Article 8 & 9 - God is One in Essence, Yet Distinguished in Three Persons
GOD IS ONE IN ESSENCE, YET DISTINGUISHED IN THREE PERSONS
SCRIPTURE PROOF OF THIS DOCTRINE
According to this truth and this Word of God, we believe in one only God, who is one single essence, in which are three persons, really, truly, and eternally distinct according to their incommunicable properties; namely, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Father is the cause, origin, and beginning of all things visible and invisible. The Son is the Word, the wisdom, and the image of the Father. The Holy Spirit is the eternal power and might who proceeds 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, the Son, and the Holy Spirit each has His personal existence, distinguished by Their properties; but in such a way that these three persons are but one only God.
It is therefore evident that the Father is not the Son, nor the Son the Father, and likewise the Holy Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son. Nevertheless, these persons thus distinguished are not divided, nor intermixed; for the Father has not assumed our flesh and blood, neither has the Holy Spirit, but the Son only. The Father has never been without His Son, or without His Holy Spirit. For these three, in one and the same essence, are equal in eternity. There is neither first nor last; for They are all three one, in truth, in power, in goodness, and in mercy.
All this we know both from the testimonies of Holy Scripture and from the respective works of the three Persons, and especially those we perceive in ourselves. The testimonies of Scripture which lead us to believe this Holy Trinity are written in many places of the Old Testament. It is not necessary to mention them all; it is sufficient to select some with discretion.
In the book of Genesis God says: Let Us make man in our image after our likeness .... So God created man in His own image...; male and female He created them (Genesis 1:26,27). Also: Behold, the man has become like one of Us (Genesis 3:22). From God's saying, Let Us make man in Our image, it appears that there are more divine persons than one; and when He says, God created, He indicates that there is one God. It is true, He does not say how many persons there are, but what seems to be somewhat obscure in the Old Testament is very plain in the New Testament. For when our Lord was baptized in the river Jordan, the voice of the Father was heard, who said, This is My beloved Son (Matthew 3:17); the Son was seen in the water, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form as a dove. For the baptism of all believers Christ prescribed this formula: Baptize all nations into the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). In the gospel according to Luke the angel Gabriel thus addressed Mary, the mother of our Lord: The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God (Luke 1:35). Likewise: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all (2 Corinthians 13:14). In all these places we are fully taught that there are three persons in one only divine essence.
Although this doctrine far surpasses all human understanding, nevertheless in this life we believe it on the ground of the Word of God, and we expect to enjoy its perfect knowledge and fruit hereafter in heaven.
Moreover, we must observe the distinct offices and works of these three Persons towards us. The Father is called our Creator by His power; the Son is our Saviour and Redeemer by His blood; the Holy Spirit is our Sanctifier by His dwelling in our hearts. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity has always been maintained and preserved in the true church since the time of the apostles to this very day, over against Jews, Muslims, and against false Christians and heretics such as Marcion, Mani, Praxeas, Sabellius, Paul of Samosata, Arius, and such like, who have been justly condemned by the orthodox fathers. In this doctrine, therefore, we willingly receive the three creeds, of the Apostles, of Nicea, and of Athanasius; likewise that which in accordance with them is agreed upon by the early fathers.
GOD IS ONE
When the apostles after Pentecost began to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, they preached that God is one. Paul, for example, wrote to the Corinthians that “there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things” (1 Corinthians 8:6). He wrote the same to Timothy: “there is one God” (1 Timothy 2:5). This is what the apostles had learned from Old Testament Scripture passages as Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one!” and Isaiah 44:6, “Besides Me there is no God.”
GOD IS THREE
Yet the Old Testament also gave evidence that God is more than one. The Lord God announced His decision to make man with this word, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). The Scripture immediately adds, “So God created man in His own image” (vs 27). Here the plural and the singular are set side by side. Similarly, plurality within God is indicated in the passage about the burning bush. “And the Angel of the LORD appeared to [Moses] in a flame of fire from the midst of a bush…. So when the LORD saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him (Exodus 3:2-4). Here God is referred to as ‘the Angel of the LORD.’ Moses also hears the voice of God addressing him. The Angel is God, but is also mentioned separately from God. The best explanation for the identity of the Angel of the LORD is that this is the second person of the Trinity: the Son before He became flesh. Again, in Psalm 139:1 David addresses God, “O LORD, You have searched me and known me,” but further on he speaks to the Spirit saying (verse 7), “where can I go from Your Spirit?” Here the Spirit is also equated with God.
