The Christian Faith Is Trinitarian

Exposition of the Apostles Creed-FeaturedWhen most people think of the Reformed confession of the Christian faith they probably think about predestination. This is the minimalist definition that is often used. When evangelicals say, “I’m Reformed” what they often mean is, “I’ve adopted the doctrine of election” (and perhaps reprobation). One hardly gets the impression from the self-described Young, Restless, and Reformed movement that what animates their new enthusiasm for Reformed theology is its Christology (e.g., the so-called extra Calvinisticum) or its doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. Those who take a slightly more expansive view of the Reformed confession might think of substitutionary atonement or other aspects of the doctrine of salvation (soteriology). Certainly the doctrine of the church (e.g., the three-offices of Christ and its reflection in the offices of the church) is remote from their view Remarkably, however, here we are at question and answer 24 of the Heidelberg Catechism and though we have spent considerable time already on aspects of the doctrine of salvation and the catechism certainly teaches a doctrine of divine sovereignty implicitly we haven’t really seen much of what many outside the Reformed churches have considered our “central doctrine” explicitly. This is, of course, because the Reformed faith has no “central dogma” (Zentraldogma) from which everything else is deduced.

The catechism has distinguished between law and gospel, explain our fall into sin and depravity, the uses of the law, the federal headship of Adam and Christ, his substitutionary atonement, and the nature of true faith. The structure within which all these doctrines fall, however, is not the doctrine of predestination. Contrary to the frequent caricature of the Reformed confession, nowhere in the catechism does is the system of Christian teaching deduced from the doctrine of predestination.

Instead, the doctrine that structures the teaching of the catechism is the catholic (universal) doctrine of the Trinity:

24. How are these Articles divided?

Into three parts: the first is of God the Father and our creation; the second of God the Son and our redemption; the third, of God the Holy Spirit and our sanctification.

We have established that there are three parts of the Heidelberg Catechism. This is clear in Q/A 2. Believers must know three things: the greatness of our sin and misery (law), how we are redeemed from all our sins and misery (gospel), and how we are to be thankful for such redemption (sanctification). We know this is the correct interpretation because this is how Zacharias Ursinus, the principal author of the catechism and its authorized expositor, intended the catechism to be understood. This is how he explained the catechism in his lectures, published as the Corpus Doctrinae. Now, however, the catechism adds a correlate structure. The teaching of the Christian faith is organized according to the economic Trinity: the Father as Creator and sustainer, the Son as Redeemer, and the Spirit as sanctifier.

To be sure, the acts that the Holy Trinity works ad extra, i.e., with respect to creation and redemption, are Trinitarian acts. Nevertheless, we may also speak and think of the Trinity in administrative or economic categories. Thus, in broad terms, we are entitled to think of the Father as Creator and sustainer, the Son as Redeemer, and the Spirit as sanctifier without saying or thinking that the other Trinitarian persons are absent in those works.

The Christian Faith is a Trinitarian faith. That doctrine is as fundamental as any of our doctrines and it has a unique role in that it also structures the way we think about and explain the faith. For example, Christology is also a catholic (universal) doctrine clearly confessed in the most ancient ecumenical creeds but it does not structure the way we teach the faith in the way that the doctrine of the Trinity does. The Apostles’ Creed and Nicene-Constantinopolitan (381) Creed are Trinitarian in structure. The Athanasian Creed is bipartite: Trinity and Christology. The Definition of Chalcedon (451) is focused on Christology.

The doctrine of the Trinity is essential to the Christian faith and fundamental. That is why the Athanasian Creed twice says, “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith….” The first half of the Athanasian summarizes the doctrine of the Trinity. According to the catholic (universal) Christian faith, “He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.” So, when we teach the faith, we teach the catholic, Trinitarian faith. WE do not begin with a generic doctrine of God and append the Trinity to it or at least we should not proceed that way. When we engage other religions (e.g., Islam, Judaism, and Mormonism), the Trinity is essential to that faith we are defending. If it is marginalized in our confrontation with them, then we are defending something other than Christianity. If evangelicals reach agreements with Mormons without Mormon repentance of their heretical doctrine of God, then those agreements are worthless. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not esoteric. It is not for elites or the illuminati. Christians, ministers and laity alike, are meant to know this doctrine and teachers and ministers are meant to teach and preach it.

