Proof from Their Operation
The opening statement of this article, which, purposes to set forth the proof on the basis of which the faith of the church that God is Triune rests, refers to two elements of proof, or rather, to a two-fold proof. To the one aspect of that proof we have already given our attention, namely, the testimonies of Holy Writ. But the article also states that we know this truth, that God is Triune, “from their operations, and chiefly by those we feel in ourselves.”
We must be careful not to misunderstand this presentation of our Confession. It certainly is not the intention of the Confession to teach that there are two separate sources of the knowledge of the truth, and that we may learn and know and believe that God is Triune in two different ways. We must not understand this statement of Article IX as meaning that, on the one hand, we know that God is Triune from the testimony of Scripture; and that, on the other hand, we know this same truth entirely independently of the Scriptures, from observation and from experience. For this is, in the first place, utterly impossible. We cannot learn that God is the Triune God from so-called general revelation, or from our observation of the operations of the Triune God in creation and in history, apart from Holy Scripture. Nor do we have any experience of the operations of the Triune God as the God of our salvation apart from Holy Scripture. Indeed, we may experience the operations of the Triune God as the God of our salvation. We may know Him as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who hath begotten us again unto a lively hope. We may know that the Triune God reveals Himself as our Savior and Redeemer through His only begotten Son in the flesh. And we may have the experience of His saving operation in the knowledge that all our sins are blotted out and forgiven in Him. And we certainly may have the experience of the indwelling of the Holy Ghost as the Spirit of Christ, who sanctifies us and applies unto us that which we have in Christ, namely, the washing away of our sins and the daily renewing of our lives until we shall finally be presented without spot or wrinkle among the assembly of the elect in life eternal. But all this experience we have not apart from, but only in intimate connection with the testimonies of Holy Writ. In the second place, it would be contrary to the Confession itself to maintain that there are two separate sources of proof, or evidence, that God is the Triune God. For do not forget that our Confession in the articles just previous to these articles on the Trinity has very succinctly maintained the sole authority and the sole sufficiency of Holy Scripture as the only canon of faith. Hence, the Confession would be in conflict with itself if it now taught that there is another, separate source of the knowledge of the truth, namely, observation and experience.
Positively speaking, therefore, we must remember, in the first place, that the knowledge of which our Confession speaks here is not a mere intellectual knowledge, but the knowledge of faith, a living, spiritual knowledge, a knowledge that is part and parcel of the very life of the Christian—a knowledge, therefore, of experience. In the second place—and quite in harmony with the above—the Trinity is a matter of our experience and our life. That God is Triune is not simply an abstract theory and a fact concerning God which is, perhaps, nice to know, but which has nothing to do with us, as if that Trinity exists completely outside of and apart from our life. That would be impossible. God is the Triune God. As such He has revealed Himself. As such, that is, as the Triune God, He operates in all His works. And thus He has made Himself known in His Word, the Word of the Scriptures. It follows, therefore, in the third place, that our experience of those works of the Triune God, especially of those operations which take place within us, and more especially still our experience of the operations of the Triune God as the God of our salvation within us, will be in agreement with what we learn of Him in His Word. Hence, in the fourth place, this proof from our observation and experience of the operations of the Triune God is of a subordinate nature. It does not stand next to the proof of Scripture, but it stands in connection with it. It is not of an independent character, but of a confirmatory nature. It can never have any significance apart from Scripture. It could not even be discerned and interpreted apart from Scripture, It is only in connection with the Scriptures that that experience can be interpreted and known. And, moreover, that experience of faith can never stand in conflict with Scripture; nor can it serve as a test of the truth revealed in Scripture. But on the contrary, it must itself always meet the test of Scripture.
It is to this proof from the operations of the Triune God that our Confession refers when it says: “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.” We have already called attention to these offices and operations in connection with the Oneness of God in our treatment of Article VIII (cf. Feb. 1 issue of The Standard Bearer). And we need not repeat what we have written there. Let it be sufficient to add here, in the first place, that not only is it true from a doctrinal point of view that we may not make a tritheistic separation between the work of the Three Persons of the Trinity; but it is also true that such a tritheistic separation is contrary to our experience and our faith. That is, we do not experience the offices and operations of the Three Persons as operations of three separate gods (which is the error of tritheism); but we experience those operations precisely as the operations of the Triune God. In the second place, we may note that our Confession makes a distinction between those operations of the Triune God which take place outside of us and those operations which take place within us; and it makes the point that we may know that God is Triune chiefly from those operations which take place within us. By the works outside us are meant such works as creation, providence, and God’s revelation in the work of redemption as it is accomplished objectively in Christ, His death, His resurrection, etc. By the operations of God within us are meant such works of God as His preservation and government of our natural life and existence, and especially His application of the benefits of salvation which are in Christ to us. Especially in the latter we know God as the Triune God of our salvation. For by the application of these benefits of salvation we are taken up into the fellowship of His own covenant life. We must not limit this application of the blessings of salvation in Christ to the office and operation of the Holy Spirit. For even though it is true that all these operations take place through the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Christ, Who applies unto us that which we have in Christ, nevertheless we may make distinction, though never separation. In the regeneration and quickening of the dead sinner we know the Triune God as the Father-Creator, Who has “begotten us again unto a lively hope, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” In the calling to conscious faith by the Word, in the being incorporated into His body, and in justification and the forgiveness of sins, we know the Triune God as the Redeemer-Son. And in the indwelling of God in us, in the communion of saints, in our being cleansed from sin and corruption and consecrated to the living God, we know Him as the Sanctifying Spirit. And thus, in the experience of our faith God Triune, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, is glorified.
In Harmony with the Orthodox Fathers
The conclusion of Article IX speaks of the defense and maintenance of this doctrine by the church in the past: “This doctrine of the Holy Trinity hath always been defended and maintained by the true Church, since the time of the apostles, to this very day, against the Jews, Mohammedans, and some false Christians and heretics, as Marcion, Manes, Praxeas, Sabellius, Samosatenus, Arms, and such like, who have been justly condemned by the orthodox fathers.” Then, after declaring its acceptance of the three creeds, that of the Apostles, of Nice, and of Athanasius) the article further declares its acceptance of “that, which, conformable thereunto, is agreed upon by the ancient fathers.”
Here, therefore, the church in its Confession distinguishes itself as the true church, standing in the line of the church of all ages, and that too, over against all deniers of this doctrine of the Trinity, both from within and from without. We may note here also that our Confession gives expression to its ecumenic faith not only as far as the official confessions of the church in the past are concerned; but it also gives expression to a proper respect for and unity with the “orthodox fathers” and to that which “is agreed upon by the ancient fathers,” in so far as it is conformable to the creeds of the church. We must not mistake this reference to the fathers as a denial of the sufficiency of the Scriptures. We will recall that in Article VII our Confession has repudiated the Romish acknowledgment of tradition and the attributing of normative value to the declarations of the ancient fathers in the following language: “Neither do we consider of equal value any writing of men, however holy these men may have been, with those divine scriptures, nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils, decrees or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God.” This does not mean, however, that the Reformed faith has no respect for and attaches no value to the labors of the church in the past. On the contrary, the Reformed church, just because it believes that the Holy Spirit, through the Scriptures, leads the church into all the truth, has a high regard for the labors of the church in the past and for its exposition and defense of the truth. It certainly is not Reformed to despise all that the church in the past has accomplished in the development and formulation of the truth. It is Reformed that we take pains to discover whether, and to declare that we stand in the line of the church of all ages and in the line of the orthodox faith. And that discovery that we are in harmony with the faith of the church in the past may always serve, in a subordinate way for the confirmation of the orthodoxy of our faith. The faith of the ancient fathers has no normative value by itself. The ancient fathers, even the majority of them, cannot determine for us what constitutes the orthodox faith. Also here it must be borne in mind that Scripture is the only canon of faith. But it certainly is of confirmatory value for our faith to know that we stand in the line, the historical line, of the truth. And it is to this that our Confession calls attention at the close of this article.
There is a rather formidable array of anti-Trinitarians mentioned in this article, from which it is evident that the doctrine of the Trinity has in one form or another been frequently attacked—so frequently, in fact, that heretics, of the modern age who attack this doctrine do not even bring any new arguments, but simply resurrect old heresies. We may also note that almost without fail the attacks on the doctrine of the Trinity have centered on the doctrine of the Christ. This may serve to remind us of the crucial importance of this doctrine from a practical, spiritual point of view. If you deny the Trinity, you deny the Christ. And if you deny the Christ, you deny the whole of the truth of salvation. No one who denies the Trinity, therefore, has any right whatsoever, even in the broadest sense, to the name “Christian.”