Of God, His Unity and Trinity (Second Helvetic Confession, Chapter 3b)

Previous article in this series: March 15, 2016, p. 275.

The third chapter of the SHC concerns the fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith, the doctrine of the Trinity. Convinced of this truth from the very beginning, the Christian church confesses that although God is one divine being, He exists as three distinct persons. Together the three divine persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are the one true and living God.

In the first article on this chapter we concerned ourselves with the truth that God is one, “one in essence or nature [being], subsisting in himself, all sufficient in himself,” to use the language of the SHC. In this article we will treat the second main part of the doctrine of the Trinity, namely, God’s threeness. We will also note some other confessional statements, as well as the biblical support for the doctrine of the Trinity cited by the SHC. And finally, we will consider the SHC’s concluding paragraph in which various heresies and heretics are identified and condemned.

God Is Three

Notwithstanding we believe and teach that the same immense, one and indivisible God is in person inseparably and without confusion distinguished as Father, Son and Holy Spirit so, as the Father has begotten the Son from eternity, the Son is begotten by an ineffable generation, and the Holy Spirit truly proceeds from them both, and the same from eternity and is to be worshipped with both.

Thus there are not three gods, but three persons, consubstantial, coeternal, and coequal; distinct with respect to hypostases, and with respect to order, the one preceding the other yet without any inequality. For according to the nature or essence they are so joined together that they are one God, and the divine nature is common to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

God is three. The same God who is one is also three. At the same time, though not in the same sense that He is one, God is three. He is one in essence or being, whereas He is three in persons: “Notwithstanding we believe and teach that the same immense one and indivisible God is in person inseparably and without confusion distinguished as Father, Son and Holy Spirit….” Although they together share the one divine being, each of the persons is distinct as a person from the other two persons. In this respect, God is the wholly other One. With us men, we exist always as one being and one person. For that reason, from a strictly spiritual, biblical psychological viewpoint, multiple personalities within a single individual are an impossibility. It cannot happen. And it cannot happen because God makes men in such a way that they are one person within one being. But with God that is not the case. God is so preeminently exalted that He exists as three persons within one divine being.

The names that Scripture gives to the three persons distinguish them personally. One of them is Father. Another of them is Son. And still a third is Holy Spirit. Their distinct names designate the three persons as three distinct individuals.

In keeping with the ancient church, the SHC distinguishes the three divine persons from each other by identifying their distinct personal properties. At the same time, these three distinct personal properties are the works of the three persons within the Godhead. The Father begets the Son eternally: “as the Father has begotten the Son from eternity.” The Son is begotten: “the Son is begotten by an ineffable generation.” And the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son: “and the Holy Spirit truly proceeds from them both, and the same from eternity and is to be worshipped with both.”

Immediately the SHC draws the conclusion: “Thus there are not three gods, but three persons, consubstantial, coeternal, and coequal; distinct with respect to hypostases, and with respect to order, the one preceding the other yet without any inequality. For according to the nature or essence they are so joined together that they are one God, and the divine nature is common to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” That is traditional trinitarian language, that the three persons are characterized as “consubstantial, coeternal, and coequal.” That is traditional language for affirming the unity or oneness of the divine persons.

At the same time, they are “distinct with respect to hypostases, and with respect to order, the one preceding the other yet without any inequality.” The three persons are appropriately referred to as the First Person, the Second Person, and the Third Person. God the Father is the First Person; God the Son is the Second Person; and God the Holy Spirit is the Third Person. Although there may be a certain danger connected to using this kind of language, the danger that we rank the three persons of the Godhead in order of importance or authority, this way of referring to the three persons does have value for underscoring their individuality. They are three distinct persons: First, Second, and Third. Being three distinct persons, they are also three distinct subsistences or hypostases.

“Subsistence” is Latin in derivation and “hypostasis” is Greek in derivation. Both words refer literally to “that which underlies.” It is the underlying reality of something— that which makes it uniquely what it is and sets it apart from everything and everyone else. That is what our person is in us human beings. Our person—connected to which is our personality (although person and personality are not identical)—distinguishes us from every other human being. There are no two people alike because there are no two persons that are identical—not even that of identical twins. Our person is the subject of all our thinking, willing, and acting. Everything that we experience as human beings, we experience in our person. Our person is the unchanging reality in every one of us. We undergo many changes throughout our lifetime. We are born and mature. We marry and raise a family. We undergo many struggles and experience many heartaches. And finally, we grow old and die. But throughout the duration of our lifetime and despite all these changes, our person remains constant. It is there and will always be there; and it makes us before God and men who and what we are. What is true of us and our personhood is all the more true of God.

One thing that stands out in the SHC’s description of the doctrine of the Trinity is its reliance upon the language of the ancient trinitarian creeds—language that accurately reflects the biblical revelation of this truth. The chapter makes explicit reference to the Apostles’ Creed: “In short, we receive the Apostles’ Creed because it delivers to us the true faith.” But apart from the mention of the Apostles’ Creed, the language of the SHC is creedal language. The Nicene Creed speaks of the Son’s being begotten from eternity (“before all worlds”), as well as the Spirit’s double procession: “who proceedeth from the Father and the Son” (the filioque—“and the Son”—was added to the Nicene Creed by the Council of Toledo, 589). It also calls for the Spirit to be “worshipped and glorified” along with the Father and the Son.

