is no. This is due to the fact that the statements are seeking to explain the teaching of Scripture. When this is done, such explanations often use terms not used by Scripture. Christians do this all the time. While explaining what we think a text means we do not merely use the words of the text in the order in which they appear. We explain the words in terms of their meaning, given what words are used and the context in which they appear.