The Trinity in the Confessions (continued)
With this ecumenical faith of the church our Reformed confessions are all in thorough agreement. This is evident, in the first place, from the articles of our Belgic Confession presently under discussion. Our Heidelberg Catechism is not elaborate in its treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity, but it is throughout Trinitarian. In Lord’s, Day’ VII the Catechism begins its treatment of the Apostles’ Creed, citing that creed in its entirety as a summary of those things which it is necessary for the Christian to believe. And in Lord’s Day VIII we have the Catechism’s treatment of the truth of the Trinity as such. There we read:
“Q. 24. How are these articles divided?
“A. Into three parts; the first is of God the Father, and our creation; the second of God the Son, and our redemption; the third of God the Holy Ghost, and our sanctification.
“Q. 25. Since there is but one only divine essence, why speakest thou of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost?
“A. Because God hath so revealed himself in his word, that these three distinct persons are the only true and eternal God.”
And this order the Catechism follows in Lord’s Day IX to Lord’s Day XXII.
Our Canons are, of course, a confession that is limited to certain points of doctrine, the so-called Five Points, of Calvinism. It is not to be expected, therefore, that they set forth the doctrine of the Trinity. Nevertheless, also the Canons give evidence that the Reformed faith is thoroughly Trinitarian. There are several indications of this. Already in Canons I, 7 there is mention of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Besides, it is a well-known fact that in our Canons the infinite value of the atoning death of Christ is connected not, as the Arminians always maintain, with any idea that Christ died for all men. This, after all, limits that infinite value by the very fact that it seeks to circumscribe it quantitatively and numerically. But even as sin requires both temporal. and eternal punishment because it is sin against God’sinfinite majesty, so a sacrifice of infinite value was necessary in order to satisfy God’s justice with respect to the sin of the elect. And the death of Christ is such a sacrifice of infinite value because it was the death of the Son of God; Article 3: “The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin; and is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.” This idea is further explicated in Article IV of Canons II, in which connection the doctrine of the Trinity is brought in, as follows: “This death derives its infinite value and dignity from these considerations, because the person who submitted to it was not only really man, and perfectly holy, but also the only begotten Son of God, of the same eternal and infinite essence with the Father and the Holy Spirit, which qualifications were necessary to constitute him a Savior for us; and because it was attended with a sense of the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin.” Moreover, the entire Reformed doctrine of the efficacious calling is in the deepest sense founded upon the deity of the Holy Spirit, so that you cannot do violence to the truth of the irresistible calling without implicitly denying the true deity of the Holy Ghost. And this is the fundamental teaching of Canons III, IV, especially Articles 10-12. Finally, it must not be overlooked that the last article of Canons V, and the concluding article of the entire Canons, ends in this doxology: “Now to this one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be honor and glory forever. Amen.”
It cannot be denied, therefore, that trinitarianism characterizes the Reformed faith throughout. Nor is this a matter of mere form. It belongs to the very bone and marrow of the Reformed faith. Moderns love to speak of God as Father. Arminians and those of methodistic tendency—and we may add that this is characteristic of much contemporary theology and preaching in our country, theology and preaching which is Christologically orientated—speak almost exclusively of Christ and of the Son. Mysticists of all sorts speak, in the main, of the workings of the Spirit. But the Reformed faith is Trinitarian. It is theologically orientated, and for that reason not only does lip-service to the doctrine of the Trinity, but proceeds from it.
The Oneness of God
This article places the oneness of God on the foreground, yet in such a way that this oneness of God is, for the most part, negatively circumscribed and limited in relation to the threeness of Persons in God. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that the truth of the oneness of God is already set forth in Article One, where we have confessed: “We all believe with the heart, and confess with the mouth, that there is one only simple and spiritual Being, which we call God.” Accordingly, this article opens with the statement: “According to this truth and this Word of God, we believe in one only God, who is the one single essence . . .” In connection with this brief statement, the article further emphasizes that God is indivisible. For after setting forth the threeness of persons in God, it states: “Nevertheless God is not by this distinction divided into three, since the Holy Scriptures teach us, that the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, have each his personality, distinguished by their properties; but in such wise that these three persons are but one only God.” And then the essential oneness of God, or rather, of the Three Persons in God, is set forth as follows: “For they are all three co-eternal and co-essential. There is neither first nor last: for they are all three one, in truth, in power, in goodness, and in mercy.”
