Monday, June 14, 2021

On the divine persons: a Shedd-load of Trinitarian theology


W. G. T. Shedd (1820-1894) devotes a lengthy chapter in Dogmatic Theology Volume I  to Trinity in Unity. It's not my purpose to sketch out his teaching as a whole. Rather, I want to draw attention to his remarkable treatment of the relationship between the single divine essence and the three persons of the Trinity. 

The theologian takes the simplicity of God's essence for granted and denies that the essence is in any way 'chunked-up' (my words) between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Rather, "this undivided essence is common to three persons" (p. 268). Further, "The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each and simultaneously the whole divine essence; so that while there are three persons, there is but one essence." (p. 275). Shedd admits, however, "that we have no adequate idea of what is meant be person when applied to God and use it only because distinct personal attributes and actions are ascribed to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in Scripture". (p. 268). 

These "personal attributes and actions" are the eternal relations of origin within God, namely, "That immanent and necessary activity within divine essence whereby the Father begets the Son, and the Father and the Son spirate the Spirit, makes it to be self-contemplating, self-knowing, and self-communing." (p. 272). The divine persons are not interchangeable. The Father only is unbegotten, the Son alone is begotten of the Father, the Holy Spirit uniquely proceeds from the Father and the Son. But it is simply in terms of the eternal relations of origin that we may distinguish the persons. In essence they are one, 
The whole undivided divine nature is in each divine person simultaneously and eternally. The modifying of divine nature by eternal generation and spiration does not divide the nature, as temporal generation does, but leaves it whole and entire, so that the substance of the begotten Son and the spirated Spirit is numerically and identically that of the unbegotten and unspirated Father. (p. 278).

Shedd then proceeds to discuss how the three persons relate each to the others. I quote him at length, 

Revelation clearly teaches that these personal characteristics are so marked and peculiar that the three divine persons are objective to each other. God the Father and God the Son are so distinct from each other that some actions which can be ascribed to the one cannot be ascribed to the other. The Father "sends" the Son; this act of sending the Son cannot be attributed to the Son. The Father "loves" the Son; this act of loving the Son cannot be ascribed to the Son. An examination of the Scriptures gives the following series of twelve actions and relations of the three trinitarian persons, which prove that they are objective to one another, that one may do or experience something that is personal to himself and is not personal to the others. One divine person … loves another (John 3:35) dwells in another (John 14:10–11) suffers from another (Zech. 13:7) knows another (Matt. 11:27) addresses another (Heb. 1:8) is the way to another (John 14:6) speaks of another (Luke 3:22) glorifies another (John 17:5) confers with another (Gen. 1:26; 11:7) plans with another (Isa. 9:6) sends another (Gen. 16:7; John 14:26) rewards another (Phil. 2:5–11; Heb. 2:9) Here are twelve different actions and relations which demonstrate that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not one and the same person. (p. 279). 

Each person of the Trinity stands in an 'I"-"Thou" relation to the others. Shedd teases out what that means for the divine self-consciousness, "And the three persons are so real and distinct from each other that each possesses a hypostatic or trinitarian consciousness different from that of the others. The second person is conscious that he is the Son and not the Father, when he says, "O Father, glorify me" (John 17:5). The first person is conscious that he is the Father and not the Son, when he says, "You are my Son, this day have I begotten you" (Heb. 1:5). The third person is conscious that he is the Spirit and neither the Father nor the Son, when he says, "Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them" (Acts 13:2)." (p. 282). 

But that does not mean that the divine persons are three individual centres of self-consciousness, akin to three human persons having a chat. Shedd is no social Trinitarian. He explains, "These three hypostatic consciousnesses constitute the one self-consciousness of divine essence. By reason of and as the result of these three forms of consciousness, divine essence is self-contemplative, self-cognitive, and self-communing. Though there are three forms of consciousness, there are not three essences or three understandings or three wills in the Godhead because a consciousness is not an essence or an understanding or a will. There is only one essence, having one understanding and one will. But this unity of essence, understanding, and will has three different forms of consciousness: paternal, filial, and spiritual because it has three different forms of subsistence, namely, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit." Shedd draws an analogy between the divine essence in relation to the persons and the divine self-consciousness and the hypostatic/personal consciousnesses,  "As the one divine essence is the same thing with the three persons, and not a fourth different thing by itself, so the one divine self-consciousness is the same thing with the three hypostatic consciousnesses and not a fourth different thing by itself." (p. 282-283). 

