The chief subject of this first article is God, His Being and His attributes. This is uniquely Reformed, and it is indeed important. It means that the entire outlook of our confession is theological; our faith and our confession is theocentric, God-centered. And this is characteristically Reformed. Lutheranism has always been rather anthropological and soteriological in its outlook. It is concerned mainly with the question of man and his salvation: how is man saved? The Reformed faith considers the doctrine of God all-important. The glory of God, not the salvation of man, is the purpose of all things. This has been historically the case from the outset of the Reformation and its two main streams, Lutheranism and Calvinism. As we well know, Luther himself was concerned about the question of his justification. And this affected the entire direction of the Lutheran Reformation. Calvin, however, from the outset had a deeper insight, and saw the glory of God as all-important. Accordingly, the chief emphasis of the Reformed faith has always been on God, His Being, His attributes, His Persons, His decrees, His works of creation and salvation. This difference is reflected in the respective confessions of these two branches of the Reformation. And especially in our Belgic Confession the theological outlook of the Reformed faith is evident from its very first article.
Let us understand what this means. It does not imply merely that the doctrine of God is first and foremost, and that all other branches or departments of doctrine are more or less secondary and coordinate. But it means that the doctrine of God stands at the head, and all the rest of doctrine—or, if you will, of our confession—is subordinate to our conception of God. Our conception of God is determinative with respect to our entire view of reality and our entire religion. A correct conception of God, therefore, is of fundamental importance. Without it one cannot maintain a correct conception of any doctrine at all. It is evident, first of all, that such a correct conception of God is necessary with relation to Himself, His Being, His attributes, His Persons, His immanent works. In this respect there is Polytheism (belief in many gods) over against Monotheism (belief in the one God), and Unitarianism (the error that God is only one) over against Trinitarianism (the faith that God is one in Being and three in Persons). Such a correct theology is necessary, in the second place, with relation to one’s conception of God and the world. In this respect there are over against Theism (the belief in the immanent-transcendent God) Pantheism, which identifies God and the world, Deism, which places God entirely outside the world, Evolutionism, which teaches that the world is self-originating and self-developing, and related errors. In the third place, one’s conception of the relation of God and man is necessarily dependent upon his conception of God. One’s view of the nature of man, of God’s image in man, of sin, of Christ, of salvation, of the church, of the end of all things—these all have to do with a correct conception of God. In this respect, as is plain also from the fact that our Belgic Confession deals with this subject immediately after this article concerning God and before all other doctrines, there is the position of Faith and Revelationover against Agnosticism, which maintains that God cannot be known, Skepticism, which says, “I doubt whether God is,” Atheism, which says, “There is no God,” and Relativism, which says, “What is truth?” and which denies all real and objective difference between the truth and the lie.
By the same token, all of doctrine becomes in a very real and practical sense of the word, theology. In other words, not only is it true that your conception of God will necessarily affect your conception of all other things; it is also true that in the deepest sense of the word you cannot say anything about the universe or about man without at the same time saying something of your God. This relationship is sometimes transparently clear. To mention but one example, think of the fact that you cannot deny the divinity of Christ without at the same time denying the Second Person of the Trinity. In other cases, the relationship may not be so obvious. But always it exists: ultimately you can make no doctrinal pronouncement on anything without saying something about God. And this becomes of immense practical and spiritual significance the moment you think not in terms of mere academic doctrine, but in terms of faith and confession. Then it becomes clear that the most serious aspect of any error or heresy anywhere along the whole rank of Christian doctrine is that it involves God! The Christian’s faith concerning creation and man, concerning sin and the fall, concerning Christ and redemption, concerning salvation and grace, concerning the church, concerning the end of all things, is always in the deepest sense faith in God; and his confession about all these is his confession of faith in God. The name and honor and glory of his God are at stake, therefore. That is why it is so tremendously important a spiritual exercise to maintain and confess the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Because of this relationship, in the second place, it is also true —and true not merely theoretically, but historically—that an at first small and apparently rather insignificant departure from the truth results, in the course of years and generations, in a complete denial of the truth and modernism’s unbelief. That complete denial is implicit in the slight departure. When you stand in the railroad switch-yard in Chicago, the separation between the track to New York and the track to San Francisco is at first but a fraction of an inch. But the cleavage becomes wider and wider, until finally the two tracks run in opposite directions.Thus it is with our confession. When error is first introduced, it may appear very insignificant, and men will urge this insignificance upon you, telling you not to make an issue of it, assuring you that they are still Reformed, that “we are all Christians;” that “we all believe in the same God,” that “we all are going to the same heaven.” If you insist upon the truth, you may be dubbed a troubler of Israel, a fanatic, a separatist. But observe the course of that error in the generations to come, in your children and your children’s children: as a rule, you will find that it has gained in significance. Trace it farther in the course of church history, and you will find that it has become very fundamental, that’ it has indeed affected the faith and the life of the church. And follow it to the terminal, and you will discover that it has ended in the camp of unbelief and of the Antichrist. The implicit denial has become explicit!
