Herman Veldman is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
Our Faith in the Triune God (2)
God, besides being one in essence, is also triune. This truth of the Trinity is held before us in our Belgic Confession, in Articles 8 and 9. And our Heidelberg Catechism speaks of this truth in Lord’s Day 8, specifically in Question and Answer 25. We read, in answer to Question 25: “Since there is but one only divine essence, why speakest thou of Father, Son and Holy Ghost?” “Because God hath so revealed Himself in His word, that these three distinct persons are the one only true and eternal God.” This answer, obviously, is very short. Yet, it is very complete. We read, first of all, of three distinct persons. And, then, of these three persons we read that they are the only true and eternal God.
First, what is a person? This question is important. After all, the doctrine of the Trinity speaks of the three persons of the divine trinity. A person as among men presupposes a moral-rational being. We may speak of individual flowers, plants, animals, such as dogs, horses, etc. But we cannot speak of these creatures as persons—we do not and cannot speak of a dog, etc., as a “he” or a “she,” a “him” or a “her.” A person presupposes a moral-rational being, a being that has an understanding of and always reacts for or against spiritual things. Hence, among men we would define a person as an individual existence of a moral-rational nature. We identify our person with our use of the personal pronoun “I.” I sleep, walk, talk, etc. And whatever happens to us, as young, middle age, old age, in sickness or death or in the resurrection, our I, person, remains the same—the same person that has become old and dies, was once young. Hence, we are personal beings because we are conscious of ourselves as moral-rational beings, as responsible beings, and that in distinction from all other human beings. I know who and what I am. I am responsible for and the author of my own walk and all my works—never can I throw my responsibility upon another for my sin. I will appear in the Judgment and answer for myself. That marvelous, indescribable something which enables me to know myself, also in distinction from all others, is my person. And that I am a personal being also means that I know who and what God is and that I am answerable to Him.
God is a personal being. Here we stand, of course, before an unfathomable mystery. Now a mystery is not a contradiction, that God, for example, loves and hates the same person at the same time and in connection with the same things. This, we understand, is the mystery of the theory of Common Grace. If we ask the exponents of this theory how God can love and hate the same person at the same time they will tell us that this is a mystery. However, if this be a mystery, it can never be known. Neither is a mystery, fundamentally, an unfathomable profundity, however true it may be and is that God is unfathomable. But a mystery is something that is hidden, that must be revealed. So, the Trinity is a mystery, although surely unfathomable, because it is essentially hidden, lies beyond the scope of all human life, is strictly divine. The Trinity, of course, is themystery. It constitutes the very life of the living God. However, God has revealed it to us. We, although unable to fathom it, must know it and bow in worship before it. In fact, we know it exactly as utterly unfathomable and incomprehensible to us.
God is triune. The Lord is not essentially three. We do not believe that there are three gods—this is Tritheism. We do not believe that the Godhead is divided into three equal parts, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We believe that there is only one God, one divine essence, one divine nature and mind and will and being. But we do believe that God, essentially one, is personally three. This implies, first of all, that God is eternally conscious of Himself. God is a personal God. He is not wisdom, power, etc., in the abstract sense of the word. He knows Himself. God is God, also consciously; He loves Himself, seeks Himself, maintains Himself, judges and will judge all men and spirits in the light of Himself. And that God is personally three implies, in the second place, that this divine consciousness, or, this eternal divine essence and fullness is lived in a threefold way. In the one spiritual being or nature of God there are three that say “I.” In God are three subjects, three persons who are distinct from one another, so that the Father is never the Son, the Son is never the Father or the Spirit, and the Spirit is never the Father or the Son. The fullness of God or the Godhead is loved by each Person in His own personally distinctive manner.
Secondly, we must call attention to the relation of the three persons to the one Godhead or divine fullness and essence. Now this must not be understood as if each of the three divine persons lives a part of the divine essence or fullness—this would be Tritheism, the theory that there are three gods. Neither must this be understood in the sense that one of these persons is more important than the others, and that the others are, therefore, subordinate unto Him—this, too, would lead to the doctrine that there are three gods, one great God and two lesser gods. But the relation of the three persons to the one Godhead is that each Person lives the entire fullness in His own personal way. This relationship is indicated by their names. The Father is the origin, source; the Son is the image, the eternal image; the Spirit (according to the name: breathed out) proceeds, therefore, from the Father and the Son.
