As we said in our last article, the Reformed Faith is the catholic Faith. And one of the purposes of the Belgic Confession was to express our catholicity, which is especially highlighted in Articles 8-9 on the Holy Trinity. In thinking about these articles on the Trinity, we enter the deepest of Christian mystery. We join with the Church of all ages singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!” (Isaiah 6:3) We join the choirs of heaven singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy, LORD God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (Revelation 4:8)
But how do we know that the Triune God on whom we sing is One, yet Three? Article 9 turns to this question as it gives us two testimonies of the Holy Trinity; first, in Scripture, then in experience.
A Doctrine of the True Church
Before we delve into the testimonies of the Trinity, let us begin where Article 9 ends. The primary author of the Confession, de Brès, was facing both the Roman Catholic Church and the Anabaptist movement in the Netherlands. And in order to distinguish the Reformed Christians from the radical Anabaptists, our Confession explains in great detail what we believe about the Trinity. There is nothing new here, only ancient orthodoxy.
The Confession, then, ends by saying, “This doctrine of the Holy Trinity has always been affirmed and maintained by the true Church since the time of the apostles to this very day against…
- Jews, who are obviously anti-Trinitarian, rejected Jesus Christ as the Son of God;
- Mohammedans (Muslims), who are also anti-Trinitarian, believing Jesus Christ was only a prophet;
- Marcion (2nd c.), founded a sect in 144 in Rome, denied that Jesus was the Son of the God of the Old Testament, who was evil, but was the Son of the God of the New Testament, who was love;
- Manes (3rd c.), was a Persian who claimed that he was the Paraclete promised by Jesus, taught that there are dueling eternal principles of Light and Darkness, and that the Christ was a semi-divine being which came to teach the world the “Light” and that the human Jesus was crucified because he interfered with the mission of the Christ;
- Praxeas (3rd c.), taught what is called “Patripassionism,” that is, that on the cross it was the Father who was crucified, not the Son;
- Sabellius (3rd c.), taught that there was only one God, and that the names Father, Son, and Holy Spirit refer to the different modes in which this God reveals Himself in history;
- Samosatenus (Paul of Samosata, 3rd c.), was the bishop of Antioch who taught adoptionism, that is, that the man Jesus was adopted by God and was indwelt by the Logos of God.
- Arius (250-336), the greatest of ancient heretics, taught that the Son of God was a created being, and therefore was less than fully God.
So we as Reformed Christians reject all the ancient anti-Trinitarian heresies and “we do willingly receive the three creeds, namely, that of the Apostles, of Nicea, and of Athanasius; likewise, that which, conformable thereunto, is agreed upon by the ancient fathers.”
How is this relevant? In our post-modern age, many Generation-X and Net-Gen young people see the world as meaningless, as purposeless, and a random combination of isolated events. But as the church of Jesus Christ, we can offer not only a transcendent reality for the future, but a reality far larger than the events in our lives that spans the ages of history past.
The Holy Trinity & Scripture
The Trinity is a mystery in both senses of the word. It is a mystery in the Biblical sense of a truth that was hidden in shadows in the Old Testament, but is now exposed to the light of Jesus Christ in the New. And it is a mystery because it is an incomprehensible, transcendent truth that only God Himself knows fully.
The Old Testament, as we saw in our last article, teaches the fundamental doctrine of the Jewish Church, that God is one (Deuteronomy 6:4; Isaiah 43:10-11, 44:6, 8, 45:5-6, 14, 18, 21-22, 46:9). But the Confession draws out for us that there are also shadowy pictures of a plurality within the Godhead. Speaking of the “Us” and “Our” passages in Genesis 1:26-27 and 3:22, the Confession says, “From this saying, Let us make man in our image, it appears that there are more persons than one in the Godhead; and when He says, God created, He signifies the unity. It is true, He does not say how many persons there are…”
We also see the Holy Trinity in a shadowy way in the following texts:
- In Genesis 1:1–3 God makes the heavens and the earth, the Spirit of God hovers over the creation, and God by His word speaks everything into existence;
- In Psalm 33:6 it is by the word and breathe of the LORD that the heavens are made;
- In Isaiah 6:3 the seraphim cry out three times “Holy, Holy, Holy”;
- In Isaiah 61:1 we hear the voice of the Servant of the LORD speak of the Spirit of the LORD being upon Him;
- In Isaiah 63:7–14 we read that it was the LORD, the angel of His presence, and the Holy Spirit that redeemed Israel from Egypt;
- Finally, in Numbers 6:24–26, the Aaronic Blessing, we are blessed by the LORD three times.
The Confession goes on to teach that “what seems to be somewhat obscure in the Old Testament is very plain in the New Testament.” As Augustine said, the New Testament is in the Old concealed, and the Old Testament is in the New revealed; and as Francis Turretin said, “The light of the New Testament serves in a great measure to illuminate for us the obscurity of the ancient oracles.”
This plainness is shown as we hear the voice of the Father, see the Son in the Jordan, and see the Spirit descending as a dove; as Jesus institutes baptism in the name (singular) of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (plural); as the angel pronounces to Mary that the Holy Spirit shall come upon her, that the power of the Most High shall overshadow her, and what is to be born shall be the Son of God; and as Paul blesses us with the grace of Christ, the love of God (the Father), and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
Another practical aspect of the Trinity is that this mysterious doctrine is the basis of our personal faith in a personal God. The Persons of the Holy Trinity have eternal love and fellowship with each other, and when we place our faith in Jesus Christ we are united to that personal fellowship. Without the Trinity there would be no personal relationship with a personal God, no personal relationships as image bearers of God, and no communion with God in worship. We need a Trinitarian God.
The Holy Trinity & Christian Experience
The second testimony that the Confession gives for the Holy Trinity is Christian experience. As the Confession says,
All this we know as well from the testimonies of Holy Writ as from their operations, and chiefly by those we feel in ourselves … Moreover, we must observe the particular offices and operations of these three persons towards us.”
I went to an Assemblies of God college, which, if you do not know, is Pentecostal. The man who taught me the basics of Calvinism was my theology professor and he always told me, “Danny, theology that does not become biography is wishful thinking.” What he was saying was that Christian doctrine and life must go hand in hand. We as Calvinists are often reluctant to speak of experience in case we go to the extreme of Pentecostalism. But we must acknowledge that there is an experiential side of the Christian life. We are emotional beings and must not suppress that which is a part of our humanity.
God the Father
We experience God the Father, the first Person of the Holy Trinity, as our “Creator, by His power.” He is both our Creator physically speaking (Genesis 1), but also our Creator spiritually speaking (Ephesians 1; Galatians 4). As our Father spiritually speaking, we can speak of this both from the point of view of eternity in election, and from the point of view of time, in adoption. Although we have been chosen by the Father from eternity, we have to be born again spiritually and adopted by God in time to experience His Fatherly care in our lives. As Calvin said, in his sermon on Ephesians 1:13–14:
“Although we cannot conceive either by argument or reason how God has elected us before the creation of the world, yet we know it by His declaring it to us; and experience itself vouches for it sufficiently, when we are enlightened in the faith.”
God the Son
We experience God the Son, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, as our “Redeemer, by His blood.” We know experientially that we are born in sin and continue to live in sin all the days of our lives. We need redemption. We need to be freed from our slavery to the Devil, and pass through the waters of the Red Sea, that is, Jesus Christ’s blood, in order to be saved. We know this, we’ve experienced this if we have faith in Christ! And we continue to experientially receive the benefits of Christ’s redeeming work in the Lord’s Supper, the sacrament which continually feeds and nourishes our souls.
And we experience God the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Holy Trinity, as our “Sanctifier, by His dwelling in our hearts.” Again, that ongoing, sanctifying work of the Spirit must be experienced. How? We experience Him through the means of grace, the preaching of the Holy Gospel and the partaking of the Holy Sacraments (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 65).
Know your Triune God; experience your Triune God: “To the great One in Three, eternal praises be, hence evermore. His sovereign majesty, may we in glory see, and to eternity love and adore.”
Questions for Further Study/Discussion
- Do some studying and try to apply the various ancient heresies of the Trinity with false religions, cults, and teachers today.
- As you read through your Bible, find other shadowy allusions to the Holy Trinity.
- How does 1 John apply to the doctrine of the Trinity? What does that tell us about its importance?
- Use the three Persons of the Trinity as an outline for your prayers and as a way to greater devotion of the Holy Trinity.
Rev. Daniel R. Hyde is the Pastor of the Oceanside United Reformed Church in Oceanside, California.