It is very difficult for us to form any conception of this doctrine of the Trinity. It is a profound mystery. God is unique. And this is true both in regard to His Being and His Persons. We know by experience what it is to be one in being and one in person. But God is One in Being, and in that One Being there are three Persons. Yet this profound mystery of the Trinity is revealed in Scripture. And it is not contradictory, or nonsensical. On the contrary, it is certainly possible, on the basis of God’s own revelation, to understand the meaning of the truth that God is Triune, even though this Triune God remains eternally the unfathomable God.
We need not at this time discuss again all that was discussed in connection with Article I.
Briefly, let us note, in the first place, that the oneness of God means that He is one in Being. To the Being of God belong all His attributes, or virtues. In this connection, there are, first of all, the so-called incommunicable attributes of God, such as simplicity, eternity, omnipresence, independence, infinity, and immutability. We may note here that Article VIII uses the expression “incommunicable property” in a different way. We are accustomed to speak of “incommunicable” attributes or properties in connection with the Being of God; the article speaks of “incommunicable properties” in connection with the Persons. Each Person has His incommunicable property, by which He is, really, truly, and eternally distinct from the other Persons. With respect to the Persons, we usually speak of “personal” rather than “incommunicable” properties. And for the sake of clarity it is probably better to maintain this usage, especially if we make use of the distinction between communicable and incommunicable attributes of the Being of God. At any rate, we must bear in mind that our Confession uses the term differently than we do. Moreover, to the Being of God belong all the so-called communicable attributes, such as knowledge, wisdom, love, goodness, grace, mercy, power. And the oneness of God’s Being means that in all these virtues God is not many and is not divided, and is not three; but He is one and simple. There are not three eternals, three independents, three immutables; but only one. Likewise, there are not three wisdoms, loves, graces; but only one. Moreover, there is absolute and perfect harmony among these attributes within the divine Being. God’s mercy does not stand over against His righteousness, but is in perfect harmony with it. All God’s attributes are one in Him. In no sense of the word is there ever any division in the Essence of God.
In the second place, implied in the truth that God is “the one single essence” is the oneness of God’s nature. God is an intellectual and volitional Being. He thinks and knows and wills and determines. He sees, and He hears, and He speaks? and He works. As such we know Him and worship Him. We adore Him and praise Him; we pray and make supplication to Him; we are confident that He hears and answers prayer. But this would never be possible except on the basis that God is one in nature. When we pray, for example, we do not pray to the one Person in distinction from the other; but we pray to the Triune God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our Father for Christ’s sake. If God were three in nature, we would have to pray now to the one, now to the other of the three. This is polytheism, belief in many gods. But there is only one mind in God, not three minds. There are not three divine wills, but only one will in God. This is important. There are not three divine natures, but only one. Nor is this to be understood as meaning that this divine nature is divided (as though it were possible even to conceive of this) into three equal portions, each Person having an equal share of the divine mind and will. Indeed, there are three Persons in God. Each of those Persons says, “I know, I purpose, I will,” etc. But they are all three of one mind, one will, one purpose, one counsel, one work.
It is perhaps well that in this connection we deal with a question that is frequently raised with regard to the doctrine of God’s oneness and His works. A distinction is made in regard to the Three Persons that frequently leads to misunderstanding and which apparently leaves the impression of tritheism (belief in three gods), rather than trinitarianism. I refer to the well-known distinction made by our Heidelberg Catechism in answer to Question 24, “How are these articles divided? Answer: Into three parts; the first is of God the Father, and our creation; the second of God the Son, and our redemption; the third is of God the Holy Ghost, and our sanctification.” Our Belgic Confession makes the same distinction in Article IX, as follows: “Moreover, we must observe the particular offices and operations of these three persons towards us. The Father is called our Creator, by his power; the Son is our Savior and Redeemer, by his blood; the Holy Ghost is our Sanctifier, by his dwelling in our hearts.”
Our Baptism Form makes somewhat the same distinction, although in a different connection. In referring to the significance of baptism in the name of the Triune God, the Baptism Form states: “For when we are baptized in the name of the Father, God the Father witnesseth and sealeth unto us, that he doth make an eternal covenant of grace with us, and adopts us for his children and heirs, and therefore will provide us with every good thing, and avert all evil or turn it to our profit. And when we are baptized in the name of the Son, the Son sealeth unto us, that he doth wash us in his blood from all our sins, incorporating us into the fellowship of his death and resurrection, so that we are freed from all our sins, and accounted righteous before God. In like manner, when we are baptized in the name of the Holy Ghost, the Holy Ghost assures us, by this holy sacrament, that he will dwell in us, and sanctify us to be members of Christ, applying unto us that which we have in Christ, namely, the washing away of our sins, and the daily renewing of our lives, till we shall finally be presented without spot or wrinkle among the assembly of the elect in life eternal.”