Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 8 - The Arrangement of the Twelve Articles
Question 24: How are these articles divided?
Answer 24: Into three parts:
the first is about God the Father and our creation;
the second about God the Son and our redemption;
the third about God the Holy Spirit and our sanctification.
How are the Twelve Articles divided?
That is not a difficult question. It is about a certain classification and anyone who can read would be able to discover the arrangement. Faith is not necessary for that, just as it is not necessary to believe in order to solve a simple crossword puzzle. The Bible does not need to be involved. It should therefore not surprise us that not a single Bible text is mentioned below this answer!
But is that not strange for a confession that wants to draw from God’s Word?
In this way however, we are not doing proper justice to the Catechism. Someone who intends to summarize a long story needs to know that story through and through. The Christian church has packaged the wide panorama of the gospel and narrowed it down to what we call the Twelve Articles. But the church could only do this because it understood the deep meaning of the gospel. The same applies no less when it now divides the number of twelve into three main parts. In no more and no less than three short sentences an overview is given of the complete word of God. It is about God the Father and our creation, about God the Son and our redemption, and about God the Holy Spirit and our sanctification. This brilliant short answer about a division testifies to a very deep and mature understanding of Scripture. Therefore the church does not just give a simple division here, but it professes its faith in what the gospel means to its members.
A Difficult Subject
In the gospel we meet God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. In doing so, we encounter a subject that is mind-boggling. That would not be the case if we were just allowed to add up as we normally do. But then we arrive at three gods — and that is not allowed under any circumstances. There is one God! Yet three times God is mentioned and three times a different Person is meant, because the Father is an Other than the Son and the Son is an Other than the Spirit. No matter how we twist or turn it, we simply cannot figure it out with our human math skills.
Should we then regard God’s Trinity exclusively as a problem? And is the complaint justified that there is so little to grasp here and that we are only embarrassed by it? That would decidedly be the wrong conclusion. All man-made attempts to solve the Trinity are to be rejected. But let us be careful that we do not unintentionally shrink the rich content of Lord’s Day 8 into a mystery that no one can solve it anyway in a satisfactory manner.
This Lord’s Day does not deal with the theoretical problem of the divine Trinity, but confesses how rich we are with this triune God. This teaching gives to earthly people of flesh and blood the solution to the three great questions of life: Who gives us food, drink, health, and fresh air? Who takes care of our creation? The Father! Who frees us from all evil powers, and takes care of our redemption? The Son! Who radically changes us for the better and takes care of our sanctification? The Holy Spirit!
In order to care for and redeem our total existence, God comes to us as Father, as Son and as Holy Spirit. That is why it is rightly said of this confession that it contains the heart of the Christian religion.1
How the Doctrine of the Trinity Developed
The fact that the Twelve Articles are classified according to the doctrine of the Trinity or of “the God who is three-in-one” is not because people saw this doctrine emerge as a complete picture in the Bible. It was done differently. During the first centuries of its existence, the New Testament church needed to express clearly what it thought of the Christ.2 The key question was this: is the Lord Jesus God from God? In other words: someone Other than the Father, yet not essentially different from him? If that were not beyond doubt, then the mighty words and deeds of the man Jesus would not be those of God himself. Then we would still be lost! For no one could make us into children of God but he who is the real and essential Son of the Father, as Athanasius said3
But those who confess that Jesus is God are then faced with the question: how can that be? The Son is God and the Father is God and yet there is one God. And so people began to think about the relationship of the Father to the Son and perhaps a little later also about the relationship to the Holy Spirit. Theoretical questions? Perhaps a problem for hobbyists? Are these merely matters from earlier centuries? No! Right from the beginning the question was whether Jesus was really God. If he were not then his great sacrifice would have been in vain and insufficient to save us. For only One who was also God would be able to save us. This had everything to do with the foundation of faith. For Christianity everything depended on the deity of Christ and on the Trinity. It is still the same today.