Hence, the first Person is the Father of the Godhead; He generated the Son, eternally. The Father is the Subject of all the divine life, and of all the divine works, as Father; He thinks, wills, loves, counsels, decrees, creates, saves as Father, never as the Son or as the Holy Spirit. The second Person is the Son of the Godhead. He is willingly, eternally generated by the Father. The Son is the Subject of the divine life, never as the Father or as the Holy Spirit. And, of course, He is eternal as is the Father; one can never conceive of the One without the other. And the third Person of the Trinity is the Holy Spirit. His name is Spirit, and this denotes Him in His personal activity. As Spirit, He is breathed out, proceeds, also eternally, from the Father and the Son.
We, therefore, confess one divine essence, one divine nature, one divine mind and will, one divine life. In that one divine essence and nature there are three that think, will, love, and live, each in His own distinctly personal manner. Hence, we confess the life of the Godhead to take place, eternally, out of the Father, through the Son, and in the Holy Spirit.
Thirdly, we must also call attention to the relation of the three Persons to one another. We have already noted that these three divine Persons are not unequal in rank, as if the one were subordinated to the other—they are all co-eternal and coequal. The relation of the three divine persons to one another is a relation of perfect and infinite friendship. Friendship, we must understand, is possible only on the condition of two requirements. On the one hand, there must be essential unity. Friends must surely think and purpose alike—if this be not the case, then not friendship but conflict must and will invariably follow. And, on the other hand, there must be personal distinction. The opportunity must be there to reveal the fact that we are truly and essentially one. Hence, we must each be distinctive, have our own personal duty and task to perform. Personal distinction and essential unity are basic requirements for a life of true friendship. How true this is of the living God! The persons are personally distinctive. Never does the one encroach upon the other; never does the one perform the function of the other two—always the Father is only Father, the Son is only Son, and the Holy Spirit is only Holy Spirit. This is true, not only within the essence of God Himself, but also in all His works. And yet, although personally distinct, they are essentially one. They live, each in His own personal manner, the same mind, will, desire, etc.; hence, they are never characterized by conflict, dissension, discord of any nature. The three divine Persons are perfectly and eternally and infinitely divine friends. They live and dwell with one another in the sphere of infinite and eternal love and friendship and communion. Indeed, our God is a covenant God.
Our Heidelberg Catechism treats the doctrine of the Trinity in Lord’s Day 8. In answer to Question 24: “How are these articles divided?” we read: “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.” These twelve articles whereof we read in Question 24 were set forth by our Heidelberg Catechism in Question 23 of the preceding Lord’s Day. We do well to understand this twenty-fourth answer correctly. Viewed superficially, the correct interpretation appears to be very simple. Obviously the Catechism refers here to the three divisions of our Apostolic Confession, our Apostles’ Creed. And apparently, we would be inclined to say, each of the three divine Persons is distinguished and described here. The first Person of the Trinity is our Creator; the second Person is our Redeemer; and the third Person of the Trinity is our Sanctifier. The Father (the first Person) creates and ,does not redeem and sanctify; the Son redeems and does not create or sanctify; the third Person, the Holy Spirit, sanctifies and does not create or redeem.
However, it must be clear that this cannot be the correct interpretation of Answer 24 or of the Apostolic Creed. First, to teach this would be to teach the heresy of Tritheism. On the one hand, does not Scripture ascribe the creation of the world to the Son? The apostle Paul, in Colossians 1:15, 16, speaking of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Head of His church, writes: “Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: For by Him were all things created, that are in heaven and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions or principalities or powers: all things were created by Him and for Him.” Paul, in this verse, obviously writes that the Son of God is the Creator of the world. And the same truth is set forth by the apostle John in his gospel, John 1:1-3, 14: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him; and without Him was not anything made that was made. And the Word was made flesh (verse 7), and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” Besides, the Father, according to Scripture, surely sanctifies—see John 17:17. On the other hand, however, God is triune in all His works: the triune God creates, the triune God redeems; the triune God sanctifies. In fact, it is not even true that in certain works the one Person stands upon the foreground more than the other, performs a more prominent role. The three Persons of the Trinity are coequal and co-eternal. They are always engaged in all the works of God’s hands, the Father as Father, the Son as Son, and the Holy Ghost as Holy Ghost. He is always the triune God.
The Lord willing, we will continue with this discussion in our following article. God is the triune God. This is so important because it constitutes the possibility of our faith in this triune God. And we must also call attention to the significance of this truth. Is it not remarkable that our Heidelberg Catechism, subjective and practical as it is, devotes a Lord’s Day to the doctrine of the Trinity?