Yet the three persons are really distinct. How so? Classical Christian theists generally locate this distinction in personal relations or, in slightly more imprecise language, "several perculiar relative properties." (James E. Dolezal, All That is in God, 119)
What, then, are we saying about God when we speak of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? First, it should be observed that we are not speaking of things that are distinct from the Godhead itself. Whenever we speak of the three, we are in fact speaking of the one, but under different aspects or modes of being. We alternatively speak of the one God Father-wise, Son-wise, and Spirit-wise—in sum, relation-wise. These relations are not something really distinct from the divine substance. (Dolezal, 122)
The persons are autotheos. Nevertheless the relative distinctions in God are themselves the persons.— Nick Visel (@Nickvisel) August 7, 2019
An easy read on this topic is “All That Is In God” by James Dolezal where he explains the relations in the trinity and why the persons are identical to the relations themselves.
In a tweet, I had asked what, according to classical theism, is the exact difference between the persons of the Godhead, and how such difference is substantially different from modalism. Of course I know that classical theism affirms that the persons have different relations to each other, whereas modalism denies that. But if the persons are merely relations, then apart from semantics, what exactly is the difference between classical theism and modalism?
In response, I was directed to chapter 6 of Dolezal's book, which I had read some time back, and to which I return. After I looked through the chapter, I knew there was a reason why I was hesitant to post about this particular section at that time, and I remain mindful that this is not an easy section to write about even as I write this blog post.
You will note that Dolezal wrote that the Trinity is speaking of the persons as "under different aspects and modes of being." That sounds exactly like modalism. But in the interest of charity, the best possible spin I can put on this is that Dolezal had a slip in his language, but that slip actually reveals the real problem for this form of classical theism. For if the relations are just relations, then the person are not truly persons. The Father cannot be distinctly speaking to the Son, and thus the best approximation in human language is a modalistic approximation, and thus Dolezal unintentionally slips into modalistic speech at that particular area. In other words, the persons of classical theisms are like mathematical operations in an equation, distinct from each other yet without any form of ontological existence. Note that we are talking about ontological existence, not ontological uniqueness. We are not and cannot ever say that there are three gods, or three parts of God. But classical theism according to Dolezal cannot even say that the Father is a real person distinct from the Son, and thus the Father can actually have a social interaction with the Son. Note also that I am not proposing Social Trinitarianism. I am saying that what the Bible explicitly say about the persons of the Trinity interacting with each other in dialogue (an "I-Thou" relation), which seems so clear in Scripture, is prohibited by classical theism. That is why these new classical theists reduce all interactions between the persons to one of "relations." The Father does not actually speak to the Son, but rather the Godhead in the person of the Father talks to the Son in his hypostatic union. The Son says that it is not his human will be done but rather the divine will of the Godhead. If you will note so far, all of these are not taught in Scripture, but are the logical imposition of a certain view of the nature of God that informs their reading of Scripture.
The idea of the persons being autotheos (God-in-himself) is that each person can be interacted with as God. One does not need to interact with the entire Godhead (although they are ultimately involved) when one talks to Jesus or to the Father. We see that to be necessarily true in order to make sense of passages that speak of Jesus' intercession for us before the Father. When we pray "in Jesus' name," we are calling upon Jesus' intercession to purify our prayers so that they can be presented pure and holy by him before the Father. We always address God the Father, but through Jesus. When we pray in Jesus' name, we are not speaking to the Father directly, for we cannot, as He dwells in unapproachable light. Only after our prayers have been washed with the blood of Christ are they presented to the Father. Thus, when we Christians pray, we pray to God the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. All three persons of the Godhead are involved, all three will hear the prayer, yet also it is the Father that specifically hears it, the Son purifying and offering it to the Father, and the Spirit working in us to pray. The "I-Thou" relationship between the persons is necessary for the intercession of Christ to work, for otherwise how can Jesus address the Father and offer up our prayers to Him?
The point of the matter is that, if we actually follow Sola Scriptura, then this idea that the persons of the Godhead are mere relations sounds like a philosophical imposition on Scripture rather than the other way around. Reacting to Social Trinitarianism and other foolish modern projects is one thing, veering into waters that smack of philosophical sophistry and modalism is another. As it stands, Dolezal's interpretation of the persons of the Godhead sounds more like a semantic difference with modalism rather than a substantial difference from it. Postulating all manner of words of the difference between the persons mean nothing if there is nothing signified by those words at all.