Wednesday, November 22, 2017

WCF LC Commentary

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Westminster Larger Catechism #8, 9, 10, and 11

Q8. Are there more Gods than one?

A8. There is but one only, the living and true God.

Q9. How many persons are there in the God head?

A9. There be three persons in the Godhead, The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one true, eternal God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory; although distinguished by their personal properties.

Q10. What are the personal properties of the three persons in the God head?

A10. It is proper to the Father to beget the Son, and to the Son to be begotten of the Father, and to the Holy Ghost to proceed from the Father and the Son from all eternity.

Q11. How doth it appear that the Son and the Holy Ghost are God equal with the Father?

A11. The scriptures manifest that the Son and the Holy Ghost are God equal with the Father, ascribing unto them such names, attributes, works, and worship, as are proper to God only.

References: Deut.6:4; 1 Cor.8:4-6; 1 John 5:7; Mt.3:16-17; Mt.28:19; Heb. 1:5-6, 8; John 1:14,18; John 15:16; Isa.6:3,5,8; John 12:41; 1 John 5:20; Acts 5:3-4; John 1:1; Isa.9:6; 1 Cor.2:10-11; Col.1:16; 2 Cor.8:14

I have chosen to deal with questions 8 through 11 as a unit because the answers are so interwoven I think it is impossible to do justice to either question by itself without using terminology that could be the seed of gross error. While we can deal with knowledge of God, both general (as in nature) and special (that revealed in Scripture) without tampering with the doctrine of the Trinity, I do not think we can begin to understand God is one God and three persons by attempting to understand each person alone. While the proof texts are abundantly clear as to how the Divines could make these statements, they are not that clear to most. The Divines use some strange twists in structure of their answers to make sure they don’t step outside Scripture in answering these questions one by one. Their choice of words were to make sure of the preciseness of the statement, and not always the best grammatically. At places they seem to present two things at once that can lead to confusion to those who have not studied the Bible extensively. For example answer ten appears to create an order or subjection within the Godhead, while question eleven a few words later declares all to be one God, and equal in all things. One could want to throw up their hands and scream, aw come on fellas be consistent, are they or are they not equal?

Of all the statements presented in the LC, these are perhaps the most crucial for us to understand, for it is from lack of the proper understanding of these questions that almost every heresy to ever exist came. All ancient heresies attack the Trinity or the deity of Jesus Christ. This is one of the first issues that the Jehovah’s Witness will spring on an unwary Christian, daring them to explain why they can believe in a three headed God, and asking for the verse in the Bible where they can find the word Trinity. Of course no such verse exists, and most can’t explain the Trinity where an unbeliever can understand it. The average Christian becomes frustrated at this point and becomes angry and belligerent, or opens the gate of doubt about God in their own hearts.

First off this is an issue of faith and has nothing to do with salvation. This is not the starting place for a Gospel presentation. Our beloved TULIP does a much better job of that. This doctrine will only be received by faith and understood with the Holy Spirit providing the proper light to do so. I believe that allowing non-believers to draw us into such arguments is what Christ had in mind when he spoke of casting your pearls before swine. Arguments with non-regenerate man prove nothing and win no souls for the kingdom. This is the human side of us demanding a perfect apologetic for every verse in the Bible, when in truth not one verse can be properly understood nor applied apart from the indwelling Spirit.

In dealing with subordination within the Godhead the divines choose to speak about “properties” that are personal to each person. This is about as clear as mud to the average person. And they leave the deity of both the Son and Spirit relying on Scripture proofs, without comment. Not a bad place to leave anything standing, and more than sufficient for this cause.