The oldest known result of the struggle around the doctrine of the Trinity is found in the Nicene Creed. The Council of Nicea adopted this in 325. That is why it is also known as the Nicene Creed. However, the form in which we have it was established later on, at the Council of Constantinople in 381.
This council added something to it: it was the confession that the Holy Spirit also is true God.4 Why this addition?
First of all, it is because the Bible gives him this divine honour without question — and also because our own salvation is at stake. Imagine that the Spirit was not God but a lower intermediary. Then the renewal, which he brings to our hearts, would not be God’s own work. He would have transferred it to a creature. But then such a renewal would always be insufficient. Only God himself can turn born haters of him into worshippers! And that is what happens. For the Spirit who works in us is indeed none other than God himself.
We find this doctrine formulated in greater detail in the Athanasian Creed. It is assumed that Athanasius himself did not formulate it (he died in 373) and that it dates from the fifth century at the earliest. 5 This confession does not offer some dry theory or mind-boggling brain exercises. It rejects such a serious misunderstanding in advance. Both the beginning and the end speak of the catholic (commonly-held) faith, and those who want to be saved will need to hold on to it.
Question 25: Since there is only one God,
why do you speak of three persons,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
Answer 25: Because God has so revealed himself in his Word
that these three distinct persons
are the one, true, eternal God.
Three Persons and yet One God
The church came to recognize ever more clearly that there are three Persons. Yet in the meantime it did not question its belief in the one God. Any thought of such a thing as if there were three gods would have meant a deadly relapse into heathenism. This explains the church’s intransigence on this point. Never would it take a step back in the direction of pagan polytheism!
But on what did the church base this unshakeable conviction?
First of all, it is grounded in the Old Testament. The faith of ancient Israel was summed up in the well-known Shema (= listen/hear). It started like this: “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God; the LORD is one” (or: “the LORD alone”) (Deut. 6:4). It was instilled into Israel to love the LORD alone and no one else.6 Behind this appeal there was the deep conviction that there is one God. This was drilled into the minds of the Jews. The Shema was regularly heard in the synagogue and in daily prayers at home. Many a pious Jew has died with these words on his lips.7
That there is only one God was therefore an indisputable fact even for the early Christian church—which consisted largely of Jews. Their faith hinged on this confession. Hands off the Shema! That was the one side.
But equally, the cornerstone of their faith was the confession that their Lord Jesus was God. And no less was the Holy Spirit God: three Persons, yet one God.
Did this put them into a position that would be impossible to defend? It has been argued that the tender faith in the living God increasingly shrivelled into some mathematical annoyance of 1=3 and 3=1.8 But whoever claims this has not understood the deepest meaning of the church.
The church was aware that it could only speak of these things in a stumbling way. It never gave a forced solution to an unsolvable problem. The core of the Christian faith is not that 1=3, but: the one God is Father, Son, and Spirit, and seeks to be worshipped that way.
The church rejected all attempts to make the mystery more transparent. It went down deep ravines. It had to deal with the idea that there was actually only one divine Person: the Father as God. Jesus would only be a special prophet who was so filled with God’s Spirit that in the end God adopted him as his Son. And the Holy Spirit would only be some power that emanated from God. The church rejected this theory radically.
It also rejected the notion that God alternately played the role of the Father, the Son and the Spirit. He may therefore always be one and the same Person, but he reveals himself three times from a different angle. We would say of a human being in such a situation that he wears a different hat on each occasion. In creation he uses the guise of the Father, in redemption that of the Son, in sanctification that of the Spirit. Instead of three different Persons some people spoke of three different disguises. In essence, this would mean that we would encounter a disguised or masked God and not God as he really is, namely Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Likewise, and after a fierce struggle, the church rejected Arius’ idea that Jesus was placed somewhere below the Father. He was not quite God and not quite man — an in-between being. Nor would the Spirit be fully God, but only the Father.
This short overview can already drive a person crazy.
However, we really cannot avoid it because similar ideas and solutions are still being defended. We need only think of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who follow Arius and rob Jesus of his divine honour. We need to understand clearly that this is not about some squabbling between theologians, but about the basis of our faith—and about what it expects.
In each of the three Persons we are dealing with God himself. He is one and undivided. That applies also to his love for us! Father, Son and Spirit surround us as one wall of love. We can only marvel that these three Persons, perfectly complete within each other, give themselves all Three as one God in love to rebellious people.
That is the surprising message of Lord’s Day 8.
And Yet — Three Different Persons
How do the Father and the Son and the Spirit differ?
The cautious answer is: in that one is Father, the other Son, and the third Spirit. Their names indicate that they are truly distinguishable from each other. They are not interchangeable or intermixed. Each of the Three has his own distinctive characteristics. Article 8 of the Belgic Confession then also characterizes these as incommunicable properties. The Father has characteristics that the Son or the Spirit do not possess. And vice versa. And therefore: there are three Persons. But at the same time they completely and, as it were, perfectly penetrate each other. So completely that in the Father we are dealing at the same time with the Son and with the Spirit. Therefore Jesus says: he who has seen Me has seen the Father; “I am in the Father and the Father is in Me.”9 And therefore: one God.
The Trinity and the Bible
We have outlined how it came about that the church in the first centuries thought more and more deeply about the doctrine of the Trinity and how it developed that doctrine. It could not do otherwise and it should not do otherwise. It was about the foundations of the Christian faith.
Many may say: Granted — but then this doctrine as we know it today is certainly a product of human thought processes. Because nowhere does the Bible say in so many words that there are three Persons and yet one God. That is something from a later period. Often such people will acknowledge that especially the New Testament gives hints in that direction, but nothing more. The doctrine of the three Persons and the one Being would not directly correspond to the Bible itself.10 Others speak of an interpretation of the Bible 11 or they claim that there is a qualitative distance between the Bible and the confession on this matter.12 Is that true? Or does it contain an element of truth? Is there really a significant distance between Lord’s Day 8 and the Bible?
It can hardly be otherwise than that there has been a certain development. H. Bavinck rightly wrote that the Bible “does not yet, of course, offer us an elaborated dogma on the Trinity’’.13 For example, it happens only once that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are mentioned in that order and with those names.14 And the church has used terms such as “person” and “being” because Scripture did not provide these. Yet the church did not do anything else but repeat the Scriptures. What it did not know was not supplemented with its own ideas but left unanswered. However, what it did find in the Bible was put down with full conviction in her confession. Therefore, the Catechism declares without a hint of doubt that “God has so revealed himself in his Word.”
Of course, the Catechism can cite Bible texts. There are eighteen references mentioned, and that is no doubt only a small selection. Particularly the command of Christ to baptize is such a crystal clear testimony that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are the one God in whose name a person is baptized. Yet God does not only appear as Triune in a number of separate texts. He reveals himself in this way throughout his word, even though this is not always explicitly stated. One example: the doctrine of the Trinity is not deliberately addressed anywhere in the book of Revelation. But it completely accepts that Jesus is God together with the Father. This could not be otherwise because he is worshipped as the Lamb together with God.15 And this happens in a book of the Bible that expressly forbids worshipping anyone other than God.16 The Lamb is thus equal to God.
At the same time, Jesus is also one with the Spirit. This too is not explicitly stated anywhere in this book of the Bible, but when Jesus is about to conclude his letters to the seven churches, he suddenly dictates: “he who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches”. The letters of the Son are at the same time the letters of the Spirit. What Jesus is saying, the Spirit says. We will leave it at this and refer to what “the Holy Scriptures teach us” in regard to this doctrine as confessed in Article 8 of the Belgic Confession.
What Do You Gain By Believing This?
Believing in the triune God does not mean that we simply submit to the bare assumption that 1=3. It means that we accept with wonder that in God there are three Persons who all Three jointly are involved in our salvation. At the baptismal font, all Three are present.
We certainly are in good hands!
These hands work together.
Triune God, to You be all the glory.