The Belgic Confession, Article VIII

According to this truth and this Word of God, we believe in one only God, who is the one single essence, in which are three persons, really, truly, and eternally distinct, according to their incommunicable properties; namely, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost. The Father is the cause, origin and beginning of all things visible and invisible; the Son is the word, wisdom, and image of the Father; the Holy Ghost is the eternal power and might, proceeding from the Father and the Son. 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. Hence then, it is evident, that the Father is not the Son, nor the Son the Father, and likewise the Holy Ghost is neither the Father nor the Son. Nevertheless these persons thus distinguished are not divided, nor intermixed: for the Father hath not assumed the flesh, nor hath the Holy Ghost, but the Son only. The Father bath never been without his Son, or without his Holy Ghost. 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.

The Importance of This Doctrine of the Trinity

Our Confession devotes a relatively large place to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, setting forth this truth rather at length in the next four articles, in each of which some aspect of the church’s faith concerning the Triune God is discussed. Article VIII, which we are about to discuss, deals with the Trinity as such. Article IX offers proof for Article VIII, at the same time calling attention to further aspects of the church’s faith. Article X sets forth the doctrine of the divinity of Jesus Christ; and Article XI maintains the truth of the Godhead of the Holy Ghost.

From this rather thorough treatment of the Trinity, but also from the fact that our Confession, after its introductory article on faith in the one God and its articles on the basis of the Christian faith in the Holy Scriptures, gives first place to the truth of the Trinity, it is evident that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity occupies a most important place in our Reformed faith. And thus it has always been in the consciousness of the church of Jesus Christ. From the beginning the maintenance of the truth of the Trinity has been a major test of orthodoxy, so that we may say without hesitation that all who deny that God is the Triune God stand outside the line of the historic Christian faith, cannot even be considered Christian at all. The Christian faith is distinctively Trinitarian.

Yet the sad fact is that the doctrine of the Trinity all too often lives but little in the consciousness of the church and of the individual believer. Especially in our day, which is more and more characterized by an aversion for things doctrinal and by an increasing doctrinal superficiality, this doctrine of the Trinity is considered too deep, too abstract. Many a preacher finds it difficult and unpleasant to preach on Lord’s Day VIII of our Heidelberg Catechism, and heaves a sigh of relief when that task is finished for another year or two. And it stands to reason that if such are the feelings of the preacher, the congregation that has to listen to his sermon on the Trinity cannot very well have different feelings. The same is true in the catechism class. The instructor finds it difficult to put this doctrine across to his class, and for that reason probably gives as little attention to it as possible. And the catechumens find this doctrine to be abstruse and very difficult to understand and formulate. Perhaps they mechanically learn the formulation that “God is one in Essence and three in Persons.” But you must not ask them to explain what they mean by this. Nor must you further confuse them by distinguishing this doctrine from that concerning the two natures in the one divine Person of Christ. For then when they appear before the consistory to make confession of faith, they are apt to explain the Trinity as meaning that God is one Person in three Natures. But all this simply adds to the lessening of a trinitarian consciousness in the church. And when you turn to other evangelical circles, where there is a strong and almost exclusive emphasis on things soteriological and Christological, and where such preaching as there is concentrates on “accepting Christ” and being “saved” and is almost never expository, one seldom hears anything more than a passing reference to the important truth of the Trinity. Small wonder it is, then, that the stream moves in the direction of modernism and Unitarianism, in the direction of the outright denial of the deity of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. It is but a small step for those who are solemnly baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, but who never attain to a significant degree of understanding of the very name in which they are baptized—a small step into a church where that trinitarian formula is either a mere formality or where baptism is in the name of “faith, hope, and love.”

But we need not waste our concern in this matter on others. What about ourselves? Do we actually hold fast to this doctrine? I suppose that if the question is put, “Do you believe that God is Triune?” our answer is affirmative. But does it go any farther and any deeper than that? Supposing that someone would read this eighth article of our Confession without identifying its source, how many would recognize it as an article of our own creed? And how many would recognize it as an expression of their own, personal faith, rather than as the abstract formulation of some theologian? And how many understand that this is indeed a cardinal doctrine of the Christian faith? I mean: how many understand not merely that the doctrine of the Trinity has been traditionally a Christian doctrine and has been a traditional test of orthodoxy, but how many understand why it is so vitally important that the church hold fast to this doctrine?