Shedd's handling of the doctrine of the Trinity has relevance for debates within Evangelicalism on the Eternal Relational Submission (ERS) of the Son to the Father. Advocates of ERS sometimes argue that classic Trinitarianism fails to do justice to divine personhood, having little to say beyond the eternal relations of origin. As Shedd makes clear, however, Father, Son and Holy Spirit each stand in an "I"-"Thou" relation to the others. But that does not mean we should attribute an individual will to each person, or posit that each is a distinct centre of self-consciousness. As Shedd rightly underlines, will is an attribute of the divine being and there is only one self-consciousness in God. The theologian's distinction between the personal consciousness of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and the singular divine self-consciousness is a useful safeguard against social Trinitarianism. "The three hypostatical [personal] consciousnesses in their combination and unity constitute the one self-consciousness." (p. 283).  

You never know what useful stuff may be found lying around in the Shedd. I may rummage around a little more. 

Quotations from Dogmatic Theology Volume I, Klock & Klock 1979 reprint. You can also find a e-copy online, but the pagination is different, here. See p. 5 of the PDF for clickable contents. 

Friday, June 11, 2021

Unchanging Joy

The pandemic has deprived us of many of the things that fill life with joy. Until recently we were unable to see, let alone hug loved ones who live outside our area. Cinemas, pubs and restaurants were closed. Beauty spots were off limits. Many were furloughed and so deprived of the camaraderie of the workplace and a sense of job satisfaction. Children were unable to meet their friends in school. It’s been tough.

Thankfully, we are now emerging from lockdown and are free to enjoy some of the simple pleasures of life once more. A welcome sign of a return to normality was the FA Cup Final featuring Chelsea vs Leicester City, with 21,000 fans in attendance. As is traditional, the hymn ‘Abide with Me’ was sung before kick off.  The words seemed to have added poignancy this year,

Change and decay in all around I see,
O Thou who changest not, abide with me

Whether the emergence of new Covid variants will hinder the removal of all remaining restrictions on 21 June remains to be seen. If our chief joy in life is based on circumstances, our happiness will fluctuate wildly as we encounter good times and bad. The hymn is addressed to the Lord Jesus, the source of unchanging joy.

Jesus died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead that we may have the hope of everlasting life.  Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for ever. If our joy is in him, nothing on earth can touch it. Jesus shines through the gloom to point us to the skies. “In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.”

* For June editions of local News & Views and Trinity parish magazines 

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

New Studies in Dogmatics: The Triune God, by Fred Sanders

Zondervan, 2016, Kindle edition, 243pp

In many treatments of the doctrine of the Trinity the theologian's basic approach is to attempt to bring together the scattered bits and pieces of the Bible's teaching into a coherent whole. Something like assembling a jigsaw puzzle. The theologian will often begin by identifying Trinitarian hints in the Old Testament and then give attention to some of the key passages in New Testament Scripture. 

Fred Sanders proposes and alternative approach. He argues that God is revealed as three persons primarily in the redemptive historical missions of the Son and the Holy Spirit. The role of Scripture is to bear witness to and interpret those missions for us. Contrary to 'Rahner's rule' Sanders is not saying that the economic Trinity we encounter in the missions is the ontological Trinity. Rather, that the eternal processions within God are disclosed in the economic missions of the Son and Holy Spirit . 

The Son is eternally begotten of the Father. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The Son and the Spirit are fully God, of the same divine essence as the Father. Given the eternal relations of origin, it was fitting that the Son should be sent into the world by the Father in order to save us from sin and that the Holy Spirit was poured out from the Father by the Son on the Day of Pentecost to give us new life. 

Hence the church confesses its belief in one God in three persons. But according to Sanders we can say no more of what it means to be a divine 'person' than that the Three have distinct eternal relations of origin. The Father in his person is unbegotten, the Son is begotten of the Father and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. We certainly should not suffuse the personhood with any notion that the Three are separate centres of self-consciousness, each with their own distinct will, who happen to cooperate together for certain ends. Any such account shatters the simplicity of God and veers in the direction of Tritheism.  

We need to tread carefully when it comes to defining what is meant by 'persons' and not lapse into social trinitarianism. But we should also factor in the way Scripture enables us to eavesdrop on communications between the persons of the Trinity, where the Father affirms his love for the Son (Matthew 3:17) and the Son expresses his love for the Father (John 14:31). God's love in Christ is poured into the hearts of his people through the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). The missions reveal the mutual love between the persons of the Trinity from eternity. The only begotten Son of the Father is the beloved Son of the Father. This has implications for our understanding of how as persons the Three relate to each other in loving communicative action. Certainly 'person' is to be preferred to some of the other alternatives such as 'mode of subsistence'. As Robert Leatham affirms, "Since God is personal, he is love, the living God, for life and love go together.' (Systematic Theology, Crossway, 2019, 9. 128). Louis Berkhof adds further clarity when he says, 'but [we] should not... lose sight of the fact that the self-distinctions in the Divine Being imply an “I” and “Thou” and “He,” in the Being of God, which assume personal relations to one another.' (Systematic Theology, Biblical Training.org edition, p. 95). 

