God Is One
Previous article in this series: January 1, 2016, p. 157.
We believe and teach that God is one in essence or nature, subsisting in himself, all sufficient in himself, invisible, incorporeal, immense, eternal, Creator of all things both visible and invisible, the greatest good, living, quickening and preserving all things, omnipotent and supremely wise, kind and merciful, just and true. Truly we detest many gods because it is expressly written: “The Lord your God is one Lord” (). “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me” ( ). “I am the Lord, and there is no other god besides me. Am I not the Lord, and there is no other God beside me? A righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me” ( ). “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” ( ).
In the first two articles of the Second Helvetic Confession (SHC), the Reformed Christian confesses what he believes concerning Holy Scripture. This is crucial. Since everything that he believes as well as the way in which he is called to live is set forth in Holy Scripture, what we believe about Scripture itself is foundational. For this reason, the SHC began with the doctrine of Holy Scripture. It treated what Scripture is, “the true Word of God,” in Article 1. And it treated in Article 2 the proper interpretation of Scripture, as well as the authority of the church fathers, ecclesiastical assemblies, and human traditions in comparison to the Scriptures.
The first great truth revealed in Scripture is the truth concerning God Himself. Scripture reveals God to us. This is God’s purpose in giving the Bible to us. And because this is His purpose, He gave us the Bible by infallible inspiration. His purpose is that through the Scriptures we might come to know God, whom to know is life eternal (). In every book, every chapter, every verse we must see God. Scripture reveals God to us truly, that is, as He really is. It is true that Scripture does not reveal everything that there is to know about God. God is infinite and incomprehensible; human language cannot fully describe God to us. But what Scripture does reveal of God to us is accurate; it corresponds to who and what God actually is. The first great truth concerning God revealed in Scripture is that He is one. He is one in two senses. He is one in the sense that He is one in Himself. In His own divine being, God is simple and undivided. In language used in the next paragraph of this chapter of the SHC, He is “one and indivisible God.” He is not composed, made up of pieces or parts. He is, in the language of the Belgic Confession of Faith, “one only simple and spiritual Being” (Art. 1). The oneness of God means that all God’s attributes or perfections are one in Him. What this means is that all the persons of the Godhead share equally in the divine attributes. This chapter in the SHC begins by mentioning several of God’s attributes. It mentions His self-sufficiency (“all sufficient in himself ”), His invisibility or spirituality, His incorporeality (the fact that God does not have a body), His immensity or omnipresence, His eternity or infinity; that He is the “Creator of all things both visible and invisible”; that He is the highest good; that He is the living God who quickens and preserves all things; that He is omnipotent, omniscient (“supremely wise”); and that He is “kind and merciful, just and true.” All these attributes inhere in the one Being of God. God is self-sufficient. God is invisible. God is immense. And God is all the other attributes as well. The attributes are the perfections of the one divine Being who is God.
Besides being one in Himself, God is also one as the only Lord God. He is the one true and living God, and there is no god besides Him. He is the only God in distinction from all the false gods, who although they claim to be God, are no gods at all, but dumb idols of wood and stone or the imagination of wicked men’s hearts. God is one God, that is, He is God alone. This is the first, essential component of the doctrine of the Trinity: God is one. The Christian religion condemns all polytheism, all worship of more than one god, the worship of many gods, as is the practice of the heathen and the characteristic of the heathen religions.
That God is the only true God is the teaching of Scripture. “We believe and teach” the doctrine of the Trinity because we know this to be the teaching of Scripture. Immediately in this first article following the two introductory articles on Scripture, the SHC makes plain what it believes about Scripture by appealing to Scripture in support of its teaching. Scripture is the final authority. Appeal is made to the Scriptures in order to support what the confession teaches. Practically, the SHC demonstrates what it has taught about the authority of Scripture as “the true Word of God” (SHC, Chap. 1) and the final authority in the church.
The SHC supports its teaching of God’s oneness by appealing, first of all, to what is known as “the Shema.”1 The Shema is God’s Word in Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord.” Throughout history the Shema has been appealed to as proof that God is one, the “one Lord.” Beside Him there is no other god; He is God alone. In addition to quoting the Shema, the SHC quotes the first commandment of the Decalogue: “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me” (). The first commandment is the foundation of the whole law, the law that calls for love, worship, and obedience to the one true God. For generations these two passages have shaped the Christian belief in the truth of the Trinity.
In addition, the SHC appeals to Isaiah 45, where twice God says through the prophet, “I am the Lord, and there is none else, there is no God beside me.” And the confession refers to God’s word to Moses at the time when God revealed Himself to Moses in that very special and direct way. We read in Exodus 34:6: “And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth.” Jehovah is “The Lord, The Lord God.” If He is “The Lord God,” and not merely “a Lord God,” He is God alone.
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 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.
