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Westminster Shorter Catechism Project

The Presbyterian Standards

Francis R. Beattie




THIS chapter is to explain what the Standards teach concerning the nature, attributes, and tri-personality of the Godhead. The Shorter Catechism has brief, but exceedingly clear and comprehensive, statements upon these topics. The Larger Catechism has a more extended outline of the doctrine of the Trinity, while the Confession gives prominence to the subject of the attributes of God.

It is worthy of notice that the Standards do not undertake to prove in any way the fact of the divine existence. They take precisely the same position upon this point as the Scriptures. They simply take for granted that there is a God, and then proceed to expound the contents of the revelation which he has been pleased to give. Incidentally, some of the arguments for the being of God are suggested in the Scriptures, but the fundamental position of the Bible is, that it assumes the existence and government of God without the presentation of formal proof. The Standards very properly take the same clear, bold ground, and proceed to state the teaching of the Scriptures in regard to the nature, attributes, and tri-personality of the divine being. There are three heads of exposition under which the teaching of the Standards may be arranged.

I. The Nature of the Godhead.
Here, of course, no attempt is made to define the essence of the Godhead, for there is a profound sense in which the divine essence, though the most real of all essences, is at the same time the most mysterious of all. The thought of man cannot find out the Almighty unto perfection, so that a reverent humility is the proper spirit to cherish in considering such a profound theme as the essential nature of the divine being.

1. The Standards in all their parts assert that there is only one living and true God. This is a plain assertion, based on Scripture, which excludes tri-theism, and every form of polytheism. It is a positive statement that there is only one divine essence, and that this single essence subsists as a unitary, personal being. No space need be occupied in showing, by various proofs, that there can be only one deity who meets the demands of man’s reason, conscience, and life. It need only be stated that reason is at one with Scripture in the assertion of well-defined monotheism. But, further, the assertion that there is only one God implies that his essence has what may be called a unitariiness, and that he is absolute and independent in his existence. The essence of God is such that it is incapable of any sort of division. There is one God, and his essence is unitary and indivisible. Since God is such a being as he is, there cannot be another such as he.

2. The Standards further describe the nature of God as living and true. The Scriptures frequently draw the contrast between the true God and false gods, between the living God and dead idols. The Standards very properly give emphasis to the same facts. The idea conveyed by the word living seems to be that of activity in originating all forms of life and motion, and in controlling and governing by active energy and omnipresent will all the events which transpire in the universe. The notion expressed by the word true seems to be that there is none beside this God which is truly of the nature of deity. He, and he alone, is the one living and true God, and beside him there is none else worthy the name of God.

3. In regard to the nature of God, the Standards further assert the spirituality of the divine essence. God is Spirit. This is, perhaps, the chief description of the nature of God which the Scriptures, and the Standards also, contain. The spirituality of God is his distinguishing quality, apart from the material world. This excludes all materialistic conceptions of the divine nature, and places him in the category of pure spirit. Such a conception lays the foundation for the intelligence and personality of God, and at the same time affords the proper ground for his volitional agency. It is in this connection that the Confession says that God, being a most pure spirit, has no body, nor parts, nor passions. This means that he has no material organism of any kind, in analogy with that of man; that his essence cannot be divided into parts, and that he does not experience the passions to which man is subject. This statement ascribes to Almighty God pure, absolute, independent, active, spirituality of nature. Such a conception of God is found nowhere else than in the Bible.

The idea of the divine Spirit can only be relatively understood. From the human spirit and its activities some faint conception can be obtained, by analogy, of the nature and operations of the divine Spirit. If the human spirit is made in the likeness of the divine Spirit, then there is an analogy between them which provides a basis for some reasoning from the one to the other. The spirituality of God is the peculiar possession of the Scriptures. As a pure spirit he is invisible to the bodily senses of man, still it is possible for him to reveal himself, just as one human spirit can make itself known to another. This kinship of nature is the basis for the dwelling of the divine Spirit in the human spirit, and thereby of a revelation from God to man.

4. There are several terms in the Standards which do not, strictly speaking, denote divine attributes, but which rather describe, further, the divine nature, so that it may be proper to notice them at this point. He is self-existent, and thus has his being in and of himself. His existence is not a dependent one in any sense, for as self-existent he depends upon no one else for his existence. He is also absolute, and in himself all-sufficient, and is thus not in need of any of the creatures which he has made. He does not derive any essential glory from any of his creatures, but his abiding and eternal glory is simply manifested in, by, unto, and upon the works which he performs. He is infinite also in all his being and perfections. His being is complete and boundless, and all his attributes, natural and moral, are absolutely without any defect. Finally, God is said to have sovereign dominion over all his creatures at all times, governing each according to the nature he has given to it. He is the source of all finite being, and upon him all things depend for their origin and continuance in being. With all his works he may at any time do as he pleases.

II. The Attributes, or Qualities of the Divine Nature.
This is an important topic, for it is chiefly by a knowledge of the attributes of God that an acquaintance with his nature and perfections is obtained. Consequently, in the Scriptures whereby God has made himself known to man, much is said about the attributes of the divine nature, and in the Standards prominence is given to the same thing. The Shorter Catechism, in its matchless answer to the question: What is God? gives the main categories of the divine attributes. The Larger Catechism, and still more the Confession, enlarges this description considerably.

A difficulty will be felt in the confessional statement of the attributes by almost any one who tries to define and classify them. As a matter of fact, no classification of the attributes is attempted in the Standards, nor is there given any definition of what an attribute is. And some qualities which denote certain aspects of the essence are regarded as attributes, and this increases the difficulty. In a general way an attribute may be defined as some quality which pertains to the essence or activity of God. This supplies a twofold general division of the attributes: the one essential, pertaining to the essence; and the other determining, pertaining to the activity of God. But such a division is not formally followed in the Standards, and so, for the sake of simplicity, it may be better to gather their teaching around the definition of the Shorter Catechism. This opens up a fourfold division.

1. Attributes which pertain to the essential nature of God, and which qualify all the other attributes. From this point of view God is immutable, or unchangeable, which means that his essential nature is not subject to any mutation. Immensity is also an attribute of the essence of God. This is the basis of his omnipresence, which means that he is everywhere present. God is also eternal, which simply denotes the fact that his being has had no beginning, and shall have no end. He is from everlasting to everlasting. Then he is incomprehensible, which expresses the idea that the essential nature of God cannot be fully understood. God is also almighty and glorious, which means that he possesses all power, and is clad with all glory. This is the basis of his omnipotence, which is his power over all things, boundless and free, rendering him all glorious. These are the chief essential attributes of God mentioned in the Standards.

2. Attributes which are chiefly intellectual in their nature come next. God knows all things, for in his sight all things are open and manifest. His knowledge is infinite and infallible. It is also independent of the creature, and cannot in any real sense be contingent or uncertain. This is his omniscience. Then he is all-wise, which signifies that he not only knows all things in all their connections and conditions, but that he has power to arrange all events according to the counsel of his own will, and thereby to adapt means to intended ends. This is the wisdom of God. Then God has absolute freedom, as the Standards say that he is most free. His doings are not determined by anything apart from himself. All that he does in creating the world, and in sustaining it, and all his gracious activity in the wide field of redemption, is freely done. In a sense this brings into view the moral attributes. The absolute freedom of God is the stepping-stone between the intellectual and the moral attributes.

3. Attributes which are mainly moral in their nature are now to be considered. Here the Standards enumerate quite a list, and in several cases it is evident that no clear line of separation is observed between the intellectual and the moral attributes of the divine nature and modes of operation. Be is most holy, which denotes the absolute purity and moral perfection of his nature. He is also most righteous in all the exercises of his holy will, which means that all his doings are in harmony with the rectitude of his moral nature, as expressed in the moral law. He is also most just in all his dealings with his moral creatures, rendering unto each according to his deserts. These three attributes of holiness, righteousness, and justice are not to be entirely separated, for in a sense they are different aspects of the same thing rather than three different qualities. He is holy, says the Confession, in all his counsels, in all his works, and in all his commands. This description is all-embracing. As judge he administers his moral government in accordance with his holiness, righteousness, and justice; and if terrible, he is also just in all his judgments. In like manner God does, as he must from the very nature of the case, hate all sin. He cannot look upon it with the least degree of allowance.

