There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
When I was approached to write this essay on the First Article of Faith, I instantly felt an acute sense of inadequacy. Of all the Articles, with the possible exception of the second, the first contains the most ineffable mystery, the deepest profundity, and the intimidating ability to render mute even the greatest of theological minds, of which, I assure you, I am not. Defending the doctrine of the Holy Trinity in a few pages is a task better suited for a John Calvin, a Richard Hooker, or a St. Augustine, certainly not for an obscure pastor from a small Colorado mountain town. On the other hand, despite the incomprehensible nature of the subject, the First Article carries with it a distinct advantage for those who defend it, for it is completely and utterly uncontroversial among the true Church of the Living Christ. Among all Christian brethren, it needs no defense. If the truths of the Scriptures and the ecumenical creeds define our religion, then, by definition, a Christian is one who believes in the Triune God. So, in a sense, my task could not be easier. For, to disagree with this First Article of Faith is to disagree with the faith of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of all times and all places. When guided by the Scriptures, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is a patently obvious truth and the only rational means to define the nature of the Godhead. In short, it is the most biblical and reasonable conclusion when the relevant data is seriously and faithfully considered. Thus, though the depth of my subject is thoroughly unfathomable, suitable to challenge the most gifted divine, it is so biblically obvious and universally acknowledged; it is likewise suitable for one so lowly as me. It is also a most pastoral doctrine, calling forth a response of adoration and supreme devotion, thoroughly suitable for the attention of every shepherd of the flock of Christ.
I believe the placement of this Article before all others evinces the wisdom of our forefathers in the Anglican faith for two fundamental reasons. First, acknowledging our firm belief in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity from the outset places our beloved church squarely within the bounds of catholic orthodoxy. Unlike many of the articles, the first was not controversial. Any faithful member of the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, or Reformed churches could and would assent to this Article without hesitation. It was important at the time of the establishment of the Articles, as it is important today, for the churches of the Reformation to remind their critics, the sovereign rulers of the age, and the entire world, for that matter, that our faith is no novel conception. The Church of England had no part in the extreme radicals of the Reformation era. The Socinians and other rank heretics are condemned from the very beginning of our statement of faith. Far from a heretical sect, obsessed with theological rabbit trails and innovations, we are confessors of the faith once and for all deposited unto the saints, the faith in the Triune Deity, as defined by the Scriptures, the church fathers, and the ecumenical creeds. By stating our faith in the Holy Trinity, without compromise, we state our position as members of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, followers of Christ and His apostles, and inheritors of the Holy Spirit.
Second, the doctrine of the Trinity and Theology proper is the starting point for all theological inquiry and assertion. It is because we are Trinitarian that we possess and confess an orthodox Theology, Christology, Pneumatology, Soteriology, Ecclesiology, Anthropology, and Eschatology. Most practically, apart from the truth of the Triune nature of God, there is no salvation, for if God is not one Substance in Three Persons, then Christ is not divine. If He is not divine, then He could not have endured the eternal wrath of God on our behalf and accomplished our redemption as the Champion of our faith. Indeed, the sublime concept of the Holy Trinity is the blessed font from which all divine truth and spiritual comfort finds its life-giving source. For this reason, although all of the adjectives given in the First Article deserve special treatment, it is the concept of the Trinity itself that I am addressing in this essay.