To the question concerning the importance of this doctrine more than one answer may be given.

We may point, in the first place, to the answer suggested by the opening statement of this eighth article: “According to this truth and this Word of God, we believe . . .” That is a very good reason and a very safe reason for believing any doctrine, including this doctrine of the Trinity. In fact, it constitutes fundamentally the only reason why we may and do believe anything. The church of Jesus Christ lives by the Word! And if that Word teaches anything, then it is the very nature of faith to accept it. Of course, that implies too that faith strives to understand that Word and what it teaches. It implies also that one has to be rather “intolerant” and “dogmatic.” He has to take the stand that the Word does not teach everything and anything, that that Word does not teach two contradictory doctrines. That Word holds nothing for Unitarians if it teaches that God is the Triune God. But be that as it may, the sole reason why the church may believe and confess any doctrine whatsoever is because that doctrine is according to the Word of God and because the church is able to make it very plain that it is according to the Word of God. This holds true not only for the doctrine now under discussion, but for all that is set forth in the rest of our Confession.

In the second place, there is a theologicalreason for maintaining this doctrine and for its importance. Very simply put, the doctrine of the Trinity directly concernsour God! I know this is for the most part a foreign note today. The church is not concerned so much with God, but with man and his destiny. But this does not change the fact whatsoever that this ought to be the chief concern of the church at all times. In fact, one cannot be genuinely concerned with the good and the destiny of man unless he is first concerned and chiefly concerned with the name and the honor of God. And this doctrine of the Trinity is in the most direct sense of the Word a matter of theology, a matter of God-centered doctrine, a God-centered confession. It is directly concerned with the question: who is our God? Who and what kind of God is the God of our salvation, the God in whom we trust, the God whom we profess? If for no other reason than this, the church must always be extremely careful to maintain this doctrine.

In this connection we may observe that it is striking that the doctrine of the Trinity was the first of the doctrines of the church that was attacked and defended and confessionally formulated in the post-apostolic era of church history. In other words, the very first attack upon the truth was a direct attack on the very Godhead. The believing church was very quick to apprehend this and to see its calling to formulate and to maintain the truth of the Holy Trinity over against those who would deny it. And thus it has been ever since. Sinful man does not want God, who is really God. He always attempts to deny Him. That is really the essence of every battle that the church has had to fight in the cause of the truth. In last instance, every heretical doctrine that has ever arisen is an attempt to deny God. These attempts may take various forms. The attacks may come from various directions. The enemy does not always make a frontal assault upon the doctrine of God in the narrower sense of the term. He may attack in the sphere of the doctrine of man, or the doctrine of Christ, or the doctrine of salvation, or of the church, or of the last things. But the real nature of all his attacks is this, that he is always attempting to speak the lie concerning the living God. And to the extent that the church lives in the consciousness that it is called to witness of the truth for the sake of the name and the honor of our God, and lives therefore in the keen awareness that any attack on the truth represents an attack on the name and honor of God, to that extent the church will not take lightly any such attack but will feel called to maintain the truth and defend it, to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints.

In the third place, we certainly must not overlook the fact that the church apprehended that the doctrine of the Trinity constitutes an integral part of the gospel of our salvation. And therefore the simple fact is this: you are not a Christian and do not believe the gospel unless you believe that God is the Triune God. This stands in close connection with the fact that the church from the very beginning never confessed a mere, abstract doctrine of the Trinity: but apprehended the truth that God is triune in a very practical spiritual context. This is clear from the earliest confessions of the church, and we shall have occasion to call attention to this detailedly a bit later. But this also means that the attacks on the truth of the Trinity took place in that same practical, spiritual context. The very first attack was upon the divinity of Jesus Christ. It was not directly an attack upon the Godhead of the Second Person of the Trinity, but an attack on the Godhead of the Second Person in the flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ, our Savior. And sensing immediately that if Jesus is not truly God, that then we have not a Savior who can really save us from our sins—sensing, therefore, that our very salvation was at stake—the church rose to the defense of this doctrine, and thus was compelled at the same time to formulate the truth of the Trinity and defend it. And thus it remains today, therefore. For your very salvation’s sake you must believe in God Triune.

—H.C.H.