This is an article on the first Article of the Articles of Religion I wrote for my parish this week. It is the first in a series of, as I am sure you can guess, 39 articles. I thought it might be helpful to post it here as well.
Who is God?: Part 1 of a series of essays on the Articles of Religion
Article 1: Of Faith in the Holy Trinity
The first Article of the 39 Articles of Religion has to do with the character and nature of God:
ARTICLE I: There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
The origin of every cult, error, or heresy might be traced to a distortion of the God’s self-revelation as the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
* Mormons, for example, teach that there are many gods; Jesus and the Father being two separate divinities.
* Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that there is only one God, Jehovah, but reject the biblical claim that God is revealed in three Persons.
* The ancient heretic Marcion believed in two separate gods: a harsh Creator God revealed in the Old Testament and a loving Redeemer God revealed in the New Testament.
* In the 1950’s an Episcopalian bishop named James Pike, denied the Trinity and rejected the concept of a personal God.
Every distortion of God’s self-revealed nature, and the above illustrations represent only a small sample, is potentially lethal.
The scriptures teach that all human beings stand guilty of rebellion against God (see Romans 3:10 -18). And on that basis, we are all subject to eternal judgment.
But God loved you and I so much that he became man in Jesus Christ in order to live the holy life we failed to live and then to bear the eternal punishment that we deserve so that in and through the Person and Work of Jesus, God might offer salvation and eternal life to everyone.
The promise of God is that whosoever comes to faith in Christ will be saved.
In fact, the bible teaches that salvation can be found in no other name, no other Person, but in Christ alone.
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
And Peter and John proclaimed before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem that:
“Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:11-12)
In order, then, to receive the salvation God offers, you must surrender your life to Jesus Christ.
But what if the Jesus to whom you surrender is not the real Jesus? What if the God you worship is not the true God?
This is the danger and cruelty of heresy and the deadly pitfall posed by cults. The salvation offered by God comes through faith in Jesus Christ alone. But the Christ that heretics and cults proclaim is a false one and the God they serve is not the true God as he has revealed himself in the scriptures.
This is why it is so important to be diligent and careful in your study of the bible; to know God as he reveals himself in the scriptures so that you can be confident that the Jesus whom you seek and serve and in whom you place your full trust is the true Jesus.
This is why the Articles of Religion begin with a positive affirmation of the self-revealed nature of God. Anglicans, like all Christians, ground our faith in the living God as he has made himself known.
The first Article affirms that there is but one living and true God. This is in keeping with the proclamation of the prophets, priests and kings throughout the Old Testament.
In Deuteronomy 6 we read that God is One :
“Hear O Israel the Lord Your God, the Lord is One.” (Deuteronomy 6:4)
Earlier, in the same book we read that there is only One God:
“The LORD, He is God in heaven above and on the earth below; there is no other.” (Deuteronomy 4:35)
The first Article moves on to describe God as “everlasting”. God is the only God and there was never a time when he was not; nor will there ever be a time when he will not be. God, in other words, is"eternal”. He has no beginning. He has no end. He exists outside of time and space.
This is a difficult concept to understand. Indeed, many new believers ask, “Who created God?” But the question is a category error. The material universe, and all that exists within it, requires a cause because it does not possess, within itself, the power of self-existence.
The universe, indeed, had a beginning, a point of origin. Contemporary astronomers identify the Big Bang as that point of origin. But this does not resolve the problem. What caused the Big Bang? How did that infintesimally dense “singularity” that astronomers suggest existed prior to the Big Bang come into being? What caused it to explode? Nothing can “be” before it “is”, so the singularity could not have created itself. Out of nothing, nothing comes. And since the singularity was both material (or “physical”) and subject to change, it could not have been eternal or infinite in nature. It also must have had a beginning and a Cause.
