In referring to the Godhead, many Christians speak of divine Persons. Where does this expression come from?
It comes from theology but not the Bible. While one would not pick people up for a word (see Is. 29: 21), we should exercise great care in speaking of the Godhead. The real danger in unscriptural expressions is not so much in the expressions themselves, as when teachings are built upon them. We have a revelation of God in the Scriptures and as far as possible it is wise to stick to the language that the Holy Spirit uses there. Theology speaks of the Persons of the Godhead, the Person of the Father, the Person of the Son and the Person of the Holy Spirit. Collectively they are referred to as divine Persons. This kind of language leads Moslems to accuse Christians of having three gods (as the writer can attest through personal experience). Does the Moslem have a valid point? Yes he has!
That there is plurality and unity in the Godhead is indicated by the opening words of the Bible: “In the beginning God created …” (Gen. 1: 1) where we have a Hebrew plural in Elohim (God) and a singular verb created. Furthermore, the plural here means three or more—the Hebrew language has a dual when exactly two are in question. In a strict grammatical sense the structure is incorrect, but theologically it is exact. However, the revelation of distinctiveness in the Godhead really awaited the coming of the Son. Then we read “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt: 29: 19) where the word name is in the singular.
Now Scripture, unlike theology, never speaks of the Person of the Father, or the Person of the Son or the Person of the Holy Spirit. Nor do we ever read of the Person of God (for that would immediately destroy the idea of plurality in the Godhead). We should guard against going beyond what God has been pleased to make known. In describing the Godhead, the Bible uses terminology that is both sufficient for its purpose and that all men can understand.
What do we mean when we speak of the person of anyone? What is the idea conveyed to our minds by this terminology? The word person denotes a distinct individual. The English word is from the Latin per meaning through, and sonare meaning to sound. The Latin word persona was the mask through which an actor’s voice sounded, as he represented a particular person or character in a play. Hence the usage of the word always refers to individuality or to an individual.
In 2 Cor. 2: 10 we read of “[the] person of Christ”. However, Christ is the name or title of the Lord as a man (see 1 Cor. 11: 3) and not in the setting of the Godhead. As a man the Lord was an individual and distinct from all other men. He “became flesh” (John 1: 14) and entered into limited conditions as man, although ever remaining who He ever was and always will be in the Godhead. The Christ is the man who ate and drank, who wept and sorrowed and who was tired and slept. It is to this man that the word person in 2 Cor. 2: 10 refers. It is of great importance in regard to the Lord Jesus to distinguish between what He is as God and what he became as man. Christ can be spoken of as a person, for He was God “manifested in flesh” (1 Tim. 3: 16), had entered into conditions of limitation and could therefore be taken account of as an individual. Hence, He can be spoken of as localised now, that is identified with a particular place—such as sitting on the Father’s throne (see Rev. 3: 21) and hereafter, at His second advent, as sitting “down upon his throne of glory” (Matt. 25: 31).
There are, as far as the writer understands things, two thoughts presented in Scripture in relation to the unity of the Godhead: one is identity and the other is distinction. Thus when the Lord said “I and the Father are one” (John 10: 30), then that is identity. Similarly, “He that has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14: 9). By contrast, when I read “the Father has sent the Son” (1 John 4: 14), then that is distinction. It is the Father who sent the Son and no one else. In the same way, when the Son said of the Father “for thou lovedst me before [the] foundation of [the] world” (John 17: 24), it is clearly distinction again. Distinctiveness and identity are seen together in the Scripture in Matt. 28: 19 already referred to. The words “of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” demonstrate distinction, while the singularity of the word name rather than names preserves the thought of identity. Those who continually use the term divine persons take the thought of distinction beyond the revelation of Scripture, for God is one (see 1 Tim. 2: 5). While the use of the expression may be without much thought, it is nonetheless a serious blunder and, if taken to its logical conclusion, makes three gods (or tritheism)—and the Moslem listener is justifiably appalled.