Without doubt, the clearest assertion of the unity of the Godhead is unambiguously declared in the great and famous Shema of Deuteronomy((All Scripture quotations throughout this article are taken from the New King James Version.)) 6:4-5: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” In this clear monotheistic declaration, the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who created and sustains the heavens and the earth, is held forth as one, simply one, infinitely one, undivided, and without parts. I include verse five in this analysis, because it is basic to a biblical understanding of the unity of the Godhead. As is common in Scripture, the imperative follows from the indicative. God is one and undivided, thus we must be unified, focused, and undivided in our faithful response. Our piety and devotion must likewise be unified, focused, and undistracted, as we love and serve the one Lord with all of our being. This is, of course, the same idea found in the preface to the Decalogue and the theological presupposition of the First Commandment. YHWH declares that He and He alone is God. There is no other. Therefore, His people must have no other gods before His glorious face, no other imaginary deities to arouse His fierce jealousy (Ex 20:1-3). To the people of Israel, it was shown with great power and might, with signs and wonders, that the Lord Himself is God, and there is none other besides Him (Deut 4:35). He and He alone created His people. He and He alone redeemed them from the house of bondage. He and He alone shamed the false gods of the heathen. He and He alone defeated, with His fell hammer of justice, pharaoh, with all his pretensions of deity, as the leader of the most powerful empire on earth. He and He alone is Lord. Indeed, God calls forth a response of unified devotion, because He is one. As Asaph declares in Psalm 73:25, “Whom have I in heaven but You?” And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You.” David breaks forth in praise in 1 Chronicles 17:20: “O LORD, there is none like You, nor is there any God besides You, according to all that we have heard with our ears.” Throughout the Old Testament, the unity of God is associated with His unique Lordship, His unique claim on His creation, and His unique action in the history of salvation, culminating in the eschatological concept of an earth unified in its response to the truth. The Lord demonstrates His uniqueness, His “otherness,” and His oneness through His mercy toward His people and His obvious sovereignty over human history. After naming Cyrus as His chosen instrument to free his people from captivity, an instrument He foreknew long before his birth, the Lord declares,
I am the LORD, and there is no other; There is no God besides Me. I will gird you, though you have not known Me, That they may know from the rising of the sun to its setting That there is none besides Me. I am the LORD, and there is no other; I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create calamity; I, the LORD, do all these things’ (Isa 45:5-7).
The prophet Zechariah declares this melding of Theology proper with an Eschatological vision:
It shall be one day Which is known to the LORD—Neither day nor night. But at evening time it shall happen That it will be light. And in that day it shall be That living waters shall flow from Jerusalem, Half of them toward the eastern sea And half of them toward the western sea; In both summer and winter it shall occur. And the LORD shall be King over all the earth. In that day it shall be— “The LORD is one,”And His name one. (Zech 14:7-9)
The doctrine of the unity of God is the fundamental supposition of Old Testament Theology. This Theology is far from being merely the stuff of forgotten ivory towers. It is the stuff of piety, the stuff of devotion.
It is impossible to surmise that the New Testament writers did anything other than presuppose the monotheism of Israel and of her Scriptures. Jesus Christ Himself announces an unequivocal endorsement of the great Shema, and declares it to be the first and great commandment (Mk 12:29), the essence of our devotion toward God. St. Paul wrote to his protégé’ Timothy, “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5). Similarly, he declares in Galatians, “Now a mediator does not mediate for one only, but God is one” (Gal 3:20). There is one God who justifies both the circumcised and the uncircumcised (Rom 3:30). James teaches that even the demons, completely wicked though they may be, know there is but one God (Jas 2:19). Paul’s address to the pagan Areopagus was thoroughly monotheistic (Acts 17), as was his sermon at Lystra (Acts 14), for which he was stoned and left for dead. It is difficult to conceive of a more monotheistic declaration than that of Paul in Ephesians 4: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Eph 4:4-6). It is quite evident that the New Testament apostles were completely convinced that they worshipped and served the God of Israel, the God who is one, undivided, without parts, without confusion, and, through their preaching and teaching, they implored men to respond to Him in undivided, unambiguous devotion. It can truly be said that the apostolic ministry of the New Covenant was an extension of the great Shema, although, since the fullness of the time had come, it was declared not only unto Israel but unto all peoples, tribes, and tongues.
Given this clear testimony of the unity of God from both the Old and New Testaments, one may wonder where room is found for the doctrine of the Trinity. Given such emphasis on unity, from whence comes the notion of plurality? There is but one answer. The same source which reveals the unity of the Godhead reveals a plurality of Persons, and that source is the Holy Scriptures. In all honesty, it must be admitted that this plurality is much more clearly revealed in the New Testament than in the Old. However, the Old Testament is not without witness to the truth. The New Testament believers did not invent a new Theology. Such an idea would have been repulsive to them. That which was obscure, shrouded in mystery in the Old Testament, is declared in the New Testament clearly from the rooftops. The veil is lifted by Christ and His apostles, a veil which clouded full understanding, though it did not completely hide, the plurality of Persons in the one divine Substance.
