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 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 one only true and eternal God.
In Lord’s Days eight to twenty two inclusive we are really dealing with two symbols or creeds: the Apostolic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, and the latter appears here as an exposition of the former. And yet, these chapters of our Heidelberger offer us much more than a mere exposition of the twelve articles of faith formulated by the early church, if by mere exposition is meant nothing more than a setting forth of the truths that are plainly and directly expressed in the Apostolicum. All that is developed in the following chapters of the Catechism cannot possibly have been in the mind of the early church, and clearly before the consciousness of her faith, when she confessed the truth as expressed in the twelve articles of faith. We must bear in mind that a period of several centuries intervenes between the time of the Apostolicum and the composition of the Heidelberg Catechism and its adoption as part of our Reformed confessions. During those intervening centuries, the truth as it is in Christ had been the object of study and contemplation, and had been developed in detail; many heresies had arisen regarding the very truths declared in the Apostolicum, not only in the Romish church, but also within the bosom of the churches of the Reformation, false doctrines concerning the birth of Christ and the virgin Mary, the suffering and death of the Savior, the atonement and good works, justification, the ascension of the Lord, the Church, and the doctrine concerning the “last things.” A mere exegesis of the words of the Apostolic Confession, a symbol claimed by all the different groups of Western Christendom, Romish or Protestant, would not suffice therefore, to set forth the faith of the Reformed Churches of the sixteenth century. The great truths of the Apostolicum had to be developed in all their implications, in the light of Scripture, and to be defined clearly over against the false doctrines that had arisen. And it is this we must expect to find in the ensuing chapters of the Heidelberg Catechism. This must not be understood as if the Catechism arbitrarily imposes its own views upon the words of the Apostolic Confession. On the contrary, it faithfully adheres to their simple meaning. Rut at the same time, it gives fuller and richer development to the truths expressed. Taking the twelve articles of faith, the symbol of the early church, for its basis, the Catechism builds at the superstructure of the truth that must needs be raised on such a foundation. And it was the conviction of our Reformed fathers that the positive line of the faith of the true Church in the world runs from the confessions of the early church, not over the declarations of the Council of Trent, but over the Reformation of the sixteenth century, and that, too, as its principles are most purely set forth in the Reformed symbols. And this is still the conviction of every Reformed believer worthy of the name.
In the present Lord’s Day, the Catechism calls our attention to the threefold division of the Apostolicum, and makes it the occasion to insert a question and answer concerning the doctrine of the holy trinity. In Lord’s Days nine and ten, our instructor explains the meaning of the article concerning “God the Father, and our creation.” The second part of the Apostolic Confession, that which concerns “God the Son, and our redemption,” is explained in Lord’s Days eleven to nineteen inclusive. And the part that treats of “God the Holy Ghost, and our sanctification” is treated in Lord’s Days twenty to twenty two.
The answer to question twenty four: “How are these articles divided?” seems rather simple, and might easily give rise to misunderstanding: “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.” That this threefold division is actually found in the Apostolicum is evident. The first article speaks of God the Father, Who is almighty, and the Creator of heaven and earth. Articles two to seven set forth the truth concerning Jesus Christ, God’s only begotten Son, His Person and work. And the last five articles are devoted to the truth concerning the Holy Ghost, and the application of salvation to us. Yet, we all feel at once that the twenty fourth answer of the Catechism needs careful explanation, if we are to avoid the error of tritheism. The statement of answer twenty four might easily be understood as meaning that the First Person of the holy trinity is our Creator, the Second our Redemptor, and the Third our Sanctifier. And such a division of the work of the three Persons of the trinity was, of course, not in the minds of the authors of our Catechism. This is evident from the “Schatboek” I, 159, 160. Ursinus here meets the following objection: “Creation is here ascribed to the Father, redemption to the Son, sanctification to the Holy Ghost. Therefore the Son and the Holy Ghost did not create heaven and earth; neither did the Father and the Holy Ghost redeem the human race; nor do the Father and the Son sanctify the believers.” And he answers as follows: “We deny the consequence which is here deduced, for creation is ascribed to the Father, redemption to the Son, sanctification to the Holy Ghost, not