While Sanders' treatment is enriched by the theological reflection of the church, he is keen to underline that, "Trinitarianism is a gift of revelation before it is an achievement of the church." (p. 23). Biblical exegesis is therefore the key factor on constructing a doctrine of the Trinity. But this does not mean exegesis of individual texts in glorious isolation. Biblical revelation as a whole is Trinitarian in character. The Old Testament sets the scene for the missions of the Son and the Holy Spirit. The New Testament bears its witness to their coming into the world for our salvation. Individual texts need to be seen in that light.  This overall approach has has the advantage of rescuing Trinitarian theology from the 'jigsaw puzzle' method. 

Giving attention to the biblical materials, the author discusses 'New Covenant Attestation' to the Trinity, focusing on 'The Trinitarian Life of Jesus', 'Epiphany at the Jordan', 'The Threefold Name' and 'Paul and the Presupposition of Salvation'. He then discusses 'Old Covenant Adumbration'. Sanders is not happy to label manifestations of God in the Old Testament as 'christophanies'. Evangelicals have sometimes used that label on the basis that it is the Son's nature to be visible in a way that the Father is not, which is a contradiction of 'homoousios', that the Son has the same essence as the Father. Also, the idea that it was always the Son who put in a temporary appearance in Old Testament narratives deprives the eventual enfleshment of Jesus of its uniqueness. Better to say with Augustine that the theophanies represent, “simply the one and only God, that is the Trinity without any distinction of persons.” (p. 225). In the New Testament Isaiah's vision of the Lord seated upon the throne is predicated of both the Son (John 12:40-41) and the Father (Revelation 4:2, 8 cp. Isaiah 6:3). 

That is not to say that we cannot glimpse distinct revelations of the three persons in the pages of the Old Testament. Sanders commends the Fathers' 'retrospective prosoponic (personal)' reading of Old Testament Scripture. The author cites the examples from the writings of of Gerhohus the Great (1093–1169), 

Psalm 1: Wherefore: Glory be to the Father, Who knoweth the Way of the righteous; glory be to the Son, Who is the Way of the righteous, the Man Who is blessed, and prosperous in whatsoever He doeth; glory be to the Holy Ghost, Who is the Wind that scattereth the ungodly. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen. (p. 236). 

Evangelicals have got themselves into something of a muddle on the doctrine of the Trinity of late. A narrowly biblicist approach has led to denials of eternal generation. Some have posited that the Son's will is eternally subordinate to that of the Father, attributing will to the persons of the Trinity rather than the divine nature. Sanders' approach provides a necessary corrective to these harmful tendencies. In an online article Adding Eternal Generation the theologian engages with Wayne Grudem's handling of the doctrine of the Trinity in the second edition of his Systematic Theology.  

Evangelicals are by definition people of the Evangel. That is why we need to get the doctrine of the Trinity right. The revelation of the Trinity is umbilically joined to revelation of the mystery of the gospel. For in the gospel is nothing less than the good news that the Father has sent the Son to be the Saviour of the World and to raise up ruined humanity by the power of his Spirit. In the words of the Second London Baptist Confession, 1689 "which doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our communion with God, and comfortable dependence on Him." (2:2). Sanders' study demands careful thought as he develops his argument and interacts with a range of other scholars, but the work is no way dryly academic. As he points out, to contemplate the Trinity is to seek the face of God and tune one's mind to doxology:

Glory be to God the Father, 
Glory be to God the Son,
Glory be to God the Spirit, 
Great Jehovah three in One.
Glory, glory while eternal ages run.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Behold Your God: The Living God

1.       The living and true God

Our God is the living God. Some people say, ‘If God made everything, who made God?’ But that fails to take into account the most fundamental theological distinction: God is the Creator and everything else that exists is his creation. The existence of all other things is derivative and dependent. The Lord God has life in himself. He did not derive his existence from any other source. He is dependent on nothing. God had no beginning and will have no end. He simply exists, Hebrews 11:6. If the one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit owed his existence to another being, then that being would be the supreme God than whom none greater can be thought or imagined. We confess, 1 Corinthians 8:5-6.

That God is the Living One with life in himself is revealed in his divine Name disclosed to Moses at the burning bush. That the bush seen by Moses was ablaze, yet not consumed is suggestive of the Lord's self-existence. This was appropriate for the one whose name was revealed to Moses as,  'I AM WHO I AM' (Exodus 3:14), or Yahweh. Pagans believed that gods were fed and sustained by offerings of their worshippers. Not so the Yahweh, Psalm 50:12-15. Acts 14:15, 17:24-25, 19:26-27. God doesn’t need us, or anything from us. We can add nothing to him. He is perfectly fulfilled in the fulness of his divine life as one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The Lord is the living God who speaks and saves, Deuteronomy 5:26. He showed himself the living God when arose to defend his outnumbered people and defeated their enemies against all odds, 1 Samuel 17:26, 36. 2 Kings 19:4, 16. The Living God is the object of people’s longing, Psalm 42:2, Jeremiah 2:13. Even Pagans acknowledged Israel’s Lord the living God, Daniel 6:20, 26. The gospel proclaimed by the apostles had this effect, 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10. The atoning work has this end in view, Heb 9:14.

