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R.C. Sproul discusses and defends the Trinity in this book, What is the Trinity? He explains that God is one essence, composed of three persons, and that the existence of three persons in one essence does not contradict the law of non-contradiction. Now, what does he mean by 'essence'? Why does he use the term 'essence' instead of 'entity'? Does he use the term 'essence' in the same way he would use it in 'the essence of a squirrel' or 'all the squirrelness about the squirrel that makes up the squirrel'?

I realize that there is a similar question: What do we mean by person?

But this one is more focused on the word, essence, not the word person. I believe it's a technical term in Christianity, hence the tag.

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You do realize this obsessed Christians for the first several hundred years right? A good answer should summarize the position of the first four ecumenical councils at the least. –  Affable Geek Feb 3 at 12:35
    
@AffableGeek Well, the said theologian did use one of the ecumenical councils to defend the Holy Trinity and orthodox Christianity, steering away from heresies. –  Anonymous Feb 3 at 12:41
    
I am going to attempt to answer this question myself. Someday. –  Anonymous Feb 3 at 23:51
    
I have edited your question to focus on what R.C. Sproul means, since not all Christians are going to agree on this. I hope you don't mind. I considered adding the 'calvinist' tag, as R.C. Sproul is a well-known Calvinist apologist, but it seems the answer is broader than strictly Calvinism. Hopefully it's sufficiently scoped without additional tags. –  Flimzy Aug 3 at 22:57

3 Answers 3

God as one essence composed in three persons is a difficult concept for finite minds. I prayed and asked the Lord to help me understand the Trinity. He gave me a simple, earthly comparison which is not perfect, but helped me understand a spiritual, abstract idea. (H2o- 2 hydrogens and 1 oxygen.) H2o is the essence. Ice, steam and water are the three forms of the essence H2o. Ice is H2o, steam is H2o, and water is H2o. I hope this simple explanation helps you understand how God can still be one and three in one.

In response to the modality concern, I said it was not a perfect explanation. It helped me on a very basic level to understand how something could be one essence and be three. I agree that the H2o can't exist in all forms at the same time which makes it not a perfect example, but we only have partial understanding of divine concepts. Please know that I agree with you on your point.

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How is this different from modalism, another heresy? The phases of water cannot be compared to God, because the phases of water can only occur one at a time. By rendering God to occur one at a time, as Holy Spirit, as Creator, as Redeemer, you would commit modalism, another heresy. –  Anonymous Feb 5 at 3:56
    
I think the answer definitely needs to include the concept of "Sacred Mystery". –  Anonymous Feb 5 at 3:59
    
I agree with @Anonymous. Although the liquid/gas/solid analogy is used a lot, it's a false analogy. It is precisely as Anonymous said, modalism, and is indeed a heresy according to Trinitarians. –  Flimzy Aug 3 at 23:00

DISCLAIMER/CAVEAT:

Lewis Sperry Chafer, whom I cite below, was born on February 27, 1871, and died on August 22, 1952. He was an American theologian. He founded and served as the first president of Dallas Theological Seminary, and was an influential proponent of Christian Dispensationalism in the early 20th century. One of his mentors was C.I. Scofield, of Scofield-Reference-Bible fame. Chafer, by almost any standard, was a conservative, evangelical Christian professor and author. If anything in Chafer's background offends you, please do not read any further. I cannot assume responsibility for anyone choosing to read this answer in spite of this caveat.

Here, for those interested, is a partial list of his writings (look here). His most famous work is his eight-volume Systematic Theology.

  • The Kingdom in History and Prophecy, 1915.
  • Salvation: A Clear Doctrinal Analysis, 1917. Reprint, 1955. ISBN 0-310-22351-2
  • He That is Spiritual, 1918. Reprint, 1967. ISBN 0-310-22341-5
  • True Evangelism: Winning Souls by Prayer, 1919. Reprint, 1978. ISBN 0-310-22381-4
  • Satan: His Motive and Methods, 1919. Reprint, 1964. ISBN 0-310-22361-X
  • Grace: The Glorious Theme, 1922. Reprint, 1950. ISBN 0-310-22331-8
  • Major Bible Themes, 1926. Reprint, 1974. ISBN 0-310-22390-3
  • The Epistle to the Ephesians, 1935. Reprint, 1991. ISBN 0825423422
  • Systematic Theology, 1947. Reprint, 1993. ISBN 0-8254-2340-6

And now, the

ORIGINAL UNEDITED ANSWER:

Theologian Lewis Sperry Chafer, I believe, said something in this regard, though he did not use the term essence. In writing on the attributes of God, he suggested that if there were an attribute of attributes with which we could describe God, it would be holiness.

I am not therefore implying Dr. Sproul had holiness in mind when he used the word essence, but I suggest the two terms may in fact be somewhat interchangeable.