The Creed is in three parts. The Christian faith is in three parts and thus, the Heidelberg Catechism is in three parts. The temptation is to downplay one part or the other. Our Young, Restless, and Reformed friends are excited about the sovereignty and glory of God and the substitutionary atonement, and those are good things but insofar as they are mainly Edwardseans they don’t have much time for our theology of the cross or our doctrine of that, in the Supper, we are fed by the “proper and natural body, and the proper blood of Christ” (Belgic Confession, Art 35) or our doctrine that God is to be worshipped only in the way he has revealed and not according to what thrills us. They usually tend to a theology of glory. This is especially true of so-called “Christian Hedonism,” which is about as remote from the eschatology and ethos of Calvin and Luther as one can get and still have them anywhere in view. Clearly the mainline Reformed churches (and increasingly in the borderline churches) the doctrine of the Fatherhood of God (“I believe in God the Father almighty“) is a little embarrassing and hard to square with feminist egalitarianism. In some segments of the evangelical and Reformed worlds, there are moves to downplay the uniqueness of Christ’s life and death or to marginalize the teaching of the Synod of Dort regarding the atonement. In the 19th century there was an idiosyncratic movement that influenced both Karl Barth (d. 1968) and some very conservative German Reformed pastors (as well as some in the Netherlands) initiated by Herman Kohlbrugge (1803–75) that emphasized a purely forensic doctrine of sanctification. His followers in North America tended to downplay or ignore the third part of the catechism and were suspicious of the historic Reformed doctrine of progressive sanctification.

The confession of the Reformed churches, however, is a catholic confession. It has a doctrine of creation (which is less interested in the length of the creation days than it is in the Creator/creature distinction), redemption, and sanctification. It isn’t idiosyncratic. It isn’t novel. Strangely, that’s what makes it stand out today: its enduring   trinitarian character. The early church would understand our catechism much more than they would understand the  quest for an immediate encounter with God. In a sense, all that we have done thus far in the catechism is prologue. Now we have come to the exposition of the faith proper: The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. There are not three Gods but one (and, contra some bizarre quite modern revisions, not one person but three). Each of them has a distinct (but not absolutely so) role in the outworking of creation, redemption, and glorification. Our faith is not lopsided. It’s just catholic Christian teaching as construed by the Reformation in light of our renewed appreciation for Scripture and the history of redemption (covenant theology).

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  1. I listened to yesterday’s IE podcast, in which the (Lut.) confessional expert spent almost the entire time *not* explaining their doctrine of election, but explaining how they *know* the Reformed doctrine of the same is all wrong, comfortless, the central-dogma, unscriptural, product of logical deduction, yada yada–wholly unlike theirs (of course!).

    Interesting, how they allow themselves the luxury of deducing the “true” reductio of the Reformed faith, while disallowing both any Reformed recourse to mystery (on the same locus!), as well as any legitimacy of finding a similar Lutheran reductio. Double standards, as ever.

    Granting them (as you’ve before insisted, Scott, and rightly) the consistency of their convictions, nevertheless the worst statement from the whole podcast had to be when PMcC *denied* to Calvin the title of pastor, *denied* him a compassionate pastor’s heart of concern for souls. He was no pastor, but a lawyer and a speculative theologian, according to PMcC.

    Project much, Paul? Some animus is so great, that accuracy–historical and theological–becomes pretty much irrelevant to guys like him, marking their territory.

    Still, I love the IE program, and I always treat it as a learning experience (even from this mostly negative hour). I know more about my own Reformed Faith, and about Lutheranism, from many years of listening to hard-core confessional Lutherans, than PMcC has ever troubled himself to learn about Ref.Theo.

    • I listened to the show as well and found it severely wanting. Straw men abound. I’ve never heard one Reformed preacher say “It could be for you” as Pastor Cooper said about when the Reformed preach the Gospel. No, when Reformed preachers give the gospel they do say it’s for you. Cooper failed to represent Calvinism fairly and accurately. Once again Issues Etc has embarrassed itself. Calvinists don’t look inside themselves to know they’re elect as Cooper charged. We repent and believe the promises.

