(An Exposition of Article IX of the Belgic Confession)
Article VIII of the Belgic Confession states the Biblical doctrine of the Holy Trinity, viz., that God is one in essence, yet nevertheless distinguished in three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The church believes that these three, while they are to be distinguished according to their personal properties, may never be separated, 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.” (Article VIII, The Belgic Confession) In its ninth article the Confession treats “The proof of the foregoing article of the Trinity of persons in one God.” For the complete and rather lengthy text of Article IX the reader ought to consult the Liturgical section of The Psalter, pp. 26, 27. In its opening sentence, which reads, “All this we know, as well from the testimonies of holy writ, as from their (The three Persons of the Godhead, R.D.) operations, and chiefly by those we feel in ourselves.” The Confession speaks of a double or two-fold proof for the doctrine of the Trinity. That two-fold proof is, first of all, the testimony of the Scriptures; and, second, it is found in the operations of the three Persons of the Trinity, especially those operations in the heart of the believer.
Turning to the Scriptures for proof for the Trinity, the Article cites two passages from Genesis: Genesis 1:26, 27 and Genesis 3:22. The first of these familiar passages reads: “And- God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” There is more than these verses than may meet the eye. Notice the rather striking use of the plural form of the first person personal pronoun, “us,” and the plural form of the possessive, “our.” At the same time the verb, “said,” is in the singular form. Thus there is a plurality of Persons in God, but, also a basic oneness. The same is taught in Genesis 3:22 which reads: “And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us . . .”
In addition to these passages from the Old Testament there are others which prove the Trinity. There are the “Angel of Jehovah passages” such as Genesis 18:2; Genesis 19:1, 24; and many more. Psalm 33:6 speaks of the creation of the heavens: “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath (or Spirit, R.D.) of his mouth.” In Chapter 61 of Isaiah the prophet speaks of his being anointed by the Spirit of God. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is taught, therefore, already in the Old Testament Scriptures.
Nevertheless this truth is taught more clearly in the New Testament. Article IX is correct when it states: “. . . but that, which appears to us somewhat obscure in the Old Testament, is very plain in the New.” Mentioned in the article are five passages from the New Testament: Matthew 3:16, 17; Matthew 28:19; Luke 1:35; II Corinthians 13:14; and I John 5:7.
Matthew 3:16, 17 speaks of the baptism of Jesus. The three Persons of God are all present: the voice of the Father is heard from heaven, the Son is being baptized, and the Holy Spirit descends upon Him in the form of a dove. Luke 1:35 is the well-known passage which speaks of the announcement of Jesus’ birth to Mary by Gabriel. In this announcement the angel speaks to Mary of the Holy Spirit that shall come upon her, of the power of the highest that shall overshadow her, and of the child that shall consequently be born who shall be the Son of God. Matthew 28:19 is the baptism formula which speaks of our being baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Apostolic benediction also mentions all three Persons: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all. Amen.” (II Cor. 13:14) I John 5:7 speaks clearly of the three Persons of the Trinity as being one: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, The Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” The difficulty is that this passage is the object of a good deal of dispute. Most of the most reliable of the ancient manuscripts do not contain this verse which leads many New Testament scholars (even among the conservatives) to believe that it does not actually belong in the New Testament. It is not our purpose to discuss this whole question. Just two matters ought to be noted. First, the doctrine of the Trinity does not depend upon this verse from I John. If this verse indeed does not belong to the sacred record1 the Trinity is still plainly taught in many other passages. Hence, in the second place, whether it is actually to be received as part of Scripture or not, it teaches the truth. There are three that bear record in heaven, and these three, the Father, the Son (Word), and the Holy Spirit, are one. In all these passages and more, therefore, “. . . we are fully taught, that there are three persons in one only divine essence.” (Article IX) Proof for the Trinity will be found in the Bible.
The Confession also speaks of the operations of the three Persons as proof of the doctrine of the Trinity. Moreover, it is “chiefly by those (operations) we feel in ourselves” that we know this doctrine. The idea is that the threeness of God becomes manifest in the works of God. And those works of God are distinguished as those which God performs without us and those within us. Still more, it is chiefly by those within us that we know that God is three Persons in one divine being. Those works or operations within us are such operations as: regeneration, the calling, faith (conversion), justification, sanctification, preservation, and glorification. By our being born again, called out of darkness into God’s fellowship, united to Christ by faith, justified through the shedding of His blood, made holy and preserved by His Spirit and Word; by these operations we know the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as the God of our salvation. We may also observe those works of God without us. These include the work of creation, that of providence, that of redemption in Jesus Christ; His cross and resurrection, and ascension to glory. This the article further explains in these terms: “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.” This does not mean that God the Father only was involved in our creation, but not the Son or the Spirit. Nor does it mean that the Son without the Father or Spirit is alone involved in our redemption. Rather, the idea is that all the works of God, “the particular offices and operations,” are of the Father, through the Son, and in or by the Holy Spirit.
The emphasis here ought not escape our attention. Note well, our creed speaks of knowing this doctrine of the Trinity from “the testimony of holy writ,” and from “their operations . . . chiefly by those we feel in ourselves.” This does, not mean that we know this truth from two sources; Scripture and our experience. Ultimately our only source of this knowledge is the Word of God. Apart from the objective Word of God’s revelation preserved in the Holy Scriptures we simply cannot know God. But the point is that knowledge is never merely a matter of our intellects. It’s not mere “head knowledge”. So very often it is exactly at this point that the Reformed faith is criticized. The accusation has it that being a Reformed, a Protestant Reformed Christian means one has a head full of doctrinal facts but no real experience. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our knowledge of God is always a knowledge received out of His Word as that Word is applied in our hearts by the Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, I know not merely that God is the Father of His elect in Christ, but I know that God is my Father for Jesus’ sake. And I know that because the Spirit witnesses with my spirit that I am a child of God. (Romans 8:16)
On the basis of the above-mentioned proof the article speaks of several heresies over against which this doctrine has always been defended by the true Church. It has been defended over against unbelieving Jews, who deny Christ and therefore the Trinity. Mohammedans with their belief in Allah also deny the God of the Scriptures, and this truth has been defended over against them. Several heretics are cited by the article, viz.: Marcion, Manes, Praxeas, Sabellius, Samosatenus, Arius, “…and such like, who have been justly condemned by the orthodox fathers.” Marcion rejected the entire Old Testament and retained only a mutilated form of the New. He denied the literal incarnation. God’s Son according to him had only a visionary body. Manes (also known as Mani) is the father of Manichaeism (to which Saint Augustine was addicted for a time). He also denied the incarnation and taught that God created Christ as the ideal man who in this body came to earth to save mankind by his teachings. Praxeas and Sabellius were the founders of Sabellianism, which heresy rejected the doctrine of three eternal subsistences within the one divine essence. Paul of Samosata taught that Christ was a mere man who became progressively more divine by allowing God to penetrate his earthly life more completely. Arius too denied the divinity of Jesus Christ.
Finally, with this article of our creed we confess: “. . . although this doctrine far surpasses all human understanding, nevertheless we now believe it by means of the Word of God, but expect hereafter to enjoy the perfect knowledge and benefit thereof in Heaven.” This doctrine always transcends our comprehension, for God “only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see: to whom be honour and power everlasting. Amen.” (I Tim. 6:16). We do expect to enjoy the perfect knowledge and benefit (not in the sense of comprehension) when the covenant shall have been perfected in glory and we shall know and enjoy the fellowship of God perfectly. Now we see and know in part, but then face to face; and we shall know even as we are known. (I Cor. 13:12)