November 19, 2007

God’s Holiness

Category: Theology - Trinity :: Permalink

Too often, our systematic theologies and even our Reformed confessions of faith begin with a generic and non-Trinitarian discussion of God and then include a section on the Trinity later, before going on to other matters.

So, for instance, the Belgic Confession has an article on God, who is described as “one only simply and spiritual Being,” who is “eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, almighty, perfectly wise, just, good, and the overflowing fountain of all good” (Art. 1).  Then there are several articles on God’s revelation (Arts. 2-7) before we get to a discussion of the Trinity (Arts. 8-11), and then we’re on to creation and providence and so forth. 

While what the Belgic Confession says is true enough, its description of God in the first article is non-Trinitarian.  It could even be a unitarian description, since it “defines” God without mentioning that He is three Persons.  It emphasizes His oneness but doesn’t breathe a word about His threeness.  By itself, it is sub-Christian.

Of course, this article of the Belgic Confession isn’t by itself.  It’s accompanied by Articles 8-11, which are explicitly Trinitarian and Christian.  But still, the structure of the Confession raises the question whether it’s possible or desirable to discuss or describe the God of the Bible in generic terms without mentioning the fact that He is Triune.

The Westminster Confession of Faith starts with God’s revelation and then has a chapter entitled “Of God and of the Holy Trinity.”  That’s better than the Belgic, but still in this chapter we hear first about the “one only, living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection,” and so forth.  In fact, we have two subsections about “God” before we hear that “in the unity of the Godhead there be three persons.”

Again, the initial “definition” or description of God is non-Trinitarian.  I don’t say that the Trinity is tacked on as an afterthought, but it doesn’t play any role in the basic description of God or of His attributes.  That is to say, wisdom and holiness and freedom and grace and mercy and goodness and truth and all those other things which the Confession ascribes to God are not presented in any Trinitarian way.

Much the same thing could be demonstrated from any number of systematic theologies.  First, we hear about “God” and His attributes are presented.  Then we hear that this “God” who has already been described and “defined” is also Triune.  And then we go on to examine His works.  The structure gives the impression, doesn’t it, that we can first know who God is and what He is like and then add to that knowledge the fact that this same God is also three Persons, but that additional information doesn’t inform or affect our consideration of God’s attributes.

But what if we started from the beginning, not simply with the one “God” but with the God of the Bible who is both one and three, equally one and three?  What if we started with the Trinity and then understood and described all of God’s attributes in terms of the Trinity?

Consider the simple biblical statement that God is love.  What would that mean for a God who is not triune?  Perhaps we could say that a non-triune God could love His creation, but that love would depend on the existence of the creation.  Without the creation, there would be no love and it would not be eternally true, then, that “God is love.”  Only of our God, the triune God, can it be said “God is love,” for the Father has always loved the Son and Spirit, the Son has always loved the Father and the Spirit, and the Spirit has always loved the Father and the Son.  In our theology, therefore, the attribute of “love” must be defined and discussed in terms of the Trinity.

What about holiness?  I’ve learned a lot in this regard from Peter Leithart, and my thoughts in this blog entry owe a lot to his reflections.  They were sparked, in fact, by this old post on his blog:

I work on the assumption that all the attributes of God are Trinitarian, relational attributes. How does this work with an attribute like “holiness,” which, by most definitions, describes God as wholly un-related? The key is to notice that the language of holiness in Scripture describes things and persons claimed by God, or places where God is specially present. Holiness as a moral attribute describes a life in conformity with one’s being possessed, consistent with the claim that God has laid upon us. This can be applied to the inherent holiness of God: To say that the Father is holy is to say He is possessed by the Son and lives in conformity with that possession. Likewise, the Son is holy because He is possessed and claimed by the Father and lives in conformity with that claim. The Spirit is of both Father and Son, and thus is holy. There might also be some connection between notions of “holy place,” where God dwells in glory, and perichoresis, the mutual “dwelling-in” of Father, Son, and Spirit. Each person is “sanctified” by the indwelling of the other persons.

Leithart’s comments are a helpful start, but it seems to me that we need to do more work, not least in our systematic theologies, to make the Trinity central to all of our thinking about God.  And if we ever write a new confession of faith or revise the old ones, let’s put the Trinity up front.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:53 pm | Discuss (1)

One Response to “God’s Holiness”

  1. Lee Says:

    I would like to point out that the Heidelberg Catechism begins Trinitarian. Question one mentions Jesus, the Father, and the Spirit in that order. Although a formal discussion of the Trinity does not occur until Question 25, the Trinity is assumed and referenced in the earlier questions such as Q.1,8,17,18,23,24 at least. And so while you are probably right about many systematics and confessions, there is at least one major exception. Maybe it has to do with the difference between traditional Reformed Scholasticism and Reformed Pietism. But, the Heidelberg, I think, begin Trinitarian, explains things in a Trinitarian way, and then reminds you that God is one. It is one of the reasons I prefer it.

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