In human terms we often say,

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

I suggest reverently that regarding God's attributes, we can say the same thing, with some minor but significant changes. God is not simply the sum of all His attributes, each of which He holds in perfection and to an infinite degree. No, the very essence of God can perhaps be expressed best in the word holy. A pivotal and seminal scripture in this regard is the prophet Isaiah's vision of the throne room of heaven, or more specifically the highest heaven, the very abode of God:

"In the year King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one [seraph] called out to another and said, 'Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory'" (6:1-3).

I suggest Isaiah saw in his vision more than the holiness of God, although God's holiness was certainly the focal point of all he saw and heard and felt. By implication, Isaiah also beheld God's

  • Sovereignty
  • Authority
  • Omnipotence
  • Lordship
  • Kingship
  • Omniscience

Rather than pointing out the ways in which the above attributes are revealed in chapter 6, I will simply suggest that the overall impression of Isaiah, which is certainly underscored by the actions of the seraphim who in their declarations of God's holiness covered their faces and feet, was awe in the presence of Holy God. Regarding holiness, God is sui generis. No person even begins to approach Him in holiness.

Angels may be glorious, powerful, wise, pure, and obedient, but they are certainly not omniscient, omnipotent, or omnipresent. Nor are they in essence, holy. God alone is holy. Amazingly, however, He delights in His children when they reflect His holiness by being themselves, holy. In fact, God even commands us to imitate Him in this regard,

". . . It is written , Be ye holy; for I am holy" (1 Peter 1:16 KJV).

Think of any attribute of God, whether love, mercy, compassion, righteousness, justice, sovereignty, majesty, anger, jealousy, ad infinitum, and each attribute is bathed, as it were, in holiness.

As inconceivable as it may seem to us, even Jesus shares this sacred attribute--this attribute of attributes--with both the Father and the Holy Spirit. Yes, for a time, he veiled or cloaked His holiness as the incarnate Son of God and son of the virgin Mary. He did this so that His creatures would not be blinded--annihilated even--in His presence, just as surely would the Israelites at Sinai had they dared to touch, let alone approach the mountain of God (see Exodus 19:18-25). Even so, however, despite His approachableness and His willingness to be touched, even by "sinners," Jesus retained that essence of holiness by being and remaining the sinless, spotless Lamb of God.

"By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness: He who was revealed in the flesh, Was vindicated in the Spirit, Seen by angels, Proclaimed among the nations, Believed on in the world, Taken up in glory" (1 Timothy 3:16 NASB Updated Version).

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So, is this from an evangelical perspective? After reading the booklet, I think, if his writing correspond to his theological beliefs, he is an evangelical Protestant professor. You may want to tailor your response to an evangelical Protestant perspective, if you haven't done so. –  Anonymous Feb 3 at 5:18
    
@Anonymous: I'm not sure what you mean by "After reading the booklet." What booklet? At your suggestion, I'll put a disclaimer at the top of my answer announcing Chafer's denominational bias. Don –  rhetorician Feb 5 at 4:25
    
Well, the question's description does mention R.C. Sproul and his book. It's a short book, so I call it a 'booklet'. –  Anonymous Feb 5 at 4:29
    
@Anonymous: Gotcha. My bad. Don –  rhetorician Feb 5 at 4:48
    
"The whole is different than the sum of its parts" is an adage from Gestalt psychology. –  Anonymous Feb 5 at 5:34

R.C. Sproul discusses and defends the Trinity in this book, What is the Trinity? He explains that God is one essence, composed of three persons, and that the existence of three persons in one essence does not contradict the law of non-contradiction. Now, what does he mean by 'essence'? You also have three parts, you have your mind (the creative source for your creativity)[Father], you have your vibrational existence (the body and your words)[Son], and you have your attitude (the emotional result of your perspective)[Spirit]. Webster's defines essence as (the basic nature of a thing : the quality or qualities that make a thing what it is).

Why does he use the term 'essence' instead of 'entity'? Your ability to think is not a separate entity from yourself. It is still you thinking, it is still you that it there, and it is still you that is in a good mood or in a bad mood.

Does he use the term 'essence' in the same way he would use it in 'the essence of a squirrel' or 'all the squirrelness about the squirrel that makes up the squirrel'? If you thought a lot should I call you a thinker, if you also dance? Should not all the parts define who you are?

I realize that there is a similar question: What do we mean by person? Sorry do not know.

But this one is more focused on the word, essence, not the word person. I believe it's a technical term in Christianity, hence the tag. That works.

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Answering a question with a rhetorical question is not answering the question. –  Anonymous Feb 7 at 3:54
    
Thanks for helping me make the edit I need! Your awesome. –  Only he is good. Feb 7 at 12:30

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