exclusively, i.e. in such a manner that these works do not properly belong to all persons. . . . By this distinction is merely indicated the order of operation proper to the persons of the Godhead. To the Father is ascribed the work of creation, not exclusively or to Him alone, but because He is the source of the Godhead, and of all the divine works, and therefore also of creation. For all things He did, indeed, create out of Himself through the Son and the Holy Ghost. Redemption is ascribed to the Son, not exclusively or to Him alone, but (because it is the Son who immediately performs the work of redemption. For the Son only is become a ransom for our sins, He alone paid the price for us at His cross, not the Father, nor the Holy Ghost. Sanctification is ascribed to the Holy Ghost, not exclusively or to Him alone, tout because it is the Holy Ghost who sanctifies us immediately or through Whom our sanctification is immediately affected.” And in reply to a similar objection he writes: “The divine works are indivisible, but the order and manner of operation or working proper to each of the three persons must be maintained. For all the divine persons perform the outgoing works of Gad; but the following order must toe maintained: the Father does all things of himself through the Son and the Holy Ghost, the Son does all things of the Father and through the Holy Ghost, the Holy Ghost does all things of the Father and the Son through himself. It follows therefore that all the persons create, redeem, and sanctify: the Father mediately through the Son and the Holy Ghost; the Son mediately through the Holy Ghost; the Holy Ghost immediately through himself, mediately through the Son, in so far as the latter is mediator.”
Similarly Dr. A. Kuyper, in E Voto, I, p. 168, explains the answer of our Heidelberger to question twenty four as follows: “Consequently, only and exclusively in this sense must be understood what the Catechism refers to in the familiar distinctions: of God the Father and our Creation, of God the Son and our Redemption, of God the Holy Ghost and our Sanctification. By this the Catechism does not at all intend to express that each of these three Persons operates in turn: first the Father to create you, then the Son to redeem you, and finally the Holy Ghost to sanctify you; but on the contrary that He Who created you is the Triune Gad, and that He Who redeemed you is the Triune God, and that He Who sanctifies you is the Triune God, so that you as a creature from your first coming into existence until your eternal state of glory, never have to do with the Father separately without the Son, or with the Son without the Father, tout that you always have to do with the Lord Jehovah, with the living God, with the Eternal Being, and thus with Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. However, whereas these operations of God affect you as being creative, and redemptive, and sanctifying, the Catechism makes a distinction, and that of such a nature, that in all the operations that concern Creation the Father is the chief worker with whom the Son and the Holy Spirit cooperate; in all that concerns Redemption the Son is the chief worker with whom the Father and the Holy Spirit cooperate; and in all that concerns your personal sanctification the Holy Ghost is the chief worker and the Father and the Son cooperate.”
The above quotation may serve to show how difficult it is properly to define the truth concerning the relation of the three Persons of the holy trinity, as soon as the attempt is made to proceed beyond the simple declarations of the Apostolicum. They agree in this that the twenty fourth answer of the Catechism may not be understood to teach that the outgoing works of God are divided, apportioned among the three Persons of the Godhead, so that the Father creates, the Son redeems, the Holy Ghost sanctifies. God triune is the author of all His works, and that in such a way that the relation of the three Persons to one another within the divine Being is maintained and revealed in the works of God ad extra. Yet even so, it may be regarded as questionable whether justice is done to the meaning of the Apostolic Confession. Especially might one hesitate to explain with Dr. Kuyper that in each of the works of God, creation, redemption, and sanctification, one of the three Persons functions as the chief actor, while the other two cooperate. This would appear to introduce a relation of subordination into the trinity in violation of the essential co-equality of the three Persons, as well as a change into their mutual relationship with respect to the outgoing works of God. Even as it would be a serious error to teach that to the Father alone belongs the work of creation, to the Son that of redemption, and to the Holy Ghost that of sanctification, so it must be regarded as fallacious to say that the Father is chief in the work of creation, the Son in that of redemption, the Holy Ghost in that of sanctification. The truth is that, while all the works of God are the works of one God, in them the First Person is always operating as Father, the Second Person as Son, the Third Person as Holy Ghost. While, therefore, the three Persons appear as essentially coequal in all the outgoing works of God, their personal relation to one another never alters.