Let us see if we can bring some order and clarity to the doctrine of the Trinity. I have found that Calvin’s treatment of the subject is superior as a whole to any before or after him. First and foremost the Trinity cannot be divided in anyway. God Himself declared “Hear o’ Israel, the Lord your God is one.” Yet in the first verses of Genesis we find God spoken of in the plural and existing in community as we are introduced to the Word and Spirit, so we can conclude that there exists in the Godhead three persons. Over the years I have heard this spoken of as persons, personalities, and presented in a dozen different analogies, that would supposedly make sense of it all. God declares Himself to be incomprehensible, and this is one such area where our finite minds cannot come to a place of peace by using human terminology, for we have nothing that even resembles the concept. I remember vividly the triangle diagram the professor used in seminary that demonstrated that only by being inside that triangle could you see all three persons of the Trinity and from the outside, no matter where you stood, you could see no more than two of the persons. He thought he had the secret. In my mind I sat there and said, yes I can see all three, but I knew this already, and your three sided diagram only separates them, not explain the unity thereof. I was no more satisfied by the attempts of others.

The first requirement then is faith. God has said this is the way it is, and that I can accept. However I think we need to understand it a bit better than this. That which we do not understand we are indifferent toward or ignore altogether. The doctrine of the Trinity is too central to Scripture and the Christian faith to afford either of these. Calvin chose to call the whole (unity) essence, and the three persons subsistence. This word can mean existence or maintenance of existence. He therefore says that the divine essence has existed from all eternity and within this essence we will find the three subsistences existing from all eternity. The word eternity is crucial here, for just as we can understand why it is important that God have neither beginning nor end, when we make the Son and Spirit co-equal with God, they too must have this attribute. God existed before history or time in eternity and from this eternity the three were one in essence, while maintaining their personal subsistence. In this sense then we can have subordination within the Godhead; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exercsing different personalities, but ever one in unity of essence or substance and co-equal in all things. Here we rise above the Arians and the error of Sabellians, not denying the existence of the three, giving all three their distinct existence from eternity without beginning, yet not so co-mingling the three that they are one and the same in reality.

Confusing? Join the party then and know you aren’t alone. It was for this cause that Calvin tried to be so precise, and the Divines were so careful in the selection of their words. Grab the essential truth that God is one, and the Son and Spirit are co-equal to God in essence or substance, two words the early father’s used somewhat interchangeably. Where you have one of the Godhead, God exists in His glorious fullness. You cannot separate them, nor assign each a mode of operation apart from the other two. For we do not have a law giving God, a loving Son, and gift giving Spirit. The three exist in perfect unity (oneness) and while there is subordination, it is so in perfection that where the Son is, so is God and the Spirit. Thus Christ could say, “if you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” Being equal to God, He could accept sacrifice and Worship, yet say “only the Father knows.” Christ could say ” I lay my life down and I take it up again.” Yet we read elsewhere that He was raised in power and glory by the Holy Spirit. So while the fullness of the Godhead is present wherever one subsistence is, this doesn’t deny the distinct personality of either “person” of the Trinity, nor like some co-mingle the three for the cause of unity.

From this foundation I think we can perhaps grasp the simple eloquence then of the Divines, and like the leper find that the muddy waters have washed us clean. We dare to declare with the church fathers from the beginning God is one, existing in three persons, and understand what we have said. Calvin didn’t like the analogies used to demonstrate this principle, and I agree. Those outside my professor’s triangle will not understand, and those inside by faith, can accept the more technical descriptions such as that presented here. The catechism proclaims, “God is spirit and has not a body like mine.” This spiritual attribute of God coupled with His incomprehensibility makes it far too deep and dark for the finite mind of man to dare take it further.

Though one of the longer chapters in the “Institutes,” I recommend all read Book one, Chapter thirteen of the Institutes. It runs twenty pages in length, but well worth the time and effort. This is a crucial doctrine for understanding the rest of our Reformed faith. In holding each section here to two pages or less, I cannot, were I ever capable, to completely articulate this doctrine. Here we find the foundation needed to understand “covenant theology.”

What of the TULIP and these questions? One of the goals I set when I under took the writing of this commentary was to tie each question to one or more petals in the TULIP. This is a goal that hasn’t been met with each question. Some applications are abundantly clear, others require more stretching than I am willing to do. I think this proves that any time we take a man made standard and try to apply it to God’s abundant Word of life, we will find such a filter lacking. So for these questions I quietly pass on the attempt to make the connection.

by Dr. Chuck Baynard

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