God’s New Testament revelation about Himself is clearer. Jesus told the Jews that “My Father has been working until now, and I have been working” (John 5:17). This upset the Jews so that they sought to kill Jesus “because He … said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God” (vs 18). Jesus elaborated on His identity: “The Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner…. For as the Father raises the dead and gives life to them, even so the Son gives life to whom He will” (vss 19-21). The Son and the Father are so close, Jesus maintains, that the Son echoes and copies the Father. Yet the Son does not copy the Father in creaturely activities, but copies Him in such divine activity as giving life. In so saying Jesus teaches that the Son is divine, equal with the Father, and yet not identical to the Father.
After His triumph on the cross Jesus gave further clarity on the point. He instructed His disciples to “go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). Here three divine Persons are mentioned in one breath, all as equals. The apostle Paul does the same as he extends the blessing to his readers, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14). The obscure plurality of the Old Testament gives way in the New Testament to clarity on God’s identity: holy God is One and is Three at the same time. That is why the apostles did not hesitate to write that Jesus is God, and the Holy Spirit is God also (see Articles 10 and 11), and at the same time insist that “God is one”. As deBres puts it, “what seems to be somewhat obscure in the Old Testament is very plain in the New Testament.” He lists a row of evidences from the New Testament that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are all equally God, and concludes, “In all these places we are fully taught that there are three persons in one only divine essence.”
ATTACKS ON THE DOCTRINE OF THE TRINITY
Over the years of early church history, struggle arose concerning the doctrine of God. In an effort to capture the Biblical revelation that God is one and yet three, the Church Fathers coined the term ‘trinity’ – God is ‘tri-unity.’ But even the introduction of a Biblically faithful term does not explain just how God is one and three at the same time. And people want to understand….
A group known as Adoptionists insisted that God is one – and that is to say that the Father alone is truly God.
They claimed that Jesus of Nazareth was an ordinary man with earthly biological parents, Joseph and Mary. What set Him apart from other people was His godly character, His overflowing love for God and His great zeal to glorify God through His ready obedience. So impressed (say the Adoptionists) was God with the good man Jesus that He adopted Him as His son, and poured out His Spirit (= a divine strength or breath) on Jesus so that Jesus might be a completely holy person. A well-known Adoptionist was Arius, who claimed that there was a time when Jesus did not exist (see below). Present day Jehovah’s Witnesses are also Adoptionists.
We need to be aware that if Jesus is not the divine Son of God, there can be no salvation for sinners. So intense is God’s hatred of sin, and so immense is His wrath on sin, that no creature could survive under the pressure of God’s holy judgment on sin. See Lord’s Day 6 of the Heidelberg Catechism. If Jesus Christ were but a creature (however holy), He would not be able to pay for sin and deliver others from it. In effect, the Adoptionist model destroys the heart of the Christian faith itself.
The Modalists (mode = form; ie, God takes on different forms) said that the one God can be compared to a single earthly father who wears different hats, or assumes different roles, depending on where he is. For example, one might call his father ‘Dad’ at home, ‘sir’ at school, and ‘elder’ at church. So it is with God: He is one God who wears three different hats, ie, He was Father in the Old Testament, Son in the New Testament and Spirit after Pentecost. From this it follows that the person who died on the cross was simply the ‘Father wearing the hat of Savior’ (so-called ‘patripassionism’ = the Father suffered).
If the Modalists were correct, Jesus’ prayers to the Father were an illusion or a charade – for Jesus was then praying to Himself. Similarly, the Scriptural teaching that the ascended Son intercedes before the Father looses all sense if in fact the Son is simply the Father wearing another hat. Once more, God’s revelation of Himself as a God of deepest love – for He “sent His only begotten Son into the world … to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:9,10) – would lose its profound meaning if the only begotten Son is in fact the Father.
DEFENCE OF THE DOCTRINE OF THE TRINITY: EARLY HISTORY
Adoptionism and Modalism are attractive inasmuch as they make God understandable to our minds. Yet the early church fathers insisted that these (and other) attempts to understand how God is put together are actually heresy. The Bible is emphatic that the Son of God is eternal, was always there (John 1:1-3; Colossians 1:15-18), and Joseph was not His biological father (Matthew 1:20; Luke 1:35). Similarly, the Father and the Son cannot be identified as one so that the Father is said to have suffered on the cross (see Matthew 27:46).
In the face of these heresies the early Church was repeatedly called to defend the truth. Hence Emperor Constantine convened the Synod of Nicea in 325 A.D. This synod declared Arius and Adoptionists to be wrong in their view regarding the Trinity. Arius, however, did not relent. Eventually the person who spearheaded the Biblical defense of the Trinity, Athanasius, was declared wrong in his teaching and exiled. In fact, in the course of the following years, the Church effectively embraced the doctrine of Arius. And that is to say that the gospel of redemption through the blood of the Son of God was buried under heresy.
