Persons and Subsistences in the Confessions of Faith

A careful examination and comparison of the Second London Baptist Confession (LCF) and the Westminster Confession (WCF) yields a variety of differences and nuances, some more obvious than others. One such difference is found in the second chapter, “Of God and of the Holy Trinity.” The London Confession is considerably more detailed and technical in its formulation of the doctrine of God (which is not to imply any lack of orthodoxy on the part of the WCF). This technicality is seen in the LCF’s use of “subsistence” instead of “person.” Compare the following:
WCF 2.3
WCF 2.3
LCF 2.3
LCF 2.3

Why the change? Or what’s the difference between Person and Subsistence? The short answer is that while there is no doctrinal difference, the term “subsistence” is more technical and carries less linguistic baggage. John Owen shows the agreement of the two terms:
John Owen, Dr Owens Two Catechisms, 12

Richard Muller provides the following definition for “subsistentia”: An individual instance of a given essence. [Subsistence has other meanings as well, in fact it is used in a different way in paragraph one to describe God’s self-existence. His “subsistence is in and of himself” meaning that he derives his existence from himself. Or in another sense, his existence is not derived at all.]

Think about that for a moment. There is only one divine essence. Thus, three divine subsistences must all share one divine essence. How can one essence be distinguished into three subsistences but not divided? It is infinite. The essence of God is deity. The essence of man is humanity. Human nature is finite, thus no one else can subsist within my essence. I may share a common essence with humanity, but it is a divided, individual, and separated essence. A substance is an essence in existence, thus each human being is a different and separate substance sharing the common essence of humanity. But there is one divine essence and thus one divine substance, in which godhead the three persons of the trinity subsist.

This makes “subsistence” the perfect word for expressing the technical unity and trinity of God because it necessarily connects to a given essence, in this case the singular and unique essence of deity. “Person” carries with it the linguistic baggage of human personhood connected to human essence. Without proper definition, “person” can be easily misused. Trinitarian personhood is not human personhood. That being said, the WCF is in no way heterodox on the trinity. The term “person” is perfectly capable of carrying these theological distinctions. One must simply be careful. Consider the discussion of this anonymous writer. He begins by saying that the doctrine of the Trinity is practical to us because it helps us to know the one God that we love, worship, and serve.
Anon, Catechism Made Practical, 12

Next he warns us of the need for precision because the Socinians (in their Racovian Catechism, see end of post) claimed that God was one person. Their fundamental flaw was to equate human personhood with divine personhood.
Anon, Catechism Made Practical, 13

Persons are distinguished by personal relations and peculiar relative properties, as the LCF above made clear. Notice how in the midst of this he reminds the reader that “the divine nature is unchangeable and indivisible, and not multiplicable; therefore there is no proper action nor passion, as in nature, nor production of new being.” In other words, the eternal generation of the Son never “happened” because God is not bound by time, thus nothing can “happen” to him, i.e. no passion. He is pure being, no becoming. Thus the Son’s generation is eternal in the sense that it is atemporal. Were God bound by time, he would be changeable. Were the Son brought forth from the Father as we conceive of generation, then the nature of God would be both divisible, multiplicable, active, and passive in time (which it is not – he has no parts or passions).
Anon, Catechism Made Practical, 14-15

Next he explains where we get the term “person” from and why we use it, acknowledging that there may be better ways to express the concepts. Once again he reminds the reader to separate ideas of human personhood from divine personhood. God is altogether other than we are.
Anon, Catechism Made Practical, 15-16

The language we use is “improper,” that is, it does not fully describe, though it does truthfully describe, who and what God is.
Anon, Catechism Made Practical, 16-17

In light of all of these careful nuances and important distinctions, we can safely conclude that while there is no doctrinal disagreement or difference between the two confessions, the LCF displays a careful desire for further technicality and precision and thus employs the term “subsistence” rather than person.

***A judicious and impartial reader pointed out to me that 2LCF 8.2 employs “person” while referring to Christ as the “Second Person” of the Holy Trinity. This is corroborative evidence of the fact that “subsistence” is a technical, not a doctrinal choice of language.***

See also:
John Norton on Passivity and Suffering

John Norton on the Divine Names and Perfections of God

Here are relevant portions from the Racovian Catechism:
Racovian Catechism, 18-19

Racovian Catechism, 20-21

Happy Valentine’s Day from the 17th Century

Are you single? Do you not want to be single? Well, look no further because the instructions below are a surefire way to find true love.

Anon, The Art of Courtship

We can’t all be Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice. Some of us struggle with just what to say to that special lady friend. Here are some useful and delightful phrases that are guaranteed to melt her heart!

Anon, The Art of Courtship, 9-10

This is 1686. It’s modernity! Women can express themselves, too! Ladies, these turns of phrase will show your man that your affections are evergreen.

Anon, The Art of Courtship, 8-9

But wait! There’s more! What if the object of your passion thinks prose is boring? Try poetry!
Anon, The Art of Courtship, 10

You’ve probably got a date by now. But just to be safe, make sure you’ve performed the mole test. Every book should be judged by its cover. Everyone knows that. Take note:
Anon, The Art of Courtship, 15

By now you pretty much know everything that is needed in order to be successful in the art of courtship.


Can’t be sure. But this is probably from the 1686 edition of “The Cosmopolitan.”

Happy Valentine’s Day!

New Resources Page

It’s hard to find online versions of Particular Baptist works not just because there are few of them available but also because the ones that are available are spread here and there. I’d like to try to collect links to such works and keep them in one place for the benefit of those interested in studying them. Please head over to this page: and check it out.

This page can be accessed under the “Pages” tab at the top right of the blog.

Also, if a page like this exists somewhere else please let me know so I don’t waste anyone’s time.

George Washington, American Baptists, and the Two Kingdoms

From Isaac Backus’ “An Abridgment of the Church History of New England, 1602-1804.”

Isaac Backus, An Abridgment, 214

Isaac Backus, An Abridgment, 215

Isaac Backus, An Abridgment, 216

Isaac Backus, An Abridgment, 224

Isaac Backus, An Abridgment, 224-225

This work is available on google books: