God Is Personal (Theology Proper)
Some individuals claim that God is an impersonal power or force and is not personal. Paul Tillich, who taught at Union Theological Seminary (New York), Harvard, and the University of Chicago and who was regarded as one of America’s foremost 20th-century theologians, held such a view.1 Dr. Tillich claimed that God is the impersonal ground or source of all being, not an existing being.2
This view conflicts with the biblical view of the triunity of God. The Old and New Testaments imply that a plurality of three distinct persons, equal in personhood and nature, exists within the one God.
It is one thing, however, to assert that the three entities that exist within the one God are persons. It is another thing to demonstrate it. This article will examine the biblical basis for concluding that they are indeed personal beings.
God the Father Is a Person
The Father Possesses Attributes of Personality
Intellect. The Scriptures assert that the Father possesses knowledge (Mt. 6:8; 24:36), foreknowledge (1 Pet. 1:2), and wisdom (Rom. 16:27). They reveal His ability to use language to communicate intelligent thoughts to other personal beings. For example, on two occasions (Christ’s baptism and transfiguration) the Father spoke audibly from heaven to people on Earth: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:17; 17:5; cf. 2 Pet. 1:17). The ability to do such things requires the kind of intellect that belongs to personal beings.
Emotions. The word translated “well pleased” means “take delight.”3 The Father took great pleasure in Jesus Christ, His Son.
Scripture reveals that the Father loves His Son (phileo, Jn. 5:20; agapao, Jn. 10:17). Although love is not limited to emotion, a father’s love for his son usually involves emotion.
The Bible declares that the wrath of God the Father abides on those who do not believe on His Son (Jn. 3:35–36). Wrath involves strong emotion.
Thus God the Father experiences the kinds of emotions characteristic of personal beings.
Will. The Scriptures signify that the Father has a will. In a prayer Jesus taught, He prayed, “Our Father, who art in heaven, . . . Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven” (Mt. 6:9–10). Jesus taught that only those who do the will of the Father will enter into the Kingdom of heaven (Mt. 7:21). He also declared that He sought the will of the Father who sent Him (Jn. 5:30).
The apostle Paul indicated that the Father does things “according to the good pleasure of his will” (Eph. 1:5) and referred to the mystery of the Father’s will (Eph. 1:9). James asserted that the Father begot spiritual children on the basis of His own will (Jas. 1:17–18).
The Father Performs Actions of Personality
The Bible indicates that God the Father performs many actions of personality. He sees what people do in secret (Mt. 6:4), forgives (Mt. 6:14), gives good things (Mt. 7:11), revealed truth (Mt. 16:17), shows mercy (Lk. 6:36), appointed a kingdom unto Jesus Christ (Lk. 22:29), makes promises (Acts 1:4; 2:33), loved the world so much that He sent His Son from heaven to provide everlasting life (Jn. 3:16), seeks people to worship Him (Jn. 4:23), performs works (Jn. 5:17), loves His Son and shows Him things (Jn. 5:20), committed judgment to His Son (Jn. 5:22), gave His Son works to finish (Jn. 5:36; 10:32), gave witness concerning His Son (Jn. 5:37; 8:18), taught His Son what to speak to the world (Jn. 8:26–28), honors His Son (Jn. 8:54), and commanded His Son to do certain things (Jn. 10:17–18; 12:49–50).
He also hears people who talk to Him (Jn. 11:41–42), honors people who serve His Son (Jn. 12:26), loves people who love His Son (Jn. 14:21, 23), sends the Holy Spirit (Jn. 14:16–17, 26), gives grace and peace to people (Rom. 1:7), raised Jesus Christ bodily from the dead and thereby declared to the world that Jesus is His Son (Rom. 1:3–4; Gal. 1:1), blesses believers in His Son with spiritual blessings (Eph. 1:3), can direct a believer’s way (1 Th. 3:11), gives every good and perfect gift (Jas. 1:17), and judges the work of people (1 Pet. 1:17).
He also sent His Son to be the Savior of the world (1 Jn. 4:14), has given the witness that He has provided eternal life for human beings and that this life is found in His Son (1 Jn. 5:11–12), has commanded believers to live their lives in conformity with truth (2 Jn. 4), and has given His Son authority to rule the nations with a rod of iron and to break them like pottery (Rev. 2:27).
The Father Receives Actions of Personality
The Scriptures reveal that God the Father receives the kinds of action that are directed toward a personal being. The Father can be prayed to (Mt. 6:6), worshiped (Jn. 4:21, 23), honored (Jn. 5:23), come unto (Jn. 14:6), known (Jn. 14:7), hated (Jn. 15:23–24), thanked (Eph. 5:20), blessed (Jas. 3:9), loved (1 Jn. 2:15), and denied (1 Jn. 2:22) by human beings. Believers can fellowship with the Father (1 Jn. 1:3). Just before He died, Jesus Christ entrusted His human spirit to the care of the Father (Lk. 23:46).
The Father Has Possessions
The Bible signifies that God the Father possesses a name (Mt. 6:9), a kingdom (Mt. 13:43), spiritual children and heirs (Rom. 8:15–17), and a throne (Rev. 3:21). Names, kingdoms, children, heirs, and thrones are the kinds of items personal beings possess.
God the Son Is a Person
It is obvious that, once God’s Son became incarnated in flesh through conception and birth, He existed on Earth as a human, personal being. But does the Bible indicate that He was a divine personal being before that incarnation?