4. Attributes which are rather of the nature of emotions remain to be considered. Speaking by way of analogy, what may be called qualities of the heart of God are to be explained. It is well to remark, however, that while the term heart is used, the language is taken from human analogies, for God has no such passions as human nature possesses. Still, there are certain qualities exhibited by the divine activities which can only be expressed by terms which denote human emotions. First of all, the Confession says that God is most loving. This is a wide, all-comprehensive statement of the love of God in all its aspects and exercises, as set forth in the Scriptures. The Confession cannot, therefore, be justly charged with giving no proper place to the love of God in its creed statement. God is also most gracious, showing free and abundant favor to all his creatures, especially to those who are undeserving. In like manner, he is most merciful, and so extends clemency, on righteous grounds, to the guilty. He is longsuffering, too, bearing long with the wayward and hard-hearted; and to emphasize the love, grace, mercy and patience of God, it is added, both in the Confession and the Larger Catechism, that he is abundant in goodness and truth. The fact that he also forgives iniquity, transgression and sin, and rewards those who diligently seek him, is in like manner stated in the Confession. If he hates sin, and will by no means clear the guilty, he shows mercy, that he may be feared, and is loving, patient and kind.

Such, in four particulars, is the portrait which the Standards draw of God, as his being and modes of activity are exhibited by his attributes; and this portrait is true to Scripture, presenting God as a being alike strong and tender, at once just and loving. Moreover, it is a portrait which fully justifies the statement of the Confession that to God is due, from angels and men and every other creature, whatsoever worship, service, or obedience he is pleased to require of them.

This completes the exposition of the attributes. In making it, the contents of the Standards have been exhibited with some care, and nothing additional has been introduced. The remainder of this chapter deals with the tri-personality of the divine being. This raises the subject of the Trinity.

III. The Tri-personality of the Divine Essence. This important doctrine is merely stated in the Shorter Catechism, and has only a single brief section devoted to it in the Confession. In the Larger Catechism, however, there are three comprehensive questions bearing upon it. These will be followed closely in the brief statement now to be made, and all further theological speculations upon a very intricate subject will be avoided.

In general, the doctrine of the Trinity may be stated thus: In the Godhead, three distinct persons, who are the same in substance and equal in power and glory, subsist in a single indivisible essence. This is a slight expansion of the Shorter Catechism. The Larger Catechism names the three persons, and adds that these are one true eternal God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory, although distinguished by their personal properties. The Confession makes a very compact utterance when it says that in the unity of the God-head there be three persons of one substance, power, and eternity. Putting what our Standards teach upon this great subject in an orderly form, there are four particulars to be noted.

1. The Godhead subsists in three persons. The names of these three persons are the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. These three are properly called persons, because in the Scriptures the qualities of personality, such as individuality, intelligence, and free agency, are ascribed alike to these three. In other words, self-consciousness and self-determination, the elements of personality, are applied in the Scriptures equally to the three persons of the Godhead. The Father stands first in the order of being and operation. Hence, he is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding. Uniformly he is spoken of as first in order. The Son always stands second in order, and is eternally begotten of the Father. He is, and ever has been, the only-begotten and well-beloved Son of the Father. The Holy Ghost, or Spirit, always stands third in order, and is represented as eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son, for he is called alike the Spirit of God, and the Spirit of Christ. On account of this order of subsistence and operation, they are called the first, the second, and the third persons of the Godhead. But this does not denote that there is any inferiority of essence, or any limitation of attributes, in any of the three persons. It is only meant that there are eternal and abiding relations subsisting between the three persons, in the indivisible essence of the Godhead.