Besides being one, God is also three. At the same time that He is one, God is also three. While He is one, He is also three. This is the biblical and confessional truth of the Trinity—the doctrine that more than any distinguishes Christianity from every false religion, from the cults and sects, and from liberal and apostate Christianity. Within the Being of God, there are three distinct persons, three “hypostases.” There are three individuals, all of whom stand in relationship to each other, within God’s Being. Each of them says “I” in relationship to Himself and in relationship to the other persons. The Father says “I;” the Son says “I;” and the Holy Spirit says “I.” At the same time, although there are three who say “I” within the Being of God, the three persons together say “I” in relationship to us men. This is the doctrine of the Trinity, the fruit of centuries of reflection on Scripture by the Christian church.
It is plain that God is three in a different sense than He is one. He is one “in essence or nature.” He is three in “persons.” Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct persons, but three persons who are “consubstantial, coeternal, and coequal.” They are “distinct with respect to hypostases…yet without any inequality.” For Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are “so joined together that they are one God, and the divine nature is common to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Because there is only one divine essence or being, each person of the Trinity shares in all that God is. There is one omnipotence that belongs fully to each of the three divine persons. There is one omniscience that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together possess. And there is one glory that each of the three persons possesses in all its fullness.
Threeness characterizes the very Being of God. Not sameness, but threeness. God is one, and God is three. There is variety in God, not monotony. Oneness, but at the same time distinction. Unity, but also diversity. The three persons within the Being of God are distinguished by name. That they are distinguished by name indicates that they are personally distinct from one another. One of the three is Father. Another of the three is Son. And still another is Holy Spirit. These three share the one Being of God. Together they exist as the one God, “consubstantial, coeternal, and coequal.”
That there are three persons within the Godhead is plain from the distinct property of each of them, as pointed out by the SHC. The property of each of the persons is that “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 is to be worshipped with both.”
At least three fundamental truths of Scripture com pelled the church from the beginning of her existence in the New Testament to confess the truth of the Trinity, the truth that there is plurality of persons within the Godhead. First, there is the truth of the deity of Christ. Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity in our flesh, is God. Since Jesus Christ is God, there must be plurality of persons in God. Second, God is Father. Fatherhood implies sonship. God cannot be Father, if He is not Father to one who is His Son. And since God’s Fatherhood is an everlasting Fatherhood, there must be one who is everlastingly His Son, as there is in the Trinity. And, third, the fact that God is love implies plurality within God’s being. God is love,. He does not become a God of love when He elects and saves His people. He is a God of love within Himself before and apart from us; He is a God of love from eternity. Love is not the attribute of a solitary personality. Love demands an object, one who is loved. That God is love demands a Father who loves, a Son who is loved and who responds in love, and the Holy Spirit who is the personal agent through whom this mutual love is expressed.
That Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are really and personally distinct means that the Reformed faith, along with ancient Christianity, rejects the teaching that the three persons are merely three modes of existence or aspects of the one God. According to this view, God is one in Being and one in person. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are merely three different ways in which the one God relates to His creatures and all that is outside of Himself. Now He manifests Himself as Father; then He manifests Himself as Son; and still another time He manifests Himself as Spirit. This is the ancient error of modalism or Sabellianism, which was condemned by the early church.
Regrettably, far and away the most common understanding of the Trinity in our day is a modalistic understanding. That is apparent from the popular analogies that are offered as illustrations of the truth of the Trinity. The Trinity is like an egg: part shell, part egg-white, and part yoke. Or, the Trinity is like water: at one time in liquid form, at another time frozen, and at yet another time in the form of steam. Or, the Trinity is like a man, who is at the same time a father, a son, and a husband. Or, one of the latest analogies to be used is that the Trinity is like 3-in-1 body wash, functioning in three ways, as body wash, as shampoo, and as conditioner. All of these analogies of the Trinity are erroneous because they all boil down to modalism. They all deny the real distinction between the three persons. They all reduce the three persons to three modes of being or three aspects.
This is not to deny that there is a certain threeness built into the creation. There is, and that fact is striking. These are not proofs of the Trinity, or vestiges of the Trinity, as is sometimes alleged. But they are the stamp, as it were, of God’s own threeness on the creation that He has made. There are three basic realities in the universe: matter, time, and space. Each of these in turn is divided in a threefold way. Matter is either solid, liquid, or gas. Time is either past, present, or future. Space is distinguished as height, depth, and width. And even man consists of body, mind, and soul (spirit). While not being “proofs” in the technical sense of the word, these are nevertheless indications of the threeness that characterizes the Creator God.
The SHC stands on the shoulders of the ancient creeds in its development of the truth of the Trinity. Bullinger and the other Reformers were in agreement with the Athanasian Creed (A.D. 500):
Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith; which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity.
1 is called “the Shema” because this is the first word in the original Hebrew of this verse. That first word is translated in the King James as the imperative, “Hear!”