If we return again to the wording of the Apostolicum, it certainly is evident that the doctrine of the trinity is its underlying groundwork, due, no doubt, to the fact that it gradually grew out of the baptism formula, and the instruction that was based on it. Yet, it is equally evident that it does not offer an abstract confession of the truth of the trinity as such, in such a way that the first article speaks only of the first Person, articles two to seven of the second Person as such, and articles eight to twelve of the third Person in the Godhead. This should be evident at once from the first article: Credo in DEUM PATREM omidpotentem; Creator em coeli et terrae. I believe in GOD FATHER almighty (Pisteuoo eis THEON PATERA panktokratora); Creator of heaven and earth. We feel at once that we could not possibly substitute here: I believe in the First Person of the Holy Trinity, the Father, almighty, creator of heaven and earth. This is impossible because of the close connection between GOD and FATHER (written in all capital letters both in the Greek and Latin versions, and in the former without the definite article), but also because the attribute of omnipotence is no: peculiar to the first Person, but is an essential property of the Godhead, while, besides, the work of creation must be ascribed to all the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. Nor could we begin the second part of the Apostolicum, treating of the Son, by substituting: “And in the Second Person of the Godhead, the only begotten Son.” For the subject of this second part, articles two to seven, is not the eternal Word as he subsists in the Godhead, but JESUS CHRIST. And it is these two names that are emphasized in the original versions both Greek and Latin, by being all capitalized. To be sure, it is affirmed of this JESUS CHRIST that He is the only (unicum) or only begotten (monogenee) Son of the FATHER GOD, yet the entire section speaks of this Son of God as He revealed Himself in human nature and tabernacled among us, suffered and died and was buried, rose the third day, and was exalted at the right hand of God. And although it is not so directly evident that the last part of the Apostolic Confession does not treat of the Holy Ghost merely as the Third Person in the trinity, but as the Spirit of Christ Who realizes the salvation acquired by the Mediator, yet the articles that follow article eight are limited wholly to the realization of the work of Christ: the church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection, and eternal life. Notice, too that the words “in GOD” occur only in the first article: they are not repeated in articles two and eight.
For all these reasons, it would seem quite in harmony with the original meaning the early church attached to the Apostolicum to say that it speaks of the triune God, not in the abstract, but as the God of our salvation and in relation to the believing church. The first article does not refer merely to the ontological fatherhood of the First Person in relation to the Second, but also to the Fatherhood of the one true and living God in relation to: 1. Jesus Christ, the Mediator, our Lord. (According to Scripture, He is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ). 2. Creation, called forth by His omnipotent will. 3. Believers, for Christ’s sake. The second part of the Apostolic Confession, does not simply speak of God the Son, in His relation to the First Person of the trinity, but of Jesus Christ, the Incarnated Word. And the third part speaks of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Christ, realizing the salvation accomplished for us unto all the elect. There is, according to this conception, a certain relation of subordination of the entire contents of the Confession to the First article, and particularly to the words: I believe in GOD. And we would paraphrase its meaning briefly as follows: I believe in GOD: Who revealed Himself as FATHER, and as omnipotent, in the work of creation; Who revealed Himself as REDEEMER in JESUS CHRIST, His only Son, our Lord; and Who revealed Himself as SANCTIFIER in the HOLY GHOST, as the Spirit of Christ.
Credo in Deum! The Church believes in God! It is the Church, and the individual believer that is a member of that Church, that is here speaking, and that is the only possible, the only conceivable subject of this Credo. The believer in Christ alone is able to say: “I believe in God,” and know what he is saying. For by faith he knows the only, true and living God, Who is GOD, as He revealed Himself in Jesus Christ, the revelation that is contained in the Holy Scriptures, and in the light of which he hears and interprets the speech of God in all His works: and knowing this only true God, he trusts in Him as the God of His salvation. In his Romerbrief, p. 18, Barth exclaims: “Gott! Wir wissen nicht, was wir damit sagen. Wer glaubt, der weiss, dass wir es nicht wissen.” (God! We know not what we express by this. He that believes knows that we do not know this). But this is certainly not in accord with the faith of the Church expressed in this: Credo in DEUM PATREM! The believer does not mean to say: “I believe in some Unknowable One, and I know not what I say when I say God.” On the contrary, in the words Credo in Deum, he takes the stand that God is known, because He has revealed Himself.