The Head of the Church, though, led events in such a way that a subsequent Synod, the Council of Constantinople (381 A.D.), condemned Arius’ teaching for the heresy it was. This Council adopted a statement of faith that has become known as the Nicene Creed, as we find it on page 437 in our Book of Praise. When one compares the Nicene Creed with the Apostles’ Creed, one notices that both creeds can be divided into three parts, according to the persons of the Trinity. The Synod of 381 A.D. essentially took the Apostles’ Creed and elaborated on certain articles within it in order to state more explicitly what the Scriptures say about the Trinity. For example, the opening line of the Apostles’ Creed (“I believe in God the Father almighty”) is expanded in the Nicene Creed to state: “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty”). Notice the insistence that God is one. The second statement of the Apostles’ Creed (“I believe in Jesus Christ”) is expanded in the second paragraph of the Nicene Creed to explain who Jesus Christ is: “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made....” Notice that the formulation leaves no room for Adoptionism or for Modalism. Again, the statement of the Apostles’ Creed concerning the Holy Spirit (“I believe in the Holy Spirit”) is expanded in the fourth paragraph of the Nicene Creed to explain that He is God, “the Lord and Giver of life”. By placing in a creed what the church learned from the Word of God, the early church sought to arm the believers against the errors of the Adoptionists and Modalists.
Not long after 381, however, the confession captured in the Nicene Creed was threatened once more. The followers of Arius were not about to give up. In grace God preserved His Church by granting that, in the course of time, yet another creed was formulated in defense of the doctrine of the Trinity. This newest creed, known as the Athanasian Creed, expanded further on the doctrine that the Son and the Spirit, together with the Father, are true God. This creed, printed on page 438 of the Book of Praise, condemns in pointed terms the teaching of the Adoptionists and the Modalists. It states emphatically in article 3 that, “And the catholic faith is this: that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity.” It insists that “there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit”, all three being equal, all three being eternal, all three being uncreated, and all three being incomprehensible. Yet, it hastens to add, this does not mean that there are three Gods. “In this Trinity none is afore, or after another; none is greater, or less than other. But the whole three persons are co-eternal, and co-equal.” This creed is adamant: “He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.”
Still, could the fathers in these three Creeds make clear just how three Persons can be one God, and how one God can be three divine Persons? The Adoptionists and the Modalists tried so hard to understand God. But even the cleverest of the church fathers could not capture how God is three and one at the same time. In fact, our God is so great and majestic and awesome that He is beyond human understanding. The created, finite human mind cannot grasp that 3 can be 1 and 1 can be 3. Adoptionists and Modalists try to bring God down to a human level so that people can understand how God is ‘put together’. This will never succeed simply because He who created heaven and earth is beyond human comprehension.
The fact that I cannot comprehend how my God is put together provides incredible comfort! Daily I struggle with the ups and downs of life; I don’t understand the various things this sovereign God permits in my life, and that can get frustrating. Yet, if I bear in mind that this God is so vastly beyond my understanding even in how He is put together, I cannot expect to comprehend either why He does what He does in my life. I can rest in the arms of this God, even when I do not understand.
Further, might it be so that God the Father is angry with me while God the Son laid down His life for me? That would assume that the Father and the Son have a difference between themselves. Yet the very fact that God is One means there can never be a tension between the Father and the Son. If the Son in love laid down His life for me, the Father invariably loves me too. If the Son today pleads with the Father on my behalf, the Father invariably listens to the Son – for the Father and the Son are one.
Again, who is it that dwells within the believers? Yes, it is the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16). Yet this Spirit is true God, with the Father and the Son. That is why Jesus can say, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him” (John 14:23). If the Spirit were not true God, we could assume that the Father and the Son are far from us today, remote and isolated in heaven. But given the unity of Father, Son and Spirit, the Spirit’s indwelling in the hearts of God’s own means that the Father and the Son also are close by – they know us and our circumstances, and supply our needs.
The unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is beyond human comprehension – thankfully so! This triune God is far beyond our comprehension – in both His Person and His work. Here is cause for so much encouragement and comfort in the big questions of life! With such a God I am always safe.
Points for Discussion:
- What efforts were made in the past in an attempt to understand the Trinity?
- Why are these efforts inadequate? Is there any comfort in this?
- Discuss development from Apostles’ Creed to Nicene Creed to Athanasian Creed, in relation to the Trinity.