How Do the Father, Son, and Spirit Differ?

The Systematic Theology of John Brown of HaddingtonIn recent debates about the Trinity—particularly the ones that stem from the gender debate—the question of the differences among the persons of the Trinity comes to the forefront. How do the Father, Son, and Spirit differ from each other?

John Brown of Haddington answers this way:1

  1. By their names of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Mt 28:19; 2 Co 8:14; Mt 3:16–17; 1 Jn 5:7; Jn 14:16–17.
  2. By their order of subsistence; the Father the first; the Son the second; and the Holy Ghost the third, 1 Jn 5:7; Mt 28:19. But to mark their equality, they are sometimes mentioned in a different order, 2 Co 8:14; Re 1:4–5; 1 Th 3:5.
  3. By their different order of operation. The Father acts from himself through the Son and by the Spirit. The Son acts from the Father and by the Spirit: And the Spirit acts from both the Father and the Son, Jn 2:16; 1:1–3; 5:17–19; 15:26; 14:26; 16:7.
  4. By their different stations, which, in a delightful correspondence with their natural order of subsistence, they have voluntarily assumed in the work of our redemption:—the Father as the Creditor, Judge Master, and Rewarder;—the Son as the Mediator, Surety, Servant, Pannel, &c.;—and the Holy Ghost as the Furnisher, Assistant, and Rewarder of the Mediator, and the Applier of the redemption purchased by him, Zech 3:8; 8:7; Is 42:1, 6–7; 49:1–9; 53:2–12, Jn 16:8–15; Eph 1:17–18; 3:16–19; 4:30; Ezek 36:27.
  5. And chiefly by their personal properties.—The Father is neither begotten by, nor preceeds from any other person, but, being first in order, he begets the Son, and hath the Holy Ghost proceeding from him. The Son is begotten by the Father, and hath the Holy Ghost proceeding form him. The Holy Ghost neither begets, nor is begotten, but proceeds from both the Father and the Son, John 1:14, 18; 3:16; 14:26; Ga 4:4–6; 1 Pe 1:11.

But here’s the crucial question: are these differences eternal, or are they merely voluntarily taken on in time for us and our salvation? Concerning personal properties, Brown continues,

To contend that these properties belong only to these divine persons, as connected with man’s redemption, is really to admit the Sabellian heresy, which represents the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, as but one divine person, manifested in three different forms in that work: For, if no known differences be admitted, no real distinction of those persons can be admitted. If we assert that these properties must belong to the redemption-scheme, because they are ordinarily found in near connection with something pertaining to it; we must, for the same reason, give up all the evidences as to the true godhead of the Son and Holy Ghost. Mean while these properties are so mysterious, that we can no more comprehend or explain them, than we can do the self-existence, infinity, and unsuccessive eternity of God.

What about the other four differences? Their stations are apparently not eternal differences, but are rather “voluntarily assumed in the work of our redemption”—though they are “in a delightful correspondence with their natural order of subsistence.”

It’s not clear how Brown would address their names, order of subsistence, and order of operation. But I’d be inclined to see these as reaching back into their eternal relationship—or at the very least as accurate representations of eternal realities.

What do you think?


  1. The Systematic Theology of John Brown of Haddington (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2002), 142. First published in 1782 as A Compendious View of Natural and Revealed Religion. I updated the format of the Bible references to make them more readable and added bold to the five italicized terms.


5 Responses to How Do the Father, Son, and Spirit Differ?

  1. Robert Murphy April 20, 2011 at 7:54 am #

    When I have thought about similar issues in the past, John 17 has proven the key, taken through Vos’ eyes. In short, the Trinity is ontologically equal but economically in *covenant*. That is, the Son has eternally placed himself under the Father. John 17 seems to be saying they enjoyed co-eternal joy before time (?!?) but that all we will ever encounter is the submissive Son, time-bound creatures that we are.

  2. Paul D. Adams May 5, 2011 at 5:35 pm #

    One should consider Graham Cole’s lecture “Trinity without Tiers” found here and Millard Erickson’s Who’s Tampering with the Trinity?: An Assessment of the Subordination Debate

  3. Margo, Children's Ministry Academy October 13, 2011 at 6:37 am #

    The Trinity debate has always been a hot topic between me and my family and friends. You do a great job of simplifying what Brown says, and it’s given me more to think about when it comes to this ever-present debate. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. I’m sharing this post with my friends and family and look forward to their responses.