There are numerous texts in the Old Testament which testify of the Trinity. From the very beginning, in the book of Genesis, we see the Trinity in action. The Holy Spirit hovers over the void waters (1:2). The Father speaks, and the Word accomplishes (1:3). Further, in the creation and fall accounts, God refers to Himself as a plurality by employing the first person, plural pronoun (1:26; 3:22). As John Calvin states, we observe here God consulting with Himself and rightly infer that He finds within Himself something distinct.((Calvin, John. Commentary on the Book of Genesis. Trans. John King. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999.)) The Trisagion of Isaiah 6 has also been seen, historically, as a reference to the Tri-unity of the Godhead, reflecting the perfection of the three Subsistences.((St. Athanasius. “On Luke X.22. (Illud Omnia, &c.).” NPNF2-04. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. Originally published in print as Select Writings and Letters of Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria. 1892: Page 6. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Grand Rapids, MI. 26 Aug. 2008.
http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf204.xi.ii.vi.html.)) However, perhaps far more convincing than these texts, the Old Testament reveals unto us the actual Persons of the Trinity themselves. In 1 Samuel 16:14, we see the Holy Spirit departing from Saul. Thus, he moves and moves upon His servants, as He moved upon Gideon in Judges 6:34, Jephthah in Judges 11:29, Samson in Judges 13:25 and 14:6, David in 1 Samuel 16:13, Jahaziel in 2 Chronicles 20:14, and Isaiah in Isaiah 61:1. The Spirit of the Lord comes with power, imparting power for His purposes (Mic 2:7). In 2 Samuel 23:2, David testifies that the Spirit of the Lord spoke through Him. Likewise Ezekiel reveals that the Spirit of the Lord spoke to him, commanding him to prophesy (Ezek 11:5). This same Spirit carries His servants to various places in supernatural ways according to His will (1 Kings 18:25, Ezek 37:1). In Isaiah 40:13, we see that the Spirit needs no direction, no guidance, and no counsel. In Isaiah 59:19, the Spirit raises the standard of the Lord where no man would stand. All of these instances, and these are but a sampling, indicate willful, intentional action proper only to a divine Person. In similar manner, we are given glimpses into the Personhood and divinity of the Son of God. We could call upon every prophecy of the Messiah, the Son of Man as case in point, but we have not the space. Nevertheless, let us consider a few passages. Isaiah describes the child to be born, the blessed Messiah, in glowingly divine terms, as “Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Is 9:6). All such terms were employed in the Old Testament to describe YHWH Himself, with the possible exception of the last, although it could be argued that Judges 6:24 offers a corollary. With these words, the prophet declares that “God has come to birth, bringing with him the qualities which guarantee his people’s preservation (wisdom) and liberation (warrior strength).”((Motyer, Alec. The Prophecy of Isaiah. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993.)) The author of Hebrews gives us a short, inspired summary of other passages where the Messiah is called the Son of God (Ps 2:7; 2 Sam 7:14), the angels are commanded to worship Him (Ps 97:7), and He is rather un- ambiguously given the title of God whose Kingdom shall last forever (Ps 45:6-9). Indeed, who but the Son of God could be called to sit at the right hand of the Father (Ps 110:1)? Who but the divine Son of God could truly bear our iniquities (Is 53:11)? Who but the divine Son of God could be equated to the Father in power and authority (Ps 2)? To embrace the Messianic King is to embrace God. To kiss Him is to kiss God.
With the light of the Old Testament witness, the New Testament is far clearer in its revelation of the Trinity. There are direct references, such as the baptismal formula (Mt 28:19) and the apostolic blessing (2 Cor 13:14). The divine witness at Christ’s baptism reveals the Trinity in all its fullness, as the Father speaks, declaring Jesus to be the very Son of God, the Son is baptized, and the Holy Spirit descends on Him in the form of a dove (Mt. 3:16-17). It could be argued that these alone are proof positive; however, we are given further witness again in the revelation of three Persons in the one God. That Jesus Christ is revealed to be God the Son is undeniable from the sacred texts. His divinity simply saturates the pages of the New Testament. In listing Scripture, oh Blessed Lord, where do I begin? Indeed, where do I end? The apostle John could not have been more explicit and unequivocal when he declared, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made” (Jn 1:1-3). Jesus Christ was in the beginning, He was the Creator of all things, He was, is, and ever shall be God. Jesus Himself could not have been more explicit and unequivocal when He declared, “Before Abraham was, I AM” (Jn 8:58), and “I am the way, the truth, and the life (Jn 14:60), and, again, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9), and, yet again, “I and my Father are one” (Jn 10:30). The apostle Paul could not have been more explicit and un- equivocal when He pronounces grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 1:7), as does Peter (2 Pet 1:2). Divine grace and peace come not from men but from God alone. Likewise, he could not have been more explicit and unequivocal when he employs Isaiah 45:22-23 and applies it to Christ in Philippians 2:10. Paul’s point is clear. Christ is God, YHWH, to whom every knee shall bow. Indeed, the author of Hebrews could not have been more explicit and unequivocal when he bases his entire argument on an unashamed declaration of Christ’s divinity from various Old Testament Scriptures (see Hebrews 1-2). It is to Christ, as the divine Son of God that dominion has been given forever and ever. It is He who is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, who is, who was, and who is to come, the Almighty (Rev 1:8). Thus, from the pages of Scripture, in these texts and many more, Christ is revealed to be of one substance with the Father, very God of very God, begotten from eternity. At the same time, the Father and the Son are distin- guished in the same verbiage. In fact, the Son prays to the Father, the best example of which is found in the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mt. 26:36-42). Certainly Christ does not pray to Himself. Christ explicitly states that He is sent of the Father to do His will (Jn 5:36 and many, many other passages). It is biblically unacceptable to posit two gods or two deities of merely like substance. The only biblical, reasonable conclusion we can reach is that in the one God, there are here revealed two Persons, two Persons in one substance. So far, on the absolute authority of the Word of God, we are at least “binitarians.” But, the witness does not end there, for the Spirit is likewise clearly revealed as both divine and distinguishable as a Person. The very fact that the Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of God (e.g. 1 Cor 12:3, Eph 4:30) is enough. The Word of God is called His Word (e.g. Heb 3:7 and 10:15). Contrary to the notion that the Spirit is some sort of impersonal force, the Scriptures reveal Him speaking and commanding (Mk 12:36 and 13:11; Acts 1:2, 1:16, 13:2, 20:23, 21:11, 28:25: Heb 3:7 and 10:15), teaching (Lk 12:12, 1 Cor 2:13), having an “opinion” (Acts 15:28), able to be lied to (Acts 5:3), sending out apostles (Acts 13:2-4), appointing bishops (Acts 20:28), bearing internal witness (Rom 8:16 and 9:1), forbidding movement (Acts 16:6), being grieved (Eph 4:30), being resisted (Acts 7:51), moving His servants (Lk 1:35 and 2:25; 2 Pet 1:21), and distributing gifts according to His will (1 Cor 12:11). Again, these descriptions involve willful intent and action ascribable only to a divine Person. Behold God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
From all of this, from the witness of the inerrant, infallible Word of the Living God there is but one reasonable conclusion that we can reach, if we are faithful to the text. There is one God. In this one Godhead, there are three divine Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There are no fewer, for the witness is clear. There are no more, for in Christ and His New Covenant is the fullness and finality of the revelation (Heb 1:1-4). Our Anglican forefathers, along with the fathers of the ancient, catholic church, knew quite well that the doctrine of the Trinity is most thoroughly biblical and most precisely rational. There are not three substances, for that would negate the unity of God so clearly revealed. There is not one Person and three Persons, for that would be a complete logical contradiction. No, there is one ineffable Substance, and, in the unity, there are three divine Persons. There is no other conclusion available for the true believer. To my brothers and sisters in the faith, to my fellow pastors, and to our theologians, I bid you before God to hold to this truth in all boldness, without compromise. It is not a doctrine hidden in the dusty volumes of seminaries and monastery towers. It is not a doctrine re- served for the erudite pillars of academia. It is a doctrine for God’s people, a doctrine which excites a response of sacred devotion. Let us declare it with all confidence from the rooftops, calling our people to a unified, undistracted, focused, complete devotion to the one God to whom we relate in the three Persons, to the Father who loves us, the Son who gave Himself for us, and the Spirit who preserves us unto the end of the age.