2. The second point relates to the peculiar property pertaining to each person. This is a point about which the theologians say very much, but the Standards do little more than state the fact, as is done in the Larger Catechism. These personal properties are to be carefully distinguished from the divine attributes already described. The attributes qualify either the essence, or the modes of the activity of the essence. The personal properties are possessed by the three persons, and modify them separately. The attributes pertain equally to all the persons, while the properties pertain only to each of the several persons in order. This distinction must always be kept carefully in mind.

First, The peculiar property of the Father is paternity, or fatherhood. The term is here to be taken in its narrow sense, as expressing the relation of the Father to the Son. The property of the Father is to beget the Son eternally. This does not imply the genesis of the Son in time; it expresses an eternal relation between the first and second persons in the Godhead, which relation may be suitably represented by analogy with the relation subsisting between a father and a son among men, leaving out of view the fact of origin in time.

Secondly, The peculiar property of the Son is filiation or sonship. Sonship is to be taken here in its special sense, as it bears upon the relation of the Son to the Father. The Son is begotten eternally, which simply means that the Son from all eternity sustains that relation to the Father, according to which the person of the second person is constituted and ever abides, time not being taken into account at all. It is eternal constitution of person, and not temporal communication of essence, which should be made prominent here.

Thirdly, The peculiar property of the third person is procession or spiration. This means that from eternity the Holy Ghost holds the relation of one proceeding from the Father and the Son. It is to be remembered here also that this relation does not imply a beginning in time of the third person. It is rather an assertion that from eternity the third person sustains a certain inner constitutive relation to the other persons, which the term procession, in a measure, denotes. There has been much debate between the Latin and the Greek churches as to whether the Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father and the Son, or from the Father only. This is the chief doctrinal barrier between the Eastern and the Western churches to-day. Protestantism has followed the opinion of the Western church, and holds that the Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father and the Son.

3. In regard to the proofs for the fact of the Trinity, the Standards in the Larger Catechism merely state the headings of the proof from the Scriptures. In a large measure this proof relates to the divinity of the second peison and the personality of the third person, for the personality of the second and divinity of the third have scarcely ever been called in question. The complete proof of the Trinity requires the proof of the true deity and the real personality of each of the three persons. Omitting special points of proof which are peculiar to one or other of the three persons, the blowing heads of proof are common to all the persons, and are now mentioned.

First, Divine names in various ways are applied indiscriminately to each of the persons. This is done by the Scriptures in such a way as to indicate the true deity and personality of each of the persons. In the Scriptures names often indicate nature.

Secondly, Divine attributes, such as omniscience, omnipresence, absolute rectitude, and many others are applied equally to the three persons. This is done in such a way as to imply community of essence and true deity in each case.

Thirdly, Divine works, such as creation, inspiration, working of miracles and regeneration, are connected with the agency of each of the persons, and this again involves true deity and personal agency.

Fourthly, Divine worship and homage are to be given to each of the three persons. This is evident from the terms of the apostolic benediction, and of the formula of baptism. If none but God is to be worshipped, and if each of these three persons is to be reverenced as God, then each must be truly of the essence of deity.

From these mere heads of proof it is very evident that essential deity and true personality belong to each of the persons, and that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are distinct divine persons. This is the doctrine of the Trinity as taught in the Standards.

4. But a word may be added in regard to the modes in which the three persons stand related to the divine activity in creation, in providence, and in redemption. In general, it may be said that the Father works through the Son, by the Holy Ghost. Another statement is to the effect that the Father and the Son operate through the Holy Spirit. Still another way to state the same thing is to say that in all divine acts the three divine persons concur and agree. This is true of all the activities of the Godhead, but especially of those which pertain to redemption. Therein the Father originates the great and gracious plan by his wisdom and his love. Then the Son, as the Mediator of the covenant and the Redeemer of his people, works out its conditions and provides its benefits; and, finally, the Holy Spirit brings sinful men into the personal possession of these benefits, and so he becomes the executive of the Godhead in the souls of men. But of this topic no further expansion can now be made.

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