The Preincarnate Son Possessed Attributes of Personality
Intellect. Several truths in Philippians 2:5–6 reveal that God’s Son possessed intellect prior to His incarnation. First, the apostle Paul commanded Christians to have the same mental attitude that God’s Son had before His incarnation (v. 5). Second, Paul indicated that the Son was equal with God the Father before His incarnation (v. 6). The word translated “equal” signifies an “equality of dignity, will and nature . . . which is both essential and perfect.”4 Equality in nature required the Son to have the same attributes as the Father, including the attributes of personality—intellect, emotions, and will. Third, Paul stated that the Son “thought it not robbery to be equal with God” (v. 6). The word translated “thought” means “consider.”5 It indicates that the Son made mental considerations before His incarnation.
Will. The terminology of the Greek text of Philippians 2:6–7 signifies that the preincarnate Son did not consider His equality with the Father, with its outward appearance of deity and available special privileges, as something to use for His personal benefit. Thus, when He left heaven to enter the world through incarnation, He emptied Himself of the outward appearance of His deity and assumed the outward appearance of a slave. The language strongly implies the Son’s voluntary submission to an unparalleled self-sacrificing transition. Surely such submission required His prior determinative exercise of will.
Similarly, Hebrews 2:14–17 signifies that the Son Himself became incarnated in human flesh with the determined purpose of accomplishing certain benefits for human beings. This action again implies the Son’s prior exercise of His will.
The Son’s statement, “For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will but the will of him that sent me” (Jn. 6:38) indicates that the Son had His own will prior to His coming from heaven. It also reveals that before His incarnation, the Son willfully determined to submit His will to the Father’s.
The Preincarnate Son Made Personal Appearances
A unique personal being, the angel of the Lord, appeared to Hagar (Gen. 16:7–13; 21:17–18), Abraham (Gen. 22:11–18), Jacob (Gen. 32:24– 30), Moses (Ex. 3:2—4:17), Balaam (Num. 22:31–35), Joshua (Josh. 5:13–15), Gideon (Jud. 6:11–24), and Samson’s parents (Jud. 13:1–23). He talked with these persons; made promises; and gave commands, blessing, rebuke, commissions, instruction, and information—actions of a personal being.
The biblical accounts of these appearances identify the angel of the Lord as a divine being, “the LORD” (Jehovah, Ex. 3:4, 7; 4:2, 4, 6, 11, 14) and “God” (Elohim, Ex. 3:4, 6, 11, 13–16; 4:5), not a created angel. (The word angel means “messenger” and sometimes refers to non-angelic beings.) This being called himself “I AM” (Ex. 3:14) and said, “I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Ex. 3:6).
This divine being was seen by people in Old Testament times. But the Scriptures declare, “No man hath seen God at any time” (Jn. 1:18; 1 Jn. 4:12). (The contexts of these passages indicate the reference is to God the Father, not the Son.) This contrast prompts the conclusion that the angel of the Lord who appeared in Old Testament times was a divine being distinct from God the Father.
Several facts also indicate that the angel of the Lord is Jesus Christ. First, both claimed to be the “I AM ” (Ex. 3:14; Jn. 8:58). Second, the angel of the Lord said his name was “Wonderful” (the meaning of the Hebrew word translated “secret,” Jud. 13:18). Isaiah 9:6 assigned the name “Wonderful” to the Messiah, the Son whom God would give. Third, the angel of the Lord accompanied Israel in its exodus from Egypt to Canaan (Ex. 14:19–20; Jud. 2:1). First Corinthians 10:1–9 claims that Christ accompanied Israel in that journey.
The identification of the angel of the Lord with Jesus Christ, together with the Father’s audible testimony that Jesus Christ was His Son, prompts the conclusions that the angel of the Lord who appeared in Old Testament times was God’s Son and that the Son, therefore, was a personal being before His incarnation.
God the Spirit Is a Person
The Spirit Possesses Attributes of Personality
Intellect. The Bible signifies that the Spirit has wisdom, understanding, and knowledge (Isa. 11:2), that He knows and searches the things of God (1 Cor. 2:10–11) and possesses a mind (Rom. 8:27).
Emotions. The Spirit can be grieved (Eph. 4:30), and He is able to love (Rom. 15:30).
Will. The Spirit distributes spiritual gifts according to His will (1 Cor. 12:11). He exerted His will over the wills of Paul and his companions (Acts 16:6–7).
The Spirit Performs Actions of Personality
The Spirit taught (Jn. 14:26; 1 Cor. 2:13), bears witness (Jn. 15:26; Rom. 8:16), leads (Rom. 8:14), reproves (Jn. 16:7–8), commands and directs (Acts 8:29), sends (Acts 10:19–20), calls for service (Acts 13:2, 4), helps people in need (Rom. 8:26), and prays (Rom. 8:26–27).
The Spirit Receives Actions of Personality
The Spirit can be obeyed (Acts 10:19–21), lied to (Acts 5:3), resisted (Acts 7:51), grieved (Eph. 4:30), blasphemed (Mt. 12:31), and insulted (Heb. 10:29).
The Image of God in Man
The facts that the triune God made man in the image of God (“Let us make man in our image,” Gen. 1:26) and made man personal strongly imply that the triune God is personal, consisting of three persons.
- William E. Hordern, A Layman’s Guide to Protestant Theology, rev. ed., Macmillan, New York, 1972, p. 170.
- , pp. 182, 184
- William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 4th rev. ed., University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1957, p. 319.
- Gustav Stahlin, “isos,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1965, Vol. III, p.353.
- Arndt and Gingrich, p. 344.