But how, some may ask, can we know that there was not and is not an infinite series of material causes? This is a complex question so I will answer it as briefly and succinctly as possible. We can know that there was no infinite regress of material causes because the very passage of time and the moment by moment continuation of the cycleof causes in our present demonstrates that the material universe is a “potential” but not an “actual” infinite. An actually infinite line is one that has no beginning and no end. A potentially infinite line’s length is constantly extending. Time, for example, is a potential infinite. We cannot necessarily see its absolute beginning but we see that it has an end, moment by moment, in the present. The line of time is constantly extending but it is not infinite, just potentially so. The same is true for the cycle of causes that exists within time and space. The existence of an end point in the causal cycle, the present, means that the cycle of material causes cannot be an acually infinite cycle. In other words, since the cycle of causes ends in the present, we can assume that it must have had a beginning in the past.
In the world of real material things, an absolute infinite is an impossibility. Dr. Norman Geisler illustrated this point well in his book, “Christian Apologetics” using the hypothetical illustration of a hotel with an absolute infinite number of rooms. Imagine that an absolute infinite set of guests check-in to the hotel. They are assigned to rooms [...-3,-1, 1,3,5,...] But then another absolute infinite number of guests arrives. The first set of guests are moved from the odd numbered rooms to the even numbered rooms an the new set of guests are giveb the odd rooms.
Questions: How many guests were in the hotel after the first set checked in? How many were there after the second arrived? How many would be there when the first set checks out (assuming the second set of guests remains)? The answer, and it is absurd, to all these questions is the same. Infinity. This illustration demonstrates the purely theoretical nature of an absolute infinite set. There is no such thing and there can be no such thing as an absolute infinite set of material causes or anything else in the world of real things.
If all of this makes your head spin, simply remember the classic law: the whole cannot exceed the sum of its parts. If the universe is made up if finite material causes and effects (i.e. things that come into being and then cease to be) and it is, then the material universe as a whole cannot be infinite.
We are left with the following proposition. Since the material universe is not an absolute infinite and since it could not have come into being through its own power or force, there must be another Cause beyond the material universe, beyond time and space, without beginning or end that possess the power of life or existence within itself.
This “Cause”, the scriptures teach and the first Article affirms is not just another thing but the everlasting God who has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ. God is spirit. He is beyond time and space. While he took on human nature in Jesus Christ, he is not, substantially a part of the universe but distinct from it. Therefore, he has no cause or Creator. God simply is.
The first Article goes on to affirm that God is “simple” without “body” or “parts”. God did, as noted above, take on a human body at the Incarnation of Christ, but he is not human or “bodily” by nature. He is Spirit.
To say that God is “simple” or without “parts” does not mean that he is “easy” to understand.
Indeed, while we can know those aspects of his nature and his character that God chooses to reveal and make known, his nature in its fullness is far beyond our comprehension. For all eternity we will be grasping and glorying in new (to us) and different aspects of God’s nature, but we will never comprehend the whole of him. God is not simple in the sense that he is easy to understand.
Rather, to say that he is “simple” means that he is not made up of different portions or parts that required assembly. He is One Whole Being, not partitioned. If God were made up of different parts then we would necessarily have to posit another Power to piece him together. That power would supercede God and God would, in that case, not be God. He would be a creature and the assembling Power would be his Creator. The first Cause of all creation cannot have parts if he is to be the first Cause…and, as we have seen, the universe could not have come into existence without a first Cause.
One quick note before moving on. We must be careful when speaking of God’s simplicity. To say God does not have “parts” is not to say that he does not have multiple “Persons” as we will see below.
The Article continues with the affirmation God does not have “passions.” God does not change his mind nor is he subject to fluctuating emotions. While from the human perspective it may seem that God goes from anger to sadness; from longing for his people to punishing them; the fact is that is it not God who changes or shifts. We do.
God is eternally and unchangeably displeased with sin. He is eternally and unchangeably pleased with faithfulness. He is eternally and unchangeably sorrowful when people reject him and eternally and unchangeably pleased when they repent.
When we sin God is displeased. But he has not changed. We have. We have gone from a state of faithfulness to a state of disobedience. We have moved from the sphere of God’s eternal pleasure to the sphere of his eternal displeasure.
God does experience emotion, infinitely perfect and glorious emotion. But his emotions are eternal. They do not change nor are they contingent upon our actions. We move. God does not.