Besides making use of the language of the Nicene Creed, the SHC makes reference to the Creed of Chalcedon, sometimes called the Chalcedonian Definition, of A.D. 451. More than any other previous creed, this creed confirmed the deity of Jesus Christ and established the proper relationship between the two natures of Christ in the one divine Person of the Son of God. The creed is famous for its four qualifying phrases by means of which the relationship of the two natures to the one Person of Christ is set forth. Christ is to be acknowledged in two natures “inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, and inseparably.” Bullinger, now, borrows the language of Chalcedon in order to explain trinitarian realities. “Notwithstanding we believe and teach that the same immense, one and indivisible God is in person inseparably and without confusion distinguished as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

Scriptural Support

For Scripture has delivered to us a manifest distinction of persons, the angel saying, among other things, to the Blessed Virgin, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). And also in the baptism of Christ a voice is heard from heaven concerning Christ, saying, “This is my beloved Son” (Matt. 3:17). The Holy Spirit also appeared in the form of a dove (John 1:32). And when the Lord himself commanded the apostles to baptize, he commanded them to baptize “in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). Elsewhere in the Gospel he said: “The Father will send the Holy Spirit in my name” (John 14:26), and again he said: “When the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me,” etc. (John 15:26). In short, we receive the Apostles’ Creed because it delivers to us the true faith.

The confession of the Trinity is of no value if it does not arise out of and stand in complete agreement with the Holy Scriptures. And so, after explaining the meaning of the doctrine of the Trinity, Bullinger marches straight to the text of Scripture for the support for this doctrine. What is revealed must be confessed. And what is revealed must be known, and thus taught to God’s people. Is there biblical support for this doctrine? If so, what might that support from Scripture be? What is the “manifest distinction of persons” that the Scriptures clearly teach?

The proofs appealed to by the SHC are the standard proofs to which appeal has been made since the time of the early church. It appeals, first, to the word of the angel to “the Blessed Virgin” Mary:1 “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God,” (Luke 1:35).2 In the announcement of Jesus’ birth, the angel makes unmistakable reference to three persons: the Holy Spirit who will “come upon” her and accomplish conception within her; the “Most High” who overshadows her; and “the child” who is conceived within her and born to her, who is referred to as “that holy thing.”

At the time of Jesus’ baptism, on the occasion of the inauguration of His public ministry, there was a clear revelation of the Trinity. There was the voice from heaven, the voice of the Father who said, “This is my beloved Son” (Matt. 3:17). There was the Holy Spirit in the form of the dove (John 1:32). And there was Christ Jesus on whose head the dove alighted and about whom the voice said, “my beloved Son.” Three distinct persons: Christ who is sent now to preach; the Father who sends Him; and the Holy Spirit who qualifies Him to do the work for which He is sent.

In the third place, the SHC appeals to the baptism formula and to the fact that the Lord commanded the apostles, and through them the New Testament church, to baptize “in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). This is a striking proof for the doctrine of the Trinity—both aspects of the doctrine. For, although three names are mentioned, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Lord commands that baptism be administered, not in “the names,” but in “the name,” singular. Although there are three names, in an important sense there is only one name, “the name,” because God is one in being.

And, finally, the SHC makes reference in the gospel according to John to the passages that refer to the sending of the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. According to John 14:26, the Father sends the Comforter, or Paraclete. According to John 15:26, Jesus sends the Comforter from the Father. Once again, all three persons are referred to. Father and Son send the Comforter, and the Comforter proceeds from the Father and the Son. In connection with these verses and the truth that three persons are referred to, and not simply three modes of existence, there is the fact that personal characteristics are attributed to the three persons. Father and Son “send,” which is a personal activity. The Spirit “is sent,” “proceeds,” “bears witness,” “comforts,” and “counsels.”

Indisputable proof. Incontrovertible reasoning. Convincing argumentation. But they are never so blind as those who will not see. And throughout history there have been those so blind that they will not see. Or better, those whose eyes the heavenly Father has not seen fit to open.

Heresies

Therefore we condemn the Jews and Mohammedans, and all those who blaspheme that sacred and adorable Trinity. We also condemn all heresies and heretics who teach that the Son and Holy Spirit are God in name only, and also that there is something created and subservient, or subordinate to another in the Trinity, and that there is something unequal in it, a greater or a less, something corporeal or corporeally conceived, something different with respect to character or will, something mixed or solitary, as if the Son and Holy Spirit were the affections and properties of one God the Father, as the Monarchians, Novatians, Praxeas, Patripassians, Sabellius, Paul of Samosata, Aëtius, Macedonius, Anthropomorphites, Arius, and such like, have thought.

The truth is antithetical and must be confessed antithetically. The truth must not only be set forth positively—though it must be. But error and errorists must be identified. In this the SHC is only following the example of our Lord and the apostles in the New Testament Scriptures. The list of “Heresies” includes not only “heresies,” but also “heretics.” False teachers are mentioned by name. Those who have publicly promoted false doctrine and those who have defied the condemnation of their views by the assemblies of the church, ought to be identified by name. In this way they are exposed and the people of God are armed to defend themselves against the influence of these heretics.

With the exception of the Jews and Mohammedans, the heresies and heretics mentioned at the end of Chapter 3 of the SHC threatened the early church. Two things about this. First, their errors exist still today, albeit under different names and in association with different groups. The cults and sects that have arisen in the modern era espouse the same errors as a number of the groups mentioned. These would include the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons. Second, the church needs to be reminded of the old errors because there is always the danger that old errors are revived, refitted, and re-introduced into the church.


1 Although the Reformed orthodox rejected the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church concerning the virgin Mary, they continued to honor her by referring to her as “the Blessed Virgin.” This same expression is applied to Mary in Article 18 of the Belgic Confession of Faith.

2 The Scripture passages in the SHC are quite obviously not from the KJV, but are Heinrich Bullinger’s own translation of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures. That is also the case with Scripture quotations in our Three Forms of Unity and in our Reformed liturgical forms that the quotations are not from the KJV, but are original to the authors of the creeds and forms.