2.       The God who gives life

Did not create the universe to satisfy some need in himself, or as fuel for his existence. God is not in a process of becoming that is dependent on the evolution of the universe. He chose to create all things simply to display his wisdom, power, goodness and glory.

Scientists have been unable to unravel the greatest secret of universe, the origin of life. They have probed other planets in search of life, but without success. There are two basic alternatives: either impersonal non-living forces created life, or a personal living God. We believe the living God gives created all things out of nothing and is the giver of life, Genesis 1:11-13, 20-23, 24-25, 26-28, 2:7. The Son of God has life in himself, John 5:26, 1:1-4. God created all things by his Word, through his Spirit: Genesis 1:2, Psalm 104:30. But the life God gives is not like his own self-existent life. All other life comes from him and his upheld by him. Any account that makes God and the world somehow interdependent contradicts the Creator/creature distinction at the hearts of biblical revelation, Isaiah 40:25-26, 28. Romans 11:33-36. Apart from God there is only death. Which is why Genesis 2:17, Romans 5:12.

3.       The God who gives eternal life

Jesus appeared to John at Patmos, Revelation 1:17-18. Jesus the Son of God became one of us, mortal man that he might give his life for his people. By his death sin is atoned for and the power of death is broken, Romans 5:20-21. Note ‘grace reigns’. Grace is God giving us what we don’t deserve. Grace by definition is free and uncompelled. God did not need to be gracious towards sinners. We have no hold on him whatsoever. Grace flows freely to sinners from the self-existent God who is love, 1 John 4:10. If God somehow needed us, he would in some way be compelled to save us. That makes a nonsense of grace, Romans 3:23-24. It is ‘by the grace of God [that] Jesus tasted death for every man’ (Hebrews 2:9). God then raised his Son from the dead. The risen Jesus has the power of an indestructible life. The first Adam received his life from God. The last Adam is a life-giving Spirit, 1 Corinthians 15:45, Romans 8:10, Acts 4:2, 5:20. John 10:10-11, 17-18, 27-30, 1 John 5:11-12. The new creation teems with light, life and love, Revelation 22:1-5. Of the heavenly Jerusalem it is written, Hebrews 12:22-24, 13:14. The living God is the believer's eternal delight, Psalm 84:2.

Behold your God: “God, having all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of Himself, is alone in and unto Himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creature which He hath made, nor deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting His own glory in, by, unto, and upon them; He is the alone fountain of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom are all things.” (Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, 1689, 2:2). 

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Here Comes the Son

It was certainly a 'long,cold, lonely winter'. Sub zero temperatures for weeks on end. The chilling news of mounting Covid deaths. But now we're well into spring. The trees are in blossom. Bluebells carpet local woodlands. The days are warmer and evenings lighter. Last time I checked the UK had the lowest Covid infection rates in the G7. Here comes the sun. Brighter times are ahead. 

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe C. S. Lewis depicts Narnia under the rule of the White Witch, where it was 'always winter and never Christmas'. Then suddenly the ice begins to melt. Aslan is on the move. In The Chronicles of Narnia the majestic lion is depicted as a Christ-figure. Aslan was willing to die in the place of the traitor, Edmund Pevensey. He then rose again to lead the rebellion against the White Witch’s reign of terror.

 C. S. Lewis was drawing on the Bible’s teaching that humanity lies under the wintry reign of sin and death. In the end we all succumb to the tyranny of the grave, whether paupers or princes. But the ice is thawing and new life is springing forth. Here comes the Son. Of Jesus it was written:          

“the sunrise shall visit us from on high
 to give light to those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death, 
 to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

*For May edition of local magazines/newspapers. 

Friday, April 02, 2021

'And they crucified him’

Crucifixion was a form of execution reserved for the lowest of the low. Roman citizens were exempt from the cross. It was a cruel, degrading death. Nailing a common criminal to a cross sent out a powerful message, ‘This is what you get if you mess with Rome.’ Yet that is not how we tend to view crosses today. If you see a vehicle hurtling towards you with a cross emblazoned on the side, you breathe a sigh of relief. You have fallen ill and here is an ambulance with paramedics inside to care for you and make sure you get proper treatment.

Countless thousands of people were crucified during the period of the Roman Empire. Yet it took the death of one man by crucifixion to transform the meaning of the cross. That was Jesus Christ. Viewed in one way, he was a victim of the ancient equivalent of ‘cancel culture’. His teaching upset the leaders of the Jewish people. They wanted Jesus silenced. Dead men don’t speak, so the religious authorities pressurised the Roman governor Pontius Pilate into condemning Jesus to death by crucifixion. Pilate knew that Jesus was an innocent man, but he had him crucified anyway.

Another brutal display of Roman power. Yet Jesus knew full well how he was going to die on that first Good Friday. He made no attempt to evade arrest, or to argue his case before those who sat in judgement upon him. He willingly gave himself to the death of the cross because he knew that was the only way to break the power of sin. Sin is defiance of God’s throne that cries to high heaven for justice to be done. Even in our culture where many believe that right and wrong are ‘all relative’ we can sometimes be shocked by the horror of sin; the atrocities of totalitarian regimes, the murder of a young woman on the streets of our capital city.

Jesus came to lay down his life for the sins of the world so that we may be forgiven and be put right with God. Thus understood, the cross of Jesus was the greatest act of love the world has ever seen. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Behold your God: In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit


Previously we saw that God is one. He is unique as the one true and living God. He is a unity; a simple, undivided Spirit. But in the one God are three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We may tend to think that the doctrine of the Trinity is only something that needs to bother the heads of pastors and advanced students of theology. That is not the case. Jesus commanded that new disciples are to be baptised in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19) Already in the baptismal formula we are being confronted with the fact that our God is one -  ‘name’ is singular and three, ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’. How do we make sense of that? Thankfully, we are not the first generation of believers to address that question in a spirit of faith seeking understanding. The first four centuries of church history were dominated by controversies about the Trinity. The stakes were high. At issue were fundamentals of the faith such as the knowledge of God, the salvation of God, who are the people of God and the worship of God.

The Trinity is hinted at in the Old Testament, but the mystery is more fully revealed in New Testament era, where the missions of the Son and Holy Spirit take centre stage. Jesus is included in divine identity, John 1:1-3, 1 Corinthians 8:6. The Holy Spirit is constantly mentioned in the same breath as the Father and the Son, Matthew 28:19, 1 Cor 13:14. The mystery of the Trinity is not irrational, or totally baffling.  It is a mystery in the biblical sense of truth hidden in God until he was pleased to reveal it, Colossians 1:24-27. 

1.       In the Name

'Father'. God is disclosed as Father not first and foremost because he is in some sense the universal Father of his human image bearers, or even that he is the Father of believers, his adopted children. He is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Spirit is the Spirit 'of God'. He did not become Father at some point. He is the eternal Father of the eternal Son and the eternal Spirit. We speak of the Son as eternally generated by the Father, and of the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son. The named three persons are one God. 

2.       God sending and sent                  

The Father ever loved his Son and gave him life in himself, even as the Father has life in himself, John 5:26. His Spirit is the Spirit of life (Romans 8:2). The eternal relations between Father, Son and Holy Spirit are reflected in the missions of the persons of the Trinity. The Father sent the Son into the world, rather than the other way around, 1 John 4:14. The Holy Spirit was sent by the Father in the name of the Son, John 14:26. He is the ‘Spirit of God’ and the ‘Spirit of Christ’ (Romans 8:9). Each person is concerned for the glory of the other, John 17:1, (from eternity vs. 5), Phil 2:11, John 16:14-15. Because our God is a God who communicates life, love and glory in himself, he is also a God who was pleased to communicate life and love and reveal his glory in creating the universe. Above all that includes creating human beings in his image. Jesus is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). We are made in his image (Genesis 1:26) to share in the life, love and glory of the Trinity, John 17:22-23.

Although there is an order in the persons of the Trinity, there is no hierarchy of being so that the Father is God in a superior sense to the Son or Holy Spirit. The three are fully God, of the same being as the Father. How else can we do justice to New Testament depiction of Jesus and the Spirit? The divine Name Yahweh Deuteronomy 6:4 is accorded to Jesus, John 8:58. The Spirit is the 'Spirit of Yahweh', active in creation (Genesis 1:2) and exercising Lordship (1 Corinthians 12:11).

It is wrong to say that the Son eternally submitted his will to that of the Father in the decree that he would be sent into the world. Will is a property of God’s being, not the persons. All three persons were party to the plan of salvation in which Son would come to save us in the power of the Holy Spirit, Ephesians 1:4, 9. If it is true to say, that the Father gave the Son for us, Romans 8:32, then we may also say that Son freely gave himself for us, Galatians 2:20. Father and Son are one in being and will, John 10:30.

3.       Salvation is of the triune Lord

In creation, providence and redemption God does all things by his Son and through his Spirit to his glory. Because they share one being, the three always act in concert. Only the Son became man, but he became man on being sent into the world by the Father and by the power of the Spirit in his virginal conception. Consider the miracles Jesus performed, which are jointly ascribed to all three persons of the Trinity as they share the one divine being, John 5:19-20, 14:8-11, Matthew 12:28. Consider the cross of Jesus, Hebrews 9:14 and his resurrection from the dead, Romans 8:11. 

The doctrine of the Trinity helps answer some fundamental questions:

How can we know God? John 1:18, 14:7, 14:16-17, 25. 

How can we be saved by God? Salvation is trinitarian in structure, Ephesians 1:3-14, Romans 8:1-17, Galatians 4:4-7, 1 Peter 1:1-3. Only the divine Son could atone for sin, only the divine Spirit could give us new life and communicate love of God to hearts, Romans 5:5, 8.

Who are the people God? We are 'baptised into the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’. Baptism signifies that we are brought into union with God in Christ by the Spirit. Matthew 28:19. The triune God showers his gifts upon the church, where unity in diversity thrives, 1 Corinthians 12:4-6, Ephesians 4:4-6, 7-8. 

How may we worship God? Ephesians 2:13. In our communion with God, particular communion with one person always involves the other two. The worship of heaven is trinitarian, Revelation 4 & 5. The Second London Baptist Confession 1689 states. “which doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our communion with God, and comfortable dependence on Him.” Let us worship our adorable Trinity. 

Creeds and Confessions

We believe in one God,
      the Father almighty,
      maker of heaven and earth,
      of all things visible and invisible.

 And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
      the only Son of God,
      begotten from the Father before all ages,
           God from God,
           Light from Light,
           true God from true God,
      begotten, not made;
      of the same essence as the Father.
      Through him all things were made.

And we believe in the Holy Spirit,
      the Lord, the giver of life.
      He proceeds from the Father and the Son,
      and with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.

      We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.

From the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325) with additions by the Council of Constantinople (A.D. 381)

In this divine and infinite Being there are three subsistences, the Father, the Word or Son, and Holy Spirit, of one substance, power, and eternity, each having the whole divine essence, yet the essence undivided: the Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son; all infinite, without beginning, therefore but one God, who is not to be divided in nature and being, but distinguished by several peculiar relative properties and personal relations; which doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our communion with God, and comfortable dependence on Him. 

From the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, 1689. Chapter 2:3

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Are we there yet?

Remember when you were a kid, setting off on  a family holiday? Your poor dad had barely driven his car a few miles down the road before you found yourself asking, ‘Are we there yet?’ ‘Not yet son/daughter’ he would reply wearily, knowing that the same question would be asked on repeat until the sea eventually came into view. And when you grew up and had children, they did to you what you once did to your mum and dad. Where do kids learn that, do grandparents teach them as a small act of revenge?  

When you can’t wait for something to happen time seems to tick by extra slowly. ‘A watched kettle never boils’ so they say. I’m not sure that the presence of an observer actually affects the rate at which water boils in an electric kettle. But the saying makes perfect sense if you’re gasping for a cuppa.

I’m sure we’re all waiting for lockdown to finish and the various Covid measures to be eased, so we can go back to doing the things we enjoy; seeing family and friends, eating out, holidays, etc. The PM will has revealed the government’s 'Road Map' for easing  restrictions, but its a long and winding road hedged about by many caveats. Like little kids we want to know, ‘Are we there yet?’

If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us, it’s the need for patience, or, on occasion how little patience we possess. In Psalm 40 David sings, ‘I waited patiently for the Lord: he inclined to me and heard my cry.’ The psalmist acknowledges that it was the Lord who saved him and placed his sinking feet on solid ground. The presence and grace of the Lord are always worth waiting for, pandemic, or not. As we wait on him he relieves our weariness and renews our strength. Isaiah promises us,

they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
    they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
    they shall walk and not faint.

Hurry up and wait for what's worth waiting for. We may not be ‘there yet’ in terms of the pandemic, but wait on the Lord and he will strengthen your heart.  

* For March editions of  News & Views and Trinity parish magazines

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Behold your God: ‘The Lord your God is One’

Geoff Thomas once said that in our Evangelical circles we talk a lot about worship, but not so much about God whom we worship. If we are not worshipping the God who has revealed himself in the pages of Holy Scripture, however poetic our hymns, however fervent our praises, we are worshipping an idol. If our God not God of gospel, we have no good news to tell the world.

Deuteronomy 6:4 was Israel’s most basic confession of faith, the Shema. ‘Yahweh your Elohim, Yahweh is one. The God of Israel is the Creator of the universe, Genesis 1 and Israel’s Covenant Lord, Genesis 15, Exodus 3:1-12, 6:1-8. When Israel was on the verge of Promised Land Moses taught them the Great Confession, coupled with the Great Commandment, Deuteronomy 6:4-5, Matthew 22:36-38.  

1.       God alone

What are we saying as we stand with Israel and confess, ‘The Lord your God is one’? He is one because he is the only God. This statement underlines the most important distinction that must be made between God and all other things: only God is God, Isaiah 40:25, 28a, 43:10-11, 45:22. Everything else in creation had a beginning. He is eternal. Everything else is subject to change. He remains the same. Everything else is located in the dimensions of space. The heaven of heavens cannot contain God. He is everywhere present in the fullness of his being. All other things are finite and imperfect. God alone is infinite and perfect. He is the One than whom none greater cannot be thought, known or imagined, Matthew 5:48. The Lord you God is not simply one because he is the best of many. He stands alone as one of a kind. For he alone is God and there is none like him, Psalm 96:5.

How then can we know him? He is the infinite Creator and we his creatures. Our knowledge of him cannot be the same as his knowledge of himself. God knows himself fully. We only known him partially. In fact, we can only know him if he is pleased to reveal himself to us. He has done that in world that he made, the sense of God he has inscribed on our hearts, the word he has written, the Son he sent and Spirit he poured out. Romans 1:18-23, Mat 11:27, 1 Cor 2:10-12.

2.       Only God

In confessing ‘Lord your God is one’ we speak not only of the uniqueness of God, but his essential unity. God is pure Spirit without body or parts, John 4:24. When the Bible speaks of God in bodily terms, saying he has hands, eyes, ears, etc, we need to remember that his self-revelation in Scripture is accommodated to our capacity. Divine self-revelation is analogical, speaking to us of God in terms that are an analogy of our everyday experiences.

Neither is God is comprised of parts. In anything that is made of parts some components are more essential than others. A functioning car needs a chassis, engine, wheels and so on. Other things like upholstery, or a glove compartment are nice to have, but not essential.  Similarly, some body parts more essential than others. I could live without a limb, but not without my brain or heart. As God is a perfect being, nothing in him can be less than absolutely essential. If anything in God was ‘nice to have’, but he could do without it, that thing would be ungodlike. All that is in God is God, Exodus 34:6-8, 1 John 1:5, 4:16. The divine attributes are not detachable 'parts' of God, but properties of his perfect, infinite, unchanging, eternal being.                 

Because he is a simple unity, God is never conflicted, with his love pulling him one way and his justice another. He always acts lovingly and justly. We sing, ‘His love is as great as his power, an knows neither measure or end’. God is absolutely sovereign. But he cannot will anything evil. God’s will is not separable from his goodness, or righteousness, Ephesians 1:4-5. God’s will cannot be detached from his power, which means his will always prevails, Ephesians 1:11. The simplicity of God means we can  trust him totally. We need never fear that his raw power will crush us, for his power is good. We need never fear that his will won’t be carried out, for with Almighty God nothing is impossible. So we can sing, Lamentation 3:22-24.

3.       God not alone

God alone is God and only God, yet God is not alone in the sense that he is solitary. In the one God are more than one; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Does that mean there are 3 parts to God? No three persons, each of whom is fully God. It is not that the Father has the main chunk of God and the Son and the Spirit have what’s left between them. God cannot be chunked up in that way.  Son is of the same divine being as the Father, as is the Holy Spirit.

What distinguishes the three is not that one has more of the divine being than the others, but that the Son is eternally generated by the Father, and that the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son. That the one God is also three was revealed above all when the Father sent his Son into the world at the incarnation of Christ and the Father and Son poured out the Holy Spirt at Pentecost. This was hinted at in Old Testament, but the mystery was disclosed more fully in New Testament era: Matthew 3:13-17, Acts 2:33.                    

Deuteronomy 6:4: our God is supreme in being and mighty in his works as Creator and Lord. In Paul's version of the Shema Jesus included in divine identity, 1 Corinthians 8:6. As is the Spirit, who is often mentioned in t he same breath as the Father and Son, Mat 28:19-20, 2 Cor 13:18.

    4. One God in faith, worship & witness 

Faith - in God alone we trust, Psalm 62:5-8

Worship – Love the Lord your God, who loved you in Christ and has poured his love into your heart by the Holy Spirit Deut 6:5, Romans 5:8, 5. Theology must lead to doxology, 1 Timothy 6:15-16.

Witness - this is the God we proclaim. He is not a bigged-up version of ourselves. We cannot domesticate God, or cut down to size. He is the God of the gospel, Rom 1:1-5, 16-17, 3:21-22, 24-26. 

Behold your God: ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one'. 

Monday, March 01, 2021

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981) - A Personal Appreciation

40 years ago today, on March 1st 1981 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones passed into eternity. It is somehow fitting that the great Welsh preached entered into glory on "St David's Day", the National Day of Wales. I never knew "the Doctor". Not once did I hear him preach. He died some years before I was converted. But Lloyd-Jones, through his books and example has had a formative influence on my life.

The Church in which I was converted during the mid 1980's had a growing Pentecostal and Charismatic element. Our young people were encouraged to meet with a neighbouring Pentecostal Young People's Fellowship. I was in my late teens at the time and had a growing interest in the work of the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts. My home Church hosted a book evening. I spotted a book by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the baptism and gifts of the Spirit entitled Prove All Things. I had not heard of the author, but the subject matter grabbed me. Before I became a Christian, I was not at all interested in books, leaving school at 16 with few qualifications. But as a new believer I found I had an insatiable desire to know more about the Christian faith. 

Little did I know that this book was to transform my outlook. Most of the Christian literature I had read up to that point was testimony type books, light on doctrine but full of wonderful experiences. But in Prove All Things, I encountered another world. Here was a man who took the text of Scripture seriously and thought deeply about the things of God. The writer was steeped in the works of the great Reformers and Puritans. Lloyd-Jones urged his readers to test all spiritual experiences by the Scriptures. I became disenchanted with the Charismatic Movement and longed for something with more Biblical depth. The writings of "the Doctor" were able to point me in the right direction.

In my early 20's I began to read through Lloyd-Jones' magnificent sermons on the Epistle to the Romans. This was the beginning of my theological education. "The Doctor's" preaching was intellectually demanding, doctrinally profound, thoroughly practical and wonderfully experimental.

When I felt called to the Ministry of the Word, my lay-pastor lent me his copy of Lloyd-Jones' Preaching and Preachers. This book has shaped my view of the pastoral ministry and preaching more than any other. I do not even try to emulate "the Doctor's" preaching style. But I practice the systematic exposition of whole books of the Bible and long that my preaching may be Holy Spirit anointed "logic on fire". When it came to choosing a theological seminary to prepare for the Ministry, I applied to the London Seminary . The seminary was founded by Lloyd-Jones in 1977 and seeks to train men for the Ministry with a strong emphasis on the preaching of the Word of God.

.Let me try to sum up some of the ways that "the Doctor" has influenced my Christian life and ministry:

Reformed Doctrine Lloyd-Jones preached the sovereignty of God in the salvation of sinners through Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit. He proclaimed this deeply Biblical theology of grace that was rediscovered at the Reformation and exemplified by the Puritans and Calvinistic Methodists.

Revival "the Doctor" had a great burden for an outpouring of the Spirit upon the Church. He agreed with Jonathan Edwards, that the Church has grown and developed throughout history as a result of mighty God-given revivals. The need of the hour is not to find "new ways of doing church", important as that may be, but a heaven-sent, Christ glorifying revival.

Unity and Separation I believe that Lloyd-Jones was spot-on in 1966 when he called upon Evangelicals to withdraw from their ecumenically compromised denominations and come together as Bible-believing Christians.

Preaching Mrs Lloyd-Jones said that her husband was "first of all a man of prayer and then an evangelist". Lloyd-Jones is well known for his lengthy sermon series on Romans and Ephesians. What is less well known is that he preached evangelistically every Sunday evening at Westminster Chapel. I believe that sinners and saints alike need to hear the "old old story of Jesus and his love" in all its magnificent depth and richness.

The Value of History "the Doctor" loved Church history. That is one of the things that struck me when I read Prove All Things. The study of Church History and Christian biography is inspirational. We are reminded of what the Lord did in the past with ordinary men and women. Our understanding of the Bible is enriched in communion with the Theological reflection of the past. Familiarity with historical Theology also helps to keep the Church from doctrinal eccentricities and oddities.

The Life of the Mind Lloyd-Jones emphasised the importance of reading, study and scholarship. He helped deliver British Evangelicalism from the shallows of anti-intellectualism. "The Doctor" read widely and deeply. He was abreast of the latest trends in secular and Theological thinking. He was profoundly shaped by the Reformers, Puritans and Jonathan Edwards, but Lloyd-Jones was not their prisoner. He knew that no generation of Christians ever has a monopoly on the Truth. Everything must be tested by Scripture. The life and ministry of this great preacher gave UK Evangelicalism a new Theological depth. How can preaching be "theology on fire", if preachers fail to engage in theological reflection and study?

I commend to you the life and ministry of Martyn-Lloyd Jones. Read Iain Murray's Two Volume Biography, The First Forty Years & The Fight of Faith (Banner of Truth Trust). The second volume will give you a bibliography of Lloyd-Jones' publications. Murray has also published a single volume Life of D. M. Lloyd-Jones

* An earlier version of this article was posted on the blog in 2006.