Dear Church Family,
Continuing in our Sunday school lessons in the Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC), this past Sunday, we covered questions 8-10. Here is a brief overview.
WLC 8 Are there more Gods than one?
A. There is but one only, the living and true God.
The fact that the Christian faith is monotheistic (the belief and worship of the one true God as He is revealed in the Scripture) is a foundational doctrine. It’s so important that this question and answer is also a part of the Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC 5). Our belief that there is only one living and true God is confirmed in both the Old and New Testaments (e.g., Deuteronomy 6:4; 1 Corinthians 8:4-6).
WLC 9 How many persons are there in the Godhead?
A. 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.
While there are technically other religions that may be classified as monotheistic (e.g., Judaism, Islam, Unitarianism), the Christian faith is unique in it’s understanding and belief that there are three Persons in the Godhead: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Of course, the word “Trinity” does not occur in the Bible; however, the New Testament is especially clear in teaching that all three Persons are “one true, eternal God.”
A later question in the WLC (Question 11) deals with how we know that the Son and the Holy Spirit are divine and equal to the Father. So, for now, we’ll just mention a few places in the New Testament where we find the doctrine of the Trinity explicitly or implicitly taught. At the beginning of His earthly ministry, when Jesus was baptized at the Jordan River, all three Persons of the Godhead are present and interacting with one another; the Spirit of God descended as a dove upon the Son of God and the voice of God the Father declared from heaven, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” (Matthew 3:16). In what we have come to call the Great Commission, Jesus instructs His Church to baptize in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). And, the Apostle Paul concludes his second letter to the church in Corinth with a Trinitarian benediction: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14).
WLC 10 What are the personal properties of the three persons in the Godhead?
A. 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.
In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis describes the difficulty for us to understand the Trinity as akin to two-dimensional beings trying to understand a three-dimensional being. Of all the illustrations that I have heard that try to explain the Trinity, I find this one to be the most helpful. As creatures there are just some things that we cannot understand or fathom about our Creator.
Yet, we do learn some things about the relationships and “personal properties” of the three persons of the Godhead in Scripture. This catechism question and answer speaks of two of these: (1) “It is proper to the Father to beget the Son, and to the Son to be begotten of the Father” (John 1:18; Hebrews 1:5-8 (Psalm 2:7)); and (2) “It is proper…to the Holy Ghost to proceed from the Father and the Son from all eternity” (John 15:26; Galatians 4:6).
The relationship of the God the Father to God the Son has historically been described as the “eternal generation of the Son.” Another way of saying this is to speak of how the Son of God is always being begotten of the Father. We say it this way because the Scriptures speak of the Son of God as “begotten of God the Father” (Hebrews 1:5; John 1:18) and that the Son of God is God (Hebrews 1:8; John 1:18) who therefore cannot change. This language can be confusing; if you’d like to read more about this doctrine, I recommend beginning in with article from Table Talk magazine: https://tabletalkmagazine.com/posts/what-is-eternal-generation/.
The understanding of the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the other two Persons of the Trinity was the source of controversy in the history of the Church. Mark Noll explains, “The Latin word filioque, which means ‘and from the Son,’ was a seemingly small, but highly divisive later addition to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. In AD 589 the Third Council of Toledo inserted filioque after the affirmation of faith in ‘the Holy Spirit…who proceeds from the Father.’ Gradually adopted by the Western church, this doctrine of the Holy Spirit proceeding from both the Father and the Son (‘double procession’) – as opposed to from the Father only (‘single procession’) – was a major factor in the later split between the Eastern and Western churches.” (Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, Third Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1997, 2000, 2012), 51).
The Eastern Church’s complaint against the addition of the filioque clause was based on two points: (1) in their view, the Western church had made a unilateral change to the Nicene Creed which was supposed to be universally ecumenical; (2) the East saw the addition of this clause as part of an effort to equalize relationships among the members of the Trinity and thus a grievous theological error. Thus, this was one of the items that led to the split between Eastern and Western Christianity in 1054 A.D.
With this short survey of these catechism questions and answers, the difficulty for us to understand and explain the doctrine of the Trinity and the relationship of the three Persons of the Godhead to one another is quite apparent. That is why it is important for us to be careful to remain within the “guard rails” of Scripture, to not try and say more (or less) than God’s Word does on these matters. Speculation will only lead us astray and cause us to have a distorted understanding of God and potentially lead us into heresy. When that happens, we risk worshiping a god of our own imagination and not the God of the Bible. And so, we must remember and take to heart the lesson that we learned from a previous question of the catechism: “The Holy scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the word of God, the only rule of faith and obedience” (WLC 3).
The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch