Trinitarianism: H.C. Lord's Day 8

Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 8

Q 24. How are these articles divided?
A 24. Into three parts: God the Father and our creation; God the Son and our deliverance; and God the Holy Spirit and our sanctification.

Q 25. Since there is only one divine being, why do you speak of three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
A 25. Because that is how God has revealed himself in his Word: these three distinct persons are one, true, eternal God.

In today’s world, discussions about ‘doctrine’ can often be an instant turn-off to anyone who wants to talk about matters of faith.  However, it is the doctrine of the Trinity that makes Christianity distinctly Christian.  Trinitarian theology is a foundational part of our beliefs; it is also probably one of the most confusing.  And, while certainly does not need to have a perfect understanding of the nature of the Trinity to be saved, it still is an important aspect of who we are and even how we get here.

Given it’s confusing and somewhat complicated nature, the doctrine of the Trinity has been subject to a number of false understandings and heresies over the 2,000-year existence of the Christian religion.  While that may seem to be of little consequence to you and me, the work that has been done to clarify this doctrine has a direct and very real impact on what we believe about God.

Because of this, it is important that we try to clarify what it is that we believe about the Trinity.  The doctrine of the Trinity can be summarized in seven statements:

  1. There is only one God
  2. The Father is God
  3. The Son is God
  4. The Holy Spirit is God
  5. The Father is not the Son
  6. The Son is not the Holy Spirit
  7. The Holy Spirit is not the Father

All of the creeds that we have read over the past week, all the theological jargon and other religious writings of Christianity have to do with safeguarding each one of these statements.  More than that, though, they must safeguard the statement without denying any one of the other six.  Some would say that this sounds like a relatively easy task, however, over the years, a number of people and groups have fallen into heresies that inadvertently or purposefully do just that.

The Athanasian Creed, which we have been a part of our reading this last week, states the Trinitarian belief structure like this:

Now this is the [universal] faith: We worship one God in trinity and the Trinity in unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the divine being.  For the Father is one person, the Son is another, and the Spirit is still another.  But the deity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one, equal in glory, coeternal in majesty.

The original translation of this Creed uses the word “essence” rather than “divine being,” indicating and affirming the single ‘Godness’ of God while also acknowledging the personhood of each member of the Trinity.  When we hear the word ‘person,’ we should think of an individual that is distinct from the others.  Again, while somewhat confusing, this is important because we worship One God (not three Gods) in three persons (one being).  Each is equally and uniquely God.

So, how has this gotten confused over the years?  Here are a number of ways and at least a few reasons why they are important.

Monarchianism – Emphasizes God as being one person.  It suggests that the Son and the Spirit subsist in the divine essence as impersonal attributes, not distinct or divine persons.  This is an attempt to better understanding the relationship between God the Father and God the Son.  However, it creates other problems in faith and understanding, specifically around the cross and the atonement.  If God is one person, and God died for our sins, then God is all of the sudden not eternal, having died and been dead for three days.  In addition, if it was not God that died, but rather an attribute of God, then the divinity of Christ comes into question and the sufficiency of Christ’s work on the cross is either lessened or completely lost.

Modalism – Suggests that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as simply different names for the same God acting in different roles.  This is where we get the idea of the analogy of “water, vapor, and ice” as a description.  Though well intentioned, it denies the distinct persons of the Trinity and kind of labels God as a divine being that suffers from multiple personalities.  Again this is a denial of the three unique persons existing in one divine being.  If God is just one person/being and He died, it denies the eternal and infinite nature of God.  He cannot die.  This means that either God did die, making Him vulnerable, or He did not die as Christ on the cross, meaning that the atonement and salvation purchased by the blood of Christ is invalid as He was not God and therefore a human, tainted by sin like the rest of us.

Arianism – Denies the full deity of Christ.  It states that, though Jesus is the Son of God, He was created by the Father at a certain point in time, thus making Him less than the Father and subordinate to Him.  Thus Jesus is not truly God and therefore not a person of the Trinity.  This is an obvious error whose effects echo that of those above.  We believe that Jesus is both fully God (a person of the Trinity) and fully human.  He has to be both in order for His life and death to accomplish salvation.  He must be fully human to live the human life, to keep the law of God, and for His death to be in the place of humans, taking the punishment we deserve.  He must be fully God in order to live a sinless life and in order to be able to take on the punishment and wrath of God.  If Christ is not God, all of this falls apart.  Arianism also borders on the assertion that there is more than one God.

Tritheism – This is exactly like it sounds: tri (meaning three) – theism (belief in God.  This asserts that Christians actually believe in three Gods.  This is a direct contradiction of Scripture which speaks specifically to the fact that God is one (Deuteronomy 6:4) and the notion of monotheism, a foundational principle in all three major Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam).

One other thing that may be of some consequence to this discussion is the common argument that this doesn’t matter because you will never find the word “trinity” or specific mention of this doctrine in the Bible.  While this is technically true, Scripture is repute with references to both the unity of God as well as the diversity of the persons within the divine being.  The number of references to Jesus as being God as well as those referencing God the Father as God should be enough to convince us that there is more than one person in the divine being.  The Holy Spirit is also mentioned and used interchangeably with the word “God” many times.  Many are the suggestions of the plurality of persons within the divine being as well.

In closing, a common question comes up in this discussion, “why does this matter?”  It matters for creation because, unlike the many gods of other creation mythologies, God did not need to go outside Himself to create the universe.  A single person, creating the world “out of love” doesn’t make much sense as we know and understand love within relationships.  God would have had to create the world to understand love or to receive love making Him fairly similar to the ancient gods of other cultures.  Because God exists eternally in the Trinitarian relationship, God was able to create the universe out of the overflow of love found there, not needing something from the created order for Himself (God is self-sufficient).



2 Peter 2 – Wallowing in the Mud

Read 2 Peter 2

Peter warns of false teachers, those who were among the church and those on the outside that were spreading heresy, false teachings among the community of faith.  Paul also warned of this when he wrote, urging the people to hold onto what they had learned in the truth of the Gospel.

False teaching was very prevalent in their time.  A number of different versions of Christian teaching were being put forth in churches throughout the Roman Empire.  Sometimes, I would guess, it was hard for them to decipher truth from falsehood.

Today’s church has this same problem.  There are a number of different groups that are at work within the church trying to use the Gospel message for their own personal gain.  It is easy for us to spot the more obvious heresies and false teachings.  Other religions and those who blatantly deny Christ are Lord and Savior are obvious.  We must be careful about the less obvious ones; they are much more dangerous becuase they are insidious, creeping gradually into our faith and belief structure.

So if these false beliefs are dangerous and sneeky, the obvious question that Peter adresses here is “who do we recognize them?”  First and foremost, we must always be checking what people say against Scripture itself.  If teachings fall contrary to what the whole of Scripture reveals to be true, then it is wrong.  The other way that Peter talks about here is by looking at the conduct of the teacher.  He speaks to these false teachers as being depraved, seeking to exploit, greedy, and arrogant.

Peter concludes this chapter by speaking a humorous and yet all to real truth with regards to false teachers; “a dog returns to its vomit.”  When it comes to false teachings, there is one thing that will always be a clue: when push comes to shove, false teaching always returns to the strength of the argument or some human experience, not on fundamental truths that we find in Scripture.



1 Timothy 4 – Teach These Things

Read 1 Timothy 4

The persistence of false teachers and false teachings within the church is not limited to the church in Ephesus.  Therefore Paul’s warnings are also not limited to just the church in Ephesus.  Throughout the history of God’s people, there have always been those that have fallen away, led astray by the lies of the enemy.

Satan has never stopped trying to infiltrate the flock, offering promise after promise that turns out to be deception.  A fruit that will make you like god, “deeper knowledge” that differs from Scripture but is somehow more insightful, a “true” way to salvation that you have to work for, the allure of power, wealth, influence… there are so many ways that the devil lies his way into our hearts.

Paul warns Timothy to be on his guard for these things in the same way he warns the Ephesian church to guard against the attacks of the enemy by putting on the full armor of God.  Knowing the true enemy is half of the battle… and for Timothy and the church in Ephesus, the enemy is not the false teachers but rather the deceiver and the deceit.

How is Timothy to counter these things?  Paul implores him to “hold on” to what he has learned and to continue to teach Biblical truths.  Don’t get side-tracked with meaningless rabbit holes or empty small talk.  Hold fast to the truth of the Gospel for it is the only truth that can truly set you free.

Many are the ways that the enemy will try to stop us.  Paul recognizes that Timothy is young, but youth does not negate God’s work in and through his life.  He has been given this change, as have we all, and we must not allow the poison of the enemy get in our way.  We must give ourselves wholly to the God, persevering through all trial, and continuing to preach the Gospel that all may hear and be saved.



Introduction to 1 Timothy

Paul’s first letter to Timothy is the first of three books known as the “pastoral epistles.”  These letters get their name due to a large amount of administrative work that Paul does in them.

After leaving Ephesus on his fourth missionary journey, Paul likely realized that he would not be back to the Ephesian community for some time (if ever).  He then writes this letter to Timothy, to work out his charge to Timothy as well as to refute some heresy that had cropped up in the church in Ephesus.

Timothy was one of Paul’s beloved traveling companions who lived in Lystra.  He joined Paul on his second missionary journey and helped Paul to found the churches in at Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea.

Though his father was Greek, his mother and grandmother were devout Jews and brought up Timothy.  As such, he was very familiar with the Old Testament Scriptures, which Paul uses to teach Timothy about Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.

In his first letter, Paul gives some specific directions to Timothy regarding church leadership, laying out some of the details and qualifications for Elders and Deacons.  These words have given the church a blueprint for the role of these offices of ministry throughout the last 2,000 years.

Also in this letter, Paul addresses issues that have to do with the public worship of the church as well as dealing with false teachers and false teachings as well.  There were a number of different groups that were seeking to infiltrate the church and poison its teachings.  Paul also deals with the treatment of a variety of people groups within the church as well as a number of miscellaneous subjects that churches deal with, all while encouraging them to give honor and glory to God and live as a testimony to the Gospel message.



Colossians 1 – Supremacy

Read Colossians 1

Paul opens his letter to the church in Colossae with joy and thanksgiving for the work that God is doing in the community of faith there.  Quickly, however, he gets down to business, even in his greeting, reminding them of the enormity and simplicity of the Gospel that is the foundation of their faith.

He does this on purpose, knowing that one of the things that they have been struggling with is a number of false teachings in which things are being added to the message of Christ.  Far too often it seems that things are being added to the simple Gospel message…

Yes, Christ died for you… but you have to follow this tradition…

Sure, Jesus forgives your sins… but you have to have special knowledge for salvation…

Of course God will save you… if you avoid all the good things the world has to offer…

These were a few of the false teachings that were slipping into this relatively young church, and things that often slip into our own practice of faith as well.

The issue?  Disorientation.  As we are following Christ, keeping on the “straight and narrow” road, other things in life pop up, whatever they may be, and our straight and narrow path becomes a bit zig-zaggy.

This is true with our faith as well.  We claim Jesus Christ as Lord of our lives, but as we press on toward the goal, other objectives seem to enter in.  Sometimes they are things we are told we *have* to do (legalism, traditionalism, etc.), or maybe things we *have* to believe.  In any case, our faith becomes “the Gospel and…”  Sadly, most of these things start out as good parts of our lives, things that help to direct us toward God, and end up becoming idols in and of themselves.

Paul, however, makes sure from the get go that his readers in Colossae understand that with Jesus Christ there is no “and” to the Gospel.  He is supreme in all things, being both equal with God and the only one who can reconcile us to God.  Salvation comes from no one  and nothing else.



Introduction to Colossians

The book of Colossians is another one of Paul’s letters written to a church while imprisoned in Rome.  While the city of Colossae was not a very major city at the during the 1st century A.D., it was unique in that the church itself was started by Epaphras, a convert from the city of Ephesus.  This may make the church in Colossae one of the first church plants recorded in the Bible.

