What We Believe (3): Our Triune God

This is the third in a series of articles on Reformed Doctrine, under the heading What We Believe. The familiar question-and-answer method, used so effectively by Bosma’s Reformed Doctrine of a bygone day. is being followed. Rev. Elco H. Oostendorp. (retired) of Hudsonville, Michigan, deals with “The Doctrine of God” in these opening articles.

What is the unique confession of Christianity concerning God?

The doctrine of the Trinity, that is, that there is only one God, who subsists in three Persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Although the idea of God revealed in the Bible is different from those of nonChristian religions in many other respects also, this is the distinctive Christian confession in contrast to Judaism and Islam, which also are monotheistic. Dr. Charles Hodge says, “It is not too much to say with Meyer, that ‘the Trinity is the point in which all Christian ideas and interests unite; at once the beginning and the end of all insight into Christianity.’” (Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p. 448).

Which are the ecumenical creeds, accepted by the Reformed churches, in which this confession about God is stated?

The Apostles’ Creed, The Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. These creeds were formulated by the ancient church as the result of prolonged struggles against various heresies regarding the doctrine of God. They are called ecumenical creeds because they are accepted by all branches of the Christian Church, except that the Orthodox or Eastern Churches have reservations about the “filioque clause” in the Nicene Creed, that is, the statement that the Holy Spirit also proceeds from the Son. The socalled Athanasian Creed reflects the thought of 51. Augustine. Although there have been controversies concerning the being of God to the present, the Church has not been able to improve in any significant way on the statement of the doctrine formulated in these confessions. All that later creeds and theologians do is elaborate on the Scriptural sources of this doctrine, and its theological and practical implications.

Isnt the teaching that God is “The great Three in One” illogical?

It would be if we believed that God is three in the same sense that He is one, or one in the same sense that He is three. Christianity does not teach that there are three Gods who are also one God. The unity of the divine Being is in His essence or substance, that is, in what makes God, God. God is not divided into three gods, but the Bible insists that there is only one living God who possesses all the divine attributes. The three Persons in the Godhead are all equally God, but they are three in their personal properties as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Although there is no equivalent relationship in creation, there are instances where we can also say of created things or beings that they are a unit in one respect and multiple in another respect. To be sure, in the Trinity this is beyond any earthly and finite analogy, but analogies do show that when we speak of unity in one respect and complexity in another we are not talking nonsense.

Is the triune nature of God revealed in the Old Testament?

1n the light of the New Testament fulfillment and full revelation we can see many indications of the Trinity in the Old Testament. Space does not allow listing texts, but there are passages where God speaks in the plural, e.g., Genesis 1:26, “Let us make man in our image”; where one Person speaks about the others, e.g., Isaiah 61:1, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,” (cf. Luke 4:18–21); where the three Persons are mentioned, e.g., Psalm 33:6, “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth,” where the word is the Son (cf. John 1:3) and the breath the Spirit (cf. Genesis 1:2). Such examples can be multiplied.

Is the Trinity revealed in the New Testament in a few texts?

No, there is no one text which teaches the complete doctrine of the Trinity, nor even a combination of two or three. It is true that there are several passages which mention the three Persons in one sentence, notably the Baptism formula of Matthew 28:19 and the apostolic benediction in II Corinthians 13:14. However, the reason the Church felt compelled to formulate a doctrine of the Trinity lics especially in the fact that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, who came in the flesh. Tn Him the Father was revealed and He and the Father are one. This appears from such events as Jesusbaptism when the Father spoke from heaven, “This is my beloved Son,” and the Spirit descended in the form of a dove (Mark 1:9–11). The birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus are the revelation of the Son, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost the revelation of the Third Person. Thus the reality of God‘s triune Being and activity is involved inextricably with the very heart of the gospel, the good news of salvation. This appears in a beautiful way from passages like Ephesians 1:3–14, where the Apostle Paul blesses God the Father who has blessed us in Christ and sealed us with the promised Holy Spirit.

How are the three Persons of the Trinity distinguished from one another?

First of all, in their relationship to one another within the divine essence or being. These relationships are called their personal properties. The Father is the First Persoll, not in time but as the One who has life in Himself and gives it to the Son as His Only Begotten Son. The personal property of the Son is His sons hip, or filiation. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son and therefore His personal property is called procession. Second, in relation to creation and redemption, the three Persons differ in their works. While all three as the one God are involved in all divine activities, the Heidelberg Catechism is both Scripturally and experientially correct when in Answer 24 it states that in the Apostles’ Creed we confess our faith in God the Father and our creation, in God the Son and our redemption, and in God the Holy Spirit and our sanctification.

Isn’t the doctrine of the Trinity as formulated especially in the Athanasian Creed an exercise in Greek philosophy without warrant in Scripture?

No doubt there is a danger that all the distinctions made in this creed can be discussed in a speculative and scholastic spirit, but we can surely agree with Calvin in his Institutes (I, xiii, 3) when he says, “What forbids our expressing, in plainer words, those things which, in the Scriptures, are, to our understanding, intricate and obscure, provided our expressions religiously and faithfully convey the true sense of the Scripture, and are used with modest caution, and not without sufficient occasion?”

The history of the struggle to come to an understanding of this cardinal doctrine illustrates that what purport to be new and biblical insights about the nature of God are often old errors. We can thank God for the leading of the Spirit which gave us these statements to help us understand correctly, even though we can by no means comprehend, the wonderful mystery of God’s triune Being and work. It is significant in this connection that some of the greatest hymns of the Church center in this mystery. Even the small children can sing from believing hearts: “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow, Praise Him all creatures here below, Praise Him above, ye heavenly host, Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen!”