      I don’t know any Calvinist who looks to their works to know certain that they are saved. I’ve never spoke to one who believed this, as Cooper charged. No Calvinist puts their hope in themselves, like he charges.

      Wilkens said Calvinism isn’t confessional. Cooper said it was but that Lutherans reallllyyyy believe their confessions. He made it sound like all Lutherans believe the entirety of their confession. Baloney. He can’t possibly know this. Talk about circular reasoning. Just a disaster.

  2. Dr. Clark,

    This may not be the place for it, but this is the first I have heard about Herman Kohlbrugge (1803–75), or a downplaying of progressive sanctification among the Reformed of that era. Can you tell us a little more, or where do find out more? It’s odd, but it might explain Barth a little better, who I think, had very little for the Holy Spirit to do in his scheme of things.

    • Chris,

      I don’t pretend to be expert on Kohlbrugge but I was introduced to him by the German Reformed (RCUS) with of which I was a member and minister from c.1980 to 1998. I found this which looks interesting. There are a couple of things by Kohlbrugge in English (on Romans 7 and something else). His followers are called neo-Kohlbruggians. Those that I knew did not much like the third part of the catechism. As I recall, their curriculum either didn’t publish a volume (for catechism) on the third part or they didn’t use it. It’s been a long time.

      I’ve run into folk from the Netherlands who are particularly attached to Kohlbrugge and they read him and even have a magazine, with some English-language articles, with articles on him. I don’t recall the name of the magazine but it is fascinating.

      My recollection is that Barth criticizes just about everyone but not Kohlbrugge. Some have argued that Kohlbrugge anticipated Barth’s view of Scripture. Some of the neo-Kohlbruggians used to talk about the assembled congregation in peculiar ways but others argued that the noes weren’t very faithful to the original.

  3. Thank you. I first became aware of the importance of the Trinity for ALL Evangelical faith when I was visiting England in 1972 and heard John R.W. Stott preach on Galatians 4:4-7. While I am not an Anglican, and appreciate both the Westminster Standards and Three Forms of Unity, it was Stott who pretty much made it impossible for me to take seriously “the Trinity is Greek thinking imposed on Christianity”, “Jesus never claimed to be God”, or “we don’t need some ancient creed” and the like.

    @Chris Hutchinson: I don’t pretend to be a Barth scholar. However, I know a little about what made the man tick.

    He belonged to a generation utterly shocked and horrified by the First World War. Up to that time, most Mainline European Protestants believed that their faith was coterminous with their Germanic/Scandinavian/British culture and evolving with it, and needed to “keep up with the times”. In German-speaking countries, it involved accepting that the bureaucratic, Prussian-style state was the epitome of reasonable governance, that the thought of the leading classes in society was the voice of the Holy Spirit, etc. Hence, biblical categories and language had to bow to the demands of modern philosophy (and, besides, those verdammte Juden of way back when weren’t Aryans and didn’t know anything anyway).

    Karl Barth was, by his own admission, shocked out of this mindset by the carnage of WWI. He thereupon wrote a commentary on Romans where he called for at least a partial return to biblical language and categories and the thought (as he understood it) of the reformers. Hence his followers were called “neo-orthodox” as opposed to the older theological liberalism/modernism.

    Barth was able to condemn the National Socialist attempt to take over the Protestant churches in Germany, for which he was stripped of his teaching position and deported to his native Switzerland.

    However, Barth was never able to free himself from the critical approach to the Scriptures and other features of liberalism. As Dr. Clark’s post suggests, he was also confused by certain 19th century errors.

  4. Dr Clark,
    What is the best resource on the extra calvinisticum? I read some of it when I was evaluating Lutheran claims on the Lord’s Supper. I relied mostly on Muller’s Dictionary of Latin terms. Is there a more specific treatment of it?

  5. Dr. Clark,

    Thank you, that is helpful. Though a pretty obscure school, it is interesting to note that that this group arose at all. I have read a bit of Barth, and was struck that he was so concerned to center everything on God’s objective work in Christ that it seemed to me that he did not have much for the Holy Spirit to do in redemption except “announce” to folks that they were already saved; hence my wondering if there was some connection between the Kohlbrugrians have no room for the Third Use of the Law, and Barth’s extreme “objectivism,” if you will. But I don’t know really; I had just never heard of this group before.

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