Because the church itself was young and its leadership rather inexperienced, it fell prey to the inroads of heresies, false teachings both from outside and within the Christian community.  While these are never directly described, it is possible to understand them based on what Paul is talking about.  The NIV study Bible lays them out in this way:

  1. Ceremonialism / Traditionalism – strict rules about eating, drinking, and religious festivals
  2. Asceticism – avoiding earthly forms of pleasure for religious reasons
  3. Worship of Angels – Belief that there were certain spirits from God through whom we approach Him.
  4. Devaluing the person and work of Christ – placing other things (like all of these other heresies) as being more important that the life and work of Jesus Christ.
  5. Secret Knowledge (pre-gnostic thinking) – a heresy that developed into a full-blown sect of Christianity, that somehow the way to God was through “secret knowledge” and “hidden secrets”
  6. Reliance on human wisdom and tradition – a topic Paul often addresses in his writing, certainly not unique to the church in Colossae.

Paul begins his writing specifically addressing the preeminence of Christ.  Placing Him above all things, in the rightful position in the world and in our lives and Lord and Savior solves a good portion of the heretical problems that the church in Colossae was facing.  When we understand this and our lives are oriented around it, we recognize the adequacy of Christ in all things and also realize our own empty weakness.



Day 357: 2 Peter 1-3; Trouble from Within

The second letter that is attributed to the Apostle Peter also contains encouragement to resist persecution, yet this time the main focus of his letter is about the trouble that is coming to the Church from within.  At the time of its writing, there were a great many false teachers and false teachings that had arisen from within the church, people that, as Peter says, had taken the writings of Paul and the Scriptures (which at that time would have been the Old Testament and possibly some of the Gospel writings) and twisted them.  These teachings were  fraught with teaching that only leads to their personal gain.  Peter writes:

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed.  And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.

These two themes, persecution from outside the church and false teachings from within, have been something that comes up time and time again in the writings of the New Testament.  It is no secret that the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of sins by grace is something that the devil wants nothing to do with.  He works to thwart every advance of the Kingdom of God in every way that he possibly can.  This may sound a bit alarmist to many people, especially now days, but like Peter, I must insist that this is not only something that was going on in the days of the early church, it is something that has been plaguing the church since its beginning and continues to do so now.  Arguably, the church is facing more and more threats of false teaching from within its own walls in the 20th and 21st centuries than it ever has before.  Especially in North America, and in the United States where the freedom of speech that we all cherish protects and even allows people to speak false doctrine at will.  Please hear me on this, I wouldn’t trade the freedom of speech that we have for anything, but what I am saying is that the Church needs to wake up and see that this is happening and continues to happen!

This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing,following their own sinful desires.  They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.”  For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished.  But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.

The Church has done a poor job in recent years of silencing the heretics and false teachers that claim to be ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Protestant and Catholic denominations have each seen their fair share of groups breaking away from the teachings of the church because of “new revelations” or “a new understanding of the Bible.”  We are familiar with some like Jehovah’s Witness, Seventh Day Adventists, and Mormonism.  Some new teachings that we have begun to encounter are those of the prosperity gospel, people like Joel Osteen who trade the message of the gospel of a “feel good message” through which he makes tons of money.  There have also been other developments within the religious spheres.  Scientology, the Atheist Church, and other like them have sprung up, proclaiming a way to better humanity without any need for God, Jesus, or the Gospel.

These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm. For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved.  For, speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error.  They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.

While an assault on the moral character of these individuals is not warranted by me, they are certainly sinners in need of grace just as I am, it is important to understand that there is false teaching and heresy that is still very much present among us.  Certainly their rights to say whatever they want to say are protected by the American Constitution, and for that we should be thankful.  This country affords us the ability to worship freely without fear of retribution or persecution from authorities and protects us (or at least it should) from persecution from others as well.  However, though the Bill of Rights doesn’t say this, it should also encourage us to be awake and alert to what we are hearing from the pulpit on any given Sunday.  There is NO Gospel apart from Jesus Christ.  There is NO Salvation apart from the grace of Jesus Christ that we receive through faith.  No amount of money, work, good deeds, or ‘spiritual’ experience can bring us back into right relationship with God.  We are all sinful, we will all continue to sin.  May we understand this and go forth, awake and alert, so that we may not be led astray.