The article goes on to affirm that God is not only good and wise and powerful, but that he is infinitely so. There is, in other words, no limit to these aspects of his character.
“Good”, in fact, is not some external standard that we hold up to God to see whether he measures up. God himself is the measure. He is “the” good. Good flows from him as does power and wisdom like water from a spring.
This is why it is always foolish to disregard the commands and counsels of God. He is infinitely wise, powerful, and good. So he is infinitely more knowledgeable than you or I even when it comes to the specific circumstances of our lives.
If God says not to do something, then it is always wisest not to do it even when the proscription does not accord with our reason. If God commands that something be done, it is the wisest course to do it, even when we cannot understand why God has given the command.
Think of Noah. Noah worked for over 100 years constructing a huge boat in a region where there was no water. His neighbors must have thought he was crazy and, no doubt, some days Noah must have agreed. But he followed the commands of God even when they did not seem reasonable and he escaped the Great Flood. God’s wisdom and power and goodness so far exceed our own that his Word demands our unqualified surrender and obedience.
The Article moves next to affirm that God is the “Maker and Preserver of all things visible and invisible.” God, in other words, is not the famous “Watchmaker” imagined by the Deists. He did not create the universe and then walk away to let it run by itself. God actively “preserves” or sustains everything in existence. If, for one moment, God were to withdraw his sustaining hand, the universe would come undone in the twinkling of an eye. God provides the breath of life to all who live and the power of existence to all things that exist, moment by moment, hour by hour, year by year.
But he is not only the Maker and Preserver of the visible or “observable” universe. He is also the Maker and Preserver of the invisible or “heavenly” universe. God created Heaven and the angelic beings as well as those things that are part and parcel of our every day experience.
Nothing, then, in heaven or on earth exists apart from the sustaining preserving hand of our Maker.
Finally the Article turns to God’s Trinitarian nature. “And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”
Here I will borrow from an earlier article I wrote on the topic.
As noted above, the bible reveals that God is One without part or body. And the bible teaches that God is the only God. There is no other
But while maintaining the truth of those propositions, the bible also tells us that there are three distinct personalities within the Godhead.
The Father is God. The Son prays to the Father and worships him:
“After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed: “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.” (John 17:1-5)
“In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)
The Holy Spirit is God. He is the Counselor or Advocate the Son promises to send to his disciples:
But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. 27Peace (John 14:26 -27)
And he is the Divine Spirit who reveals the heart of God to believers:
“But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God.” (1st Corinthians 2:10)
There is, then, only one God, but he is revealed to us in three distinct Person.
The Persons, moreover, are not different “modes” of being. God does not, in other words, show up as the Father and then transform into the Son and then transform into the Spirit in accordance with the circumstance.
He is always God the Father and God the Son and God the Holy Spirit at the same time.
We see this truth especially in passages where the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all present and relating to one another. The Baptism of Jesus is a great example:
At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan . As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:9-11)
All three Persons are coequal, coeternal, and of the same substance. They are distinct and separate and yet one.
This is not, as some have suggested, a contradiction. There is only One God. But within the Godhead, there are three distinct Persons of that same substance. So there is a categorical distinction between the substance of God, his Being, and the Persons that prevents a logical contradiction. That having been said, the Trinity is certainly a mystery.
One of my theology professors in seminary advised us to keep our discussions of the Trinity as brief as possible because, he said, the longer we talk the more likely we will fall into some major heresy. He was right. This is why the Creeds which condense and codify the teachings of the bible are so crucial to a correct understanding of the nature of God. The Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Creed help us to articulate of the Christian faith. They help us to affirm all that the scriptures reveal about God.
And this, ultimately, is where cults and heresies fall short. They fail to acknowledge and affirm all that God reveals about himself in the scriptures. All are willing to uphold certain parts of the biblical revelation. None are willing to affirm all of it. And for that reason, they all end in idolatry and spiritual death.
The first Article of Religion affirms all that God reveals about himself in his Word.
May we, faithfully and fearlessly, by God’s grace, do the same.