Hence, “We all believe with the heart and confess with the mouth . . . . God!” The church, and the individual believer that is a member of that church, believes in God—the God of the Scriptures, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the true and living God, Who is GOD. Not a mere belief in some god, some deity, is meant here. Not a mere belief that there is a god, a supreme being, is intended. All this has nothing to do with faith. Not even a mere certainty that God exists is expressed here: in this sense also the devils believe, and tremble. But by faith we know and confess the only true and living God as He has revealed Himself in our Lord Jesus Christ, His revelation being contained in the Holy Scriptures, know and confess Him as the overflowing fountain of all good, whom to know is life eternal! Moreover, we believe in Him with the heart. We do not prove or attempt to prove, and we have no necessity of proving, that He is and that He is the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him. Faith needs no proof; and God cannot be proved. He can only be the object of faith. Furthermore, we “call” Him God, not because we have discovered Him and searched out His Being and virtues, but because He has revealed Himself and made known to us His Name, in order that we might speak of Him and to Him, and drink from the overflowing fountain of all good, unto the praise of His glory.
And knowing Him, we are able to confess His perfections.
The Perfections of God’s Being
“We all believe with the heart and confess with the mouth that there is one only simple and spiritual Being . . .”
With striking brevity and succinctness the church confesses its faith concerning God’s Being. Do not mistake the intent of this statement, It does not attempt the impossible, namely, to define God. For “to whom then will ye liken me, or shall I be equal? saith the Holy One.” Isaiah 40:25. To define God would be to include Him in a certain class of objects and then to distinguish Him from other objects in that same class or category by mentioning His distinguishing characteristics. And this is impossible. There cannot be any higher concept than our idea of God. There is no category in which God can be placed and classified. The very statement of our confession precludes this: He is the one only Being. Nor does the Confession attempt such a definition, or even attempt to set forth all the implications of the perfections of God that are mentioned here. In fact, one could even specify the attributes of God more narrowly than is done in our Confession, and mention more of them. But here we have the most direct and simple expression not of dogmatical constructions, but of .the faith of the church, an expression which any believing child of God can grasp and go along with: one only simple and spiritual Being . . . God.
Let us briefly take note of these attributes and their significance.
1. God is One.
So abundantly do the Scriptures reveal this oneness of God that it is hardly necessary to mention specific passages. So inherent is this perfection in God’s Self-revelation that we frequently pass it by in our reading of the Scriptures without special notice. It is revealed, for example, every time the Lord addresses us and says, “I . . .” But let us nevertheless cite some proof-texts, so that it may be plain that our Confession is directly based on Scripture. In Deuteronomy 6:4 we find the well-known words: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord.” In Deuteronomy 32:39 we read: “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god with me: I kill, and I make alive; I wound, and I heal: neither is there any that can deliver out of my hand.” “Thus saith the Lord the King of Israel, and his redeemer the Lord of hosts; I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God.” Isaiah 44:6. And to Cyrus the Lord says, Isaiah 45:5, 6: “I am the Lord, and there is none else, there is no God beside me: I girded thee, though thou hast not known me: That they may know from the rising of the sun, and from the west, that there is none beside me. I am the Lord, and there is none else.” The New Testament speaks the same language very directly. In I Corinthians 8:5, 6 we read: “For though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth, (as there be gods many, and lords many), But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him.” Galatians 3:20 teaches us: “Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one.” And in Ephesians 4:6 the apostle speaks of “One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”
Very obviously, therefore, the truth of the oneness of God stands on the foreground in Holy Writ, and it is to be maintained over against all Polytheism and Dualism. The latter, which is after all but a form of polytheism, teaches that there are two eternal beings, or powers, or principles. God and the devil, light and darkness, good and evil, spirit and matter. It has assumed various forms not only in pagan philosophy, but also in Christendom, which in early church history borrowed it from paganism. And even today dualistic tendencies intrude themselves into the doctrine of the church. Not infrequently, for example, the truth of the antithesis is mistakenly changed into a form of dualism which is contrary to this perfection of God’s oneness.