In this confession, “I believe in God,” the Church and the individual believer declare that God is GOD. He is the transcendent One, Who dwelleth in the light no man can approach unto. He is Holy One of Israel, the Incomparable, that cannot be likened to any creature. He cannot be classified or defined. Human logic can never reach Him. In this sense, all the so-called “proofs” for the existence of God must be considered failures. No syllogism can reach out beyond its own premises, and no human premise can postulate God who is GOD. Whatever man may say about God, mere man, of himself, is sure to be a lie. Always he will make a god like unto himself, and that which he calls God is only an idol. For God is the Infinite, He transcends the finite; He is the Eternal, He transcends time; He is the Invisible, He transcends the whole world of our experience; He is the Immutable, He transcends all the flux of existence; He is not the First Cause, nor the Cause of causes, as philosophy has called its God, but He is simple Being: He transcends all causes. He is GOD.
But by this confession, Credo in Deum, the Church and the believer also express that He is the immanent. He is not far from any of us, for in Him we live and move and have our being. Were He merely the transcendent One, it would forever be impossible to say “I believe in God,” or, at least, if we did say it, we would have to add with Barth: “Gott! Wir wissen nicht, was wir damit sagen.” He would be the Unknowable of Herbert Spencer, the One Whom we must needs seek but can never find. Then we would not even be able to say, “that there is one only simple and spiritual Being, which we call God; and that he is eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, immutable, infinite, almighty, perfectly wise, just, good, and the overflowing of all good.” (Conf. Belg. Art. 1). In that case all that we would say about the transcendence of God would be a mere negation. But although by its Credo in Deum the Church confesses that her God is not the proud conception of Pantheism, but that He is infinitely transcendent above all that is called creature, she does not thereby postulate an infinite chasm between God and us, so that, after the fashion of Deism, the transcendent God remains for ever outside of the world. Nor is it thus that this Deus absconditus occasionally speaks to us, in the “moment” when the vertical line of His Word bisects the horizontal line of our existence, and that the Church now speaks of God in the memory of that Word of God. On the contrary, Credo in Deum, presupposes that the transcendent One is also immanent in all things, and through all the works of His hands He speaks concerning Himself constantly, while He speaks of Himself as the God of our salvation through Jesus. Christ our Lord, in the Holy Gospel, and through the Spirit of Christ He dwells in the Church and establishes His everlasting covenant with us.
And thus it is only the believer that is able to say: I believe in God. Philosophy cannot find Him. “Natural Theology,” in the sense that the natural man, either from “nature” or from himself, can present the knowledge of the true God, who is GOD, does not exist. This must be attributed, however, not to the fact that God leaves Himself without witness, even apart from the revelation of the Holy Gospel. It is certainly true that even now “the heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handiwork; day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.”. And “the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead.” . Nor dare it be said that this speech of God in no sense of the word penetrates the consciousness of the natural man. For by his “natural light” he retains “some knowledge of God.” And there is, no doubt, a general testimony of the Spirit, corresponding to this speech of God in the works of His hands, and writing indelibly upon every conscience that He is, and that He is God! For “’that which is known of God (to gnooston tou Theou) is manifest in them, for God manifested it unto them (ho Theos gar autois ephaneroosen). . Agnosticism and atheism are not the result of a certain natural fallacy of the human mind. On the contrary, they are the results of sin. The trouble is not “natural,” but spiritual, ethical. “The fool saith in his heart, There is no God.” . And the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men become revealed in this, that they “hold the truth in unrighteousness.” . Man contradicts the Word of God. He holds it under in unrighteousness. He prefers to make his own God. And making his own God in the foolishness of his vain imagination and darkened heart, he makes him altogether like unto himself, or even unto birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things. . Hence, it is only in the Church, the sphere of the indwelling Spirit of Christ, that the Word of God concerning Himself is heard and received by faith, and that the confession is possible: Credo in Deum!